Bryan Caplan  

I Want to Know How the Transporter Works

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In our debate, Robin bemusedly observed that I'm one of those odd people who wouldn't step into a Star Trek transporter.  My actual view is more moderate: Before I'd use the transporter, I'd like to know how it works. Does it move my actual body?  Or just create a copy out of new materials, and destroy the original?

If you think it makes no difference, this video explains it better than I ever could.






COMMENTS (18 to date)
Corporate Lawyer writes:

I thought the video was a little too long to address a simple point.

People constantly miss the critical issue in the Star Trek transporter scenario. It is not whether your actual physical body is moved or whether your original body is destroyed and a copy is made. The question is actually - what is the physical basis of consciousness? It may well be the case that moving all the atoms in your body and rearranging them elsewhere could cause your current consciousness to end, although a new consciousness, with all of your memories and personality, could arise at the new location. It could also be the case that, your consciousness remains the same and you experience no end/disruption if you simply re-create the atomic arrangement in a different location.

It's not really how the machine works that is important so much as how consciousness works.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

It could also be the case that as the original body is destroyed, one's consciousness is destroyed too.
Physical basis of the consciousness is unknown.

Eric writes:

I've thought about this a lot (no, really. Don't laugh). Dr. McCoy makes exactly this argument in the James Blish novel "Spock Must Die" and wonders whether they commit murder every time someone steps into a transporter. I suspect in the "real" world of Star Trek, if it existed, parents would take children through transporters at ages when they are too young to make that decision on their own, much as we take pictures of children when they are too young to make a decision about whether taking a picture "steals their soul".

That's one of the reasons we don't think cameras steal souls. They never have in the past. Of course, if they had, would we know? That's a similar argument for transporters. When McCoy raises his philosophical objection, Kirk says he has been through the transporter many times and doesn't notice any loss of soul. McCoy then says something like, "If you were different, how would you know?"

Eric writes:

By the way, now watched the video and it is excellent (originally I though that, like most videos, it would be TLDW;) If I understand the ST transporter, though, it was impossible to make the "copy" without destroying the original which would blunt some but not all of the force of the video. There were a handful of exceptions to this which mostly allowed the making of a second copy off the stored "transporter pattern".

entirelyuseless writes:

"It may well be the case that moving all the atoms in your body and rearranging them elsewhere could cause your current consciousness to end, although a new consciousness, with all of your memories and personality, could arise at the new location. It could also be the case that, your consciousness remains the same and you experience no end/disruption..."

The problem is that your experience will be the same in either case. It is intrinsically impossible to experience an end of experience, for the same reason it is impossible to see the border of your field of view. You cannot see the border, because that would imply seeing past the border, and you cannot experience an end of your experience, because that would imply experiencing something after the end.

So if a new consciousness arises in the other places, that new conscious will think it was the same one, and the old one will never experience its ending, but will just stop experiencing.

In that sense, I think Eric is right -- in a "real world" like that, you would already have used the transporter many times, before ever asking how it works.

Quinn writes:

You're not killed, one of the earlier episodes of The Next Generation had an engineer transporting down and seeing monsters in the stream. It showed he had full consciousness the whole time.

J Mann writes:

Also, given that the transporter has both duplicated people and saved backups of people in the past, you would think they would research that. Even if the Federation has moral values against duplicating people, you would think some societies would want to duplicate or back up their greatest prodigies.

Jarrod writes:

It's not clear that this process, at least where my consciousness is concerned, isn't already happening while I sleep.

KevinDC writes:

For those who are interested, this video does a good job explaining the transporter problem, and exploring a few possible explanations for it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQHBAdShgYI

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

Lets say it works by picking atoms off your body one at a time, moving them to the other location, and then putting you back together on the other end.

you're ok with that right?

What if the atom-pipe gets busted halfway through, and the receiver has a spare bucket of atoms. Should it use them to put you together with the "wrong" atoms?

Jeff writes:

Let's suppose the transporter doesn't work instantaneously, but rather it puts you in suspended animation for seven years while it scans your pattern and transmits it to a remote location. At the end of the seven years, you wake up in a different location and your old body is forever gone.

Except for the suspended animation bit, this happens to all of us as long as we're alive. The atoms that compose our bodies today are not the same atoms that composed them seven years ago. Every time you breathe in and out, some inhaled oxygen atoms are becoming part of you while other oxygen atoms are being exhaled as parts of carbon dioxide and water molecules.

The video would have you attach some great moral significance to this mundane fact of existence.

J Mann writes:

It would be funny if some philosophical alien race came up with a gun that replaces all of the target's atoms with new, otherwise identical atoms in the same state.

I imagine the sinister leader of the Quinites gleefully announcing that the Klingons can only kill you once, but his Stevenwright gun can kill you AS MANY TIMES AS HE WANTS!!!!

Glen Smith writes:

About 5 years ago I lost 30 pounds. At the margin, am I a murderer?

Tom West writes:

Funny, I'm not certain I've met anyone who *didn't* believe that the transporter killed you, and then recreated another individual who simply thought he was you.

John writes:
If I understand the ST transporter, though, it was impossible to make the "copy" without destroying the original wh

I don't no about Star Trek, but there is the "no-cloning theorem" theory in quantum mechanics: There's no way to replicate the quantum state of the original without destroying it.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Jeff,
I reiterate that physical basis of consciousness is unknown. We are not just our atoms. Our enduring identity does not depend upon atoms that comprise us. That our bodies lose some atoms and gain other atoms is of no moral significance whatsoever. More importantly, it has no bearing on the question that Caplan asked.

If one builds a body an atom by atom, even given perfect reproduction, it is morally certain that the constructed body will not be alive, far less it would be conscious, far far less it would have the same consciousness as the original body.

Jeff writes:

@Bedarz Iliaci,

If you were to encounter such a constructed body that walked, talked and apparently thought just like you and I, how could you tell that it was not alive? Or are you claiming that you know for certain that life is more than chemical reactions? How do you know this? Every bit of evidence says that if you stop the chemical reactions of a body, the person dies.

I don't recall that Caplan ever asked a question, except for a rhetorical one. What he was saying is that it makes a difference whether or not the "transported" body was composed of the same atoms after transport as it was before transport. I pointed out in a simple way that Caplan's assertion is silly. Glenn Smith makes the same point, but his comment is funnier.

Tom West writes:

If one builds a body an atom by atom, even given perfect reproduction, it is morally certain that the constructed body will not be alive, far less it would be conscious, far far less it would have the same consciousness as the original body.

As a hard core materialist, I have to ask why you could even be a little bit certain the body would not be alive.

Are bodies (human or otherwise) not subject to the same laws of physics that govern everything else?

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