Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Philosophical Problem in Teleporting the Mind

In the movie Star Trek, the characters use a teleportation device to instantly beam themselves from one point in the universe to another. The teleportation system works by breaking up the “physical components” of a man’s body in one chamber and beaming the information to the second chamber.

When a man enters the teleportation chamber, a supercomputer scans his body and records every information down to the last atom. After that the man’s body breaks down into sub-atomic particles and the information is beamed at the speed of light to another chamber, located in a different part of the universe, and the same (or similar) body is instantly reassembled.

Star Trek type of teleporting device gives rise to a number of biological and philosophical problems: Is the man who gets created in the second chamber the same man who entered the first teleportation chamber? Does he have the same body? Obviously he doesn't because his original body is broken up into sub-atomic particles in the first chamber. But the crucial thing is--does he have the same mind?

If the mind is regarded as a non-material attribute or aspect of the human being, then it cannot be scanned and translated into information by the teleportation system. Therefore the information possessed by a non-material mind will certainly be lost and the person who emerges from the second teleportation chamber will be someone else.

But if we consider the mind to be a totally material entity which is either the brain as a whole or exists in a physical form in some part of the brain, then it might be possible for the teleportation system to scan it down to the last atom and collect all the information. Therefore the outcome of a teleportation system is based on the nature of man's mind.

Here are the three possibilities:

1. If the mind is “pure consciousness” and exists like a ghost in the machine (the human brain or body), then it can’t be scanned and teleported. 

2. If the mind is an “attribute” of the human organism then also teleportation will not be successful because this kind of an attribute is non-material and it cannot be scanned.

3. If the mind is an “entity” (either the brain or a material component residing within the brain) then in theory it is possible to scan and teleport it.

This, by the way, is a fun post, but the science fiction idea of teleportation does have some very serious philosophical implications. 

12 comments:

  1. What if the mind is an "emergent" property of the brain, like water is an emergent property of the covalent bonds between two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, or as the ability to measure time is an emergent property of a clock's unique combination of its parts into a whole that his the ability to measure time.

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    1. emergentism is still a form of the basic type: physicalism, which holds to the "primacy" of entities (or matter). that is anoop's #3 above, where if you did reconstruct the brain (or the water molecule or clock), the corresponding properties would ride along too.

      i find this chart really helpful for keeping track of the possibilities- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-aspect_theory#/media/File:Dualism-vs-Monism.png

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    2. Skye, I think mind has to have some kind of physical form. Because if it doesn't then the mind cannot have causal relationship with the brain.

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    3. that involves the additional premise: "ONLY material entities can have causal powers".

      but there are interactionism positions too. a Cartesian dualist definitely has the problem of explaining how mind and body can have a causal relationship, but it isn't immediately obvious that there is no possible mechanism.

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    4. Thank you Skye. I will look into "interactionism". I doubt very much that I will be convinced that there can be any interaction between the physical and the non-physical. But I will study what "interactionism" says. I believe in the idea that the material world is "causally closed." Only material entities can have causal relationships with other material entities.

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    5. everything you just said above would also be consistent with parallelism, but that would specify that there is a whole mental side to things that is equally "causally closed", so it would symmetrically say "only ideas (mental entities) can have causal relationships with other ideas."

      if you become interested in this route, Peikoff has a helpful analogy in Lecture 10 of his History of Philosophy, in the section where he is talking about Spinoza. he compares the mental and the material to different languages, and says "the pattern by which to understand" this view is to imagine the same discussion, point-by-point, word-for-word, taking place in two different rooms, one in French and the other in English. so they're each "self-contained", it's "not half in French and half in English, but all of it in each", but "there's correspondence... you can translate back and forth." -"mind and matter don’t divide reality, the whole is completely expressed by the mind series, and the whole is completely expressed by the body or matter language".

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  2. the teleporter thought experiment is a really great way to isolate this issue and sort out different metaphysical theories!

    here's a philosophy quiz that uses it too:
    http://www.philosophyexperiments.com/stayingalive/Default.aspx

    it shares your premise that there are only 3 different positions. (but there's actually an obscure 4th that's not accounted for- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-aspect_theory)

    a documentary about quantum mechanics that discusses the possibility (starting at 38:21) has my favorite answer to the teleporter question ;), from John Clauser:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBrsWPCp_rs&feature=youtu.be&t=44m10s

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    1. Mind is an entity. It is either the entire brain or it is a material component residing within the brain. In this blog post, I am only reflecting on the three dominant theories about mind-body relationship.

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  3. Stephen K. Greenhouse,

    I don't know what you mean by mind being an "emergent" property of the brain. What will such a mind achieve. Can it have causal powers?

    I do not believe in the idea of Mind-body (or Mind-brain) dichotomy. Also, I think mind is an "entity" and it is not an attribute. If we take mind as an attribute then you face a number of problems.

    If mind is an "attribute" then how does it have causal powers (because ONLY material entities can have causal powers)? Also, if mind is an "attribute" how does the body have an impact on the mind, and the mind has an impact on the body.

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  4. Anoop Verma, thank you for posting my comments. I realize I am guest here and so I appreciate this open discussion. I'm not a philosopher, but a psychologist and so my demonstration here will likely not meet the necessary vigor of a philosophical argument, but I do hope that it is sufficient to spark some worthwhile thoughts or discussions with regard to the mind/body phenomenon. As I see it, the mind is indeed an entity. However, it is not synonymous with the brain, though likely dependent on the brain. Here are some nonmaterial entities to contemplate: memories, feelings, thoughts, desires, imagination, etc. Now, these entities may very well require a material substrate, such as the brain, but they are not by virtue of that material entities. You seem to treat the mind as a material thing such as when you state "It is either the entire brain or it is a material component residing in the brain." You may indeed be right, and yet it may be otherwise. Let's take magnetism as an example. Magnetism has two aspects: the magnetic moments or electric currents of elementary particles and the magnetic fields that they give rise to. In this analogy, the elementary particles are analogous to the brain and the magnetic field is analogous to the mind. The magnetic field does not share the identity of the elementary particles, and yet it is every bit as real as they are. Thus, the multitude of elementary particles give rise to the singularity of the magnetic field, while the multitude of neurons and synapses give rise in a systematic way to the mind. Electromagnetic waves in general may serve as yet another analogy for the brain/mind relationship, only here the independence of the source, e.g. the sun, from the effects, the electromagnetic waves, e.g. visible light spectrum, microwaves, ultraviolet light, etc. is even more stark, for both can indeed exist independently of one another. As proof, I ask you merely to look at the night sky, the majority of the stars no longer exist, but their electromagnetic waves continue to inform the universe.

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  5. Stephen K. Greenhouse, Descartes believed that the universe consists of two kinds of substances -- thinking substance (res cognitas) and the extended substance (res extensa).

    So I think when we say "entity" we mean "res extensa", something that exists in space and time, or something that is material. So mind as an entity means either the complete brain or a part of the brain.

    Magnetism is an attribute of the magnet. This means that magnetism as an attribute does not have the causal efficacy or the power to interact with the magnet. Therefore the case of magnetism is different from that of the mind.

    Mind has causal relationship with the brain and therefore it must be an entity and not an attribute.

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  6. Anoop Verma, I think I understand your position better now. It seems it boils down to the question of some form of dualism versus monism. Your position appears to be a form of metaphysical monism for you appear to be acknowledging only one form of substance, i.e. "res estensa." This position gracefully circumnavigates the issue of interactionism by viewing mind and brain as being of the same substance such that the causal relationship can be explained exclusively through efficient causation. I'd say I am a monist too, though I am still looking for a non-reductionist explanation of mind. I don't have the answers and may never have them. I think we can agree on this, however: the mind and consciousness are phenomena that have not yet been sufficiently explained by science.

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