Immortality in Sword Art Online

There are many dumb ways to die, but by far the most popular is to call the grim reaper on his hotline for the elderly. Letting time do the trick of diseases, bullets, and cars is usually something most people accept quite readily since the former three are all things that can be prevented of treated. But being born should not be a death sentence, thinks the immortalist, and we should not stand by idly waiting for the pearly gates. “Put him out of a job!” they say of the reaper; through drugs, nano-robotics, and a whole host of other treatments, they hope to finally put death into the unemployment line.

Immortality sounds cool...

Immortality sounds cool…

Amongst these, both literally and metaphorically, new age treatments, one stands out in particular interest, uploading your consciousness onto a computer. As Michael Treader points out in this article, one way to glue the bucket to the floor, is to “inject our personality into a virtually indestructible robot.” If the brain is just a set of neurons, firing electrical signals to one another, then a computer should be able to simulate what the brain can do. This is the solution that Akihiko Kayaba in Sword Art Online finds himself electing in his final moments before suicide, downloading the contents of his mind into the internet. But if questions about whether he is truly alive sound familiar, they should. I just did a segment pertaining to this yesterday. I thought I’d do a brief follow-up post just to expound on my previous post.

Nope, no it doesn't.

Nope, no it doesn’t.

For those of you who didn’t read the post: no, he’s not alive. At best, the program can be said to emulate his personality, and would’ve done exactly what he’d have done if he was still alive. But merely acting congruently, and having the same information, memories, knowledge as a person, does not qualify the program for being a conscious being. He’s still missing something essential. In essence, it’s the “what’s-it-like” phenomenon, the thing that gives breadth to breath. In philosophical jargon, this aspect of “what’s-it-like” gets a latin-sounding name- qualia.

No you didn't...

Silly Kirito, no you didn’t.

If you found the above explanation of what’s qualia confusing, that’s because it was. The truth is that it’s incredibly difficult to define qualia, and perhaps impossible to define a qualia. But that’s not really helping now is it? Ok, how about this then. Answer this question: What is red? or rather, define red. At this point, you might point to a firetruck, a rose, the evening sky, or anything else that’s red, as an example. However, while you’ve given me examples, you’ve still haven’t defined the color red. Annoyed by my unnecessary insistance of defining red, you might then define red as a specific range of wavelengths of visible light, and you’d be correct in a scientific sense. Red is, after all, just that: light at a wavelength of 620-740nm, and a frequency of 400-480THz.

More poetic and concise than anything that I could've ever thought of.

More poetic and concise than anything that I could’ve ever thought of.

But knowing what wavelength and frequency red is at, is quite different from actually knowing what red is. Don’t believe me? Try asking the next person you see, what color is at a wavelength of 620nm, and at 400THz. Unless they have access to wikipedia like I do, really really bored, or are in some line of work that requires this knowledge, they wouldn’t know. Does that work for you? Probably not, since there are people who’ll know what red is. But then take this example of a person “who’ll know what red is” by the definition afforded by a few numbers, then:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via thecentral nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

Frank Jackson

The above quote is basically the Mary’s room thought-experiment proposed by Frank Jackson, and it shows that while Mary knows what red is, she doesn’t know what red is like, this is qualia and she wouldn’t know of it since she’s never experienced it. Try coming up with something in the english language, Japanese if you’re more creative, that’ll give her the experience of red, and enlighten her on the qualia. It’s pretty difficult, and might just be impossible. In a similar vein, the programs that inhibit the actions of Yui-chan and Kayaba, might know an incredibly technical definition of pain, pleasure, touch, and red, but they can’t in any way truly experience pain or pleasure, they’re deprived of qualia of any sort, and can’t really be considered conscious in this sense. So don’t put your chips on uploading your consciousness onto the net any time soon, it doesn’t work.


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