Sunday, July 5, 2009

In Which I Argue Science Fiction Philosophy

Well, I let this site get a bit behind after feeling a bit out of it for the last two to three weeks. However, I'm dragging myself back to health now, and would like to finish off this half-written post.

Realizing I've spent too much time arguing politics here, I wanted to write about something else and look at a philosophical question commonly raised in science fiction. An argument I often had with my friend Pfau, was regarding the hypothetical situation of whether or not one would be willing to use a Star Trek style transporter where a body is scanned, the data is transmitted and a copy of one is built in a different location. This, to some people, raises the objection that the original person/consciousness/soul/self/etc. is lost. Dollhouse raises several similar questions, as do all the science fiction that involves uploading people's brains to computers. Yes, this is all freshman philosophy, but as I'm still arguing with my friends over it, I wanted to have my say.

The crux of this debate, in my mind, is whether or not the concept of a singular identity, a soul, is valid. Many people imagine a person's identity to be continuous, singular and undivided. A person has a soul when they are born (or conceived, whatever) and that soul is them for the entirety of their life (and after, if you take that school of thought). Ignoring some of the finer points, this is generally how it is in all cases. We don't have transporters or uploading to make things complicated and we can get away with thinking of identities or souls that way. Our ethics, laws and customs assume that it always must be that way, but often the current concept is imperfect. A person's identity changes throughout their life; their mind, their body, all are different at different times, but because the change is continuous, we assume a singular, continuous identity or soul.

That's all well and good, but when we get into this hypothetical question involving technology that hasn't been invented yet, our concepts fair less well. The reason that some people would not want to be transported is because that break of continuity in space makes them feel that continuity would be broken in their identity or soul, and as that isn't allowed in their conception of identity or soul, they believe that they would have died. Some people, on various Star Trek forums, argue that continuity of self is maintained in Star Trek transporters because the new person is built with the old atoms, but I view this as completely irrelevant. We have already hypothetically given up continuity in space, and we are maintaining continuity of form, so I feel that continuity of matter is not important. Oddly enough there aren't many ethical questions raised by a lack of continuity in time, though I suppose this is an issue in some science fiction where they have to rework the definitions of death and inheritance law when people start cryogenically freezing themselves. Anyways, the question is, what forms of continuity are important for continuity of self?

As I would like to live in a world where such questions become relevant, I would like better answers. Should I be OK with being transported? If there is a copy of me, should I be afraid of death? If there is a copy of me, who gets my stuff? If my mind is copied into a computer, what rights should it/I have?

I believe that to answer this we should be prepared to recognize the continuity of identity as the convenient convention it is and not as an absolute. The person I am now exists at one moment in time, with some memories of the past. One's 'self', as an absolute in one moment of time, is constantly dying, as it does not exist from one time to the next. As no identity is perfectly continuous, then the issue of 'dying' or 'losing one's self/consciousness/soul' when being transported becomes much more irrelevant, and issues of what do with duplicates, or large discontinuities of time, become more issues of practicalities. This certainly doesn't answer the question, but it makes it much simpler.

1 comment:

  1. I've actually thought a lot about this... kind of. I'm less concerned with the spiritual/soul issue than with other moral issues on the practical side. As I see it, the most imaginable way for me to imagine this type of transportation is in which one's whole atomic make-up is scanned, recorded, transmitted and re-constituted in a different location using new atoms. It just seems a lot more reasonable than transporting a whole person's worth of atoms across space/time. What I wonder is: what happens to the old body once the new body is created? Is it incinerated? What if the old body changes its mind, and now there are two copies of you, neither of which wants to be destroyed? And can you keep uploaded copies of yourself in case something goes wrong, a la Dollhouse?

    I think moral philosophy has a long way to go before our society is ready for this kind of technology. I guess it's a good thing that it seems pretty much impossible.