Bodies Without End: Embodiment in a Substrate-Independent World Christopher Bradford “That which is without body or parts is nothing

… The great principle of happiness consists in having a body… All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.”1 Mormonism teaches that God is embodied and that our own embodiment is a primary purpose of our existence. What do we mean by “embodiment”? BYU philosophy professor James Faulconer raises some important questions: “The bodies of flesh and bone with which I am familiar do not shine, have blood, cannot hover, can be wounded and die, must move through contiguous points of time-space—in short, they are not at all like the bodies of the Father and the Son. So what does it mean to say that the Father and the Son have bodies? … When I use the word body in any other context, I never refer to something that shines, can hover, is immortal, and moves through space seemingly without being troubled by walls and doors. Given the vast difference between what we mean by the word body in every other case and that to which the word refers in this case, one can legitimately ask whether the word body has the same meaning in this case that it has in the others.”2 Some of the characteristics Faulconer calls out as atypical of human bodies correspond with transhumanist visions of posthuman physical capabilities. Can we find a definition of embodiment that applies equally well to our current experience as to God’s experience, current or future? I suggest that there are three parts to such a definition, which, taken together, are necessary and sufficient for the concept of embodiment to hold with respect to a given substrate. In electronics, “substrate” refers to “the physical material upon which a semiconductor device, e.g. a photovoltaic cell or an integrated circuit, is applied.”3 In biology, “substrate” is “the natural environment in which an organism lives, or the surface or medium on which an organism grows or is attached.”4 Both of these features of “substrate” are relevant to a concept of embodiment: the material that makes up the entity and the environment in which the entity is situated.


Instructions delivered at the opening of the “Lyceum” at Smith homestead, Nauvoo, Ill., January 5, 1841 (William Clayton's Private Book); 2 Divine Embodiment and Transcendence: Propaedeutic Thoughts and Questions, Element 1:1, p. 1 3 4 ibid.  

The first part of a definition of embodiment is input: to be embodied is to receive input from the environment. Something that cannot be affected by a given environment cannot reasonably be said to be embodied with respect to that environment (think of disembodied ghosts through which objects pass without effect). As Faulconer puts it, “embodiment implies situated openness to a world… divine embodiment also implies that God is affected by the world and by persons in his world.”5 I see this reflected in Joseph Smith’s discussion of happiness (or sorrow) and bodies. The second part of a definition of embodiment is output: to be embodied is to be able to affect the environment. Something that cannot affect an environment in any way would be undetectable to that environment and again, cannot reasonably be said to be embodied with respect to that environment. Here is a connection between the two features of “substrate”: the material that makes up an entity and the environment in which the entity is situated are really the same thing, allowing the entity to affect its environment. This does not mean that entity and environment are completely homogenous – for example, I can move the sand on the beach although I am not composed of sand. However, at a fundamental level, the characteristics of the material that makes up the sand and that which makes up me are such that they can interact and affect one another. I see this interaction reflected in Joseph Smith’s statement that embodied beings have power over those without bodies – precisely because they can have power in a substrate not available to the unembodied.6 Are these two parts, input and output, sufficient to define embodiment? One might reasonably consider a system of inputs and outputs a “body”. However, the substrate itself meets these criteria – it both affects and is affected by the embodied entity – yet we typically don’t consider the environment as a whole “embodied”. The term em-bodi-ment itself implies something beyond the body: something active in the body. Mormon scripture teaches that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” (D&C 88:15) We don’t usually call a corpse “embodied”, nor a meteor, nor a pebble. What is this “spirit” or “self” that is active in a body? I propose (with many others) that the “spirit” is a pattern – a pattern is embodied and gives rise to the specifics of the interaction between the embodied entity and its environment. This leads us to the third part of our definition of embodiment: a feedback system. That is to say, an embodied entity is influenced by and influences itself as well as the


Divine Embodiment and Transcendence: Propaedeutic Thoughts and Questions, Element 1:1, p. 11 6 Note: given Mormonism’s teaching that spirit is also material, I take “unembodied” to mean “unembodied with respect to the substrate we currently exist in”.  

environment. Or, in other words, the entity is embodied in the substrate of its own body, recursively. Douglas Hofstadter, cognitive science professor at Indiana University, in (among others) I Am a Strange Loop, outlines this reflexive and recursive nature of the pattern of the self. Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at USC, is leading efforts to identify neural and physical structures and processes supporting this reflexive feedback loop that constitutes the self.7 I propose that these three parts -- input, output, and a feedback loop – are sufficient to establish a definition of embodiment. This embodiment is always with respect to a given substrate. What do we make of substrate-independence, then? We see hints of substrate-independence as we learn that the mind treats tools as extensions of our body8, or when we feel a “meshing” with the car we are driving. Damasio’s work on the biological foundations of emotion crucial to the reflexive self suggests that “mind uploading” must really be “self uploading” – body and mind – in order to preserve the self. And we note that we can be embodied simultaneously in multiple substrates – for example, at home and in Second Life, or in dreams – simultaneously spiritually and physically embodied. Faulconer reminds us that, in Mormonism, “the body is not something that acts as a container for something non-bodily, for the spirit is also incarnate. In fact, in reference to bodies, there are no non-incarnate things. This suggests that we cannot understand incarnation as something unembodied becoming embodied. It is bodies of some kind ‘all the way down.’”9 And given that bodies themselves are also substrates in which our selves (and others) are embodied10, I suggest also that it is bodies of some kind all the way up – perhaps our substrate is part of the body of God: bodies without end.  


7 8ónio_Damásio 9 Divine Embodiment and Transcendence: Propaedeutic Thoughts and Questions, Element 1:1, p. 6 10 Hofstadter makes a case for this in I Am a Strange Loop  

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