Reality Conditions

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A philosophical poll

I’ve been having a long discussion on MSN with my suspicious friend concerning the interpretation of the film The Prestige. The discussion morphed gradually into a purely philosophical one, about abstract questions of self-identity, and at one point in which I voiced an opinion, my friend said: that I was crazy, and that most of our friends would agree with him in that I was crazy in having that opinon. So I decided to make it into a post and ask everybody, friend of ours or not, to leave their opinion and say whether I am crazy or not. Though this post is not about the plot of the movie, there may be a partial spoiler in it because the question discussed is inspired by a major plot point, so you may prefer not to read it if you haven’t seen the film.

The plot point in question is a teleporting machine –and at this point those philosophically savvy amoing you might guess already what the discussion is about, because it is a question popular among many philosophers since Derek Parfit gave it a prominent role in Reasons and Persons. (It is also something of a staple trope in science fiction.) Suppose there existed a “teleporting” machine that worked by scanning your body and creating an exact duplicate of you, atom by atom. Assume that the replica would have the same personality and memories that you have (that is, don’t consider the possibility of your selfhood residing in an inmaterial soul) and that the procedure is instantaneous, so from the point of view of the replica it has just been teleported, having a continuous experience from being at one place to being at another. Then, is there any reason to consider “you” to be the version of you that remains at the same place, instead of the replica? If the machine works by killing the original “you” at the same time that creating the replica, is stepping in the machine a form of suicide or just a convenient way of transportation?

My belief is that there is no reason to say “you” are “the you that remains at the same place”. If both “versions of you” have the same personality, memories, etc (and let’s not forget, also bodily appearance, though I am unsure of the relevance of this) then both have equal call to be called “the future you”. There is simply no answer to the question of which is you: both are to the same extent. My friend disagrees, and says that he is sure he would be the same person that remains at the same place: the other one is just a copy (as he puts it: “the one that is under this skin is me; I want my skin not to die”.)

Who do you agree with? To make things clear, forget about the movie if you saw it, and suppose you are just given the following choice: a) stay where you are, and be subjected to horrible torture (not so horrible that makes you prefer to die, but pretty horrible), or b) step in the machine and have it create a copy and destroy at the same time the original, knowing that the copy (who, in my reading of this scenario, is “you”) will live a blissful life afterwards. I said I would choose b) without a doubt (assuming that the machine is perfectly reliable, etc.) This is the opinion that my friend considers crazy. Who do you agree with?


  • To me, (b) is the obvious chocie. And that is something I decided years and years ago. What I find interesting is *why* anyone would think that is crazy, under the circumstances presented (i.e.,no inmaterial soul or "other" beyond the scope of the duplication procedure).

    Suppose we accept a theory of infinite universes where at each point in time the universe forks into all possible "quantum" outcomes. To those that think (b) is crazy - what do you think of this?

    Alternatively, suppose you were told that there was a machine that could transport you from A to B instantaneously. Eventually everybody started to use it, including you. Then, after a few years, there is a "scandal" - the truth is out, that the machine actually duplicates the person and obliterates the original. Would you stop using it? In other words, is your objection to (b) a matter of perception, or is there some actual supposed difference that you care about? If the latter, what is it (given that it is not an inmaterial soul)?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:55 AM, March 04, 2007  

  • (b), of course. And in the case of no obliteration, I think that the two copies are equally entitled to claim being me. I'd prefer not to meet myself, though -nothing metaphysical there, I'm just such a bore! :-)

    Sure, the whole thing depends on how much we can trust the machine. If quantum details were important (some people would say so), the machine is impossible. But even in that case, in the scenario of obliteration I'd step in, and in the scenario of no obliteration I guess I'd still recognize both copies as legitimate.

    Thanks for the spoiler warning; I just skipped the second paragraph of the post. And btw, I'm still waiting for a review of the Baroque Cycle!

    By Blogger dileffante, at 9:43 AM, March 04, 2007  

  • Well, this is exactly why the Penrose's ideas about essential quantumness of our brain seem so appealing (to me). There is the "no cloning" theorem in quantum theory -- and so the dilemma happily disappears.

    By Anonymous Dmitry, at 10:20 AM, March 04, 2007  

  • Wow... lots of responses! And I am winning 2-1 for the moment (interpreting Dmitry as sharing my friend's concern). Personalized answers:

    Anonymous: I agree with everything you say, and in particular I think the last paragraph makes an excellent argument. I would love to see my friend answer to it. (Are you reading this, merrick?)

    Dileffante: Agreed, meeting oneself little after the experiment would be a bore. But it would be interesting to wait some time (months or years, perhaps) and then arrange the meeting and see how (and if) their presonalities have diverged. It would be the ultimate "nature vs nurture" experiment! As for The Baroque Cycle, I have finished reading it only very recently (I got stuck for a long time in the last third of Quicksilver; then the last two books were much more "smooth" reading.) Overall I liked it a lot, and perhaps will make a review post one of these days.

    Dmitry: I am very skeptical of Penrose's hypothesis; I think most experts agree that quantum mechanics plays no appreciable role in the working of the brain, and I see Penrose's insistence on the contrary as a case of "changing the science for philosophical reasons", something that historically has never worked. The track record of philosophy (when used to make positive claims about the world) is much worse than that of science. If your science and your philosophy are at odds, it is a good bet to modify your philosophy.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 1:10 PM, March 04, 2007  

  • No, I don't think that I agree with your friend, who claims that "the other one is just a copy". I beleive that such a copy is not possible in principle, and I think it was unfair to omit such an answer in your poll :)

    About Penrose etc. You're right when defending science against philosophy, but I don't think that this is exactly that situation. In my opinion it is not "science vs. philosophy" but "philosophy vs. philosophy" debates here. We don't know how our brains work, or what is mind or consciousness. Yes we know something about neurons and stuff, and yes, quantum mechanics seems to play no role here, but do you really think that our present scientific knowledge is enough to explain how brain works? I think no. Either you beleive that there's nothing else there except the good old neuron network, or you hope that there are yet unknown layers or machinery. Both views are actually only beliefs.

    From the "philosophical" (or common sense, or whatever) reasons I prefer to think that brain can't be copied (or "dumped", etc). And 100 years ago I would have much harder time explaining how it can be possible. But quantum mechanics gives me a ready answer, and it fits so well (quantum system can't be copied or dumped, and so on) that I find it fascinating and definetely worth very serious further investigating.

    By Anonymous Dmitry, at 8:50 PM, March 04, 2007  

  • Dmitry: Thanks for the interesting comment clarifying your views! I confess I don't see any "philosophical problem" in the possibility of copying a brain. I see it as just a case where our ordinary concept of personal identity would break down because of circumstances it was never designed to cope with. Kind of like the ordinary concept of simultaneity of distant events breaks down with special relativity. The "paradoxes" caused by copying brains/mind are similar to the "paradoxes" of special relativity; in both cases, there is no real paradox or contradiction in reality/physics, just in the application of ordinary concepts to it when they are not applicable.

    But then, this opinion is influenced by the opinion that ordinary neuron networks *are* enough to understand mind and consciousness -and I agree this *is* a philosophical opinion, though one I consider to be scientifically conservative. Besides, I think that those that sing to the deep mysteries of consciousness cannot find the kind of explanation they are looking for in quantum physics any more than in ordinary neurons; nothing but full mind-body dualism would satisfy them. That is why I consider Penrose's ideas as an oddity. (The only positive grounds for them, as far as I see, could be the Godelian arguments he is fond of; but I am quite confident that they are invalid.)

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:31 PM, March 04, 2007  

  • I don't have the knowledges of physichs that a lot of people who visit here have. So, there are a few things that I don't even understand, for example, usuario anónimo's second paragraph, but I can answer his last paragraph (in fact, it's an answer for him and for the original post). By the way, those who answered "b" (everybody so far) all seem to be students of physichs or they have some knowledges of physichs; there may be more "a" answers from people who don't have those knowledges and feel more attached to their "skin".
    My answer (and/or new question) is this one: let's say the original scenario is called "scenario O". I am creature 1, and the clone is creature 2. I don't consider both to be the "same" person because they don't physically ocuppy the same space. Those who answer "b" say that creature 2 would also be "me", but I say creature 2 would not be creature 1. I will now introduce a new scenario, let's call it "scenario N". Let's suppose that the machine doesn't kill you instantaneously. Let's say that creature 2 is created and you, creature 1, remain alive for 20 seconds. Would you not mind dying afterwards, just because there is a creature 2 who is also "you"?
    Some might say those 20 seconds would mean that creature 1 and 2 are not the same. But they were never the same, not even in scenario O, because they ocuppy different spaces. Creature 2 may be exactly like you, but he's not you. You are dead. And I don't like dying. I want my skin not to die... (ok, that was just a funny phrase, but I had to include it).
    I don't know if I made myself clear, you may all still consider that I haven't said anything different from my original position, or anything that clarifies it.

    By Blogger Merrick, at 4:24 AM, March 05, 2007  

  • I am reluctantly going to go with a) on the grounds of lack of confidence that the clone would not lose some element of self dear to me but if lost would not be known to have been lost by the clone who never knew it existed. Assuming perfect cloning technology such that all aspects of self are cloned may not be enough for me.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:41 PM, March 05, 2007  

  • All right, so we are 2-1 in favour of b), as Dmitry has declined to vote. However, I think Dmitry should side with me on the question of the poll, because quantum states cannot be "copied" (duplicated) but they can be "teleported" (destroyed and recreated exactly elsewhere). So if Dmitry things that the quantum state of the brain is essential to our selfhood, then he agrees with me that the teleported person "would still be me" provided that the machine reproduces the exact quantum state. If he agrees, then we are 3-1.

    To the last anonymous: we are assuming here that the copy inherits all the memories and personality of the original, so I see you more as rejecting this assumption of the problem than as choosing option a). My friend says that the copy with the full psychological characteristics of the original (as perceived by himself and/or others) is still a copy and not the same person. However, I may be misunderstanding your position.

    Merrick: you raise a lot of issues in your comment, and perhaps I couldn't discuss them in detail without a separate post (which I wouldn't have time of writing until a week from now or so). Let me just say quickly that in your scenario N, I (before the experiment) would not want creature 1 to die 20 seconds after the experiment. But I wouldn't want creature 2 to die either, and feel exactly the same concern for both. Each of them is a future version of myself (though they bifurcate and become different persons starting from the moment of the experiment). Before the experiment, I am concerned equally for both. After it, the "me" that remained at the same place (creature 1) would be more concerned with himself, and the "me" with a created body (creature 2) will feel more concerned about himself. The situation is fully symmetrical; the detail of which remained at the same place is irrelevant. (I think you are not taking sufficently into account that the experiment is instantaneous, and so each creature has an equally completely continuous "flow of consciousness". If this is difficult to imagine, think instead that the experiment is done while you are asleep, and both creatures wake up a while later, one at the same place and another at a different one. When you wake up, you don't even know which of them you are, until you take a look around. Does this make any difference to your intuitions?)

    So if I am concerned about the fate of creature 1 in scenario N, why not in scenario O? Because in scenario O creature 2 "takes over" at the exact moment in which creature 1 is destroyed, so this is just as good as living normally without entering the machine. The 20 seconds in scenario N do make a difference: they mean that during that time there is a person, a future version of "me", which is not going to survive at all. That is bad. In scenario O the person existing after the experiment survives in the person existing afterwards, and nobody dies.

    Besides, you proposed a new scenario but didn't answer the question raised by the first commenter. Again: if you had been using this kind of machine many times without knowing how it works (and feeling, by our assumptions, completely the same person as you always were) and suddenly learnt how it worked, would you be more reluctant to use it? If so, why exactly?

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:27 PM, March 05, 2007  

  • I haven't received your submission through the website, but your post on my blog will do just fine for a submission. Thanks!

    By Blogger Bryan, at 12:25 AM, March 06, 2007  

  • First of all, you say that "In scenario O the person existing after the experiment survives in the person existing afterwards, and nobody dies." Nobody dies? That's my whole point: the fact that a person lives on with your memories and your everything can not change the fact that someone does die. You die, if you are the body that ocuppies the original place. I don't care if I'm "taken over" by another creature in scenario O, this body dies all the same. Let's say that I introduce you to my friend Roberto, and, by some procedures we don't know but trust absolutely, he says that at 11 PM tomorrow he can carry an experiment by which he turns into another version of you. He as Roberto will cease to exist, but he says doesn't mind about it, so don't worry on that matter. But: would you not mind dying tomorrow at 11 PM just because another person will be given all your charachteristhics and memories?
    As to the first commenter's question: yes, if I knew that the machine kills me, I would not use it again. I would say "Damn, the original me has died a lot of times. But I haven't died, and I have all my memories. As I don't want to die, I will stop using the machine, now that I know that another existing body will be the one that carries on my existence, instead of me".
    You would say that before knowing the truth, I used the machine a lot of times and it hasn't really "affected" me, since I don't feel that I have died in spite of the fact that I have. But the explanation is simple: I don't feel that I have died because I haven't; the one that has died was the original me. And, as every person/body who dies, he can't rise from the grave to tell you that he wishes he were still alive. To me, saying that you don't mind using the machine and dying each time you use it because another creature will have your memories is like saying "I don't mind dying, period, because afterwards I don't know it nor suffer it".

    By Anonymous merrick, at 3:23 AM, March 06, 2007  

  • Ufff, turns out my ineptitude in all matters blogger destroyed my first response...

    I wanted to add my (non-physicist) agreement with position (b), insofar as my identity is concerned. That is, I have no issue with knowing that it will be I who will emerge at the other end of the machine.

    Now, my problem with the whole thing is that we ARE killing someone, even if at the point they die, they are an exact replica.

    SPOILER ALERT----------------------

    By the way that is my problem with the film's twist as well.

    END SPOILER------------------------

    The fact that the person dies at the exact same moment the other one is created is just a matter of design. They could just as easily live. And the fact that we choose to kill them makes me uneasy.

    I had written a longer version, but this is what I think in a nutshell. Since I lack any sort of philosophical sophistication, I won't elaborate on my basic intuition.

    By Blogger MariaE, at 9:17 AM, March 06, 2007  

  • MariaE: Thanks for joining the conversation! And for making the poll 3-1 on my side :). Killing the first person exactly when the second is created does not disturb me very much, because (assuming my position on the central question, which Merrick disputes) the result is exactly equivalent to ordinary survival without entering the machine. Letting the original live would be creating an extra life (two versions of me when there was one before) and after it has existed for enough time to adquire a distinct consciousness, even if only a few seconds, killing it is like normal murder. At least that is how I see it. Interestingly, Parfit (in the book I cited in the post) argues that killing the original just a little after the duplication is not murder: he compares the situation with taking a sleeping drug which will make you fall asleep in 10 minutes such that when you wake up you will have no memory of those 10 minutes. During those minutes, your situation is equivalent to that of the original who is about to die, he argues. I am not sure I am convinced by this though...

    Merrick: I think we are talking past each other. In my last comment, I was taking your question about the scenarios as a challenge to my position, and described how I would describe it from my position in a consistent way. So I said that nobody dies in scenario O, because no personality is destroyed: the mere destruction of a body is not a death for me. Given my central assumption that who "you" are is given not by the same material body but by psychological continuity, I think my answer is consistent, but I admit I did not argue for that position in the comment or in the post. In your last comment, you just restate your position that what makes you be "you" is the concrete body, without arguing for it either. Next week when I have some more time I will write a new post giving arguments for my position against yours. To answer your question: yes, if Roberto is given my exact personality in the exact moment I am destroyed, I wouldn't mind (except feeling sorry for the original Roberto). I know this seems preposterous to you, but I will give arguments for it next week.

    Meanwhile, to gain time, would you accept a restatement of your position saying that "what makes you be "you"" is not really the whole concrete body, but just the concrete brain? If your brain could be severed from your body while you are on anesthesia and transplanted to an exact cloned copy of your body and go on functioning normally there, you wouldn't consider this to be death, would you?

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 6:34 PM, March 06, 2007  

  • Just to give a brief argument in favor of Alejandro's last point, if you lose a limb or undergo plastic surgery, you wouldn't think your identity to have changed in any meaningful way.

    As for my own point, Alejandro, I'll have to come up with a better elaboration of why it bothers me. It is not entirely rational, though.

    By Blogger MariaE, at 5:11 AM, March 07, 2007  

  • Unsurprisingly I completely agree with you Alejandro.

    The question is to me best phrased as the question of identity of time. Our intuitive understanding does not allow for branching identities since they do not technologically exist.

    But Panta Rhei and one can never step into the same river twice (c.f. Heraklit). At the moment of teleportation both have the same claim to be I, the task would be for anyone to come up with a concept of identity through time (I am the same as I was yesterday) that would exclude the clone. Then their paths diverge and we have two different people derived from the same earlier self in the same way that I (now) am derived from me (yesterday).

    By Anonymous fh, at 1:55 PM, March 07, 2007  

  • And I have not read the other replies yet: Seminar imminent.

    BTW, Stanislav Lem has extensiv musings on this point in Summa Technologiae.

    By Anonymous fh, at 1:56 PM, March 07, 2007  

  • Yes, the possibility of quantum teleportation of my brain I have to admit. By the way, I disagree that Penrose's Goedelian arguments are invalid -- but this can take us too long aside.

    I raised your question yesterday in a company of my friends, and one of them came up with the following analogy that you're sure to appreciate. Stepping in this teleportation-via-duplicating-and-then-killing machine is similar to undergoing a surgery under general anaesthetic. You fall asleep, then something is done with your body, then you awake. Can you be sure that you're still the same?

    And yes, Stanislav Lem has written much about this question, both in "Summa Technologiae" and in fiction stories.

    By Anonymous Dmitry, at 7:04 PM, March 08, 2007  

  • fh: Of course I agree with everything you say, except for a quibble on your words:

    "the task would be for anyone to come up with a concept of identity through time (I am the same as I was yesterday) that would exclude the clone."

    Such a concept is easy: X and Y are the same person iff X and Y have the same concrete brain, where "the same" is defined by the ordinary criteria for identity of material objects, including spatiotemporal continuity. The challenge, as I see it, is to argue that this concept is relevant (instead of the much more relevant one, at least for you and me but not for Merrick, of psychological continuity based on exact likeness of brain structure, rather than concrete identity).

    Dmitry: Indeed, arguing about the validity of the Godelian arguments would take to much time and space here. Maybe some day I will write a post about them and we can discuss them there. I like indeed your surgery analogy; it will probably play a role in my next post on this subject. To both you and fh: I have read much, much less of Lem than I should have...

    By the way, as Dmitry has voted for me (with the quantum teleporting assumption) and fh as well, we are now 5-1 for option b) :)

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:01 PM, March 08, 2007  

  • Incidentally dieselsweeties weighs in on this issue today:

    By Anonymous fh, at 12:03 PM, March 12, 2007  

  • He. Perhaps we should count those comic characters as two votes for Merrick?

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 2:46 PM, March 12, 2007  

  • Sorry I´m late here...

    I have to agree with Merrick. We are not talking here about teleporting, we are talking about cloning and then destroy the original. So If I get in that machine I would die and there will be someone else identical to me in the world, but it wouldn´t be me. And no, I´d never use that machine if I found out that would kill me even if my "originals" used it.

    By Blogger DrNitro, at 5:31 PM, March 30, 2007  

  • I think it is impoertant to consider that we know less than 1% of the reality around us let alone the stuff that is forever imperceivable for humans. Read "An Ordinary Black Cat" even though it is fiction, but it will give you lots of right ideas, especially in the last chapters. It is an e-book so you can have it in your computer today!

    By Anonymous Alex, at 9:46 PM, April 05, 2007  

  • Dude you're nuts. The clone you is just some other person. It seems improbable that it would share consciousness with you -- it would simply be as though you had a twin. In no sense would it be some continuation of you; rather it would begin its own different existence. If the transporter then killed you, you'd be dead. New you could go on to have a happy life, but that wouldn't dig you out of non-existence.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:30 AM, March 06, 2009  

  • By Anonymous Matthew, at 6:56 AM, October 13, 2011  

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