I have of late been thinking about our sense of self. In preparing this post I have attempted to come at it from many directions, in many ways and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to discuss this topic is in relation to the teleportation conundrum. It is a fairly long discussion, but I have tried to ensure it is comprehensive and that it concludes properly. This essay is my first comprehensive attempt at the problem, so if you see any flaws in my logic that I have overlooked, please point them out. You have likely heard the teleportation conundrum before, but in case you haven’t I’ll explain it in detail to begin.
The Teleportation Conundrum
Imagine you are standing on earth (this should not be very hard to do). In front of you is a teleporter, it looks like a glass tube. The mechanics behind the teleporter are inconsequential, what matters is what it does. When you stand in the teleporter it will instantly destroy your body on earth and rebuild it (it is rebuilt at exactly the same time and is a perfect copy) on mars. Now ask yourself, have you died? Is the person standing on Mars you, or is that person someone else entirely? Take some time to think about this question before reading on, it is an important one – one which I believe cuts directly to our understanding of ourselves. As an extension, what if there are two receiving teleporters, which will make two copies of you instantaneously, what then? Or even, what if the first teleporter merely records the data when it destroys you and the second rebuilds you a hundred years later – what then?
To answer this question we have to look at what exactly we are, a concept I am going to conveniently (but perhaps confusingly) label our “soul”.
Definition of the Soul
To talk about this question further I need to use a word to define our sense of self, the word I am going to attribute to “ourselves” is “soul”, another word I could use for it would be “mind”. This is similar but not exactly the same as some religious concepts of a “soul” – it is important to recognise that I am not talking about a necessarily immortal object, merely a “being”.
So how do I define a soul? A soul is the only thing which we can know for certain in this world, the fact that that little voice in your head is real. Descartes said ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ , I think therefore I am (with untranslatable emphasis on present tense, something which coincides neatly with this theory. You can’t actually know anything other than this for certain – you could after all be a brain in a jar, or a person in the matrix. This concept is called the Mind-Body problem. However, generally we must accept the things around us to be true (and empirically they appear to be so) as otherwise we can make no further comment. So to progress in this argument I am making the assumption that the empirical knowledge of the world around us (that is, scientific knowledge such as gravity etc.) holds true. Within this empirically grounded world we know that minds exist (or at the very least your own mind), in some form or another. But what actually constitutes a soul?
How does the soul exist?
So you know for certain you exist, but how can we rationalise the soul in the world around us? There are two main ways you can look at the existence of the soul (although I would not go so far as to say they are the only two). The first is that the soul is “divine” and the second is that the soul is “emergent” (I will just note that it is perfectly acceptable for a religious person to accept an emergent soul in addition to their faith, the word ‘divine’ is used gere in a qualitative and not categorical sense).
A divine soul is a soul which comes from outside our realm of understanding, it is gifted by God or is a piece ofBrahman or is made of magical Dust or a wizard did it or it transcends everything we know about the universe around us. This option is certainly possible and many would hold it to be the truth. However there is no empirical proof for this type of understanding of the world – and many different divine soul “theories” are different to each other on important points. Thus in this case we cannot easily assess the results of our teleportation theory. If we do not know how or why the soul inhabits the body than we cannot easily understand how teleportation would affect it. In other words, we just cannot know the answer.
An emergent soul on the other hand is one which is grounded in the realm of empirical science. An emergent soul is not one which comes from a divine unknowable force, but one which we can rationalise fully. The emergence of this soul comes from a certain configuration of information storing devices (in our case, neurons) over time. The mind is not separate from the brain, it is the higher order function of the brain itself. This does not mean the mind is not special, merely that it comes from a pattern. The mind is in fact a pattern of information – this pattern makes you…. you. We run into a couple of problems if we look at it this way however. You may have spotted the first already, the fact that we are a pattern of “information” in “information storing devices”. What does that actually mean? Isn’t everything in the universe in fact an information storing device of some sort – as long as it is read in the correct way? The second is that a pattern is a static thing and the patterns in our brains are constantly changing at an extremely fast rate – yet we observe our “souls” as existing over time. How can we rationalise this?
Discrete Patterns and the Illusion of Continuity
I’ll begin with the second problem to the emergence theory and work towards the first. So we have a discrete pattern of information (stored in neurons in the brain, of course there is no reason why it could not be stored in a computer, but that is a whole different blog) which must include our “soul”. But this pattern exists for less than a nanosecond, it is very quickly changed to something else. The patterns are discrete (even if time may be continuous) because if we reduce them to their lowest speed we can divide them into frames of information, where each frame represents different information (ever so slightly different to the last, eg. a single neuron firing)). The distance of time between these frames is irrelevant (in humans it would be almost unmeasurably small), but what is relevant is that we cannot “think” in a single frame – thinking requires multiple consecutive frames. So is it the case that we( ie. our soul) “lives” for this one “frame” in the slideshow of our lives before being replaced by another similar yet fundamentally different soul?
By our original definition of the soul this cannot be true – we observe ourselves as existing over time and thus we must exist over time under this definition. The above reasoning however is extremely important, because it changes the nature of the soul in our empirical world. It means that the “soul” that we are defining (something which occurs over a period of time and not just a point) does not exist in an empirical way. The soul is not some “quality” the brain possesses, it is not some categorical dimension in the universe. Rather the soul can only exist as we ourselves define it, it is our own sense of self which we hold so important but the soul does not “exist” as a real entity.
So how can we have a sense of self and continuity in a discrete information system? A few possible ways we could define “ourself” over time come to mind; proximity in: material or space or time or pattern. Proximity in material can be immediately dismissed from our minds, the body replaces every cell within it every seven years – do you perceive yourself as a new person every seven years? of course not. Proximity in time and space is a little more difficult, but using some analogies we can examine them. Lets imagine we freeze time and move you to a new place. When time starts up again are you the same person? Intuitively we would think you are (notice that this example is similar to yet still different from the teleportation question). Furthermore if we were to freeze you in space, and speed up time around you, then wake you in the future – you would also intuitively think of you as alive. This intuitive reasoning is fine to use as our definition of the soul in the first place is intuitive. This means however that our sense of self and continuity over time is determined by proximity in pattern – this occurs through memory.
Memory and self awareness is the key to the existence of an emergent soul. Not all memory is important for the soul, merely memory of the soul in the past. So what we have is a special subset of information systems, this is an information system which contains within it information about itself in its last frame, and the one before that and on and on. The amount of information about your past you have does not matter too much, as long as you can remember your existence in past frames. This almost recursive type of memory creates the illusion of continuity and thus connects the discrete frames into one self defined “soul”.
The Problem With Information Storing Devices
We can now come to the first problem we had, how do we define information storing devices? For an information storing system to exist there must be something which can read that information and make sense of it. This is an interesting situation as we could conceive that every configuration in the universe could be considered an information storing device, if only we had the right system for reading it (a compiler if you will). In effect, this means that there are information systems everywhere – although they are incomprehensible to us. However an important thing to note is that these information sets are by and large unorganised. It is only through the extreme structure that biology has evolved that we see proper memory systems and self awareness which create a soul.
Conclusions and Teleportation Application
So we can now finally come to a conclusion for our teleportation question. The question has two answers, one for the divine soul theory and another for the emergent soul theory. The answer for a divine soul theory is unknown – we just do not know. The answer for an emergent soul theory is that you will not “die” in the sense that we understand death. You will only die so much as you die between every frame of your pattern. The emergent soul is an intuitive yet on the whole meaningless thing, the meaning it has is special only to its holder.
This conclusion of the definition of the “soul” is particularly interesting and there are a lot of important implications which are very interesting. Part 2 will cover these topics, so don’t miss it!