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!