(I'm back from Balticon and blogging again. Sorry about the hiatus!)
If you're a regular on this blog you're probably more than a little familiar with the Rapture of the Nerds (as Ken Macleod calls it)—the particular variety of eschatological singularity initially proposed by Russian Orthodox theologian Nikolai Federovitch Federov and championed more recently by Raymond Kurzweil that posits that the great destiny-determining task of humanity is not space colonization, or achieving immortality, but the "great task", The Religion of Resusciative Resurrection. In Federov's view it's our duty not only to transcend human limits but to strive to bring about the resurrection of everyone who has ever lived, or who might have lived.
You're probably also familiar with the Simulation Argument, originally proposed by philosopher Nick Bostrom and most recently discussed in public by Elon Musk; that in a future-unbounded cosmos there can only be one first time for everything, including intelligence, but subsequently any number of intelligent civilizations might want to introspect about their origins by running simulations of their predecessors, and so we are almost certainly trapped inside a giant game of Minecraft.
This kind of intellectual masturbation is pleasurable but ultimately unproductive insofar as we can't—at least from here—examine either our own future outcomes or the context in which our universe is embedded. (Hence Musk's very wise decision to ban the subject from hot tub conversation.) It is, however, seductive: what could feel better to the self-consciously modern mind than an enlightenment age origin story that scratches the afterlife itch without requiring us to commit to evidence-free belief in an invisible sky daddy who created pions and potatoes but is bizarrely obsessed with our genitals? And so, it spreads: a modern secular religion that echoes the design pattern of Christian millenarianism, with its afterlife and heavenly happy-talk ...
But I have had an annoying question.
Let us posit for the sake of argument that one or the other case is actually true; that either we are living in an afterlife sim or that our descendants are going to colonize the universe, achieve immortality, and resurrect us all:
Who, in this thought-experiment, qualifies as "us"?
Greg Egan took a cold-eyed look at the essential immorality of trying to develop a human equivalent artificial intelligence using genetic algorithms in his story Crystal Night. (Briefly: evolution works but it's inherently wasteful, and when we're talking about evolving an intelligence that can pass some sort of fitness test, we're actually talking about committing genocide against all the versions we spawn prior to the one that finally passes our arbitrary test. In the field of Christian apologetics theologians and philosophers have spent centuries tying themselves into knots trying to explain why God created suffering. A reductio ad absurdam of the problem of suffering features in Ursula le Guin's short philosophical fiction, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas—if you can have a utopia for all but one, but the price is that one person must suffer on behalf of everyone, is it justifiable? More to the point, we can generally agree that inflicting suffering on sentient individuals is morally wrong: a predisposition towards fairness-favoring behaviour appears to be hard-wired into primates in general, and inflicting suffering on another individual for our own benefit goes contrary to that. (Yes, I realize I'm making an evo-psych argument here. Please bear with me.)
So: we're primates, we have an innate sense of fairness towards others, and evolution is messy. Let us assume we're in the position of the lucky, lucky executors of the Federovite final common task of humanity: to coordinate the resurrection of the dead. Where do we stop?
Do we resurrect all previous non-Evil individual instances of H. sapiens sapiens—no Hitlers wanted in heaven—or do we resurrect everyone? Surely this is fairly clear-cut? (If you believe anyone can achieve redemption eventually, you resurrect everyone; if not, not.)
But wait! Modern humans have inherited Neanderthal genes. If we're interfertile we're barely a separate species: surely this means we have to resurrect all members of H. sapiens neanderthalensis as well?
It's kind of hard to extract DNA for really ancient bones but one may presume that Neanderthals and Denisovans and other hominins have a considerable number of points of similarity. If we're going to resurrect severely developmentally impaired specimens of H. sapiens sapiens can we justify not also resurrecting viable Gorilla beringei and their kin? Bear in mind that a whole bunch of primates pass cognitive tests for self-recognition in a mirror. Does this mean they're enough like us to deserve an afterlife? Is self-recognition/consciousness of identity a necessary, or a sufficient, justification for the rapture of the higher mammals?
But hang on a moment—what about the --dinosaurs-- corvidae? If it can make tools and plan complex tasks, communicate with its peers, distinguish between individuals of a different species and retain memories of their distinctive behaviour across the years, doesn't that make them worthy too? Surely the precautionary principle suggests that when in doubt, we should resurrect. And there's some evidence that even rodents exhibit empathy. Just because we don't notice the properties of consciousness in others it does not follow that they are absent: so we should resurrect the lot and let the god we are trying to create sort them out.
So far, I've had to extend the Noah's Ark of the resurrection from the 144,000 Anointed of the Jehovah's Witnesses to pretty much the entirety of classes Mammalia and Aves, going from a coracle to a supertanker ... but I'm not done yet.
Humans form superorganisms, hives of people that come together to achieve certain tasks and perpetuate themselves. But we are also composed of superorganisms. Each of us contains a myriad of cells. Our own cells (as opposed to the prokaryotes of our gut ecosystems, which outnumber us a hundred to one) are generally descended from one or two fertilized ova by way of pluripotent stem cells which differentiate and specialize, forming distinct tissue subtypes fine-tuned to fulfill certain functions without which the other cells in the ensemble can't live independently. Sometimes one of these cells reverts to its pluripotent state and de-differentiates, throws off the fetters of responsible cellularity, and begins to spawn with haphazard abandon: we call these "cancer cells", but there's an argument that they're merely eukaryotes reverting to their primitive origins and doing what comes naturally. Eukaryotic cells are themselves complex superorganisms with intracellular organelles and structures that perform specialized functions—in some cases these were formerly free-living prokaryotic organisms in their own right that have become obligate endosymbionts (such as mitochondria or chloroplasts).
If we resurrect all human beings we are implicitly resurrecting all human-derived superorganisms. And if we resurrect all human beings we can see the precautionary principle leading us to resurrect all animals. Is there any reason not to extend the process down the hierarchy of superorganisms to include the entirety of the domain Eukaryota? There is evidence that some eukaryotic cells (specifically neurons) may contain internal fine scale activities that effect synaptic processing: in the absence of a disproof of the Orchestrated objective reduction hypothesis, surely we can't stop the resurrection at cockroaches!
This is an essential conundrum at the heart of the Federovite/Kurzweilian theory of the singularity as afterlife: where do you draw the line between consciousness and unconscious life, and then between life and un-life? Worse: it stacks the deck for the simulation hypothesis with additional unwelcome abstraction layers, multiplies the problem of suffering unimaginably (think of the enormity of the crime implicit in resurrecting all the lions and all their prey), and bloats the minimum viable capacity of the computing substrate required for a successful ancestor simulation to the point where it may not be possible within the physical constraints of a material universe.
(And this is where my next non-series SF novel will probably come from ...)