Monkeypox, new COVID-19 variants, new surges and new mass shootings. I saw a headline that said this country has had 200 mass shootings this year, so far. If true, that’s about one every 18 hours. It’s altogether too much to understand. This is one of the reasons I stopped racking my brains looking for answers to real world problems and started to think about classic philosophy problems.
Yesterday, Anitra “Starfleet Ensign” Freeman reminded me of the problem of teleporters.
Strictly speaking, there is no problem with teleporters, because teleporters haven’t been invented yet. So the problem is on par with the problem of time machines or the problem posed by Schrödinger’s box. There is no Schrödinger’s box able to pose any problems. At least, there’s no cat-sized Schrödinger’s box. So cats are safe for now.
But the classic problem of teleporters doesn’t actually require that they exist. The problem is not to explain the existence of such a machine but to explain how we would ever know that a teleporter has been invented by observing its operation, assuming it does what teleporters are supposed to do. You climb in, and someone sets a destination, pulls a lever and blip bloop: you and your clothes disappear from the teleporter and reappear at the destination, which might be another teleporter (a receiving teleporter) or could just be any place with a suitable surface (if it’s Star Trek).
So how do we know that the person received is the same person as was sent?
Science fiction writers essentially admit defeat in the face of this question when they try to explain what the teleporter does. They say it dissembles the particles that make up your body and clothes and then beams them to your destination, where they are reassembled.
Dr. Leonard H. McCoy made the profoundly intelligent point that when the particles that make me up are dissembled, I become no more. Then, when the particles are reassembled, that’s not me; that’s a copy of me.
I have to admit I have had the same concern about deep anesthesia. I once had four teeth pulled at the dentist and was put totally under for the operation. When I woke up on a couch after it was over, I felt that my brain was rebooting, and it occurred to me that while I was shut down I ceased to be, and I could not prove that the me who woke up was the me who was put under.
Then I realized that the same problem arises every night when my sleep is punctuated with dreamlessness. If I don’t exist continuously, how can I claim to always be the same person?
The great thing about philosophical problems like this one is that they’ve been around for ages and, if you can’t answer them, it’s OK. So far in the history of humankind, no one has actually suffered as a result of not figuring these things out. Well, not any more than they have suffered from falling asleep and waking up.
Even the teleporter problem isn’t as bad as it looks. Sure, you might cease to exist, but if all goes well, a copy of you will be created at the receiver, so, hey, that’s a net loss of zero life, right? Isn’t that all that matters?
It’s like reincarnation. You die; you come back as a snail. Net change of life: zero.
I’m not really happy with that resolution of the problem, and I would prefer to have something that swept away all the lingering, nagging concerns about the soul, death and all that. It all seems so untidy. It relies on the idea that the total amount of life doesn’t get changed. It doesn’t seem right that I could be dying every night so that a copy of me could climb out of my bed in the morning.
I was hoping I would also have space remaining at this point to definitively resolve the problem of free will versus determinism, but there’re only 80 words remaining, and I don’t think I’d make it.
I’ll just leave you all with the key: figure out what free will is first, separately. Then, figure out what, if anything, is deterministic, also separately.
Oh, here’s another clue: You can’t have free will that means anything if it’s not possible to determine the consequences of your actions. If nothing is predictable, will is futile.
Read more of the Jun 8-14, 2022 issue.