Beam Me Up, Scotty: What Teleportation Says About Identity

If you teleport to Mars, will you be the same person there as here?

Posted Jun 26, 2013

The Star Trek television series popularized the idea that a person or object could be dematerialized at one location, beamed to a different location, and rematerialized there. Even if the technical issues are resolved, as the physicist Michio Kaku says will happen within a century, the question is whether an individual’s identity would survive the transport.

It turns out that contemporary philosophers actually think about questions like this. Several weeks ago, David J. Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University, and David Bourget, a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario, published their survey of nearly one thousand contemporary philosophers from one hundred universities in a paper titled “What Do Philosophers Believe?” The topics covered in the survey ranged from God to free will to zombies. On the question of teleportation, assuming the technology was available, the findings reveal that about one third of the philosophers believe personal identity would survive, another third believe personal identity would perish, and the rest believe something else.

Here’s the key issue: what’s a person? I think the most interesting aspect of teleportation isn’t technology but this question of personal identity. In his book Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, the British neuropsychologist Paul Broks tells a futuristic tale about a man he calls Derek, who works as a technician on Mars. Teleportation makes the commute easy: a matter of minutes. You step into a booth, a technician pushes a button, and scanners plot the exact co-ordinates of every one of the roughly ten billion billion billion atoms in your body. This information is transmitted to your destination, where the process of reconstruction takes place using locally available materials. Before you know it, you have arrived.

In the tale, however, Derek steps out of the booth and realizes that he hasn’t moved a millimeter. The transmission of his data has taken place, but the discorporation mechanism had malfunctioned. Within a few minutes, there will be two Dereks in the universe. Which one is the real Derek? Is it the one on Earth who continues talking with the booth attendant about what went wrong and whether he will be discoroporated anyway? Or the one on Mars, who steps out of the booth and immediately calls his wife back on Earth to let her know he is safely at work?

Broks uses this admittedly fanciful tale to think about personal identity. In particular, he challenges the view—he refers to it as Ego Theory—that there is an immaterial essence that defines who we are. The idea of a personal essence, which Plato called the soul, was adopted early on by the Christian church. According to the orthodox view, the soul is the eternal aspect of a human being that will survive death and continue to exist eternally, either in heaven or in hell. In a more modern expression of Ego Theory, the philosopher Rene Descartes famously declared, “I think, therefore I am.” The ‘I,’ in other words, is “the experiencer of experiences, the thinker of thoughts, the doer of deeds. Each day is a blizzard of sensations and thought patterns, but I give them coherence and link them to my memories and my plans for the future.” The ‘I’ is the hub around which the wheel of experience revolves.

The problem, according to Broks, is that the ‘I’ in this sense does not exist. However diligent the search, we cannot find a ghost in the machine. The tale about teleportation illustrates the problem. The Derek who appeared on Mars and called his wife had become a different Derek from the one who remained on Earth with a dubious future. Neither had a soul or identifying essence that the other lacked. The two Dereks were simply different now.

This lack of a unique essence leads Broks to suggest an alternate view of identity known as Bundle Theory. In this view, each self is made up of an ongoing and ever-changing bundle of perceptions and emotions, of actions and experiences. These are linked to each other in various ways and held together by our memory of them. The self is the bundle. The roots of this understanding can be traced to the teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, in the sixth century BCE. We take a set of wooden parts and call them a carriage, he said. Take away the parts, and there is no carriage. In the same way, the Buddha continued, we take a bundle of elements and experiences and call it a self. Take away the experiences, and you have no self.

When it comes to our identity as individuals, we are not principally bundles of atoms or even neural impulses, but bundles of memories. We are what we remember. The thoughts you think today, the decisions you make today, the experiences you have today: these are not merely journal entries in the book of life. They are the book of life. They create the self you will remember yourself to be in the future.

Ask yourself this question: in the future, will I remember the person I am now becoming with approval and satisfaction? Or will I regret being the self I am now creating? By paying close attention to each element that makes up our bundle of experiences, we ensure that we create memories worth having. The memories that result from the choices we make today will become the essence of who we are in the future.

The ultimate question, I suppose, comes at the end of life, when we look back and remember the entire person we have become. Perhaps the key to achieving a meaningful life is to focus on the remembrance of things future. Otherwise, we might as well be zombies, which one-quarter of the philosophers surveyed think are metaphysically possible.