Monday, July 13, 2009

Consciousness & Sci-Fi Transportation Technology

I like to use science fiction as a good way to try to reimagine thorny philosophical questions. A good place to me to look at questions of whether there is a non-material part of us—like a soul, a mind, a consciousness—is in the possibility of science fiction teleportation devices.

If we assume that all we are is a body, then something like the transporter from Star Trek is unproblematic. Let's assume that we have a soul that's some sort of free floating thing separated from the body that is liberated after death. In the Star Trek transporter, your body is transformed into pure energy, zapped down to the planet's surface and is reconstituted as an identical material form. Does your soul float along through space and jump into the reconstituted body? Does the reconstituted body even have a soul? Does it acquire a new soul?

We might think it possible that since the same matter is used all the way through—being translated in energy, zapped down, then reconstituted—that the soul might be towed along.

Let's try an even harder case. Let's imagine that transportation works something like in The Fly: the original matter is destroyed, the information to reconstitute the matter is transmitted through electrical signals, and then a separate machine creates an identical copy. Is the copy going to somehow acquire the same soul?

I think the movie that best raises this point is the film very of The Prestige. In The Prestige, there is a machine that both transports and replicates the subject. When the subject steps into the machine, a second version of him is created in a different place. So, what happens to his soul? Is it duplicated, bifurcated, split? Let's look at it from his perspective. He steps into the machine, looking out at the audience; the machine warms up and there is a flash. Now, what does he see after the flash? Is he 1) still looking at the audience as the trap door opens below his feet? Is he 2) looking out over the audience from the balcony? Is he 3) seeing both simultaneously? Or is he 4) seeing nothing because his soul has blinked out of existence? I think the movie suggests it is 1), which is why the ending is so poignant. This also seems like the more plausible scenario given the situation.

To return to Star Trek, we might imagine what it would be like from someone using a transporter. I step into the transporter, looking out the room as someone prepares to transport me down to the planet's surface. Is it a) just a blink and now I'm looking out over some strange alien planet? Or is it b) the room disappears and then there is nothing, since I've blinked out of existence; meanwhile, simultaneously, a new man has been generated on the planet's surface, a new man physically identical to me, who bears all my memories, all my self-identity and who is in every sense convinced he is me. This new man remembers being up on the spaceship and everything that happened to me before and is convinced that he has done and experienced everything I have, even though he was just newly created only two seconds ago. This presents a problem since you can't decide whether it was scenario a or b that happened just by asking him.

If we think of the transfer in any of the cases when we are merely recreating the matter, and not reusing the same matter, then it is difficult to imagine the soul being conserved. It seems like the only reason to destroy the original is to preserve the illusion that the person hasn't simply been copied and that the copy is an entirely different person. Destroying the original before the copy is made allows us to think that it is merely the same person. But just like in the case of The Prestige, where there is a lag between the creation of the copy and the destruction of the original, the consciousness doesn't seem like it would find its way to the copy.

This is all to say, that if we develop technology like the above, then it will present real tests to help us better understand the nature of consciousness. And, in addition, it's possible because your consciousness or mind or soul cannot be transported with your body, these technologies will be things that most of us would prefer not to try.

7 comments:

John said...

I just saw this post, so forgive me for being months late.

I have serious issue with this statement: If we assume that all we are is a body, then something like the transporter from Star Trek is unproblematic.

That is absolutely incorrect. If we assume that all we are is a body, then in the 3rd to last paragraph, it is unquestionably:

b) the room disappears and then there is nothing, since I've blinked out of existence; meanwhile, simultaneously, a new man has been generated on the planet's surface, a new man physically identical to me, who bears all my memories, all my self-identity and who is in every sense convinced he is me. This new man remembers being up on the spaceship and everything that happened to me before and is convinced that he has done and experienced everything I have, even though he was just newly created only two seconds ago.

And it is exactly that scenario. In fact, you would not even need to be dematerialized before the "transfer".

Imagine, for instance, two transporters sitting next to each other, you're standing in one, 6 ft away from the other.

The person at the controls presses the materialize button by accident, and a copy of you blinks into existence, and walks off of the transporter pad 6 ft away. The operator should have pushed the dematerialize button first, but now the whole illusion is exposed.

You stand there, seeing a copy of yourself, both convinced irrevocably that they are you, but you both see that there is a significant difference between the two of you. Namely, you are not the same.

Now, how quickly do you leap off of the transporter pad?

There is nothing unique about the energy that results from de-materializing a human body. Just like I can create an exact duplicate of a light wave, I can create an exact duplicate (wavelength, amplitude, etc) of any energy wave. Once the scans necessary to construct a copy of you have been done, given any energy source of significant power, I can materialize a copy of you. Everything that you are at that moment is irrelevant. I could just as easily materialize a copy of you 6 ft away, and (to spare the energy costs of de-materializing you just for the show) shoot you and hide the body.

The idea that the copy of you somehow retains your consciousness because it came from energy generated from you is ludicrous. There is not a significant difference between being transported, and death, for the instance of you that is dematerialized.

The copy of you will not be an automaton, they will not be a zombie, they will for all practical purposes be you, but they are separate from the original, and they will have a copy of your consciousness, but all the dematerialized instance of you would see is nothing because that you just vanished from existence.

I seriously hope we never achieve this type of technology, because if we do, undoubtedly the masses won't understand what is happening to them, they'll just think "Hey I can be in California for lunch, and in Beijing for dinner, without using an airplane, sign me up!"

Anonymous said...

A month says John.. This is later.

If multiverse = true then it does not matter.

If multiverse = false then what John said.

Stephen Paul King said...

The difference between a) and b) seems uncannily like the difference between a first person narrative of one's experience and that of a third party looking at the "global" picture of "what is really going on". There is a problem, there is no real third party that could have a clue as to what is going on for the teleported person. If there is continuity of the processes that physically support the conscious awareness, then it follows that the content of the conscious awareness would smoothly continue (modulo quantum mechanics), assuming that psycho-physical parallelism is due to some fundamental isomorphism between the mind and the brain. There is a similar isomorphism relation between Boolean algebras and Stone spaces... Is this a coincidence?

Stephen Paul King said...

One other thing. The argument by John is wrong. He seems to not understand that to scan a person down to a level where duplication is faithful and complete is totally destructive to that which is scanned. We cannot have our cake and Eat it too.

Jeff Encantada said...

I believe this is a very good way to actually determine what consciousness really is. The atoms should not matter. Moving them , disassembling them has something to do with it.

When you leave your house and walk around, move, drive your car, all of your atoms move in unison and your soul sticks with you ? or does it.

We could get a new soul every minute and not even know. every soul that would occupy your body would think it was the same soul, continuously.

I think if we keep up this conversation , we will actually figure something out.

I think it has something to do with quantum states, and rules like the pauli exclusion principal. No two electrons can be in the same state , anywhere in the entire universe. I think this applies to quantum states in general. Your soul is a quantum state and there is only one possible in the entire universe.

Stephen Paul King said...

I agree with that outline, Jeff

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