Soufflés and Souls

The episode “The Name of the Doctor” offered some interesting material for discussing notions of identity and immortality, life and death.

When the Great Intelligence is asked where he obtained certain information, he replies that he is “nothing but information.” A similar idea is present when Clara is planning to pursue the Great Intelligence along the Doctor's timeline, which will inevitably mean her identity's dispersal into millions of iterations, but none of which is still continuous with her. Clara responds with a reference to a saying of her mother's, that it is the recipe that makes the soufflé.

And so one can ask whether it is better to exist in one place as oneself, or to have one's information, one's pattern, preserved across infinity, or recorded from some timeless perspective (much as the Doctor's timeline continues to exist from such a perspective even within the tomb which indicates that timeline's end).

There is what I think is a wonderful treatment of a related topic, explored through Doctor Who, in the forthcoming volume which I edited together with Andy Crome, Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith. It looks at the unending existence of some entities, which seems to inevitably lead to tedium and boredom, versus the timeless preservation of a time lord's existence in the matrix on Gallifrey, which is eternal objective existence rather than ongoing endless subjective existence. I highly recommend the chapter on that topic, for anyone interested in exploring it further!


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  • This is what I think about when I consider notions of heaven. Why are people attracted to the idea of heaven? Is it because of the fear of death?

    There is little I like better than a bowl of chocolate ice cream! But there is a moment that really I don’t like chocolate ice cream, and that is the moment after I’ve given into gluttony and had 3 bowls of chocolate ice cream already.

    We all know from experience that you really can have too much of a good thing. And every time I imagine such a thing as eternal life, I have to conclude that life, like everything else we experience, would lose it’s value in excess. An eternity would become eternally boring, at which point boredom itself would become suffering.

    The only way I could imagine eternity not becoming hellishly tedious would be for me to periodically forget my entire previous existence, so that every following experience would seem new. But then if I were to forget my entire previous existence, would I even be the same person afterwards? Wouldn’t a new “I”, a new person, have begun it’s existence at that point?

    • Nick Gotts

      I don’t agree. Sure, doing the same thing gets boring or worse after a while, but there are many things that are just as good again after a break to do something else. And if we’re allowed to design our own immortality, I’d arrange for my memory and cognitive capacity to increase indefinitely, so I could access any part of my past when I wanted, and keep discovering new mathematics. I think Conway’s “Game of Life” alone would keep me amused for eternity. But an omniscient deity would spoil it: sure, learning something new to you is fun; but if there’s nothing genuinely new to discover – nothing that has never been known before – then the enjoyment would at least be considerably diminished.

      • If one were talking about genuinely endless existence, then wouldn’t one eventually reach the point at which there was little or nothing new that one could learn?

        • Nick Gotts

          I don’t think so. My intuition (and I think there’s a metamathematical result that purports to prove it) is that there is an infinite number of “interesting” results in mathematics. Similarly, given that there is no limit to the length of a musical piece, there would always be new music to enjoy, provided one were able to expand cognitive capacity indefinitely.

          • Well, I can certainly appreciate hearing the same music on multiple occasions, and have the good sense to not listen to the music I really love so often that I get sick of it. But it still seems to me that, if one is really talking about endless time, then unless one becomes something very different than what a human being is now, monotony at least might be inevitable. After all, some people find monotony to set in the way things are now, even though there are more books than one person could ever hope to read, and more music than any one person could ever hope to listen to.

          • Nick Gotts

            Yes, if cognitive capacity keeps increasing, which would be essential for the immortality I’m envisaging, you would eventually become very different from what a human being is now. I don’t see that as a problem. But in any case, true immortality does not look physically possible (I was responding to beau_quilter’s take on heaven, i.e. a magical afterlife), and even indefinite lifespan of the Ray Kurzweil kind looks to me vanishingly unlikely in my lifetime (even though I’m a few years younger than Kurzweil and in reasonable health).

            I remember getting bored as a child even when I could choose what to do, but I can’t recall the last time this happened to me.

          • I see what you mean, ngotts, but I still think eternity is less than meaningful for myself. When I think of the moments in my life that are most precious to me now, an integral and necessary part of the experience is the way it is affected by finite time: the anticipation of the event, the relishing of the rareness of the event, and the nostalgia of remembering it afterwards.

            There is also a sense that, after a time in eternity, I would cease to be the person I am now, and would become something else entirely. Would “I” really be “I” in any meaningful sense after a billion years?

          • Nick Gotts

            Would “I” really be “I” in any meaningful sense after a billion years?

            The only criteria of personal identity we have are spatio-temporal continuity, and memory. By those criteria, and assuming unlimited memory capacity, the answer is “Yes”. Were you really you when you were a zygote? A neonate? A five-year-old?

          • Those last questions are fascinating, but I would certainly answer no to the zygote, because a zygote has no capacity or consciousness at that stage (though, of course, the zygote was a necessary precursor to my conscious self). But I thought it was a fun way of biasing the answer by asking if “you were you when you were a zygote”.

            What we actually mean by the term “I” is still a debate in cognitive/philosophical circles.

          • Nick Gotts

            if “you were you when you were a zygote”.

            OK, were you you when either you or someone else was a zygote? :-p

    • Gary

      “Why are people attracted to the idea of heaven?”…only one reason I can think of, assuming heaven actually exists. Opportunity to see loved-ones that have died.

    • arcseconds

      I made a remark on this point 3 months ago:

      I think it’s pretty psychologically plausible that human beings living for very long periods of time would tend to forget an awful lot.

      With that in mind, eternity might not be so bad!

  • Nick Gotts

    I recently read Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail, one of his “Culture” SF series, the main theme of which is the artificial afterlives developed by various technologically advanced species. The plot focuses on a war (itself fought mainly within a simulation) to destroy the hells being maintained by some of them, but it is mentioned that even the dead in simulated paradises eventually tire of life! These hells and heavens would not be truly eternal of course, since they are completely dependent on a physical substrate.