Thursday, July 26, 2012

Can Murder be Immoral in Star Trek?

I claim independent invention of these ideas, as a little boy watching Star Trek.
As an adolescent I even considered writing them up, but there wasn't Blogger. Anyway apparently they're pretty mainstream philosophy, cause I've just read about them in a paper by David Chalmers, and he references Derek Parfitt who must have been watching Star Trek at about the same time. And I've written them up using the standard language.

Right. A transporter works by scanning someone's body, to find out where all the atoms are and how they are moving, and then transmitting that information to somewhere else, where the body is reconstructed.

And this works by what in Star Trek is called 'magic'.

But can it really be done?

Well, I don't see why it would contradict any fundamental physical laws. It looks like it might be non-trivial in the extreme to actually do it, but how close could we get practically?

Here's a plan. Take a scan of someone's body which shows you where all the cells are (Cells come in discrete types. Surely this is hard, surely this is possible).

Take a stem cell from the someone, and clone and specialize by devious means that cell, until you have enough of each type of specialized cell.

Put those cells back together in the pattern you stored earlier.

And bingo! There may be some technical difficulties, but I reckon they are solvable, and I reckon what you got at the end is a pretty good copy of the original guy, except that probably he feels a bit unwell on account all his hormone balances are wrong, but with any luck this does not kill him and a night's sleep or so and he is cool. And in fact maybe he is better off, but that is for another day.

Now the problem here is that suddenly you have got two guys! Because we've totally forgotten to disassemble the previous one while we were scanning him.

And at this point there are various predictions we can make.

If we are Religious, or we are Cartesian Dualists (or members of an allied trade), then we imagine that the second guy has no soul. And we predict that he falls on the floor and flops around and maybe says 'brainzz...' or something.

If we are Property Dualists of the type that I will call type I, then we imagine that the second guy has no epiphenomenal consciousness. But we do not predict that he will start with the 'soulzzz...', because this is an epiphenomenal difference and so it can make no difference to our physical predictions, so there is absolutely no way we can tell the difference between our position and :

If we are Property Dualists of the type that I will call type II, then we imagine that the second guy does have an epiphenomenal consciousness because one just goes with having a brain. But again, this is an epiphenomenal fact, so it makes no difference at all between our predictions and those of :

The Materialists: The second guy, having an identical brain to the first guy, is fully conscious, fully a person.

So that's nice, because now we have an experimental test that we can do, that will rule out or rule in Cartesian Dualism/Souls.

In fact I will volunteer for it, given that some nice guys somewhere will give me say £250,000 because if the second guy starts going around saying 'I am John Aspden and I am a fully conscious being and it is my clear perception that I used to have the following things', I may well be able to convince him that he is the Second John Aspden, but he is going to find this a lot easier to accept if he has his own narrowboat and some money and so on.

On the other hand, although having an identical twin who knows all my secrets might be a bit of a head-fuck, I imagine it will be nice to have someone who is interested in the same sorts of things to have lunch with from time to time. And I am sure my parents will be pleased, because now I will be at home eight weeks a year instead of just the four.

But if the Souls guys are right, then there is going to be a copy of me rolling around foaming at the mouth and the only option is going to be to beat him to death with a shovel. And I am going to need £250000 of recreational drugs to get over it.


  1. Am I doomed to be the only person to comment here ;-?

    I tend to think about this slightly differently. This crops up lots in sci-fi, but Star Trek is the canonical version so it will do: they have no way to solve the what-if-you-can-copy-people problem. Therefore, they solve it by, in essence, always killing the first copy (one example where this isn't true is, which you should certainly read if you haven't). Or by making the scanning process destructive. I have a vague feeling that is what Star Trek says, if you ask closely (because obviously killing the first-copy ten seconds after transmission would be immoral).

    But this doesn't help. Because you've scanned someone, destructively, and copied that state into a machine, and used that machine to remake them elsewhere. So, clearly, you can use that saved state to do it as often as you like (or alternatively assert that you could run them virtually).

    Incidentally, I think that it is likely that QM makes the scanning process impossible with enough fidelity, but that's a different matter. Actually, there is just a possibilty that you could use QM-type observing arguments to construct a reason why its possible to scan-n-reconstruct, but not save, a person.

    Incidentally, I notice that one of your two followers is a certain "southa". Hmm...

  2. William,

    probably can't make a copy of the exact quantum state.

    probably can make a copy that is 'close enough that we'd accept it as the original if the original wasn't still there'.

    It is to forestall exactly this sort of attack that I am saying all that crap about cloning cell by cell. No QM there, but it will do.

  3. Cells: yes I noticed you were doing that. And looking more closely I see you're asserting that cells are essentially discrete types. If that were true, and their state also, and their interconnects also came in discrete grid-like arrangements, you'd have evaded the QM problem. Whether either is true isn't really clear; but its possible enough to be OK for discussion.