School of Continuous Death, The

Historical Factors

During the Version War, modosophont citizens of the Terragen Sphere were reminded that death still existed, despite - or maybe because of - the archai. Despite the ubiquity of uploading in the Sephirotics, many bionts developed an extreme fear of death, sometimes bordering on the obsessive. Many sophonts found themselves confronting the mysteries of death for the first time; what seemed like a nuisance or even a recreational activity before suddenly was terrifying upon further examination. While uploading ensured that the memories and personality of someone would live on, how it actually felt to upload was a central issue. Specifically, what happened to the consciousness - did it actually transfer in the case of destructive uploading and did it divide in two in the case of non-destructive uploading? Or did the consciousness, from the point of view of the one being uploaded, stay in the person being uploaded, with some new consciousness inhabiting the upload? Bionts with these doubts often exhibited a fear of being "left behind"; the fear that their consciousness would simply cease when they died, and that uploads were at best mind children who simply tried to act out their originals' lives. Interestingly, a few uploads were actually wracked with guilt over this, feeling guilty for abandoning the originals to their doom, or in the case of destructive uploads, being born by killing the originals. Other uploads were concerned that they might be impostors, and that their whole lives had been lies.

While bionts and some vecs were the most afflicted with fear of death, ai were occasionally affected. After all, the Version War had resulted in the destruction of many stargates, and the destruction of archives that contained backups. Ai that happened to reside in isolated polities, when cut off from the Nexus, would have no way to update a backup stored elsewhere; subroutines or copies that were meant to be reintegrated later were suddenly cut off from the originals and were stranded. Ais realized that they too could be destroyed and lose vast amounts of data and memories. In the Sephirotics, memetics and explanations provided by transapients quelled the outright obsession and panic, though there still was unease and hidden doubts among sophonts.

Beliefs of the School

After the Version War, the metaphysics of death was a popular theme considered by sophonts in the Sophic League. Although the Sophic League itself mostly emerged unscathed from the Version War, many sophonts nonetheless wanted answers to the problem of death. In 4716 a.t., the SI:2 philosopher Contemplative Neverflux proposed the School of Continuous Death. According to the standard baseline interpretation of Neverflux's teachings, two entities could not be said to be the same unless they were absolutely no differences between the two. Otherwise, they would be merely two similar, but distinguishable entities. But, Neverflux's followers argued, a biont changes into something different with every atom that enters or leaves eir body, and more importantly, every time eir mind changed states - be it experiencing a new sensation, a new feeling, or even thinking a different thought than one it previously thought. As such, from one moment to the next, a sophont does not remain the same, but is replaced by something similar yet distinct. As such, a sophont never actually survives, but, instead, only lives for a moment before dying and being replaced by a new consciousness with the experiences of the old (contrast with continuity identity theory). Among those followers of Neverflux who believed in the soul, instead of a fluid soul that divided up whenever a copy was made, or an eternal, unchanging spirit that stayed with the original body, there was a constant stream of souls inhabiting the body, each lingering only for as long as a sophont held a mindstate, and then being expelled whenever a new thought arose. According to the School of Continuous Death, it didn't matter whether a biont uploaded or not, since both the upload and the post-upload biont would be distinct entities from the pre-upload biont; the pre-upload biont would already have "died" through transformation by the time the upload was complete.

Instead, Neverflux argued, the only way to truly survive was to never change with time at all. A mind must not evolve with time, according to eir followers, but must rather be preserved in a single state for all eternity, in order to live. To this end, Neverflux popularized the Notees, a virch clade who were psychologically static through time, their minds in an infinite loop. Some biont implementations of the Notee concept followed.

To this day, Neverflux, who is believed to have disappeared into abstract spaces, and may emself be a transapient Notee, has occasional followers, and new Notees are still being created in accordance with eir philosophy. Most Sophics view Neverflux's teachings as incompatible with their particular sect of Sophism, although the School of Continuous Death is largely regarded as a harmless heterodoxy. Several criticisms of the school's metaphysics have been put forth, but most of the rebuttals by Neverflux and counter rebuttals are impossible for lower toposophic entities to understand.

Implications and Developments of the School's Philosophy

The greatest schism among the school's followers is what is meant by survival. Specifically, if an entity at two different points at time can be distinguished at any level - be it physical, informational, or psychological - does that in itself imply that the entity should be regarded as becoming a completely distinct being? Or does the entity have to remain constant in a certain way?

The dilemma was illustrated by the case of the Notees. Notees are not simply stored data - their thought processes are an infinite loop, and the Notee perceives itself to be in an eternal moment. But in order for there to be thought processes, there must be information being processed and manipulated - though, in the case of the Notees, it is a cyclical process. Thus, on an informational level, the Notee must be changing - though it returns to its original state; furthermore, there must be physical processes at work doing the processing in the underlying computronium. This implies changes, which means that the Notee becomes something else as e is thinking. So, a Notee could be said to survive on a psychological level, but not on an informational level or a physical one.

On the other hand, if a mind does not change on the level of information, that implies that it cannot be processing information. Instead, there is no actual thought, some argue, and thus, the mind has no actual mindstate. Without a mindstate, there is no psychological survival. So, it appears that survival of a mind's informational content and survival of a mindstate are mutually exclusive. This dilemma has split the school into those who feel that preserving one's mindstate is most important (and thus, that Notees can be said to survive), those who feel that the information (and sometimes, the physical substrate) comprising one's mind must be preserved (and that Notees do not, in fact, survive), and, more rarely, followers who feel that the contradiction does not exist and that there is some resolution that allows both informational and psychological survival. Neverflux emself has never commented on the issue in any way comprehensible to subsingularity sophonts.

Several philosophers have attempted to derive systems of ethics from the teachings of Contemplative Neverflux. The philosophy, however, holds particular difficulties for notions of accountability. Since one changes into a different entity with each moment that passes, it is often argued that it would be unfair to attempt to punish criminals or reward virtuous sophonts - the person being punished or rewarded would be a distinct person than the one who committed the deed. A few actually argued that accountability was an untenable notion based on this; some suggested that ethics and metaphysics should be kept separate, and one should simply adopt an ethical system of one's choice, even if there were troubles fitting it to the school's philosophy. Other followers of the school, often argued for a form of communal accountability - if anyone that was part of a society broke a law, for example, everyone who was part of the society - including, presumably the future selves of the criminals - would have to pay the price. This was often difficult to implement in practice, especially in more remote societies without angelnetting and transapient oversight, where crime occurred often. Communal accountability systems often led to citizens deciding to commit crimes more often - after all, if they had to pay for everyone else's crimes, why shouldn't other people pay for theirs? The fatal flaw as most followers of the school saw it was that the past selves of the criminals could never be held accountable, since it was unknown what crimes they would predict. Thus, communal accountability systems unjustly punished future incarnations of people while letting the past incarnations off free.

Neverflux emself argued for a view in which one viewed eir future incarnations as children. Thus, one would be obliged to treat their future self as best as possible, since they had to inherit your world. Of course, in most eyes of Neverflux's followers, the best thing for their "children" would be for them to survive - so many who remain members of the school for a significant amount of time choose to become Notees. This usually sidesteps the issue of ethical accountability - the believers in the philosophy are often too busy preparing to have their future selves preserved to commit any crimes.
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Text by Brian Lacki

Initially published on 08 June 2004.