I read the following paragraph in the book UNIX for Programmers and Users by Graham Glass:

"It [fork] reminds me of a great sci-fi story I read once, about a man who comes across a fascinating booth at a circus. The vendor at the booth tells man that the booth is a matter-replicator; anyone who walks through the booth is duplicated. The original person walks out of the booth unharmed, but the duplicate person walks out onto the surface of Mars as a slave of the Martian construction crews. The vendor then tells the man that he'll be given a million dollars if he allows himself to be replicated, and he agrees. He happily walks through the machine, looking forward to collecting the million dollars… and walks out onto the surface of Mars. Meanwhile, back on Earth, his duplicate is walking off with a stash of cash. The question is this: If you came across the booth, what would you do?"

I wonder if somebody could tell me the actual title and the author for the mentioned story.

  • Is there any mention of the story in the Appendix section of the book? – Möoz Dec 2 '14 at 21:29
  • I would think that the original continued to walk through and collect the money, but the story's narrative focus shifted to the duplicate's point of view. If the original went to mars they would need to teleport his body to mars somehow without killing him. – JMD Dec 2 '14 at 21:33
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    Very possibly it's a reference to "Fat Farm" by Orson Scott Card. It certainly has very similar themes and the same 'trick ending'; leyanlo.tripod.com/SrAnthology/OSC-FatFarm.pdf – Valorum Dec 2 '14 at 21:41
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    @JMD to the clone on Mars it WOULD seem like he made that decision and turned out to be the slave one. Nowhere does it say that he is going to feel like he's a duplicate. Not to mention that with perfect clone the meaning of "original" is kind of finnicky... After all quantum physics seems to tell us that elementary particles do not have an individual identity, and another you with exactly the same atom configuration would really be you all the way down. – Deltharis Dec 2 '14 at 22:03
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    The same theme also crops up in the movie The Prestige. – Eborbob Jul 13 '15 at 13:53

Glass's description sounds like it could be a somewhat misremembered recollection (or a deliberate elaboration) of a very short tale presented by Derek Parfit as a thought experiment, at the beginning of Chapter 10, "What We Believe Ourselves to Be" in Parfit's 1984 philosophy book Reasons and Persons.

There is no circus or million dollar reward in Parfit's story, but the story otherwise has a lot of similarities to Glass's description. The main character in Parfit's story, after some initial trepidation, starts using a "teletransporter" to make trips to Mars. The teletransporter destroys the person atomically, transmits the data, and the person is reconstituted on Mars. Subjectively, the main character loses consciousness, and wakes up after what seems a moment. After some years of using it, however, the character one day uses it and doesn't get the usual loss of consciousness, and is still in the room on Earth. He's informed that the transporter did still work; the facility has merely upgraded to a new version that transmitted his blueprint without destroying his atoms on Earth. Unfortunately, there still are some kinks to work out. He's informed that the new teletransporter version caused him (the still-on-Earth him, that is) to have cardiac damage that will kill him in a few days. Not to worry though, because the version of him on Mars is as healthy as usual.

I wondered if versions of this thought experiment could go back further, since Parfit immediately afterward wrote the following paragraph quoting Willard Van Orman Quine regarding such thought experiments:

What can we learn from this imaginary story? Some believe that we can learn little. This would have been Wittgenstein's view.ⁱ And Quine writes: "The method of science fiction has its uses in philosophy, but... I wonder whether the limits of the method are properly heeded. To seek what is 'logically required' for sameness of person under unprecedented circumstances is to suggest that words have some logical force beyond what our past needs have invested them with."²

The full paragraph from the W.V.O. Quine review (Quine, W. V. O. 1972. "Book Review: Identity and Individuation, Milton K. Munitz, editor". Journal of Philosophy 69 (no. 16): 488-497) is:

Shoemaker's "Wiggins on Identity" begins with a lively examination of Wiggins' doctrine that "every identity statement stands in radical need of the answer to the question same what?" Shoemaker cites passages to show that Wiggins does not really hold the doctrine, once propounded by Geach, which these words suggest, but rather the reasonable doctrine that you cannot evaluate most identity statements without getting clear on what things are being identified. Later he examines Wiggins on personal identity, where the reasoning veers off in familiar fashion into speculations on what we might say in absurd situations of cloning and transplanting. The method of science fiction has its uses in philosophy, but at points in the Shoemaker-Wiggins exchange and elsewhere I wonder whether the limits of the method are properly heeded. To seek what is "logically required" for sameness of person under unprecedented circumstances is to suggest that words have some logical force beyond what our past needs have invested them with.

"Wiggins on Identity" was being reviewed as part of Quine's book review of the collection Identity and Individuation (Milton K. Munitz, editor. New York: NYU Press, 1971), but if it's the same paper (not just the same title), it appears to have been previously published in Philosophical Review Vol. 79, (OCT 1970): 529-544. That paper has some brain-pattern copying scenarios, but not a Mars story.

So that was a dead end; as far as I can tell, the Mars teleportation story originated with Parfit. If Glass did read some version involving a circus and a million dollars, I suspect it was someone else expanding on Parfit's idea.

See also on Wikipedia:

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