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Beam me up

For Stelios, the teletransporter is the only way to travel. Previously it took months to get from the Earth to Mars, con- fined to a cramped spacecraft with a far from perfect safety record. Stelios's TeletransportExpress changed all that. Now the trip takes just minutes, and so far it has been 100 per cent safe.

However, now he is facing a lawsuit from a disgruntled customer who is claiming the company actually killed him. His argument is simple: the teletransporter works by scanning your brain and body cell by cell, destroying them, beaming the infor- mation to Mars and reconstructing you there. Although the person on Mars looks, feels and thinks just like a person who has been sent to sleep and zapped across space, the claimant argues that what actually happens is that you are murdered and replaced by a clone.

To Stelios, this sounds absurd. After all, he has taken the teletransporter trip dozens of times, and he doesn't feel dead. Indeed, how can the claimant seriously believe that he has been killed by the process when he is clearly able to take the case to court?

Still, as Stelios entered the teletransporter booth once again and prepared to press the button that would begin to dismantle him, he did, for a second, wonder whether he was about to commit suicide…

On what does our continued survival depend? In normal circumstances, we would say the continued functioning of our body. But since there is no part of the body that couldn't conceivably be replaced by a synthetic substitute, perhaps this is not necessarily true. Isn't it rather that we continue to exist just as long as our consciousness continues? The day no one wakes up thinking he is me, with my memories, plans and personalities, is the day I have died.

The 'psychological continuity' theory of personal identity has an intuitive appeal. It is only because it seems to reflect our fundamental intuitions that we can make sense of stories such as Kafka's 'Metamorphosis', in which a man wakes up in the body of a beetle. We instantly recognise that the man is the beetle because his mind inhabits it. Mental, not physical continuity, marks him out as the same person.

But in the case of teletransportation, although we do have psychological continuity as complete as it is in ordinary life, it also seems beyond doubt that what has been created is a copy, a clone. A clone, however, is not the same individual as the person cloned. It is the same only in the sense that two statues cast from the same mould are the same: they are identical in every detail but they are distinct entities nonetheless. If you chip one, the other remains undamaged.

It is not as though Stelios doesn't know how his teletransporter works. He just doesn't see why the fact that, strictly speaking, the machine 'clones' him every time should matter. What matters to him is that, as far as he is concerned, he walks into the booth and wakes up on another planet. The physical mechanism is irrelevant.

If that sounds glib, consider for a moment the possibility that one night, a few years ago, you were kidnapped in your sleep, processed by the teletransporter, and the resulting person returned, unknowing, to your bed. Had this happened, you would have no way of telling, because your conscious experience of your ongoing life as a continuing being would be exactly the same if it had not happened. The fact of teletransportation, in some sense, leaves your life and world exactly as it was. Perhaps then to ask whether Stelios is a clone or 'the same' person is the wrong question. Perhaps we should instead ask what matters about our past and future existence. And maybe the answer to that is psychological continuity, by whatever means necessary.

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini (page 4)

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