Battlepanda: The transporter and the limits of empathy


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The transporter and the limits of empathy

Dan of the Duck of Minerva agrees with me: there is no travelling done with transporters, just annihilation and reconstitution. If we ever achieve Star Trek levels of technical advancement, I will be one of those sad sacks doomed to putter around earth growing stuff that they can make in replicators anyhow while y'all travel the stars. Pathetic and technophobic? Perhaps. But also, as I endeavored to show below, perfectly rational. Consider this scenario...

You're on the way to a sunny holiday in Hawaii, via transporter. Full of happy anticipation, you step on the pad and await materialization on the Waikiki shore. Seconds later, you open your eyes and realize that you're still on the transport pad.

An embarrased operator informs you that there's been a little glitch. They've successfully read your pattern and reconstituted you with every atom and memory in its place in sunny Hawaii, but unfortunately they did not simultaneously disperse the original...i.e. you. And since there's only room for one of you in the world, would you mind stepping into the vaporizing chamber? Sure, the memory you accumulated since the blotched transport would not be transferred, but we can hardly argue that a few minutes of bureaucratic hassel would be an irredemable loss to the world or to you.

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that nobody would meekly submit to the vaporization. Yet isn't the substance of what is happening exactly the same as any routine transport? In each case, you are annihilated. In each case you know that there is going to be an almost exact copy of you taking your place. So what's the problem?

Descart said "I think, therefore I am." I say, "I feel, therefore I think I am." This is the closest I can come to articulating why I will never get on a transporter, even assuming that such a thing can be built at all. My knowledge that "I am" does not lie in the abstract notion that a pattern continues to exist, but in the very physical feedback I continue to get from my body. This is how I am sentient. I will be able to feel the maximum amount of empathy with a transporter twin, I think. But by definition there is a difference between 'empathy' and 'feeling'.

This is an interesting point to ponder so close on the heels of the Experience Machine debate. In both cases, the logical course from the utilitarian point of view is stymied by a pesky sense of what is real. I feel like my reality would be as violated, if not more, by the transporter as it would be by the reality machine.