A Discussion of Sci-Fi Soul Swapping

mind transfer

The perennial subject of mind/soul-swapping as portrayed in science fiction recently came up at John C. Wright's blog.

Reader Kevin Stuart Lee kicked things off.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the metaphysics of mind transfer. Does that tenet of the singularitarians and transhumanists assume materialism? If so, and if materialist metaphysics are false, then mind-transfer/downloading as imagined in sci-fi from Asimov to Star Trek to Stross to the recently released game “Soma” should be impossible, correct?

To which I replied:
The SF conceit of “mind-transfer” relies on the errors of Cartesian mind/body dualism and conflating mental faculties with the mind’s contents.
The soul is the form of the body. The intellect is a power of the soul, and knowledge is a good that the intellect seeks.
While knowledge is certainly transferable; the soul, and thus the intellect, is not. Transferring your soul to another body would be like trying to transfer a baseball’s “sphericalness” to cubical block. You could whittle the cube down to a sphere, but it wouldn’t be the same ball.
It may one day be possible to upload all of the knowledge in your mind, but that’s not the same as uploading your “self”.
If people were solely defined by the knowledge in their minds, then suffering from amnesia–or even ordinary memory loss–would make you no longer yourself. This principle would also apply to newly acquired knowledge, so you would become a different person every time you learned something new.

So much for that question. Or was it? The formidable Stephen J. stepped up to play devil's advocate.
To be fair, some people have argued that’s exactly what happens — that broad-spectrum permanent amnesia amounts to a destruction of the personality. BABYLON 5 even spun one of their best episodes around that conceit, “Passing Through Gethsemane,” in which a character finds out that he is actually a former serial killer who was sentenced to mindwipe and personality reconstruction.

I accepted the challenge.
I’m familiar with that argument. I even had a friendly debate with a regular commenter over at Briggs’ on the same subject. She knows someone who suffered neurological trauma that did in fact completely change his personality.
But citing such examples is circular in this context. I concede that various forms of neural impairment may destroy one’s personality. That still begs the question: *whose* personality?

Undaunted, Stephen answered:
Hm. I suppose if I were defending the argument, I would probably say that the assumption here is that personality is identity — that it is functionally and practically, if not theoretically, meaningless to speak of a “who” as an entity separate from the personality; that complete destruction of memory and history, and reboot of personality, effectively divides the consciousness into two identities, and that identity can be treated as functionally equivalent to one’s soul, the latter being effectively a completely new soul as if only just born.

My reply:
To continue in kind, I’d point out that we do in fact speak of personality as distinct from identity–and especially from the soul, and such speech does in fact convey meaning.
Take the case of a newborn infant or a man in a coma–or my prior example of someone acquiring new knowledge and experience.
What’s meaningless would be literally speaking of a grown man and his childhood self as two different people, which the personality=identity position would require.
That’s presuming that a person’s knowledge and personality can be “wiped” in the first place. Knowledge is non-physical (unless you’re willing to posit the existence of “thought particles”). Therefore it has no adjacent parts and therefore cannot be destroyed.
What can and does happen is that the physical machinery responsible for actualizing the knowledge possessed by the intellect breaks down, but the personality, identity, etc. is still there in potency if not in act.

The Indefatigable Mr. J's example of a classic Babylon 5 episode bears mentioning.
(One disquieting fridge-logic implication of the B5 episode is that the Church — which in B5’s future universe takes in those punished by mindwipe to give them new lives as monks — has somehow found a theological justification for that procedure and genuinely considers the new personality to be a new soul, free in God’s eyes from the sins of the old one. Although it is also, I suppose, possible that the Church still vehemently opposes the procedure in principle while still caring for its victims in practice.)

This scenario called to mind the scourge of BMIHD--an affliction suffered by theologians among the audiences of sci-fi shows that base plots on bad metaphysics.
Incidentally, Stephen, thanks for bringing that B5 plot to our attention.
Almost every SF series features technical errors that give physicists headaches. But theologians in fandom are susceptible to a little-known phenomenon called “bad metaphysics-induced headdesk”.
The B5 scenario above presents a grave risk of BMIHD :)
(See also: BEIFP [bad ecclesiology-induced facepalm]).

All in all, a rousing discussion. And let my admiration for B5 be added to the record. Such well-meant ribbing 'tis all in good fun!

Bonus: our gracious host Mr. John C. Wright, who knows more about science fiction than most acquire in seven mortal lifetimes, threw his hat into the ring.
An interesting conceit in Philip Jose Farmer’s RIVERWORLD series was that reincarnation by means of mind transfer (similar to what is in A.E van Vogt’s WORLD OF NULL A or to TO LIVE FOREVER by Jack Vance) but not just the brain information. An artificially created yet mysteriously living energy field, called a ‘wathan’ is spread by the aliens throughout the stars and connects to any sufficiently advanced chordate creature, bestowing a ‘soul’ on him, that is, in indestructible repository of his memory and personality which can be transferred upon death to a similar body.
I myself see more parallel between Gnosticism and the Transhumanism in SF than with Cartesianism. There is not just a believe that souls are a fluid that can be poured without chemical change into any body in the thinking of those whose works I’ve read, but a distaste for the body as such, a belief that being a creature of pure mind, or pure energy (in a story the one represents the other) is the superior state.

I, of course, immediately caved.
Point cheerfully conceded.

Yet Mr. Wright's hunger for SF-themed debate precluded him from accepting my surrender.
Don’t concede too quickly. The obvious analogy between software v hardware and the mind v body is something the engineers and scientists of the Anglosphere would present itself to science fiction quite forcefully, especially since science fiction is, by and large, an attempt to retell old myths born of the prescientific worldview in scientific terms, that is, naturalistic and mechanistic terms. The mechanical version of reincarnation is to treat the mind body duality as a machine, which implies Cartesianism.

I, of course, immediately caved
Concession withdrawn :)
And offered an olive branch:
Perhaps this is a case of both/and instead of either/or.

So the discussion currently stands. What are your thoughts--and do those thoughts define you?


  1. My thought is that a new personality may some day be created, that had the memories of the host it was copied from. But the original all was copied from remain the same. If the original is destroyed in the process, he is killed, not transposed.

    My stores "Quantum Process" Sci-Phi Journal #2, and "Whispers" in Sci-Phi Journal #6 detail my basic premises (hopefully in a suitably horrifying fashion).

    1. Agreed. I'll have to review those SPJ issues.

      [Spoiler alert]

      The situation you pointed out was my major problem with Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR. The combined incidences of BMIHD and BEIFP strained my suspension of disbelief, but there was enough action to get me through.

  2. Formidable? Indefatigable? I've never been called those things before. It really is easy to seem more impressive on the Internet than one actually is, isn't it?

    Many thanks for the kind words and quoting. I am muchly chuffed.

    1. My pleasure. Thank you for the sterling conversation.