Would It Be Better If There Were More of You?

by Tim Sommers

Here are some well-known facts. Human beings are limited beings. We take up a limited amount of space, we exist for a limited amount of time, and, in that time, we move around in a relatively confined area. When it comes to the substance of our lives we constantly make choices that limit our options going forward, and we must often choose one path over another in a way that sometimes (maybe, often) forecloses the other path forever. It’s hard to even conceive of what it could mean for us to not be limited in these ways. But here’s one conceivable way we could be less limited. What if there could be numerically more of us? What if, for example, instead of choosing between paths we could make copies of ourselves and go both ways?

Since we can’t do that, we might wonder why the question is even worth asking. I am tempted to say it’s because we might be able to do that one day (or that it may, in fact, be happening to us right now, though we don’t know it) – but, of course, that’s not why.  It may not be worth asking such a question. But if it is, it will be because it tells us something about ourselves right now.

So, would it be better if there were more of you?

That’s not quite the question I want to answer. It seems clear to me that the world would be a better place if there more Shakespeare’s and more Virginia Wolff’s, more Ada Lovelace’s and more Einstein’s, more Gandhi’s and more Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s – not to mention more Denis Johnsons’. I don’t mean that it would be better if there more people like, for other examples, Mac McCaughan’s or Martin Luther King, I mean the world would be better if there were numerically more of these particular people – or, if you prefer, if there were more (initially) exact copies thereof.

Furthermore, if average utilitarianism is true (and the morally right thing to do is whatever increases the average happiness of a group), and you are a happier than average person, then it also follows that the world would be a better place if there were more of you.

But I am not interested in the question of whether or not it would be better for the world if there were more of you (or more copies of you) – or of anyone. What I want to know is if it would be better for you if there were more of you.

That’s not quite right, either. It may not, in fact or always, be better for you if there are more of you, but what I want to know is if it could it better for you if there were (numerically) more of you.

So, to be more precise, the question I want to answer is: Could it be better for you if there were numerically more of you?

How Could There Be More of You?

If the universe is infinitely large, as some cosmologists believe, and there are a finite number of ways that matter can be arranged, then there are an infinite number of copies of you out there somewhere right now.

Or if the universe lasts forever, and there are finite number of ways matter can be arranged, there will be (a la Nietzsche’s “eternal re-occurrence”) a very large number (if not an infinite number) of identical copies of you eventually.

Or if Everett’s “Many-Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics is right, then the universe is constantly splitting into parallel universes many of which will contain copies of you.

Call these “cosmological interpretations” of how there could be more of you. I will leave these aside – though I alluded to them briefly above and it may be worth wondering (at some point) what the existence of all these parallel selves might mean for you.

If it’s possible for you to be somehow uploaded into a digital computer, then we could also, it would seem, make multiple copies of you therein.

If it’s possible for you to be uploaded into a digital computer from your body, it seems possible for you to be downloaded back into a new body – biological or otherwise (or even a clone of your original body).

Call these “digital interpretations” of how there could be more of you. I will leave these aside.

For reasons that I hope will become clear as we go, what I want to talk about is teleportation.

In order to save money on special effects, the original Star Trek didn’t have landing parties from the starship Enterprise fly to and from each new planet, but instead they “beamed” them there and back with a “transporter”.  (Fun fact. The teleportation effect was created by shaking a glass full of water and glitter.) The writers of Star Trek didn’t invent “teleportation”, of course, but they helped make it famous.

Now, consider how Star Trek-style teleportation is supposed to work.  You step onto a platform and some sort of beam breaks you down into a particle soup, then either those particles are sent to a new location where they are reassembled or particles in the new location are rearranged somehow to make a new copy of you.  (There are hints across the original show, and its many spin-offs, about exactly how this works, but it’s never entirely clear.  In season 6, episode 24 of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Second Chances), for example, a teleporter accident leaves two complete copies of the same person. (I would tell you that that person was Riker, but you either already know that or you really don’t care.))

But think about that first step in this process. A beam breaks you down into a particle soup.  Normally, we would call this death. After killing you, the teleporter then makes a new copy of you (maybe with, maybe without, the same particles that you used to be made of). Plenty of people say that they would never get into a teleporter because, let’s face it, this style of teleporter kills you – even though it also makes a copy of you elsewhere.

Without trying to deny that teleporters kill you, Derek Parfit (who also insisted on calling them “teletransporters”, for some reason) argued that being killed and copied in this way is just as good as continuing to exist in the ordinary way – plus it allows you to travel.  I think that’s right. I am going to leave aside the possibility of a teleporter that makes a copy of you without killing you first, because I am going to assume that being killed and copied in this way is just as good as continuing to exist in the ordinary way.

I am not just going to assume it. Here’s an argument.

Consider. Does it matter whether the transporter makes a copy of you out of the same atoms or out of different atoms? I don’t see how. Atoms of the same type are indistinguishable from each other. If I slowly switch out every atom of your body one at a time over a long period of time, with exact copies of each, you wouldn’t even notice – much less think that at the end of the process (now composed of entirely different atoms) you must have ceased to exist along the way or are no longer the same person.

If that’s true, then it’s hard to see why the speed at which I swap out the atoms in your body makes any difference. If I do it nearly instantaneously, it seems you would still be you afterwards.

So, what then if when I replaced every atom in your body with a duplicate atom and I placed each of the duplicate atoms two inches to the right of the atom it replaced? If I did this quickly enough for you to survive the process, wouldn’t you still be you – just two inches to the right of where you started?

But if I can replace every atom in your body with new atoms in the right arrangement without it also replacing you with a duplicate that is somehow not really you, why wouldn’t it still be you (or related to you in a way very much like continuing to exist) for me to simply arrange those atoms at some greater distance than two inches away from you into you? It shouldn’t matter whether the distance is 2 inches or 34 million miles (the average distance between the Earth and Mars).

On the other hand, this new copy of you might not be you if you are, or have, a soul or a Cartesian ego or some nonmaterial thing over and above your body that can’t come along when you’re teleported. But for a materialist since you are identical with, or supervene on, your body, it would seem that an exact copy of you would be relevantly continuous physically and psychological with you, so that we should just say that it is you or, at least, just as good a way of continuing as the ordinary way.

Maybe, critics of the possibility that one can survive teleportation are worried about the process being discontinuous. If we have something like a stream of conscious, for example, that is deeply relevant to our self, and it is interrupted while your body is shifted to an entirely new location, perhaps this breaks the relevant psychological continuity.

This worry is misplaced. We are not otherwise continuous in the way this objection suggests. Our minds wander, we sleep, we get hit on the head and knocked out. The fact that some continuous flow of something in our minds is interrupted briefly during the teleportation process, doesn’t seem likely to change who I am anymore than going to sleep, and then later waking up again, does.

Or, anyway, these are the kinds of considerations that make me feel comfortable in assuming, for the sake of the rest of the argument, that being teleported by having your body destroyed and copied elsewhere is just as good as continuing to exist in the ordinary way.

It’s Probably Better for You If There are Not Fewer of You.

Leaving aside exotic cosmological possibilities and the fear that you are already a digital self in a computer simulation, it’s very likely that right now there is just the one of you. In that case, if there were to be fewer of you, there would be none of you. If your life is at all worth living, then (obviously) it would be better for you if there were not fewer of you. So, it’s probably safe to say that, in the ordinary case, it’s better for you if there are not fewer of you. But let’s take a harder case.

Suppose you have volunteered to be teleported to Mars. Your body on Earth will, as we have said, be destroyed in the process, but an exact copy of you will be produced on Mars. But, suppose further, something goes wrong and instead the teleporter accidentally produces two copies of you – one right here on Earth, the other on Mars. Would it be better for you if one of the copies was immediately killed? Which one? If you imagine yourself as either one, do you think that you would want the other – or yourself – killed?

I say that both these copies are related to you in the following way. Either one is just as good a way of continuing to be you as the other. My intuition is that, for this reason, you would prefer that neither would cease to exist. Just as in the ordinary case where there is just the one of you, if there were accidentally more of you, I think you would still be inclined to believe that it would probably be worse for you if there were fewer of you.

Maybe, you don’t feel that way, however. Sill, rather, than try to argue about it yet, I want to up the ante first. This is a case of not wanting copies of yourself accidentally created to cease to exist. But what might motivate you to make more copies of yourself on purpose? Why might you think that it would be better for you to actively make it the case that there were more of you?

Could it be better for you if there were numerically more of you?

Suppose you always wanted to go to Mars. Now, suppose you have the chance to be teleported there and to be one of the first explorers and colonists. Unfortunately, for various technical reasons, once there you can never come back or even communicate with anyone back on Earth. Still, you are sorely tempted. But suppose you also have a family here on Earth, and you want to be with them, and care for them and be cared for by them. Well, you’re in luck. The Mars Program is so desperate for volunteers to go to Mars that they are willing to teleport you to Mars and make another copy of you here on Earth that can continue to be with your family. Wouldn’t that be better for you? Instead of having to choose one preferred course going forward in your life, you can do both of the things that you want to do.

So, at last, this is how can it be better for you if there are numerically more of you. Think of all the times you faced daunting decisions that would shape your life profoundly going forward. Won’t it be great, once teleporters are invented, and you can just make new copies of yourself and follow all the paths you want wherever they lead?

There might be problems. Not only problems, for the world, like overpopulation and ecological strain, but problems for you specifically. You wouldn’t want to compete with yourself for a job or for the affections of a love one.  But couldn’t it be better for you, all other things being equal, if there were numerically more of you, since this would allow you to explore more of life and, literally, of the world, than if there were only one of you? One human limitation, that we only get to lead one life, would be (at least partially) overcome in this way.

Here’s the situation again. There’s you(initially) before you step into the teleporter, then after there is you(Mars) and you(Earth) afterwards. How are you(initially) related to you(Mars)? You(Mars) is just as good a way for you to continue to exist as the ordinary way. But you(Earth) is also just as good a way for you to continue to exist as the ordinary way.

One might object that there can’t be more than one way that you can continue to exist at the same time. But demonstrably, perhaps surprisingly, there can and is, as we have just shown. Instead, you might object then, that these cannot both be you, since there can only be one you. And that’s true if we just stipulate that you can only be one body and have one set of experiences (necessarily closed off, in certain ways, from the experiences of others); then these cannot both be you in the ordinary sense. I am not sure that stipulation is justified. But whether it is justified doesn’t really matter, because even if these copies are identical initially, they won’t continue to be identical going forward – since they will immediately begin to have very different experiences and they won’t share each other’s experiences.

But you could have just teleported to Mars and then you(initially) would stand in precisely the same relation you do now stand to you(Mars). Going forward your life would be shaped by being on Mars and everything involved with that. But you(initially) should care just as much, and in the same way, about you(Mars) as if you had stayed on Earth since either is just as good a way of continuing to be you as the other. On the other hand, you could just have stayed on Earth.  Being teleported, by hypothesis, is just as good a way of continuing to exist as not being teleported. So, you unteleported leaves you in this same relation to your future selves as you(initially) is in with you(Earth). Either is just as good a way as continuing to exist, and you should care about you(Earth) in just the ordinary way you would always care about yourself going forward.

If you want to do more than one thing at the same time then, I say, you can succeed in doing so by making identical copies of yourself – even though these will not be identical with each other after some time passes.  Of course, if they would be identical with each other going forward this would defeat the whole purpose – which was for you to have two very different lives.

You might worry that you cannot be benefited by having two lives if you cannot experience both lives simultaneously. You might think that you can only be benefited by things that impinge directly on your experience, and therefore it can’t be better for you to be (in some sense) two different people whose experiences do not directly impinge on each other’s.

Fortunately, it is simply false that something can only be better for you by impinging on your experiences.  Consider Nozick’s experience machine, or The Matrix. Would you prefer to live in a simulation where you could always have whatever experiences you would want to have or to live in the real world where you will never have things go quite as well in terms of experiences but what happens will be real? If you would prefer to live in the real world, it is because you recognize that something can be better or worse for you without directly impinging on your experiences. Even though you(Mars) and you(Earth) have entirely different experiences they both can reasonably think they are better off because they both exist, just as you(initially) thought, before you ever stepped into the teleporter, that it would be good for you if there were more of you.

If the “experience machine” example is too exotic for you, consider preferences. If you think that, all other things being equal, it can benefit you to have your preferences fulfilled, then you recognize a class of things that can be objectively good or bad without directly impinging on your experiences. If I prefer that global warming not flood the Mississippi river valley and drown my home town, St. Louis, then even if I never know about it (or am dead) it is good for me if it really does not flood, bad for me if it actually does. My experiences just don’t come into it. Now, it’s probably better for me if my preference is fulfilled and I also know about it, and worse if it is not and I find out about it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is reasonable to hold that whether a preference is fulfilled or not can be better or worse for me whether or not I know about it.

So, I say, I can be benefited by there being copies of me out there living life’s that I had wanted lived by me even though I have no access to the experiences they have in leading these lives.

Insisting that I can only ever be one person does not change the fact that there are conceivable circumstances under which I can have many copies of myself that are related to me in just as good a way as any single version of me is related to its earlier or later self. Even though any one particular version of me will always have only its own experiences (and not the experiences of the other versions of me), it is perfectly reasonable to believe that it is better for every me that these other “me’s” exist and are leading other lives that I want to have led by me.

No doubt, at first glance, it seems counter-intuitive that there being numerically more of me could be good for me; but, in fact, I believe, it well can be.

Does this tell us anything about how we should think of ourselves here and now? I think it might. For one thing, the value that your life has is not exhausted by the experiences that are in it – or what access (for example, via memory) you have later to those experiences. The value of a thing we have done is greater than the value of the experiences we had, or later recall, in doing it. If it can be better for you if a numerical copy of you does something that you otherwise could not have done; then maybe value of what you do, even for you, transcends the value of the experiences associated with it. Or so I would like to believe.