Physics is a field that con­tin­ues to sur­prise. In the early 1900s the belief was that it was effec­tively fin­ished — apart from a few minor details, there wasn’t any­thing new left to dis­cover. Those few minor details ended up being the set of insights Einstein had which rev­o­lu­tion­ized our under­stand­ing of energy, mat­ter, space, and time.

While finess­ing what we now know as General Relativity, Einstein came across some­thing that didn’t make sense to him; actu­ally it so offended his sense of order that he chose to work around it rather than explore it. Later physi­cists, fol­low­ing up on Einstein’s work, found that it led to inde­ter­mi­nacy, which essen­tially means that we can­not simul­ta­ne­ously know a particle’s speed and its loca­tion. The physics of Quantum Mechanics devel­oped from that.

More recently, the LHC in Europe may have found traces of a sub­atomic par­ti­cle which might or might not tie together cur­rent the­o­ries in physics; or it could be a sta­tis­ti­cal anom­aly. And else­where, devel­op­ments con­tinue in teleportation.

Not the Star Trek ver­sion of it. So far it’s only sub­atomic par­ti­cles that have been tele­ported, but it is hap­pen­ing. Essentially what hap­pens is a particle’s state is ana­lyzed, dur­ing which the par­ti­cle is dis­as­sem­bled, after which it gets reassem­bled on the other side of the room. That it’s the same par­ti­cle is con­firmed by its quan­tum state — a sort of fin­ger­print. Eventually, we can imag­ine the same hap­pen­ing for larger items such as atoms, marsh­mal­lows, miss­ing socks, and pos­si­bly even liv­ing enti­ties such as gold­fish or people.

So sup­pose you step into a tele­porter one day, and zap your­self to the other side of the planet, where you spend some time shop­ping and eat­ing inter­est­ing foods. When you’re fin­ished you tele­port your­self back home. As you step out of the booth, you’re accosted by a wild-​​eyed per­son who insists that you’re no longer you, that you’re actu­ally dead.

On the face of it, that’s ludi­crous. The fla­vor of your inter­est­ing meal still remains on your tongue and your stom­ach is still full; your arms are loaded with the good­ies you bought on your long-​​distance jour­ney; you’re upright, respir­ing, and capa­ble of becom­ing irri­tated by strangers. So how can you be dead?

To under­stand this wild asser­tion, let’s take another look at tele­por­ta­tion. What’s hap­pened to you as you acti­vate the booth is that your entire mate­r­ial being is con­verted to energy, trans­mit­ted else­where, and then re-​​condensed from energy into mat­ter. Well, con­vert­ing some­thing to energy is pre­cisely the same as dis­in­te­grat­ing it. In order for the tele­porter to work, it has to actu­ally take you apart on the sub­atomic level. That sounds pretty lethal, doesn’t it?

Yet, despite hav­ing been torn apart atom by atom, here you are, think­ing, breath­ing, digest­ing, with a com­plete set of mem­o­ries going back in time as far as your mem­o­ries always have.

Suppose there’s a mal­func­tion in the tele­porter, and after you’re turned into the energy pat­tern at home, you step out at your des­ti­na­tion — but a sec­ond ver­sion of you ends up being dupli­cated back home. That ver­sion of you expected to appear on the other side of the world, has not, and is furi­ous. Meanwhile, you at your des­ti­na­tion go off on your shop­ping trip.

By the time you get back home, the other you has had suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences that he’s sep­a­rate, his own indi­vid­ual with his own recent mem­o­ries — yet by any bio­met­ric mea­sure you’re iden­ti­cal. Even your fin­ger­prints are the same.

What hap­pens next? How do you resolve hav­ing a copy of your­self? Which one of you steps into the tele­porter to be re-​​absorbed — and is that even an option?

Suppose instead you’re killed in a tragic acci­dent. As it hap­pens, tele­porters retain a copy of energy pat­terns they’ve processed, just in case some­thing goes wrong on the receiv­ing end, such as a black­out. The pat­tern can then be rein­te­grated at the depar­ture point. Your griev­ing fam­ily remem­bers the trip you took last week, goes to the tele­por­ta­tion cen­ter, and asks that your pat­tern be retrieved from its computer’s stor­age. A moment later, a reassem­bled you appears in the tele­por­ta­tion booth with no mem­ory of hav­ing been in stor­age, and with no mem­ory of a fatal accident.

Is it you?

Does a tele­porter kill you, or does it trans­mit your essence in some way, or does it make copies? Were you killed when you were dis­in­te­grated, or was the reassem­bly a kind of re-​​animation? If you were killed, how can there be a con­ti­nu­ity of mem­ory? Everything you know asserts its exis­tence, you keep think­ing I am alive.

If this is so, what is the seat of this thing called I? Is it an entity, a process, some­thing sep­a­rate from your body? If it’s sep­a­rate, how can it be tele­ported along with the rest?

These are goofy sci­ence fan­tasy sce­nar­ios, but think­ing about them can lead to some inter­est­ing results. Those who believe in souls might reject the entire idea of tele­por­ta­tion. Or they might insist that dupli­ca­tion of peo­ple is impos­si­ble, para­dox­i­cal. Or that the dupli­cates would be non­vi­able, inca­pable of func­tion­ing because they lack the ani­mus nec­es­sary to sur­vive. Or that the dupli­cates are soul­less mon­sters, pos­si­bly golems or even bod­ies inhab­ited by demons.

If those con­cerns aren’t yours, we still have the issue of dupli­ca­tion — acci­den­tal or oth­er­wise — and what it might mean. And at the core of it all, we must return to the ques­tion of what hap­pens to you — or your con­scious­ness — when your body is taken com­pletely apart.

My thought on this is that as long as we’re think­ing of our bod­ies and minds as being mono­lithic, con­tigu­ous enti­ties, we’ll find our­selves baf­fled by these ques­tions. However, there are other ways of look­ing at our­selves, and not sur­pris­ingly Buddhism offers one of these alter­nate ways.

In Buddhist psy­chol­ogy, we’re not com­posed of a body/​mind monad, nor a sim­ple body-​​mind dual­ity. We’re com­posed instead of five inter­act­ing aggre­gates, bro­ken down into body, sen­sa­tion, per­cep­tion, con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion, and con­scious­ness. Out of those five aggre­gates comes an emer­gent prop­erty, aware­ness — or mind.

These five things are called aggre­gates because they can­not be bro­ken down into dis­crete ele­ments; even they are com­posed of other things. To see how this may be so, con­sider your body. What it’s made of is rather sim­ple, chem­i­cally — car­bon, oxy­gen, hydro­gen, iron, cal­cium, and a few other ele­ments — derived from organic sources such as food, air, and water. Yet this aggre­gate of constantly-​​changing indi­vid­ual atoms nev­er­the­less appears to retain integrity to a high degree. The same is so of the other aggregates.

Awareness (mind) is an emer­gent prop­erty result­ing from the inter­ac­tion of these aggre­gates, and appears to be depen­dent on them, since if you remove any one of those aggre­gates, aware­ness van­ishes. Yet, if the aggre­gates are lit­tle more than processes that self-​​perpetuate from inter­ac­tion with the world around them, and aware­ness is itself depen­dent on those aggre­gates for its exis­tence, what does this sug­gest about aware­ness — and about the con­cept of I, which seems to be cen­tral to this awareness?

If the body, in other words, is both a body and a wave of atoms flow­ing through space, isn’t it valid to see the body as a pat­tern that con­tin­u­ally remakes itself (almost like slow tele­por­ta­tion)? If aware­ness func­tions in the same way, how does the I actu­ally func­tion? Why is it not aware of this con­stant self-​​remaking? Does it have a blind spot, or does this sug­gest some­thing else?

If it’s the respon­si­bil­ity of I to stitch together the var­ie­gated inputs from the five aggre­gates into a con­sis­tent, appar­ently seam­less nar­ra­tive, how would the I ben­e­fit from see­ing where it’s dis­con­tigu­ous? How could it even be made aware of its dis­con­tigu­ous nature in the first place?

Finally, sup­pose the I actu­ally is dis­con­tigu­ous, and becomes aware of this fact. What sort of effect would that have on the aware­ness which pos­sesses the con­cept of I?

The next time you’re plan­ning to tele­port some­where, this might be worth con­sid­er­ing. Or, if tele­por­ta­tion isn’t in your agenda, con­sider instead gen­eral anes­the­sia or even deep sleep. Both are states that atten­u­ate con­scious­ness to such a degree that aware­ness van­ishes — yet we’re able to pick up where we left off, just as soon as we waken. How is this pos­si­ble, if what we per­ceive as I really func­tions as we imag­ine it does?

Not that you should lose any sleep over it.


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