Friday, March 02, 2007

Don't Beam Me Up, Scotty

In my Federal Courts class earlier this week, I advised my students that, in the event that teleportation technology of the sort used in Star Trek ever becomes available, they should avoid it, because for all we know, teleportation kills the person entering the teleporter while creating a replicant at the other end with that person's memories and the false belief that she is the same person. From the outside, no one would be able to tell whether the person emerging from the teleporter at the destination is really the same person who entered it at the point of embarkation, but that is hardly sufficient reassurance. (Never mind how this was relevant to Federal Courts. It had something to do with whether the meaning of habeas corpus was fixed in 1789. On that question, see my column here.)

And now the legal question. Suppose that a teleportation device is invented. Could the state prosecute the operator of the teleporter for murder? For assisted suicide? Does the state get to decide that a person consists of consciousness/memories plus physical substrate rather than consciousness/memories alone? There is a substantial, if inconclusive, body of philosophical literature of personal identity based on this and other science fiction examples. Does the state just pick one of the philosophical theories? Would that run up against the claim by the Supreme Court in Roe that the state can't simply pick a theory of when life begins? Or is that statement itself basically robbed of all jurisgenerative force by the Court's view in Cruzan that the state can decide on a conception of life as against an individual's view about the dignity of life?

On the merits, I'm moved by the following difficulty: Suppose that teleporter 1.0 destroys the matter comprising the teleportee's body at departure point and then reassembles new matter to reconstitute deportee at arrival point. Now suppose that someone invents teleporter 2.0, which doesn't need to destroy teleportee's body. Isn't it now perfectly clear that the assembled teleportee at arrival point is simply a very good copy rather than the original person herself? And if that's true in the case of 2.0, shouldn't it be true in the case of 1.0? In the philosophical literature, some people have made the argument for a "closest continuer" account of identity, such that the reassembled transportee IS the same person in case 1.0 but not in case 2.0, but that seems bizarre to me. I have no difficulty with a relative or even stipulative conception of identity for inanimate objects (like the ship of Theseus), but for a person or other sentient being it seems there is a subjective fact of the matter. In other words, it's not just important to me that a consciousness that experiences itself as continuous with me exist in the future but that I be the one who has that consciousness.

Maybe I'm just confused in thinking that way. Maybe in the ordinary course, me at time T+∆ is a person with the memories and the subjective but mistaken impression that he is the same person as me at time T. In this view, which has been espoused by David Hume and some Buddhist philosophers, each of us is constantly dying and being replaced by new, very similar, people. And maybe the difference between my intuitive sense and the Humean/Buddhist sense is simply one of semantics. But I'm still not getting into the transporter booth and I'd even go further to say that the state would act legitimately by banning its use.

There, I've solved that pressing legal issue.


Derek said...

Or what if teleporter 1.0 malfunctioned and reconstituted new matter in the new location without first destroying the old matter? It definitely seems like I would be the original person and I would be extremely thankful that I had dodged a bullet.

On the other hand, what if all your memories and dispositions could be "downloaded" into another brain, while the memories and dispositions of the other person were "downloaded" into yours? Then, one body is tortured for a while (and the other goes to the beach) before the process is reversed. Which body would you prefer to have tortured, the one with your memories and dispositions or the one without it?

In this case I'd say torture the body without my memories and dispositions. But that seems to point against the bodily continuity account of PI and toward the memory continuity account.

Tricky business.

Anil Kalhan said...

Mike, you've solved one pressing legal issue but created another. Upon coming back, are the returning teleportees arriving aliens (unfortunate pun) seeking admission? Or are they newly native born U.S. citizens? If the answer is the latter, then that might be a rather innocuous result if the teleportee is already a U.S. citizen. However, if not, then non-U.S. citizen teleportees who are present in the United States could become U.S. citizens without any need to meet the requirements for naturalization.

Proving, I guess, that there's more than one way to ensure that immigration reform provides a meaningful "path to U.S. citizenship."

Michael Yuri said...

"In other words, it's not just important to me that a consciousness that experiences itself as continuous with me exist in the future but that I be the one who has that consciousness."

This seems exactly right to me, though I've had philosophers try to convince me otherwise.

Incidentally, this exact question of identity and teleportation was raised in a recent movie. I won't mention the title, because this is a major plot spoiler, but if you're curious, here's a link:

Adam S. said...

Two similar issues:
1) The prospect (putting aside complexities of electron states) of the sort of consciousness download approach to extending human "life" propounded by Kurzweil in "The Age of Spiritual Machines." Imagine if you were able to map the tiniest (sub)atomic details of your brain and then create a digital analog to upload into a virtual world of the sort that Mike has considered on his civil procedure exam. Where we let the biological version die, we have no real personal identity crisis. BUT imagine that the person is allowed to persist along with the digital analog: you have two consciousnesses vociferously asserting their claim as the "real" Mike Dorf (putting aside the knitting factory guy). At T0 both may be correct. At TX, they would diverge inasmuch as their subsequent experiences and memories will have diverged. What would having TWO of you going forward mean? Does having TWO mean in any non frivolous way that the REAL you is dead?
2) What about MURDER by Memory Suck? Were I to cause you brain trauma, could I be duly charged wtih murder rather than mere assault where I've TOTALLY caused you to lose your memory? If not, why?

KipEsquire said...

Physicist/cosmologist Stephen Greene addressed this issue in his book, "The Elegant Universe." He points out that every time we ingest or excrete we are "a different" organism, arguably no different than if we had been disassembled and then re-assembled but with a handful of different molecules here and there.

Is a person who goes into a coma "dead and replicated" when she emerges from it? Heck, did the me who was awake yesterday "die" when he fell asleep, to be "replicated" by the me who is typing this comment?

Adam S. said...

Kip, the issue of physical reconstitution as it relates to the atoms in our bodies rather than their pattern is different and less troublesome. Yes, we recycle the atoms themselves; that's AMAZING biologically but sort of boring philosophically. The discontinuities of consciousness and the possibilities of consciousness replication and identity proliferation seem thornier, no?

egarber said...

Wow. And I thought I STARTED this day with a headache :)

With regard to "reconstituted" people, I'll throw this out there:

I read a book a long time ago called "the Quantum Self" (Zohar maybe?). And I seem to recall that the author's definition of "self" grew out of quantum relationships.

Our cells, molecules and atoms -- particularly in the brain -- all work together as particles to become a larger functioning condensate that becomes "conscience". Metaphorically (or maybe actually, for all I know), in the same way a billion termites suddenly "know what to do" in building a mound (while an individual termite seemingly does nothing), our "self" (sense of "I") is a matter of the whole becoming greater than the parts.

That "self" evolves as our relationships grow during our physical existence. In other words, to borrow from quantum physics, our "wave" (vs. particle) selves are constantly joining with other people through "wave" interference.

So along this line of thinking, simply reconstituting physical nuts and bolts isn't enough; to TRULY put me back together, you'd have to restablish all of my "wave-like" relationships -- i.e., my EXPERIENCES. (though my wife might prefer Scotty to NOT bring me back).

Tying this back to the Federal Courts, well... I have no idea how to do that :)

Ori said...

A wonderful conundrum!

On the Murder stuff:
Dying is a biological term. What we care about in murder is the ending of a person’s life. Since personhood supervenes on a human body, when we kill the body we also murder the person. In the case of the teleporting machine we have a way to liberate the person from his particular human body. In other words, we can recreate that very same person from another set of atoms. Personhood is liberated from its dependency on a specific human body. In this futuristic world killing the body is like cutting off the tail of a lizard – very annoying but not murder. I think that the main problem that derives from having such a machine is the cloning problem.

On the continuity of personal identity question:
Derek (Parfit?), did you know that Bernard Williams offers the exact same thought experiment as you do. I believe it is in his “Sources of the Self”, but maybe I am wrong. What is it with people and torture?

So at time T1 we have one person (person X) and a time T2 we have two identical people (person A and Person B) who seem to both be the same person as person X from T1. This seems paradoxical: person A is the same person as person X and the same is true of person B. However, it is also true that person A and B are not the same person. This goes against the transitivity of the identity relation: if A=X and B=X it follows that A=B, but we know that A and B are not the same person.

As I recall Parfit argued that because of such problems it seems that what matters for personal identity is not a relation of identity (a=a) but rather a relation of survival. As I tale it one possible theory of how people survive from one moment to the next is Nozick’s closest continuer theory. If we understand our intuition in thinking of ourselves as “the same” person who “we” were in the past as depending on a relation of survival and not on a relation of identity, I think the intuitive problem is solved. A and B are not identical with each other or with X.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Terrific discussion, commenters! Let me just throw out one final thought (final for me that is; others are welcome to keep this thread going). Whenever I think about these problems, I find myself intellectually attracted to the reductionist approaches (e.g., closest continuer theories) in which the continuity of the self over time is just an illusion. And yet emotionally I can't get past the idea that an illusion pre-supposes someone who is having the illusion. Thus, although I find John Searle's arguments (including the famous Chinese room example that he beats to death) not especially convincing, it has great appeal for me.

Finally, apologies to those who read Dorf on Law for thoughts on law.

Derek said...


Thanks, you're right. I took that example straight from Williams. It's from "The Self and the Future," one of the all time best articles on this topic in my opinion.

Although Parfit (not me!) has some great stuff too.

Laurence said...

dude, we're all missing the obvious. The transporter must have a copy of the person in some sort of memory in order to reconstitute him/her. So what's stopping the transporter from recreating more than one copy of the person? It's machine cloning!

Hey, in fact, didn't that happen in one of the episodes? There was a good Kirk and and bad Kirk, right? Well, if there could be two, why not twenty?

Funny, I was thinking about this very thing - the Star Trek transporter problem - while stuck on a humid number three train this afternoon.

Aidan said...

Elements of this argument have been covered by the classical "Ship of Theseus" problem. As follows:

Theseus and his followers go out on a sail. Over time, they replace parts of the ship, one plank at a time. After a certain while, not a single initial plank of the ship remains. Is the vessel still "the Ship of Theseus?"


In a sense, this can be applied to ourselves, as well. With the exception of certain slowly replenishing stem cells (in the bone marrow for hematopoiesis, skin, most epithelium, etc.) we are all new, if not day to day, at least week to week. Most if not all of the cells that comprise "you "are novel, at any given point in time.

This constant flux might add an layer of complexity to the teleporter scenario. If there's not a fixed, physical self in a continuity sense, well, then how could you be charged with murder if the software (the crew, to return to the Theseus analogy) maintains operations?

Most baldly (boldly?): we're always already being transported, anyway, and the continuity of our operations is a fiction maintained by connections between semi-stable populations.

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