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On the Metaphysics of Teleportation

Posted on May 1, 2009 by billsimmon in atheism, poli sci-fi radio, science, SF | 11 Comments

This week’s episode of Poli-Sci-Fi Radio 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…

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  1. On May 1, 2009, G C said:

    Trying to link to this post I figured out the best way to frame the problem: the transporter on Star Trek is a fax machine that shreds its input when it’s done with it. This eliminates the false problem of “time” you guys got hung up with on the show. It’s not about time or about any sort of delay, it’s about the fact that the input material *gets destroyed in the process.*

  2. On May 1, 2009, evening said:

    and I have no problem with that G C. While I obviously live a physical life, I think I associate myself more with with my mind. If my body is duplicated to be the same and I don’t have to learn how to use it, practically speaking it is not a new me. (again, if original destroyed w/i a certain time limit…that gets complicated) Technically, yes it is, but practically it isn’t.

  3. On May 1, 2009, evening said:

    oh, and I like how you put it, G C.

  4. On May 1, 2009, G C said:

    While I obviously live a physical life, I think I associate myself more with with my mind.

    Right, but from a materialist perspective there’s no difference between mind and body. The mind is in the body; specifically, it’s the brain. If your brain gets shredded, you’re gone, even if an exact copy of it is made been in some other place…

  5. On May 1, 2009, Alex C said:

    > They were just fine with the simultaneous annihilation and creation of themselves in the teleporters.

    Actually, Bill, I think they were fine with the simultaneous annihilation and creation of *you*, not themselves. Perhaps that makes a difference…

  6. On May 1, 2009, Alex C said:
  7. On May 2, 2009, Lev said:

    I didn’t think that the Star Trek transporters made a duplicate–I thought they converted you from matter to energy and then back. Perhaps I’m wrong.

  8. On May 2, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Lev, Don’t get distracted by the Star Trek example. The Trek transporter worked according to different principals based on the dramatic needs of the writers. Also, unless you think there’s something special about the particular carbon atoms that make up your body, the fact that the same atoms are used to reconstruct transported bodies in ST shouldn’t make any difference to this thought experiment. Either way, there’s a troubling “death” that occurs during dematerialization. The fax machine example is used to help illustrate the horror, but it’s horrific in either case.

  9. On May 2, 2009, Rob said:

    The idea that you are more than the sum of all your parts is at question here. The Buddhist belief is one of non-self, and I imagine stepping into the transporter would not be too difficult for them. The idea of self awareness and consciousness is but an illusion. Western religion has you all worked up over the destruction of your soul, whether you realize it or not. Another example would be total replication cloning. Assuming all thought and memory is replicated,is the clone any less you than the original? If you then destroy the original, did the original die? Yes. Did you cease to exist? No. Your life continues with no perceptive change. You mentioned in the broadcast that your fear may be the result of baggage from a Christian upbringing. It goes deeper than that I think in all of us, survival instinct and all. I’m not qualified to discuss the philosophical side of this debate, but the more I think about it, the less I fear the premise.

  10. On May 3, 2009, Alex C said:

    Rob – I agree with you except where you blame Bill’s trepidation on “Western religion.” I imagine if you asked any average Asian living in sight of a Buddhist monastery he’d be reluctant to enter a distintegrator too. I expect the attachment to and identification with our bodies is pretty deeply rooted in our cognitive substrata. Like, I agree with you that “I” would live and so I should be OK with that, and I am, but, you know, I’m also really kinda not.

  11. On May 3, 2009, Rob said:

    Alex – I didn’t mean that just because Bill lives in the west he has been subjected to western religion. Bill suggested he may have childhood baggage. There may be a practicing Buddhist in Burlington that has no problem with it. I’d love to ask them. I agree it’s more some instinctual problem. Also, I think I’m okay with the idea ,but as you said “I’m also really kinda not” and I think that fear is misguided.

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