Thought experiments rely on the idea of immersion to allow you to explore conceptual frontiers. I’ve stumbled upon one such experiment in Sam Harris’ book Waking Up that helps to ascertain important ideas around our notion of the past self. While the experiment is useful to review the impermanence of that notion, its also incredibly valuable to ask associated questions around why we choose who we are.
Philosopher Derek Prafit in his book, Reasons and Persons relates the idea of a teleportation machine. When our subject steps into the machine he is ‘teleported’ across to Mars as follows. First, a replica is built that’s identical atom by atom at the destination machine on Mars. Second, on confirming the success of the replica, the original is destroyed. If this machine exists and you’re friends urge you to try the machine, what thoughts go through your mind then?
This isn’t a new idea. You’ll recognize this experiment to be the same as the question behind the Ship of Theseus. Philosopher-film maker Nolan’s explored the same idea in his movie ‘The Prestige’. In the book I’m reading, the experiment is used to illustrate how our perception of daily life (ordinary survival) can get outdated a lot quicker than anticipated.
We sleep, we wake up. We make assumptions about who we are. If you re-read this blog post a few months later, our idea that we’re really the same reader is no longer the same. That’s undeniable. So why this idea of a permanent self? Why continuity? Why would you hold on to an idea on Mars which is nothing like Earth?
Perhaps continuity is indeed important for us to function. I imagine that it’d be crazy to rebuild every assumption from the very beginning. I’d be forgiven for thinking that this burden is only a privilege for the innovator*.
And yet, this process of allowing context-altering teleportation is necessary. Even in an average world, this is still true when we face life-altering situations such as the loss of a job, or any crisis that demands teleportation. We call for presence of mind so that we can begin to search for a solution. Its simply perception of the exceptional nature of crisis that attempts to separate continuity from the mindset at that time.
Its precisely that same shift that drives excellence.