Friday, September 22, 2006

Review: "After Life," by Simon Funk

About a month ago, a commenter by the name of Simon Funk stopped by this blog to say hello, and to mention that he had just finished writing and publishing a book, "After Life." I decided to give the book a read, and boy am I glad I did.

Simon Funk is a man of many talents. In addition to being a writer and an all around great thinker, he is also a man who works in the field of Artificial Intelligence, or A.I. And that's what his book, After Life, is about. You see, Simon Funk's book isn't about an immaterial dimension that ghosts go to after their bodies die (a dimension which the title of this blog demands be destroyed), but it is about continuing one's consciousness outside of one's biological body here in the real world. And that is an idea that I wholly support.

The book is written in first-person, through the eyes of the main character, Alex Harris, PhD. Alex has just figured out how to transfer one's consciousness from a biological brain into a man-made computer. He performs the procedure on himself, and as a result, the entire world is changed. Perhaps the most significant change, though, occurs in Alex's own consciousness.

After transferring his consciousness to a machine, Alex experiences a series of unusual events. Some of these events seem like dreams, and some seem all too real. At first, the experiences are very puzzling to the reader (and to Alex himself), and don't make sense. But as the story unfolds, the pieces fall into place and produce a very mind-blowing cohesive picture.

Simon Funk is a very skilled writer. His writing is very personal and involving; I felt like I was Alex himself trying to make sense of the strange situations he kept finding himself to be in. But Simon Funk is not afraid to dig deep into the technological, philosophical, and ethical questions that naturally arise when consciousness, identity, and life itself are permanently altered.

Simon Funk also knows his stuff when it comes to Artificial Intelligence. His writing incorporates technological concepts used in today's A.I. field, yet he presents the ideas in a way that just about any reader can grasp. Simon also provides a familiar, human perspective to these ideas. What the reader ends up getting is an excellent mix of technological, philosophical, ethical, and emotional perspectives on the main character and his story. Allow me to quote a passage from chapter 1:

What makes the process tolerable is that half the drugs we're using are devoted entirely to protecting the brain. Specifically, we completely halt the processes that normally lead to the physical changes underlying the formation of memories. In effect the brain is held in a sort of chemical deep freeze, a state immune to change, but still able to function in a purely reactionary way. Other drugs keep the necessary neurotransmitters and nutrients replenished, and also keep the level of spontaneous activity as low as possible. This latter point would amount to keeping the subject unconscious, except that we then go in and light up their brain with activity much as if they were conscious, but completely under our control. In some sense, we have drugged their will to sleep, closed their eyes and ears, and replaced all of that with a machine that decides exactly what they're going to think, see, hear and feel in each moment. Yes--some day this could lead to the ultimate virtual reality experience, but that's a long time off. Right now there's no real coherent thinking or experience going on. We don't know nearly enough, nor have the compute power, to do that. Right now, it's just a random nightmare of disconnected thoughts, feelings, and sensations, experienced in rapid fire succession and immediately and forever forgotten. But that's enough--that's enough, I believe, for us to reconstruct the mind within the brain.

So, why am I talking about carburetors and grandmothers instead of cheese and mazes, considering we've only really done this with a mouse? Because I've been having nightmares about this for days. Because...I am going to have it done to me. Or maybe I already have.


As you can see, both the story and the writing style in Simon Funk's After Life are delectable.

My one gripe about this book is that it was too short. The book is 25 chapters, and in printed form it is only 160 pages. I literally tore through it as fast as I could, and the end of the story came all too quickly for me. But isn't that what happens with most good books? In addition, the book is short because it's writing style. While it gives you significant morsels of the story, it skips a few details here and there. This was obviously done deliberately as a way of leaving certain things unsaid so that the reader can either fill in the blanks with their imagination, or be left with questions in their head to ponder. This book definitely makes you think, no question about it.

Simon Funk's After Life is an all around excellent book. I can't remember the last time I read a fiction book that got the gears in my head to turn so much. I also forwarded the book to my good friend David Mills, author of the #1 bestseller Atheist Universe, and Mills had nothing but praise for Simon and his book.

I therefore highly recommend that you read After Life by Simon Funk. I also recommend that you purchase the book from Lulu. Simon is currently selling his book from Lulu at cost, so it will only cost you around 8 bucks, and it comes with a beautifully designed cover (also created by the author), and good production quality. I suggest you buy it now while the price is low, because I have been repeatedly trying to convince Simon to sell it for a profit (hey, I am a capitalist).

Finally, be sure to tell your friends about the book, as right now word-of-mouth is the only form of advertising being used to promote it, and the word definitely needs to get out about this excellent book.

8 comments:

varkam said...

Aaron,

I have a post you might appreciate up at Neural Gourmet - http://www.neuralgourmet.com/2006/09/23/the_scars_of_religions_profanity

Cheers,
varkam

say no to christ said...

Thanks Aaron, I will add this book to my list of must reads.

Anonymous said...

残酷与勇敢,只有一线之隔,所以有人说战神是最残酷的人,有人却认为他非常勇敢

Me said...

Just a few quick questions:
1) How can something that is so intangible and ill-defined as consciousness be 'downloaded' into a machine? Ever since the days of Turing (approx. 50 years ago) there have been attempts to just simply define terms like 'consciousness', 'self-awareness' and 'intelligence', and so far without much to show for it. The so-called 'Turing Test', that categorises a computer program as being intelligent if it can convince a not-too-bright individual that they are conversing with a real person as opposed to a machine, is hardly convincing. Perhaps the author of this book goes into some detail to explain this little problem further, but I could not get past the first chapter, it was just so tedious and boring - it reads like an instruction manual. Hardly 'delectable' reading.
2. Assuming that it is possible after all, would such a development be desirable? Wouldn't we then become susceptible to the following:
a) Power companies deciding who lives and dies? Even if the power source is internal, like an atomic pacemaker, it is difficult to believe that the manufacturer would not design the system in order to maintain a degree of control over their products (like an expiry date).
b) Endless advertising, junk mail, and spam.
c) The end of privacy and individuality for all time. Large corporations and governments would be able to track and monitor all of us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
d) Hacking, and other assorted mischief.
3. Whatever happened to all of those other promises about the future, like nuclear power being 'too cheap to meter', and reliable and cost-effective space travel? Isn't this just another empty promise? Cryogenics? The list is almost endless.
4. Assuming that it is both possible and desirable, the question then becomes 'why would anyone actually want this?' So that they no longer have to eat? To gain immortality? I'd rather die.
5. Isn't this just another attempt by mankind to avoid the one inevitable consequence of life - its end? Isn't this attitude a sure sign of infantilism and immaturity? By the way, I thought this webblog was all about debunking the afterlife in all it's manifestations? What has happened here? You are actually endorsing this idea (A.I.). I'm extremely disappointed in you :(.

Aaron Kinney said...

Me,

Hows it going? You said:

Just a few quick questions:
1) How can something that is so intangible and ill-defined as consciousness be 'downloaded' into a machine? Ever since the days of Turing (approx. 50 years ago) there have been attempts to just simply define terms like 'consciousness', 'self-awareness' and 'intelligence', and so far without much to show for it. The so-called 'Turing Test', that categorises a computer program as being intelligent if it can convince a not-too-bright individual that they are conversing with a real person as opposed to a machine, is hardly convincing.


First of all, its fiction. Second of all, ask the author, because he is in the AI field. Third of all, we know for a fact that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain and its electro-chemical processes. I have a good feeling that a neuroscientist would laugh at this question.

Perhaps the author of this book goes into some detail to explain this little problem further, but I could not get past the first chapter, it was just so tedious and boring - it reads like an instruction manual. Hardly 'delectable' reading.

Well we all have our tastes. Hey, maybe the idea of being guilty for rules you didnt break and grovelling like a slave at the feet of a cosmic master makes you feel giddy inside. Or maybe you dont like anything thats written with too many multi-syllable words. Maybe something by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John is more your level.

I, like many materialistic atheists, am a technophile. I have a BS from DeVry University in Computer Information Systems. This book, including the first chapter, sucked me in like crazy. This book has also received some very positive feedback from others who are anti-afterlifers and technical minded people. So I guess you are hanging out with the wrong crowd.

2. Assuming that it is possible after all, would such a development be desirable? Wouldn't we then become susceptible to the following:
a) Power companies deciding who lives and dies? Even if the power source is internal, like an atomic pacemaker, it is difficult to believe that the manufacturer would not design the system in order to maintain a degree of control over their products (like an expiry date).
b) Endless advertising, junk mail, and spam.
c) The end of privacy and individuality for all time. Large corporations and governments would be able to track and monitor all of us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
d) Hacking, and other assorted mischief.


The book is fiction (again). And your five questions arent very relevant to the idea, sad to say. Those questions come from a rather ignorant perspective. A,B,C, and D, can and do already take place nowadays. If you knew anything about technology you would know that these four reservations of yours would be LESS of an issue in a world of uploaded consciousnesses.

3. Whatever happened to all of those other promises about the future, like nuclear power being 'too cheap to meter', and reliable and cost-effective space travel? Isn't this just another empty promise? Cryogenics? The list is almost endless.

Hardly relevant to the book, but Ill take a stab. Nuclear power WOULD have been too cheap to meter if it wasnt for the red tape and beuracratic obstacles that the government puts in the energy industries path. Take a look at Oregon to see what Im talking about.

And cost effective space travel has never happened because the GOVERNMENT, until very recently, was the only entity flying in space. Note that Burt Rutan was the first person to launch a spacecraft with no government money (and win the Ansari X Prize) yet he did it at a fraction of the cost of anything NASA could do. In addition. Virgin Galactic just signed a deal with New Mexico to create a huge spaceport for civilians to make space travel afordable, and they got Scaled Composites (Burt Rutans company) building their new fleet of spacecraft. So, since you obviously havent been keeping up on the last couple years of aerospace news (I have), I am happy to report to you that affordable space travel, thanks to private enterprise, is finally reaching us.

I tell you what IS an empty promise, Me. THE SPIRITUAL AFTER LIFE! There is an empty promise for you.

4. Assuming that it is both possible and desirable, the question then becomes 'why would anyone actually want this?' So that they no longer have to eat? To gain immortality? I'd rather die.

Um, you messed up in your premise again. You said "assuming that it is both possible and desirabl..." So to answer your question of why anyone would want to do it, I would say because it is DESIRABLE by your own admission. How about for a more mind-expanding experience of the universe?

You said you would rather die? But wait, I thought you scoffed at claims in another post that the afterlife doesnt exist. Me, I must ask you: Do you believe in an afterlife? And would you LIKE to live for eternity in one?

I never claimed to want to live forever. Ive actually posted repeatedly about it. But I do like the concept of being immortal. Those are two different things, mind you. I surely would not like to be limited to only 40-50 years of active living. I would rather live for 5000 years and feel like Im 30 the whole time! 5000 years is quite a bit less than an infinite amount of years. And again, this is all to different tastes.

If you would rather die than experience a consciousness uploading to a vastly powerful computer or machine, then please sir, be my guest. As a person who puts prime importance on self-determination, I want you to know that I fully support your choice either way, so if you want to just snuff it, then you have my full backing.

5. Isn't this just another attempt by mankind to avoid the one inevitable consequence of life - its end?

LAst time I checked, you were the one insisting that we CANNOT know that life even DOES end. Last time I checked, you were arguing for the possibility of an afterlife. So how can you say that life inevitably ends when in another post you said that we cant know that it does, and that indeed death is a journey, not an end?

Isn't this attitude a sure sign of infantilism and immaturity?

Your trolling sure is.

By the way, I thought this webblog was all about debunking the afterlife in all it's manifestations?

It is, and I have, for over a year now. I have over 100 posts about the afterlife and debunking it. Check my archives section.

What has happened here? You are actually endorsing this idea (A.I.). I'm extremely disappointed in you :(.

No, what I am doing is giving a favorable book review for a book that I highly enjoyed reading. And you seem confused. A.I. or mechanical-based immortality is NOT an after life. Finding a technological way to upload ones consciousness is NOT some mystical god-based after-death dimensional pipe dream. A.I. and the meshing of man and machine is a materialistic, scientific, and wholly "this life" (as opposed to after life) based idea.

Youre totally trolling. I now regret spending all my time typing this. Oh well, Ill post it anyway.

Me said...

'First of all, it's fiction'

Yes, I know, but people who write such stories (about A.I.) tend to believe that it will one day no longer be fiction, but fact.

'we know for a fact that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain'

That's quite a claim. 'we know for a fact' - it's amazing how often people have made that statement only to be proven wrong later on. Anyway, from what I have thus far been able to find on this topic, this is not the case, and those who have made it their life's work to try to solve this riddle have, in my opinion, not come up with an adequate explanation for it. For example, the work of Susan Blackmore, who has quite seriously convinced herself that our personalities/consciousness/sense of 'I' (call it whatever you will) is nothing more than an 'illusion created by the electro-chemical activity of the brain' or words to that effect. I don't think that I am an illusion. Do you? If we are not real then what is? If there is any literature out there that I have missed that actually does prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your claim is true, then perhaps you know of a link to a website that does this??

'cost-effective space travel has never happened because the government'

Which government? The U.S. government? As I recall it we had, just not so long ago, made quite a great deal of progress during the so-called space race (remember the Soviet space program?), and then things just petered out as costs (among other things) skyrocketed. As for private industry reducing its costs, well, i'll reserve judgement until that actually happens (if it ever does).

'But wait, I thought you scoffed at claims in another post that the afterlife doesn't exist'

No, no, no. If my use of the word 'journey' was the source of this misunderstanding (and I'm pretty sure it was), then that was a mistake, I shouldn't have used that word; I was just trying to point out that we don't have all the answers to the riddle of what happens after death (if anything happens that is). Then again, since it is you mission in life to kill the afterlife, perhaps I should have known better and not posted that letter at all.

'THE SPIRITUAL AFTERLIFE! There is an empty promise for you.'

Now you're getting emotional. Maybe it is empty, but then again, like I said in that other post, who knows for sure?

'I never claimed to want to live forever. But I do like the concept of being immortal.'

Huh??? As I understand it, and as the dictionary would also have it, 'living forever' and (physical) 'immortality' are one and the same thing. To be immortal is to live forever. That's what it means.

Aaron Kinney said...

Me,

Yes, I know, but people who write such stories (about A.I.) tend to believe that it will one day no longer be fiction, but fact.

And this is relevant... how?

That's quite a claim. 'we know for a fact' - it's amazing how often people have made that statement only to be proven wrong later on.

Well are you going to do so or are you going to just allude to the possibility?

Anyway, from what I have thus far been able to find on this topic, this is not the case, and those who have made it their life's work to try to solve this riddle have, in my opinion, not come up with an adequate explanation for it.

Oh, so now youre gonna try to use this to justify some kind of mysticism?

For example, the work of Susan Blackmore, who has quite seriously convinced herself that our personalities/consciousness/sense of 'I' (call it whatever you will) is nothing more than an 'illusion created by the electro-chemical activity of the brain' or words to that effect. I don't think that I am an illusion. Do you? If we are not real then what is?

Whether or not you think you are an illusion is irrelevant. Assuming that Susan Blackmore is correct, then you would be in no position to evaluate whether or not your consciousness was an illusion. Thats the point of illusions my friend. And how is Susan Blackmores findings of consciousness being an illusion relevant to the concept of an afterlife, or a material immortality? Neither of those arguments are affected at all by Susans claims, whether she is correct or not.

If there is any literature out there that I have missed that actually does prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your claim is true, then perhaps you know of a link to a website that does this??

Have you checked my archives? I got lots of relevant links in there. Especially in the stuff from 05/early 06. But I can at least say this:

Plugging electrodes into certain parts of the brain allows test subjects to move a mouse on a computer screen with pure thought. Surgically removing portions of the brain affects the subjects memory and personality and intelligence. Brain scans conducted show exact portions of the mind that are stimulated during certain thought processes. Injecting hormones or other chemicals into the bloodstream changes the subjects personality, mood, and clarity of thought, etc...

Consciousness is directly affected by material stimuli and tampering with the physical brain organ. Thought processes are detectable where the proper associated brain regions are activated during particular thought excercises.

I used to live next to a guy who was brain damaged in an accident. The guy couldnt stand up anymore, could barely talk, and was generally slow and stupid. Then one day he shoed me a video of himself BEFORE the accident. In the video, he was a competitive runner, a quick thinking and intelligent and humorous man. A totally different man than my neighbor it seemed. His brain damage is what changed the person that he was.

Every piece of evidence available points to the consciousness operating purely along a material plane.

Or more specifically, the ONLY evidence of the operation of a consciousness is from the material realm. So we can support the claim that a living brain operates a consciousness. But we have NO evidence or logical support for the claim that a consciousness operates WITHOUT a brain to support it.

See, the positive claims require support. The material brain has such support. The immaterial mind does not. So there is no reason to suppose or entertain the possibility of an afterlife or that ones consciousness can exist without the physical brain to support it.

Which government? The U.S. government?

No. All governments that ever got into space.

As I recall it we had, just not so long ago, made quite a great deal of progress during the so-called space race (remember the Soviet space program?), and then things just petered out as costs (among other things) skyrocketed. As for private industry reducing its costs, well, i'll reserve judgement until that actually happens (if it ever does).

Dude, are you living in the stone age? PRIVATE INDUSTRY already reduced its costs, and already made it profitable. Do a google for "Virgin Galactic". Sorry Me, but I am a huge aerospace enthusiast, and I am telling you that a private airline has already invested millions of dollars. Ms. Ansari is currently at the ISS orbiting Earth and she made the trip profitable for the Russian gov (paid $20 mil). That is PRIVATE industry making it profitable... something that no government has ever done. The only reason Russia lets tourists on its Sotyuz rockets is because they pay enough money to make the trip profitable.

Google Virgin Galactic and Google "ansari x prize" and go educate yourself, then we can yap at eachother about the private space tourism industry. You are about 10 years behind in your awareness of aerospace developments my friend.

No, no, no. If my use of the word 'journey' was the source of this misunderstanding (and I'm pretty sure it was), then that was a mistake, I shouldn't have used that word; I was just trying to point out that we don't have all the answers to the riddle of what happens after death (if anything happens that is). Then again, since it is you mission in life to kill the afterlife, perhaps I should have known better and not posted that letter at all.

LOL ok then. Ill take back everything I said about "journey". I took it very literally. But FYI, my mission in life is not to kill the afterlife. My mission in life is to enjoy living it. One of the many activities that I enjoy in life is arguing religion and politics, both of which I believe are horrible cancer in the mind of humanity.

Now you're getting emotional. Maybe it is empty, but then again, like I said in that other post, who knows for sure?

Lets assume for the sake of argument that we DONT have any evidence pro or con for the afterlife (although I disagree with that notion). Even if this were true, then occams razor would suggest that we should not suppose the existence of the afterlife.

Me, just because you dont know if a carbon copy of your body exists in the center of jupiter, should you enterain that possibility?

Me, you didnt answer my questions about computers either. Do you believe that your operating system can continue to operate after your computer gets blown up by a hand grenade? Why or why not?

And what about trees, and bacteria? Do they continue to exist after their bodies die?

Me, which entities do you assign the agnostic afterlife possibility to? Only humans? Only vertebrates? Only life forms? Why? Shouldnt a rock continue to exist in some dimension somewhere even after its pulverized to dust in a quarry?

And if we talk about an afterlife, what about a before life? Me, lets assume you were born in 1960. Would you remember 1955? No. And then lets asssume you die in the year 2010. Would you remember 2011? No.

Huh??? As I understand it, and as the dictionary would also have it, 'living forever' and (physical) 'immortality' are one and the same thing. To be immortal is to live forever. That's what it means.

We define those words differently. Immortal means not being subject to an eventual and inescapable death. Death becomes an optional event, based on whether or not you deliberately destroy yourself, rather than an eventual outcome of the winding down of your body.

Having eternal life is different in that you are stuck being in existence forever, no choice at all.

blafit said...

well, i just got hold of After Life by Simon Funk, and after all these comments and obviously the post, i am gonna read as soon as i can.