Friday, August 3, 2007

After I'm gone

Haaretz : By Marit Slavin
Prof. Tishbi [Professor Naftali Tishbi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem], given your unique field of endeavor, how do you relate to the concept of death?

'There are many aspects to the question of our attitude toward death, but in essence this is a cognitive problem that's related to our inability to accept that our consciousness, our inner self, will one day cease to exist. We accept the fact that this consciousness did not exist in the past and that it changes significantly in the course of our lives, but we have great difficulty accepting the fact of its disappearance in the future. Mainly, it's hard for us to accept this because we think our lives would thereby become meaningless and purposeless, more or less a waste of energy, because when it's over, it's over. This question takes on special significance when, on a daily basis, you're trying to understand the mechanisms by which biological information is processed and the fascinating transition between matter and intellect as it occurs in the nervous system. We perceive consciousness as an abstract, intellectual entity, but in fact it is fixed deep inside the brain in a concrete way.

'Even if we leave aside the issue of the disappearance of self-consciousness - which by definition is completely internal and private - we are left with a no less disturbing problem: the disappearance of our public self. That is, the complete cessation of our connections and relationships with other living people. It seems to me that the older we get, the more we fear our public death and the less we fear our private death. What I mean is that it becomes more important for us to preserve ourselves for other people who are important to us, than to preserve our sense of self-consciousness. Fortunately, this public death may possibly be postponed or prevented by technological means. I see it, this is the only kind of 'immortality' that can be seriously discussed."

What do you think will happen to humanity if it attains immortality?

"If you mean immortality in the naive sense, that is, an end to biological death, then in the same generation in which humanity discovers the possibility of such immortality, human society will cease to renew itself. The processes of life and death are inseparably interwoven on the axis of time and react to changes in their environment. Since the physical and biological environment is constantly changing, living creatures must also change and adapt themselves to it. This is the essence of evolution, a dynamic, ongoing process in which individuals, populations and biological systems continually adapt to the environment. The environment, then, is constantly changing, primarily because of the life within it.

"Immortality in the naive sense, therefore, means freezing and preserving what already exists, without renewal. All dynamic processes are halted. If that happens, we will become a society of adults that is not capable or interested in renewing or developing itself, a society in which there is no room for the young, in every sense. Is this what we really want? Have we really attained the ultimate model with which we want to be stuck? Will we ever reach that state? After all, when a biological system ceases to develop it's basically dead. In a changing environment we must make room for those who are better, more adapted to the new environment. Paradoxically, perhaps, stopping death is actually stopping life."

And if that is not enough for a lazy summer night, try this:
Even now the direction is clearly toward the reduced importance of the body, not only because technology is replacing the use of the body and muscles but also because it is heightening the senses and enhancing experience. It is improving upon, and will continue to improve upon, the body with its natural senses, by enhancing vision, hearing, touch, etc. The danger lies in an addiction to the enhanced virtual senses; that the perception of the world through the natural senses will seem meager and unsatisfying in comparison.

"Such direct enrichment of our world will enable us to use the computer to create a personal virtual world that in effect represents the sum total of our lives, and in which we'll be able to wander. At the same time, we'll also be able to wander around in our real world. And thus a total blurring will take place between the biological and virtual bodies. If such a significant part of our experiential world is to be found in our virtual part, then the moment there's a copy of it, the dream of preserving our world of experiences after our death will come true. That will bring us closer to the immortality of the soul.

Shabbat shalom.

No comments: