Saturday, 2 June 2012

Essential identity: Paradoxes resolved

This cartoon is an excellent illustration of the problems posed by our intuitive notions of identity. I saw it on television as a child and it has stayed with me, prompting much of my thoughts on the subject.

In this post, I will give my answers to the questions posed by thought experiments such as this.


We might some day implement transporters like those in Star Trek. These might work by scanning the body of the transportee down to the last atom, transmitting this as data to a remote location and then reassembling the body there. But what happens to the original bodies? This question is considered by the cartoon above.

It may not be technically necessary to destroy them in order to scan them. Should we then destroy them anyway? If not, this technology is cloning rather than teleportation. Perhaps we would deliberately implement the technology so as to destroy the original bodies so we don't have to face the existential and legal conundrums raised by cloning people.

But if we do so, then are we not committing murder? Teleportation technology would be immensely useful. It seems a pity that we could never implement it because of such ethical considerations.

My answer to these thorny thought experiments is simply to realise that there is no such thing as the unique essence of a person, as I have argued in a previous post. We are not dealing with objectively true facts of reality, we are dealing with an intuitive heuristic. Our confusion when confronted by questions such as this is the result of our mistaking this intuition for something which is real.

In my view, the only sensible way to answer questions such as these is a utilitarian one. The benefits of allowing such teleportation technology would be immense. It would benefit the environment due to its relative efficiency. It would facilitate business and the growth of economies. It would facilitate international relations by making it easier for us to visit other places.

The only downside might be this "murder" of the original body. But who is harmed by this murder? If the body is destroyed instantly and painlessly, the transportee experiences no suffering. The transportee's family will not grieve as the transportee's clone inherits that person's identity. The "destruction" of one person is precisely balanced by the "creation" of another.

And in my view, both the original and the clone are in a very real sense the same person. As I have argued, what we fundamentally identify with is the mind, and the mind is essentially a piece of software which runs on the hardware of the brain. If you make an exact copy of the brain, then the copy will be running exactly the same software. I don't even think that the mind is a copy, I think it actually is the same mind.

For two minds to not actually be the same mind, there must be some difference between them. In the teleportation scenario, the difference between the state of the mind at departure and at arrival is orders of magnitude smaller than the difference before and after travel by jet. The mind experiences a continuous existence, perceiving only a change of location and no winking in or out of existence.

I'm fine with that. Provided I believed the technology worked, I wouldn't have any qualms about using it.

Rights of the clone

Suppose we allow the use of this teleportation technology to produce perfect clones of people. What does that entail? What rights would the clones have?

Well, if you consider them to be completely new distinct people, their rights are severely curtailed. If you're religious, you might even suppose they have no souls and so are not deserving of the consideration we give to "normal" people.

But even as an atheist, a number of issues need to be addressed. If they are legally new people, then legally they have just been born, and so should not be allowed to vote, drink alcohol, have sex, drive etc. Obviously this would be a ridiculous state of affairs and only the very legalistic would seriously consider this to be reasonable. Nevertheless, if they are legally considered to be new people, such laws would need to be rewritten to accomodate them.

Things become simpler if you consider them to inherit the identity of the original. They inherit the original's criminal record, age, citizenship, educational qualifications etc. Contrary to the cartoon at the top of this post, I don't think that simply cloning yourself is sufficient to erase all sin, for example.

This solution, which I favour, does not however address all issues. Some issues arise when you consider matters such as employment, marital status and property. I believe that the clone has equal right to the identity as the original, and so I believe property should be shared or split equally between them. I also think that each instance of the person has equal rights to employment and marital status. In these cases, the fairest thing would possibly be to flip a coin or to come to some other equitable arrangement about which instance benefits. In cases where the coin decides against an instance, then perhaps compensation is owed.

It's a minefield, and as such should probably be illegal on these grounds alone. However it might be possible to proceed if a satisfactory arrangement for the division of these indivisibles is agreed prior to the cloning. Perhaps the spouse is cloned too. Perhaps the employed instance is willing to support the unemployed instance for as long as that instance is looking for work, or perhaps the employer is content to employ both.

All these issues provide a powerful disincentive to would-be self-cloners. It's surely an expensive procedure if it involves the halving of your wealth! Nevertheless certain individuals who have high opinions of themselves and more money than they know what to do with might find it to be an intriguing prospect.

Virtual afterlife

I love the science fiction of Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton. In the novels of the former, individuals in an advanced society known as The Culture usually allow backups to be made of their personalities at regular intervals. Should they meet with an accident, it is possible for a new body to be created for them and this backup mind to be uploaded. In the novels of Peter F. Hamilton, some characters have chosen to leave their physical bodies entirely and live instead inside a virtual reality.

Both of these technologies are broadly equivalent in their implications and consider the possibility that we can digitally capture and store minds accurately. We could then allow these minds to persist in a virtual world. If you believe as I do that such virtual minds are genuine continuations of the minds of physical people, then life after biological death is possible.

Again, from a utilitarian perspective, such technology would be undeniably a good thing. Some people might even choose to enter virtual existence voluntarily. Virtual existence is more efficient: you don't need food or accommodation. Virtual existence is more pleasant: there is no need for pain or disease. Virtual existence gives you more life: there's no reason the virtual world would have to operate in real time. It could potentially run thousands of time faster. If we knew the world was going to end for some reason in a hundred years, we could possibly extend this to an effective hundred thousand by living in a virtual world.

Nobody needs to grieve. Our loved ones are still there, just living inside a computer. We might not be able to physically interact with them (unless we also allow virtual people to rent physical bodies of some kind), but we can "Skype" them whenever we like. By the stage when we have the technology to make any of this feasible, I imagine we will be able to simulate presence to the degree that the intangibility of our loved ones will not be a problem.

Once you let go of your biological intuitions about identity, then you will agree with me that virtual existence is a valid way to continue living after biological death.

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