This week’s episode of “Poli-Sci-Fi Radio” (a weekly politics and science fiction radio show and podcast that I do with Washington Monthly blogger, Steve Benen) featured a discussion inspired by last Friday’s episode of “Dollhouse,” in which a woman who was murdered is brought “back to life” in the body of Eliza Dushku because she’d had the foresight to scan all of her thoughts and memories before she was killed and then after her death those thoughts and memories were implanted in one of the Dollhouse’s “actives” so the woman could go back and solve her own murder.
If you don’t watch “Dollhouse,” the above explanation probably makes little or no sense to you, but the discussion we had on the radio quickly went beyond the episode’s plot and became a discussion about the nature of identity w/r/t the SF concept of teleportation. (If you’re curious, this discussion takes place in the last 1/2 hour of the two-hour episode.) Here’s the 50 cent tour…
Suppose someone invents a teleportation device (like the transporter from Star Trek). Bob steps into little teleportation booth in New York, there’s a flash of light as the precise position and orientation of every cell, molecule, atom and quark in Bob’s body is scanned and that information is “beamed” at the speed of light to a similar booth in Paris, where a machine, using some local material, reassembles an exact replica — down to the subatomic structure — of Bob. This perfect replica of Bob (who literally is Bob is every measurable respect) then steps out of the booth and from Bob’s subjective experience, he stepped into a booth in New York and stepped out an instant later in Paris.
Great! The problem is: what happens to the “Bob” that stepped into the machine in New York? His atomic structure was scanned so his body could be replicated in Paris, but all of the material that made up the Bob that stepped into the machine in New York is still there, standing in the booth, wondering what he’s going to eat for dinner in Paris. He is still there, that is, unless the teleportation process kills him.
In science fiction movies and TV shows, at the moment of teleportation, the starship captain dematerializes in one place and rematerializes in a new place, as though her atoms were being physically moved from one spot to another. But from chemistry we know that a carbon atom is a carbon atom is a carbon atom — the physical constituent matter that makes us up isn’t anything special — it’s the arrangement of that matter that makes us live, breathe and think as conscious beings. So to build a working teleportation machine, all you really need to do is scan the precise positions of each particle of material and reassemble those bits in the right order in the destination spot using whatever materials are present at the new location (assuming all the right constituent elements are present in sufficient quantities).
So that means that at the moment of “dematerialization,” what’s really happening is that the starship captain’s atoms are being destroyed — she’s being killed by the teleporter — and a new identical version of her is appearing on the planet’s surface. From the perspective of the now planetside captain, everything is hunky dory — one second she was on the transporter pad and the next second she was standing on the planet’s surface. But what about the perspective of the woman who stepped onto the transporter pad and was annihilated? Did she show up on the planet’s surface? Are there two separate consciousnesses or just one? Can she choose to not have her original body destroyed, thereby yielding two distinct people? Should she?
This is only scratching the surface of the implications of such a technology. There’s a bit of a comments thread going on at the PSFR post. For the record, despite not believing in anything like a “soul” and being aware of the fact that my consciousness is merely the result of the collection of physical stuff that is me, I am deeply troubled by this thought experiment and I, for one, would never choose to step into such a teleportation device, not knowing whether “I” would be the copy that stepped out of the booth in Paris or the original that gets destroyed in New York. The commenters at the PSFR blog so far agree with me, but on the show on Sunday Steve and Emily did not. They were just fine with the simultaneous annihilation and creation of themselves in the teleporters.
What do you think? Would you let yourself be “transported” in such a fashion?
For other takes on this problem see…
Cross-posted at Candleblog.