A Thought Experiment

I am a big lover of thought experiments. As someone who often wrestles with the metaphysical and who stumbled into a philosophy minor by accident (I just couldn't stop taking the classes), I've got my own thought experiment I've been working through lately, and what better way to kick off a writing blog than a totally unrelated philosophical/theological thought experiment?

First, some context. I consider myself militantly agnostic. That is to say, I believe that most major religions have equal claim to try to explain the metaphysical. I won't hedge my bets by choosing to practice one religion, and I won't waste my time pretending that non-rational beliefs (not irrational, an important distinction for beliefs that - by design - are meant to explain things that the rational world cannot) can be disproven with the scientific method. In short, I think it's equally likely that atheists have it (where "it" is the nature of existence) right, Christians have it right, Buddhists have it right, etc etc. Or, alternatively, equally likely that nobody has it right.

Something that philosophers have been struggling with since the ancient Greeks (and probably much earlier) is the nature of consciousness. To an atheist, consciousness is simply the firing of electrical impulses within the brain. To a Christian, consciousness is the manifestation of the soul within our earthly forms.

People have been searching for "the soul" for a very long time. Duncan MacDougall tried to find evidence of the soul by looking for a loss of mass at the moment of death (interesting story!). Forgive my lack of intellectual rigor, but I won't list all of the instances in recent history of folks searching for the soul in scientific manners.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on those guys here, because I don't think, if there is a "soul," that it would be measurable. And let me pause and say to my atheist friends who are already muttering "There is no soul of course!" under their respective breaths: Kindly stuff it. Dark energy makes up about 2/3 (68%) of the stuff in the universe. Dark matter makes up about a quarter (28%). That leaves about 5% for everything that we can see and measure. So - whether or not there is a soul of some sort, it at least merits continuing discussion and analysis.

Now, onto the thought experiment itself. What is a thought experiment, for those in the class who aren't philosophy nerds? It's a conceptual analysis. To me, it's taking the time to journey down a specific conceptual path, to hopefully produce new insight on something. In this case, I'm going to present a hypothetical situation in context of theoretical future science, and I'm going to end by asking you: is there a soul? Side note: My favorite thought experiment is Scott Adams' God's Debris, which is a fascinating little book.

First, let's define soul. I'm going to define soul in a very general way, because, as an agnostic, I don't subscribe to a Christian or Buddhist or Muslim definition. The soul, in context of this thought experiment, will be defined as something outside the known physical world that plays a fundamental role in individual existence, aka the conscious self.   

OKAY. So you're with me so far. This thought experiment presupposes the existence of a theoretically possible future technology. Teleportation. Close your eyes and allow me to transport you into the future. Okay, okay, open them again, you can't read with your eyes closed. You exist in the United States in, let's say 100 years. The year is 2117, and scientists have just built the world's first teleporter. It's a prototype, and they're ready for human testing. Test subjects will be paid well, and all you have to do is walk into a tube the size of a phone booth. From there, scientists will teleport you to another phone-booth-sized tube twenty feet away, and you will walk out of it.

Pretty easy, right? It's important to know how this technology works, first. Inside each tube are an array of incredible sensors (tremendous sensors. All the best sensors!). Attached to both is the world's best, most foolproof quantum supercomputer. In the first tube, your entire molecular composition will be analyzed and uploaded. The super computer will have an accurate and triply redundant map of every last electron, every last neural pathway, every last molecule of your entire physical form. From there, the computer simultaneously annihilates the original copy in the first tube, and builds an identical version in the second tube. The version of you that walks out of the second tube has every last memory, every last pimple, every last bacterium, every last DNA mutation as the version that walked into the first tube. Teleportation! To an outside observer, for all intents and purposes, you teleported! Amazing!

Would you volunteer? For that matter, in twenty years, after the technology has shown a 0% failure rate, would you ever make use of it to visit relatives on the moon or take a vacation in the Caribbean? On one hand, if your experience of living (aka your conscious self) is based purely in the configuration of your neurons, then it should be the same you that walks out of that second tube. You should walk into one door, and with no loss of time or perception, walk out the other door. On the other hand, if there is something fundamental to your existence that cannot be measured by our incredible sensors and laid out in our supercomputer's map of you, then it won't be there when you rematerialize. For all intents and purposes, "you" will die the moment the computer annihilates the "original copy."

Do me a favor, and take a moment here. Really do close your eyes this time. Imagine you are standing at the door to that first tube. What do you do?




Okay, now one more hypothetical to complete the thought experiment. Let's say for the sake of argument that you DO walk through the door to the first tube. The computer maps everything out and creates the new copy of you. BUT, it turns out the computer WASN'T so foolproof after all. The computer fails to destroy the original before creating the new copy. Now there are two molecularly identical versions of you. Both of them are standing in identical tubes having identical expectations and thought processes. Which of them is "you?" By which I mean which of them is the extension of your personal sense of existence, of your conscious self?

There are three possibilities:

1) "You" are the original copy. The new version is a duplicate, but your sense of consciousness clings to the original.

2) "You" are the duplicate. Your sense of existence somehow carried to the teleported version, leaving the original.

3) "You" are both simultaneously. You experience the sensation of consciously inhabiting two separate bodies.

There is no way to know for sure, but I think we can make some assumptions based on common sense. Number 2 seems least likely of all. By what mechanism would creating a duplicate of your physical self cause your conscious self to travel from one body to another? Number 3 also seems unlikely. The experience of the conscious self is uniquely individual. How would we inhabit two bodies at once? Sensory input is received by the conscious self via the interpretation of our one brain. How would we even experience dual brains? That leaves us with Number 1. Your conscious self continues to inhabit the original, while a duplicate that thinks it is you, but isn't, walks out of the second tube.

So what? So this. If your conscious self remains in the original body rather than travel to the new body in the second hypothetical, why should it be any different in the first hypothetical? If you believe Number 1 accurately describes the outcome in the second hypothetical, then you should NEVER walk into that tube in the first hypothetical, because all you're doing is committing suicide.

So what? So this. If the original hypothetical is suicide, then doesn't that mean that there is something fundamental to the conscious self that could not be observed or mapped out in a computer? Something that's lost in the transition? 

Having been through that, let me ask you what I promised to ask you. Is there a soul?