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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