The worm, the robot, and the cave of shadows

What if we could download our minds in a computer and lived forever as pure, digital consciousness? What if we are already living inside a computer simulation created by a technologically advanced alien civilization - which it too is a simulation created by yet another alien civilization, and so on to infinity? The computer revolution has reframed some age-old questions about reality and, more to the point, our perception to reality. Add genetics to the mix of technologies and you get to an interesting watershed in human history, where we could potentially test the hypothesis of the Matrix movies: can we, do we, exist outside our bodies?

Such questions take for granted an assumption that the "mind" is a product of the brain. Although the brain is a physical object it has a certain organisation, neurons and neural networks made up of interconnected neurons. This complex organisation pattern is called the "connectome". We can describe the connectome using information, in other words we can encode the connectome into a software-based description that can be uploaded in a computer and simulated. Indeed the "Human Brain Project" aims to do exactly that: to build the infrastructure that will allow for the "human connectome" to be coded and uploaded on a vast farm of computer servers. It's a huge scientific ambition and an enormous undertaking, which promises to provide a computer-based testbed for experimenting with new drugs and to better understanding brain disease. But let us not kid ourselves: what is really at stake here is whether that simulated brain will exhibit the kind of behaviour we associate with real, body and all, humans. Will the simulated brain in Switzerland, where the Human Brain Project is based, have consciousness? Will it have an "I"?

So far, scientists have managed to decode the connectome of humble C. Elegans, a hapless worm with a mere 302 neurons compared to the 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections of the human brain. An experiment whereby the worm's "mind" was uploaded to a tiny robot has shown some tantalizing results. Each time the robot knocked its "head" it coiled backwards, just like the real thing. Is there a "real worm" inside the robot? And how can we know?

It is exactly the latter question that usually causes the whole grand edifice of digital immortality and consciousness upload to fail. The big idea that what we perceive is not real and that all is pure mind was articulated by Plato in the 5th century BC. He described humanity living in chains inside a cave, and able to seeing only shadows on the walls of the cave that we mistake for reality. Plato suggested that only by "awakening" could someone discover the truth, and break free of the illusionary cave. Plato's ideas have informed much of Christian theology. In our secular, post-religion world, his ideas met with the dematerialization of information in the age of computing and mutated. We do not speak of soul, or heaven, or afterlife anymore. But we do speak of essentially similar things by using more "scientific" terms: connectome, simulation, upload. Just as in the various rationalist critiques of Plato or of the early Church fathers, the unanswerable question in the experience of "awakening" is that we must trust in the word of the "awakened". There is no objective way of verifying someone else's subjective experience. We do not expect the C. Elegans to let us know how it feels inside the mechanical body of the robot. But if there comes the day when the brain simulation in Switzerland is complete, and "awakens": should we believe what it will say? Will its mind be as "real" as our own? Or will it be an illusion, a mere projection of our own minds, and wishful thinking, on the digital walls of a computer server farm?

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