Transporters and Death
October 17, 2005 10:47 PM   Subscribe

Do you die when you go through a transporter?

A Star Trek-style transporter--as far as I understand it--basically records everything about you, and then disintegrates you. I assume it swallows the atoms and keeps them in some sort of holding facility wherever you transport from, saving the atoms for whoever's coming down next.

Aboard the spaceship, your information is received by that computer--your actual atoms are not transported--and you are reassembled by the computer out of material on the spaceship, presumably the same material that the reconstituted food comes from. The shitometer burps and goes down by 160 pounds or so.

Is it the same you that arrives on the ship, or is it just something that looks, acts, smells, and remembers everything that you do, and thinks it's you?

I know this is touched on in Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing", where it is revealed that Swamp Thing is not the man who "became" Swamp Thing": it just thinks that it is.

I'm not (really!) a big Star Trek person, but I've for a long time felt that going through a transporter meant certain death. Does anyone else feel this way, and has anyone else written about this?

And yes, I'm aware of Algis Budrys.
posted by interrobang to Travel & Transportation (72 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The question is, where is the root of "you"? Is in your matter, your consciousness, something else, or some combination? I would say that, yes you have new matter, but if you continue to think, you are still "you."
posted by luckypozzo at 10:55 PM on October 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

If it were the same you, what would happen if the disintegration never occurred and instead of transportation, a copy were made (or 1000 copies). They couldn't all be you (right)? So I would say it's the latter.

Freaky stuff.
posted by null terminated at 10:56 PM on October 17, 2005

Do you die when you eat and excrete? I mean, it's not really you any more, not all your particles, right?

I recommend Greg Egan's Axiomatic for an uncommonly thorough exploration of identity questions of this sort.
posted by Aknaton at 10:57 PM on October 17, 2005

Well, according to This Guy's Theory your atoms don't stay on the ship. Your atoms are converted to energy. The energy is projected to the destination, and then it is converted back into matter. So, it's all you. It's just that you've undergone a coupld of phase shifts.

Plus it's fiction.
posted by willnot at 10:59 PM on October 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Thanks for that link, willnot. This guy's statement sums up my feelings on this pretty well, as poorly as it's written:

Posted: Jan 23 2005, 02:44 AM
Quote Post


'there's always if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it's a duck.

if you came out on the other side, and you had all your memories, then it is you.

you are your mind, and if your mind doesn't know the difference then it doesn't matter what you are made of.'

ok, lets say matt that we make a clone of you, and somehow make that clone have your memories, and exact copy as far as body, memories, instincts, habits, physically and mentally you

and then we kill you

so if this clone 'walks and talks like you' then you feel you are still alive?
somehow i doubt it

YOU would not be teleported, its only a copy, the YOU that had been there before teleportation would not be alive anymore, as far as YOU are concerned you are dead

I don't believe in a soul, but this sounds right to me.
posted by interrobang at 11:07 PM on October 17, 2005

Imagine taking your mass and converting it into energy you want to beam down somewhere. You're dealing with several hundreds of thousands of exploding nuclear bombs concentrated in the volume of a human being, a bit of a logistical problem.
posted by Rothko at 11:10 PM on October 17, 2005

There is also theory from Roger Penrose that quantum states influence consciousness. If true, and assuming all the other engineering problems can be fixed, does rebuilding your brain with different quantum states change your consciousness, your identity?
posted by Rothko at 11:15 PM on October 17, 2005

null terminated: That exact thing happened in season 6 of Star Trek TNG. A transport went haywire and a Riker clone was created. They were both alive (the original Riker, and the 'new' one) and they both acted relatively similarly. The Star Trek writers seem to have single-handedly killed the issue of 'having a soul, or not' by making this happen (at least within the ST universe). I feel dirty for knowing this.
posted by jeresig at 11:18 PM on October 17, 2005

Maybe we die every night when we go to sleep. Consciousness ends, and is reconstituted, with the memory of who used to be in the body. But we're not the same person. That person is dead.
posted by luriete at 11:20 PM on October 17, 2005 [3 favorites]

Rothko: That's leaving aside the thermodynamic problem of having a lossless exchange.
That would actually have made Star Trek a little more interesting, if every time you transported, you ended up a little different and a little off. Like a slow degeneration.
posted by klangklangston at 11:21 PM on October 17, 2005

Jeresig: How'd they resolve it?
posted by klangklangston at 11:22 PM on October 17, 2005

I'll try to give the nerdiest possible answer.

...what would happen if the disintegration never occurred...

This falls under the "no-clone" theorem of quantum mechanics, which basically says that, since every measureable quantity corresponds to a special class of mathematical operators, known as Hermitian operators, and because these behave in certain ways, you can't clone particles. That is, suppose you had a machine that could take two random particle states and copy them perfectly. You can associate that machine with an operator. Good old mathematics then says that this operator completely screws the pooch when you consider a combination of those two particle states, so your machine can't possibly work on every state. So we don't have to worry about cloning transporters.

As for transportation in general, quantum mechanics also says that you can't measure anything perfectly. So suppose you have actually teleported something, as these Australian guys claim to have done with a laser beam. Well, I would define teleportation as some object A disappearing from point a, and then some object B that is entirely indistinguishable from object A showing up at point b, where indistinguishable is defined according to the uncertainty principle, and presumably applies the same to every possible observer (human, machine, or otherwise) in the Universe. So, even if you are different, if you're not very different, nobody will ever know. So who cares?

On the other hand, relativity says that it's going to take some time for the information about you to get from point a to point b, so for that amount of time, you could indeed say you were dead. Your information existed, but it was not realized in a physical form.
posted by dsword at 11:30 PM on October 17, 2005

klangklangston: Strangely, they didn't. The new Riker (named Tom!) decides that he wants to become a Captain of a starship and receives an appointment on another Federation vessel. There's a whole weird love triangle between the Rikers and Troi that's just all levels of wrong, but that's something else. There's some more info on the clone character in the William Riker Wikipedia entry.
posted by jeresig at 11:36 PM on October 17, 2005

Rothko asked: does rebuilding your brain with different quantum states change your consciousness, your identity?

I was curious myself if Star Trek addressed that question. Apparently the writers invented Heisenberg compensator to make the issue go away.
posted by RichardP at 11:49 PM on October 17, 2005

My favorite teleportation story is John Brunner's novel "The Infinitive of Go". The story is of the first experiments with teleportation. The story supposes that there are infinitely many parallel universes. When the subject is teleported, he actually is transferred to another universe (and replaced by a teleporting guy from that universe). When the teleportation is local, the universes are similar and the exchange isn't noticed. As they try greater distances, strange things begin to happen. The novel is very short and could probably be read in a single sitting.
posted by neuron at 11:50 PM on October 17, 2005 [2 favorites]

There's a book called "The Physics of Star Trek" and there's also a book called "The Metaphysics of Star Trek". I'm sure your answer's in one or the other...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:05 AM on October 18, 2005

See the Ship of Theseus.
posted by Eamon at 12:05 AM on October 18, 2005

The book The Mind's I starts out with someone in this exact situation, a person being transported and then questioning the authenticity of their "self"... it gets stranger from then on. I think you would like it.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:06 AM on October 18, 2005

You die.

I'd wear jeans and eat turkey sandwiches sent through a teleporter, but I wouldn't use one - I'd take a shuttlecraft.

There's a related problem in the Takeshi Kovacs stories which irks me. They don't have FTL travel, but they can do some sort of weird instant communications thing so they digitise people's minds and send the resulting file through a 'needlecast', the now empty body is used to receive stuff coming the other way, and when "you" get where you're going you're deposited in whatever body is handy (convicted criminal, engineered clone, whatever). (In fact, in the third book they put a backup of an earlier Kovacs into a new body to hunt down the 'current' Kovacs.)

Do you think ithe transporter room smells like BBQ?
posted by The Monkey at 12:25 AM on October 18, 2005

Are you the same person you were five seconds ago, or are you just someone who has the body and memories of that person and thinks he is that person?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:31 AM on October 18, 2005

Quite of the few of the Star Trek episodes revolve around transporter malfunctions. From the early series I remember "Mirror, Mirror" where a transporter malfunction sends the landing crew to an alternate universe and an equivalent crew to the Enterprise. The alternate crew is evil including Spock with a goatee. lists several other memorable episodes where the writers explore "what if" scenarios.
posted by JJ86 at 12:44 AM on October 18, 2005

I read a book where they didn't transport you, or even destroy you. Instead, a copy was sent to another location.

A specific other location was a weird research place. IIRC they illegally would make new copies of you if you were killed in your work there. I am not sure, but the book may have been called "Cuckoo". The research place was Cuckoo. No idea of the author, it's been years.
posted by Goofyy at 12:49 AM on October 18, 2005

In the Michael Crichton book `Timeline', they discuss time travel using quantum oddities. They actually describe making a precise copy, with the original being destroyed, but not one character in the book questions this.

The very lack of any sort of curiosity about this by the characters broke the suspension of disbelief more than the whole time travel dealy.

Anyway, the clone would walk out of the transporter thinking `Hey, I'm fine! What was I worried about?'. For all intents and purposes, it IS you, but not the same you.
posted by tomble at 12:53 AM on October 18, 2005

An interesting story to read on the issue is "The Jaunt" by Stephen King (or possibly his Richard Bachman persona), which deals with the idea of the transporter carrying your physical body, but not your consciousness...if you go through conscious, your "mind" will float around the cosmos for a few billion years until it finds your body again. Hence, everyone transported has to be made unconscious before they are zapped through.
posted by Jimbob at 1:04 AM on October 18, 2005

George O. Smith explores these issues slightly in the last chapter of his wonderful Venus Equilateral.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:05 AM on October 18, 2005

"Ginungagap," a short story by Michael Swanwick discusses these issues. here's part of a review- "In "Ginungagap," we get the story of a woman named Abigail who is the first human slated for a test voyage; she will travel through the black hole named Ginungagap to visit the spider-like aliens on the other side. Security for the project is headed by a man named Paul, and it's his job to think of everything that could possibly go wrong, including hostile action by the spiders or some psychological breakdown on the part of Abigail. The tense relationship between the two is exacerbated by a basic philosophical difference: Paul believes that Abigail will be killed by the translation through the black hole, even if an Abigail-replica does appear on the other side, while Abigail simply doesn't see the distinction." From here.
posted by dhruva at 1:52 AM on October 18, 2005

Rothko's point about quantum states is interesting, since it is not possible to copy a quantum state. You can transport it from one particle to another one, but the state of the first particle is inevitably destroyed.
posted by springload at 2:06 AM on October 18, 2005

I've always wondered, is there some *thing* that differentiates atom X from atom Y... in particular I mean a property that gives it a coordinate. Either everything is operating on rules alone and completely random, or something is holding everything in place with rules... like what is the difference between me here and me 10 from here, besides various subatomic and chemical interactions and potential energies. If there is *something*(a particle, a type of energy...) that specifies where you belong in space, then maybe you could just alter them to be somewhere else.
posted by mhuckaba at 2:42 AM on October 18, 2005

Springload, see quantum teleportation.
posted by Rothko at 3:08 AM on October 18, 2005

I've been thinking about this a lot lately (mainly because of interest in the Transhuman Space RPG setting). I just haven't gotten very far with my thoughts.

If this were a computing problem it could be something along the lines of "if I were to make a perfect copy of this (insert OOL here) object and copy it over the wire to another computer would it still be the same object?" The answer is obviously no. Even though it is indistinguishable from the original in (almost) every way it is still obviously just a copy. So why is this obvious (to me at least)?

I'm of the opinion that if you were transported or your mind was (destructively) uploaded to a perfect computer simulation, "you" would be dead. There would be a perfect copy of you, that would think and act just like you but this would be a new person.

So I guess I am saying we have something unique about us that cannot be copied. I think I might be arguing for the existence of souls. And I'm an atheist too, bugger!
posted by schwa at 4:10 AM on October 18, 2005

Schwa - that reminds me of a computer game I played (the name of which is forgotten) in which some crazy scientist sees the ultimate goal as being uploading his consciousness to a computer.

He wakes up on the procedure table, and the computer speaks, saying `The process was successful! Dispose of the biological waste' or something of that nature. Copying your consciousness is not the same as moving your consciousness.
posted by tomble at 4:30 AM on October 18, 2005


Sounds kinda like the novel by Greg Iles "Dark Matter"...
posted by Chunder at 5:25 AM on October 18, 2005

Rothko: It is not emphasized in that article, but when Alice measures her part of the etangled pair, she destroys its quantum mechanical state. Instead, she ends up with two bits of 'classical' information, which she send to Bob. He uses these to determine which operations to apply to his part of the pair, to put it in the state that Alice had. Thereby, the state has been transported but not copied.

This is a real limitation of potential quantum computation: In a normal computer, the result from a single logic gate can be fed to many subsequent gates. The result of a quantum operation can not be distributed.
posted by springload at 5:34 AM on October 18, 2005

I always figured that, yeah, you die... but if you don't think about it too much, there's no reason to feel bad about it.
posted by skryche at 5:49 AM on October 18, 2005

A good online intro to the philosophy of identity over time: Personal Identity over Time (pdf). It doesn't deal with the transporter problem, but I find discussions about this sort of thing often turn into a mess if people aren't playing without at least a little grounding in real philosophy.
posted by miniape at 6:12 AM on October 18, 2005

Remember that they even touched on this in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dr. Pulaski, the doctor in the second season, hated using the transporter for this reason.
posted by grouse at 6:13 AM on October 18, 2005

No death necessary if you're beamed instead of copied -- it might just move the same particles through some kind of door in the fabric of the universe, rather than making a clone.
posted by johngoren at 6:17 AM on October 18, 2005

In the Michael Crichton book `Timeline', they discuss time travel using quantum oddities. They actually describe making a precise copy, with the original being destroyed, but not one character in the book questions this.
The very lack of any sort of curiosity about this by the characters broke the suspension of disbelief more than the whole time travel dealy.
posted by tomble at 12:53 AM PST on October 18

I had the same problem with the book.
There's no way I'd agree to being destroyed and then copied in another location. That most certainly wouldn't be me. And it would be rather painful, I presume.
posted by Radio7 at 6:28 AM on October 18, 2005

This topic is touched on in Christopher Priest's The Prestige, except using Victorian magicians rather than futuristic explorers.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:36 AM on October 18, 2005

I'm outing myself as a former Star Trek geek, but oh well. I remember reading/seeing somewhere that the transporters deemed fit for human use along with the replicators had "quantum resolution" while the ones made for cargo only had "atomic resolution." Hah.
posted by zsazsa at 6:42 AM on October 18, 2005

This is just silly. If you get transported, how would you "prove" it's not you?

We know it would be easy to prove it is you. Same dna, fingerprints, memories, test scores, birthmark on your wherever.

How could you prove it's not? Find molecules that use to make you up? Call witnesses who say they saw you disappear?

In Star Trek, teleporters cause people to trapped between dimension, get cloned, get made into 2 people, get transported to a mirror dimension, and that's not even referring to the alien technology that causes Kirk's consciousness to get switched into a woman's body or when Kirk gets mind cloned into an android indistinguishable physically from himself.

In Star Trek, "you" is a collection of molecules supporting a consciousness, and "you" can be supported by different molecules, be they on a planet surface or those formerly supporting a woman's consciousness. "You" is your consciousness, not any "soul".
posted by ewkpates at 6:45 AM on October 18, 2005

It still seems as though I would experience death. To outside observers there would be no issue, but I would die.
posted by phrontist at 6:54 AM on October 18, 2005

Then of course there is Wil McCarthy's take on it in the Queendom of Sol series which is that it's all biological mechanism. If you can't distinguish between copies of you with any degree of measurable error, then those copies are you. (At least until they diverge from alternate experience.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:09 AM on October 18, 2005

Goofyy, the author you couldn't remember is Frederick Pohl. He used non-destructive transporters in a lot of his books. Characters would blithely step into one and walk out without a care in the world, while thousands of light years away the copy would come into being and go, "Oh crap."
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:16 AM on October 18, 2005

tomble, chunder: See also the recent novel Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer.
posted by S.C. at 8:00 AM on October 18, 2005

No death necessary if you're beamed instead of copied -- it might just move the same particles through some kind of door in the fabric of the universe, rather than making a clone.

Not to pick on this one poster specifically, but I find this attachment to specific particles really... lame? shortsighted?

What if you get a pinky transplant? Are you no longer "you"?
What if a brainless clone of you is grown, and your brain implanted -- is that new body "you", despite having so few atoms in common?
What if you breathe in, get some oxygen atoms into your brain, and breathe out some different ones? Are you no longer "you"?

Say you have a powerful instinct for self-preservation, above all other concerns.
Now under some strange circumstances I won't bother to invent, you're given a choice: (1) be lobotomized (2) have your brain downloaded to a robot body that looks like you (using technology perfected over hundreds of years). Which would you prefer?
posted by Aknaton at 8:30 AM on October 18, 2005

You're broken down into a matter stream by a transporter in star trek, not destoryed. Otherwise it would just be a photocopier with the ability to make infinite copies. IMHO.

Related Article
posted by blue_beetle at 8:31 AM on October 18, 2005

Related Article</a
posted by blue_beetle at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2005

Thank you for the link to Theodore Sider's essay, miniape. I strongly urge contributors to this thread to read it (it's an easy read). It clarifies the key points in this discussion.

Most posters here -- and most philosophers -- start from an odd premise (it's intellectually odd, but understandable from an emotional point-of-view). The (generally) unstated assumption is "we WANT identity to exist, and we want it to exist free of illogic, so sets see how we can reason it so." The same assumption underlies most discussions of free will.

(For centuries, Philosphers played this game with God. "God must exist," they said, "so lets try to work the kinks out of a universe with a god.")

Few people are willing to say, "It FEELS like there's such a thing as a 'me', but maybe that's an illusion. Maybe THAT'S why I keep hitting walls of illogic." Again: same with free will (the two topics are linked).

I think it's fine to assume something exists and then try to show a logical framework for it. Often good science proceeds this way (testing a hypothesis). But one should be honest about one's methods. ("I know 'me' might be an illusion, but I'm going to assume it exists and see what happens.")

I suspect that there is no "me" -- or rather that "me" is an interpretation (i.e. a sort of metaphorical thinking) that we use to make sense of our world. The interpretation is imperfect, but that's okay. It's generally good enough. But if you act like it's a description of physical reality, you will eventually run into contradictions and absurdities. I agree with scryche when he says, "if you don't think about it too much, there's no reason to feel bad about it."

Let's say I walk into a transporter. It's supposed to obliterate me and then make an exact copy of me somewhere else. But it malfunctions and creates a copy without destroying the original.

The copy will FEEL like it's me. And I will also feel like I'm me. There's no contradiction here, unless you insist on pointing to "the REAL me." If you insist on this, then you run into all sorts of absurdities. The fact that we really FEEL like insisting on it (there MUST be a real me) doesn't mean that there is a real me. It just means we have a really strong feeling.

Let's say the copied me goes home (to what he FEELS is his home) and takes up where I left off -- living with my wife. She will feel as if she's still living with me. To her, the copy IS me. Her experience of me is from the outside -- via my actions, my appearance, my smell, etc. That is how she chooses (or is forced by her brain) to define me. And since the copy meets those requirements, to her it IS me.

I arrive home a few weeks later and am horrified. From my point of view, the guy kissing my wife is an imposter. I am the real me.

Who is right? Answer: both of us. We're both right, because though we seem to be answering the same question (Who is the real me?) we are actually answering two totally different questions. I am answering "Who is me from my point-of-view?" My wife is answering "Who is me from her point-of-view?"

She may have a hard time, now that there are two of me. Her brain is going to push her really hard to point to the "real" me. Maybe she'll make some arbitrary choice, just to preserve her sanity. But there IS no real me. (Unless you arbitrarily choose some definition of "real," or choose a definition that makes people feel most comfortable, in which case you're admitting that "real" is a metaphor, not a description of reality.) There are two versions of something me-like. There's no deep intellectual problem here (there IS a deep emotional problem) unless you insist that there MUST be a real me.

Similarly, there's no deep problem when you see a dozen cans of Coke in the grocery store. We agree that they are all Coke cans. Since we're not emotionally invested in there being a primary Coke can, we're fine with doing this.

There's an issue of information corseness here. Think of video tapes of movies. My VHS of "The Godfather" is missing information that's in the original film. If I look really closely at the image, I'll see it's somewhat degraded -- lacking the resolution of the film version. But to me it's still "The Godfather." I've decided -- or my brains has made me decide -- that this level of corseness is good enough. Someone else might differ. "Good God! That's not 'The Godfather'! It's a travisty of 'The Godfather!'" Who is right? Both of us! Neither of us! It IS the low-res Godfather (which I simply call "The Godfather"). It is not the high-res Godfather (which my friend calls "The Godfather"). We run into trouble when we perversely insist that there must be ONE Godfather.

If the world was full of malfunctioning transporters, we'd have all sorts of problems -- which copy should be punished for a crime? Who should be allowed to spend money from a bank account? Etc. And, as the Sider essay suggests, we may already have these problems (Is it okay to punish someone for a crime they committed 5 years ago? Is the present person and the past person really the same person?). But these are practical problems, not philosophical problems. They all assume identity exists and then try to grapple with what POLICY we should pick when identity becomes complex.

I think we're trapped with the illusion of identity -- just as I think we're trapped with the illusion of free will. We can't NOT feel identity. We can't NOT feel free will. (Many people can't NOT feel God.) So it makes sense to come up with practical solutions to problems created by the feelings -- generated by these illusions. But that doesn't make the illusions real.
posted by grumblebee at 8:35 AM on October 18, 2005 [4 favorites]

grumblebee: One of the things I like about Wil McCarthy's take on it is that given the practical possibility of duplicating a person atom by atom, having multiple copies presents certain opportunities. Have some tight deadlines? Spawn off several copies and then merge all of the memories back together when the job is done. Your parents ground you? Hack the system to send a double out to party while the other does homework. The primary problem with having duplicates becomes less an issue of identity, and more an issue of resources.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:45 AM on October 18, 2005

KirkJobSluder: what if one of my duplicates refuses to merge his memories? What if the one who escapes grounding feels a pang of conscience and confesses to my parents? I SHOULD be able to predict the way they will act, since they all will act as I would in their situations, but do I really know myself all that well. I might learn some surprising things about myself.
posted by grumblebee at 9:00 AM on October 18, 2005

Heh, I'm pretty sure most of the downfalls of having multiple copies of yourself were covered by Calvin & Hobbes years ago.
posted by furiousthought at 9:14 AM on October 18, 2005

Aknaton's last question sounds like something from The Philosophers' Magazine's Identity Game
posted by aneel at 9:18 AM on October 18, 2005

Ignoring the side issues of Star Trek and quantum mechanics:

You die. The new you is you for all other purposes—the copy and everyone who interacts with the copy will think it's you and be perfectly happy—but you, the consciousness presently trying to resolve this matter, will no longer exist. It may be some consolation to think that I would "live on" in the guise of a perfect (or near-perfect) replica, just as it is to think that I will exist in the memories of my friends and family, but that's not enough to make me step into the damn transporter.

Plus those things have all kinds of glitches. Didn't you see The Fly?
posted by languagehat at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2005

But if you go nowhere, then it'll be your big chance to get away from it all, as Admiral Kirk pointed out to the ship's surgeon during the Genesis Crisis.
posted by johngoren at 9:36 AM on October 18, 2005

A lot of the people in this thread who are saying "you die" suspect that something is left behind when your body is destroyed... some nugget of personal being is left untransported. If you want to say that your personal identity isn't transmitted when your physical state is transmitted, then you're going to have an awful time trying to explain why.

If you want to maintain that identity is tied to consciousness and consciousness is epiphenomenal (non-interactionist and dualist), then there's no reason at all to think that consciousness will be destroyed when the physical body goes. If epiphenomenalism is true, then no one has ever had any evidence that destruction of the body entails destruction of consciousness. All we've ever had epistemic access to is the destruction of other peoples' bodies... no one has experienced the destruction of their own consciousness. Epiphenomalism really is a crazy sort of theory.

If you want to maintain that you're somehow tied to that specific set of atoms, then because the atoms in our body come and go and replace themselves every seven years, you're going to say that we've all died and been reborn many times over. There's a sense in which you can say it's true, I guess, but it stretches the normal meaning of the phrase "I survive" past the snapping point.

The quantum approaches seem more promising: there's something physical that's not being transported, and hey, that physical stuff, that's us! But why should we think this? The only real reason is that neither quantum mechanics nor consciousness are very well understood. That doesn't seem like a very strong linkage to me; more like wild speculation.

What's the alternative? Personal identity is something functionally characterizable. When you transport your material state you transport your functional state. The mass of atoms that comes out of the transporter has the same beliefs, goals, dreams, desires, etc. So you survive.

BTW, some people here have been misreading Penrose, I think. A common misconception of Penrose's thesis is that we could have a material entity that acts and functions just like us, but would lack consciousness because it lacks the right kind of quantum activity in the microtubules. This is not Penrose's position. Penrose thinks that quantum interactions in the brain yield a functional difference in our behavior... it's in principle impossible to create a non-quantum computer that acts the same as we do. If this empirically turns out to be the case, then I'll be more than happy to admit that consciousness is affected by quantum interactions. But there's no real reason to think this is true. Neurons are big and clunky automata, and I doubt that their behavior is affected by quantum interactions any more than the quantum interactions in my computer affect its behavior. And Penrose's own argument about us being able to compute our own Turing sentence is rather weak and not especially well-regarded (it relies on the assumptions that we can compute our own Goedel sentence and that we run on a logic that is consistent).

Finally, I think that some people are tempted to say that you are destroyed when teleported because if you were copied instead of transported there'd be "two yous", which is presumably intolerable. But this is not a problem having to do with consciousness... it's a problem about which one we want to *call* the same you. Imagine that something goes awry and we don't know which body is made from the original atoms and which is copied. Why does it matter whether one is "the real you"? The only reason it matters is so we know which one gets to live your old life... saying that "the old atoms win!" is just a stipulation. Apart from pragmatic considerations, do we have to determine that one of them is the real you any more than we have to determine whether the Ship of Theseus is the same ship?
posted by painquale at 1:11 PM on October 18, 2005

Goedel sentence, not Turing sentence. Oops.
posted by painquale at 1:12 PM on October 18, 2005

Greg Egan and Vernor Vinge address the duplication problem by referring to the computer science concept of multiple instances. Just as you can pop up two simultaneous instances of a single computer program, like Internet Explorer, transporter or equivalent technology would allow you to create multiple instances of a single original human personality. (There's all sorts of UNIX terminology that would apply here--forking, child processes, etc.)

If you could create an exact copy of yourself, in UNIX we would call it a "child process." Of course the copy would initially resemble you much more than a real child would, but it would diverge over time, because its experiences would be different from yours.

Applying these concepts to the transporter question: you spawn a child process which is exactly the same as the original, then destroy the original. There isn't physical continuity, but there is continuity of all the data (your memories, etc.). IMHO, it's the latter that's important.
posted by russilwvong at 1:33 PM on October 18, 2005

An interesting take on this question is To Be, a Canadian cartoon by John Weldon. A scientist creates a teleportation device which creates a copy and destroys the original. It even shows the various originals being destroyed.
posted by the biscuit man at 1:35 PM on October 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

Very nice comment, painquale. I see in your profile this is your kind of field.

The common materialist view seems not to be of a consciousness built atom by atom, but of one loosely encoded in the structures of matter, quantum or not. The fact that features of perception are inherited indicates that this is the case, if we accept evolution to be a fully physical process. A fairly simple DNA string seems to code for the basics of a mind, and human minds share a set of characteristics that matter for our survival.

From the same evolutionary ground, it can be argued that an evolved interacting consciousness acts independently from physical laws of determinism and chance: A non-interacting consciousness does not fill any evolutionary function. If we were mere observers of what our machine-like bodies did, we would not have a consciousness at all, and particularly not one with hard-coded tastes so well suited for survival.

I’m in the materialist camp who says, you’ll survive. But it’s possible that your mind depends on some quantum state, in which case there will be only one complete copy of you. And I can't see why bevets and his peers concentrate on evolution-bashing, when the character of mind provides so much reason to doubt an all-material world view.
posted by springload at 2:32 PM on October 18, 2005

One problem here is the binary way we're using die/survive. I realize that everyone we know is either dead or alive, but as new technology develops, there may be more shades of life and death. And we're not even talking about probable (possible?) technology here. We're playing thought-experiments with teleporters.

Many of us feel that life has to do with a sort of continuity in which one moment of life causes the next moment. I may be made out of different stuff today than I was yesterday, but my now-self is part of the same pattern (i.e. same program running on a "computer" called the universe) as my yesterday-self. And my yesterday self CAUSED my today self. This is either true or a very strong illusion. If the today-self does NOT lead to a tomorrow-self, then I have died.

But if, right before I die, someone creates a snapshot of my current pattern and then uses that snapshot to restart the causation program, then I also live.

I live and die. Or, in once sense I have died and in another sense I haven't. We are allowed to think of life/death as binary, because in our everyday experience, it always is.

What if we found some magical way to bring Henry VIII back to life in the form of a perfect copy of what he was like before he died? Is Henry VIII alive or dead? If he's alive, did he once die? Did he die and come back to life or did he never die in the first place BECAUSE he's been brought back to life?

These are all LANGUAGE problems.
posted by grumblebee at 2:49 PM on October 18, 2005

grumblebee: Those are language problems, but not the problem of whether transporting the atomic pattern or the full quantum state of someone results in a person or a corpse. That's how I interpret the original question. Otherwise, I agree with you.
posted by springload at 3:09 PM on October 18, 2005

Springload, I'm confused. I thought a teleporter either...

1. literally carried you somewhere, just like a plane only via magic


2. scanned you and then recreated your pattern somewhere else.

Assuming the second, then a transporter (which is really a copier) seems to transport because it...

1. creates a copy somewhere else, and

2. destroys the original.

[This is the same way frame-based animation works!]

If a copy is created -- and the copy is faithful -- then it's a person, not a corpse (because the original was a person, and a corpse is not a faithful copy of a person).

If it creates a copy and DOESN'T destroy the original, then the result is two people.

If it creates a copy and DOES destroy the original, then the result is one person and one corpse (or maybe one person and one cremation or some other form of deconstructed person).
posted by grumblebee at 3:20 PM on October 18, 2005

grumblebee: I looked again, and it turned out I misread the original question. Some of us are discussing whether a mind comes with you if information about your material state is transported. Whether it's still your mind upon arrival is, i fully agree, a matter of language.
posted by springload at 3:43 PM on October 18, 2005

Thanks, springload.

These are all LANGUAGE problems.

Great comment, grumblebee. I strongly agree that many of the problems being discussed are problems of language. The use of "die" and "survive" was a little unfortunate because those words can mean so many things, and "destroy" and "continue to exist" are not much crisper. Nor is "you."

But I disagree that these are all language problems. Even if we were perfectly clear what we meant by the terms, there are still some empirical facts we might have to work out. eg. Let's say we agree that by "you", we mean you behavioral dispositions. Would the teleported copy *act* exactly as I would if we couldn't transmit all the quantum information? That's an empirical question.

And, being a wholehearted naturalist, I don't see a very crisp distinction between problems of language and empirical problems. For instance, take interrobang's Swamp Thing example: we transmit a bunch of behavioral dispositions into a pile of mud, and let's say that those behavioral dispositions differ slightly from the original person's dispositions. How similar to the original person would the walking mudpile have to be for us to consider it the same person? Some linguisitic philosophers might try to say that there's a fact of the matter that depends on the meanings of our words; others with a more Wittgensteinian or Quinean bent might say that there's no fact of the matter, but if we so choose, we can stipulate what our words mean. I have sympathy with the latter position, but I don't think we can stipulate meanings willy-nilly; in the end, it's ultimately an empirical matter regarding sociological norms about language use and the neurology that leads to our notions of concept similarity.
posted by painquale at 3:56 PM on October 18, 2005

Thanks for all the replies, everyone. This thread went better than I could have imagined.
posted by interrobang at 5:31 PM on October 18, 2005

painquale, I understand your points and you may perfectly well be right, but if you'd be willing to step into a transporter, you have way more confidence in the truth value of both current-day physics and philosophy than I could imagine having. Even if there's a 1% chance that you're wrong and will cease to exist (from the point of view of the consciousness that is reading these words), is that a risk worth taking? It's all very well theorizing about it on MetaFilter, but when that heavy door creaks open and the frammistan starts thrumming, that's when we find out what we really believe.

And I swear I can hear a fly buzzing in there...
posted by languagehat at 5:37 PM on October 18, 2005

I think I'd be willing to step into the booth, languagehat; but you're right, I might be too scared. Though I'd probably be more scared of materializing inside a chunk of rock or being beamed down inside-out than scared of losing my consciousness. Someone once asked Richard Dawkins if he'd spend a night in a house that was said to be haunted. He responded by saying that he can't rationally control his fear, so he might be too frightened to do it even though he doesn't believe in ghosts. I'd like to say I feel similarly about the teleporter.

Luckily, there are no teleporters, and frammistan is scarce, so I'm free to spray bravado across MetaFilter without having to test my mettle!

The biscuit man linked to a Canadian cartoon upthread. Might as well link to another....
posted by painquale at 6:11 PM on October 18, 2005

For a book that goes into detail on many of fine distinctions possible (rather than die/survive), I recommend John C. Wright's The Golden Age.

Thanks for that link, aneel. I hadn't seen it.
posted by Aknaton at 6:39 PM on October 18, 2005

Thanks very much for that great cartoon, painquale, as well as for your honesty and reasonableness!
posted by languagehat at 7:22 AM on October 19, 2005

Imagine you're in a car, and the brakes fail, and you bust out the railing off a bridge and fall into the frozen water and begin to suffocate. What do you do? Stop imagining.

Problem solved: think of something else.
posted by vanoakenfold at 3:02 AM on October 22, 2005

Wow, vanoakenfold, is your answer really "think about something else?"

I've thought about this question before as well, and completely disagree with painquale:

If you want to say that your personal identity isn't transmitted when your physical state is transmitted, then you're going to have an awful time trying to explain why.

I don't think anybody is saying that. What they're saying is that the co-continuing consciousness is not transmitted; that a consciousness identical to the previous one has been created, but the original consciousness has been terminated. For the new consciousness it will seem like a continuation, but the original one has perished.
posted by bonaldi at 5:15 AM on October 6, 2006

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