The Big Idea

By Welmoed van Ens

(As this academic year is drawing to its end, the old Board is subtly transitioning its duties and experience to fresh, new members. In this light, one of our most consistent and recognizable columns, Elena’s Big Idea is now “transferred” to a new writer. Check it out to see if she did as good of a job.)

Friday comes around, and you are finally ready to return to your off-campus home after an exhausting week. Before embarking on your journey, you have one last look at the NS website – only to find out that your plans have been rudely subverted by the weather. Whether the sun has melted the rails, there are leafs on the tracks or the switches are frozen, it looks as if your train will be cancelled for today.

Luckily, the NS offers you an alternative. It has been secretly investing the money that it should have spent on its trains in a new form of transport. You can now teletransport yourself to your hometown for the same price as a train ticket. All you have to do is pull a lever. The teletransportation device will create a file of every last quantum particle that belongs to you. It will then obliviate the You in Utrecht, send the data to your hometown and reconstruct a You in the exact same configuration.

If (after having considered the awesomeness of teletransportation) the idea of erasing yourself made you uneasy, you are not alone. In fact, the philosopher Derek Parfit wrote a chapter on just this feeling of unease. Let’s assume that teletransportation, unlike other services provided by NS, is completely reliable. Then why, does Parfit ask us, would we hesitate to pull the lever?

The answer is that we probably believe that we are more than a physical configuration. Can our thoughts, memories and feelings really be reduced to biochemical processes in our brains? Don’t we have a soul, a mind, a self? Yes they can, and no we don’t – is what Parfit would say.

Parfit came up with a name for all these non-physical things, even though he thinks they don’t exist. He calls them “further facts” to our Self. Parfit believes we have no soul, ‘self’ or mind, and thus that there are no further facts to us. Our Self is our brain and our body. If he is right, we should have no rational objections to teletransportation, as long as the NS makes sure our body (and thus our Self) is exactly the same before and after.

It’s time to re-examine our dilemma. Up until now, we have been considering whether we would rather risk teletransportation or getting stuck in a blizzard  What it actually boils down to is whether you believe in a further fact or not. If you think your identity is to be found in the physical configuration of your body and your brain, teletransportation is the way. As long as the NS guarantees physical continuity, your Self is safe. But if you do believe there is something more to you, you should probably take a train and accept the three hours delay.

Unfortunately, neither position is problem free. You could argue that there is something more to us than our physical body and that further facts exist. Since they’re not physical, we won’t find our further facts in the physical world. So where do we look? Is our Self of a different substance? Is our soul floating around in a parallel universe? And if our Self is so radically different from our body, how do they interact?

Alright, this isn’t working out too well. Maybe there is no further fact, and we should just accept that we are nothing more than a symphony of particles governed by the laws of nature. That seems less complicated, right? But what if due to technical problems the old You is not destroyed when the new You is created? Which one of them is the real You? Or are they both You? How can you have two Selves?

Don’t worry, millennia’s worth of philosophy have not yet produced perfect answers to these questions. For now, let’s just stick with trains so we don’t run the risk of splitting, destroying, or cloning ourselves. And should you end up stuck in a blizzard or heat wave, I suggest you engage in some philosophical speculation to pass the time.


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