On a possible form of faster-than-light travel

Pica asked:

If I was annihilated and a mentally/ physically perfect copy of me instantaneously came into existence on the other side of the world, would that be a case of travel faster than the speed of light?

Answer by Craig Skinner

No, it would be a case of a digitized superscan (encoding your structure down to the molecular level) travelling (at light speed of course) to the other side of the world where, in another fancy machine with suitable stocks of chemicals, rather like a 3-D printer, decoding of the scan would produce your duplicate.

It would be easy to delay disintegration of the original (you) until the moment the duplicate was completed, thereby producing the duplicate at the exact moment you are annihilated, as your question specifies.

However, this ‘beam me up Scotty’ scenario has both technical and philosophical problems.

Technical: it is estimated that the energy needed to scan at that level of detail, transmit and reconstitute one human may exceed all the energy in all the stars in the galaxy. So probably forever unfeasible.

Philosophical: the setup is often talked of as teleportation (YOU step into the machine on Earth and, moments later, YOU step out of the machine on Mars). But the reality is different. It would be a case of you stepping into your execution chamber and being no more.

Unless of course the disintegration bit was omitted and you and your duplicate, or duplicates, or duplicates of these duplicates, all lived and worked, allowing you to extend your influence to wherever, or whenever – scans can be stored for years – you like.

But let’s assume the law of the land prohibits original/duplicate coexistence so that if you want to go to and from, say, work on Europa quickly, you must accept that, for the first journey you die but a duplicate, considered to be you by everybody including the duplicate itself, does duty for you. Of course this new you in turn dies when the journey home occurs, and so on for every trip.

Would you accept this setup as convenient long-distance travel, or find it as attractive as the gas chamber ?

It depends on whether you think identity or psychological continuity (PC) is more important.

Of course, they normally go together. Indeed, PC (memory) is a key feature of your identity. But they can come apart. For instance, if due to brain damage, you enter a persistent vegetative state, then PC, indeed consciousness, is gone. But we dont then say that YOU dont exist. No, your identity remains, and we say that, sadly, you are in a PVS. Many people think that such a life is not worth living, suggesting that they value PC more than identity.

And, of course, in duplication, PC is preserved whilst identity is destroyed. So if you think that PC is a most valuable feature of human life (even if identity is destroyed) whereas identity without PC is less valuable (as in PVS), then you would be happy to step into the machine.

Would you prefer to enter a PVS (preserving your identity) or to die (destroying your identity) and be replaced by a duplicate that has all your treasured memories, future plans and relationships. Most of us would jump at the latter possibility. But, of course, many of us would prefer just to die full stop than enter a PVS.

I would be reluctant to step into the teleporter and say goodbye, letting my duplicate take over my life.

All of this assumes

1. That a molecularly exact copy of me couldnt be a zombie.
2. That I dont have an immaterial (substantial) soul, a la Descartes.

But these are points for another occasion.


Answer by Shaun Williamson

No it wouldn’t. To travel you must be a material body which starts in one place and arrives at another place by moving through space.

It is possible for something to move faster than the speed of light as long as it isn’t a material body. For example suppose I point a laser at the moon. It makes a spot of light of the surface of the moon. I swing the laser pointer from side to side. If I do it quickly enough the spot of light would move across the surface of the moon faster than the speed of light. However this doesn’t violate relativity because no material bodies are moving faster than the speed of light.

You might also like to read about ‘Spooky action at a distance’ where a quantum property of an atomic particle can be transmitted instantaneously to another particle with which it is entangled over any distance (billions of miles). Again this does not violate relativity because no movement of matter is involved.


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