It’s actually an old debate — in fact, it’s a variation on the Ship of Theseus — but modern day science fiction gives it a new spin. At root it’s a question about exactly where our identity as self-aware conscious beings actually resides. I don’t find it paradoxical so much as intriguing.
As with trees falling in forests, the answer depends on defining key terms. This case depends on exactly what we mean by “dies” and “Kirk” — the latter being the Ship of Theseus.
The Hossenfelder video caught my eye because it somehow seemed unexpected to me. (As it turns out, she was inspired by a recent survey.) I’ve posted about Star Trek transporters plenty, and the video alone didn’t inspire me to write another post on the topic. I noted it as a possible item for a Friday Notes post.
Her next video, on an unrelated topic, caught my eye even more and got me thinking about a post including both. I got as far as a bare-bones rough draft that’s been lurking in my Drafts folder waiting. It needed meat.
No doubt this is the survey Hossenfelder refers to. That’s enough synchronicity that I can’t resist doing this post. I’ve never considered transporters in terms of the Ship of Theseus question before, so that’s a new angle.
The framing of the question (new matter) makes it clear we’re talking about the same kind of transportation Star Trek made canonical. The local object is converted to energy after its pattern is read, and the remote object is constructed from energy using that pattern.
On Star Trek this involves a formidable question about how the construction occurs without an end station to perform it. (The David Brin parody I wrote about last post tackles and answers this vexing question.) Larry Niven wrote some stories about transporters and their social consequences, and he, along with most other authors, always have end stations. Star Trek is something of an anomaly that way. In the context of the basic transport question, we can assume an end station.
In any event, we’re destroying and re-creating the physical body. Presumably the mind comes along with it, but for dualists teleportation raises that question. If there is something ineffable about human consciousness — call it a soul for now — is it attached to the specific physical body? Will it follow to an exact duplicate?
What if we make a duplicate but don’t destroy the original? That raises a new set of questions, even when souls aren’t involved. At the least it results in duplicate copies of individuals. But these issues are not part of the main question — does transporting kill the individual?
Without further ado, here’s Dr. Hossenfelder’s take on the matter:
She mentions the survey. When she released it I had no idea what she was referring to. After reading Mike’s post the lightbulb went on. Ah, ha!
The only thing I’d take issue with is the apparently spontaneous appearance of receiving end stations spitting out copies of Kirk. I’d call those Boltzmann Transporters and can’t take them much more seriously than I do the Brains.
One very important aspect she mentions involves bandwidth. There’s an old saying about never underestimating the bandwidth of a station wagon full of hard drives. Physical structure carries a lot of information. The amount of data necessary to describe a human in sufficient detail is surely in the exa- or zetta-byte range.
Exactly how much information is hard to quantify since it depends on many factors: level of detail and ability to compress data chief among them.
She doesn’t mention the other major physical requirement: energy handling. Converting matter to energy involves Einstein’s famous equation, and the conversation rate is about one to 90-quadrillion. An 80-kilogram being (about 175 pounds) converts to a huge amount of energy — the equivalent of a 1.7 giga-ton explosion.
So the Enterprise, per person, is sending down a huge amount of data along nearly two giga-tons of energy. Woof.
From the beginning the matter-energy-matter nature of transportation bothered me (on many levels; it’s really problematic). See my ST: Transporters & Replicators post from 2012 for details.
Even back in high school in the late 1960s when Star Trek first aired I knew about quantum jumps. The very first original Star Trek novel that came out, Spock Must Die! (1970), by James Blish (I’ve still got my copy), had something they called a “Dirac jump” — which delighted me because that was exactly what I had in mind for the way transporters should always work.
The basic idea is an indistinguishable from magic technology that convinces the particles of an object that they’re not here… they’re there. It would leverage quantum uncertainty and tunneling in a huge way.
Magic? Duh. As magic as matter-energy-matter conversion with no end station? You decide. I don’t think so.
Jump technology solves all the nasty issues. No energy conversion; no massive energy handling. No bandwidth issues. No level of detail scanning issues. No copy issues. No end station requirement.
And no identity issues.
As to those identity issues, for me the question seems entirely definitional.
If “me” is defined as a specific persistent pattern — a 4D spacetime worm traceable back to my birth — then destroying that body definitely destroys that “me.” But since a duplicate “me” is created elsewhere, the pattern of my thoughts, ideas, dreams, hopes, and so forth, all carry on. Unless the transport fails; then I’m dead.
Unless my pattern can be stored and re-sent. (Which means copies are possible through multiple sends.) But if my pattern is corrupted or not created properly, then I’m dead. In addition to energy and bandwidth requirements, there is also a need for error correction. How many copy errors are allowed (if any)?
But ultimately what’s the difference between this form of transport and a far more real form involving a long (long) journey while you’re asleep. Long enough that all your cells get replaced by new ones (your pancreas renews on a 24-hour basis), so effectively blink and are elsewhere in a new body.
My identity is the sum total of my memories, my past. To the extent that’s malleable, so is my identity. (But I’ve never been big on identity or identity issues.)
As to the ways transporters can fail, well, car accidents happen, too.
I think the truly bedeviling thing about transporters is their ability to create duplicates. Even if scanning has to be destructive, once a pattern exists it can presumably be used to make multiple copies.
The notion of beaming that amount of energy is absurd. Receiving stations would surely supply their own energy, which means multiple receivers can receive the same pattern. We don’t need Boltzmann transporters for multiple copies.
That said, the notion of a duplicate “me” (or many) doesn’t depress me. If anything it excites me. It would be fascinating to meet myself.
And while I don’t believe it to be true (like, at all), I love the fantasy that other versions of myself exist in the multiverse. I’m sure a lot of them pursued careers I didn’t — like standup comedy or music or filmmaking. It’s cool to think other versions of myself did those things.
In the end, for any foreseeable future, teleportation of people seems fantasy, so the question is a bit silly and pointless. It won’t be an issue for a long, long time, if ever.
So my bottom line? Whatever! 😀
Here’s the other post that caught my eye:
A topic to get into in one of my QM 101 posts someday maybe. This notion of backwards causality has always bugged me, so right on Sabine!
The one thing I’ll say about this now is it’s (almost) true what Feynman said about how all the weird parts of quantum mechanics can be found in the two-slit experiment. I qualify with almost because entanglement isn’t part of that, although the other two biggies, interference and superposition, are.
I deeply believe that if we figure out interference, superposition, and entanglement, we’ll finally be on the road to figuring out QM. I think those are the key mysteries.
Stay transported, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.