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Moral Moments

From Here to There: A Phi-Fi Investigation

by Joel Marks

Some say that personal identity is closely connected to memory. However, in an earlier column (‘Who Are You?’ in Issue 61), I commented, “You could suffer amnesia and have the contents of your mind erased, but you would still be you. Why believe that? Well, suppose you knew you were about to suffer total memory loss and then be thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil: would you not feel dread on behalf of yourself?” It is certainly my intuition that I would experience that dread. But I know that not everybody shares my intuition. Do you? Even if you do, an intuition is not a proof. A person can have an intuition that something terrible is about to happen to them, but then nothing does; or that something wonderful is about to happen, but then something terrible does.

What would be a proof that one and the same person existed before and after such amnesia? It seems safe to assume that a person exists both before and after; so if it were not the same person, would it be two different persons? Then the person after amnesia would be a brand-new person, who was literally ‘born yesterday’ (or a minute ago). And yet unlike a newborn babe, this person, we are supposing for the sake of the example, is fully equipped with adult knowledge of the world, having forgotten only the details of his or her identity as so-and-so. Thus, s/he might be a fluent speaker of French, but not respond to the name ‘Jean/ne’.

If subsequently Jean/ne’s full memory returned, then we would seem to have the proof we desired. Perhaps there would also be memory of the amnesic episode: “I remember that I had no idea who I was… like those moments after awakening when sometimes one does not know where one is or even who one is.” Or perhaps it would just be a blank: an amnesia of the amnesia. “All I know is that I was unlocking the door to my apartment, and now… here I am in this hospital ward. It is like awakening from a dreamless sleep.” Since one is presumably the same person after awakening, so the amnesiac must be the same person.

But let us put the question speculatively à la sci-fi – or as I like to call it, phi-fi (for philosophical fiction). Suppose you entered a device that was supposed to transport you to a distant location by means of a light beam. This so-called teleporter would have great advantages over normal means of conveyance because it would not have to carry a physical body, thereby avoiding the need for vehicle and fuel, and would move people (and things) at the fastest speed possible, namely, the speed of light. Economics would dictate the universal adoption of such a method of travel as soon as it became technologically feasible.

But how exactly would it work? For example, what happens to the body that enters the device if it is not transported to the other location? If this is a one-way ticket, then it might be destroyed, since presumably a new body would be constructed at the destination. All one would need for the teleportation itself is a plan of the body to be communicated via the electromagnetic signal. It would be like sending a CAT-scan over a radio link. Just as today an image is created at the destination, so in the future whole bodies could be (re)created from raw materials, which would perhaps be recycled from bodies that had been teleported and discarded at that site.

So in you walk on Earth, and out you walk on Mars, where a receiving station had been set up by the pioneers who had rocketed there before teleportation was possible. If you were a commuter, then perhaps you could reenter your original body back on Earth at the end of the day. So instead of constructing a new body from scratch, the CAT scan transmitted from Mars would be used to make the appropriate changes to your original body and brain on Earth such that when you resumed consciousness you would remember what you had done on Mars. (But if you had accidentally scarred yourself while on Mars, you could put in a special request not to have the scar inserted onto your Earthbound body.)

Does teleportation make sense? It seems to me that the technology I have described will be perfectly possible in strictly material terms. That is, it should be possible someday to create a new body on the plan of an old one down to the nth detail. This is really only a further elaboration of the commonplace of manufacture, is it not, wherein any number of copies can be made from a single design? The tricky part, however, is that now we would be dealing with a person. Why is this problematic? There are several reasons. Consider, for example, that if instead of returning to Earth you decided to live on Mars, and meanwhile the technician on Earth neglected to destroy the body that had been CAT-scanned. Would there now be two of you? We could imagine the Earth person calling his own number on his cell phone and having the Mars person answer the phone (which had also been teleported) and having a conversation with himself. “So, what’s the weather like on your planet?”

We can multiply such scenarios ad infinitum, and at this point, I think, our intuitions would completely break down. This is another reason why intuitions cannot be relied upon for knowledge: they can contradict one another. But maybe there is a kind of knowledge to be derived from contradiction as such. In other words, when our intuitions do generate contradictions, perhaps this tells us that what we are thinking about makes no sense. In this case we are talking about the concept of a person. Hence, there may be something deeply flawed about personhood or the self. Thinkers from the Buddha to today’s Tom Metzinger have certainly thought so.

Insofar as I can rank my own intuitions, my feeling is that teleportation such as I have described is impossible. I mean that no person would be conveyed from one location to another. A person enters the sender and a person emerges from the receiver, but they are numerically distinct, albeit qualitatively identical. Thus, the situation is not like the amnesiac, not to mention, the dreamless sleeper. The difference is precisely that in teleportation there has not been a continuation of the same body. From this, two further implications can be drawn: (1) Any person entering a teleporter whose body is destroyed dies and (2) personal identity resides essentially in a particular physical body.

By the way, a fictional version of this argument, which draws out the implications more direfully, can be found in John C. Snider’s online science-fiction magazine SciFiDimensions here: www.scifidimensions.com/Oct05/teleporter.htm.

© Joel Marks 2009

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at moralmoments.com.

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