“The Machine” and the big problem with the continuity of consciousness

Existential Comics is a webcomic about philosophy — mostly about parodying philosophers and philosophical ideas for inside joke laughs, sometimes making profound observations. Perhaps the most profound comic is the first one, “The Machine”. I recommend that you take a few minutes to read it right now. Either way, I’m going to use it to illustrate an important question that it brings up.

The comic begins with the invention of teleporters that can be used to flawlessly teleport even people. However, some people think being teleported means death, and not without reason.

Existential Comics The Machine 3-4

If the teleporter takes you from one place to another instantly, without your passing in between, then what it really does is in at least some sense to destroy the original you and create a new one in the next place. If you don’t think so, what do you say to the two examples of thought experiments at the end of the panel above? But then, doesn’t this mean that when you teleport, you die and a clone is created in your place, one that thinks it’s you but isn’t because you’re forever dead? There is one being experiencing things exactly as you would if you still existed, but that’s little comfort for you because you’re dead. (There’s also that point about not using the exact same atoms in the exact same places, but as far as I’m concerned, we can ignore that point already.)

Or is it like this? Continuing the line of thought brings strange results, as this story’s protagonist finds out:

Existential Comics The Machine 11-16

To the inventor, this is enough: he shows that what his teleporter does is analogous to a mere instance of unconsciousness, like sleep. But the unnamed protagonist, who was so convinced by the arguments before, sees things differently.

Existential Comics The Machine 17-18

The arguments so far have shown that a brief episode of unconsciousness appears to be the same thing as the whole body being disintegrated and then reconstructed — and remember that this includes if the new copy is created a thousand years after, or even while the original still exists.

But is it the same?

I want to emphasize again what the question here is. On one side, and crucially, it’s about dying in the most intimate and personal way. Imagine that you are to die soon, and what that means is that your consciousness will cease and you will never experience anything again. This is the best guess we have as to how it “feels” like — I am not taking into account any notions of an afterlife or reincarnation because they have done nothing to deserve to be taken seriously. The idea of a soul so independent of a physical basis that it makes this not a problem is little better than they.

There are lots of things that can be described in many ways, from many points of view. It can even depend on one’s point of view whether it makes sense or not to say something “exists” at all. But if you’re dead, that’s it. You can’t be alive from a certain point of view, to yourself anyway, if it’s simply the case that your subjective experience has ceased altogether.

There may be other people who are alive and conscious after you die, but you wouldn’t know about that then, would you?

So this is the question in the teleportation thought experiment — after the teleportation has taken place, is it the case that you are again existing as a conscious being, or that there is another one just like you, but you wouldn’t know about that because you are dead? And what about after a natural episode of unconsciousness?

The point I want to make about these questions is that they are, at present, unanswerable. We lack the crucial components in our description of subjective consciousness.

There are so many ways that things could reasonably be. Maybe only memory creates continuity of consciousness; maybe you will live on in any clone of yours as much as the original, or maybe the continuity is a meaningless illusion. Maybe there are only a bunch of different contents of consciousness in the world, so that our “unified” consciousness is just some of them being in contact with each other, but there’s no point in worrying about whether future ones are part of the “same” being. Maybe we “die” all the time as new contents come into our consciousness. Or maybe there really are conditions that qualify the sameness of a consciousness at one moment and another — but then, we can’t tell what they are from here. Maybe it’s relevant to have the same particles in the same places or only moving gradually, maybe it’s the pattern that counts. I wouldn’t trust anyone’s guesses, no matter what thought experiments they might marshal, unless they could also answer the hard problem of consciousness.

The hard problem of consciousness is simply why there is any subjective experience at all. Why isn’t it all just matter and causality — why does any of it feel like anything? Not to go into detail about it, but this question is truly diabolical. Conscious experience is immediately present to us, and so it’s undeniable that it exists in some form even if we can’t see clearly what it is. But no causal account of the world seems to need it — we can always postulate that any given causal power exists without it feeling like anything to anyone, or even there being an isolated spot of feeling (not part of a mind, whatever that would mean) corresponding to it. Yet it’s also pretty clear that conscious states can have a causal effect. For one thing, why else would evolution put them there? This is not to be taken to think supernaturalistic explanations fare any better — everything crashes into the same dilemma — but I digress.

So, this comes up also if we want to know about the continuity of this subjective experience. Outwardly, a clone might be indistinguishable, but there would be the inner difference of whether it was the same person as before, if only from that possibly dead person’s point of view. Or maybe there would be no such difference. If we shows that consciousness follows from matter in some way, maybe we’ll find out how to model its continuity too. But right now, we just don’t know. These questions are puzzles and paradoxes, and they probably should be as long as this crucially related puzzle and paradox remains unsolved.

There might be something about the nature of time we need to know too. How is one moment related to another, and how are the things existing at one moment?

Two final notes. First: I find that I experience myself so much as the continuous being, the sum of my temporal parts rather than the momentary consciousness, that it’s hard for me to worry about dying when going to sleep. Second: the comic continues from this and makes other good philosophical points, of a different sort and not necessarily related to what the answer to these questions at hand is. Here’s your last chance to read it in all its depth.


One thought on ““The Machine” and the big problem with the continuity of consciousness

  1. I think Dr. McKoy was right to be suspicious of the transporter. If the original is not actually transported and reassembled, but instead a copy is made and the original destroyed, then we have a moral dilemma.

    In Star Trek this was demonstrated in one episode where a copy of Commander Riker was discovered still in the transporter of his spaceship that had crashed years earlier. So we ended up with two Commander Rikers until one left the ship to continue life independently.

    A similar problem was presented in the move “The 6th Day” where Arnold Schwarzenegger is illegally cloned while the original was still alive (it was only legal to clone someone who had died).

    And the movie “The Prestige” gives a really dark twist. A magician enlists the aid of Tesla to create a transported man magic trick. Unfortunately, the secret of the trick is that the copied person is dropped through a trap door into a container of water where he is drowned.

    So the moral dilemma is whether to kill the original person in order to create a copy in a new location. One could argue that the life of the original person should not be sacrificed, and that you’d just have to live with the consequence of having two (or more) individuals who were identical up to a point in time.

    And the problems with that choice is explored in the movie “Multiplicity” with Michael Keaton. The clones, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, end up moving out to create a life of their own…sorta like Riker.

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