Thursday, 29 October 2009

Where is my mind, Theseus?

Not blogged in 2 months. So here it is, 2 months worth of blog all at once!

The best part about working in an academic environment is, for me, the ability to have in depth conversations seemingly at random and around unusual topics in a way that appears almost effortless. Recently, from such a conversation sprang forth the following philosophical dilemma:

Can consciousness be teleported, assuming the physical form can?

Upon consideration of this concept I have discovered it is not one that is easily resolved and brings into play many classic ideas in philosophy as well as many modern concerns. In fact, so synoptic is the problem that approaching it in a logical and structured fashion has proved difficult at best. In an attempt to rectify this problem, I feel the best thing to start with is a qualification of the major aspects of the dilemma.

Teleportation – The Technicalities.

The first thing to consider is exactly how our subject is being teleported. As we shall see, the exact method of transportation greatly affects the way in which the question should be approached. To keep things as simple as possible, we shall focus on two possible methods (although I am sure many more might be imagined).

The first method concerns the teleportation of a man, we shall call him Adam, by the reading of information at the quantum level, the act of which causes the destruction of Adam’s body, followed by the writing of that information, precisely identical on the quantum level, at a new location thus recreating Adam’s body perfectly down to a single quark. This might be achieved by some form of quantum entanglement, although the precise mechanisms are not important to our arguments. The important point to remember is that Adam is deconstructed and a perfect replica constructed in some distant location.

The second method takes the atoms and molecules of a woman, who we shall name Eve, and the perfect conversion of this matter into energy (using these handy Heisenberg compensators I happen to have lying around). This energy is then transmitted at light speed far across the solar system and is then converted back into matter in the precise configuration of Eve’s body prior to teleportation.

I have highlighted a few words here, perfect and precise, as it is important to hold in mind that these are not degraded copies, but are in every physical way identical to the originals. The second important point to bear in mind is that Adam’s body is copied from different materials, Eve’s from the same, as their original forms.

Consciousness – Monism Vs Dualism.

I, like the vast majority of thinkers today, am a monist. This means that I believe that mind and body are not separate entities, as Descartes might have had us believe, but are in fact one and the same. It is immediately obvious that this problem has a strong affect on the conclusions we can draw about our over riding question. As such, rather than just ignore it and focus on my own views, I shall do my best to present both cases in relation to the problem and hopefully demonstrate that similar conclusions can be reached whichever route one chooses to take.


We shall look first at the concept of dualism. Before continuing it’s probably best to cover some basics. Dualism purports that the mind and the body are two separate entities capable of existing independently of each other. Upon death it is therefore possible for the mind, and hence consciousness, to continue. Such theories are the basis behind the idea of the soul.

So now we can rephrase our original question. Now we ask; does either Adam or Eve die as a result of their teleportation? First, let us separate the process of teleportation into three stages; before, during and after. Thus, before teleportation it is obvious that both Adam and Eve are most definitely living. Similarly, the bodies that are reconstructed afterward are at the very least viable (although may require a quick jolt from a defibrillator to get them going!). So what about during? To answer this question, we consider the thought ‘What would happen if teleportation were halted mid way through the process?’. I doubt they’ll be much argument to the notion that upon having one’s body destroyed, one has died. As such we can consider Adam, at least for the period of time during which teleportation takes place, to be dead.

The same logic might on the face of it, be applied to Eve. However, if we consider her body to be a coherent and viable form of energy (as Einstein teaches, all matter is simply a form of energy), and given that we are keeping her energy in some controllable and transmittable form can we truly say she has died? Have we not just changed her form? For a dualist, death simply means the separation of the mind and body. Presumably this happens at the end of life as the body is no longer capable of sustaining itself and hence whatever mechanism it is that holds the mind in place fails. At this point the problems of dualism become immediately apparent. One assumption has already now been made and many more will follow as this is all one can work with when describing the processes involved in ethereal objects beyond our world of science and reason. However, if we must make assumptions, let us try to make scientific ones.

Let us consider what the difference between life and death is, or rather, what changes as a result of death. Without nutrition to supply energy to our bodies our cells break down, our chemistry degrades and electrical energy from our nerves and brains dissipates into nothing. In short, entropy takes charge. All life is just a constant struggle against this unstoppable force and death just a surrender to it. Taking this argument, so long as entropy is kept at bay, life can be considered to continue. Without any other conclusive evidence to draw from, this remains the soul condition for the dualist mind to stay anchored to the body. In Eve’s case, entropy must be held back via transport as it would have the energy of Eve’s body dissipate just as if she were dead. Therefore, where Eve is concerned were she a dualist, we can say she is not dead even in transport and hence consciousness must survive.

Does this mean then, that Adam’s death during teleportation prevents his consciousness from being transported along with his body? Here we come across even more pitfalls for the dualist theory. Many questions are left not only unanswered, but unanswerable. Where does the mind originate from? Where does it go once the body dies? Why does only a single mind seem associated with a single body? How is the mind attached to the body in the first place? A person can be technically dead and yet resuscitated. Where is the mind during this process? This is the inconsistency of most interest to our problem. If it can be assumed that upon death the mind is separated from the body then it would follow that upon resuscitation the mind and body are reconnected once again. But how does the mind know to go back to that same body? One would assume that some physical property of that body must be responsible, some marker that the mind can recognise and is drawn towards. If this is indeed the case then a quantum mechanically perfect replica must share such a marker and the mind would return to the reconstructed body. To examine this idea further it is useful to turn to one of the oldest problems in philosophy.

The Ship Of Theseus.

Theseus travels the oceans in a great ship. After many years of service, the vessels body work begins to degrade and a few planks and panels are in need of replacing. The question is, is Theseus still being borne by the same boat? What about when every panel has been replaced, is it still the same then? The same is asked of our subject, Adam. If he suffered brain damage and medical science had the means to graft new brain cells onto old, would Adam still be the same person? What if we replace each brain cell, one at a time, with a new one, is his identity still unchanged?

Perhaps the most complete attempt to respond to this dilemma comes from Aristotle. Aristotle postulated four causes which go together to describe the identity of an object; the formal cause, the material cause, the final cause and the efficient cause. We shall consider these now in turn.

1. The Formal Cause.

The formal cause deals with the form of the object, its shape and make up, its design. It is clear that in both the case of Theseus’ Ship and Adam, the forms remain the same.

2. The Material Cause.

The material cause concerns the physical materials of which the object is constructed. Again, our two cases have identical answers to this query but this time both have changed, being constructed from different materials by the end of each process.

3. The Final Cause.

The final cause describes the purpose of the object. Obviously, the intended purpose of Theseus’ ship is to transport Theseus and that of Adam’s body is to house Adam’s mind. This has not changed in either case.

4. The Efficient Cause.

The efficient cause explains the manner in which the object was constructed, how and by whom. In the case of Theseus’ ship, it is easy to believe the same people fixed the vessel as did originally build it and via identical methods. In Adam’s case however, this can not be said. His original body was not the result of quantum teleportation but instead it was the result of natural birth (we will assume) and so in Adam’s case, this has changed. (It is interesting to note that any subsequent teleportation of Adam will not result in this change).

So, in conclusion, we can say that as the materials used to reconstruct Theseus’ boat are different it must therefore be a different object. In Adam’s case however, this is not as clear cut. As mind and body are separate, the materials used to create the body are inconsequential to the mind, so long as all other things are equal. All things are not equal however, as the method of construction has changed and as such, by Aristotle’s arguments, it is not the same body! But does this concern the dualist? Once again, as mind and body are separate, is the construction of Adam’s body important? We turn back to a question we have already asked ourselves, how is the mind connected to the body? With the lack of any other logical response, it seems to me that we are forced to assume that this occurs at some point during gestation, in which case, even within the realms of dualism, the construction of the body is an important part of its identity. So we are left with three possible conclusions; the mind is lost, the mind is replaced (in either case, Adam dies) or we are forced to abandon the notion of dualism. For Adam’s sake, we shall now do the latter.

(It should be noted for completeness that we do not apply the reconstruction argument to Eve as we have assumed her mind never to be separated from her body)


Another brief introduction is apposite before continuing further. Monism, in contrast to dualism, purports that the mind and body, specifically the brain, are one and the same. This turns out to be a slightly more complicated premise than it might at first appear. For a start there are many different denominations in this belief and to go into each of them here would be time consuming and ultimately fruitless. For simplicity’s sake, we shall concentrate on materialism; the idea that all things in the universe are composed of matter and its interactions and nothing more. Even this does not lead to a unique solution. Many prominent philosophers speak of consciousness as arising from the physical properties of the brain in that same way that electricity arises from the physical properties of the electrons in wires. I feel this is fallacious as it brings up more unanswered questions. For instance, why do only beings with brains appear to be conscious, what is it about the brain that gives it the property of consciousness as well as electrical charge and spin when no other material seems to do the same? It is my belief that to say “consciousness arises from the properties of brains” has as much meaning as “fingers arise from the physical properties of the hand”. This is obviously nonsense; consciousness does not arise from the brain, it is a part of the brain, just as fingers are a part of the hand, and properties of thought, such as problem solving and emotion, arise from the physical properties of consciousness just as grip and dexterity arise from the physical properties of the hand and fingers. This is an important distinction as we shall now see.

Taking Eve’s case first (allowing Adam a few more moments of hope before we finally seal his fate) we re-examine our previous arguments from a monistic materialist view point. The question of death is now rather a moot one. Upon death there is no longer a separation between body and consciousness. Now we can see the loss of consciousness at death as being similar in nature to the loss of, say, the heart beat. The heart lies dormant upon death but, assuming it is undamaged, can be revived. So consciousness lies dormant, its physical properties have changed such that reason and emotion no longer arise from it, but it can be resuscitated. Until the brain itself has degraded beyond a certain point consciousness is still there and can be returned to fully working order.

So let us consider Eve’s teleportation. Once again, at the start of the experience she is alive and well, and at the end she has a viable, if possibly dormant, body. The ‘during’ aspect of transport is, as we have already pointed out, now irrelevant. With the materialist argument, assuming the reconstructed body is identical to the original, made of the same matter and in the same configuration, then consciousness can be rebuilt just like any other body part and once again Eve survives her teleportation.

So we have now shown that, so long as the same energy/matter is used to reconstruct the body as was a result of its original deconstruction then the mind survives teleportation as well as the body under all possible conditions. So what of Adam?

The temptation is, as before, to apply the same logic for Adam as we do for Eve, but this would again be a mistake. Let us turn back to Aristotle. As before we can show, with exactly the same arguments, that the reconstructed Adam is unchanged in terms of his function and his form but is different in terms of his construction and his materials. Dualism told us that the materials of Adam’s body were unimportant but that the construction very likely was. Monism demonstrates the exact opposite trend. Whether consciousness arises from the physical properties of the brain or is indeed the brain itself, the precise way in which the brain is constructed bears no relation to its final physical state. As such, this particular cause can be disregarded. The same can not be said of the material cause.

Let us consider a simple example. In a lab we have two boxes, the sides being magnetic, each one at either end of the room. Within each box is contained an electron. Their spins, charges and angular momentum are identical making them indistinguishable from each other. We can happily say that the charges of the two electrons are the same. The charge is a field effect and arises from the properties of the electrons rather than being a part of the electrons themselves. We can happily interchange the charges and say that the electrons themselves remain unchanged. However, the two electrons, despite being indistinguishable in property can still be said to be two different and individual objects. Expanding this to Adam’s teleportation, although the properties of the brain and body of the reconstructed Adam are precisely identical to the original, the materials are different and so it can be said to be a different and individual form, separate from the original. The thoughts, the beliefs and the emotions of ‘recon-Adam’ would be precisely identical to the original but it would not be the original. It would be a separate body and so a separate mind. Once again, Adam’s original mind is destroyed and so it, as well as he, does not survive teleportation.

Another note; if we assume that consciousness arises from the properties of the brain rather than being physically a part of it then the mind would survive teleportation by these arguments and we would be left with a string of paradoxes. Suppose we can reconstruct Adam’s body without destroying the original. Both Adam and recon-Adam would share the same mind; they would be, by these arguments, the same person. To that end, a clone may well also share the same mind as its original. How would this work? Would each be aware of the other? Would consciousness flip between the two? Any solution to this problem that might be imagined seems absurd. By materialist arguments, two separate bodies must have two separate minds. As such, the idea that consciousness arises from the brain rather than physically being a part of it is therefore logically inconsistent with this thought experiment. This, along with other such examples of mutual exclusivity in discussions involving consciousness, is what has led me to the conclusions that such a theory must be incorrect and that consciousness and the physical make up of the brain must be one and the same and not one a property of the other.

This is also the reason why, unlike Adam, you will never get me into a teleporter.