Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Teletransporter

"Suppose that you enter a cubicle in which, when you press a button, a scanner records the states of all the cells in your brain and body, destroying both while doing so. This information is then transmitted at the speed of light to some other planet, where a replicator produces a perfect organic copy of you. Since the brain of your Replica is exactly like yours, it will seem to remember living your life up to the moment when you pressed the button, its character will be just like yours, and it will be in every other way psychologically continuous with you. Is it you?"

Source: Derek Parfit. "Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons." In Mindwaves. C. Blakemore and S. Greenfield, eds. London: Basil Blackwell, 1987. 19-25. 21.

In "What if... Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy", where I found this interesting little gem, the author suggests that Parfit is attempting to elucidate some questions concerning human identity. What it is that constitutes an individual human being and so forth. The author uses an analogy from Parfit between the human being and a club or regularly meeting group: "'Suppose that a certain club exists for some time, holding regular meetings. The meetings then cease. Some years later, several people form a club with the same name, and the same rules' (23). To ask whether its the same club or another but identical club is, he says, to misunderstand the nature of clubs." (89)

This hypothetical concept has been at the heart of some of the more 'intense' pow wows of which Jackson and I have been a part. I think it is safe to assume that it is interesting on many levels not all of which are specifically oriented around human identity (although I guess human identity is linked to everything we could discuss, isn't it?). A direction in which this conversation usually evolves with Jackson and I is to ask the question: Would you ever use such a machine? Which tends to lead the conversation away from a question about what constitutes human existences to a conversation about how-afraid-am-I-of-death. That is, I tend to find that entertaining the idea of other people using the teleporter as not being problematic at all, yet I could never in my right mind be convinced to enter the machine because I'm certain it would lead to my death (despite the identical replication that would continue to live my 'life').

However, there is something satisfying in the analogy to the club for me, in that, it allows for more emphasis to be placed on the idea of 'time' as it relates to teleportation (and human identity and death). That is to say, what seems to be very important in establishing 'human identity' is the human being's continuity over time. However just as, asking whether or not a club with the same name and rules started 30 years after the other ended is in actuality the same club is not really to understand what clubs are, asking if a person is the same if you can perfectly clone him or her is to miss what it is to be a person (Now I'm in dangerous territory! Can't let this get metaphysical). It would seem that what we call human identity is too often being linked to something physical about our bodies but I think what Parfit is getting at is that this is a misguided approach to understanding identity. Identity, instead represents a socio-evolutionary mechanism to help perpetuate our species. In the prioritizing of our cells over others we will fight to spread our seed so it would of course be useful to think of yourself as an individually important entity. This is why it is so difficult to try and pin hole what it is exactly that constitutes human identity (its not really there!) instead we have developed a method of thinking of ourselves in such a way in order that we may better spread our DNA.

Now where Jackson and I seem to most often disagree is in that I am not comfortable letting this body die so that another identical can take its place but Jackson does not seem to have this same reservation...

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