If McCoy was a physicalist he was right not to trust the transporter

Pondering on those who argue consciousness is purely a physical phenomenon one day, I designed a thought experiment, (but shortly found that it was an elaboration of a thought experiment, proposed by McGinn in 1999 (although I think mine carries more oomph)).

Leonard McCoy, the doctor in the original Star Trek TV series, did not trust the transporter, a device that beamed you from one place to another by splitting you up into your constituent atoms and sending them from here to there in the blink of an eye and reassembling them on the other side. He was very unsettled about being broken down and being put back together (perhaps he had seen the 1950s movie The Fly and had been concerned about the potential for error in such a machine). But there may be a bigger problem than McCoy realized.

First, by hypothesis, assume physical materialism is true and that atoms are all there are in the universe.

Now suppose you had a device that could examine every atom in your body, and then grab some atoms out of box (labeled Atoms) and make an exact copy of you, placing every kind of atom from the box into exactly the same place it was in you and in the same state (the possibility of constructing such a device is irrelevant to the thought-experiment; I recognize that the copy machine would have to break some of Heisenberg’s uncertainty rules, but indulge me here).

You face south and turn on the machine, and it makes a copy of you and places it facing north. Since both of you have exactly the same memories, (it has copied all of your neural hardware including the chemical state of each atom at the time the copy was made), the only way that she and you know which is the copy and which is the original is by the direction you are facing (how unsettling to have a complete complement of memories implying a continuity that is not there—but you know you are a copy because you are facing north). There you are, looking at a copy of yourself. There is still the you-you, the person “looking out the window” of your eyes, the subjective self, the thing you recognize as your unique consciousness.
Now, however, there is another copy of you looking at you. Both of you know who is the copy and who is the original by the direction you are standing, yet from that moment on, two existential entities are experiencing different subjectivities. You have no more access to the subjectivity of the woman across the floor from you than you do your neighbor, child or spouse.

Now, let’s run the machine again. This time however, the chemicals will be provided by your own body. So you turn on the machine. It records all the information needed to make the copy. This time, however, rather than pulling the chemicals from a box, it tears you down (Picture a blender that grinds you up into your atomic constituents) and uses your chemicals—like the transporter on Star Trek, to build the copy and places it facing north again. Let’s just say you were disassembled an hour. Nothing has changed from the first example, except there is only one person left standing. But the irony is, the you that was there last time and facing south, is gone! Just as before, the consciousness of the person left standing facing north is not your own. The copy, believes in every way that they are still the same old you, however knows it is not because of the direction it is left standing. Of course your husband could not tell the difference. Your co-workers would see the same person. Your sisters in Relief Society can see you are gone. But you are, just like last time in the first scenario. That person “that was looking out the window of your mind” a moment ago is gone.

How could you fix the machine to keep the same you there? What if it took you apart and put the doppelganger back together very quickly? Would that make a difference? Rather than constructing the north-facing person from your chemicals in an hour (a long time to be a dead pile of chemicals) what if it only took two minutes? How about twenty seconds. What if it took one micro second? A billionth of a microsecond? Given that it is always a copy, it seems no amount of time would allow the reconstruction to let that original subjective person stay “looking out the window” it is always a new being. (This has terrible implications for Star Trek. It means that every time someone beams to the surface, a new subjectivity is created and an old one lost, but since no one can ever tell the difference, it never gets noticed).

What then is being lost? Me! My existence is lost. From third-person perspectives the same person would be there, but from my perspective the only thing that matters is gone. This shows that something primary and fundamental is being lost. But wait. By hypothesis, that person there is you. It’s made of the same chemicals? But as the first case suggests, it is not you. An identical copy, made of the exact same atoms is not you. Seems like physicalism gets into trouble somewhere. There is something fundamentally different from mind and body even under the assumption of complete naturalism.

In the experiment above, even if the change from original to copy happens almost instantaneously, using all the same components (atoms) as were there before, something is lost (because no mater how fast this copy is made from a different box of chemicals in the first case , the North facing copy is not you). And the thing that is lost is the most valuable part of the biological machine, the subjectively experiencing self. As far as your family, neighbor and peers are concerned, there is no difference. Life goes on with the same old you. But for you, the original existing subjectivity, the you that was looking out the window of the Cartesian Theater (if I may be so gauche), the only you that really matters to you, there is all the difference in the world: the difference between existing and not!

The conclusion seems to be physicalism cannot be right. The mind must be something other than the atoms that make it up–even under the assumption of physicalism. I’m thinking of publishing this so how will they answer? (I know one answer they will make, but it seems fairly unsavory, I won’t say what it is, until you’ve had a chance to think about this a few days–if no one comes up with it.)

[This may take a couple of reads to parse, the key is seeing that the North facing person in the two analogous cases presented are the same, and are not you. The first case this is important because it makes it obvious that it is not you because you are still around]

McGinn C. 1999. The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World. Basic Books, New York.

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20 comments to If McCoy was a physicalist he was right not to trust the transporter

  • I recently got in an Magnetic Resonance Imager (MRI) machine to examine my injured shoulder. Instead, I think the machine sucked out my soul. Hmmm, no wonder I have felt like a zombie lately.

  • SteveP

    I’ve been a zombie for years and no one has noticed!

  • DB

    Perhaps, if I had such a machine, I would put on a magic show and for the main event I would transport myself from one side of the theater to the other. Only it would really be the machine making a copy of me that appears at the other side of the theater. I would, of course, have the first copy of me that went into the machine instantly killed off so that the act could be perpetuated and I could make gobs of money.

  • There was a short story by James Patrick Kelly a decade-plus ago in Asimov’s (see the wikipedia entry here) that posited an alien “teleporter” which makes an exact copy, then destroys the original. In the story, something goes wrong and the original isn’t destroyed, and the attendant has to kill her to maintain the “balance.”

  • assume physical materialism is true and that atoms are all there are in the universe.

    Umm. That’s not what physical materialism entails.

    The problem is that in physics it’s all fields, fields, fields. (Even GR is a field theory) You can talk about particles but the way a physicist thinks about particles isn’t terribly particle-like.

  • There was a short story by James Patrick Kelly a decade-plus ago in Asimov’s (see the wikipedia entry here) that posited an alien “teleporter” which makes an exact copy, then destroys the original. In the story, something goes wrong and the original isn’t destroyed, and the attendant has to kill her to maintain the “balance.”

    There have been numerous stories about transporters in which the copies aren’t destroyed. One I remember finding interesting was that for interstellar travel they always do that. So there is a copy of you on all those planets. For a diplomat that means there are dozens of copies running around. As their histories diverge they become more and more different people. (I vaguely remember the author as Poul Anderson – but I read the book in High School so don’t quote me on that)

    I should note that the question Steve asks is really whether we have temporal parts or not. That is do we endure or perdue. I tend to favor temporal parts so the thought experiment really doesn’t bother me much. Further, as I said, if you don’t think in terms of atoms then the problem isn’t as bad.

  • SteveP

    Clark, yeah, I’m not being careful. I just mean by atoms, those things, fields, turtles, whatever that it is that makes up the world. Matter. That’s all there is. And it’s dead. Consciousness is matter in motion. End of story. That’s the physical materialism I’m getting at.

  • BBTW – Davidson’s Swampman thought experiment is the classic statement of this problem. It’s radicalized a bit since it asks how to conceive of a being that isn’t copied from you but is a copy that is purely accidental.

    Davidson’s concern is language. If this randomly created being says, “I went to the store yesterday” does he mean the same thing that you mean when you say it? Obviously not since he doesn’t have the causal history you do. The swampman never did go to the store yesterday. The truth conditions are different.

  • SteveP

    Mine differs somewhat in that not only is the copy the same, but it is made of exactly the same matter, in the same positions. So the matter has all the same casual history up to the dissolution. Yet, it seems analogous to the first case where you don’t get to keep the personhood that the matter is suppose to have induced. So in my swampman, he really did go to the store yesterday (to buy some grue swampburgers).

  • I admit that I may not be comprehending you, but here are my thoughts:

    Regarding the second experiment, you seem to be begging the question when you say that the “person “that was looking out the window of your mind” a moment ago is gone.” We don’t think that way when it comes to data storage on computers, so I don’t see the problem if physical materialism it true.

    At the root, it seems to me that the problem is more with the way we construct the world–trying to put things in boxes and categories–than with the (hypothetical) phenomenon itself. If such technology existed, it might seem unnatural at first, but eventually we would incorporate it into our understanding of how the world works. We might speak of branching consciousness trees (as analogous to phylogenetic trees), and eventually it would seem as natural a property of the universe as conjoined twins or in vitro fertilization.

  • The last part of my last comment may seem a little cryptic. I mentioned IVF because it seemed strange and unnatural at first, but is now widely accepted as no big deal. I mentioned conjoined twins because you could debate whether they are one person or two, and the answer will depend on what properties have priority in your definition.

    My point is that sometimes we need to add categories to accommodate the universe rather than trying to fit the universe into our categories.

  • SteveP

    Jared, thanks! I agree with your comment on categories. It must include everything we need to fit the ‘data’!

    “We don’t think that way when it comes to data storage on computers, so I don’t see the problem if physical materialism it true.” Most physicalists do believe that our subjective experience of the self is real (even if a kind of illusion by their lights) and present to the self. So they wouldn’t deny that there is something that it is like to be a human, they just think it is completely explained by ‘matter in motion.’ My contention is they are missing something in that.

  • b

    Help me out here. Related to the first example- isn’t the biggest problem that the two ‘yous’ now can interact and occupy physically distinct space?

    Related to the second example- what’s the subjective difference between being torn down and atomically shredded and subsequently rebuilt exactly as I was before and being knocked completely unconscious for the same time period??

    On a somewhat unrelated note- do you think Christ was conscious (in the sense you’re reserving for your you-you in these examples) of our pains and sins, or did did he deal with them without being conscious of them in the my-eyes-and-my-window sense?? My apologies if you’ve addressed this elsewhere (I haven’t looked).

  • My point about computer data is that if you make a copy of a file and then delete the original, the information is retained and equivalent.

    In a way, nature already does the second experiment. For one, we learn and grow and change over time. And our memories change. We are different people through our life. But beyond that, every night we lose consciousness (or at least awareness of consciousness), and of course there are other reasons we may lose consciousness. When consciousness returns, we don’t worry about whether the core “me” is the same.

    In your second experiment, I don’t see why the person would feel any different from a person regaining consciousness–or why it would be any less authentic. I’m not saying that you are wrong about missing something; I just don’t see how the thought experiment gets us there.

  • Jared, you got the answer I mentioned at the end of my post! That’s what most materialists would say. There really is nothing to say that the me of today is the same as the me of yesterday. I said I think of it as ‘unsavory’ because I like to think that I have some continuity beyond memory, that somehow, I really am the same person today as I was in first grade, not just an instant of consciousness that happens to have memories of those events. But you hit the nail on the head, Jared, from a materialist stand point every morning we boot a new consciousness on our hardware. So maybe I should have entitled this, “Why McCoy should not go to sleep at night.”

  • Doc

    I think in the first experiment, you could argue that you were split in two and that both copies are you, but from that moment on have separate existence and experience, making them individuals. Therefore, the second argument becomes a non-sequiter.
    However, it is interesting that the DNA holding us together, and the neural connections we make hold a recognizable pattern, even as the actual material turns over through time. Its the pattern that is us in any real sense of the word, not the material. Materialist may claim its neural and DNA data, I have to agree with you it’s more, its the real miracle of life.

  • Weighing in on the side of materialists, I think insight can be gained from research into people who have a damaged corpus callosum or Alien Hand syndrome. If your brain can maintain two conscious selves, which one is your soul? And where’s the other soul coming from?

  • Ujlapana, what is a soul?

    Personally I think a system that “multitasks” the way a single CPU system does by switching between threads could explain multiple conscious selves. All you need for it to work is the memories to remain relatively independent. (Note: relatively)

    I think we have to unpack what one means by consciousness.

    Steve, I missed your earlier reply to me. I think the problem is that if there is a field it isn’t simply matter in motion but more complex states. Matter in motion is what the moderns (say 1650-1850) thought. There was extension and change of position. But with E&M and other more complex fields that just doesn’t work.

    Now I think one can argue that even the kinds of state-properties physics accepts at the moment is insufficient for the mental. That’s the argument of zombie arguments. But I don’t think saying it’s all just matter in motion works. That can’t account for the theories of mind (however problematic) of people like Penrose who see consciousness as emerging out of quantum fields.

  • Kari

    Steve, excellent post and discussion, and I am coming late to the game.

    I really like your thought experiment, but it falls short in arguing against materialism.

    In the first experiment you are asking us to make an exact duplicate of a person, including an exact replication of every neural process that makes up the memories of our subjective experiences. Lets say that I have a machine that can do this, and I replicate you. And I do it almost instantaneously. Now in front of me I see two Steves. Is one the real Steve? Is on a fake? Each perceives himself as being Steve, and has all the memories of your previous existence; the likes and dislikes, the same interest in science, the same religious and political leanings. Do I even need to care which is the “real” Steve?

    If materialism is the way to understand the mind, I have just created two distinct individuals, who at the time of creation of the copy have the same consciousness. However, as Clark suggests in #6, they will now change over time based upon subsequent experiences. Each will develop new and different memories based upon those experiences, and in ten years time will be different and unique individuals (who happen to look like twins).

    So what if you don’t have access to the other Steve’s subjectivity? Does it matter to you that you don’t have access to your wife’s subjective experiences? Or your brother’s? Or your son’s? They are different and unique individuals from you, just as your copy is now, so why would you care to have access to your copies subjective experiences any more than you would care to have access to your spouse’s?

    Now, in your other example you are physically broken down and rebuilt, resulting in a change in the direction you are facing. Let’s imagine the process a little differently. What if, rather than going through a transporter you encountered a quantum singularity that turned you 180 degrees in a nano-second? Would you still feel That person “that was looking out the window of your mind” a moment ago is gone? If so, why? Is it different than if you just turn yourself around, because you have conscious awareness of turning?

    Now if materialism isn’t true, and we take the position that would seem natural from LDS doctrine, and our consciousness depends upon some sort of interaction between the brain (physical) and our spirit (combining to create the soul as Joseph Smith taught) more questions are raised from your thought experiment. If this is the correct position, then what if we do make a copy of ourselves? Can we even consider it a copy, or will it be inhabited by a completely unique spirit? If not, then the copy will be dead the minute it is created. If so, then the implication is that God will honor our technology and place a spirit in that body. (Forget about the theological implications/questions like if your baptism at age 8 is applicable to the spirit in your copied body at age 40).

    And if our spirit travels with our body when it is “transported” then we remain the same soul. And so your second experiment can’t really argue in favor of dualism or materialism.

    And if materialism isn’t the valid way to view our “mind” then the dualists need to come up with an explanation of why our soul is so dependent on the functioning of the brain. Does our spirit control our bodies? If so, then as ujlapana indicates, what is the explanation for alien hand syndrome, “split-brain” syndrome, aphasia, prosopagnosia, hemineglect syndromes, etc.? Is the spirit subject to the body? If so, then do we really have free-will – can’t I then argue that I have no control over the “natural man”?

  • The soul is all a matter of your belief system. If I believe that a transporter “moves me” somewhere, I’ll happily use it. If the “old” me actually ceases to exist and the “new” me is a copy, the “new” me will be unaware that this has occurred. I’ll say to myself, “That wasn’t bad. I’m still here.” And I’ll continue to use it until the day I (or the n-th copy of me) dies of old age. If I believe the transporter makes a copy of me and then kills me, I won’t be so keen on it. What the transporter does is irrelevant–it’s what I believe that matters.

    This doesn’t mean materialism is wrong. It means that spiritualists are uncomfortable with the ramifications of materialism.

    It’s like sleeping. If the conscious mind (Me) only exists in the present, you essentially “die” every night and wake up as a “new me” every morning. Actually, you do it with every passing moment, the illusion of persistence maintained only by the relatively unchanged material world (body’s in the same place, accessible memories are the same, etc.). But I don’t feel like a copy of me just died and I don’t fear sleeping each night. Why? Simply because of my belief system. I can’t even say that these particular atoms are “me”, because they’ve changed over the years. I don’t worry about the 60-year-old me being a copy of the 36-year-old me, with 36-year-old me dying somewhere in the interim.

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