If you would like to read many fascinating discussions about materialism, go check out John C. Wright’s blog in the links, because he rips the philosophic foundation of materialism into such tiny shreds that hardly a quark is left. It’s highly educational.
In the meantime, I find myself wanting to comment on this “thought experiment“:
If we had an atom-exchanging machine, and traded one atom at a time from your body with an atom from the body of Edward James Olmos, at what point would you cease to be you and Olmos cease to be Edward James? During that process, would you lose your mind and gain his? At some point would each person’s thoughts and dreams and memories change hands?
The obvious answer is that at no point whatsoever will you ever cease to be 100% you and Edward James cease to be 100% Edward James, as long as what the machine is doing is a lossless transfer of atom for atom (i.e., all molecular bonds and energy states are preserved) and it does not do any transfer if no identical atomic pair exists to swap. (If the atom-swapping machine cannot precisely retain molecular bonds and energy states, what you get out at the end is two piles of disgusting recently-deceased goo and murder charges, not two people.)
Every child ever taught the basics of biology knows why this is and must be the case. You might be made up of atoms, but your body is continually recycling and replacing them. Do you really think that anyone, at the age of 20, contains more than a tiny fraction of the same atoms he was composed of as a one-year-old? Certainly one loses many, many cells in that time: in fact, aside from certain “permanent” cells like neurons, everyone at twenty has lost a lot of the cells they had at one, and gained a ton more, containing God-knows-how-many molecules, much less atoms! And how many of the molecules making up those permanent cells are still the same molecules you had when you were one, in the exact same configuration? The DNA, perhaps? Artificially increasing the rate of atomic turnover isn’t going to change who you are one whit more than the progression of time changes you all by its unassisted self.
This goes to show that past a certain point, continuing “education” doesn’t serve to make smart people more intelligent: it makes smart people use their own intelligence to render themselves dumber than a fifth-grader. (In many fields of study, this is considered a feature, not a bug.)
Allow me to present my own thought experiment: suppose, a la Fullmetal Alchemist, you could gather up a pile of elemental atoms precisely matching your own current atomic inventory. (This is impossible, because at every moment you are shedding bits of yourself much larger than atoms, but we will pretend for the sake of the thought experiment that you have somehow managed to induce a momentary state of stasis for the purpose of measurement, without killing yourself.) Further suppose that we had the aforementioned atom-swapping device, that instead of swapping, would allow you to precisely replicate yourself, a la a Star Trek transporter, such that your copy is not only alive, but as sentient as you are, and possesses all your memories right up to the point where you managed to put yourself into stasis for measurement.
Is the copy you? The copy certainly thinks she is
you herself, right up to the point she sees herself you standing at the controls (and herself standing in the copy machine) leaping up and down for joy screaming “IT WORKED! IT WORKED!” whereupon the copy realizes she is a successful copy, and, being a person very like you and feeling in equal proportion the joy of a life’s ambition achieved (due to the copied memories of all that work), demands to see the readouts of your machine to share in the discovery. Thereupon the two of you, like BFF sisters, pour over the results in ecstasy, and you introduce your copy into society as your long-lost twin, separated at birth. (This works better if your parents are in on the proceedings, or dead.)
The whole “thought experiment” is nothing more than exactly what happens all over the world every time a single zygote splits and forms two living organisms instead of one. Before the split, there is only one living organism; after the split, there are two or more, differing of course in atomic (but not genetic) makeup due to the split and growing ever more into their own individualities with passing time, as the randomness of life asserts itself. The fact that the thought-experiment copy knows (from “her own” memory) exactly what has happened means that any confusion as to personal identity lasts for mere seconds; from the moment the copy was brought into being she began gaining her own personal experiences, her own private memories, and as time passes and she makes different choices, the distinction between Original and Copy grows ever greater.
That, if I am not mistaken, is why the esteemed Dr. McCoy hates transporters.
Here’s another thought experiment: are you the same person now that you were five years ago?
Would it matter at all to your answer if you could know how many atoms you’ve exchanged with your environment since then?
Allow me to diverge a bit and give an anecdote concerning the first time this “atom” vs “person” question occurred to me. It was when I was quite young; so young I don’t remember my age, but I do remember the context. My Sunday School class was discussing the Resurrection of the Body, and how God was going to sort out whose molecules belonged to whom, since it was very likely, in our young minds, that any given atom might have been a part of hundreds of people’s bodies in the innumerable centuries since Creation. We came to the conclusion that the atoms themselves are completely interchangeable, and in any case if there were any property disputes over the mere material building blocks making up the physical body, God would just create more as needed, so you needn’t worry about a shortage if your body had been completely recycled in the “circle of life” several times over the course of history and other people had used your molecules, too. (I’m not sure we even grasped the idea of “atom” and “molecule” very well at that point; it didn’t occur to me until much later that if every atom that had ever been a part of your physical structure were to be assembled for your bodily resurrection, what you’d have would be more than a single person’s worth of materiel!)