Keith Wiley’s “Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind Uploading”

wileyMind uploading has long been one of the most conceptually vexing transhumanist technology ideas.   The promise is amazing: Liberating the human mind from the flawed, limited human body … freedom to take on various bodily forms and explore outer space, cyberspace, the bottom of the ocean, or wherever.   And the same philosophical questions come up again and again: Will your upload be you, or just a copy of you?   Is this different than asking if the you that wakes up in the morning is the same as the you that went to sleep last night?  Is your mind, your self, your identity just a pattern of arrangement that is independent of physical substrate, or is it somehow tied to the particular body that it was born in and has grown in?

On the Extropy email list, the original online futurist discussion group, arguments about the philosophy of mind uploading were banned for a long while, as they seemed to go around and around in circles without ever getting anywhere new or interesting.   But amidst all the confusion and passion that the topic attracts, new progress does get made regarding these issues, step by step as the years pass.  A couple years ago I edited a Special Issue of the Journal of Machine Consciousness, on the topic of Mind Uploading, and in my opinion we got some pretty good papers — including from Randal Koene, who has energized the topic in recent years with his foundation of CarbonCopies.org.   And this year we had a landmark book by Keith Wiley called “A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind Uploading.”   Wiley’s book digs into the philosophy of mind uploading far more carefully, deeply and rigorously than any mailing list post can do — and much more so than I can do justice to in this brief review.

Mind uploading is both a potential (in my view very likely) future technology, and a current tool for unfolding our understanding of personal identity and what it means.  Wiley explores it from both of these aspects, but with a bit more focus on the latter.

First of all, after clarifying the often confusing terminology related to the subject, and gives a thorough taxonomy of hypothetical procedures by which mind-uploading might be achieved.   He then discusses in intricate detail the philosophical implications of each one of these procedures, assuming a “patternist” philosophy of mind in which (my re-wording) the mind associated with a brain comprises a set of structural/dynamical properties of that brain.  For instance, many people have suggested that incremental uploading — e.g. replacing each of a person’s biological neurons, one by one, with a robotic neuron — would bypass the philosophical problems of identity associated with more sudden mind uploading procedures.  But when you really dig into it, as Wiley shows, the matter’s not that simple.  It really depends what you mean by your “self” — What is an identity that it might persist through systematic changes in substrate?

Various philosophical issues related to mind and brain — such as consciousness and free will — are brought up and then essentially set aside as most probably irrelevant to the core questions of mind uploading and identity.  I think this is a philosophically correct stance, but I’m sure it’s also one that won’t be appealing to every reader.  From my view Wiley’s treatment of free will is sensible enough yet not terribly compelling, I prefer Henrik Walter’s discussion of free will versus natural autonomy.  But as Wiley correctly points out, that’s basically a side issue where mind uploading is concerned.

The biggest philosophical conclusion Wiley derives, via carefully examining the implications of patternism for various mind uploading scenarios, is that following a split of one mind into two — both are fairly considered continuations of the original.  It doesn’t have to be either-or.   If you are copied into a robot, the biological you AND the copy should both be considered valid continuations of you.   This position is of course not original, but Wiley argues for it carefully and rigorously, making copiously clear that to reject it, you have to reject the patternist conception of mind, and replace it with some wholly different conception (say, a theory holding that mind somehow contained in very particular aspects of specific physical objects).   Science pushes us pretty hard toward patternism at the moment, and I have argued (see The Hidden Pattern) that diverse philosophical traditions point in the same direction.  Alternative philosophies are certainly thinkable, but then the burden is on those who reject the validity of both minds produced in a split, to consistently articulate an alternative to the patternist view of mind and explain how it’s scientifically and logically and philosophically sensible.

What Keith Wiley has given us is not a fluffy, lightweight pop-sci book, but nor is it a dense academic tome — it’s a rigorous and careful discussion aimed at the serious reader.   I would strongly recommend the book to anyone who wants to think carefully about mind uploading — or about who and what they really are.  If you fit this description, you can order the book, published by Humanity+ Press , from Amazon.com or other online sellers.

Adam Ford has interviewed the author on video, see their Brief Introduction to Mind Uploading

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=au14xD3n1SM]

and also a more extensive, in-depth interview

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKFTUeT_xls]