One line of thought I explored during this period of my conceptual work on life extension was concerned with whether it was not the material constituents of the brain manifesting consciousness, but rather the emergent electric or electromagnetic fields generated by the concerted operation of those material constituents, that instantiates mind. This work sprang from reading literature on Karl Pribram’s holonomic-brain theory, in which he developed a “holographic” theory of brain function. A hologram can be cut in half, and, if illuminated, each piece will still retain the whole image, albeit at a loss of resolution. This is due to informational redundancy in the recording procedure (i.e., because it records phase and amplitude, as opposed to just amplitude in normal photography). Pribram’s theory sought to explain the results of experiments in which a patient who had up to half his brain removed and nonetheless retained levels of memory and intelligence comparable to what he possessed prior to the procedure, and to explain the similar results of experiments in which the brain is sectioned and the relative organization of these sections is rearranged without the drastic loss in memory or functionality one would anticipate. These experiments appear to show a holonomic principle at work in the brain. I immediately saw the relation to gradual uploading, particularly the brain’s ability to take over the function of parts recently damaged or destroyed beyond repair. I also saw the emergent electric fields produced by the brain as much better candidates for exhibiting the material properties needed for such holonomic attributes. For one, electromagnetic fields (if considered as waves rather than particles) are continuous, rather than modular and discrete as in the case of atoms.
The electric-field theory of mind also seemed to provide a hypothetical explanatory model for the existence of subjective-continuity through gradual replacement. (Remember that the existence and successful implementation of subjective-continuity is validated by our subjective sense of continuity through normative metabolic replacement of the molecular constituents of our biological neurons— a.k.a. molecular turnover). If the emergent electric or electromagnetic fields of the brain are indeed holonomic (i.e., possess the attribute of holographic redundancy), then a potential explanatory model to account for why the loss of a constituent module (i.e., neuron, neuron cluster, neural network, etc.) fails to cause subjective-discontinuity is provided. Namely, subjective-continuity is retained because the loss of a constituent part doesn’t negate the emergent information (the big picture), but only eliminates a fraction of its original resolution. This looked like empirical support for the claim that it is the electric fields, rather than the material constituents of the brain, that facilitate subjective-continuity.
Another, more speculative aspect of this theory (i.e., not supported by empirical research or literature) involved the hypothesis that the increased interaction among electric fields in the brain (i.e., interference via wave superposition, the result of which is determined by both phase and amplitude) might provide a physical basis for the holographic/holonomic property of “informational redundancy” as well, if it was found that electric fields do not already possess or retain the holographic-redundancy attributes mentioned (i.e., interference via wave superposition, which involves a combination of both phase and amplitude).
A local electromagnetic field is produced by the electrochemical activity of the neuron. This field then undergoes interference with other local fields; and at each point up the scale, we have more fields interfering and combining. The level of disorder makes the claim that salient computation is occurring here dubious, due to the lack of precision and high level of variability which provides an ample basis for dysfunction (including increased noise, lack of a stable — i.e., static or material — means of information storage, and poor signal transduction or at least a high decay rate for signal propagation). However, the fact that they are interfering at every scale means that the local electric fields contain not only information encoding the operational states and functional behavior of the neuron it originated from, but also information encoding the operational states of other neurons by interacting, interfering, and combining with the electric fields produced by those other neurons (by electromagnetic fields interfering and combining in both amplitude and phase, as in holography, and containing information about other neurons by having interfered with their corresponding EM fields; thus if one neuron dies, some of its properties could have been encoded in other EM-waves) appeared to provide a possible physical basis for the brain’s hypothesized holonomic properties.
If electric fields are the physically continuous process that allows for continuity of consciousness (i.e., theories of emergence), then this suggests that computational substrates instantiating consciousness need to exhibit similar properties. This is not a form of vitalism, because I am not postulating that some extra-physical (i.e., metaphysical) process instantiates consciousness, but rather that a material aspect does, and that such an aspect may have to be incorporated in any attempts at gradual substrate replacement meant to retain subjective-continuity through the procedure. It is not a matter of simulating the emergent electric fields using normative computational hardware, because it is not that the electric fields provide the functionality needed, or implement some salient aspect of computation that would otherwise be left out, but rather that the emergent EM fields form a physical basis for continuity and emergence unrelated to functionality but imperative to experiential-continuity or subjectivity—which I distinguish from the type of subjective-continuity thus far discussed, that is, of a feeling of being the same person through the process of gradual substrate replacement—via the term “immediate subjective-continuity”, as opposed to “temporal subjective-continuity”. Immediate subjective-continuity is the capacity to feel, period. Temporal subjective-continuity is the state of feeling like the same person you were. Thus while temporal subjective-continuity inherently necessitates immediate subjective-continuity, immediate subjective-continuity does not require temporal subjective-continuity as a fundamental prerequisite.
Thus I explored variations of NRU-operational-modality that incorporate this (i.e., prosthetics on the cellular scale) particularly the informational-functionalist (i.e., computational) NRUs, as the physical-functionalist NRUs were presumed to instantiate these same emergent fields via their normative operation. The approach consisted of either (a) translating the informational output of the models into the generation of physical fields (either at the end of the process, or throughout by providing the internal area or volume of the unit with a grid composed of electrically conductive nodes, such that the voltage patterns can be physically instantiated in temporal synchrony with the computational model, or (b) constructing the computational substrate instantiating the computational model so as to generate emergent electric fields in a manner as consistent with biological operation as possible (e.g., in the brain a given neuron is never in an electrically neutral state, never completely off, but rather always in a range of values between on and off [see Chapter 2], which means that there is never a break — i.e., spatiotemporal region of discontinuity — in its emergent electric fields; these operational properties would have to be replicated by any computational substrate used to replicate biological neurons via the informationalist-functionalist approach, if the premises that it facilitates immediate subjective-continuity are correct).
Franco Cortese is an editor for Transhumanity.net, as well as one of its most frequent contributors. He has also published articles and essays on Immortal Life and The Rational Argumentator. He contributed 4 essays and 7 debate responses to the digital anthology Human Destiny is to Eliminate Death: Essays, Rants and Arguments About Immortality.