Monday, August 16, 2010

Teleportation Reconsidered

While reading Steve’s reflections on the pace and progress of technology, I was struck by an aspect of teleportation that never seems to get any play when it’s portrayed in the movies.

In the future, we will supposedly see the crew of the Enterprise replace conventional travel with “beaming” about.  As near as I understand it, transporter technology involves the disintegration of the traveler at the departure point, the transmission of either his atoms and molecular map or his molecular map alone, and the reconstitution of the traveler at the destination point, either from “his” original atoms or from from a stock of atoms kept at the destination for this purpose.

The problem is that I don’t see how the traveler’s consciousness thread survives this process.  Yes, a reassuringly lifelike facsimile of Capt Picard may appear in the transporter room, complete with his memory and personality.  But that will be of cold comfort to the original Capt Picard, who is . . . disintegrated, and presumably off to whatever the afterlife has in store for him.  In all the decades and re-imaginings of  Star Trek, I can think of only one episode in which this problem was even touched on:  when TNG crew discovers that a copy of Commander Riker that had reflected off the ionosphere (or something) during a beaming and stranded him for decades on some godforsaken planet.  Much sanctimonious moralizing ensues.  But never did anyone raise the matter that Riker’s original consciousness thread inhabited at most one of the Rikers.

This same problem bedevils efforts to copy a person (as in The Prestige) or download a person into a new body (as in Avatar).  Sure, this process helps everyone around the subject feel warm and fuzzy (or not) about having him around.  But I can’t think of a materialistic model by which our consciousness thread is other than bound to a specific instantiation of our physical brains.

Bonus problem:  does the post-transporter, reconstituted copy of a person have a soul?

As a traducianist, I would argue no.  Which pretty much explains the characters on TNG, come to think of it.  But I suppose a creationist could go either way on the question.

6 comments:

Justin said...

Funny, I had a convo with my 13 y/o about this very issue, a couple months ago.

I told her I thought even if they could transport the material atoms, the subject would be dead, separated from their soul.

Φ said...

That's a good point. To transport a living organism, the transporter would need to replicate not just molecular/cellular structure but thermal properties as well, plus other properties I don't know about. And even then, the transporter would need to immediately "jump start" the organism a la CPR.

I'm not sure what our post-transporter, soulless humanoid would be like, except that it would probably be bad. But I'm not sure we can rely on it being dead. There is no theological warrant for non-human creatures possessing souls, and they seem to do okay.

Professor Hale said...

I too have thought of this. Unless the soul/consciousness resides as a function of some physical body part, it think it would be lost in transmission, leaving the new copy without one. This is something that should be the subject of very careful experimentation before such a device is used on people.

Since we do not understand our soul, its function or its attachment to our bodies, it is quite likely we will sever that connection unintentionally with transporter tech. It is also possible that experiments with transporters will result in the physical measurment and confinement of the soul resulting in a new understanding of humanity, the discovery and proof that animals have souls and the possibility that not all humans have souls

Further, while the concept of beaming from a transporter pad to another is simple, the further step of transporting to or from a third location seems inconsistant, since there is no aparatus to decode the information and reconstruct the bodies. It also begs the question: if site to site transport is "normal", why do you need a transporter room at all? Every transport should be from where you are to where you want to be.

samsonsjawbone said...

There is no theological warrant for non-human creatures possessing souls

Oh, my! Phi, you need to brush up on your Hebrew - see here for an analysis of the biblical term "nephesh chayah" if you're interested.

In any event, this is all a little easier if, like me, you reject Cartesian mind-body dualism and believe that a person is a soul rather than "having" a soul.

But not much easier:

To transport a living organism, the transporter would need to replicate not just molecular/cellular structure but thermal properties as well, plus other properties I don't know about. And even then, the transporter would need to immediately "jump start" the organism a la CPR.

Yeah, my off-the-cuff view is that if you wanted to truly recreate the person, including their mind, you'd need to reproduce the actual state of electrical activity within their brain at the time of teleport. That seems like a fiendishly complex endeavour - indeed, as we know (we do know, don't we? I'm not the only ST:TOS geek...?), in Spock's Brain Dr. McCoy specifically notes that even in the year 2xxx, science still hasn't cracked the mysteries of the human(oid) brain.

Φ said...

Samson: Mmmm . . . I hadn't really considered the eternal soul a species of mind body dualism. On the one hand, I would affirm this:

Q37: What benefits do believers receive at death?
A: The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves until the ressurection.

I also think we can reasonably infer that our "minds" -- I.e. thread of consciousness -- adhere to the soul rather to our brains after death. But by the same token, I don't think technology will be able to access either the soul or the mind.

samsonsjawbone said...

Well, okay, there's a lot in there - multiple dissertations, I daresay - and I don't want to drag the discussion off-topic. Suffice it to say: it's interesting to realize that I disagree with the Westminster Catechism. And, yeah, Trek-style teleportation is impossible, because no matter which way you slice it, the original person actually dies.