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In my science fiction story, there is an extraordinarily powerful species of alien that can teleport humans. They do this by disassembling a person's body into molecules or atoms and simultaneously reassembling it in a different location using other molecules.

My concern is how the person could retain their own consciousness and identity doing this. Their teleported self is essentially a copy, so shouldn't their consciousness be a copy? Then the person effectively dies in the teleportation process, being replaced by a person with their body and memories. This is not a satisfactory teleportation process for me, so I am wondering if there is any way for the reassembled person to not just have a copy of their consciousness, but to retain their actual consciousness so that the person feels like they have teleported and not just spontaneously died.

I personally don't think it's possible because if the alien were to not destroy the original person's body, then there would be two copies of that person at once, and that seems perfectly plausible.

The same issue comes up when considering how the alien can "revive" a person that has been dead for a long time. The alien does this by observing light at a distance from the body that was reflected right before the person died and then assembling atoms in that exact configuration surrounding whatever remains of the person. But this has the same problem that the teleportation does, so is there a way for dead organisms to be revived without being copies, especially considering that there is no way to teleport organisms from back in time, when they were still alive?

My big question is if I were to implement teleportation or revival of dead organisms in this matter and assume that it works properly, i.e., the identity is preserved, then are there any physical laws that this clearly violates?

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    $\begingroup$ There seems to be multiple questions here. The revive form photograph and clone from past should be removed. The answer for those would be insufficient information by many orders of magnitude. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2023 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ The question of whether destructive teleportation is murder has been explored many, many, many, many times before, (it has its own TV Tropes page) and is unanswerable except by author fiat, especially since whether something is a unique "consciousness" is unmeasurable given quantum uncertainty. So it's up to you as author. (BTW, relying on light that was reflected to recreate a body will result in a hollow shell, since it will not allow imaging of the interior of the body.) $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2023 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ existentialcomics.com/comic/1 $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Dec 22, 2023 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ VTC: Opinion based. As Gault mentions, this is the Star Trek teleportation conundrum: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DestructiveTeleportation In the Bobiverse, Taylor chooses to resolve this in the other direction, where exact copies will suffer cognitive drift if and only if the original isn't destroyed. Thus, there is no way to answer this authoritatively. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2023 at 3:00
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    $\begingroup$ Since transmitting matter is highly improbable, but important to your story, I think you should give yourself the freedom to hand-wave. When Star Trek writers are asked how the Heisenberg Compensator in their transporters work, their typical answer is "They work very well." // With this in mind, you can conjure up a fictional non-destructive form of teleportation, e.g, "using an altered hyperspatial domain to relocalize the matter-waves." Or you could read Greg Bear's "Moving Mars," and see what kind of hand-waving he uses to move a whole planet. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2023 at 6:12

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Momentary soapbox

I apologize, but the current fad of trying to make every aspect of fiction factual is a bit absurd. The trivial answer to your question is, "insofar as we understand science today, teleportation is impossible so the question is moot." If we insist on extending the question to account for teleportation, then the answer is, "insofar as we understand science, there's no way to resurrect the soul." (I'll touch on the greater issue about this later.)

That's the problem with trying to make fiction factual. There is no science today that can predict what "teleportation" (whatever that may be) will do or must be or what can or cannot happen to the body. There's only what we can or cannot do... today.

Please remember that our goal is to help you create and consistently use rules for an imaginary world of your own creation. At best, we can use what we understand of science today to help you rationalize your fiction. Far too often new users come to this Stack hoping that we won't do any of that, because what they want is to be told that science proves their ideas. That's not what we're here for.

As you ask questions, please remember that we're here to help you create fiction.

OK, sorry. Soapbox mode off.

What are your options?

The goal isn't to find a scientifically credible method of teleportation. If anyone could do that they would be running for the patent office, not explaining it here. The goal is to use what we know of science to rationalize your goal. What is your goal?

A method to transportation that covers long enough distances over a short enough period of time to be considered reasonably "instantaneous" without resorting to a method that invites people to wonder what happens to the body at the beginning of transport.

Let's begin...

The Einstien Theory:  e=mc2 Accelerate the human body to the speed of light and it becomes pure energy. Slow it down and it's back to classical mass. Teleportation isn't so much the Star Trek vanish here reappear there solution, it's more like the old Sci-Fi show The Time Tunnel. Since the "mass" of the body is part of the transport process, the body and its consciousness are preserved.

The You're Only a Copy Theory:  Simplifying to the point that angels weep, the human body is a combination of atoms and energy states. If you can map the "current state" of all the atoms and energy states and send that map somewhere else, you can reassemble the atoms with the appropriate energy states and, boom, you have a completely functioning person exactly as they were when the map was made. Of course, once you have a map you can copy people over and over, which was kindof the premise of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Second Chances. The problem with this method is that the original body doesn't actually go anywhere, so either there's two of you walking around or the first body must be destroyed (usually as a byproduct of the map-making process).

The Portal Theory:  Wormholes, star gates, video games... The concept of "teleportation" is sometimes too stuck in the Star Trek version of the concept where someone disappears in a flash of light and reappears somewhere else. But teleportation is just a really fast way of using a door — and it's the door that's the problem. You can convert the body's mass to energy or vaporize it making a map, but you must still transport something somewhere else to bring said person back. Why dematerialize anyone when you can open Ye Ol' Einstein-Rosen Bridge and simply walk through it? Unless you subscribe to the Stargate solution, which resolves the "what happens when your nose moves away at the speed of light and your heel doesn't?" problem with the explanation that the interface to the wormhole dematerializes the body so that it all moves at once. (I touch on the greater issue with this later, too.)

The Dimensional Travel Theory:  We think there might be a few more dimensions or parallel universes or something like that out there than we can see or measure. Stepping outside our universe and traveling through another one has the benefit if having any set of rules possible and plausible vs. science. The idea of "phase shifts" and "time shifts" and dimensions and parallel universes has been explored over and over in science fiction. Honestly, it's the most magical of the theories because while the concept exists mathematically there's absolutely no physical evidence at all that any of these things exist. Consequently, we have no idea what the rules (aka "physics") of those conditions are, and therefore it's perfectly reasonable to say that you can use them to transport the body and mind without destroying either.

Magic & Religion:  Just to try and round everything out, there's the theoretically non-scientific solutions ascribed to magic and religion... except that Clarke is completely right: a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Therefore when we consider Jesus Christ's miracle of passing unseen it's as reasonable to assume He was using some technology we're unfamiliar with. Agree or not, it's irrelevant. I'm just making the point to be thorough.

One last word...

The problem with trying to crowbar fiction into real world science is that it's a house of cards that's easily blown over. Every example I've given you can be examined in much more scientific detail than I have used — and when you do that every one of them utterly fails. That's the basic problem. Insofar as we understand science, teleportation isn't real and resurrection isn't possible. You can make them sound real with a little rationalizing — which is what even the most hard science sci-fi writers do because they're not writing documentaries — but if you try to make your fiction real, science will fail you. Science is a harsh task master.

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    $\begingroup$ "$e=mc^2$ Accelerate the human body to the speed of light and it becomes pure energy" That's not what that equation means. $m_{rel} \; c^2 = m_0 / sqrt(1 - v^2/c^2)$ is the energy possessed by the mass. When we take the Taylor expansion, we end up with $m_0 c^2 + m_0 v^2/2 + 3m_0 v^4 / 8c^2 + ...$. Since $m_0 c^2$ is the only term that's nonzero at v=0, that's the "rest mass energy". The rest is the kinetic energy (and is basically just $m_0 v^2/2$ when $v << c$). We don't "become pure energy" when moving near the speed of light any more than we do when driving a car at 40 kph. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Dec 22, 2023 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ I think the whole idea of teleportation is impossible as the uncertainty principle would scramble some of the data (and there are obviously vast other issues). But if we want to consider teleportation as a brute fact that needs explaining, there is no point in looking at the ramshackle remains of the physics we use looking for that explanation. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Dec 22, 2023 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Ray Please read my last paragraph. I am NOT trying to scientifically express any idea about teleportation (which was the point of the entire soapbox section). In other words, you're absolutely correct and it's entirely irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 22, 2023 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH LOL :o) Well yes I'm inclined to agree mostly. Assuming that teleportation is possible it presumably would result in two conscious entities (or souls) which should be identical. But as you say the story writer can make up what they want. All I would add is that the story teller generally needs to be consistency and add limitation on powers to make things interesting. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ I do like the idea of a "teleporter" that simply searches the entirety of the multiverse until it finds a parallel universe that is exactly the same as the one you're in, except that the objects on the Earth's surface have all been shifted exactly 1 mile west. You activate the device, it transports you to this alternate universe, leaving you to think you've been teleported 1 mile east. $\endgroup$ Dec 24, 2023 at 6:21
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As far as I'm concerned, teleportation is just another decorative wrapping for the ship of Theseus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

And thus, every day you die a bit, get replaced a bit, get changed a bit and many bits maketh the byte of time. The you who asked the question yesterday is gone, teleported into the you of today; yesterday is but a dream, a ghost of a world that was.

Are you the same? Yes. As in a ripple of cause and effect, the eddy swirling onwards through the entropy was caused by the same stone. Is the teleported eddy identical? Yes, again.

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This sounds like Derek Parfit's version of the teletransportation paradox. Cognitive scientists are still arguing about what consciousness is: does it arise merely from the positions of atoms, or is there something else? Is that something else physical? (I'm thinking of a spinning top. Copy the positions of all the atoms, and you're still missing something, the motion of the atoms. Could consciousness be something doing something?)

Once they resolve that issue, your question will probably be easy.

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  • $\begingroup$ ...and if "soul" is something else, is it somehow bound to specific atoms, or does it "recognize" the shape of the body and will happily inhabit something else that "looks like" it's the right shape? (Can it be made to inhabit the wrong shape?) Since we don't know, feel free to make something up! Authors have been doing so to good effect for a long time. Indeed, that sort of thing is the very origin of the genre as it was originally known; "speculative fiction". $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Dec 22, 2023 at 18:04
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For what we know, consciousness emerges from the neural activity, which in itself is a complex interaction of quantum states of all the molecules involved at neuron level.

If your alien is capable of replicating the being A into a being A' which is exactly the same even at quantum level, it reasonable to assume that also the consciousness arising from those quantum states would be the same.

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The question is primarily philosophical.

For all external observers, including the teleported person after the teleportation, it will be indistinguishable whether the result of a teleportation is a copy or the original. There is no in-universe way to measure whether it is one way or another. The only difference is whether "the story ends" from the perspective of the person being teleported, which is impossible to determine.

It is a matter of "philosophical taste" - whether one subscribes to form tracking identity or spatial tracking identity:

  • Form tracking identity: a person is the same person (i.e. the original, not a copy) it their physical composition (form) is the same.

  • Spatial tracking identity: a person is the same person (i.e. the original, not a copy) if their world line is continuous.

From the standpoint of the form tracking identity, Star Trek-like teleportation is fine. From the standpoint of the spatial tracking identity, it is not. There are many (philosophical) arguments for one and the other, which is a part of the teleportation paradox debate.

Perhaps a consistent purely form tracking identity standpoint is a bit problematic because e.g. it would effectively make everyone immortal in an infinite universe because, no matter what happens, there is an arbitrarily similar version of anyone that survives any event. That would be conceptually similar to quantum immortality, but with branches of a wave function being replaced with the spatial infiniteness of the universe.

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  • $\begingroup$ And so the answer would probably be primarily philosophical, too. I.e., teleportation would be developed, people would ask the question "Wait, are we killing people and making copies?", most people wouldn't care, but also a large minority of people would refuse to use teleporters, some people would claim that their religion forbids them from operating teleporters, and some politicians would attempt to pass legislation to ban teleporters, but wouldn't be successful. Oh, and some people would graffiti "Teleportation kills" on bridges above highways. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Dec 23, 2023 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ Also some companies would make people sign mandatory disclaimers to people before teleporting them, something along the lines of "I freely consent to be teleported and I understand that this will result in my molecules being disassembled", just to be on the safe side. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Dec 23, 2023 at 15:35
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A person and their brain

Consciousness and identity is something not yet understood, but there's a lot of philosophy about. There are many who would argue that an exact copy of you is still you. They have your exact memories, personality and more, with the only difference at the time of duplication being the physical position they are in.

The reason they think it's no different derives of your brain. The brain is in constant motion, both recreating and updating itself. Imagine having a tiny rowing boat called 'Two Oars'. You build it bigger. It is now a sailing ship. You build it bigger. It is now a three masted galley. Is it still the Two Oars? It still has that beginning in there. Much like a child to an adult brain, it is now something different, while still somehow being the same to everyone.

We now call our boat 'Three Masts'. A sail rips and is replaced. Tar is reapplied. Planks need renewal. The rigging is done in the new fashion thanks to technological progress. The steering wheel has broken. At one point the whole ship is made out of new parts. Would that make it still the Three Masts, or something different? If someone secretly kept all materials of the ship and build another exact replica. Would it be a new ship? Would it be the Three Masts?

This exact problem happens with people. We grow, we age, we get new neuron connections. Hell even when we're hungry we have a wholly different way our body reacts, and thus are personality, compared to when we've eaten. Or if we are sleepy or angry or happy.

That is why it is currently ok to say that a duplicate is still you, or a different person. It depends on how you look at it. We have no definitive answer and it doesn't look like we will soon (or ever) get a solution.

My personal idea is created out of my own experiences. I say it is a different person, a duplicate and that the old one is killed. I say it because identity is more important to me. As an identical twin it is more important to make such distinctions. I am not my identical twin, even if the world has had a lot of trouble seeing it my way. They've seen the same person for years in both of us. We're all a product of our experiences on that regard.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm trying to unpack "You build it bigger". Are you taking the boat apart completely, or extending it? If you mean the former, there is a period of time when we no longer have a boat, just a collection of parts, so the new boat is a different design: if I were a Platonist I might say we have a different idea. If the latter, we have a practical problem: nobody builds boats that way. I wouldn't expect to see traces of a rowboat inside the Cutty Sark, say. Deconstruction & rebuilding is what happens when a butterfly emerges from a caterpillar, so that might be a better analogy. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2023 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ Interestingly, butterflies and caterpillars have separate diets; it has been suggested that metamorphosis is a mechanism for ensuring that the young don't compete with adults. So is a butterfly the same individual as the original caterpillar? I cannot think of any good reason, in evolutionary terms, for a butterfly to retain any memories from the caterpillar phase. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2023 at 21:13
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Easiest way is to separate the consciousness from the corporeal, then transport the body any way you want with the consciousness tagging along on its own as it's not tied to any physics we understand.

The same way many people believe the spirit can travel and return during dreams, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that the question is tagged as science-based, this seems to be more of a storytelling approach with, at best, pseudoscience ideas. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2023 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ Or the aliens can skip all that hassle and just say they transferred the consciousness. How would anyone tell the difference? $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Dec 22, 2023 at 2:09
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My big question is if I were to implement teleportation or revival of dead organisms in this matter and assume that it works properly, i.e., the identity is preserved, then are there any physical laws that this clearly violates?

Yes. Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle.

In order to reassemble someone or something remotely and preserve all the states and interactions between the parts, you need to perfectly know every particle's positions and momentum (as well as other pairs of properties protected by the principle).

You either get an imperfect "copy" or at the very least a fine from the auditors of reality.

It would even be plausible that a copy of a person might be unstable (chemically and physically, I mean).

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Science is mostly based on materialism — we are the configuration of our bodies, so an identical copy isn't "just" a copy, it's you, again. This doesn't feel like it meshes well with our subjective sense of continuity. If I should suddenly die, it seems to me there's all the difference in the world between the me writing this resurrecting and a copy of me.

As far as I know there's no real answer to this. "People have souls that are made of energy" is often used as a placeholder, but it just moves the problem. What if you copy the soul, etc?

I can offer just one point out of recent science that might be useful for your story, especially if you're willing to bend physics a bit. You may know that quantum physics implies a certain amount of fundamental uncertainty in the position and momentum of particles. I cannot take particle A and copy its state exactly to particle B because I cannot measure the state of particle A exactly. This is a universal law - if I could copy A, then I could simultaneously measure both copies and get more information about the particle than can exist.

The one exception to the no-copy rule that has been found is that if you have two entangled particles (call them X and Y), you can take a combined measurement of A and X, then apply that measurement to a combination of Y and B in such a way that particle B takes on the exact state of A. The result of the operation ruins the entanglement of X and Y, and also changes the state of A. Thus you can "teleport" the information from the location of X to Y, but are fundamentally prohibited from copying it.

Does this mean you "can't copy identity?" Not necessarily — we're changing all the time anyway, and just because you can't copy a given particle doesn't mean you can't copy something much more macroscopic - say a computer program. Does consciousness exist at the level of a computer program, or deeper in uncertainty?

For the sake of your story, you can easily say the latter. Add some hand-wavey bits about establishing entanglement over great distances and you have a can-transport-but-not-copy device with room for singleton identity (and also some interesting possibilities to imagine on what you get if you do try to copy - what do you have if you have all the neurons in the right places macroscopically but the quantum states are all randomized at a deeper level? A new person? A gibbering deranged monster? Does the scrambled brain fundamentally just not work?)

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Consciousness is Quantum

If you explain consciousness as arising from a quantum state, the no-cloning theorem says that you could only ever have one copy (i.e. there is only ever one You, whether it is currently represented in the flesh or simply as electrons with quantum data encoded as spin).

Now, if this concept of "quantum consciousness" were made up for your story, it wouldn't help you any, but this is actually a real theory that is currently believed by real neuroscientists.

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If souls exist, definitely not

Reconstructing an exact copy of your molecular and atomic structure does not preserve one's soul and would therefore not preserve your consciousness.

If souls do not exist, still probably not

You would need to create an exact copy, potentially down to the quantum level or beyond, on the other end to ensure it truly is the same consciousness, and it would need to be done fast enough to not interrupt chemical or electrical signals for it to be perceived as seamless to the person being teleported. There is a submicroscopic tolerance for error, and a very high probability of bits and pieces of the teleportation signal to get corrupted or arrive out of order.

Such a process would also essentially be a nuclear bomb on the deconstruction end and require an equal amount of energy on the reconstruction end. You would probably die mid-teleport. Deconstruction and reconstruction would undoubtedly have thermodynamic effects, so to preserve temperatures of all the atoms in the body (which is necessary for an exact, stable, and safe reconstruction) is actually insane.

That's not even getting into the relativity involved in the idea of "simultaneously" reconstructing the human on the other side. You have the speed of light to contend with.

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