Identity is strange. What makes me, me? And not someone else?
If I were teleported – the mechanism of which is perfect atomic re-construction at the destination and some sort of destruction or recycling process at the source – would I still be me?
I’m not talking about definitions but about experience: What would that feel like?
Presumably, death (whatever that experience is like).
And then some other being springs into physical existence at the destination but believes it’s just had one continuous experience. A bit like in that movie The Prestige.
Maybe consciousness doesn’t work that way. Maybe the being at the destination would be a philosophical zombie or have no soul.
What about if my body wasn’t destroyed at the source and there were now two versions of me? Would there be two consciousnesses?
The answer depends on whether physicalism is true.
I think in terms of definitions the one at the source would be me – but, again, that’s not the interesting question.
Experience-wise, it would be very strange for this new being at the destination: Either no experience (no soul or a philosophical zombie or something), or the feeling of continuous experience as if nothing changed except its physical location.
But then this new being might meet me and realise that it wasn’t me. From my perspective, I might wonder if this being I was looking at was a philosophical zombie or if it had a soul. From its perspective… I don’t know what it would think at this point lol or if it would even think anything or just be a zombie with no experience at all.
If physicalism is true and my experience is just an emergent property of my atoms or whatever, then the same atoms in the same configuration would have the same experience.
Why, then, if you were to kill me, muddle up all my atoms, and then get some other atoms and arrange them into the same structure as me 1 second before I died – you could even do it in the same physical location if you like – would it not feel like a continuous experience to me?
From my perspective… well I wouldn’t have a perspective because I’d be dead.
You’d create some new being that would have the experience instead.
It – this new being – might ‘remember’ the time before it was atomically dismantled. It might feel like a continuation of experience but it wouldn’t be a continuation. That would just be an illusion.
The Ship of Theseus: If every plank on the ship eventually gets replaced with a new plank, is it the same ship?
But, again, that’s a question of definition, whereas this is a question of experience. There is nothing that it is like to be a ship. But there is something it is like to be me.
There’s something similar going on with our physical bodies and the passing of time, though. Our cells die and are replaced by new cells – new atoms. Every 7 years or so they say.
The teleportation thing happens to our bodies – but at a slower, more gradual, pace. And yet that feels like a continuous experience from birth to the present day. I haven’t died.
So, maybe it would feel like a continuous experience if you muddled up my atoms.
So, you are atomically dismantled and perfectly re-created with different tokens of the same type of atom. What would that experience be like from your perspective?
- It would feel like nothing because you’d be dead.
- It would just feel like everything carried on as normal and nothing happened.
Let’s take option 1 to its logical conclusion:
You destroy the atoms, you destroy the person. No experience.
The teleportation scenario again: You are atomically dismantled – i.e. killed – at the source and reconstructed at some distant destination. It could be a different galaxy or a billion years in the future.
It’s hard to see how, from your perspective at the source, that could feel like a continuation of experience. Again, you’d die and have no more experience. Some different being would come into existence at the destination and this new being would have the experience instead of you.
But then why doesn’t experience stop with the passing of time?
We already established that your atoms gradually get replaced over time and it does feel like a continuous experience. So the teleportation thing has basically already happened:
My atoms are completely different to the atoms I was made of when I was 8. And yet it’s been a continuous experience from age 8 to the present day. I haven’t experienced death.
It’s exactly the same as the teleportation scenario, just more gradual. And experience continues.
So what’s the difference between the teleportation scenario and normal ageing? If it’s just a difference of degree, then at what point is the watershed?
I can come up with a million scenarios in between the two: Swap one atom, swap two, and so on.
It doesn’t really make sense.
So, let’s follow option 2 instead:
You can swap the atoms and your experience continues.
But then what about this scenario: You are atomically dismantled and two versions of you are perfectly re-created somewhere else.
Which body would you wake up in? How could that feel like a continuous experience?
That doesn’t make sense either.
The physicalist response kind of makes sense but is also completely mind-bending and counterintuitive:
Actually, I don’t know how they would answer it.
They might say something like: That there is no self that persists. No self that experiences, only experience itself (which is supervenient on the atoms or whatever). The feeling of continuous experience is an illusion. We constantly die and are reborn moment to moment. All that exists is the present.
But that is quite a hippy-ish and unscientific sounding thing to say: There is only now. What about the past? Not in keeping with the whole physicalist thing.
Giving physical, objective, explanations of subjective experience always ends up sounding a bit paradoxical – the hard problem of consciousness, for example. Even the correct explanation wouldn’t make any sense.
I find these mysteries really interesting.