Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Iain Banks's Ontological Difficulties

Like most of his previous sci-fi novels the new Iain M Banks book Surface Detail deals with the liberal galaxy wide civilization "The Culture" and its attempts to improve human rights throughout the universe. This time The Culture is determined to wipe out the various Hells which lesser cultures propagate in virtual reality to punish their citizens after death. The Hells are awful places where Sim creatures can feel actual pain for all eternity. The way this works is that at the moment of death a copy of a sentient creature's brain pattern is taken and then transmitted into the Sim world and there they are tortured for their crimes in the Real. The Culture - who are opposed to all forms of torture - don't like this and the book follows the Culture agents who have been sent out to stop it.
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Banks's problem is that he is not a philosopher and hasn't thought through the ontological consequences of "taking a copy of someone's brain state" at the moment of death. He seems to think (and crucially for the book everyone in the galaxy seems to think this also) that this cloned virtual entity is still somehow the actual person who passed on. It isn't. It's just a copy. When the real person dies, his consciousness becomes extinguished. A clone of that person will not be that person. There is a well known philosophical conundrum called Searle's Chinese Room which partially deals with this idea and the whole concept of an artificial consciousness in general. People like Searle and Roger Penrose wonder if an artificial consciousness is even possible but let's say for the sake of argument that a machine could replicate consciousness, I still find it hard to believe that civilizations who had acquired this extraordinary technology would have fallen for so obvious a philosophical blunder as to punish a person's clone for something they themselves did not do. You might as well punish a cat in China for something a teenager did in Des Moines.
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Banks generally avoids hard sci-fi and high ideas preferring action scenes but it's a shame he doesn't push himself more and at least have his characters discuss some of these metaphysical concerns. It would force him to try that little bit harder. Banks himself seems wearied by churning out the same old fight scenes page after page to such an extent that at the very end of Surface Detail he seems to have lost interest in the novel completely, wrapping up all the story lines in a final two page character summary. Even the appearance of an old fan favourite seems tacked on and perfunctory. Maybe - like one of the virtual people in the Surface Detail - Banks needs to take a break from writing for a year or two and spend his time in a retreat reading, meditating and thinking instead.
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This blog post also gives me the opportunity to link (again) to Professor Nick Bostrom's page where he quite convincingly argues that all of us are living in a Sim right now and that our consciousnesses are indeed simulated. Of course if this is true then atheism is false and ghosts, gods and afterlifes are all probably real which is not a pleasant prospect.