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.