Monday, May 13, 2013

Immortal Consciousness

I recently came across this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing an idea familiar to magical practitioners and which I have been considering since working on my experimental psychology degree back in the early 1990's. The concept of building a body of light or field of consciousness that is self-sustaining and therefore immortal has been part of the Western Esoteric Tradition for a very long time, and when you combine that notion with the rapid advancement still going on in computing technology this is what you get - the possibility of preserving the mind as essentially a mathematical object that can be simulated in a digital environment.

Cyberpunk author William Gibson played around with this idea in his novel Neuromancer, both in the form of a sentient artificial intelligence and a "ROM construct" that represented the uploaded and stored mind of an individual preserved at the moment of death. Researcher Ken Hayworth believes that our technology will soon reach the point where this is no longer fiction, and may be possible to achieve by constructing complete maps of individual brains called "connectomes."

Connectomics is a new way of looking at an old idea. Since the mid-19th century, scientists have known that the brain comprises a dense web of neurons. Only recently, however, have they been able to get a detailed glimpse. The view is daunting. A piece of human brain tissue the size of a thimble contains around 50 million neurons and close to a trillion synapses. Scientists compare the task of tracing each connection to untangling a heaping plate of microscopically thin spaghetti.

In 1986, researchers did manage to map the nervous system of a millimeter-long soil worm known as C. elegans. Though the creature has only 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses, the project took a dozen years. (The lead scientist, Sydney Brenner, who won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, is also at Janelia Farm.) C. elegans's remains the only connectome ever completed. According to one projection, if the same techniques were used to map just one cubic millimeter of human cortex, it could take a million person-years.

In 2010, Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and a leading light in connectomics, and Narayanan Kasthuri, also of Harvard, published a small paper full of big numbers. Based on their estimates, a human connectome would generate one trillion gigabytes of raw data. By comparison, the entire Human Genome Project requires only a few gigabytes. A human connectome would be the most complicated map the world has ever seen.

Yet it could be a reality before the end of the century, if not sooner, thanks to new technologies that "automate the process of seeing smaller," as Sebastian Seung puts it in his new book, Connectome: How The Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). "Neuroscience has not yet been able to deliver on the idea of understanding the brain as a bunch of neurons because our tools have been too crude," he explains in an interview. "But now there's a new optimism that we can deliver on that promise."

Israel Regardie famously commented regarding the Golden Dawn magical system, "Initiation is the preparation for immortality. Man is only potentially immortal. Immortality is acquired when the purely human part of himself becomes allied to that spiritual essence which was never created, was never born, and shall never die. It is to effect this spiritual bond with the highest that the Golden Dawn owes its ritual and practical magical work." To the esotericist, the structure of the brain corresponds to an underlying spiritual construct which may be regarded as the soul or spirit, depending upon the terminology of the esoteric system employed. It seems reasonable to assume that if a spiritual dimension is indeed present in matter, the way in which the individual neurons are arranged within the brain must in some fashion resonate with this additional dimension.

This implies that the key to immortalizing the soul within this spiritual realm in any sense that we would perceive as continuity of consciousness, the practice would have to work by patterning this spiritual aspect of the self by essentially "uploading" the physical mind's contents. Experimentally, this may be possible but it is also extremely limited in the sense that as far as we can tell only fragmentary bits and pieces of the personality can be stored in this manner. Tibetan tulkus, who have been developing techniques for the preservation of consciousness for more that a thousand years, can apparently transmit portions - but only portions - of their conscious awareness. The Dalai Lama is one of the best documented cases of this - as a child, Tenzin Gyatso was able to recognize and identify various items that had belonged to the previous lama, allowing him to be recognized as the next incarnation of the lineage. However, he did not retain anything resembling the full consciousness and knowledge of the previous lama, and for the most part had to be educated as any child would.

One of the strongest arguments against "full reincarnation" - the idea that the entire personality is, in effect, reborn into a new body - is evidence compiled from the study of brain injuries. If skills and knowledge were stored within the field of consciousness itself rather than within the cells of the brain, patients with brain injuries should not experience nearly the loss of function and memory that has been observed. This strongly supports the conclusion that most of our individual skills and knowledge are in fact stored in the tissues of the brain. It may be that the individual point of awareness that we associate with our will can move on to another body, but brain science shows that for the most part it must do this without any real continuity of knowledge from lifetime to lifetime.

A connectome-based model of the brain might allow us to bridge this gap. If brain structure could be preserved in such a way that continuity of awareness is achieved, the result could indeed represent the alchemists' dream - truly immortal consciousness. Reviewing Hayworth's methods, though, I foresee a simple problem that Roger Penrose outlined in The Emperor's New Mind. While sufficiently advanced mapping technology would allow us to generate a map of a preserved brain and upload it into a digital form, quantum fluctuations of the individual particles involved may mean a true, exact map is impossible to generate in such a way that continuity of awareness is preserved. Instead, the upload would represent a close copy that may behave authentically but not actually preserve the "spark" of moment-to-moment consciousness of the individual.

Fortunately this problem does have a possible solution that if implemented properly it could further mean the full connectome mapping would not need to be done all at once. I envision a system in which an interface is developed between the neurons of the brain and a computer simulation that is connected over the course of many years and which incorporates a simple algorithm that allows the simulation to expand its "net" of neurons according to the way in which the brain naturally develops. If the simulation is close enough, the brain's own holgraphic storage mechanisms should be able to integrate this digital network into its own. Not only would it be able to expand and substantially increase the intelligence of the connected individual, it would also serve as a permanent anchor for the mathematical object that conscious awareness appears to represent.

Upon the death of the physical body, this hybrid cyber-consciousness would experience a loss of function based corresponding to the information contained within the biological brain, but its awareness should continue just as that of brain injury patients does. The interface could then be connected to a new physical brain and much of the information from the previous body essentially transferred. The human being and the machine would in effect function as symbiotes with a unified field of awareness, and furthermore as the computing power available to the digital portion expands it may be that after, say, many centuries of dynamic expansion the vast majority of this continuing consciousness would reside in the eternal digital realm. The elixir of life would become a physical reality, mediated by information technology.

While the development of such a system probably will not take place in any of our lifetimes, it should be pointed out that the problems involved are essentially engineering challenges that can be overcome by the application of greater computing power. The algorithms themselves for simulating neurons, such as the system recently announced by IBM, appear to be fundamentally sound. Interfaces linking neurons with computers exist today; their speed would need to be massively increased to facilitate anything resembling consciousness transfer, but the technology involved in making this work is no longer unimaginable as it once was. The issues involved are now quantitative rather than qualitative, and computing advancements show few signs of slowing down. Even the limitations of silicon itself may someday be overcome by the advent of quantum computing, examples of which currently exist in research laboratories, and it may be that a quantum computing principles are precisely what the physical brain employs in order to process information.

On a more esoteric note, envisioning how this system would work can provide some insight into how the spiritual version of it as practiced by tulkus and others looking to secure continuity of consciousness can be done. In order to pattern the body of light, interaction with it must be integrated into one's daily life and basic spiritual practices. As these are sustained over time, the spiritual body will grow and develop, providing insight into and awareness of an expanded realm of experience that incorporates the spiritual dimension in which consciousness can manifest. Such work and meditation is the means by which the point of awareness itself can survive the death of the physical body and move on to other things, whether they entail remaining in the realm of the spirit, seeking union with the dynamic ground of being, or reincarnating back into material existence.

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