Modern technology makes the Easter promise of eternal life look a bit old-fashioned. Businesses such as Eterni.me promise virtual immortality in the form of a “digital avatar” or “mind-clone.”
A mind-clone is a smart digital replica of your self, based upon a collection of your memories, thinking habits, and values. Future generations would be able to interact with your mind-clone as if they were interacting with you: hear your stories, get your advice, or ask for your blessing.
Advanced mind-clone technology would build a profile of you by tracking your preferences in music, videos, or news — just as Google and Amazon already do. The program would analyze your tastes, interests, and writing style. You could also upload value preferences and stories, training your clone to think and respond like you.
Your descendants could chat with your virtual avatar. You could program it, for example, to send birthday greetings to your grandchildren long after your death. If the technology works, it would be difficult for your grandchildren to tell the difference between you and your mind-clone in a chat-room or email exchange.
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But is this really immortality? That depends. When we say that someone like Shakespeare has achieved immortality, we mean that his works and ideas endure. Maybe that’s all we mean by immortality. When viewed from the outside, the self is, after all, merely a collection of habits, actions and thoughts that are observed in the world. All we really know about the immortal bard is what he wrote down.
Shakespeare himself told us (in Sonnet 55) that what lives on against death and oblivion is “the living record of your memory.” As long as memories of you remain alive in someone’s mind, a part of you continues to exist. An interactive mind-clone would keep your memory “alive” in cyberspace.
But, most will protest, the self seems to be more than a collection of data piled high in defiance of the encroaching sands of time. From the inside, I experience my self as soulful conscious being. Death ends my consciousness, even if my mind-clone lingers in its small corner of the Internet.
Moreover, human relations are spiritual — an exchange of souls that is more than a mere transfer of data. An email from the virtual “you” would be a sad echo of genuine communication. From this perspective, digital immortality is a false promise.
As we spend more of our time in virtual reality, however, the spiritual side of things is being transformed into a digital alternative. What, after all, do you really know about the humanity of your Facebook friends besides the images they deposit online?
Leaving these existential questions behind, the ethical question remains: Should we pursue digital immortality? Answers depend upon the motivation for creating a mind-clone. Hope for immortality may be a narcissistic wish. Or it may be a celebration of love.
A narcissist may think he is so important that the future needs him, as if the loss of his point of view will make the universe worse. But it’s presumptuous to think that my great-grandchildren would care to have my mind-clone around, emailing them my opinions about the news, while they are busy leading lives I cannot imagine. On the other hand, it could be cool to have a virtual Shakespeare to consult when we need inspiration.
The best reasons to consider digital immortality are grounded in love. We, the living, may want a virtual clone of our dead loved ones, just as we want pictures and videos of them — as a way of keeping their memory alive. This technology could ease grief and mourning.
It may seem unhealthy to keep oneself focused on interactions with the dead. Chatting online with your dead spouse’s mind-clone may prevent you from moving forward. But this may not be so different from reading a poem written by the dead or whispering a word to the dead in silent prayer. What matters is the dosage and degree of our concern with the departed.
Our lives leave traces in the minds of those we love. That may be all that matters in terms of an afterlife — to be loved in the memories of those we leave behind. Beyond that, there are mysteries that the human mind and its technologies cannot fathom.