Friday, May 30, 2014

Goldfish-Pool Immortality

Must an infinitely continued life inevitably become boring? Bernard William famously answers yes; John Fischer no. Fischer's case is perhaps even more easily made than he suggests -- but its very ease opens up new issues.

Consider Neil Gaiman's story "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories" (yes, that's the name of one story):

He nodded and grinned. "Ornamental carp. Brought here all the way from China."

We watched them swim around the little pool."I wonder if they get bored."

He shook his head. "My grandson, he's an ichthyologist, you know what that is?"

"Studies fishes."

"Uh-huh. He says they only got a memory that's like thirty seconds long. So they swim around the pool, it's always a surprise to them, going 'I've never been here before.' They meet another fish they known for a hundred years, they say, 'Who are you, stranger?'"

The problem of immortal boredom solved: Just have a bad memory! Then even seemingly un-repeatable pleasures (meeting someone for the first time) become repeatable.

Now you might say, wait, when I was thinking about immortality I wasn't thinking about forgetting everything and doing it again like a stupid goldfish.

To this I answer: Weren't you?

If you were imagining that you were continuing life as a human, you were imagining, presumably, that you had a finite brain capacity. And there's only so much memory you can fit into eighty billion neurons. So of course you're going to forget things, at some point almost everything, and things sufficiently well forgotten could presumably be experienced as fresh again. This is always what is going on with us anyway, to some extent. And this forgetting needn't involve any loss of personal identity, it seems: one's personality and some core memories could always stay the same.

Immortality as an angel or transhuman super-intellect raises the same issues, as long as one's memory is finite.

A new question arises perhaps more vividly now: Is repeating and forgetting the same types of experiences over and over again, infinitely, preferable to doing them once, or twenty times, or a googolplex times? The answer to that question isn't, I think, entirely clear (and maybe even faces metaphysical problems concerning the identity of indiscernibles). My guess, though, is that if you stopped one of the goldfish and said, "Do you want to keep going?", the fish would say, "Yes, this is totally cool, I wonder what's around the corner? Oh, hi, glad to meet you!" Maybe that's a consideration in favor.

Alternatively, you might imagine an infinite memory. But how would that work? What would that be like? Would one become overwhelmed like Funes the Memorious? Would there be a workable search algorithm? Would there be some tagging system to distinguish each memory from infinitely many qualitatively identical other memories? Or maybe you were imagining retaining your humanity but somehow existing non-temporally? I find that even harder to conceive. To evaluate such possibilities, we need a better sense of the cognitive architecture of the immortal mind.

Supposing goldfish-pool immortality would be desirable, would it be better to have, as it were, a large pool -- a wide diversity of experiences before forgetting -- or a small, more selective pool, perhaps one peak experience, repeated infinitely? Would it be better to have small, unremembered variations each time, or would detail-by-detail qualitative identity be just as good?

I've started to lose my grip on what might ground such judgments. However, it's possible that technology will someday make this a matter of practical urgency. Suppose it turns out, someday, that people can "upload" into artificial environments in which our longevity vastly outruns our memorial capacity. What should be the size and shape of our pool?

Update July 4, 2016:

See my new short story on this topic: Fish Dance (Clarkesworld #118, July 2016).

[image source]


Howard Berman said...

I would separate memory of the self from memory of the world.
If I am growing and have a sense of accrued self, then why not live on

David Shope said...

Just some off-the-cuff thoughts:

This is very much the topic of the essay "Crop Rotation" in Either/Or, where the author suggests that getting the most out of life (even in or mortal case) requires developing the art of forgetting. There's a little more to the sense of forgetting intended in "Crop Rotation" than is involved in the goldfish sort of forgetting, but I think the points are sufficiently parallel.

The critique of this point of view from that Kierkegaard seems to raise from the ethical or religious standpoint is that it breaks up the continuity of a truly meaningful life, where what makes a life truly meaningful is our ability to undertake commitments of the right sort. The main example from the second half of Either/Or would be marriage: if I have the memory of a goldfish and eventually forget my spouse, can I be said to be genuinely a part of a marriage?

One way out of that criticism (assuming we buy it) is already suggested by you: that we can keep our core commitments in memory. But then the problem is whether or not those core commitments will, after 5,000 years, become boring and we will not be able to be engaged by them anymore. If those core commitments are a necessary part of a meaningfully continuous life then we're stuck between not being able to have those commitments because we forget or having them in a way such that we can't really remain engaged with the commitment for all time.

In any case, that's one dialectic that could grow out of proposing goldfish-immortality.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Howard! So one question would be whether the memory of the self is subject to the same finitude restrictions. It seems like it would be, and thus the same issues arise -- yes?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David: Thanks for that very interesting comment! Now I'll have to go read that piece from Either/Or. For the goldfish, I don't think the core commitments need to get boring -- or even that would should tend to expect that they would. Imagine the goldfish being committed to commenting on the elegant or trashy state of other goldfish's fins. As long the fish doesn't remember having been through this already, hugely often, it could still seem fresh and exciting -- same too with marriage, why not?

There is something a bit flat-seeming about the lack of growth and the lack of narrative structure on the large scale -- and that might be reason to favor a larger pool.

Jorge A. said...

Well, ideally you would be able to curate your memories in such a way that the stuff you absolutely want to remember, you keep. But you could delete the memory of say, chocolate, every few years to keep yourself happy with novelty. As time passes and your curated database grows too large, you'd ideally be able to offload the largess to some artificial prosthetic system... (or, as in Bakker's fantasy novels, a sranc skin).

There's also the possibility that natural law is some kind of infinitely regressing fractal (up and down), so that there's a never-ending barrage of interesting scientific problems to solve that furthermore require you to remember everything you've ever learned.

I mean, becoming an immortal Sisyphean problem solver may sound like torture to some people, but as long as you are genuinely learning something new about nature (and not just solving an ever harder ladder of calculations)... who cares if its infinite? That sounds like a good deal to me. Specially if I get to try chocolate for the first time every time I solve a puzzle.

Howie Berman said...

back to Kierkegaard- if you have a sense of humor and see the absurdity of living forever, or alternately, if you feel the eternal love of God, or meditate on the unmoved mover, perhaps you would be the opposite of bored or have epiphanies- or contrary to an empirical viewpoint, if you wrote in your mind an endless novel or counted up to infinity and beyond and reflected on the properties of all the numbers- there would be ways to keep from being bored- the mind is a place of it's own, isn't it?

Eric Steinhart said...

Suppose I'm immortal and that I have infinite memory, and that I don't forget. I don't want to be bored, so I just start mentally simulating all the Turing machines, in some canonical order. I'll always be finding new and exciting computations, new video games, new versions of A Game of Thrones, and so on, forever. So what was the original problem?

David Shope said...

Eric: Thanks for your response! You raise a good point, we can always lower the threshold of forgetting to the actions and events that the commitment involves while retaining the commitment itself.

I think the only way to strengthen the counter-goldfish argument I brought up would be to argue that even that sort of forgetting is incompatible with certain forms of commitment. If my commitment is to count to infinity (to use an example Howie gave), that commitment would give me reason to find forgetting every-time I got to 30 and starting over undesirable since that is incompatible with fulfilling the commitment.

Then again, that only holds if being committed requires me to value the commitment for its own sake. If I can be committed and value the commitment only for giving me a meaningful life-project, then maybe it makes sense to buy into a life where I keep forgetting and starting over but where I don't realize that is what is going on. The commitment itself is undermined, but I don't realize it and so it still feels like a meaningful life.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jorge: Right! Curate your memories. Maybe fractal inquiry works too. I think this literature (that I have seen) has hardly even scratched the surface of the question of the cognitive architecture of immortality or extreme longevity.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howie & Eric: Those are infinite memory versions, yes? I'm sympathetic to the idea that Williams was wrong about those kinds of cases too, but they're not as psychologically recognizably human as the goldfish-pool cases, I think.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David: Yes, that seems right. Maybe we can distinguish between commitments that require progress and/or closure, which a goldfish-life can't satisfy (though might, as you say, still give the feeling of a meaningful life project) and commitments that don't require progress and/or closure -- like the commitment to comment astutely on others' fins, as one sees them. Perhaps this mirrors Fischer's distinction between repeatable and unrepeatable pleasures.

howard berman said...

I believe the imagination can conjure up maybe not infinite but indefinite novel ideas given finite resources.
I'm an MFA student, among other things, so maybe I'm just being cocky.
Maybe I am infinite memory.
We can look into the matter.
I see this as a desert island situation.
Shakespeare wouldn't get bored on a desert island.
Chomsky's linguistics allowed for wide creativity given limited number of words.
So given an infinite time frame, would I or Shakespeare or Chomsky come up with novel sentences or ideas?

Nellie W. said...

This is (in part) the theme of a Julian Barnes story ("The Dream"). The main character is in heaven, but heaven has been democratized so each person gets to go and each person does what they want for an eternity. Our character wants to eat breakfast for every meal, have sex with a variety of women, go shopping, meet famous people, and perfect his golf game (and that's basically it). He does this for hundreds of years before despairing that his golf game can only get so perfect. The administrators of heaven tell him that everybody eventually chooses permanent death over immortality because they don't want to go on like this, and no one actually wants to do very many different things -- even when they can choose anything. The main character finally comes up with the idea that he thinks will solve the problem of immortality: "if you get what you want in Heaven, then what about wanting to be someone who never gets tired of eternity?" The administrator arranges for this experiential 'transfer'. He wakes up with his memories of his experiences (although perhaps not of his self) wiped clean. I guess Barnes' suggestion is that the only way to tolerate an eternity of doing whatever you want is to have your memory periodically wiped out. It seems like the intervals would depend on your range of interests and desires.

chinaphil said...

A couple of ideas:

I'm not sure that the "problem of eternal boredom" exists for humans. The two obvious examples for me are food and sex: we've all eaten the same thing and had similar sex more times that we might care to count, but it's not obvious to me that the pleasure lessens. Maybe it would after 1000 years rather than 100, but who knows.

I don't like the formulation "would it be better to..." for these questions, because as you say yourself, we don't have a grip on what grounds them. Better to say, what kind of considerations might motivate a choice how we should set up an environment for eternal existence? Personal pleasure and comfort are obviously important, and so the psychology of pleasure and satisfaction is one set of relevant factors. But one might well have other commitments, as others have suggested above: commitment to knowledge, or to utilitarianism (with its implication of maximal population), or to religious doctrines...

When you formulate it this way, I think the similarity with the problem of education emerges more clearly: given a child unable to comprehend what her later life will be, what should we do for her now? The eternity factor may not make that much difference.

Callan S. said...

I don't know why people think memories are discreet - like you can erase your memory of chocolate? So maybe you met your wife over a shared chocolate bar. So you try and delete chocolate - what is your memory of meeting your wife now? It was over something or other? You've just erased part of that memory of her. It's not discrete - never mind if that hole causes an unraveling that either makes you lose the index of the memory (ie, you remember meeting her primary through the conduit of remembering chocolate) or even a deletion of the majority of the memory since chocolates 'keywords' are laced through the memory and everything with that keyword gets erased.

I think the question is is the end of memory simply another kind of death?

clasqm said...

This "problem" presupposes that human memory works like computer memory, i.e. that every datum is perfectly preserved. There are a few prodigies who seem to work like this, but for most of us, it does not.

The memory of the biscuit I am eating now soon fades into a general category of "biscuits I've eaten". If I was able to recall this biscuit's memory-trace with perfect fidelity, then there would be no reason ever to eat a Finn Crisp Original Rye again and terminal boredom would set in quickly. But I am not able to do that. I am only able to recall a vague sensation of pleasure associated with that shape and texture.

So, given a world with a modicum of sensory inputs (extreme sensory deprivation doesn't count) I would say that immortality would not be boring. Sure, I've been eating biscuits for a million years and this must be my 100 millionth biscuit. But I haven't tasted *this* biscuit.

In fact, I think I'll have another.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nellie: Cool -- thanks for the tip on that interesting story! I'd add the twist that given finite memory, it's more or less inevitable that there will be near-perfect wipes on a regular basis, so that the relevant question is how long between the wipes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Chinaphil: Thanks for that interesting comment! Your first point is similar to Fischer's main point. On your second: That's a nice alternative way of framing it. It does, somehow, seem a little easier (less absolutistic?) to conceptualize the question in that way -- though I wonder whether with enough pressing (what would *rationally* motivate a choice, and "rationally" given what background knowledge, maybe it starts to come back around toward the question of what is better in some absolute sense.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: It's easier to state things as though memory were discrete, but I totally agree with you that memory is more complex than such language suggests. But I still think the point holds: Unless we think these finite brains somehow have infinite precision, almost everything must be forgotten in infinite time. But, as I said, I don't think it's straightforward that this implies loss of personal identity as long as personality and some core memories are always retained.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michel: I agree with you almost to your conclusion, but not quite. I think I would eventually tire of biscuits if I was able to remember each one, even if only vaguely -- unless I became some wild biscuit fanatic. I think the imperfection of memory is important to enjoying repeatable pleasures, but it's probably *also* a good thing for boredom-prevention that almost everything will be almost entirely forgotten in an infinite life.

chinaphil said...

"I wonder whether with enough pressing (what would *rationally* motivate a choice, and "rationally" given what background knowledge, maybe it starts to come back around toward the question of what is better in some absolute sense."

I agree that ultimately it would, but procedurally I think this is precisely the sort of thing we should avoid. To pick a simplistic example, if you're a utilitarian, your considerations would human utility; if you're a Christian, then ultimately I think your considerations would be about how best to glorify God. In order to make a "best" decision on eternal life states, you'd have to answer this metaphysical/ethical question, and probably all the other questions of philosophy first. In that process it seems that we'd rather lose sight of what was distinctive about the original question: the issue of memory, boredom and happiness.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That seems right, chinaphil. A similar observation can be made with a different normative valence: this is an entry point into the largest questions. Entering from this angle might have some advantages and disadvantages compared to entering from others points of focus.

Callan S. said...

Eric, but what is experiencing things if not part of character development? And character development is series of subtle changes in core personality.

So what happens when you sheer off all the things that would have changed you? Always about to learn the lesson, only to erase it all?