06 September 2008

The Venus you

Say it’s the same taste taking down the same kiss
Say it’s the same you
Say it’s the same you and it’s always been like this
Say it’s the same you

-- The Cure Labyrinth (from "The Cure" 2004)

It is often perceived that philosophy provides no answers, only more questions. One reason for this perception is covered by Nicholas Fearn in his excellent book Philosophy: The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions.

Bertrand Russell once compared the branches of human knowledge to a filing cabinet, in which the material discussed by philosophers was found in the department marked 'Don't Know'. [...] Sir Isaac Newton wrote the Principia and Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations as philosophers, but they are now remembered respectively as a physicist and an economist. The contemporary thinker Noam Chomsky is described as a philosopher as well as the founder of linguistics, but the former half of his title will one day be dropped from encyclopedias.

In other words, once an area under philosophical discussion becomes sufficiently resolved or systematised, it gets categorised as another discipline.

Another reason is that, due to philosophy’s concern with the why and how questions, it’s almost always possible for someone to add a further “but why” or “but how” to an issue under discussion. This can go too far. A friend once observed (in regard to some art students' approach to art theory) that this one-upsmanship is reminiscent of the perpetually unsatisfied child questioning all the received wisdom of their parents: “But why, mummy?” … “But why?”

Fearn’s take on this is once again worth quoting. Writing on the problem of free will, Fearn covers the compatibilist response to the problem many see posed by determinism. Determinists believe that human activity and the human mind is subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the universe - subject to cause and effect - and therefore any sense of free will is an illusion. Compatibilists say that free will is campatible with a "cause and effect" universe run according to scientific laws. In his conclusion to this topic, Fearn writes:

...most philosophers who work on the question of free will are incompatibilists, while most of those who do not are compatibilists. The former camp often ridicules the latter for their unfamiliarity with the latest arguments and texts on the subject. But perhaps compatibilist philosophers have better things to do than reoccupy secured ground. [...] We might also ask how non-theologians can regard the matter of Mary's virginity as settled, or how people who are not UFO fanatics can consider the alien abduction question settled. The answer, of course, is very easily. The last twenty years of free-will debate have produced a strong line of anti-compatibilist thinking. This, however, is what one would expect in a field that has been vacated by philosophy's regular armies and left to partisans who refuse to accept defeat.

I would say the free will problem is one area in which philosophy has delivered what counts, as near as matters, to a resolution. I may discuss this more in another post, but basically the time has come to wrap the debate: either accept compatibilism as the solution to the problem of free will; or admit you think free will is an illusion; or admit you hold to some tenuous mystical explanation that satisfies you but is hard to place within a rational framework. (I’m basically in the first camp.)

Another issue I think has been resolved is one that is often put as a thought experiment. It is the future, and practical matter teleportation has been invented. We have the technology to ‘beam’ you from Earth to a newly terraformed Venus. The transporter chamber on Earth will scan your body and deconstruct it totally, atom by atom, leaving you completely disintegrated but perfectly recorded in terms of everything that went into your form. It then transmits this information to a counterpart on Venus. This chamber reconstructs the exact form of you that was just disintegrated, down to every last detail at an atomic level. You reappear, functional and feeling yourself. You are now on Venus. Or are you?

The Venus you has been perfectly recreated, to the point of having the same personality, same memories, and same body. ‘You’ sure feel like you, and you remember stepping into the Earth transport chamber. You are confident you are the same person, and with a continued psychological identity and completely identical physical form, it may be hard to see why not. But consider: if you were zapped by a ‘disintegration ray’ (a form of weapon not uncommon in science fiction stories) you would be dead. Not temporarily dead, or ‘pending’ dead, but dead as in dead. In the case of the matter transporter, are you not still killed? Is the new Venus version of you not exactly that: a new version of you, but not the same you?

My answer to this thought experiment is another thought experiment: say the matter transporter on Earth could scan you without needing to deconstruct you. Now say it malfunctioned and transmitted the scanned snapshot of you to Venus without disintegrating you at all. The Venus chamber doesn’t know any better, it just recreates the structure it was sent. And hey presto… You Live!
But, umm… You also live. The real you, back on Earth.
The new you is a real being, no doubt; a real self-aware person that honestly believes it is you, and really does have all your memories. But it isn’t the ‘you’ that is standing back on earth. The Venus version of you is more akin to a clone - it's no more “actually” you than a clone is, anyway. The person that walks into the transmitter on Earth is not the same person (the same continuous identity) as the Venus-you that gets created in the receiving transport chamber, as evidenced by the fact that you are still standing on Earth wondering why the heck the transporter didn’t work.

I’ve not heard a convincing argument - indeed, any argument at all - why this would not be true even if the transporter successfully disintegrated you on Earth before transmitting the replication signal. The Venus you doesn’t become you in terms of continued identity any more so just because the real you is killed by disintegration. The two phenomena are independent, as my version of the thought experiment shows.

Of course, we’re a long way off having an actual matter transporter anything like that portrayed in Star Trek. But the thought experiment and its resolution raises questions around what constitutes our identity, in the most intrinsic sense, and the matter of our sense of identity remains a puzzle for philosophy and science. (Maybe more on this another in another post.)

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan is infamous for killing the fan-beloved character of Mr Spock in a sacrificial act at the end. But truth be told, all the Star Trek characters were effectively killed the first time, and each time, they were beamed anywhere. New versions of them were created; versions that had all the same abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and the same memories, as the originals. Versions that honestly thought they were the same person. But they were copies. By the time of Khan’s wrath, Spock was already dead.

As far as we can ascertain, getting into a matter transport device (at least one that functions in the way they are generally portrayed as functioning) would be nothing short of suicide, however painless.

The taste is dry - the kiss is thirst
And it’s not the same you
It’s not the same you