Remember the Star Trek episode where a transporter malfunction creates copies of Spock and Kirk? The idea is that the transporter completely destroys the transportee’s body, and presumably his soul (or consciousness, spirit, personality, whatever), is transported as atoms across space, and then reassembled in another location. The original body is destroyed, but an exact copy survives. The plot hinges on the fact that the “exact copy” constitutes the essence of the original, and the soul of the new, reassembled body and soul is identical to the one that was dissolved. In this ST episode, the transporter fails and the original body/soul survives alongside the new copy.
The whole concept depends on the assumption that the soul is entirely a result of the physical arrangement and connections of the parts of the original body, so if you succeed in making a perfect copy, the soul survives intact. Making a perfect copy is theoretically possible because atoms of the several dozen elements which make up human tissue can be exactly duplicated at the receiving end; carbon is, after all, carbon, no matter where you get it. Perhaps Uncertainty Principle requires the copy need not be identical to the original, but we’re not arguing physics here, this is all just a hypothetical question. A properly functioning transporter starts and stops with only one body and soul. The question is, what happens when you have copies?
Another example, also from science fiction, the time travel loop. You go back in time and meet yourself at an earlier time. Or even better, you return to your own time, and then go back into the past again and meet yourself! Now there are three of you, the copy that lives in the past, as well as two from the future. Again, I’m not saying this can actually happen, just as a hypothetical situation to explore a philosophical question.
In other words, if you make a copy of yourself, and preserve it in some alternate format (a computer file, or a corpsicle meant to be thawed and revived at some future time) is this a way to provide immortality, a release from death? I say no.
The copy may remember all his former life, the activities and history of the original of himself that was copied or preserved, but this does the original soul no good whatsoever. When you die, your copy may absorb a copy of your old soul, but your soul faces oblivion, not a second life. Sure, when the copy wakes up in the future, he may remember his entire past (if the copy is faithful and complete). But the original strapped to his hospital bed waiting for his consciousness to be uploaded to a computer, or for his brain to be flash-frozen for preservation, will never experience that future. Even if the copying process is non-destructive, the soul being copied is going under forever. And even if the original survives the copying process (like Kirk and Spock in my first example) he will encounter his copy in the future slightly different, and altered because it has had new experiences not shared with the original. The original knows he is going to fucking die! I don’t know about you, but if I were fading out for the last time, I would derive no comfort from knowing someone else (my copy) was taking the con.
In other words, immortality (or at least, immortality by means of making a duplicate soul and uncorking it in the future) is pointless. It doesn’t do you any good, it just helps your copy. And he is a totally different soul, even if he is identical to you. The same goes for reincarnation. What good does it do you to “live again” if you can’t remember all, or even any, your past life? The Hindus and Buddhists may believe they have been constantly reincarnated over millions of generations, but what good does that do them? They can’t tell me about any of them. And the dead have no way of knowing their future.
Another example, lets say you are dying of an incurable form of brain cancer. The doctors tell you the condition can be cured, but the drugs and surgery involved have an unavoidable side effect; they will leave you with no trace of your memory whatsoever. Perfect and complete amnesia. You will be essentially a new person with no recollection of you previous existence. So why bother? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend my resources on my present self-awareness enjoying my last days than on having my body preserved and it copied while my soul stays behind.
What these thought experiments do tell me that is even if the soul could be preserved after death, it is no longer yours, and immortality does you no good. And this is just another way of saying that your soul is really just the sum of your memories. Without memories there is no soul. And there is no heaven or hell–at least, not for you, just for the soul that inherits your memories.
Of course, it could be argued that we die and are being reincarnated every time we fall asleep–the original soul was “destroyed” and we awake as a new copy, with all the memories of the original. To the copy, there may be continuity, to the original, there is only a promise. But I haven’t thought that through yet.