Ever since I was a child watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my father, the concept of technology-driven teleportation (“transporters”) has captured and provoked my curiosity. With implications for communication, global unification, health-care, and general convenience, ‘provoking’ is plainly diaphanous compared to the true magnitude of the matter.
Despite harboring these thoughts and questions for many years, it was only very recently that I began to consider the philosophical connotations of teleportation, in particular to the user of the hardware. I sought to answer the question, “What emerges on the other side of a transporter?” Of course I don’t have the answer, but I have an answer, and I wanted to write it all out.
Before I can get into this too much, it is worth pursuing a quick tangent, and discussing how transporters work in the Star Trek series. The concept is fairly simple: leveraging Einstein’s E=M*C*C, a computer scans a user and dematerializes their matter into an energy stream along with data about their original configuration. Next ensues a handful of semi-relevant albeit esoteric techno-babble, including the likes of “pattern buffer”, “confinement beam”, and “Heisenberg compensator”. When it is all said and done, the computer delivers the energy stream up to 40,000 km and reverts it back into its original matter state… e.g, the person who was getting transported. In the Star Trek story line, the computer scanner is able to resolve the quantum uncertainty that should otherwise be present between the position and momentum (or other non-zero commutators in QM) of the particles. This stage is the only part of the transport process that is fundamentally resting on impossible science, so I will ignore it in my discussion. Here, I am curious with what might actually happen if one of these transporters were built, and under no circumstance could we build something with functional “Heisenberg compensators”.
Perhaps predictably, the real question at the gut of this whole thing is if human consciousness can be duplicated in the same manner that matter can. While arduously avoiding the word “soul”, I wish to following in the method of Rene Descarte and suggest a few fundamental truths about consciousness to serve as a starting point for subsequent deductions. While Descarte’s basic principle approach to philosophy only got so far as “cogito, ergo sum”, I propose granting the assumption that what applies to one individual must also apply to every individual, and thereby extending the foundation: you think, therefor you are. And thus combined we can agree that we each do exists, and we each are separately sentient.
In granting the supposition that we all exists, we have acknowledged that consciousness is something real and distinct from person to person. It seems obvious, but clearly my consciousness is not the same one as your. There is some mechanism that makes sure my consciousness stays with my body, and does not leak into others or else vanish altogether… in other words, it seems quite reasonable to conclude that a particular consciousness is mapped immutably to one instance of a human. Everything in our experience suggests that this is the case. I believe this conclusion still holds when we start to look at more unusual or even hypothetical situations, although it becomes less obvious and definitely arguable. Here are a couple cases I have thought about in an attempt to better define my own perception of the boundaries of a particular consciousness.
1. Monozygotic Twins
Okay, this one is not so hard. Identical twins (lets take two as an example) have nearly the same biological construction, but clearly there is “somebody home” inside each twin independently. At the point when consciousness is likely to have manifested (prior to sentience), variation between the two twins would be confined to errors during mitosis, and the minuscule differences in personal experiences while in the womb. Despite the differences being essentially immeasurable at first, each twin still gets assigned a separate consciousness.
We have to employ our imagination a little harder now. Suppose you go to the doctors office and you are cloned. While you watch, the scientists grow a copy of you at a rapid pace. It seems unlikely that when the clone reaches the point of being able to support consciousness, you would suddenly be affected. The idea that your awareness of self might suddenly span two bodies is unreasonable. Again, we are likely dealing with a new separate consciousness despite the mirrored biological construction. It seems to follow from these two examples that consciousness emerges independent of the particular brain construction. That is to say, the “person” who sits behind one’s eyes is not a function of biological construction.
3. Replacement Clone
Now lets say you are cloned through a process that necessarily kills you. The doctors take your blood, multiple samples, and the end result is your death. Then they use the materials they acquired and create your clone. Does the exit of your consciousness have any effect on “who” wakes up inside that clone? Being that your original consciousness is gone, could the new one actually be your original consciousness again, or is this case really the same as the one above? We are past the point where I can offer any certain answers, but my hunch tells me that there should be no relationship between the existence of one consciousness and that of another. If we agree that the particular mind to emerge is not a function of the biological construction, then I believe that the clone in this example, just like before, would be a brand new consciousness — albeit one that thinks they are you, that acts, talks, and behaves like you, but would actually be different. This case is very proximal to the central discussion about transportation, so I will hold off further thoughts until we get back to that.
Let me present one last thought about consciousness before moving on. The line between “you” and “your consciousness” is very vague. In general, those things that define who you are, are all bodily. You personality comes from your experiences, your sense of self accomplishment comes from your memories, your purpose, your self worth, all of the facets to your temperament… they are all the result of years of experiences, memories, thoughts, and interactions. Of course there is an innate component to many of these things, but I argue that those items that really define us — the people we love, the people who loved us, our proudest moments, our deepest understanding of life — these things that have shaped us, are entirely contained in our physically-stored memories. Experiments with animals, as well as studies of humans after accidents and with certain memory-related diseases, have well established that personality and memories can come and go with alterations to the brain. In other words, the common concept of who you are is not dependent on your consciousness. I propose that consciousness provides nothing more or less than the “self” who is able to experience what the brain processes.
This apparent tangent is very important. It means that “your consciousness” is not synonymous with “you”. Who you appear to be to others is defined by the makeup of your brain… two people with the same predispositions and the exact same experiences, would likely act as if they were the same person. Quite contrary to this, we have established here that consciousness is not related to the physical makeup (or else clones would be controlled by a single consciousness). When I talk about “you” in regard to transporters, I really mean the combination of your physical identity (memories, feelings) as well as you particular self-awareness. Either one without the other is not the entire you.
Alright, so 1000 words later and still the question remains unanswered: what would happen if a human was transported? From the physical perspective, we know that the original human is decomposed into energy and a copy is created at a distance. Note that sans the Heisenberg Compensator, we cannot truthfully state that the same physical particles are moved to the new location… but nonetheless, we undoubtedly have a better copy than our “Replacement Clone” example above. Lets further clarify that a transport process need not kill the transportee (in practice this might make little sense, but the point is that the same relationship that existed between clones and replacement clones exists here). We found previously that a clone and a replacement clone were really the same phenomenon, each independent of the exit or entrant of other entities. In this case alike, I doubt that the same “self” that existed before the transport somehow moves or shares the new “structure” created by the transporter. It seems inevitable that we are dealing with a new consciousness.
“Beam Me Up”, or “Count Me Out”?
So if a human enters a transporter, they are not in fact transported, rather a duplicate is created elsewhere while they are killed. We are forced to wrap up on a final philosophical curiosity: would it really matter to society as a whole?
In every quantifiable respect, the copy would be the original person. We have already discussed how personality, memories, experiences, and even temperament are parts of the physical body, and would therefore operate in the copy precisely as they did in the original. The copy would walk out of the receiving end of the transporter with a perfect memory of getting in at the other end moments before. In fact nothing about them could give any indication that anything had changed (since we know nothing physical did change), so for all intents and purposes, it would be the same person.
But the “self” inside their head would actually be only moments old, and completely distinct from the original.
My guess is that if transporters are ever invented, many many people will use them without worry and apparently without cause for worry. Myself ? I’ll just call for a shuttle.