Star Trek has some freaky storylines. The American sci-fi television series in the 1960s, created by Gene Roddenberry, follows the adventures of the starship USS Enterprise and its crew members.
If you have watched even one of the seasons, you are sure to have come across a certain Teletransportation.
Star Trek and Teletransportation
As its name would suggest, a transporter is a fictional teleportation machine which converts a person/object into an energy pattern (dematerialisation) and then sends it to a target location where it will be reconverted into matter (rematerialisation), meaning the person/object.
In simple words, a transporter would send tens of thousands of people into a parallel universe or back in time in seconds—a trope of movies and TV series that has surfaced in the last few years.
The Teletransportation Thought Experiment
However, this teletransportation machine has attracted several philosophical questions over the years. In what has also come to be known as a duplicates paradox, a philosophical thought experiment around identity challenges some of the intuitions about the nature of self and consciousness.
The problem was first systematically proposed by Derek Parfit, in his seminal work Reasons and Persons (1987), where he considers a hypothetical teletransporter, puts you to sleep, records your activity and molecular composition, breaks you down into atoms, and beams into another planet at the speed of light.
On that other planet, another machine re-creates you – puts you in as a person you were earlier. Each atom is in its perfect place, each molecule in its safe spot, and you are created as a person on this other planet.
Now the question that arises is are you the same person as you were back on your planet, or are you someone else? Is the replica at the destination truly you, retaining your consciousness, memories and personal identity?
Metaphysically, how does an individual/object persist through change? What really makes for an individual? When do we really say that a person has gone out of existence if all the dead were to be reborn elsewhere and are to arrive here once again after an unspecific time?
An elaborate explanation of this Teletransportation experiment is found here:
For Stelios, the teletransporter is the only way to travel. Previously it took months to get from the Earth to Mars, confined to a cramped spacecraft with a far from perfect safety record. Stelios’s Teletransport Express changed all that.
Now the trip takes just minutes, and so far it has been 100% safe. However, now he is facing a lawsuit from a disgruntled customer who is claiming the company actually killed him.
His argument is simple: the teletransporter works by scanning your brain and body cell by cell, destroying them, beaming the information to Mars and reconstructing you there.
Although the person on Mars looks, feels and thinks just like a person who has been sent to sleep and zapped across space, the claimant argues that what actually happens is that you are murdered and replaced by a clone.
To Stelios, this sounds absurd. After all, he has taken the teletransporter trip dozens of times, and he doesn’t feel dead. Indeed, how can the claimant seriously believe that he has been killed by the process when he is clearly able to take the case to court?
Still, as Stelios entered the teletransporter booth once again and prepared to press the button that would begin to dismantle him, he did, for a second, wonder whether he was about to commit suicide. . .
Teletransportation Problem and Personal Identity
Now, the central question of this whole puzzle is about personal identity.
For instance, personal identity is an intermix of two aspects: the mind and the body. As a result of teletransportation disassembling the original body and recreating the same elsewhere, the seemingly interconnected aspect of the mind and the body are discontinued—even ending the physical and psychological continuity.
As a whole, a personal identity constitutes both physical and psychological criteria.
Parfit’s Explanation of Teletransportation Problem
Derek Parfit, for one, uses something called “Relation R”: a psychological connectedness that may persist even if there is a disruption in the physical continuity.
If the replica in another destination could retain sufficient psychological continuity with the original, it is still a continuation of the same person.
If personal identity is what matters, I should regard my prospect here as being nearly as bad as ordinary death. But if what matters is Relation R, with any cause, I should regard this way of dying as being about as good as ordinary survival.(Parfit 1987, p. 256)
He cites that it is morally wrong for one person to harm or interfere with another, and society has to intervene when that happens.
Now, if this is accepted, then an addition could also be true, which is, that it is incumbent upon society to also intervene and protect an individual’s “Future Self”. Laws against the abuse of drugs and tobacco could be placed as a societal protection against an individual’s “Future Self”.
This feels absurd to an extent. Nonetheless, it is logical as an explanation. Now, when you retain both physical and psychological continuity; you effectively are the exact same person.
However, it is also true that there is another version of ‘you’—with all your thoughts, beliefs and desires—on Mars that is not really you of Earth.
The Teletransportation Problem poses some ethical dilemmas. Does what gets known as disassembly and reassembly violate the very sanctity of life and personal autonomy?
What rights and considerations should the original and the replica enjoy? At the same time, the thought of being transported to another world, creating another replica of you, is itself anxious.
The fear of discontinuity is as lethal as death—as you never know if you will be recreated. The fear of losing identity, memories, and experiences all the more can cause existential anxiety.
However, for now, this will remain only as a hypothetical thought experiment, pushing you to confront the nature of self and its ethical dilemmas.
Here are some of the essays and links to read more:
- Adam Adler discusses the three dimensions of the teletransportation problem: technical, philosophical and legal.
- Owen Morawitz provides a detailed discussion of various alternative explanations to the teletransportation problem.
- Read this discussion on split brains, teletransportation, and personal identity.
- Check out my 15 philosophical thought experiments for more such puzzling ideas.
Other Credits: Star Trek sculpture by Devorah Sperber, Spock, Kirk and McCoy: Beaming-In (In-Between), Microsoft, Studio D, Redmond, Washington, USA
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