So in the fb comments section of this SMBC comic, I found a thread where people were discussing the teleportation problem, namely, “If you teleport, is the new ‘you’ still ‘you’?” I’d been thinking about this problem for quite some time now, so I decided to pitch in with my solution to the problem. Then I decided that I want this to be read and discussed by more people than just the ones in that thread, so here it is, my comment on that thread, word-for-word. Warning: It is long.
I first encountered this problem in The Prestige, and it took me years to come to a solution that satisfies me.
I’ve seen 2 prominent opinions here, one that says that since a person is basically an arrangement of atoms, you are still the same person after you teleport, and the other that says that a person is a collection of experiences, you are always a different person from the one you were a moment ago, so being a different person after having teleported is nothing to sweat about. I agree with the second one, and here’s the problem with the first one.
Teleporting is like a file cut-paste operation on a computer. Consider the copy-paste version of it, where you stay where you were, and simultaneously teleport. There are 2 bodies, at 2 different locations, with, for the moment, the exact same atomic configuration and the exact same experiences. Immediately afterwards, the different environment ensures that is some way or another, the 2 are now different. How different, one cannot say. One could go on to be Gandhi, the other Hitler. Now if before you do this copy-paste operation, you know for certain that one of these copies is easily going to be able to live a happy life, in a paradise of a place, and the other is doomed for eternal torture till natural death. Would you go ahead with it? Clearly, if ‘you’ are the one with the happiness, then you never have to experience the torture, so it is essentially happening to someone ‘else’. Which means that the 2 people have to be considered as different individuals, so obviously, both of them can’t be ‘you’. And since there is nothing to distinguish them at the beginning, you can’t just pick one of them, which means that neither of them is you. And that brings us to the conclusion that we become a new person every instant. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the different versions of Hermione running around at any instant must be considered as separate individuals who just happen to have a lot of similarities.
But then, why do we care what happens to our future selves? Why is every choice not simply based on instant gratification? Since my claim is that we are literally different people at different times, I use the word empathy. We ourselves know the feeling called regret that arises when a decision made by one of our past selves adversely affects our present self, so we try to make sure our future self doesn’t have to experience that emotion. This empathy is much stronger than what we feel for ‘others’ because we are much more similar to our future selves than to ‘others’. That explains the feeling of connection that identical twins often experience. It also explains why we find imminent sadness much more troubling than sadness that will make itself known decades later (like smoking).
Back to the copy-paste question, we realize that since both the copies are our future selves, we empathize with both of them and thus we are simultaneously tempted by the promise of a happy life and scared of the torture that lies ahead, and when making the decision, we need to keep both the futures in mind, and not just the best or worst one.
Another thing to notice about the copy-paste question is that at the point when we are making the decision, we have exactly one fixed past, and multiple futures ahead of us. That is part of the reason why we defined a person as a set of past experiences, because the future is variable.
So how do we solve the original dilemma, the teleportation problem, using this analysis? We have to realize that the only difference between the cut-paste and copy-paste models is the number of copies at the end. Teleportation is like regular life, one copy in the beginning and one at the end. Our concern for the final version of us, being based off of empathy that stems from similarities, does not depend on whether we moved from place A to place B or teleported. Which means that the fear of teleportation because it is like dying is irrational. Even if someone literally was killing you and then recreating you somewhere else, it wouldn’t matter.
And as far as duplication is concerned, the only difference is that you have to keep multiple fates in mind instead of just one. Also, if you can duplicate yourself in such a way as to ensure that each copy of you immediately dies a painless death except one, you have essentially achieved teleportation. (Painless being the keyword, nudge-nudge-wink-wink)
References: The TV series Dollhouse and the comic Black Science explore these subjects in considerable depth, the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the comic Invincible Iron Man (Matt Fraction) explore them is somewhat less depth, and the movie X-Men: Days of Future Past raises these questions without exploring them (Like, do you realize that in the last scene, where everyone was so happy, Wolverine had actually just died?)
Of course, the best piece of fiction I’ve seen on this idea still remains The Prestige.