Thursday, October 30, 2008

Data and Identity

Sometimes my knowledge of computers gives me a unique way of looking
at philosophical problems.

We were discussing identity. Philosophers have all kinds of questions
that force you to think carefully about your beliefs The professor
asked us, "Suppose you were sent through a teleporter from one end of
the world to another. And as you do, the teleporter makes an
identical copy of you. Now imagine that a mad scientist wants to run
all kinds of torturous experiments. Do you want him to lock up the
original, or the copy?"

I said, "It doesn't matter. I have no preference. They are both me."

This seemed to startle everyone. Most people say that they would
prefer that the copy be tortured, but they are unable to justify this.
It is generally seen as a puzzle. I see no puzzle.

Think about a computer. You don't really care about the machine; you
care about the programs and data on the computer. If you copy all of
the data to a new machine, then nothing has changed. You now have two
identical computers. If one of them got destroyed, you would not
really care.

Yet the people all seemed to think that identity was somehow connected
to their physical body. So I proposed a modification to the plan. I
said, "Imagine that the copy of you is flawless, but that the original
is damaged in the process. Your ability to do everything you consider
important in life, from making money to doing research to loving your
family. You are, literally, half the person you once were. Now, do
you want the original or the copy to be the lab rat?"

The philosophy teacher thought about this for a while, and said, "My
work is important. I think I would take one for the team and let the
copy take my place in the world."

He still didn't get it. It seems self-evident to me that the copy
would gain all rights to his identity. The copy is now more like him
than the original. By any sensible definition of identity, he should
think of the copy as 'me' and the original as 'other.'

But if you don't work with computers and data transfers much, you
wouldn't have the insight that I do into data and identity. It seems
perfectly natural to me to define people in terms of data rather than
a physical body.

1 comment:

Lou said...

Interesting. Of course you are correct.