The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate

Mehdi Hasan has provoked a big online debate about abortion, after publishing a column in the New Statesman on whether abortion is a Left/Right issue in politics. Mehdi says that although the Left is usually identified with the pro-choice* argument and the Right with pro-life*, the arguments deployed are (in his view) the opposite of what the Left and Right usually deploy. The Left use the language of individualism and choice, while the Right use the language of vulnerability and equality.

This article sparked a furious online debate about the central issue – Kenan Malik has an excellent pro-choice rejoinder to Hasan’s piece.  There has also been a meta-debate about whether it was even possible to have a reasoned debate about the issue. I was taken with Hopi Sen’s analysis, comparing what a person thinks they said with what people on the opposing side actually hear (see these amusing stanzas for a shortened version).

I tend to think of the central question as a Devil’s Alternative type question. Whatever you choose, the outcome is bad. Trying to devise rules – legal or ethical – for a Devil’s Alternative problem seems futile. Is abortion right? is a trick question: The stuff of utilitarian philosophy lectures and episodes of 24, where you try to work out the course of action that causes least hurt… Knowing full well that any choice you make leads to permenant unpleasant consequences. Perhaps the only way out of the mire is to punt on the central ethical question, declaring it essentially incomplete in Gödel‘s sense: we are not equipped to process such a question properly. It is undecidable. A paradox that exposes the limits of our language and ethical structures. Continue reading “The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate”

Mieville on Teleporting

At the event on Tuesday night, I remarked that China Mieville and Cory Doctorow share an irritating trait, which is to lathe my own ideas into science fiction books, many years before I even have the thought for the first time!

One example of this is on the important science-fiction problem of teleporting, and the possibility of transferring of one’s mind between matter.  I scribbled some concerns about this earlier this year, but now I find that Mieville got there first, in Kraken (p.221):

This is why I wouldn’t travel that way,” Dane said.  “This is my point.  For a piece of rock or clothes or something dead, who cares?  But take something living and do that?  Beam it up?  What you done is ripped a man apart then stuck his bits back together and made them walk around.  He died.  Get me?  The man’s dead.  And the man at the other end only thinks he is the same man. He ain’t. He only just got born.  He’s got the other’s memories, yeah, but he’s newborn.  That Enterprise, they keep killing themselves and replacing themselves with clones of dead people.  That is some macabre shit.  That ship’s full of Xerox copies for people who died.”

I love this kind of esoteric debate.  Teleportation might never become a reality, but the questions raised by science fiction are essential when we consider the nature of the mind and artificial intelligence.

Teleport road sign. Photo by mercurialn on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Teleport road sign. Photo by mercurialn on Flickr. Creative Commons.

Back-up Your Brain

(This post contains vague spoilers, which should not damage your enjoyment of the stories in question)

Would I restore my mind from back-up?

I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel.  It is a science-fiction thought experiment on what might happen if we all had immortality, and scarcity of resources had been abolished.  Money is redundant, because one can simply utilise public replication machines to generate whatever food or tools you need.  Instead, people earn credibility points (Doctorow calls it ‘Whuffie’) for all the good things that they do – The protagonist, Julius, earns this by maintaining the rides at Disneyland.  Through these tweaks to reality, Doctorow gets to meditate on human purpose and ennui in a time of plenty.

The central, fantastical technology available to the characters, is the ability to upload and back-up to hard-drive your mind and all your memories.  Should some accident or murder befall you (as of course it does to Julius) you can get a-hold of a clone body, and overlay your complete consciousness onto the tabula rasa.  Doctorow has played with this sort of technology before, in the delightful I, Rowboat (yes, a knowing pun on Asimov’s I, Robot) and another story involving an absconded mother (the name of which escapes me just now).  Apparently, such technology a staple of science fiction:  Back-ups and clones are certainly used in the Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and I am sure they are found in Philip K. Dick and elsewhere in the canon.

For those who wish to live forever, brain-backups and reboots are exciting idea, but the immortality on offer would be false.  In both The 6th Day and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, its clear that in taking a snap-shot of your brain, you are not preserving your consciousness (or your soul) but simply making a copy of it.  As both Adam Gibson (the Schwarzenegger character) and bad-guy Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) discover in The 6th Day, it is possible to make a clone of yourself before you die!  When your original ‘version’ dies, the fact that there is a replica of you living on somewhere is of no comfort as your own light fades.  When you finally expire, you know your soul cannot fly away and awake in the new clone, because the clone is already wandering around making memories of his own (see also ‘Second Chances’, a Star Trek: TNG episode with two Commander Rikers).

Stepping into the Star Trek transporters or Fly-style teleporter carries the same philosophical risk.  I simply wouldn’t have the guts to step into such a machine – Not because I worry that my psychology or physiology might be altered due to a malfunction, but because even if the thing works perfectly, the guy stepping in is not the guy stepping out.

One of the few places in fiction where the idea that the soul does not persist through back-ups and cloning is in The Prestige.  Its a film I’ve previously slated for seeming to violate the rules of mystery-telling, but on reflection I think it is internally consistent (the opening shot of the film fortells the final revelation).  Both the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters discover, in their own very different ways, that you cannot achieve immortality through the creation of a clone or a twin, regardless of how that might appear to the rest of the world.  In the end, both characters rightly weep at the demise of their clones, but Jackman’s character is the more tortured because he has caused the death of his ‘original’ self, merely by choosing to step into the crackpot machine in the first place.    This is a sadness that seems to be missing from the characters in Cory Doctorow’s stories.

However, realisation that backup-and-restore is not bona fide immortality would not discourage me from plugging in my brain and making a copy.  This is because we naturally value the things we have created, and we want to see them persist.  I would like to pass on bits of my DNA through children and grandchildren.  I would like people to read the thoughts I have written down, even after I become an ex-person.  A human consciousness restored from my uploaded back-up would be indisputably my creation, a more detailed product of my life and times than anything I might write or carve, or anyone I might sire.  Far better that they, in particular, get to witness the heat-death of the universe (Doctorow, with a nod to Douglas Adams) or the “more glorious dawn” of a Galaxy-rise than some other, generic homo sapien.

'The Same River Twice, part V' by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.
‘The Same River Twice, part V’ by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.