The Teleportation Debate

Arguing Over Nothing: A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.

Today, we argue about the rough points of personal identity in Star Trek style teleportation cases. Given that the debate is essentially one about personal identity, the argument isn’t really over nothing; but the fact that teleportation is impossible makes the debate one that skirts around the edges of nothing.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).


Alec: I Am On Venus

So the standard teleportation scene in sci-fi goes something like this: You step into the teleportation chamber here on Earth, the technician presses a few buttons, a beam sweeps over you, and moments later you materialize in a teleportation chamber on Venus (a lovely vacation destination; bring your sunscreen).

Of course, sci-fi is not science, so it can gloss over the finer points of how this might work. Philosophers (bless them) parading as scientists have given us a couple of options regarding these finer points. (Scientists have stayed away from the issue because of it being “impossible” or some-such. Such negative nancys.)

Option 1: Each particle of you is converted to energy and actually beamed through space to be reconstituted into matter on Venus.

Option 2: Each particle of you is scanned, and the teleportation chamber on Venus pulls particles from a pile of carbon and constitutes them one by one to match the original you on Earth.

The first option is “cleaner”, in that the you on Venus is pretty incontrovertibly you. It’s all of the same particles, in the exact same configuration, after all. The messy part is in the details of how exactly you could survive being ripped apart into atoms and rebuilt. Imagine your brain being deconstructed, particle by particle. At some point your identity will be in question, as your brain will be half gone.

The second option is more interesting, and seems (to this non-scientist) to be the more likely scenario. Your physical structure is essentially computed (analyzed in the minutest detail), and rebuilt as a perfect replica. Once the replica is created, it will be atom-for-atom identical with you, and so how could it fail to have the exact same memories and thoughts as you? How could it, in other words, fail to be you?

The problem, of course, with this scenario, is that there are now two of you. In the standard case, the original you is supposed to be anesthetized and killed after the scanning/reconstructing process. The new you (with all of your memories, and the exact molecular structure of you), wakes up on Venus, with no concern about the dead original on Earth. What happens (so asks the thought experiment) if the Earth-side anesthetization goes wrong, and the original you wakes up on Earth before being killed? The technician sheepishly says: “Um, sorry, but you have been successfully replicated on Venus, and you weren’t supposed to wake up here on Earth. I’m gonna get fired if I don’t kill you right now.” Would you be okay with this? Clearly not. And this intuition fuels some philosophers to say that the original you is you, and the replicant you is not you.

But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. What happens if the technician on Earth has an untimely heart attack, and dies before anesthetizing and killing the original you. Now the technician on Venus says to the replicant you: “Um, sorry, but the original you on Earth hasn’t been successfully killed. There can only be one you, and since you’ve only existed for a few seconds, we figure you should be killed now.” Would the replicant you be okay with this? Of course not. The replicant you has the same memories, feelings, and thoughts as you do, and would not want to be killed by a technician, no matter what the circumstances. So the same intuition that causes some philosophers to say that the original you has sacrosanct rights and is thus clearly the one you, lets us argue that the replicant you also has sacrosanct rights and is also clearly you.

What are we to say about this? Well, I think we have to bite the unpleasant bullet that there are actually two yous in this scenario, each with complete human rights and responsibilities. They almost immediately will diverge, and so the “problem” of personal identity of having two of the “same” person is not really a problem after the initial reconstitution on Venus. In fact, as soon as the replicant you has any new experience, he is effectively a different person. Which one is the real you? It’s an unanswerable (and therefore bogus) question, I think.

Jim’s Reply

Well, first of all, congrats to Alec for presupposing a big objection and then biting that bullet clean in two. I still disagree with him, but such is the nature of a friendship based on unquenchable hate.

Because Alec was kind enough to break his argument into two options, I will respond in kind. Option One is just as I would have described it, and though Alec takes the you-ness of the arrivee as incontrovertible, I controvert it just the same.

What are we to mean when we talk about a person and her identity, when questions of preservation or sameness arise? I tried to address the difficulties of this question over the past few weeks, and hopefully no one solution was seen as much better than any other (I strive for objectivity as much as possible). Let’s see what is going on here.

If you are just your parts, then option one results in you arriving at the destination, and Alec is right. Your parts are deconstituted at pod 1, shot through space in some sort of stream (the mechanics here do not matter), and are reconstituted at pod 2. However, I doubt that anybody else, Alec included, thinks of a person as just the collection of her parts. Should a serial killer dismember an individual and place all those body pieces in a bag, is that person in the bag? Surely not — who among us would say that was the person we once knew instead of saying that is what is left of that person? Were we to sharpen a pencil until all that was left was a pile of wood shavings, graphite, and an eraser, no one would point to that collection and label it as a pencil. Instead, we would all correctly say, that once was part of a pencil. I mention both a person and pencil to show that I am not going to argue for some sort of ineffable soul as the missing piece.

I think it has to be the parts and how those parts are put together, how they function, that makes the person or the object what it is. What does this say for the ‘stream’ of parts as they travel from one place to the other? You are, then you are not, then you are again. But what are we to say of you when you are not? Are you dead, only to return at a later time and different place? Are you merely gone? But to where? And how did you get there?

I am going to guess that Alec is against such a conception, once he thinks about it. Perhaps he will just bite the bullet and say that the stream is you, recognizable or not. Okay. What if we put a reflector dish in front of the receiver at pod 2 so that instead of being put together, you are bounced off into deep space, never to be caught in another receiver? Are you still existing? Do you cease to exist only when the potential for reincorporation ceases to exist? That then puts personal identity into terms of potentiality, of what ifs, of what you would be in the right circumstances. I am what I am because of what I am likely to be? But what an odd conception that seems.

As for the second option, I wholeheartedly agree with Alec. The person at the other end, the one who steps from the transporter, is not you, though it looks as much like you as you ever have and has the same thoughts and desires as you ever have had. It is not you though. You are who you are because of what you do (function) and why you do it (mental states) and what makes that possible (physical states). Those three together, in just the way they are, is what gives rise to you. The movie clone that steps out of the destination pod can only be identical in two of those three requirements (function and, possibly, mental states). Now I just have to hope that Alec does not press me on what proportions of the three above ingredients are necessary for identity to be preserved.

Alec’s Rebuttal

That’s a great way to think of the first scenario: “You are, then you are not, then you are again. But what are we to say of you when you are not? Are you dead, only to return at a later time and different place? Are you merely gone?” That observation definitely makes dubious my belief that the you on Venus is the you from Earth. I should’ve picked up on this from my own quote: “The messy part is in the details of how exactly you could survive being ripped apart into atoms and rebuilt. Imagine your brain being deconstructed, particle by particle. At some point your identity will be in question, as your brain will be half gone.” At some intermediate point, indeed your identity will in fact be null and void.

So now the question is whether or not a discontinuity in your identity is enough to call that identity into question. Well, if we take consciousness as central to the question of one’s identity, then, no, a discontinuity is not enough to call that identity into question. A dreamless sleep; an period of unconscious drunkenness; going under general anesthesia for an operation;… all of these put a big discontinuity in our conscious lives, and we still think we’re the same people after such events. But if you take bodily intactness and continuity as the key element in personal identity, then the discontinuity that your body goes through in the first scenario is indeed a big problem. The atoms all scrambled and shooting through space obviously don’t keep your physico-functional form — we can’t say that your particles flying through space are a person, any more than we can say that our pile of pencil parts is a pencil.

Jim wrote: “I think it has to be the parts and how those parts are put together, how they function, that makes the person or the object what it is.” Yes, indeed. The pile of pencil parts is not a pencil, because being a pencil is more than just the sum of its parts — it’s also the functional configuration of those parts. But if you took the pencil parts and were able to thwart the laws of thermodynamics and put all of those parts back together in the exact same configuration as when it was a pencil, then don’t you have the same pencil again? Well, then if you put those human atoms all back together again on Venus, in the exact configuration they were in before, then don’t you have the same person again, on Venus?

In fact, that’s really what this debate boils down to, metaphysically speaking. If you have a thing, and duplicate every last atom of that thing, in terms of function and construction, then don’t you have two of that exact thing? Jim thinks not; I think so. We’ll debate this more closely in a future post on the possibility of making diamonds out of Cheetos. (Seriously.)

Identity and the Ship of Theseus

The Ship of Theseus is a great example of identity, though it does not work for everyone when it comes to personal identity, or the identity of people. Here is the basic idea. A guy named Theseus has a phenomenal ship that everyone wants, but he is not selling for any amount. However, one day, a merchant from a distant land offers Theseus an enormous sum to build an identical ship. The merchant wants the exact same sort of timbers from the same forest, the same nails from, uh, wherever the hell nails come from, the same sail material from the same cotton plants, and so on. If there is a plank of wood that has a knothole in it, the merchant wants an identical knothole in the same place on the duplicate ship. Sounds crazy, right? Well, most rich people are crazy. Theseus agrees and loads his ship with everything he needs to build a duplicate ship and then sets sail. He is only out of port for a couple of hours when one of the planks on his ship warps slightly and allows water into the ship. Theseus could return home and patch it, but he would just as soon get to the merchant, build the duplicate ship and then roll around on his big pile of money. With that in mind, he takes the corresponding piece, its identical counterpart, from the supplies and swaps the two planks out. (If you like, he makes a note of this switch, but his honesty does not matter for how the example works). As the journey continues, he needs to swap out more pieces: sail is torn, carpet is frayed, he needs a new wi-fi router, and so on. For ease of talking points, let’s make the following supposition: Once Theseus is 1/4 through his journey, he has 75% original parts and 25% new parts; at the 1/2 part, he has 50% original parts and 50% new parts; at the 3/4 mark, he has 25% original parts and 75% new parts; and finally, at the end of the journey, he has 0% original parts and 100% new parts.

Here’s the question: is the ship at the end of the voyage the same as the ship at the beginning of the journey? There are only two answers: yes, and no. A bunch of you are going to, somehow, try to wriggle more than that out of the situation, and your insane hearts are in the right place, but that will not make the insanity any less prevalent. Most of you are going to think the ship is not the same, so let’s talk about that first.

If the ship is different (and why wouldn’t be, you are collectively screaming), then when did it become different? At one point on the journey can we point at and say, “There! Did you see that? A different ship!” Here the answers are not so clear, but are not too difficult to lump together. Most people are in one of three categories: a) the very first change; b) right at or after the 50% mark; and c) the final change or replacement of parts. My question to all three groups is basically the same: why there? Why did you pick the percentage mark or the piece that you did?

The ship becomes a different ship at the very first change. This makes sense, I think, until you think about it and whether it makes sense. Suppose the very first change is a nail and not a piece of wood, does that matter? It shouldn’t. The percentage difference between a nail and a plank when the ship is taken as a whole is virtually negligible. What if a bird crapped on the ship? That is a change, but does it make for a different ship?

Of course, not. Bird crap is an extraneous feature of the ship, but is not integral to the identity of the ship itself “Integral”? Very impressive term! So if the ship loses a nail (one pops free), and that nail is not replaced, does that make for a different ship, Mr. Integral? Perhaps the nail was not an integral part, but then what is? If the sail is replaced, does that matter? What if only the hull is replaced? See, the problem is trying to figure out which parts are integral.

We often think of integral parts as though which cannot be taken away and the object still be whatever the hell it is. That can be due to reasons of either identity or function. If we take away the sail of the ship, it still floats and can haul freight (though it takes much longer), and I suspect none of us would have any issue with calling it the same ship. Is the same true if we took away only the hull? Not only would it look the same, but it is not going to float or hold any freight. So far, all of that is fairly intuitive. Let’s take away just the nails. The ship would probably fall apart very quickly, but until it does, is it the same ship? It looks that way and, at least for the moment, it functions in the same way.

Function As Identity
An issue with identity as function is this: Suppose we identify one another by function. First, how the hell do we ever figure out what our function is? If we are using it to fix identity, it cannot be something general like ‘reproduction’ or ‘making money’, because then how would we differentiate between individuals who are doing both or either? Let’s say that we resolve that issue, though, and fix your identity as ‘runner’ because that is what you do when you get any free time, or you are a competing runner or whatever. Dammit, just accept this as your function. Now, suppose you are hurt and can no longer use your legs, and so can no longer run. You can no longer perform the running function — what does that do to your identity? Is it gone? Is it changed?

More than half of the ship must change for the ship to be different: If one little change, even an little integral one, does not make for a different object, then what about a change of 51%? Again, the same questions can be asked: does it matter at all what that extra 1% change is?

Every single piece must change for the ship to be different: I won’t be petty and go rehash the above paragraph again (though I could, because it works). Let’s instead agree that the identity does not change until the last piece is swapped out. Does that make the last piece integral then? What if it is a nail instead of a plank? What if it is a stitch in the sail instead of a nail? Suppose we take that last piece out but do not replace it? 99% of the ship has been changed and the last one percent is just taken away, what does that mean for its identity? Yeah. I know.

Fine, then — the ship does not change. It is the same at the beginning as it is at the end. I can see, now, why you might think that. And everyone who originally thought it are now crowing to the moon about their daringly correct choice. Let’s suppose we now take all of the original parts and put them back together. It would be a fairly crappy ship, but why would that not be the original ship? Yeah. I know.

What you think about the Ship of Theseus might indicate what you think about identity for people. We will see as we continue on this topic in later (though soon upcoming) posts.