Reality Conditions

Monday, April 30, 2007

Teleportation: why you survive

This is a belated follow-up to a post I wrote almost two months ago, in which I polled my readers as to whether teleportation (understood as destroying a body after recording its exact structure, sending the information somewhere else and re-constructing it there) would kill the original person and create a different with false memories, or whether the original person would survive as the teleported one. (If you missed that post you would do better reading it and the comments discussion before this one.) The results were 5-3 in favour of survival (6-3 including myself) but my friends Merrick and DrNitro voted for death, and this post is an attempt to convince them and other skeptics of why I would not be afraid of using such a machine, in the extremely unlikely case that it becomes technologically possible in the course of my life.

Let us first assume without discussion that the “self” does not reside in an inmaterial soul. I think my friends agree with this assumption. Their certainity that the teleportation experiment kills you is grounded in the implicit belief that you are essentially your body, and destroying your body destroys you. But this is not completely exact, because they would probably agree with me that you could survive the destruction of any part of your body, or all of them, with the exception of your brain. If my brain is kept functioning (perhaps in a vat, as in the old Matrix-like philosophical scenario) then all the rest of my body can be destroyed and I will surely survive. So the only question is: Is my survival tied to the survival of my concrete, material brain, or only on the survival of a pattern of brain structure, enconding my personality traits and memories, such that if a new brain comes to exist with this same pattern I continue living in it?

I will give now two arguments (actually, two thought exeperiments or “intuition pumps”) for the second option.

First argument: Suppose we perform the teleportation experiment with a guy –call him Ernest- while he is in coma or deeply anaesthetized. Suppose that we don’t destroy the original Ernest, but only scan his body and send the information to create a duplicate Ernest. (Technical note: as commenter Dmitry remarked, this is physically impossible if the teleportation must copy the exact quantum state of the original, as that is impossible without destroying it. I am assuming that the features of brain structure responsible for the self do not depend on the quantum state.) While both are still unconscious, we lie them side by side and randomly mix them up, so nobody can tell which is the original (not even us, if the randomization and arrengement is made by a computer that doesn’t save the information). Now we prepare to kill one of the copies and awake the other one.

According to my friends, it matters a great deal which copy we destroy. If we kill the original, we are murdering Ernest, and the awoken copy will be just an imitation with faked memories; while if we destroy the copy before awaking it, nothing bad has happened and Ernest goes on living normally. But how can this be? Both bodies lying there are completely identical in every detail that matters. Setting aside random influences that may have changed them since the duplication (which would have affected any of them with no preference) they will react in the same way if awakened, remember the same things, feel the same way. Which body was the original and which the copy is what Daniel Dennett would call an “inert historical fact”. It is a fact purely about the past, that cannot affect anything anymore in the present or the future. How can whether Ernest lives or dies depend on this fact?

To make this intuition stronger, imagine that the experiment is done with the brains. We first destroy Ernest’s body keeping alive in a vat his unconscious brain; we all agree that this doesn’t kill him. Now we duplicate the brain and mix up the two copies. We have in front of us two brains in two vats, exactly alike in all neronal details; any of them if awoken would claim to be Ernest. Unless we believe that there is an invisible soul mystically attached to the original brain of Ernest, how can it matter for his survival which of the two we choose to awake? If thought and consciousness are just brain activity, and the same brain activity would go on in both brains, then any of them we choose to awake will continue Ernest’s life equally well.

This was my first argument. My second one involves a different series of modifications we can make to poor Ernest’s brain. Let’s take anaesthetized Ernest and perform on him any of the following operations. (Assume they are technically possible –even if they are not, I don’t see any impossiblity in principle going on here, surely not more than in the teleportation experiment):

a) “Freeze” his brain so all living signs are completely disappeared, and then “relive” him.

b) Same as above, only that while the brain is “frozen” we cut separate a small part of the brain and then “patch” it together with the rest in exactly the same way it was. (We can decide how large to cut this piece, from a very small one to as much as half of the whole brain).

c) Same as above, only that instead of cutting only a part we cut his whole brain in many little pieces, and then put them back together again.

d) Same as b), only that we duplicate with our teleportation machine the separated piece and use the duplicate instead of the original to reconstruct the whole brain.

e) Same as c), only that we duplicate all the pieces and make the complete brain using the duplicates, or perhaps some of the duplicates and some of the originals.

Now, question for those who believe teleportation is death: In which of all these cases is the brain/person that awakes after the operation Ernest, and in which it is not Ernest but a mere copy and Ernest has died? For me, this is a non-question; the person that awakes has in all cases Ernest’s personality, memories, etc, so he is Ernest and it doesn’t matter which parts of the brain are originals and which not, or whether the brain has had a continuous uninterrumpted existence as a whole object. But for those who disagree with me there has to be a difficult question in deciding where to draw the line: they should say that Ernest has died in case e) (which is very similar to the original teleportation scenario) and that Ernest is still alive in case a), but what of the intermediate cases? Exactly how much of the original brain needs to have persisted for Ernest to survive? Any answer seems to be arbitrary. The simplicity and non-arbitrariness of my answer to these questions seems a good argument for my position.




  • Which body was the original and which the copy is what Daniel Dennett would call an “inert historical fact”. It is a fact purely about the past, that cannot affect anything anymore in the present or the future.

    True; but the fact that they are different bodies with different brains is not. Strictly speaking, if we identify the person with the pattern of the brain structure, are we talking about the type of pattern, or the token or instance of it? If the type, we're committed to saying that at the time prior to killing one of the versions of Earnest, there is only one person (since the bodies simply have the same pattern-type) in two bodies with two brains. If, however, we are talking about the pattern-token, we are committed to saying that the two versions are different persons.

    The second, mereological argument, seems to me to be stronger.

    By Blogger Brandon, at 3:02 AM, May 01, 2007  

  • I agree with Marlon Brando, who expresses my thoughts in a more scientific way than me.
    Alejandro says "Which body was the original and which the copy is [...] an “inert historical fact” [...] purely about the past, that cannot affect anything anymore in the present or the future. How can whether Ernest lives or dies depend on this fact?" Ernest and his copy may be identical, but they are not the same entities. They are different persons, and saying that who dies won't affect the future is like saying that whether I choose to see "The silence of the lambs" or "Million dollar baby" won't affect Tony Blair's future. It won't, but they're two different facts, and they may affect me, the same way that staying alive or dying is a different thing for each one of both "copies". Well, one of them is Ernest, the other's the copy. I'm not saying it's "better" to kill the copy, I'm just saying I wouldn't choose to die if I knew that an exact copy of me would carry on my thoughts.
    Regarding the brains, you ask "Unless we believe that there is an invisible soul mystically attached to the original brain of Ernest, how can it matter for his survival which of the two we choose to awake?". If you use the word "his", you're talking about Ernest, then of course it matters for his survival which one you awake, because if you are awakening the other one it's not Ernest, it's a brain whith the same patterns. Maybe it doesn't matter to you, but that doesn't change the fact that they are two different brains. Brandon said it better: they are different bodies with different brains.
    Finally, I would say A, B anc C are Ernest, but D and E I don't know, I would have to know a lot more about physichs, biology and science in general to answer something I would be sure of.

    By Anonymous merrick, at 6:11 AM, May 01, 2007  

  • Merrick: Only you could put in two different movie-related references in a short comment on a totally different matter ;).

    Brandon: I intended my identity to be tied to the type of pattern, not the token or particular instantiation of the pattern. I know that this gives the paradoxical result that if I am duplicated and nobody is killed there will be two "me's"; I see this as a breakdown of our ordinary concept of personal identity when we try to apply it to an unnatural and uncommon situation. The most precise statement would be: With any future person whose brain is a psycological continuation of my present brain-pattern, I stand in the same kind of relation I stand now with my future self. If there is only one such person, I am (will be) that person; if there is more than one, then our ordinary concept of personal identity is not applicable, and I can equally well be said to be any of them, or all of them.

    Merrick and Brandon: I agree that the first argument is not terribly strong; it is an intuition pump which works for me, but clearly does not for you. Merrick’s answer to the first argument is just a restatement of his intuition, contrary to mine, that Ernest “is” only the first of the two persons. I don’t see how to make progress on that side, but the second argument (as Brandon says) is more promising. I may restate the second argument more formally as follows:

    1) If we break any material object into pieces and then put them back together in the same pattern, perhaps replacing some of them with other identical pieces, it is a matter of convention (sometimes arbitrary, sometimes motivated by practical considerations) whether the resulting object is or not “the same” as before. There is no substantial, important fact as to the identity conditions of material objects. It’s just how we decide to describe them.

    2) The brain is an example of such a material object, and experiments a) – e) are a way to highlight 1) as applied to it; there is no principled answer as to in which cases the resulting brain “is the same one”. [Merrick, you say that knowing more science you could give an answer to the questions, but I don’t know which kind of scientific facts you think could help you. Also, are you sure that in case c) Ernest survives? Even if we have breaken the brain all the way to separate cells or atoms before rejoining them? And if so, how can it matter if we change those cells or atoms for identical ones as in e)?]

    3) However, the question whether I will survive those experiments or will die is a substantial one, which cannot depend on conventional decisions as to how to describe the situation.

    4) Therefore, “I” cannot be identical to my concrete brain. Either I am a nonmaterial soul which has absolute existence and identity conditions, or I am the pattern of my brain. (The pattern is also subject to vagueness; if the brain is reconstructed in a way that preserves some memories and personality traits but not others, there may be no clear answer to whether I survive or not; but unlike in the original scenario I find this vagueness quite reasonable and tolerable.)

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 10:58 PM, May 01, 2007  

  • the self resides in a web of relations with others

    including their memories of you and their expectations of you

    duplication of the person in a remote galaxy does not transmit the self
    because the copy has to make new friends and has different experiences

    duplication of the person in two adjacent hospital beds creates a disturbing dilemma for the people who love that person and expect certain behavior of the person

    I liked your pictures and reports of Zakopane a whole lot.

    I look forward to your report (and hopefully pictures) of Morelia Loops '07.

    I am not so mobile and it adds greatly to life to get these reports so I can attend to some extent in imagination.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:27 PM, May 02, 2007  

  • I agree our web of social relations is important to our identity, but I thing you are carrying this too far. If instead of duplicating your body in a distant galaxy it was your original body that was sent there (while you are on hibernation and not noticing anything) would you still say that your self is not transmitted? I think that as long as the memories and dispositions (that have been built up in large part by previous social interactions) are kept, then the self survives even when stripped of all future social relations. Robinson Crusoe did not lose his self when marooned in the island; if you agree (as I read you) that a duplicated Robinson while still with his loved people could be him, then it would stil be him if duplicated directly in the island.

    I will certainly write a report -and probably post pictures- on Loops '07, though probably not before a couple of weeks after the conference. From Mexico I am going to Buenos Aires for two weeks and I am unlikely to have time for writing a report while there.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 5:58 PM, May 02, 2007  

  • thanks, I am looking forward to your report!

    I clearly cannot resolve. the self is also a legal entity---selfhood is grounded in that also. If you sign some contracts and have some legal obligations and then you run off to a distant galaxy leaving a copy peacefully asleep in your apartment then when the people you contracted with come they will go after the copy.

    there is no precedent to help resolve this, that I know of. I do not think the copy could get out of contractual obligations just by saying "I am a copy, the real Satz went to Andromeda!"

    and they probably wouldn't believe him anyway

    so it seems impossible to resolve, one has to see what happens when these situations actually arise

    By Anonymous Who (copy), at 3:52 AM, May 03, 2007  

  • I'm way in over my head here. But I thought you may find it amusing to weigh in on this other, related, controversy:

    PS: I'm going back to Bali (and my blog) in a week - so drop by after that!

    By Blogger MariaE, at 3:31 PM, May 05, 2007  

  • Hi MariaE, once more it is confirmed that we read the same blogs :). I had already seen the two discussions you link to, and (unsurprisingly) I am in complete agreement with Richard. In fact reading Parfit has been a large influence for my thought on these questions, although not so much changing my beliefs as helping me systematize ideas that I had before in an intuitive way.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 5:13 PM, May 05, 2007  

  • No hay caso... si hay cuatro argentos hablando en inglés, es porque fueron al Nacional Buenos Aires.

    Por cierto, Nitro y Merrick comparten algo más que una opinión (aunque para ser justos, el verbo está mal conjugado, pero buha, me llaman del sótano...).

    By Anonymous Doctor Robalindo, at 10:48 PM, May 05, 2007  

  • jua!

    Aunque tengo que decir que cuando "hablo" es siempre en castellano. O lo que sea este esperpento que produzco cuando hablo.

    By Blogger MariaE, at 1:55 AM, May 06, 2007  

  • Hablamos en ingles porque la mayoria de nuestros lectores hablan en ingles, y es descortes dejarlos afuera. Y si el buen doctor habla en castellano, es solo porque su ingles deja bastante que desear, como establecimos hace algunos meses... "methinks".

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 2:05 AM, May 06, 2007  

  • "La mayoría de nuestros lectores...". Despierta, Toto, esto no sólo no es el New York Times, sino un blog con diseño predeterminado (y los blogs son como los culos, todos tenemos uno y pensamos que el del otro es una mierda -¿o eran las opiniones?). Auspiciado por ICANA, ya que parece que me han estado tomando examen sobre mi inglés; pero bueno, yo sigo queriendo a Satz incluso cuando exhibe su clásico "yosoyelsujetomasinteligentesobrelasuperficiedelatierraytodoslosdemasunos idiotasignorantes" (no siempre dos más dos es cuatro, querido Cecilio, como dice alguien supongo muy especial para tí -igual entiendo que tantos años en el Colegio, con chicos bajándose los pantalones para exhibir su pene, creyendo que es el más largo y gordo y potente del mundo, te hayan hecho así).

    By Anonymous Tino Burgos, at 6:25 PM, May 06, 2007  

  • A ver Tino, Robalindo o como sea que prefieras llamarte hoy: aca estamos teniendo una conversacion sobre filosofia, una que (a juzgar por mi sitemeter, ademas de los comentarios en si) esta siguiendo cierta cantidad de gente a la que no conozco personalmente y que por lo que se no lee castellano (lo cual no significa que confunda este blog con el NYT o nada mas importante de lo que es). Vos caes con un comentario que no tiene nada que ver con la conversacion, es "personal" y ligeramente sarcastico/agresivo; pero todo bien, te conozco y no me ofendo... pero creo que tengo al menos el derecho de responder en el mismo tono. Si comentas en mi blog, acepta las reglas del juego en mi blog, porque por eso tenemos cada uno el nuestro, como decis. Segun las reglas del juego en mi blog tu segunda respuesta esta 100% fuera de lugar, es desproporcionadamente agresiva, desubicada y grosera, y la dejo solo porque no me gusta censurar sin aviso; pero el proximo comentario que dejes en ese tono sera borrado sumariamente. Estas avisado. (Y si, antes de que lo comentes: los alemanes, uh los alemanes...)

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 6:44 PM, May 06, 2007  

  • Just found your blog. You ever read "Way Station" by Charles Simak? The way station in the title is a facility in which just this kind of teleportation is used. It's an interesting idea, though I don't see any way to know if the re-created body would be the same person as the original. Not enough definition or information to even support a guess.

    Fun question, though.

    By Blogger olvlzl, at 9:09 PM, May 06, 2007  

  • If you were to use the process to create copies, rather than actually teleport someone, would the original person share consciousness with his "duplicates"? If Ernest was awake, would he be able to experience the world as two separate people? My guess is "probably not".

    The only person who could possibly know is the person who enters the teleporter. The person walking out of the teleporter would consider everything to be a successful transport.

    By Blogger Roy, at 1:40 PM, August 16, 2007  

  • Outer Limits episode > Think Like a Dinosaur > the original lives while the copy gets sent forward. The original is quite upset she has to be killed to maintain the illusion while the copy is oblivious to there being any problem at all. The movie The Prestige also dealt with this conundrum albeit in a much more self sacrificial, macabre way. Teleportation equals the death of the original and the blissful ignorance of the copy.

    By Anonymous AggregatVier, at 12:54 AM, December 19, 2007  

  • My intuition is that identity is tied to consciousness, which is a function of the brain. So when you clone Ernest, you end up with consciousnesses and two people. Killing either one is murder. Whichever survives will be happy to survive, but whichever you killed is irretrievably lost to the universe. If you killed the original, an Ernest would carry on as the original would have, but the original will be no better off. In no sense is the clone inferior, but likewise it's not the original Ernest either.

    As for the rather morbid freezing and chopping example -- good question. I suppose we'll never know, as the only way to find out would be to come up with a way to measure continuity of consciousness, and then try the options until continuity is stopped. That's not an experiment I'd be willing to endorse. It does make me suspect that if someone is brain-dead and brought back, it may actually be a new awareness that comes back, and the original might be lost. Alarming.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:47 AM, March 06, 2009  

  • Hey, I'd like to point out that consciousness is the 'now'. Your consciousness of 12 seconds ago has already died and the consciousness of this second, this moment is alive.

    I think that when you would teleport someone, (creating a clone on a different location, but destroying the original), would just be like awakening from unconsciousness (deep sleep or after being KO'd). However the atoms in your brain and body will be different, I believe it will still be the same person before teleportation.

    As a conclusion a thought experiment: if I scanned your body and the exact position of every atom, and then killed you, and then 'create' you two years later using the scan results, wouldn't it be the same you? To you it would be just like awakening after passing out, your brain would be exactly the same as before your death and therefore you will be you.

    feel free to contact me:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:36 AM, July 10, 2009  

  • I look at it this way. I have some very old files from an old computer system that I haven't used in many, many years. For me, there's a certain sentimentality associated with the file on the original media. But, there were plenty of times I had to do a backup and then restore. When I did this, the same bits of data were preserved exactly as they originally were, but most likely, they physically reside in different spaces on the disk.

    Or, for that matter, imagine when a disk defrags itself... the ones and zeros reside in different places on the disk, but the file is pretty much exactly the same. I don't get sentimental about the original file being destroyed.

    Even if a disk is damaged and I have to move the data to another disk, if all the metadata--original creation date, last modified date, etc., etc., is exactly identical, in my mind, the file is the same exact file, in every way.

    Where I begin to perceive a difference been an original and a copy, though, is when the metadata ISN'T exactly the same. Say, for example, a file containing poems I wrote when I was 17 (19 years ago). The poetry was written on a no-longer-supported version of Microsoft Word. I had to open it in a new version, copy and paste the legible bits, delete the extraneous junk that represented metadata that is no longer useful, copy it into a new file, format it, and then save it.

    The content, intent, and meaning is all pretty much the same. the poetry is still there. But it's been changed in ways such that I cannot fully resurrect the original file. Even if I stored the metadata somewhere else, there's still a SENSE of loss of something original, and that this new creation, while born of the old, is merely a simulacrum.

    So, in this sense, if EVERY datapoint between the original self and the transported self were the same, then I would say that the self is preserved. If, however, there are distinctions that are nontrivial, then the self is destroyed and the replacement is a new creation born of the old, but with its own identity.

    By Blogger Tom, at 11:01 PM, July 27, 2010  

  • ultimately, it depends on the nature of our consciousness. is our consciousness a part of the physical structure in our brain, or is it part of the information that tells our brain how to realize that consciousness.

    so here's hypothetical for you.. If i teleport your information to london to be reassembled, but your physical body stays, (like the Ernest scenario) would you have any idea what the other you is doing in London? If not, then when it's decided that you need to be destoyed, would your existence from your own personal point of view end right there?

    ultimately, both versions do the job fine, but I feel that stepping into a transporter, you would never know how your life turns out.

    By Anonymous Lord Colostumus Bagginton III, at 2:30 PM, February 22, 2011  

  • On the other hand, imagine, the same scenario, you beaming to london and accidently ending up with two of you. If your London self has complete awareness, but your US self now has no sense of who he is, where he is, or what he is, then we may be onto something here.
    imagine if your consciousness is in the information and the brain is simply a vessel, no more necessary to your sense of consciousness than a fingernail or a spare kidney. now we're talking. this would have some serious serious advantages to future societies.

    By Anonymous Lord Colostumus baggington III, at 2:39 PM, February 22, 2011  

  • For me it's simple. The one who is teleporting dies, and there's no denying that. To everyone else, he's still alive.

    I would argue that if we think of time as a dimension just like space, when 2 beings are separated in time, they are not the same. Like as if you took two rocks and you say that they are 2 different entities because they are not attatched in space. When you teleport, the 2 beings are not attatched in time, so they are different beings.

    That's my argument.

    By Blogger Kirameo, at 8:07 PM, April 24, 2011  

  • From an observers perspective it may appear that these persons who are teleported are the same, but the real problem is whether or not the original consciousness is destroyed. In essence, you need to be willing to die and have a copy of yourself carry on for you. To everyone else it may seem, in every way, to be you. But you would have ceased to exist as your body were deconstructed by the teleporter. There is no reason to believe anythng else, unless you are just adding magical thinking into the mix. Which is silly. ;)

    By Blogger Ozrik, at 1:44 PM, March 25, 2012  

  • Fascinating discussion. When I read these posts, I don't see or hear anything else.

    I digress. Suppose the act of teleportation had to create, as a first step, an exact duplicate side by side. The two duplicates are turned around and around til nobody knows who is who. Then one of them has to be shot in the head. Only then can the teleportation proceed. Silly I know, but just imagine it. Now, this being the case, would you EVER agree to be teleported, or would you opt for the plane or train?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:34 PM, May 29, 2012  

  • You mostly see the effect of the teleportation from the outside: to us (and even the awakened person, in fact) it will make no difference which one has awakened: everyone will recognize the awakened as Ernest, the awakened person even knows he's Ernest (with a focus on 'knows').
    In fact, since both the original person and the copied one are Ernest, since they are both completely identical.
    One problem remains though: even though there is an exact copy of one person, doesn't mean that destroying one of them is any less than death for that individual. If there is more than one Ernest, doesn't mean that one of the Ernests won't experience death if you kill him as long as there is still another Ernest around.
    My vote: Death

    By Blogger Arno Lambrechts, at 5:19 AM, December 19, 2012  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home