Friday, October 13, 2006

Teleporatation and the Clone Test

According to recent news, physicists have succeeded in teleporting a combination of light and matter, transporting the information over a distance. The news reports have hyped this achievement as the next step in a progression that will end in "Beam me up, Scotty!" transportation of human beings, the kind where you get "zapped" and reappear someplace else.

It's an intriguing possibility, but one that has always disturbed me. Wouldn't you be a little scared to go into such a machine, even if you'd seen it run successfully on hundreds of previous subjects? I'm not talking about the possibility of a disastrous malfunction. I'm saying that the whole idea of teleportation presents some curious philosophical problems, even if the process itself is foolproof.

I wouldn't have so much of a problem if I was assured that the machine was merely moving all the particles of my body to a different location. But not all science fiction writers have conceived of teleportation in that way. For many of them, teleportation means actually destroying all the particles, all the atoms, all the cells and flesh and tissues in your body, and reconstructing it using different material in another location. For anyone who isn't disturbed by this idea, I propose a simple test: would you be willing to be killed, if you were assured that a clone with all your memories would be created in your place?

My intuitive repulsion at this idea stems from my belief that there's an essential "me" contained within my body, that can't be reduced to the sum of my body's material. I'm perfectly aware that, due to growth and regeneration of cells, I'm not actually composed of the same material as I was a decade ago. But I carry with me a sense of self from every moment to the next, no matter how much my body changes.

Strangely, many reductionist scientists think that this "me" is an illusion. In the words of the late Francis Crick, from his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cell and their associated molecules." My response to Crick, or to anyone else who holds such a belief, would be to subject him to the Clone Test.

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