Friday, July 28, 2023

The Envy Argument Against the View That Teletransportation Is Death

Oh how mistaken other philosophers are! I was especially struck by this poll result in the just-dropped Bourget and Chalmers study of professional philosophers' opinions:

Teletransporter (new matter)
Survival 35.2%
Death 40.1%
Accept an alternative view 1.8%
The question is too unclear to answer 4.8%
There is no fact of the matter 7.5%
Agnostic/undecided 10.1%
Other 0.6%

Unpacking the terse formulation: In the standard teletransporter scenario (made prominent in philosophy by Derek Parfit), a person walks into a machine that scans their body molecule-for-molecule, destroying it in the process. The machine beams all that information to a distant planet. On the distant planet, a molecule-for-molecule identical copy of the original person's body is constructed from local materials. The created entity walks out of the machine, acting just like the original person, having apparent memories of that person's childhood on Earth, continuing that person's plans, saying "oh, the transportation didn't hurt at all", and so on.

The question is: Is that person on the distant planet just a replica of the original person, who died when their original Earthly body was destroyed, or is this -- as advertised -- really just a form of (non-lethal) transportation?

To get a sense of why a philosopher might say "no, it's death", consider the case in which information is sent to two planets and two new bodies are made. Since those two are different people, in different locations, they can't both be identical to the original person on Earth; so therefore -- the thinking goes -- neither is identical. But if neither is identical to the original in the doubling case, neither is identical to the original in the standard case, since whether someone is you shouldn't depend on whether a distant duplicate has been created. (Would the person on Mars have to wait for news from Venus to know if they survived?) Alternatively, consider a non-destructive scanning process. The undestroyed person on Earth would presumably still fear death from local causes even if a duplicate exists on Mars.

Right, so "teleportation is death" is not an outrageous answer -- I can see how someone might feel forced to accept that view. But still. Haven't these people seen Star Trek?! (Okay, Star Trek transporters might transmit atoms and not just information, but even the writers don't seem to have been entirely clear about that, and there are duplication problems anyway.)

[image of duplicate Rikers from Star Trek: The Next Generation]

In further defense of the view that teletransportation need not be death, let me offer the Envy Argument.

Imagine a world in which teleporters are commonplace and extremely well-functioning. No one is ever lost or doubled. The entities who walk out on the far side are healthy and qualitatively identical to those who walked in, to as high a degree of precision as anyone could possibly care about. There are no half-killed, dying people staggering out of the input side of the transporter. And so on.

Now imagine that you are an old-fashioned philosopher who refuses to enter one of these devices: "It's death!" you say. "The person who walks out on the other side is only a duplicate! I'll never step into one of those so-called 'transporter' death machines. It's all a grievous metaphysical error!"

Your friends pooh-pooh you. One pops into a transporter, her duplicate has a nice little vacation on Mars, the duplicate on Mars then steps into a transporter, and another duplicate emerges on Earth. "It's me, Gabrielle!" she says, striding up to you. "I had such a splendid time on Mars. You really should go someday!"

"Oh, you're not Gabrielle," you reply. "Gabrielle died when she stepped into the 'transporter'. I'm in mourning her now. You are just a duplicate of a duplicate of her."

Gabrielle-duplicate-2 notices your mourner's attire. "No, no," she says, "I really am Gabrielle! See me. Take my hand. I remember that time we [insert your secretest of secrets]".

"Of course that's what a Gabrielle duplicate would say," you reply, sadly. "The duplication process is so perfect! Understand that I have nothing against you. I'm sure you're every bit as wonderful as my deceased friend."

You part ways. Maybe you befriend Gabrielle-duplicate-2 (so very similar to your deceased friend) or maybe the memory of Gabrielle is too painful.

Suppose that teleportation, so-called, becomes even more common -- a fast, economical alternative to jet travel. Maybe it costs $100. (Organic materials are cheap and there are economies of scale; maybe it's also subsidized by the government because it is energy efficient.) Your friends and colleagues teleport to Europe and back, to New York and back, bopping around. You follow slowly and painfully behind, sometimes, in planes. Increasingly, though, plane travel becomes a rare and expensive novelty. You can no longer afford it. People pity you for your old-fashioned ways. For $100, you could see China, Naples, Venus, Mars, the rings of Saturn!

You'll envy them, of course. You'll try to pity them. "Of course, they're all dead, or will be soon, as soon as they take the next 'teleporter trip'. Such pitifully short lives they have. It's sad!" Your heart will not be in this as you say it, though. Their perspective, the experiences they relate, their obvious joy and unconcern, will be too powerfully vivid for you to sustain your metaphysically manufactured pity for any length of time.

Eventually, you'll hop in a teleporter yourself. Maybe part of you will even think it is suicide to do so; but if so, maybe not such a bad suicide? Once you emerge on the other end, you'll think thoughts like "Yesterday, I..." and "When I was a child, I...". Part of you will correct yourself: "That's not correct. I was manufactured just recently!" But it will be hard not to have such self-refential thoughts about the past, and everyone else speaks that way. It will be far more practical to just go along with that way of thinking.

If a few stubborn old metaphysicians are never converted, eventually they'll die off -- like people who used to refuse to be photographed on the grounds that photographs steal away one's soul. Could the anti-photographers have been correct? Does everyone's first baby picture steal away their soul, though no one notices? It makes approximately as much sense to stubbornly insist on to the teleportation-is-death view in the society I've imagined.

If this view makes the metaphysics of survival and personal identity partly about what people think constitutes personal identity and survival -- yes, yes, precisely so!

Thursday, July 20, 2023

University of California Has Endorsed the "Principles for Online Majors and Programs" That I Co-Authored

I have now been serving for a year on the University of California Systemwide Committee on Educational Policy.  One of the committee's first tasks last fall was to begin drafting up principles governing the approval and implementation of online undergraduate majors and programs.  This is such an important issue for the future, and the chance to help shape policy for the world's leading public university system seemed like exactly the point of serving on a committee of this sort, so I volunteered to take the lead in drafting the recommendations, along with Manoj Kaplinghat of UC Irvine.

After almost a year of drafts, revisions, feedback, and consultations, the final set of recommendations was approved by UC's Academic Council and made public.  Here it is!  I hope that it proves useful not only across the University of California but also for other universities confronting the issue of how to evaluate proposed online majors.

Two broad principles guided my thinking in drafting up these recommendations.

First, we should be looking not only for equality of opportunity but also for equality of outcome Online students might, in principle, have the same opportunity to, say, meet with professors about research or engage in academic discussions with peers, if they go the extra mile to make it work; but unless the academic program is set up so that students actually take advantage of those opportunities at rates similar to students in comparable in-person programs, online programs will in fact be of inferior quality.

Second, we should think broadly about what aspects of university life make in-person programs valuable -- not only performance on tests but also personal engagement with instructors and peers, student activities, opportunities for research, access to career resources, advising, informal interactions, and access to academic tools and resources.  Students who perform reasonably well on academic tests but lack these other aspects of university life are not receiving a comparable education to in-person students.

The public version of the document is available here.  Below the break is the same document formatted as a blog post.


UCEP Recommendations for Online Undergraduate Majors and Programs

During the 2022/23 academic year, members of UCEP discussed and developed a set of values essential to provide a rigorous education in an environment that benefits from new online technologies.  Ongoing budget cuts and the development of billion-dollar industries devoted to helping students cheat [1] present significant challenges to all modes of education. Although the concepts described here are provided in the context of newly developing online majors, it is important to note that these principles apply equally to in-person degree programs that use online tools.  As courses increasingly become blended with assignments and exams administered electronically and hybrid degree programs develop to include online courses, faculty and administrators should be proactive in adapting new technologies in ways that ensure rigor, engagement, and academic integrity.


Engagement.  The coursework to fulfill the major requirements and the interactions of students with their peers and faculty are some of the most important and defining educational experiences for a bachelor’s degree candidate. Students in online majors must engage with their peers and faculty in ways that are comparable to what exists in traditional majors. The 2020 Online Undergraduate Degree Program (OUDP) task force report [2] and a subsequent study by UCEP in 2022 [3] highlighted that the engagement of students with research-active faculty is a critical component of UC instruction and degrees, and this must play a central role in the design and implementation of online majors. The UCEP study also noted that small class size correlates with better outcomes.  Small classes offer the benefit of increased opportunities for student/faculty interaction compared to large classes.  The most successful online degree programs maintain a class size of fewer than 50 students per faculty member (see US Dept of Education College Scorecard [4] and US News rankings [5]). It is also important to note that if the interaction between instructors and students is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student, then such a program would not meet the requirements of a distance education program as outlined by the Accreditation Agency WSCUC Substantive Change Manual [6], based on Federal Regulations [7].

Online assessment.  Assessment is key to maintaining the quality of instruction.  Assessing student learning online in a robust manner is a subject of great debate. Coursework should allow students to demonstrate mastery of concepts, not simply their ability to copy from the internet.  It is possible for online assessments (e.g., proctored online exams) to be carried out with limited occurrences of academic dishonesty but the measures required are expensive and often risk violating student privacy (e.g., third party software, surveillance, and room inspections ruled unconstitutional [8]). In addition, not all students have the same physical space, privacy, or equipment, which makes synchronous, proctored online assessment an inherently inequitable method. Meeting these challenges may require new modes of assessment that could minimize cheating (in-person exam rooms, use of test question banks to prevent student teams from sharing answers, shorter and more frequent quizzes, open book exams, open-ended papers; etc.). It will require more resources and a concerted effort at each campus and perhaps even systemwide.

Equity.  Studies of online degree programs have shown mixed results [9].  Although some studies have shown improvements in time to degree with the addition of online courses to in-person degree programs, degree completion rates for fully online programs and learning outcomes of online courses remain a concern.  The Public Policy Institute of California studied one million online courses [10].  They found a significant performance gap: “younger students, African Americans, Latinos, males, students with lower levels of academic skill, and part-time students are all likely to perform markedly worse in online courses than in traditional ones…. The gap is largest for Latino and African American students (15.9 and 17.9 percentage points, respectively).  Students from under-resourced backgrounds may have their own set of challenges with online education, which should be taken into account when designing an online major.  It is important for online major programs to ensure that all their students can engage online (good laptops, peripherals, and internet connectivity).  An additional concern is the potential creation of two classes of students: one in-person (privileged) group and one online (second-class) group who might be working toward the same degree.  Finally, online courses should allow for face-to-face interactions within a diverse population of students; this is important in challenging biases that students might have when entering the university.  

Quality.  Students in online programs should have the same quality of instruction, advising, engagement with peers and program faculty, and support services as others in traditional majors.  Beyond providing the same opportunities, online programs should be designed to ensure that the outcomes in terms of educational goals, research goals, and career placement for their students are equivalent to those in closely related in-person programs.  Online programs should not be seen as something inferior by students, faculty, and the outside community.  For this purpose, the design and implementation of the online programs must prioritize and emphasize the high quality of education and multi-varied experiences (peer interactions, learning communities, research, interactions with faculty, etc.) that will be available to their students. 

Based on the issues centered around engagement, assessment, quality and equity, we advocate the following principles for the design of online majors and other online programs.

1.     All instruction must provide a high level of rigor and academic integrity in meeting learning goals, examinations, assessments, and program outcomes.  The learning goals for the courses and the expected program outcomes should inform the online format for the program.  Admission requirements to graduate programs should also be considered in designing the curriculum (for example, a recent survey found that 41% of Medical Schools would not accept an undergraduate online course toward their required courses [11]).

2.     Programs offering online instruction should ensure that students have the same level of engagement with instructors, including research-active faculty, as in other closely related in-person programs.   

3.     Online instruction should be designed so that students will have similar levels of involvement in scholarship and research with faculty members in the program and complete projects of similar quality as students in other closely related in-person programs.   

4.     Online instruction should be designed to ensure that students interact with each other to the same extent as students in similar in-person programs to build a sense of belonging (for example, through peer mentoring and study groups).  Students should be able to participate in student societies that exist on campus and have the same opportunities to live on campus, if they choose to do so.  The ability to live on campus is particularly important to enable the undergraduate research needed for admission to many graduate programs.

5.     Students in online programs should have similar access to trained counselors as other students in in-person programs within the same school or college.  Programs should have a comprehensive and equitable plan for student advising and remediation.   

6.     Students in an online program should be eligible for the same level of financial aid as in-person students.  They should be able to get timely career advice and have access to job fairs conducted on campus.

7.     Programs should ensure that their students have equitable access to tools to connect and learn in an online environment.  They should provide administrative support to students at the same level as they do for in-person programs.  They should plan to provide support to instructors regarding technology issues related to teaching and learning online.   

8.     Graduation rates of students in online programs are expected to be equivalent to similar in-person programs, and students in an online program should be able to transfer to other majors or add minors in the same way as they would have if they were in an in-person major.

9.     Programs should plan for systematic collection of data to assess the program outcomes of the online programs, addressing all the principles above.  Peer review of online courses is highly recommended in addition to student evaluations.

10.   Admissions requirements to online programs should not be lower than admissions requirements to in-person programs.  Online students should be UC quality students ready to handle demanding UC quality instruction.



Both the Accreditation Commission (WSCUC) and Federal Regulations maintain requirements that are specific to Online courses (defined as 50% or more instruction online).  For this reason, it is recommended that UC Divisions track their online course offerings including the engagement activities in those courses.

Accreditation of the University to educate students in California is performed by the Western Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC; formerly WASC).  They define an online course as one where 50% or more of instruction/interaction is online [6].  Online courses must “support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor or instructors, either synchronously or asynchronously.”  UC courses that include 50% or more of instruction/interaction online should be designated as online courses for the purpose of WSCUC accreditation review.  Degree programs have a similar threshold of 50% [6]: “Institutions must obtain (WSCUC) substantive change approval for programs in which 50% or more of the (degree) program (units for completion of the program) will be offered through distance education.”  For UC students who started as freshmen, the “program” refers to their UC degree.  In the case of a transfer student, the “program” consists only of the courses taken at UC to complete a degree (online courses take prior to transfer are not considered in the 50% calculation).

Federal financial aid rules require at least two engagement activities for online instruction [7].  If requested, an institution should be able to provide a list of courses with online instruction and their engagement activities.  

Correspondence courses are defined as having online instruction but do not have sufficient engagement activities.  For example, a course that posted recorded videos without an engagement activity specific to that content could be called a Correspondence Course.  Federal financial aid cannot be given to students who take more than 50% of their units (credits) as Correspondence Course format [12].

Program Review/Audit:  WSCUC accreditation review occurs every 10 years. However, once a campus starts to offer degree programs online, it is the campus responsibility to submit a “Substantive Change Proposal” to WSCUC – regardless of the time since the last accreditation review.  Federal Financial Aid audits occur every year.

UC faculty value student engagement in learning.  Approved programs should be models of excellence in online education that aim to create a positive reputation, so that if someone learns that a student completed an online program at UC, they do not suspect that the student received an inferior education.

When planning an online major, the following recommendations (based on the principles described previously) should be discussed in consideration of a distance education degree proposal. 

1.     The need for the online format should be motivated in the proposal by the course-level learning goals and the expected program outcomes.  Proposals that simply transfer courses online with minimal modifications should not be approved.  

2.     The prevalence of academic dishonesty in online testing is a well-known issue and resolving it frequently runs into student privacy and technical issues exacerbated by economic inequalities. Proposals should demonstrate that they are able to measure student learning in a robust and equitable manner while respecting student privacy.   

3.     Proposals should contain examples of online courses that are expected to be part of the required online program for which there is evidence that the online format leads to learning outcomes for students that are as good as the in-person format.  

4.     Proposals should have plans to ensure that students have levels of engagement (including one-on-one interactions, advising, and oversight) with instructors (including research-active faculty) that are much the same as those in otherwise similar in-person programs, bearing in mind that online students might lack the informal in-person interactions that in-person students often receive. Instructor-to-student ratios should be low to ensure the delivery of the high-level of education expected from a UC program.   

5.     Engagement with students should be faculty initiated and include activities that are more than just pre-recorded lectures. Examples of engagement activities can be found on page 11 of the WSCUC Substantive Change Manual [6] and defined under Federal Regulation 600.2 (see “Academic Engagement” and “Distance Education” sections 4-5 [7]). 

6.     Proposals should demonstrate that program faculty will devote as much time to mentoring students doing research projects as is typical in otherwise similar in-person programs. 

7.     Facilitating high levels of interactions among students inside and outside of the online classroom will require significant support from faculty and staff, and it may require different modes of interaction online.  Proposals should demonstrate that their program can be successful in this goal.   

8.     Proposals should have a plan for how the faculty members involved in the program will be trained to deliver and assess high quality education and to engage with students online.  Programs are strongly encouraged to collaborate with an instructional design team to design their programs and include the report created by this design team in the proposal.  

9.     Proposals should demonstrate that students in the online program will not be disadvantaged if they decide to change majors, compared to students changing from in-person majors.  

10.   Proposals should demonstrate that the technological requirements will not exacerbate existing inequities in the educational system.  




1]        This $12 Billion Company Is Getting Rich Off Students Cheating Their Way Through Covid. Available from:

2]        2020 Senate Task Force Report. Available from:

3]        UCEP 2022 OUDP White Paper. Available from:

4]        Department of Education College Scorecard. Available from:

5]        US News Rankings. Available from:

6]        WSCUC Substantive Change Manual. Available from:

7]        Code of Federal Regulations, Part 600. Available from:

8]        Case: 1:21-cv-00500-JPC Doc #: 37 Filed: 08/22/22. Available from:

9]        Fischer, C., et al. Increasing Success in Higher Education: The Relationships of Online Course Taking With College Completion and Time-to-Degree. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 2021; 355-379]. Available from:

10]    Johnson, H., et al. Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges. Public Policy Institute of California 2014; Available from:

11]    Cooper, K.M., et al. Diagnosing differences in what Introductory Biology students in a fully online and an in-person biology degree program know and do regarding medical school admission. Adv Physiol Educ 2019 Jun 1; 221-232]. Available from:

12]    Correspondence Course Financial Aid Restrictions. Available from:

Monday, July 10, 2023

The Summer Illusion

Hi from the vicinity of Sogndal, Norway!

My brain is foggy and exhausted from traveling (today we kayaked for three hours and hiked a glacier), so I'm just going to adapt a post from several years ago.

Apologies to commenters here, and social media friends and followers, and email respondents. I'll be back in Riverside next week, and I'll try to catch up on all those things.


Every spring I suffer the Summer Illusion. The following three incompatible propositions all seem to me, in the spring, to be true:

(1.) When summer arrives, I'll finally get a bunch of that research done which has been crowded out by my teaching and administrative commitments during the school year.

(2.) When summer arrives, I'll finally get a chance to do all of that non-academic stuff that I've been putting off during the school year -- big home maintenance projects, vacation travel to the four new places I want to visit, my plan to catch up on the whole history of golden-age science fiction.

(3.) When summer arrives, I'll finally have a chance to spend a lot more time just relaxing.

The Summer Illusion is surprisingly robust. Every spring, I suffer the Summer Illusion, building up big plans and hopes. Then, every summer, as those hopes fall apart, I scold my springtime self for having fallen, yet again, into the Summer Illusion. The pattern is so common and predictable I've given it a memorable name, The Summer Illusion, to help convince myself that it really is an illusion -- and hopefully not fall into it again. And yet I fall into it again.

You might think that the Summer Illusion depends on entertaining only one of the three propositions at a time. You might think that the way it works is that sometimes I entertain proposition 1 (I'll get my research done!), and at other, different times I entertain proposition 2 (I'll get all my other projects done!), and at still other times I entertain proposition 3 (I'll finally have lots of time to relax!). Largely this is so. And yet the Summer Illusion also survives simultaneous consideration of the three propositions. Even looking at the propositions side by side like this, I am tempted to believe them. Some part of me thinks of course all three can't be true, as I've seen time and time again -- and yet in my heart I continue to believe. Summer days expand so magnificently to fit my fantasies!

It's almost an inversion of busyness. If a period of time has the outward appearance of being a "relaxed", low-commitment period of time, it serves as a fantasy-and-procrastination magnet. I pile my future plans and hopes into that period of time, not noticing the impossibly mounting sum of expectations.