Computer souls

| April 24, 2009 | 3 Replies

[A kitchen table conversation between a parent and a child]

Daddy, if my computer burned up in a fire, would it still compute?

No, Mary. Programs don’t simply run by themselves. They depend upon extremely complicated hardware and software. If your computer burns up in a fire, there would be no hardware and no software with which to run your favorite programs.

image by Erich Vieth

image by Erich Vieth

But I’ve used my computer for a long time. I’ve grown emotionally attached to it. It makes me sad that it won’t actually compute if it were to be destroyed. Doesn’t my computer have a soul that continues running my programs somewhere else after my computer burns up on Earth?

I’m sorry, Mary. There is no computer heaven and there is no computer soul. There is no evidence of either of these.

But we can’t prove that it won’t keep computing after it burns up in a fire, right?

No. Sorry, Mary. Without hardware and software, no computing will happen. The ashes of your burned up computer would lack any systematic structure. They certainly lack the complex organization required to run programs.  It is impossible for any computation to occur without the hardware and the software intact.  Your claim that a computer would keep computing even though it is completely destroyed is an extraordinary claim that would require extraordinary proof. We have no such proof whatever.

But Lisa Jenkins says that burned up computers do keep computing. She says that you only need to have faith and that no one can disprove that burned up computers live on in a parallel world. She says destroyed computers keep working, but not in a physical way.  She goes to a special building on Sunday where thousands of people all believe that computers keep computing even after they are completely destroyed.

No, Mary. The same thing happens to computers as happens to your own body. As you know, when your body dies, your entire body rots, including your brain.  As you know, when your brain is rotted, you don’t have any more thoughts because there is no intact functional neural structure anymore, and therefore no basis for any continuing thoughts.

Oh, daddy! It’s not the same! Yes, I know that when my body dies, it will be impossible for me to think anymore. My computer is different, though. I just can’t believe that my amazing computer would stop computing just because it gets completely destroyed!  Don’t try to compare my beautiful computer to a human brain!

It’s not a matter of what you want to believe, my child. It’s a matter of what actually happens in the real world.  You can continue using your computer for now and loving the way it works, but it would be unhealthy to believe that it would keep computing even if it was destroyed. As a parent, it’s my job to level with you regarding difficult topics like this. I’m so sorry.

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Category: computers, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    What happens to your digital on-line life once you die? Here's what: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/05/18/death.online/i

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Legacy Locker is a good idea. But I've used a local solution that costs less: I have an encrypted file with a strong password on my computer that contains all the critical information about accounts and passwords. The file name is obscure and its password is unguessable by social and dictionary means. I haven't tested the password with L0phtCrack, but it follows the conventions).

    Relevant heirs know about the file and the password, and that a copy of the file is in my safe deposit box at the bank (with a regular back up of my drive).

    I figure that if my house burns down along with all my local back ups, the bank vault is safe. And cheaper than Legacy Locker.

  3. Jekub says:

    No Silicon Heaven? Then where do all the Toasters go?

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