Material Identity

If you were to duplicate yourself exactly, would you be the same person? It seems like a stupid question, but it is possible that in the near future this exact circumstance will come to pass. Obviously the classical interpretation of an atom-for-atom duplicate, like a faxportal, will remain a figment of science fiction imagination. However, with the rapidly expanding processing power and storage capacity of modern computers, it will soon be possible to contain an entire human brain within a computer. We also need to uncover more of the deep workings of the brain’s systems, but with increasing brain scan resolutions this should become easier as well.

In any case, this post is about the nature of duplication. If you were, at a stroke, to instantly copy yourself in every respect, are you the copy and is the copy you? Or is it too discontinuous a shift? I will outline an argument for both sides, and you can pick what you will.

First, my side, because that’s how I roll. OK, so, are you the same person twenty minutes from now as you are now? Most people say yes. Alright, how about when you go to sleep, are you the same person when you wake up? Most would agree to that as well. OK, how about when you are unconscious/in a coma, and then wake up and continue just as before your coma? Though some people find that questionable due to the fact that comas and persona-altering brain damage tend to go together, if you were basically similar then we can assume you are still the same person. If you’re prepared to go that far, how about this: if you were to die- as in, all life processes cease, and be brought back, would you be the same person? I don’t mean it wouldn’t change you, I mean would you still literally be the same person? As in, I would still be Evan and not Jim-Bob. Alright, let’s suppose that you die and that in order to bring you back they have to replace one atom. Hey, let’s start from second base and say they swap out a whole organ. Are you still the same person? What if they had to swap out multiple organs? What if, just for the sake of argument, they disintegrated your entire body and then recreated one exactly like it, atom for atom, before bringing you back to life? If you want, you can leave out the brain for now.

Let’s assume you’re willing to cede the fact that the exact atoms that make up your body are irrelevant- they’re all swapped out in a matter of months anyway except, I believe, for a few in your bones that take longer. That includes your brain. So if you were to materially duplicate someone it is a perfectly valid copy, and actually is that person in every respect. This means that you could teleport someone by reading the information that constitutes their body, beaming it to a constructor elsewhere, and producing an exact duplicate (let’s assume instantaneously, screw reality), and simultaneously destroying the “original.” This results in a direct spatial translation because it is the information pattern that makes up the person that is significant, not the atoms that constitute their body or even their brain. Wild, huh?

Alright, now for the rebuttal. Let’s suppose that you could create such a portal. It’s a fairly easy modification to simply omit the destruction aspect. What then? Now you have two actual duplicates roaming around, and if the copy is legitimate then the original must therefore be “false” while in fact the older copy should probably be treated as the “real and original” person. Let’s suppose then that you have the portals arranged so that they are right next to one another, resulting in a direct duplication. Though the two copies may behave identically after duplication, after that point they begin to branch, now which is the real copy? The answer must be that the original is the one whose consciousness has continued uninterrupted after walking through the portal. The copy is something else, a separate consciousness newly created. Now here’s an important question- does the copy have the memories of the original? Obviously the copy will remember everything the original experienced, as that is a necessary prerequisite of a working portal- it’s an identical copy in every respect, down to the last neuron. But it never experienced those memories, it will only think it did. If you stepped through such a portal, you would be destroyed, and a doppelganger exactly like you would take over your life where you left off, nonexistent in the void of non-information, non-reality. Don’t do it, man! Step away from the shimmering wall of light!

Since I can’t let such an argument stand unbashed, I have to counter myself. I am like a master swordsman, left hand versus right! Who will win? OK, I’ll start with the most difficult idea. Why is it necessary to have a “real” copy and a “fake” copy? This is an assumption on the part of the advocate for the opposing position which actually holds no water. On the instant after creation, they are actually identical, so whichever one you pick it could arbitrarily be the “real” one. The following instant, however, they become different. True, not to a significant degree, they would be just as different from each other as you would be from yourself one instant from now- still the same person, but now divergent. Still, there is no prerequisite for one of them to be “real” and the other false. I suspect this thinking is born of the fact that you have to kill one of them as an impostor or something like that- such unenlightened thinking is ubiquitous and tenacious. In truth, why can’t both simply be allowed to diverge? Think of it like this: a species of organisms that clones itself, like these geckos essentially is producing an exact genetic duplicate of themselves in order to perpetuate the species. When you duplicate yourself, you are creating a memetic family tree somewhat like humans already do in families, with one slight difference: there’s no sex. Dammit.

Interesting thought: meme sex. Randomly take half of one person’s memes and half of someone else’s, mix ’em together and get a new person. Unbelievably weird concept, and probably pointless if not ethically horrifying. Although I can imagine a process by which some memes might be mixed while others not, somewhat like the genetic system- since we don’t end up with a truly random half of each parent’s genes because they are organized into chromosomes which are pretty much the same in both parents, with some minor differences allowing for height and hair color and whatnot. Your memetic family would be rather closer than your genetic family because, to put it bluntly, you have quite a lot more in common with them. Some of your more distant relatives, maybe a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy you made eighty years ago might have turned out totally far-out, dude. But that doesn’t reflect on the others in the family in the same way that someone else you know doesn’t.

Now, on to the somewhat simpler ideas. What is a memory and how do you know you experienced them? A copy would have equal claim to them because they are simply a pattern of information. Hell, you could give that exact stream of sensory data to someone else via MemoryTube and there you go. That’s essentially what we’re doing now, but we don’t have the capability to stream the senses of touch, smell, and taste. We haven’t even got the sight bit nailed down to matching the human eye for resolution. Yet.

Now, the destruction argument is a tough one. However, if the information is the only significant element, then as long as the pattern persists it doesn’t matter what you do to it- move it through space, time, swap out as many atoms as you like for identical ones, whatever. If you believe in a soul, then the portals are not for you because you’re not going to be able to rationalize destroying your body as a form of transportation. True, you don’t actually have to destroy the precursor copy, but that would be like acquiring a new brother every time you had to go to the grocery store. I’m all for family (kind of), but that’s a little excessive.


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