Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Transporter Paradox

This post actually has nothing to do with the transporter of Star Trek. There are unfortuanately a number of people who seem to believe that if an individual consciousness can be precisely duplicated, than both the original and the mind clone are really just one person, and that this is somehow a form of immortality. The Caprica pilot expressed this view, as does Martine Rothblatt, who posts regularly over on IEET. I'm going to explain why this is nonsense, and why my mind clone and me would be completely separate individuals.

Assume my brain is mapped down to every neuron and synapse, and a powerful computer runs a simulation of it, perfectly mimicking my neural patterns. Why isn’t this person me? Materialists would argue that since in every empirically measurable way we are identical, that makes us the same person for all intents and purposes. Well, I don’t give a flying fuck about intents and purposes. What I care about is my individual, subjective perception of my own existence, and external environment. When my own subjective experience is terminated, I'm dead as far as I’m concerned.

Can I share my sense of self with my doppelganger? Impossible. By definition I cannot be anyone but me. If I was somebody else, then I wouldn’t be me. I obviously can’t be two people at once. The logic that two identical things are the same thing is perplexing. Two cans of Coke may be identical, and a casual observer may be unable to discriminate between the two. Why then are they not the same can? Count them! One, Two! If I crush one can, the other can will be unharmed, proving that they are two separate entities. The fact that they're identical means nothing. If I die, my doppelganger could survive, proving we are two separate entities, regardless of how identical we are. It wouldn’t matter to me that no one else would be able to tell that my doppelganger wasn’t me. My subjective sense of my existence would have ended, as I cannot share that sense of existence with my doppelganger. Again, As far as I’m concerned, I’m dead.

I think I’ve established that my mind clone and me are two separate entities. But if we are identical, then why am I real, while my doppelganger is the copy? Well, a person’s consciousness is like a flame, and their brain is like the fuel. The fuel may be burned up and replaced, but the blaze remains constant. The molecules that make up my brain may change over time, and the subatomic particles may blink in and out of existence countless times each instant, but my mind remains continuous through the years. Like a flame it may grow, it may diminish (though hopefully not), it may flicker, it may sway this way or that, but all the while it is the same flame. Even in sleep the flame of your mind shines, processing information, dreaming, easily able to wake. If you were to put out the flame and relight the candle, it would be a different flame. If you made an identical candle and lit it, it would not be the same flame as the original. My consciousness came into existence when my brain was not yet fully formed (before my birth or after, who can say? Memories of my early childhood are very faint, and none predate my third birthday), and it will remain the same flame until my death. My mind clone’s mind did not come into existence until his computer brain was turned on. There is no continuity of consciousness between me and my doppelganger, ergo he is not me, and since he came after me he is obviously a copy of me. Arguing which one of us is real because we’re identical is like arguing whether someone’s child is really their parent because both parents and children share half their DNA.

In order for my mind to truly be transferred, and not merely copied, there would have to be continuity of consciousness. To use the allegory, the flame would have to be lifted from it’s original candle, then place on another, without ever going out. What this would mean in literal terms, I haven’t the slightest idea, but that is what it would take to get me to consider a mind upload the actual continuation of my existence. I doubt I would do it though. I’m not really that into video games and I doubt I would enjoy living in a virtual environment. Plus, the concept of someone hacking into my consciousness scares the hell of out me. Any individual who merely had their brain scanned would not enjoy their similitude’s immortality (immortal, assuming the computer system never crashed. Good luck). To some it may be a comfort to leave a identical individual in their place once they’re dead, but not me. I have considerable self-loathing issues, and would despise a replica even more.


  1. The only way to practically achieve immortality and remain as the same conscious entity, is a gradual replacement of the brain with similarly functioning parts, that are free from the effects of the ageing process of normal tissue. By allowing a part to work in tandem with the section of brain it is to replace, and also to copy neural mapping, a more hardy version of an almost inconsequential section of brain could be replicated. The original could then be removed with little noticeable effect on the subject and without interrupting the individual's consciousness. By repeating this process many times the whole brain could be replaced. This Process, in this form doesn't create a copy, it simply replaces the medium your consciousness is stored in without any interruption to your consciousness.
    An interesting point to consider arose from this when it was pointed out that instead of removing the original sections you could in theory use the doubles to create two fully functioning brains. Assuming that the old and new sections are spread evenly between the two brains and are small enough that neither can be said to contain all the original copies of memories, or emotions, or whatever you consider to be most defining of an individual, Would you say that the two brains were the same person?

  2. @ Anonymous

    I don't think I've ever considered that before. You're proposing I cut my brain in half, and then each half has the other half replaced, therefore resulting in two seperate conscious entities, each of whom retain continuity of consciousness with my previously singular mind.

    They wouldn't be the same person, since they each have their subjective consciousness, but they would each be equally original. How can there be two originals? That's quite the paradox. I would hope this situation is never anything more than a hypothetical.