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David Darling's Newsletter #16


November 4, 2003


1. Meanderings
2. Clones and selves
3. Bookends

1. Meanderings

Greetings, everyone! Snow has come early to Minnesota this year and, even as I write, is settling on the ground. I know there are people reading this newsletter who are scattered as far apart as India, Australia, Italy, Brazil, Russia, Sweden, and South Africa, and it makes me wonder what it's like in your part of the world right now. Some, no doubt, have it colder and snowier, while others will be heading for the beach.

A couple of items of news. My new website is now up and running. When you type in/www.daviddarling.info, or the address of any page beginning with that, you automatically go there. The old site still exists, but is no longer being updated and I'll be winding that down and eventually closing it altogether as traffic switches over. The new site has a bulletin board which I hope many of you will take advantage of for asking questions of me and other readers, joining in debates, contributing to existing topics, or starting up new threads of your own. It's very easy to use, just go to any page on my site, including the front page, and click on "bulletin board" in the menu at the top.

Don't be afraid of making mistakes or posting something you're not sure about putting before the public gaze. I want this to be a very informal and completely open forum. It isn't just for academic discussion. Have your say. The more people I hear from, the better – and your contribution will be greatly appreciated!

The second bit of news is that my latest book, The Universal Book of Astronomy, is now available from bookstores, in both real space and cyberspace. I think its probably the first (and only, so far) encyclopedia of astronomy to have been written entirely in the 21st century. So, although obviously I'm biased, I'd have to claim it's the most up-to-date A-Z currently on the market. It forms a set with The Complete Book of Spaceflight that came out last year and The Complete Book of Mathematics that will be published in August 2004. See the front page of my website for more details.

And now, let's talk about you ...


2. Clones and selves

Imagine: You've stepped onto the transporter pad of the starship Enterprise. It's your very first experience of being "beamed" from one place to another. What's going to happen? What will it feel like? You hear the transporter engineer say "Energize!" And then ... nothing happens. You're still on the pad, wondering what's gone wrong. A second later you hear a radio message coming from the planet's surface below: "Transport successful. Lock on to my signal and prepare to beam me back if necessary." It's your own voice! You were beamed down to the planet after all. And yet, here you are, still on the starship. Apparently, there are now two "you's," identical in every respect, down to the last brain connection, molecule, and subatomic particle. Which is the "real" you?

Thought experiments – gedanken – like this, help us focus on what it means to be an individual or a particular self. Quite a few philosophers (I recommend Derek Parfit and his book "Reasons and Person") have used Star Trek-type teleportation incidents to probe the nature of "you" and "me." And, in case you think beaming around is a bit far-fetched, this whole issue of selfhood is of huge importance when we come to consider the imminent prospect of human cloning. If someone is created genetically identical to another person, to what extent can or will they think of themselves as being unique?

Before going back to our little story about the transporter incident, I have to mention that Star Trek-type transporters work differently than the kind of teleportation that scientists are experimenting with in the real world. In actual teleportation, as far as we know, it's absolutely impossible to make an identical copy of something (right down to the subatomic level) without destroying the original. This all comes about because of a frustrating rule in quantum mechanics called Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which says, basically, that you can never know exactly where something is and how it's moving at the same time. One of the upshots of the uncertainty principle is the so-called "no-cloning theorem" – if you make a duplicate by the (known phenomenon) of quantum teleportation you inevitably lose the original.

But let's put this little show-stopper aside and assume that a transporter can be built like that in Star Trek. As far as I can gather, this works by scanning the original object or person, producing an exact blueprint that's stored in a "pattern buffer," sending a stream of "phased matter" – like a river of energy or plasma – to the destination, and using the information in the pattern buffer to reconstitute the transportee at the other end. If there's a glitch it's obviously possible that the stored information could be used to make more than one copy, just like you can print out multiple copies of a single file on a computer disk. In fact, in a number of Star Trek episodes, problems with the transporter are used as the starting point for interesting plots. There's the one in which Captain Kirk is split into his good and evil sides ("The Enemy Within") – a variation on the Jekyll and Hide theme penned by topflight SF writer Richard Matheson, who also wrote some of the more memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone (including "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing of a plane). Transporter fission turns to fusion in the Star Trek Voyager episode "Tuvix," when crewmates Tuvok, the Vulcan security officer, and Neelix, the Talaxian, longtime antagonists, are merged in transit into one person. The resulting "Tuvix" harbors the memories of both progenitors but has a single consciousness. From being initially confused and ambivalent, Tuvix goes on to carve out a clear identity and personality of his own and, when a means is discovered to undo the meld caused by the transporter accident, he objects – not unreasonably – to going through with the procedure on the grounds that he'll be killed. Captain Janeway is faced with the moral dilemma of ending the brief existence of a distinct, unique individual, who's become well-liked among the crew, or denying the rights of Tuvok and Neelix to continue their separate lives. Ensemble casting and contractual arrangements being what they are, Tuvix is consigned to oblivion. In the Next Generation episode “Second Chances”, an identical copy of Wil Riker is created. We're even given a bit of technobabble about how it happens. Twelve years ago, while a then-lieutenant Riker was beaming up from a planet’s surface through severe atmospheric interference, the transporter chief locked onto Riker's signal with a second confinement beam. When this turned out not to be needed, the second signal was abandoned – but not lost. The disturbance in the atmosphere caused the second beam to be reflected back to the planet, like a short-wave radio signal. Somehow the matter stream was duplicated, using phased matter from the atmospheric interference effect. Unbeknownst to everyone else, an identical Riker was formed on the planet's surface – just as in our thought experiment.

OK, so here you are on the Enterprise not having beamed down. And yet there is this other "you," identical to the last atom and quantum state, down on the planet below. Both of you claim to be the genuine article. Who is right? There are three possibilities: neither of the copies is you, one or the other is you, or both copies are you. It doesn't make sense that by making an exact duplicate of you, there should now be no you! Nor can we point to one of the you's and say that it is the real McCoy and the other is a fake, since they're absolutely identical. The only answer that makes sense is that there really are now two "you's."

But isn't the whole point about being "you" or "me" that we're unique? Apparently not. You can be a distinct self, and there can be another self, identical to you in every respect (except location) who thinks and feels exactly like you do and, indeed, claims to be you. If there were a transporter accident in which a duplicate of you appeared, would it feel as if you were flitting back and forth between the two bodies, or that you could see out of two separate sets of eyes? Not at all. Two brains means two selves and two centers self-awarenesses, whether the brains are exactly identical or not.

In the case of a Star Trek transporter, we can claim in our thought experiment that the two you's really are exactly alike, down to the subatomic level. At the instant of rematerialization, these two you's would have exactly the same thoughts and memories. But immediately after, differences would start to appear because even duplicates can't occupy the same space or do exactly the same things. From the point of bifurcation onward, different sets of experiences, different personal narratives, would give rise to the laying down of different memory chains. Although the two copies would always be very much alike in appearance, thought, and deed, they'd diverge over time. In "Second Chances," Riker-2 (the copy that forms on the planet's surface) remains more like the youthful Riker – more of a risk-taker – than the familiar Commander Riker-1 of the Enterprise. The message here is that your brain's wiring doesn't totally dictate what you'll do or become in the future.

What about clones? If a baby is born who has been engineered to be genetically identical to someone else, what moral and psychological dilemmas might this give rise to? Of course, we already have the example of identical twins. But such twins grow up together and are a natural phenomenon. I haven't heard of many cases where an identical twin has suffered psychologically through having a like sibling. But the fact that clones are, some extent, manufactured could give rise to all kinds of emotional and psychological problems, from resentment to a feeling of being different and isolated from the society that created them. Will human clones tend to band together and live apart from the rest of us? Will they be treated differently, discriminated against. I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on this.

A couple of more ideas for you before I go. What if it were possible to make an exact copy of someone far in the future. Say, your body and brain was scanned down to the last molecule and then, long after you'd died, maybe thousands of years in the future, this scan was used to remake you. Would this be the same as being brought back to life? Would it be like beaming into the future? Would you be happy to try it, realizing how frightening it might be to suddenly wake up in a world that you didn't understand and in which you didn't know anyone?

And would making an identical copy of you, by scanner, transporter, or some other means, recreate every part of you? What about your soul – assuming you think you have one? Being dematerialized and whisked across space and/or time to be formed anew may sound outrageous, but, in one sense, it's already happened. Every particle now making up your body was one floating freely in the void between the stars.

3. Bookends

For news on all my books and how to order them (perhaps as a Christmas present!) visit my website. And, of course, I'd love to hear from you at any time.

Until next time,
Best wishes,
David Darling