Mind Uploading and The Teleportation Problem

star-trek-the-next-generationThe Teleportation Problem thought experiment is so famous that it barely needs introduction. Simply stated, it is as follows “If I step into a teleporter, which obliterates me, while instantaneously generating an identical duplicate of me elsewhere, is the duplicate me?” While it raises interesting Metaphysical questions, the scenario is so fantastical that it seems to raise few practical concerns. Encountering such a situation perhaps seems unlikely in the very near future.

However Mind Uploading is a process which may be potentially achieved in the next century, and it raises similar problems. Suppose I want to live indefinitely, not through my legacy, but through my own subjective consciousness continuing to exist indefinitely. Further, I am considering uploading my mind as a possible method of achieving this. The question now has practical consequences. If the digital “me” is a continuation of the flesh and blood me’s own subjective consciousness then I should upload straight away. If it isn’t, but is instead a mere replica, then I might as well not bother. It’s not that I will begrudge the replica’s existence, but it will do absolutely nothing to allow me to continue to exist longer.

This is not intended to be a final-word academic essay on this matter, that would need to be far longer, but what it is is a brief discussion of the issues discussed by Metaphysicians, and their possible applications to Mind Uploading. Philosophers like David Chalmers and Keith Wiley have written about Mind Uploading, but questions concerning personal identity go back through centuries to examples including Buddhism’s ‘Anatman’ concept and ‘The Ship of Theseus’ thought experiment of a ship which has every part replaced, raising the question of whether it is the same ship (In later variations a new ship is then built from the original pieces, further muddying the waters).

What are the necessary conditions for there to be identity between the digital me and the flesh and blood Me?

In Logic, Leibniz’ law states that X and Y are identical if and only if, all of their properties are the same. However Leibniz’ law is problematic with identity through time. It is hard to imagine an object which has exactly the same properties after even a ten-minute pause, although perhaps the changes are miniscule.

The identity of Consciousnesses and objects is not strict formal logical identity, but a slightly looser concept of identity. It is clearly not just physical continuity, as almost any object experiences change of parts over time. So here are five common suggestions:

Anticriterialism-No properties are exact criteria for personal identity, however some can provide evidence for it. Mental and physical continuity of a person are evidence of personal identity, but are not strict logical proof of it. Such a person might not have any personal identity, or a person lacking one or both might possibly have personal identity.

Animalism-There is one property relevant ot personal identity, that of continuing to be an animal.

Psychological continuity-If the later person has psychological continuity with the earlier one. Memories are an example of psychological continuity.

The ‘Survival’ conditionDerek Parfit has denied that personal identity through time exists, but has instead argued that ‘Survival’ of properties matters. Even if a post-teleporter replica has no ‘identity’ with the pre-teleporter person, many properties of the former, such as psychological and physical characteristics, survive in the new person, and so there is survival, which is what matters.

Perdurantist personal identity-Concerning the continuity of identity through time of physical objects, such as a ship which has had every part replaced, David Lewis has argued that it is incorrect to conceive physical objects as being entities which merely exist in three spatial dimensions. It is correct to imagine them a four-dimensional entities with temporal parts. Just as the wing and head of a butterfly have different properties but are different spatial parts of a single object, so do a butterfly and caterpillar have different properties but are different temporal parts of a single object. Lewis has argued that this problem also solves issues of personal identity. We can conceive a person as a 4-dimensional entity, where different spatial and temporal parts have different properties.

Can these accounts help us resolve whether Mind Uploading is worthwhile?

Anticriterialism is ultimately an admission that ‘we don’t know’ and cannot entirely help us here. An uploaded mind has some properties of the original person but not others, so the evidence is inconclusive. That is the very reason we are now discussing this matter. Are the other four suggestions more useful than Anticriterialism? To discuss this let’s discuss some other thought experiments on personal identity.

Animalism is similarly problematic. It suggests that if my brain were transplanted into a robotic body while my own brainless body were kept alive my personal identity would be with my body, not with my brain, whereas it seems far more likely that my identity would be with my brain.

The other three approaches present more interesting solutions.

Parfit and others have given a few examples to help illustrate the nebulousness of our concept of personal identity, many involving multiple versions of the same person:

Imagine ‘brain fission’ occurs. A brain splits into two, each of which is transplanted into a new body with all the memories of the original brain. Is one, both, or neither of the brains the original person?

Alternatively, imagine a person has a replica made and the original and replica both live. Is one, both, or neither, the original person?

This is the most worrying one. In the teleporter example and in some mind uploading thought experiments we conceive that there is only ever one person at any time. After teleportation or Mind Uploading the original is considered dead or otherwise lost. But what if by fluke things malfunction and the original person continues to survive alongside their doppelgänger? We would be inclined to say the new person is a duplicate rather than the original. But if the original is destroyed in the process, why does that suddenly give the new person continuity of identity with the original?


The big difference between fission and replication is that in the former case there is a kind of continuity which does not exist in the latter. When I am told my consciousness will be ‘split’ I may feel startled, but I can feel content that my own subjective life with continue, merely doubled. They will not be a replacement of me, but a continuation of me.

On the other hand if I am told that a replica will be made of my mind I will no longer feel happy with my own possible future longevity. A replica of me might continue in my place, believing it is me, but none of this is going to do me any good. I’m still stuck in my weak fleshy body while “DigiMe” or ReplicaMe shoots off to new adventures. And if I’m told that this is no problem because “FleshMe” will be obliterated in the process, so there will only be one being left which is convinced that it is me, then I will have reason to be even more worried, since this will now mean that my own subjective consciousness is going to be destroyed. And while the knowledge of the Parfit-esque ‘survival’ of my personality traits may allow me to know that my ideas and activities will continue, it will give me no more comfort than knowing that a friend will continue my work after I die. I don’t want my personality traits to continue, I want my own subjective life to continue, regardless of whether there are replicas. The minor assurance of knowing my ‘backup’ replica will live on after my obliteration and so my properties and ideas will survive calls to mind Woody Allen’s famous comment ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’.

What is missing in these cases of mind uploading and? An issue is that there is broken continuity. Continuity occurs because after the original stops a new replica starts which can continue from where the original stopped. If I want to experience the immortality of my own subjective self then I want more seamless continuity with my future self, continuity in the sense that we continue without cessation as a single entity rather than with me replaced (at the same time as I am possibly destroyed) by my replica.

We can understand this in terms of both psychological continuity and Lewis-style 4-D identity. In terms of psychological continuity, to be one person rather than one person and a replica it is required that there is a mind with psychological continuity through time, rather than that it ceases to exist at a point in time and is then replaced by a new one, or is replicated and then carries on with life as its replica lives its own life. In terms of 4-D identity it is analogous to the 3-D difference between one object and two. If two parts are connected in 3-D space by intermediate stuff then they are part of the same object. If there is a gap in between they are not. Similarly, if two parts of an object or a consciousness are connected in 4-D space by intermediate stuff then they are part of the same object or consciousness, but if there is a gap between them then there is not.

To clarify this difference we can appeal to the ‘Ship of Theseus’ example. Suppose my ship ‘Theseus’ is made of non-waterproof planks and I want it to be made of waterproof planks. If I destroy ‘Theseus’ and at the same moment get a new ship, ‘Hippolytus’, which is identical except for the fact that it is made of waterproof planks, is ‘Hippolytus’ ‘Theseus’? No. But suppose that I replace the planks of ‘Theseus’ with waterproof planks one by one and name the new ship ‘Pirithous’. Is ‘Pirithous’ ‘Theseus’? This is more plausible. There is not merely ‘survival’ of properties. If we observe the ship in 4-D terms we can think of it as an object with both waterproof and non-waterproof temporal parts, but there is a continuous whole through time, whereas in the case of the ‘Hippolytus’ there is a gap between two objects in time. Can we apply psychological continuity to a ship? Let’s pretend ‘Theseus’ is a very technologically advanced ship with true AI. We can see the psychological continuity between ‘Theseus’ and ‘Pirithous’ but not between ‘Theseus’ and ‘Hippolytus’. ‘Hippolytus’ is just a replica of ‘Theseus’.

So if I want to become immortal through mind uploading I need to make sure that it is genuinely me that will last, and not merely a replica. Except in most cases of uploading this is not the case. When I upload photographs from my camera onto my computer I am creating copies of them on my computer. When I upload my files onto a backup drive I am copying them, creating replicas.

Likeable friends though they may be, I cannot confuse myself with them any more than I can confuse myself with a twin brother. In both cases my own subjective consciousness is the one I experience, not theirs.

So to achieve ‘Theseus-like’ continuity of personal identity I need to be continuing my own self rather than merely replicating it. One obvious way to do this is to apply the ship of Theseus example a little more literally. If I replace parts of my mind with cybernetic replacements bit-by-bit then over time I can become ‘digitalised’, at which point it is a little easier for me to be an uploaded mind of pure data which can travel from body to body, without being a replica of my former self. Of course, replacing brain piece by piece until they form a new computer is altogether more difficult than simply Uploading a mind onto a computer, but since it is my own subjective self that continues, rather than my own self eventually dying while my digital replica lives on, it seems clear that there is good reason to put the extra effort in.

Mind Uploading, from http://www.designbyschultz.com/mind-uploading-digital-immortality-may-be-reality-by-2045-futurists-say/


David Chalmers ‘The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis’

Jonathan Danaher ‘Chalmers vs. Pigliucci on the Philosophy of Mind-Uploading (1): Chalmers’s Optimism’, ‘Philosophical Disquisitions’ (blog) (2014), http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.it/2014/09/chalmers-vs-pigliucci-on-philosophy-of.html

Jonathan Danaher ‘Chalmers vs. Pigliucci on the Philosophy of Mind-Uploading (2): Pigliucci’s Pessimism’, ‘Philosophical Disquisitions’ (blog) (2014), http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.it/2014/09/chalmers-vs-pigliucci-on-philosophy-of_19.html

David Lewis ‘Survival and Identity’, Amélie O. Rorty (ed.) ‘The Identities of Persons’ (1976), Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 17-40

Derek Parfit ‘Personal Identity’, ‘Philosophical Review’ vol. 80 (1971), pp.3-27

Keith Wiley, A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading(2014), Humanity + Press and Alautun Press (see http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/12/14/keith-wileys-taxonomy-metaphysics-mind-uploading/)


Isidore MacDubhis a Philosophy Graduate with a fascination with Transhumanism. He currently lives in Italy.