Everyone probably knows of the concepts of teleportation or mind transference. You step into a thing and pop out somewhere else, or you put on a metal helmet, close your eyes, open them, and find yourself in a brand new body (not necessarily organic either!). These may be actually doable. If so, they could revolutionize society.
But there is one little detail that has nagged me on and off the past few years, something that I have occasionally seen discussed in science fiction literature. There are a couple stories in particular - one of them is quite old, and I will have to go digging through my collection to see if I can find it. It deals with the problem from the perspective of teleportation. This is also touched on a bit in that one Star Trek series we never talk about (Enterprise), where the transporters are a brand new thing never used for human teleportation, and a bit in the original series with McCoys’ reluctance.
The other is rather recent and deals with the mind transference issue. Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer, involves a man with an incurable brain disease that decides to go for a procedure that will put a copy of him into a synthetic body while his old body retires on the Moon. The part that really got me was when after the procedure was complete, the original realizes that he is still doomed. Is it truly immortality if the new you is not you? Someone exactly like you will live forever, true - but you will still end up dead.
So the problem in general is this: to what extent is the continuity of our consciousness tied to our physical form?
In the case of teleportation, we specifically ask: what happens to who we are when our body briefly does not exist in its physical form? In the case of mind transference, the question is :what happens to who we are when our mind is divorced from the brain it calls home? Is the person on the other side me or is it me? Let’s assume these mechanics operate on a copy basis for now. The copy comes out the other end, exactly like you in every way.
When YOU, the reader right now, look out through YOUR eyes…will those eyes be the ones that entered the device or the set that came out the other side? Or will you be looking out from two different perspectives simultaneously?
Let’s take the case where we have move semantics instead of copy - is it actually YOU that wakes up on the other side? It shares all the physical properties, it may pick up right where your thoughts left off, but is what was transferred all of you? Is there something behind that pattern of electric fields that constitutes your perspective or is the consciousness the sum totality?
(As an aside, in discussions with friends I’ve found that it may help for me to refer to this as “consciousness vs soul”, but I’m unsure about the potential religious connotations of that word and their impact on this discussion.)
Let’s break this down case by case. We assume that the physical requirements for a move, copy, or teleport are in place. The issues regarding consciousness and its relation to the physical (the ebb and flow of neurotransmitters, motion of charged particles in the brain, etc) are treated as solved issues. The focus is on the concept of self and what really constitutes our identity.
There is a separate soul and consciousness
If there is in fact a separate soul and consciousness, it seems reasonable to assume there is some sort of connection between the two. So, we can model this as follows: external stimuli is picked up by the body, travels up to the brain, is filtered through our consciousness, and then passed on to the soul.
If we create a copy, what impact does that have on the connection between soul and consciousness? Does our soul connect simultaneously to each consciousness? Is there a new one created that then connects to the copy? If a new one is created, how does that work? Does the new consciousness generate a soul?
If we move to a new body instead of copying, does that affect the connection? While our consciousness is moving through the wires, which would not happen instantaneously, would you be able to perceive that? What if it breaks the connection - does your soul vanish? Does a new one appear and connect to your consciousness? Does your consciousness generate a new one? Does your soul just drift away into nothingness?
This depends partly on mechanism I think. If we teleport by manipulation of space, and you can just sort of step through a doorway without any real changes in your body, then I don’t think there would be a problem. However, if there is some sort of conversion process, something where our physical form may not really exist briefly, how does that affect the connection between soul and consciousness? Even if our consciousness picks up right where it left off, like a computer resuming from sleep mode, is it still our soul in there?
There is only the consciousness and that’s it
This case is the most comforting - our consciousness, the interactions that make up our thought processes, is all there is. It makes the move to a new body much simpler, but there are still some issues with copying and teleportation.
This is fairly straightforward. There are just two of you. Unless there is some wacky entanglement thing going on, I can’t see any way to end up with multiple inputs to one perspective or a danger to the self.
This is now (relatively) safe! With consciousness being the sum totality of our existence, moving it somewhere will move you. There may still be some danger in the mechanism, but the process will still result in YOU being in a new body, possibly an experience like going to sleep and waking up.
Still sticky. Physical movement is still fine, since as with a move or copy there is still some implied physical medium containing us, but if we go through some sort of conversion process then what physically anchors our consciousness to existence?
I’m…not sure there is one. In the case of a move, whatever comes out the other end will, as far as it is concerned, be the original. In the case of a copy, either may claim to be the original - we have no way of differentiating the identity. The only way to know may very well be to go through it personally - but that’s quite a risk. I think this fundamentally comes down to whether or not we develop the ability to confidently identify what it is exactly that makes us who we are and what the requirements are for sustaining that identity, and be able to measure it. Unfortunately I can’t see anything ever making it to human trials, unless we start experimenting with death row inmates or some country with loose ethical standards takes a crack at it. Not only is there the possibility of straight up death, but there is the spiritual angle as well. We just don’t know enough….and I find that rather annoying, and a little depressing.
When I started writing this, I had a whole plan for how I was going to lay out the possibilities, turn the rambling discussions with friends into a coherent presentation….and then halfway through realized that there was just too much unknown. Basically every section was a giant question mark. We know some about how being conscious (in the sense of awareness) works - there has been some work studying how anaesthetics work. But “awareness” and “this is ME” are not the same thing.
I think the most practical way forward for anyone looking at immortality or life extensions is to focus on maintenance/replacement of the organic bits, and try to avoid messing around with the brain directly. We know a bit about maintenance and degradation, so we can probably improve those areas without risking anything. Full brain transplants may be a viable options someday - I think it would be reasonable to guess that the physical brain is the important bit to keep intact, and as long as you can hook it back up to its support system everything will be fine. So there are still options available.
But it is sort of sad to think that we may never practically be able to just step into a chamber and walk out of a corresponding chamber on a different planet just because of the limitations of the ego.