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!


  1. Christoph MussenbrockFri Jul 28, 08:33:00 AM PDT

    How would you think if the setup would be like this:

    - People are teleported, i.e. the copy is created.
    - Only after the destination has confirmed that the process has been successfull, the destruction starts at the origin. For practicality, the destruction happens by putting the biological substance which has remained at the origin in a meatgrinder (maybe, for safety reason, after applying some anesthesia).

    IF you believe that teleportation isn't death, the copy IS the original, so the fate of the biological remains shouldn't bother you.

    The argument you give is just a psychological argument why people could be tricket into agreeing to be teleported. For sure, with social pressure, group think etc. people could be tricked into anything. But this is not an argument pro/con "teleportation is death".

    I think to get a satisfying answer it would be necessary to define the concept of "continuity of the self". This is hard because there are no satisfying concepts of the "self", and this is because there is no satisfying concept of consciousness.

    First solve consciousness, then the continuity of the self will follow as a corollary, and then the teleportation argument can be revisited.

  2. Well said Eric! Particularly the final point. It's why I would have answered with the 7.5% who said there's no fact of the matter, although my sympathies lie more with survival.

    It's worth noting that Star Trek's replicators really made the existential issues much worse. Prior to their introduction, it could always be said that a person's pattern is just too much information to be stored permanently. But once food can be replicated, with all its organic complexity, that seems to go out the window. There's no reason a copy of every member of an away team couldn't have been held in backup, just in case. Or even for the whole crew not to have been held in storage until needed for some assignment. It would have made for a very strange show to really explore the implications of transporters / replicators.

  3. Seems exactly analogous to abortion: in theory many people believe it's murder; in practice, they don't act like it's murder and they change their minds if it's urgent to do so.

    The next step is the Supreme Court should rule that teleporter bans are constitutional, and the issue should get thrown to the states…

  4. Is big bang just of itself'...

  5. This seems like a really bad argument to me. Essentially I agree with Christoph that this is just "a psychological argument why people could be tricked into agreeing to be teleported." I think this is clearer if one considers an analogous argument in a setting where the hard problem of consciousness is not involved. So, I present the "Envy argument that God exists."

    Imagine a world in which religion is omnipresent. Nearly everybody goes to Church, prays regularly and most communal activities are based on religion and worship. Most major life events like birth, marriage, etc are tied to religion. Also the religion is quite pleasant and peaceful. There is no murderous inquisition, no holy wars, everyone is pro-choice and environmentalist, etc. There is no discrimination based on religion, it is simply that most people center their lives around it. Religion seems to improve everybody's mood, help them with major life decisions, reconciling with old age, etc.

    Now imagine that you are an old-fashioned atheist who refuses to believe in God. "I just don't think he exists," you say. "When we die we don't go to heaven, we just disappear." Your friends pooh-pooh you. They say they can feel God present and guiding them at every moment in their lives. They happily take part in communal life, quickly find spouses, have kids, etc while you painfully lag behind, unable to find a partner who shares your views. They find meaning and fulfillment in church activities while you struggle to find hobbies unconnected to religion.

    People pity your atheist ways. If you just accepted God into your life, you could happily participate in all sorts of uplifting rituals and activities! You'll envy them of course. You'll try to pity them. "Of course, they hold completely false beliefs about the world and are deluding themselves about what happens after death." 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 go into a church yourself and start telling people you believe in God. Maybe part of you will think that it is intellectually dishonest to do so. Over time, you'll find it is difficult to talk, even to yourself, as if God doesn't exist. Accepting religion has made your life so much better (you can participate in more activities, find friends and romantic partners more easily, etc) and everyone else speaks as if God exists. It will be far more practical to just go along with that way of thinking.

    If a few stubborn old atheists 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 no-afterlife-after-death view in the society I've imagined.

    If this view makes the metaphysics of God and the afterlife partly about what people think constitutes the existence of God and the afterlife -- yes, yes, precisely so!

  6. Patrick, that seems like a description of a universe in which, for all intents and purposes, God exists. Or at least, there are very good reasons to think God exists in the situation described.

    (However, I should clarify that by "god" here I mean "some very powerful extremely benevolent active being," as I don't think the god of classical theism is logically coherent.)

  7. Christoph: Assuming the anaesthetic version of your scenario, I'm happy to say that the one teletransporting doesn't die. The previous body becomes something like a shed skin in that case. (Which, to be sure, we call "dead tissue" but part of what's at play here is the question of whether death, for us, really just consists in biological death or if it requires something more.)

  8. Why do you ignore the possibility, though I'd call it a fact, of the recreation of our bodies along with the whole world from instant to instant? Our bodies pulsate into and out of existence?

  9. Very interesting - because I had the opposite reaction to the philpapers survey result- how could so many philosophers be silly enough to think teleportation is survival! I think this is one of the relatively rare cases where a thought experiment practically delivers the proof by itself. Once the duplication scenario is presented, you just see the obviousness that teleportation is death. It then takes a bit of work to put into words the principle it demonstrates. It's something like the existence of the person coming out of the machine not strictly depending on whether the person who entered the machine exists or not.

  10. I think this is a better argument for longevity (and perhaps personal veracity of memories) not mattering than for teleportation not being death. If longevity doesn't matter, it can be appropriate to envy the teleportation travelers even if they are very young and deluded copies of the dead originals you had previously been friends with. The teleportation travelers who are bragging about the adventures they "remember" are people who are not you who are happier than you are, which is the standard trigger of envy. What does it matter if they are only a few seconds old? They have an adult body in which they are able to function, and they have the memories of someone who just went on an amazing trip — and these memories and related psychological phenomena such as residual relaxation or excitement are currently making them much happier than you are. So, it does make sense to envy the person you see before you, even if this is not really your friend who first stepped into a teleporter. It doesn't follow that your own life will get better if you step into a teleporter.

  11. To follow up on my last comment, the fact that we cannot make our life better by stepping into a teleporter (because it will kill us and create a new happier version of us) could give us even more reason to envy the whippersnappers who have just stepped out of the teleporter. They are the beneficiaries of something we can never benefit from. If we were to contemplate stepping into the teleporter ourselves, it would be appropriate to envy the new, happier copy of us that we can imagine stepping out of it.

  12. I guess as far as this argument goes, I am pretty out of it. I can accept that. See, my view on teleportation is it is science fictive in nature. It is a feature of a wildly popular television and film series, still attracting attention and admiration after how many years? Most of my life anyway. In any other sense, teleportation would be suspect, at best. Who would think life disassembleable in one place and re-assembleable somewhere else? Many of us recall how that procedure went horribly wrong in The Fly. More than once. Science fiction. Sorry, but I think much the same way about the notion of conscious AI. It's OK. All good fun. Argue all you want.

  13. I think I want to object in principle to arguments of the form, "If X goes wrong [i.e. if some non-X thing happens] then it's obvious that you die, therefore it must be true that X means you die."
    If teleportation goes wrong, you're dead; I agree that that can happen. But if a plane flight goes wrong, you're dead, too, and no one thinks that all plane flights are fatal. In the teleportation-goes-wrong scenarios, something other than teleportation happens - either duplication or disappearance or something different. And it may well be true that those events do cause death. But that doesn't really have any bearing on whether teleportation itself causes death, does it?
    As for the envy argument - yes, it makes sense. It reminds me of arguments over many technological advances: "I'll never use a damned computer! It's not writing if it's not done with a pen!" "You won't catch me driving one of those things1 A horse is the only respectable way to get around." "I don't hold with these newfangled kitchen gadgets. Can't we just chop vegetables the old-fashioned way." Etc. The march of history has a habit of demonstrating that we were fixating on the wrong thing, and the envy argument is a good way to demonstrate it.

  14. As a practical matter (from my history as civil rights advocate, investigator, and administrative law judge), has anyone ever teleported and lived to tell about it? This returns to one of my core beliefs: pragmatism looks for what is more useful, not less. See Rorty, if you have questions.
    So many years ago, I read a trio of books by Robert Monroe---I think that was his name anyway: Journeys Out of the Body; Far Journeys, and, The Ultimate Journey. Monroe described how he, allegedly, accomplished these fantasmic feats. It was all good fun because I was then more fascinated with metaphysics. I do not seriously think Monroe is still alive---he was in his forties or fifties then. Nor do I think his brain is in a vat, somewhere. Many would have counted his work creative fiction. As were the Redfield books, Celestine Prophecy, and so on. Here is my point: If it did not happen, it did not happen. Reliance(?) on mathematics and probabilities to buttress philosophy may not be utterly pointless. But, it does not transform consciousness into transistors. Or, chips. Or, large language models---whatever the hell those are. Is philosophy phiction? Is it now proposed as such? I don't think so. Homey don't play and wishes to all...excepting solecists.

  15. More fun for thought:
    Another commenter on a blog raised the spectre of *common sense*. And, unpacking that.
    I remarked that common sense is not so useful, giving some views why I think that is so. (The blog originates from a popular writer and professor, on the west coast.) Anyway, I held, and hold that uncommon sense is a better fit now. It fits what R.A. Heinlein wrote of when he coined the phrase, Fair Witness. Someone may correct me if that is wrong, but that does not matter. The idea of Fair Witness was something judge's were supposed to be, but were not. A Fair Witness possessed uncommon sense. Without the fetters of social and cultural tinkering; corruption of morality, thereby.
    Heinlein was a philosopher who recognized he might better make a difference writing science fiction. Herbert was there also. They both sent messages and made money.

  16. Thanks for all the comments, folks!

    Christoph/Kris: How that would be perceived and correctly conceptualized will depend on the social and psychological details, in my view (e.g., anesthesia). My argument isn't that "teleportation" is *always* survival -- just that in some cases it is.

    SelfAware: I agree it would be interesting if the show further explored the possibility of replicators of people. Some other SF does that (e.g., Brin's Kiln People and Egan's Diaspora), but I think there's a lot of weirdness still to be explored. I have a low-tech version (using hypnosis and mnenomics) of replication in my story "The Dauphin's Metaphysics":

    Carl: Interesting analogy!

    Arnold: There are lots of steps to make before coming to that conclusion!

    Patrick/Kris: I disagree with the analogy. Psychological and social facts (among humans) cannot make it the case that God exists or fails to exist. However "personal identity" and "survival" are metaphysical facts that partly depend on psychological and social conceptualizations and practices. That's the difference.

    Howie: Wait, that's a fact?

    Tom: Another argument against the teleportation is death view is this: Once you really think through the variety of examples, you are forced into a dilemma. Either there is no strict identity moment to moment or facts about identity don't supervene locally and aren't what we should and do really care about. Either way, the teleportation is death people won't get what they want out of identity.

    Rhys: That's another reasonable way of conceptualizing it, though it gives more to the teleportation-is-death view than I'd be inclined to give.

    Chinaphil: On the teleportation-goes-wrong case, part of what seems weird is that facts about the identity of an Earth-to-Mars person supervene on what's going on Venus, which seems unintuitive at least. On being old fashioned: Yes, that's what I was reaching for.

    Paul: Nothing wrong with SF thought experiments, I think you'll agree based on your admiration of Heinlein. They can help separate out in imagination what generally co-occur in fact, helping us better understand what lies at the core.

  17. ...and we may know-no end to the steps of remembering ourselves for the purpose of infinity...

  18. Eric: You say "`personal identity` and `survival` are metaphysical facts that partly depend on psychological and social conceptualizations and practices." I guess that's something we disagree about. I believe that my own existence or non-existence is an objective fact about the world that is not dependent on social or psychological factors. I suspect many people agree with me and, read under that assumption, your post seems very strange. Now that I understand the motivating assumption behind your post, that facts about identity depend partly on psychological and social factors, I better understand the argument you are making. Though given my current understanding of your views, your argument in this post seems a bit tautological—the argument seems to basically be "what counts as death is determined by what people think counts as death. Now imagine teleportation existed. Don't you think most people wouldn't treat it like death?"

  19. Patrick: Right! One modification of the quote at the end: "what counts as death is *partly* determined by what people think counts as death". There are limits. I can't make a future coffee cup "me" just by declaring it so and convincing enough others.

  20. Eric: You wrote, "That's another reasonable way of conceptualizing it, though it gives more to the teleportation-is-death view than I'd be inclined to give."

    I guess my point is that even if we believe it makes sense to envy those who come out of teleporters happy about the experiences they remember (or think they remember), this doesn't necessarily provide an argument for teleportation not being death, since we can envy those who are coming out of teleporters even if we think they are new people. If you think my conceptualization is a reasonable one, but still prefer your own, do you have a further argument for why your interpretation is more plausible than mine? If not, the envy argument will be far from decisive, but maybe you're fine with that.

    The argument could still work by setting up a dilemma: if we think we can envy people who are exiting teleporters and bragging about the experiences they remember or think they remember, we must believe either that teleportation isn't death or that longevity doesn't matter. And maybe lots of people will be like you and prefer to side with the former.

    However, that dilemma might not exhaust all the options. There might be another possible conceptualization that neither of us thought of.

  21. What if the gabrielle-duplicate-2 was reconstructed from the same atoms that original-gabrielle consisted of? Would that make her claim to personal identity mor legitimate?

  22. Here it is: this entire notion---or, hypothesis---or, theorem, has missed the reality train, as we know it...IMO. I can't even fathom why it is interesting, unless, and only unless, people are being influenced by wildly hypothetical claims towards immortality,as seem to be propounded by AI proponents. It does not matter if any of us want to live forever. Look, life is not about living forever. Only nothing is forever, because nothingness is not life. And, in similar fashion, infinity is neither objective nor is a vague, ethereal, ideation---meaningless in any practical sense. Yawn. Think I'll take a nap.

  23. Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    Rhys: I think that these metaphysical notions are in part about how to extend the definitions of existing conceptualizations. I suspect there flexibility in the notion of survival that would make it, as a matter of fact about the best extension of the concept, useful for people to think of dying of cancer in the ordinary way as "not surviving" while teleportation counts as "surviving".

    Leif: That might help resolve it on some views, but it doesn't duck all the puzzles. For example, if you could survive despite losing half your atoms (maybe preserved as just a head on life-support), then we could still generate splitting cases.

    Paul: Different strokes for different folks. Enjoy your nap!