The Continuity Problem

A question to ponder:

  • If I made a deal to create an identical copy of you and provide some additional value to that copy’s life, but in return you’d have to die, would you take me up on it?

Strange question, I know, but think about it. I promise there is a reason I’m asking you to contemplate suicide. Have an answer? Good.

  • Now, if the technology was in place, would you take advantage of teleportation?

My response here used to be a “hell yes”…at least until I realized this question is essentially the same as the fist, only with the “additional value” made explicit as super-fast travel. It speaks to a sci-fi inspired philosophical issue called the continuity problem.

startrektransporterIn Star Trek, when a character “beams up” they are disassembled particle by particle so their composition may be analyzed sufficiently by the computer in order to perfectly rebuild the character elsewhere. The information from this process is transferred to the destination and the person is reconstructed. This process is instant colloquially speaking, by scientifically it is not. Nothing can move faster than light even in the Star Trek Universe.* The particles and the information can only be said to move at a max-speed of photons–this means, for a short time. there is no you. After that short time, there is a you, just not the you. The pre-teleport you was deleted and the post-teleport you is a copy from the data of the pre-teleport you.

The post-teleport you is identical down to the last thought pre-teleport you had stepping into the transporter. From post-teleport you’s perspective, his copy-ness is indistinguishable from being the original. Your stream of consciousness is seemingly continued, but that is an illusion. This phenomenon is unique to sci-fi, at least for now, but there are analogues for it today. It can be argued that a continuity problem arises every time you go to sleep, but your brain’s functionality never breaks in this case. Going under anesthesia comes a little closer to the continuity problem in that functional consciousness breaks, but the physical continuity of your brain remains. The question is how necessary is your brain to your identity compared to a copy of your brain.

The spiritual among us have another set of issues. Teleportation results in a death and immediate clone which would end one soul and possibly start another, that is if souls can originate by scientific means at all. Does the choice to “beam up” count as a suicide that would be considered sinful to many religions and weigh said soul down to less desirable realms? All this is potentially multiplied by the fact that anyone who opts-in to teleportation will likely make it their regular form of travel, a version of them dying on every trip.

Let’s hear from you. If cheap or free teleportation went to market today, would you be the first in line or live your uninterrupted continuity in the slow lane?

*It appears that the Enterprise and other ships regularly break the light speed limit, but they don’t. It’s called warp speed because they fold space (they warp it) in front of the ship so the slower-than-light vessel is able to move much greater distances. Warp speed is more creating an artificial wormhole than hitting the gas petal.

**The same continuity problem comes up in sci-fi that involves uploading a person’s consciousness off-site, be it another body or a machine.