Everlasting Life thanks to Cloning?


"Yes to the Cloning of Human Beings. Everlasting Life Thanks To Science."

That's the worldy translation of the title of a book which I've recently spotted in a small store. This book was published by the "Fondation Raelienne", an organization of a cult around a French "prophet" who claims that man has been created scientifically by an alien population, the "Elohim". The strategy of this cult is clear: By approving of controversial applications of scientific research, it presents itself as the opposite pole to established churches. In this way it wants to attract modern people open-minded to the fruit of cutting-edge research who are dissatified with the rejective attitude towards science the churches display. That's also why they founded a company, Clonaid, with the supposed aim of bringing the first cloned human being to life. However, when reading the book, it becomes obvious very soon that the Rael cult is no better than many churches: The fact that Raelians have to call their leader "loved prophet" and thank him for "giving them the privilege to serve him" clearly shows Rael's anti-democratic attitude, which is reason enough to reject this cult.

However, what I actually want to deal with in this essay is not as much the cult as the central message of this book: It promises that the cloning of human beings will lead to everlasting life. What they mean with this is that individual people will be enabled to live for ever; when their original physical bodies die, they'll continue to live in their clones. Quoting from the back cover: "By creating clones which are exact copies of ourselves and by transferring our personalities into their brains we will be permitted to live for ever. We will remember our whole past and be able to acquire an infinite knowledge. The greatest dream of mankind, everlasting life [...], is going to become scientific reality."

The notion that if an individual was cloned, he or she would live for ever, can be found at various other places, too; for example, in the publications of the Extropians. The Extropians are a community of (mostly American) intellectuals whose aim is to use modern science and technology not only to support, but to improve man and make him develop to a new, "post-human" species. (Their philosophy bears some resemblance to Nietzsche's, who suggested that the human species should struggle to overcome itself and create the "übermensch".) At their website they propose a great number of more or less futuristic ideas how man could be changed to the better.

One of them is called "uploading". The Extropians believe that it will be possible one day to transfer the entire contents of a human brain into a harddisk. The individual would be able to live in the computer, perceiving and communicating with the world outside using artificial sensors. This would give him a number of advantages: He would be able to think much faster, thanks to the computer's high processing speed. While one second is just a little moment for us, he would be able to do intellectual tasks in this period of time for which we would need far more time. Thus he would also notice much more things. Neurophysiologists estimate that human beings perceive one billion bit of information per second,of which they process only 100 bit consciously. Even worse, we're just able to store 10 bit in memory temporarily and even only 1 single bit permanently. The Extropians argue that post-human beings living in computers would no longer necessarily have these limitations. In addition, they'd get rid of tiresome components of biological life such as metabolism and disease. If they decided that the real world no longer pleased them, they could leave for a virtual world in a kind of on-line network, with custom natural laws and rules. And if, for some strange reason, they wanted to become human again, they could easily download themselves to a body of their choice.

Max More, the founder of the Extropian organization, thinks that, once their brain contents have been uploaded to a computer, people will continue to live in the computer, even if their physical selves die. I disagree with this, for the same reason why I disagree with the notion that biological cloning makes everlasting life possible. How can one person, of whom a clone has been produced, continue to live in this clone?

Cloning means duplication. Instead of one individual, there will be two individuals, either two human, or one human and one computerized. If the cloned continued to live in its clone, then this would mean it would be effectively able to live in two different beings at the same time. One person would control two bodies. Is that possible?

According to Western philosophy, it isn't. Already early Western philosophy believed that every human being had its individual "soul", which was perhaps not a material thing, but had its residence somewhere in the body. Religious groups claimed that the soul was located in the heart.

Today, science believes that personality is a result of brain physiology. This means that the psyche has an organic basis. We know many chemical and physical ways how the way we think and feel can be affected. Certain brain defects, as well as dying, imply an irreversible loss of one's personality.

So in the Western framework, our personality is regarded as a result of physiological processes occurring in our very own bodies. Therefore two beings are two different persons. If someone has the same genes as you, and even if he has the same information stored in his brain as you, this doesn't make him you. Otherwise two identical twins (who have yet more in common than the cloned and his clone, because they also have the same age) would be one person, with one personality consciously controlling their bodies. If you decide to upload your brain content to a computer and have your physical body killed, you won't continue to live inside the computer. There will be just a copy of yours, who might know the same as you and think in a similar way, but - you'd be dead. Dead for ever. As simple as that.

Of course I've been only talking of Western philosophy. Other cultures have different beliefs. In many Eastern religions there's the notion that all human beings are actually one; they're just different physical representations of the same spirit. But it's not adherents of Eastern religions who believe in everlasting life thanks to cloning or uploading. Adherents of Eastern religions have no need for these technologies because they believe that they're reborn anyway. (And that's not all: For some of them, e.g. Buddhists, the ultimate aim is not to be reborn.)

No, Rael and the Extropians are both part of the Western framework. And in this context, the notion that people could continue living in their clones or in the computers they've been uploaded to is utter nonsense.

Although I'll never be able to falsify or verify it, I believe that you are a being like me who is convinced that he/she exists, can think and act consciously, and is in (somewhat restricted) control of his/her body. If uploading worked perfectly, would you allow an expert to transfer your brain contents into a computer and kill your physical self, as, according to his words, you would continue living in the computer anyway?

At least I wouldn't. And if I were old and sick, suffering from an incurable illness, and someone offered me to upload the contents of my brain to a computer or create a clone of mine, I'd be thankful and perhaps agree. But I'd know that no matter whether my genes or knowledge persisted, I would vanish nevertheless.

The only way to achieve an everlasting life is to have one's body manipulated in such a way that it won't die.

Adok/Hugi - 23 June 2002