Monday, December 29, 2014

Beam me up! Part 3 – Consciousness and Conclusions

This is part three of three of my theory on teleportation:

Theory: Spacetime altering wormholes aside, being instantly transported from point A to point B means certain death.

In part one, I introduced various forms of teleportation, and in part two I briefly went over the philosophical debate regarding what constitutes a thing as "the same" as some other thing. In this third and final installment of this series on teleportation, I will discuss consciousness and offer my own opinions on the subject.

I do have to apologize about how long it has taken me to write this final post. Not long after the original posts, my father had a major stroke and stayed in the hospital until his final breath was taken a few weeks later. I don't mention this situation to garner attention or sympathy, but simply to bring a personal experience into this discussion that I find relevant. The father that I knew, the man that had once existed was no more. He was often awake and even opened his eyes and responded to physical stimuli on occasion, but he displayed no conscious thought. The response to stimuli was deemed purely reactionary on an physical, instinctive level. Note, he was awake, but was not entirely aware of his surroundings; hence, by definition, he was not conscious. Although not a scientific measurement, one could observe the absence of thought simply by looking into his eyes.

When I was in high school, I suffered a concussion during a football game. At some point I "fell out of consciousness" and became unaware of my surroundings. I was still somewhat "awake" as noted by my family, but I didn't come out of it (or realize who, where, or what I was) until later that night at the hospital. Similarly, people who sleep walk are often able to engage in conversation and other seemingly "conscious" acts, even though they are not actually awake and are therefore unconscious. The point of all of this is just to illustrate with common examples how difficult it can really be classify consciousness. We all know what it is to us, but could it possibly be quantified?

At the time of my concussion, something obviously happened in my mind. Although I remained awake, I lost all thought, and only regained it later that night. What was going on in my brain that caused such an event? Scientists have studied what happens during a brain trauma, and know that bruising the front and rear lobes of the brain can lead to permanent damage, but also temporary or reversible issues including nervous function paralysis. It is obvious that what we think of as consciousness can be easily taken away by a simple blow to the head, but how does it come back on its own? Does the brain heal itself in such away that your thought-process is simply able to "reboot?"

Philosophical Perspective

As you might have guessed, this topic has been widely studied and debated by many philosophers much more competent in the subject matter than myself and I encourage you to do a bit of research on your own. From what I understand, there are many ways of looking at consciousness but they all boil down to one of two ideas: that it resides in a realm separate from the physical, or that it is a part of our physical self.

The first case is a common thought, but less debatable overall. What I mean is that if the conscious part of us is not actually a part of us, then there is no scientific means of measuring it; hence, there is no way to study, copy, recreate, or otherwise teleport it. That would mean that all known methods of teleportation (aside form the classical wormhole) would produce a living thing on the other side with no higher thought. That is to say, it would be an empty shell (philosophical zombie). Even with complete brain function in tact - the thing would be able to keep itself alive: breathe, digest, beat it's heart... it might even be able to move, to talk, to converse - it would have none of the experience that qualifies it as a conscious being. Could it form a favorite color? Could it feel emotion? Could it weigh current events against past experiences to form bias, decisions, or other forms of opinion? Maybe yes, maybe no ... I don't really know. However, if the consciousness of a human being is not a direct function of the electromagnetic waves and chemical compounds formed and traversed in our brains, then the act of teleportation would not result in transferred qualia and would definitively destroy the person being teleported. 

Another way to look at this case is with the concept of a soul, as is common in many world religions. The soul is not quantitative. It cannot be seen or measured. There is no way to recreate it. In many religions there is also no way to destroy it, aside from divine intervention. If there is such a thing as a soul, then you can surely kiss your dreams of teleportation goodbye.

The Physicalism Approach

The second case is arguably more scientific in nature - that all aspects of human beings, including all forms of thought, feeling, and experience, can be explained in physical means. However, I think it is less common of a thought in non-scientific people, especially those practicing any form of religion. Again, there are numerous diverging theories which originate from this basic thought. Some argue that consciousness is an unknown function or matter or even a strange side effect of our normal electromagnetic brain activity, while others argue it doesn't really exist at all or can be simplified to our ability to think and reason (what separates us from most other animals). In any case, with this type of definition, our consciousness should be measurable, and thus, could be teleported.

With that in mind, the question of teleportation falls back on the paradox from part 2: if a consciousness can be copied and recreated, is the new conscious identical to the original? What exactly does identical even mean in this instance? In other words, would you be the same person?


OK, so maybe this wasn't the end-all, be-all discussion of consciousness, but as far as I can tell, such a discussion doesn't actually exist. Given current methods, technologies, and understandings, it is really impossible to solve the hard problems of consciousness. However, as per my feeble understanding combined with my belief in the human soul, I believe true consciousness cannot be recreated. Even if we could exactly copy the human body with complete brain function in tact, the result would be a philosophical zombie with no higher thought.

If you disagree with my conclusion and believe that consciousness could actually be copied because it is just an unknown property of matter, I counter with the obvious problem of comparing the copy to the original. If you were to be teleported, then the current you would cease to exist, with a copy of you continuing to live on in your absence. That sure sounds like a bad day to me.

Part 1: A Teleportation Primer

Part 2: The Ship of Thesus Paradox

Friday, December 19, 2014

An Excuse for my Absense

I know I've been a bit behind on my posts lately, but suffice it to say a lot has been going on. I have been playing catch up for a while, and I hope to be back up to speed in the new year. Thanks for sticking with me!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Running...

I can't be the only one who thinks this... can I?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Beam me up! Part 2 – The Ship of Thesus Paradox

This is part two of three of my theory on teleportation:

Theory: Spacetime altering wormholes aside, being instantly transported from point A to point B means certain death.

Last time, I talked about the most well known types of teleportation and a few of the obstacles associated with each. For the rest of this discussion, let’s just assume that teleportation is not only possible, but is a common point of social debate. I can’t even begin to conceive all of concerns people could have with teleportation, but the one that hits me hardest is the possibility that the object to be teleported is not the same as the object that comes out on the other side. This isn’t really a problem until we start talking about living creatures, especially those of the human variety.

As mentioned in the first article, it would be theoretically possible to instantly transport an object across spacetime through a wormhole, but that’s not really what I think of as teleportation. In practice, teleportation would be the dematerialization of an object in point A, and the rematerialization of said object in point B a la Star Trek. Contrast this with the use of a warp drive to compress space, creating a worm hole as seen in numerous space based science fiction shows.

The problem with teleportation is that the very atoms composing the original object are not necessarily the same as those recreating the teleported object. Of course, this type of teleportation could be possible if the object were literally transformed into some form of energy, and that energy itself could be (almost) instantly transported somewhere else to be transformed back into the original object. But even that idea that has problems. For example, as current moves through a wire (seemingly instantaneously) when a light switch is flipped, no single electron traverses the entire wire. It is the propagation of the electrons (a wave, akin to the ripple of disturbed water) that causes the light bulb to turn on. In the end, the atoms are not the same as those at the beginning. Does this replacement of identical atoms qualify the teleported object the same as the original?

Enter the Paradox

This is known as the Ship of Thesus Paradox – if an item has had all of its individual pieces replaced, is it still the same item? Now, this topic has been discussed at much length by many famous philosophers, many of whom disagreed about the fundamental principles behind the paradox and how the question should be answered.

It was Aristotle’s concept of a thing that really garners my attention. The answer to the original question is dependent upon one’s definition of the meaning of “the same thing.” Does an item have a specific identity, or could one include every item of the same formal design. For example, I own a 1992 GMC Sierra. There are numerous models of the this truck in existence, and certainly there is at least one more with an identical body style, trim, interior, and paint coloration as mine. However, as is common with vehicles, I treat my truck with a bit of anthropomorphism, in so much as I refer to it as she and have named her "Candi," based on the red and white paint job resembling a candy cane. My truck seems to have its own personality, so I would not consider an identical truck of the same year, model, etc, as the same, not to mention each has a unique VIN.

I believe I can answer the original question by rephrasing it to something more personal: What would happen if I had to replace the parts of Candi, one by one? This is not entirely out of the question for a vehicle. The tires, fluids, and filters are all obviously changed, but there are other new parts as well including the transmission, rims, grill, windshield, seats, headliner, exhaust system, bed and so on. It would not be outlandish if the entire engine was replaced one day, or even the drive train, cab body parts, or the entire frame. It’s no question that I would continue to refer to my truck as Candi, even as every last piece was replaced. Wouldn't the DMV continue to consider this the same vehicle, too? Of course, the only real-world reason everything would be replaced all at once would be if the truck were completely totaled, in which case, Candi would cease to exist altogether.

But there is an inherent duality hidden in these details. Where did these new parts come from? Most likely, they were parts from a store, but some could possibly be from another truck. With that in mind, what if I voluntarily replaced the parts of my truck, one by one, over the course of a year. Each time I replaced a part, I took the old (still working) part to the local dump – right down to the nuts and bolts. Extending this further, what if there was a person there who began collecting my parts, building an identical truck, one piece at a time? After the course of the year, I would still consider myself to be in possession of Candi, even though every single piece had been replaced. How then should I refer to the new(?) truck which was built from the parts I had removed from the original Candi? This other truck would essentially be the Candi from the previous year – the exact same truck built of the exact same pieces. My definition of “the same” here is as literal as I can make it. It would literally be the Candi from the previous year, but not the current Candi which I would still claim to be in possession of. Quite the conundrum we have here…

So Far, So Good...

Are you still with me? Good, but it could get bumpy from here. Try to wrap you brain around this: what if the same process used in the previous example of my truck could be applied to a living object… such as a human being? At the time of this writing, the worlds of robotics and prosthesis are quite young, but that would be the first avenue of this line of thought. It isn't unreasonable to imagine a future similar to Robocop, or even The Surrogates, where humanity and technology have (somewhat) seamlessly merged. Then again, we could move more in the biological direction, where spare human parts (or even complete human bodies (remember your favorite actor/politician in The 6th Day?) are created and stored for use later. Scientists are already trying to do this, to an extent, to create an endless supply of organs for transplants. If successful, I can’t imagine they will stop there…

So I pose the original question again with a slight alteration: if a living person has had all of his/her individual parts replaced, including all brain patterns and signals (thoughts, memories, goals, personality, etc) is it still the same person? To really answer that question, we have to diverge into another fundamental question… what constitutes consciousness?

Stay tuned for Part 3 – Consciousness and Conclusions

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beam me up! Part 1 - A Teleportation Primer

This is part one of three of my theory on teleportation:

Theory: Spacetime altering wormholes aside, being instantly transported from point A to point B means certain death.

The concept of teleportation has always fascinated me (and every other nerd, sci-fi geek, and the girls we brainwashed into marrying us). It would be amazing to not only instantly ship something from one place to another, but to instantly transport ourselves to someplace new. World travel would be forever changed and would soon lead into interplanetary travel. The overwhelming need for fossil fuels would diminish (though we would still need them for other forms of power, at least for now). For an interesting read on such a future, check out the Steven King short story The Jaunt.

The possibility of pushing a button or stepping through a portal and instantly arriving somewhere else is enticing, but does not come without numerous obstacles. Of course, the energy requirements would be immense, and there is always the issue of untold number of bacterial hitchhikers in and on our bodies at any given time, but science can eventually answer all of those problems. The primary trouble I see with teleportation is the possibility that when you step onto that transport platform and the button is pushed, it won't be you that steps out on the other side. But before I get into all of that, let me first mention a few types of teleportation that could exist.

Teleportation through the Einstein-Rosen Bridge

I am by no means a physicist, so I’m not going to begin to try and explain what a wormhole really is or how it really works (theoretically), but I will say that it is a kind of shortcut through spacetime. For example, if you could walk into a doorway in your house in New York City and exit into your office in Los Angeles – that would be a wormhole. Your physical body, with consciousness intact, literally moves through another dimension from point A to point B. For more information on this subject, you’re on your own; that is about the extent of my expertise! When I talk about teleportation, I'm not really considering this method...

Teleportation by Dematerialization

There are two possible ways of teleporting something, and neither is what you might consider to be ideal. The first is philosophically superior, but theoretically unachievable – the transformation and transfer of an object as a form of energy. With this method, an object (living or not) would be transformed into pure energy, and that energy would be beamed to some receiver which could then transform it back into the original object. I am speaking of transporting the original atoms as well as the information necessary to reconstruct the original object – think of it like taking a VW Bug, deconstructing it to the nuts and bolts, carrying the individual parts into your boss’s office, and rebuilding it there. Only that example is not entirely accurate since the car is still a car, just in pieces. This form of teleportation would involve a two-way transformation of the object’s matter into energy and then back. If it is the original object being transported, then the rematerialized object will be the original – not a clone, not a copy, but the actual original object.

Practically speaking, that would be fairly impossible to do, primarily due to the immense amount of binding energy that keeps all of our atoms held together. Remember in high school science class, learning about the various strong and weak forces at work in nature around us all of the time? One of them is what keeps us from falling apart, and it would not be easy to overcome. I’ll leave it to you to look up some actual figures (maybe start with the energy required to split the nucleus of an atom, commonly known as fission). You would have to do this to every atom in the body of the object to be transported. Afterwards, the parts would have to put pack together (nuclear fusion), and that is no easy task either. Not only do these processes require energy, they also produce energy. The energy required/produced depends upon the individual atoms in question and how tightly bound the nuclei are. Hydrogen and Uranium will behave very differently, and I don’t know of many objects that could survive the force of a hydrogen bomb…

Teleportation by Information

Of any form I've ever encountered, this is the most likely scenario – an object is scanned and deconstructed at point A, then recreated at point B. Notice my word choice here – deconstructed means destroyed, and recreated is a nice way of saying copied. A better term is replicated. In this method, the essential information concerning the atomic structure of the object is transported, and it is the job of a receiver to replicate the original object based on the blueprints. Equate this method with a three-dimensional fax machine. For simplistic objects, this is entirely possible, just not practical. Laser scanners are currently capable of precisely mapping the size and shape of an object, and the composition could also be determined. This information could be sent around the world (or beyond) to a 3-D printer capable of replicating the original object. Imagine being able to order a frying pan from Amazon, and then your own 3-D printer churning out a finished product in a matter of seconds (probably more like hours, but in that time period I could just drive to an actual store to buy one, so what’s the point?). The problem here is the same found in media piracy. Once those frying pans plans have been procured, a near infinite amount of them could be created and distributed – no need to ever purchase one again.

Similar to the first issue, once a product has been digitized, there is no need to ever teleport it again. The plans themselves could just be downloaded in an equivalent manner as getting a song from iTunes. With that in mind, this form of teleportation for inanimate objects is essentially pointless. Once we have the capability to replicate any material from a stock of spare elements, the entire shipping industry would be decimated. In fact, there would be little need for anything common to our current society – farming, merchandise sales, and all things related would be obsolete. The only thing anyone would need to buy (and therefore produce) would be the raw materials required for replicating. These could be achieved through mining or artificial laboratory creation. Of course, current technology cannot replicate complex objects composed of numerous materials, but I think that is a topic for another day. For the interest of this discussion, let’s just assume it can… 

Let’s Get Philosophical

The real interesting issue comes when we try to teleport a living thing in this manner. Transporting matter would have no obvious consequences, but what about transporting something with consciousness? How would the mind handle instantaneous transport? If this were actually possible, would the thing (or person) to be teleported be the same as the thing (or person) that comes out on the other side? If not, what happened to the original thing?

Stay tuned for Part 2 – The Ship of Thesus Paradox

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Oh Motivation, Where Art Thou?

Let's be honest... I am not very good at this whole blogging thing. I have a lot of information in my head that I would love to get out (to make room for more), but I am just never in the mood to do it. I did maintain a blog in college with some success, but that was back when free time was abundant and I was more in touch with my ... feelings. I guess I will just have to force myself into a routine - come up with some sort of schedule for doing this.

Have something you would like me to write about? Hit me up ... I could always use the inspiration!