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Blastfrog

Pseudo-intellectual babbling about biomechanical consciousness

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How does consciousness work, both organic and mechanical? In being a completely stupid and superstitious bastard, I feel that (at least regarding organics) it is some intangible energy that latches on to a brain (or any physical matter) and passively experiences its physical and chemical reactions (in traditional physics, not taking quantum into account) that have inevitable operational output based on given physical input of itself and its surrounding environment (arguably one and the same) processed through static laws of cause and effect.

If humanity manages to last long enough to enter a post-human age, how much "humanity" would we retain should we gradually rebuild ourselves to be pure machine, and how much would we retain during the intermediate phases? And generally regarding gradual replacement of brain components (not specifically limited to trans-humanism here), how much of the same "consciousness stream" do we possess as our own cells are naturally replaced? What if one suffers a brain injury and is in a coma for 5 years? Sure, we retain our identities and memories because that remains in the physical structure of our brain's neurons, but are we really a different "stream" just experiencing the same body once our original "stream" has left in some manner?

Another thing about continuity I wonder is teleportation. Specifically, the kind where they copy detailed info on your physical being into a pattern buffer, disintegrate you, and then generate a duplicate over at the destination you wanted to go to. If your original is destroyed before the duplicate is ever made, do you or can you retain any conscious continuity?

If this retarded idea is actually true, what patterns constitute something that a stream of consciousness "latches onto"? Does it have to be a brain or something with similar conditions of operation, or can it be any matter? In the end, I suppose it doesn't really matter. A brain is gonna do what it's gonna do and it's gonna continue with its own memories and identity and doesn't "know" that there's some kind of consciousness going on, and we would never know the difference. Regardless of the nature of consciousness, I wonder if it's even worth worrying about if it turns out we have little to no control over it. What am I even going on about?

Even though I probably sound like a total ponce in the above text (and none of us can really know the answers to these things), I hope I can at least start an interesting dialog.

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I feel like if you want to know some of these answers, doing some of your own research would be best. Asking a bunch of idiots on a game forum who don't know anything about this probably won't answer anything.

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Sodaholic said:

Another thing about continuity I wonder is teleportation. Specifically, the kind where they copy detailed info on your physical being into a pattern buffer, disintegrate you, and then generate a duplicate over at the destination you wanted to go to. If your original is destroyed before the duplicate is ever made, do you or can you retain any conscious continuity?

This is actually something I think about when I drink, and simply put I end up scaring the shit out of myself every time by invariably coming to the conclusion that you and everything you are ceases to be in every way, replaced entirely by a duplicate with its own stream of consciousness.

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If that sort of teleportation existed, I wouldn't take it. If a small metal dart fired from a metal tube at high speeds chunking part of your brain is enough to render you dead, blasting all your particles apart seems like the ultimate in gibbing.

Anyways, the best I can give you is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon resulting from a very complicated information processing organ. It really only makes sense that something that can process information, not just externally received but internally created, that it'd be capable of processing information on itself. If it's capable of recognizing and labeling things, then it would inevitably end up identifying itself. Doesn't need to have any fancy magic energy of consciousness, you can do it with a complicated enough machine, or at least one with the right parts. You can even take away parts of that machine from a human and see the phenomenon change.

That's not really the hard question. The hard question is: how do we reconcile what we experience and/or define as consciousness with the physical reality of things? For the teleporter example, that's easy. You die, there's a replacement you. It's not your consciousness, yours is gone because you got ultra-gibbed. Sleep, comas, brain damage, natural forgetfulness, the occasional lapse in concentration, these all relate to awareness and consciousness. When, in these events, does one lose their "self" and die, to be replaced should the condition be reversed? How much can one lose before that's a reality? How does one even measure consciousness in the first place?

Not like it matters to me right now anyways though. If something like your idea does exist, we won't be able to understand it right now, and none of us could confirm it either way. I'll put my hopes in future humans with better understanding of it than we will have. Hell, maybe they'll invent it, fucked if I know.

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BaronOfStuff said:

I end up scaring the shit out of myself every time by invariably coming to the conclusion that you and everything you are ceases to be in every way, replaced entirely by a duplicate with its own stream of consciousness.

I get that, but isn't what makes someone who they are their memories, thoughts, personality, etc? If you as you are ceased to be, but another you popped up that was 100% exactly the same, wouldn't that just be what basically happens to us every few years anyway? By that I mean, that every single cell that makes us who we are is replaced over a 7 years span? I suppose it would be atoms rather than cells, but still.. Same idea, right?

Also, this is exactly the kind of shit I think/talk about while drinking or smokin' the reefer..

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Your post touches both on the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the brain, and on the nature of persons, or the self, particularly as this pertains to their identity and persistence over time.

These two subjects can intersect, e.g., you might think that a condition on a self's persistence through time is that, in some sense, their consciousness persists, though spelling out what this condition amounts to is not a trivial matter.

But still, these two things can be handled separately, and tend to be so in the academic literature. Here are some review articles, if you're interested:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/ (see especially sections 5, 7-9)

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-personal/ (see especially section 4)

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Consider this - what would happen if the teleporter didn't destroy the original body? You wouldn't magically jump bodies into the newly teleported one. The tele-cloned you would think you had jumped bodies, but the original would know that you had not. I suppose one could argue it doesn't matter, as long as the new you had thought there was a continuation of consciousness, but I think it does still matter to the original.

And yeah, I guess the implication really is that, because of the nature of consciousness, essentially "you" die gradually every few years, as your brain changes, your experiences change, and your consciousness changes. That actually does occasionally keep me up at night - the thought that I'm literally not the same person anymore that I used to be, and that that person is literally dead and I just carry their thoughts and memories.

Makes me think of the Trill from Star Trek. The Trill are symbiotic organisms, with a normal humanoid acting as the host and a slug creature living in their stomachs. The slug creature interfaces with the brain of the host, and can live for hundreds of years. The slug creature, therefore, retains all the thoughts and memories of each host, and when a host dies, it's given to a new host, who then has access to all the thoughts and memories of every previous host. In Trill society, therefore, the slug creature is seen as more important than the host in terms of keeping alive - the host is merely the vessel, and as long as the slug survives, the consciousness of the host will live on in some fashion. So there's the ultimate in that whole, "consciousness survives, but the body dies," business.

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Doomkid said:

I get that, but isn't what makes someone who they are their memories, thoughts, personality, etc? If you as you are ceased to be, but another you popped up that was 100% exactly the same, wouldn't that just be what basically happens to us every few years anyway? By that I mean, that every single cell that makes us who we are is replaced over a 7 years span? I suppose it would be atoms rather than cells, but still.. Same idea, right?

No, because that's a gradual process and you're not blasted into atoms at any point. You're always 'there' in some coherent form during those seven years where every cell is replaced.

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geekmarine said:

And yeah, I guess the implication really is that, because of the nature of consciousness, essentially "you" die gradually every few years, as your brain changes, your experiences change, and your consciousness changes. That actually does occasionally keep me up at night - the thought that I'm literally not the same person anymore that I used to be, and that that person is literally dead and I just carry their thoughts and memories.

Personally, I'm of this view, except I extend it to moment-by-moment life: Consciousness is a pattern always in flux. Changes in my personality are influenced by external & internal factors outside of my control, including simple errors in transposition. In a nutshell: consciousness as epiphenomenon (Wikipedia.org).

Of course, I have a lot in common with myself five minutes ago, but that's a sort of biological trick/gift of evolution, more than evidence of a true 'me' persisting over time. As a result, other than sentimentality, I'm not too attached to my psyche. After all, it's even less stable than 'my' body.

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Well, let's get to pseudo-intellectual babbling:

BaronOfStuff said:

This is actually something I think about when I drink, and simply put I end up scaring the shit out of myself every time by invariably coming to the conclusion that you and everything you are ceases to be in every way, replaced entirely by a duplicate with its own stream of consciousness.

I think so, too.

Doomkid said:

I get that, but isn't what makes someone who they are their memories, thoughts, personality, etc? If you as you are ceased to be, but another you popped up that was 100% exactly the same, wouldn't that just be what basically happens to us every few years anyway?

Not from your own point of view. See the scary-ness now? Your atoms disintegrate and your consciousness as well. At another place, they're put together and new consciousness borns with them. It's not your consciousness, even though it's atom-by-atom the same, behaves the same and for every other person it will be you.

Don't trust me? Imagine this situation: Your body only gets scanned and a perfect replica of yourself is created, but you're not disintegrated, you stay. Now there's two of you. Are you telling me that your "consciousness" now inhabits two bodies? What if there were 1000 copies of yourself? What's different whether you get disintegrated during the scanning process or not? I find it safe to say that this kind of "breaking graduality" of your consciousness simply means the end for you, the actual you, as you perceive it.

That's why I believe that teleportating, if when it gets invented, should never be used on human brains. Actually, no technology should be used to mess with human brains. It's still such an unanswered question what the consciousness actually is, nobody can tell with 100% certainty that he knows the "essence" and principles. Even then, it'd be too dangerous and un-ethical.

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Mere pragmatic philosophy directs us to ask what difference if any there is between what we perceive as continuous consciousness, which is from a scientific view point apparently nothing more than a chain of spatially correlated quantum states at the lowest level, and such a chain that has one moment where the spatial correlation is broken; ie., teleportation.

If you cannot tell there is a difference, pragmatism would suggest that we should believe there is no difference. To believe otherwise would require a concept of soul to be introduced and then this is no longer a scientific discussion.

If "you" are instantaneously "destroyed" by having your quantum state entangled to another set of particles and in the same instant teleported to the location where the other set of particles is at, and to you the process is continuously unbroken, then what other consequence is there?

Information theory would suggest that everything is ultimately information - matter, energy, you. If your information is simply moved in an unusual manner, it doesn't make you cease to be who you are, necessarily. Maybe only if the process isn't perfect for some reason. Then we have something to talk about, but it's a technological boundaries/perfection issue, not a metaphysical one.

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The problem with that, Quasar, is that it ignores the point of view of the person standing on the teleporter. If we simply rely on outside observers, yes, you're right, as far as anyone is concerned, teleportation did take place. The person standing on the pad, however, will experience their existence ceasing to be. You step on the pad, a hum, a flash of light, then nothingness. Then on the other teleporter pad, someone is instantaneously created identical to yourself, with memories of everything you did, including stepping on the pad. So even from their perspective, things worked out great, but as has been pointed out, if your original body does not get disintegrated, you keep on living without noticing a thing, completely unaffected by the fact that a perfect duplicate has been created - which amplifies the horror of the fact that you cease to exist if you yourself choose to teleport.

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There's no difference from the information standpoint. The process will be perceived as unbroken by the "copy". What's disturbing is the physical destruction of the "original". Since we're not talking about souls, the easiest result to imagine would be that you'll die. Physically.

But it won't matter anything for a "copy", because your information will be preserved in it. Hell, it won't even matter anything for you, because you'll be dead. :) So no problems here.

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p much. And as mentioned above, the teleportation example here basically happens naturally, but much more slowly, several times over a human's normal lifespan. So we have all experienced first-hand slow, piecemeal, 'destructive teleportation' in our lives. Several times, in fact.

Making the process instant only confronts us with our own illusions re continuity.

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geekmarine said:

The problem with that, Quasar, is that it ignores the point of view of the person standing on the teleporter. If we simply rely on outside observers, yes, you're right, as far as anyone is concerned, teleportation did take place. The person standing on the pad, however, will experience their existence ceasing to be. You step on the pad, a hum, a flash of light, then nothingness. Then on the other teleporter pad, someone is instantaneously created identical to yourself, with memories of everything you did, including stepping on the pad. So even from their perspective, things worked out great, but as has been pointed out, if your original body does not get disintegrated, you keep on living without noticing a thing, completely unaffected by the fact that a perfect duplicate has been created - which amplifies the horror of the fact that you cease to exist if you yourself choose to teleport.

While a nice sci-fi idea, it's impossible for that to happen in our current understanding. Quantum teleportation *requires* one side of the entangled state to be annihilated in order for the wave function to collapse and all the information you want to remain with the other set of particles. So we can eliminate this concern immediately. For anything else to happen, you'd need to violate conservation of information.

I don't agree with the assertion that "you" actually cease to exist at any point in the process. What constitutes "you" is moved to a different set of particles which attain a state identical at the quantum level to the set of particles of which you were previously composed. There is literally no distinction that science can make between the body you "left behind" and the new one that was just created. Unless you're willing to evoke a religious or metaphysical concept, there's nothing about you that could not have been encoded in the state that was transferred.

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Quasar: I think the perceived weirdness comes when you consider that the 'original' could have just as easily been left alive; at least, if its destruction isn't required to read the appropriate information into the teleporter at the terminus.

The pattern of thoughts may be identical, but hypothetically, there could have been two of you, but now there is only one.

P.S. although I'm not familiar with Quantum v. normal teleportation, so maybe I've missed a lecture somewhere. :P

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Doomkid said:

By that I mean, that every single cell that makes us who we are is replaced over a 7 years span? I suppose it would be atoms rather than cells, but still.. Same idea, right?

schwerpunk said:

p much. And as mentioned above, the teleportation example here basically happens naturally, but much more slowly, several times over a human's normal lifespan.

Actually, it's incorrect to say that all the cells that compose the human body a replaced every seven years. Different kinds of cell have different lifespans. Of most relevance to this discussion, I suppose, is that the vast majority of a persons neurons (brain cells) will last that person's whole lifetime, and any that don't make it that far won't be replaced.

So, if you were worried about the implications of your getting a new brain every seven years, then don't.

Still, even if it were true that the cells composing the brain are replaced every seven years, it wouldn't follow from this that you get new brain - as in, an new object distinct from the one you started with - every seven years. Supposing the brain is a composite object - that is, an object made up of constituent parts - you'd have to endorse the idea that it could not survive through the gradual replacement of its constituent parts, and insofar as we tend to suppose in general that composite objects can survive through the gradual replacement of their constituent parts, you'd need to give an argument as to why this doesn't apply to brains. You could, I suppose, simply reject the idea that composite objects can ever survive through such processes, but I'd be interested to know what the reason for thinking that was.

schwerpunk said:

Personally, I'm of this view, except I extend it to moment-by-moment life: Consciousness is a pattern always in flux. Changes in my personality are influenced by external & internal factors outside of my control, including simple errors in transposition. In a nutshell: consciousness as epiphenomenon (Wikipedia.org).

I'm unclear what the reason was for moving from the idea that consciousness 'is a pattern always in flux' (I'm also unclear on what this means) to the idea that there's no persisting subject of consciousness. Epiphenomenalism is an interesting view, although I tend to think of it as a reductio - that is, any valid argument to the conclusion that epiphenomenalism is true must have at least one false premise :) But still, it probably deserves to be treated with more seriousness than that.


On teleportation, the quantum aspect is an interesting diversion, but still the same question can be posed:

Is there a determinate answer to the question as to whether the person who emerges from the quantam teleporter is identical - and not just qualitatively identical, as in sharing all the same qualities, but the very same particular thing - to the person who went in at the other end, or merely a perfect replica?

(NB. it's an interesting issue as to whether we can sensibly ask the analogue of this question for qubits - it depends on whether quantum information states also count as concrete particulars).

If you think there is a determinate answer, then whichever option you go for will have implications for, and trade on ideas concerning, the nature of persons/selves. So, no escape yet from metaphysics! :)

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durian said:

[...] So, no escape yet from metaphysics! :)

Exactly. Even Quasar's purely scientific explanation doesn't convince me at all (despite sounding logical and believable), the counter-arguments are strong enough to match it. I feel so, at least. Consciousness IS something different when you view it from outside perspective and when it's your own consciousness. I don't think science can properly and 100% truly and accurately explain it (yet).

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My two cents? I feel very strongly that consciousness is an elemental property of the universe. Since we can't properly define consciousness, my hypothesis doesn't necessarily have to encompass quarks possessing thoughts or having moods. However, I do think it means that whatever consciousness is--perhaps some combination of information and awareness--starts at the very bottom, then works its way up.

If this is true, then it makes sense that a cat seems more aware than a bacterium and a human is more aware than both. The more complex the entity, the higher the capacity for consciousness. I think it's nonsensical that the base elements are completely "off" and that enough of them clumped together in a specific arrangement turns the clump "on." Surly consciousness is a mathrmatcal outcome of particular arrangements.

That said, teleportation is really weird to think about. The reconstruction may retain consciousness as though nothing happened. Does this mean my sense of self somehow jumped to this new copy? If you use a 3D printer to make an exact copy of me, the copy clearly isn't me. My awareness remains in the original me. That makes it seem as though the teleported reconstruction wouldn't be the original me either; there would just be no evidence, since the original gets destroyed.

Is our consciousness just an elaborate equation that can be reproduced exactly? Is it possible for me to jump to another vessel? Can my consciousness be transmitted to an empty brain? If the original me really does cease to be post-teleportation, would it matter, since the original me won't be around to care?

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I don't even dare trying to answer the question what consciousness really is, I simply believe it works as I described above (but I might be entirely wrong, I know it). However:

GoatLord said:

If the original me really does cease to be post-teleportation, would it matter, since the original me won't be around to care?

If the assumption is true (and I believe it is), then principially, it's very similar like if you asked: "If my father died, would it matter, since he won't be around to care?" For me, it "technically" would not matter (emotional relation to my father is besides the point here). For my father, yes, it matters a lot whether he lives or is dead. Now apply this logic to the teleportation problematique. Overally, as I see it, the answer is that it matters.

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Then if human teleportation becomes common, people will die much more frequently, yet without affecting the population.

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GoatLord said:

Then if human teleportation becomes common,

I hope it won't, because scientists will be aware of that "consciousness ceasing to exist" problem, even if just a hypothetical one, and they won't risk to allow it. I personally wouldn't.

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Oh man, this sort of shit is like mental catnip for me. Hope you all don't mind:

Sodaholic said:

How does consciousness work, both organic and mechanical? In being a completely stupid and superstitious bastard, I feel that (at least regarding organics) it is some intangible energy that latches on to a brain (or any physical matter) and passively experiences its physical and chemical reactions



Why do you feel this way? Because it makes absolutely no sense to me. If it's intangible, how can it possibly be known to exist?

And what do you mean by "energy"? As I understand it, it's a property of objects transferable via fundamental physical forces, which rules out absolute intangibility (as opposed to merely being intangible to our bodily senses but detectable with instrumentation, e.g. radio waves).

(in traditional physics, not taking quantum into account)


Thing is, the distinction between "traditional" (I take it you mean classical) physics and quantum physics is one made up by humans for our own convenience, not one that inherently exists in nature, i.e. in physics as it actually happens rather than as it is described in textbooks. They are one and the same. They coexist and interact in the same universe.

If humanity manages to last long enough to enter a post-human age, how much "humanity" would we retain should we gradually rebuild ourselves to be pure machine, and how much would we retain during the intermediate phases?


That assumes that there is some eternal unchanging quality which can meaningfully be labelled "humanity". Considering that humans are an evolved species subject to natural selection, this again simply does not make any sense. There's no clear dividing line between "humans" and "pre-humans", so why should there be one between us and "post-humans"?

Even if the transfer is mediated by technology rather than evolution, an uploaded human personality (and a society composed of same) is still going to have many human traits, at least in the early stages of its existence.

And generally regarding gradual replacement of brain components (not specifically limited to trans-humanism here), how much of the same "consciousness stream" do we possess as our own cells are naturally replaced? What if one suffers a brain injury and is in a coma for 5 years? Sure, we retain our identities and memories because that remains in the physical structure of our brain's neurons, but are we really a different "stream" just experiencing the same body once our original "stream" has left in some manner?


If consciousness is a process contingent on there being a body to express it, as the continuing lack of evidence for such things as a "soul" or a "life-force" seems to strongly suggest, then terms such as "consciousness stream" are extraneous, and add nothing to our understanding. In other words, different "streams" reduce down to different bodies, since "stream" and body amount to the same thing.

Another thing about continuity I wonder is teleportation. Specifically, the kind where they copy detailed info on your physical being into a pattern buffer, disintegrate you, and then generate a duplicate over at the destination you wanted to go to. If your original is destroyed before the duplicate is ever made, do you or can you retain any conscious continuity?


It depends on what you mean by "conscious continuity" exactly. Remaining conscious during the process? I would think not, since the body is destroyed during the process. Are you the same person stepping off the teleporter as you were stepping on? A trickier one to answer.

I'm inclined to think it would make no difference unless there is some as-yet undiscovered property that is not being transferred along with everything else. But since you are positing (unless I'm getting you wrong) that the person who's getting off the teleporter pad has the same memories, personality, and so on and so forth as the person who stepped on the pad, then what exactly would be missing in any case? Nothing that really matters so far as I can tell.

Of course, the above also assumes (for whatever reason) that this "soul" or whatever is non-transferable. Why should we assume this? If souls can be stolen or sold as per many human mythologies, then why can they not be transferred technologically?

If this retarded idea is actually true, what patterns constitute something that a stream of consciousness "latches onto"? Does it have to be a brain or something with similar conditions of operation, or can it be any matter?


Well, first you would have to rigorously define what this "stream of consciousness" is in the first place.

In the end, I suppose it doesn't really matter. A brain is gonna do what it's gonna do and it's gonna continue with its own memories and identity and doesn't "know" that there's some kind of consciousness going on, and we would never know the difference. Regardless of the nature of consciousness, I wonder if it's even worth worrying about if it turns out we have little to no control over it. What am I even going on about?

Even though I probably sound like a total ponce in the above text (and none of us can really know the answers to these things), I hope I can at least start an interesting dialog.


It's a fascinating topic and you're not stupid for wondering (woah, just had some deja vu as I was writing that. That's the human brain at work right there!). I'm hoping that further research by scientists will solidify our understanding of consciousness.

At present, I am 99% sure that consciousness is a process that is entirely contingent on physical processes of some kind without recourse to souls or life-energy or similar pre-scientific concepts. Our pre-scientific intuitions about the universe were that the world was flat, that the sky was a dome covering it studded with tiny points of light, and that gravity was an unidirectional force pulling everything on earth in a specific direction. But it turned out that the world is a spheroid, stars are massive collections of fusing gas flying through a seemingly-infinite void, and gravity is omnipresent and pulls in all sorts of directions. If we could get such basic things about the universe wrong because of our intuitions, then I think that it's likely that our intuitions (as opposed to what we know through science) about consciousness are similarly wrong.

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I am now incredibly interested to hear the opinion of an actual scientist who has spent time studying teleportation. From a moral perspective, I wouldn't be too fussed about the who 'duplication' issue, but I understand the perspective of those who are. It's a strange idea to try and truly grasp.

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I think teleportation works like in Doom. You step into the teleport, activate it, you get "unlinked" from reality, and get instantly moved into the teleport exit, and then you get "linked" back to reality. There's probably some kind of pointer to point at you, so the teleport exit knows which thing to teleport out.

We all know what happens when the pointers get messed up... Lions and Tigers and Bears come out then :}

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