David Chalmers Would Like to Be Immortal (And so Would I)

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 4 min.

Yesterday I posted a short story excerpt amounting to an argument that immortality is impossible. While preparing that post, I happened to hear an episode of Lex Fridman’s excellent Artificial Intelligence podcast featuring David Chalmers as guest: “David Chalmers: The Hard Problem of Consciousness” (1/29/20).

In the last five minutes of the episode, Fridman, with his usual unapologetically child-like wonder (one of my favorite qualities in a person1), asks Chalmers what excites him most about where the relationship between mind and tech is headed.

By coincidence, Chalmers’s answer poses a colorful, and oddly specific, challenge to my claim that immortality is impossible:

Chalmers: I think there are lots of different aspects. … I would like to be able to hang out in a virtual reality which is richer than this reality, to really get to inhabit fundamentally different kinds of spaces. Oh, I would very much like to be able to upload my mind onto a computer so maybe I don’t have to die. Maybe gradually replace my neurons with silicon chips and have it— Like, selfishly, that would be wonderful. I suspect I’m not quite going to get there in my lifetime. But once that’s possible then you’ve got the possibility of transforming your consciousness in remarkable ways. Augmenting it, enhancing it.

Fridman: So let me ask, then. If such a system is a possibility within your lifetime, and you were given the opportunity to become immortal in this kind of way, would you choose to be immortal?

Chalmers: Yes, I totally would. I know some people say they couldn’t, it’d be awful to be immortal, it would be so boring or something. I really don’t see why this might be. I mean, even if it’s just ordinary life that continues on, ordinary life is not so bad, but furthermore I kind of suspect that if the universe is going to go on forever or indefinitely, it’s going to continue to be interesting. Your view was that we just get this one romantic point of interest now and afterwards [Fridman chuckles] it’s all going to be boring, super-intelligent stasis.

I guess my vision is more like, no, it’s going to continue to be infinitely interesting. Something like, as you go up the set-theoretic hierarchy, you know, you go from the finite cardinals to aleph-0 [i.e., \aleph_0 ], and then through there to all the aleph-1 and aleph-2 and maybe the continuum, and you keep taking power sets.

You know, in set theory they’ve got these results that, actually all this is fundamentally unpredictable. It doesn’t follow any simple computational patterns. There’s new levels of creativity as the set-theoretic universe expands and expands. I guess that’s my vision of the future— That’s my optimistic vision of the future of super intelligence. It will keep expanding and keep growing but still being fundamentally unpredictable at many points.

I mean, yes, this creates all kinds of worries like: Couldn’t it all be fragile and be destroyed at any point? So we’re going to need a solution to that problem. But if we get to stipulate that I’m immortal, well I hope that I’m not just immortal and stuck in this single world forever, but I’m immortal and get to take part in this process of going through infinitely rich created futures.

END OF TRANSCRIPT-

To be clear, Chalmers isn’t directly addressing whether immortality is possible, so much as taking for granted the immortality premise he’s been given. Though the way he talks implies, I think, that he sees no conceptual problem with immortality.

Despite my rejection of that conceptual possibility (even should my consciousness be successfully moved to an eternally enduring computer), I am, and long have been, eager to give immortality a shot. Chalmers’s beautiful response makes me regret all the more that I won’t get the chance.

My story excerpt—shared in my bluntly titled post, “Immortality Is Impossible“—addresses why I think that attempt, even in the vast and unpredictable world Chalmers describes, would fail. I won’t resurface any of that here.

Instead, I’ll close with some thoughts running through the mind a person who believes himself dying, from Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” What might such sentiments mean, and what form might they take, in an immortal’s mind?

Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now. (p 41, The Complete Short Stories Of Ernest Hemingway)


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Further Reading

Footnotes:

  1. Actually, he does apologize sometimes. Why we feel a need to do that is an interesting question.

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