Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Philosophy Of Mind And Breaking Bad

In a throwaway scene from an episode of the final season of Breaking Bad, Badger and Skinny Peter (Jesse's two drug-dealing pals) are talking about the transporter on Star Trek; you know what the transporter is even if you've never seen Star Trek, the "beam me up Mr Scott" machine: a teleportation device for transporting people instantly from one place to another. It supposedly works like this: the ship's computer breaks down the person being transported into a digital scan of their atoms and sends this digital information to the surface of another planet or another ship where the computer then reforms the person, intact, atom by atom. Ah, what about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle I hear you ask? When they reassemble the atoms won't the humans all be messed up at the other end? There are 10^30 atoms in the human body and every single atom is subject to quantum uncertainty...Well, apparently everything will be fine; according to Wikipedia:  

Heisenberg compensators remove uncertainty from the subatomic measurements, making transporter travel feasible. Further technology involved in transportation include a computer pattern buffer to enable a degree of leeway in the process. When asked "How does the Heisenberg compensator work?" by Time magazine, Star Trek technical adviser Michael Okuda responded: "It works very well, thank you."[3]

Anyway lets for the sake of argument assume that the transporter does work. What Skinny Pete was saying to Badger in Breaking Bad was not an argument about the physics but an argument from the philosophy of mind. Pete's contention was that every time Kirk gets transported somewhere it's not the original Captain Kirk but a recreation, a copy, a copy who has the same mind state and the same memories as the about-to-be transported individual but it's not the same man. The original Captain Kirk, Pete argues, is destroyed in the transporter room and a copy reassembled at the transport site. Consciousness, Pete is implying, cannot be transported because consciousness is a property that cannot be subject to measurement. The copy of Captain Kirk now on the alien planet only thinks he's the same man because he shares Kirk's memories and mindstate at the moment of transportation but unfortunately the real Captain Kirk was killed by the transporter. The copy goes on to live Kirk's life, Pete says, until he too must enter the transporter and he too dies. Throughout the course of the show, Pete argues, there are hundreds of Kirk copies that get created, while the real Kirk dies the very first time he gets transported. Pete just throws this idea out there and then Badger pitches his Star Trek pie eating contest script idea but its worth thinking about. If you want to know more about the concept there's a Star Trek wiki discussion on what happens when you transport, here. And there's a really nice philosophical analysis of the transporter concept by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, in their 1982 book The Mind’s I where they call the transporter a "murdering twinmaker." Hofstadter further explores consciousness in his fascinating book I Am A Strange Loop and Daniel Dennett examines in some depth the idea of materialism in his - rather misleadingly - titled book Consciousness Explained. Whether you believe in strict materialism or a Cartesian dualism I'm not sure I can see how the transporter could work without killing you and replacing you with a copy. 
...
But what exactly is consciousness and how does it evolve from matter? It's a huge problem in philosophy, psychology and neurology. Antonio Damasio attempts to explain some of the elements of the problem here: 

30 comments:

Alan said...

Adrian,That was a delightful lecture that left much to be discovered about the symbiosis of Body,Mind and Consciousness.If consciousness can not be measured quantitatively and can not be transported how is the reincarnation of mind transference possible in Tibetan Buddhism with the choice of Lamas or indeed the Buddhist sense of justice with meditation on Karma.Can There be mind body links with identical twins?Thanks for lots to think about re: a subject that is important but really humbling intellectually for a layman.Best Alan

Anonymous said...

in an ideal world anything is possible.

seana graham said...

Not to be too simplistic, I suppose if each Kirk thinks he's the real deal and doesn't have any sense of having died, it doesn't matter a whole lot, especially if he manages to remember the Prime Directive.

It's interesting to think about consciousness and to listen to Damasio after spending time with my aunt this weekend who is very far along in Alzheimer's. Apart from the hugely sad aspect of all this, there is such a there/not there quality to her being, which I found myself constantly contemplating.

But on a happier note, I was glad to see my teenage nephew sharing a Ted Talk with us. It was one featuring a pickpocket, and so we spent a lot of time trying to steal each other's watches.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Yeah its not so much a solution as a map of the territory I suppose.

adrian mckinty said...

Anon

Yes, an infinitely powerful God could successfully teleport someone's consciousness but I dont think a machine can.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah if you could convince the new Kirk that nothings amiss he wont actually care. But Spock might be another matter.

verymessi said...

Adrian,

I really liked the scene on BB between Skinny Pete and Badger you reference here. It was so funny. I still miss the damn show!

OT: I am sure you saw Suarez's unbelievable performance today. As I said before, he is a super talent. No easy tap ins ala CR7. What a player. Glad he is not on Madrid. At least not yet.

adrian mckinty said...

very

wonderful game but I wish Suarez had gotten a couple of those last week. Its the points that matter now and I'm afraid that Arsenal are running away with it. Rodgers has said that he'd be happy with a top 4 but I want the big win!

Mark English said...

I thought the Damasio talk was very good.

On the transporter issue I agree with you Adrian that Kirk dies.

Seana said: "... I suppose if each Kirk thinks he's the real deal and doesn't have any sense of having died, it doesn't matter a whole lot..." It may not matter to the copy or his friends, but it would matter to the Kirk who died (or would if he wasn't dead!) – wouldn't it?

The highly regarded philosopher Derek Parfit thinks it doesn't but I've never been able to get my mind around his basic understanding of personal identity.

seana graham said...

But where exactly is that Kirk to whom it would have mattered?

It's funny, but I happen to be looking at a passage from St. Augustine's Confessions, because it's the epigraph for a book I'm trying to review and it is in Latin so I'm scrambling around trying to translate it. It is a passage on memory, and basically Augustine looking around for God finds that God is not even in the seat of his mind, and in fact that his very self is not absolute but contingent. Upon God I guess in Augustine's view, but you don't have to go that far.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

For everyone else it makes no difference for you it makes all the difference - you're dead. There was a Star Trek series called Enterprise where the captain of that ship refused to put his dog through the transporter. For him, although the dog would be identical after the transport, it wouldn't be the same dog. By putting the dog into the machine he'd effectively euthanised the dog and gotten a new one.

A fortiori you wouldnt put your kid into the transporter.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

St Augustine's concept reminds me of that Nick Bostrom idea that we may be living in simulation. An infinite God who can get inside your own head could indeed simulate all aspects of the external world and much of the internal world too. I suppose this one nugget or me-ness that I have is the only proof I have at all that there is a self at the bottom of everything.

seana graham said...

It isn't proof though, it's just the way we perceive things.

I couldn't help but recall that thing they're always saying how every cell in our bodies are replaced every seven years. It turns out that isn't entirely true, but for the most part they are replaced. So I guess I don't think that getting recreated and retaining identity through a transporter would be as big a deal as all that. Although it might be a little unsettling to have it happen all at once.

I still don't think it would matter to a dead Kirk.

Alan said...

Adrian,I wonder if this self/me-ness has become overly exaggerated in our time.Concurrent with the Post W.W.Two "Death Of God "movement and with it less emphasis on the "Soul" in Western Europe have we not tended to confuse an individuated self at the service of family and others with vast egoistic selfishness .Has not its progeny "materialism" become both the new god of much of western society and the dominant theme in "The American Dream." Oddly the one thought I had of my trip to Cuba was that despite grinding poverty and political oppression people "seemed " happier than in much of "Fortress America . " I hope I am wrong and overstating the case but after all death ,decay and illness are no respecters of an inflated self. Live long and prosper.2Best Alan

Mark English said...

Seana

"But where exactly is that Kirk to whom it would have mattered?"

Where is any dead person?

The key question I think is whether you would agree to be transported. Parfit I think argued that in a world where interplanetary travel was much cheaper and quicker using those machines we would all get used to it. In his original book on these topics he has a footnote quoting the Buddha, and I suspect how we approach this question depends on our fundamental view of the world. You might lean in a more mystical direction than me perhaps?

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah I like that. Its the Ship of Theseus idea. You replace one plant at a time and is it still the same ship?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

John Searle somewhere says that if you replaced every cell in your brain with a silicon one, cell by cell you might losing your consciousness bit by bit. Ray Kurzweil and people like him in the Transcend movement actually advocate this idea because they say its the secret to immortality.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Charming as it is Cuba is still just a tropical prison with a good health care system. No one is allowed to leave without the permission of the state and you can't even live where you want to live in Cuba without getting the state's permission. The state can't let just anyone have an exit visa because they know that 3 million people would leave for Florida in the first 6 months of such a policy.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

A nice summary of Parfitt's argument from Reasons and Persons here:

http://www3.nd.edu/~jspeaks/courses/2007-8/20229/_HANDOUTS/personal-identity-teletransport-split-brain.pdf

Until we crack what consciousness is I dont know if the cell replacement idea will have a solution but I think with the teleportation concept at least, it seems clear to me that you die in the machine and for you this is catastrophic.

seana graham said...

I don't know about that Ship of Theseus thing. It seems clear to me that over time they are creating a replica. But if the ship had consciousness, it might be a more complex problem.

Mark, yes, it is a question of where the first Kirk ends up. I am not a mystic, I'm an agnostic. It does occur to me that if Kirk dies in the transporter, if he transports many time, as we all know he does, there may end up being many Kirks in heaven. Or elsewhere...

Mark English said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
seana graham said...

Mark, the thing is that I was in a California airport this weekend going through one of those full body scans and I really have no idea whether I was replicated, cloned or murdered in my original self. But, as I suspect I would do if I was on a spacecraft and had to be beamed down, I went along.

As most do, in the interest of expedience.

Mark English said...

Seana, just deleted the comment you responded to. Here it is again (minus last sentence). I googled the phrase and got the song and thought it inappropriate!

I haven't encountered that multiple Kirks in heaven idea. But one argument against going into the machine is that if it is possible to make one copy it is possible to make a hundred, all with my memories. But looking forward to that prospect the question arises as to which one would be me (because I am singular) – and my best answer is none.

So I would suggest you join me on a slow and expensive old-fashioned spaceship for any interplanetary travel.

seana graham said...

The only part of the song I know is that exact phrase, so I don't know about inappropriate, but I expect that whatever idealistic stance I take now, I will eventually cave on whatever the future holds. I tend to be resistant, but like almost everyone else, I tend to succumb in the end. Unfortunately.

Anne said...

@Seana
I can very much relate to your feelings about your aunt with Alzheimer's. My first husband had the early-onset version. As his memories went, so did his personality, to the extent that I felt his 'self' had died long before his body. This experience has led to my deep interest in the philosophical aspect of mind, consciousness and personal identity, as discussed above.
@Adrian
Thank you so much for the links and for initiating this fascinating thread. And please excuse me for repeating my suggestion about the book by Rowlands, THE PHILOSOPHER AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE, as it covers all those themes you are all discussing above.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

Elon Musk reckons that warp travel might be possible which I hope is true. Even at 1% of light speed on say a Project Orion rocket it would take us 400 years to get to the nearest star system.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I just read that book Abundance and its supposed to make you feel optimistic but I found it very unconvincing. I think the future is going to be pretty shitty at least until the 2080's when the world population stops growing and alas I wont be around for that.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

Have just ordered the book from Amazon.co.uk along with Peregrine a book I've been after for ages.

seana graham said...

Adrian, I would have bet against a book called Abundance making you feel optimistic. You as in one and you as in you in particular.

Anne, that must have been a very hard thing to undergo for both of you. I can't really imagine it. My aunt does in many ways seem to still be there, but my sister was talking about two of her friends' parents. One had been a sweet man who turned into a violent rager and the other had been kind of a mean woman who after Alzheimer's has actually turned out to be rather sweet. It is very humbling to actually take any of this stuff in.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Well, according to J. Craig Venter's recent LIFE AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT (2013), scientists have already been creating synthetic life since 2010.

Venter jumps the gun a bit, I'd say, for material life is not consciousness. It is only the base robotic mechanics, still the hardware without the software.

A scanner which copies the human might transport the material shell, but the unmeasurable portion is not material and hence not transportable.

Those afficted with Alzheimer's die a little bit at a time rather than all at once, like ancient Greeks drinking from the waters of Lethe, becoming walking blanks.

adrian mckinty said...

Rich

Its very interesting when you get into the debates between Searle and Dennett. Searle says that a machine is unlikely ever to become conscious because consciousness because consciousness is far too elusive and complicated. Dennett says that consciousness isnt elusive at all in fact is just a kind of illusion; thus machines will almost certainly become conscious when sufficiently complicated.

I remember reading years ago that view book by Roger Penrose speculating that quantum fluctuations in the synapses are the space in the brain where consciousness exists but I think that whole line of argument has largely been discredited now.