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Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

We’ll be able to recreate your individual consciousness within a computer. It’s how we’ll get life after death.

Once Upon a Time

So this happened when I was a senior in college and heavy into my philosophy of science phase.  Radical skepticism:   all knowledge is filtered through cultural perceptions, therefore all knowledge is culturally determined, therefore science is just one more culture … no more inherently true than the rest of them.

I still believe that, actually, but I’ve toned it down quite a bit.  It’s a lot easier to be enthusiastic about the world and all its mysteries when you’re on campus.

So my friend Tom was a physics major … he’d go on to do really high level work in optics, designing a lot of the laser scanning systems the military would try to crimp … and was hypnotized by these discussions.  It wasn’t so much that he agreed with me, though he sometimes did, as that he was astonished by all the references I could weave into the conversation.  Meister Eckhart the medieval  Christian mystic;  the Rhine laboratory for the study of psychic phenomenon;  Ernst Mach’s theory of continuity;  Goedel’s theorm (although that’s a gimmie);  The Iroquois “False Face” medicine societies;  the Mahayanna Buddhist epistemology of Nagarjuna … Tom was exposed to all these facets of the world for the first time when he heard me use them in impromptu philosophical musings, and it added color and depth, maybe even a new kind of meaning, to his laboratory work and his activism as a gay student in the Midwest.

He wanted me to meet his academic advisor, Dr. Lindner, the young hotshot of the physics department, but Lindner couldn’t fit me into his schedule, so he asked me to write him a note about these ideas.  I did, and Lindner sent a two page, typed, letter back.  It was the naïve case for science:  “Hey,” it basically said:  “we do experiments.  They confirm hypotheses.  We get airplanes out of it.  Science works.  Patent pending.”  I shrugged it off – I’d heard all that before – but Tom was disappointed.  He knew this was a cop out:  he’d wanted a real debate.

A few weeks later, Tom invited me to a presentation on the future of physics Lindner was giving.  It was in the formal lounge of the dorm that looked like a castle:  there were fake leather chairs and gothic windows.

Linder was in his thirties, but looked like he was in his 20s.  He enthusiastically told the audience about advances in string theory and the search for the grand unified theory, about what we could expect from the particle accelerators of tomorrow, and where it was all going.  I sat in the back, indifferent:  if you ask me, today’s theoretical physics is little more than mathematical stage magic.  “Look what I can make the numbers do!” is not the standard physics should hold itself up to.

But as the questions came in, Lindner got more excited about the future.  When someone asked the inevitable question … what does quantum mechanics mean for consciousness?  Is that a quantum phenomenon? … Lindner really went for it.

“Well, by definition consciousness is a stream of information being processed – and eventually we’ll be able to identify each unique stream at the quantum level.  This means that, eventually … long into the future when we’ve harnessed massive quantities of energy that we can barely conceive of now … I’m talking about Dyson spheres and planetary reactors … we’ll be able to recreate each unique information stream in virtual environments.  We’ll be able, that is, to recreate your individual consciousness within a computer.  It’s how we’ll get life after death.  And within this environment, everything will be possible:  we’ll have finally created a perfect environment for man!”

The room was dead quiet.  For a long time.

Finally, I spoke up, shouting from the back of the room.  “So, not ‘in the beginning there was God, but in the end there was God.’”

Lindner snapped and pointed at me.  “Yes!” he said.  “Yes!  Exactly!  You get this!”

The presentation ended soon after.  Tom and I left the building, shaking our heads at the folly of it all.  Lindner would later ask Tom who his friend was who so understood the big picture, and he made up a name;  he didn’t want the debate to happen anymore.

But that night, he was quiet as I shook my head.  “It doesn’t matter what epistemology you use,” I said.  “You end up recreating the same myths.  They’ll outlast every lens we use to view them.”

Tom nodded.  “In the beginning, we found the end.”


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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