The Star Trek Killing Machine

Thu, Mar 29, 2018

In his book, ‘Reasons and Persons’ (sometimes called ‘ the most significant work of moral philosophy since the 1800s’), the philosopher Derek Parfit indulged his readers with several amusing thought experiments.

In Part 3 - Personal Identity, for example, he considers a Star Trek-like matter transporter. Imagine, he writes, a scanner here on Earth that ‘reads’ the complete state of all the cells of your body, and in the process destroys them and transmits the information to a receiving station on Mars, where a Replicator will construct an exact copy of you, with all your memories. Just like Kirk & co beaming down to a planet.

The Star Trek transporter. It's not just the guy in red who's having a bad day

The Star Trek transporter. It's not just the guy in red who's having a bad day

For Parfit there’s a delay while the information needed to reconstruct you is beamed across space – the speed of light being a limit in the real world , if not in Star Trek’s fictional one. He pads out his description with a bit more colour and detail and then confronts you with the following scenario.

You have been reconstructed on Mars but the machine has failed to dissolve your body back on Earth. Now there are two of you, and you can chat to each other via video. But not to worry, the technicians tell you, in your Earth incarnation: the flaw in the process is only temporary and you will be disintegrated in a few hours time, leaving your Martian counterpart the only copy of you still around.

Can we learn much about our views of personal identity by considering why we’d feel uneasy about our delayed dissolution in this scenario? Parfit thinks that our reactions reveal what we believe about our selves and our personal identity over time.

On the other hand, Wittgenstein, and Quine, were doubtful about such fanciful gedankenexperiment. Dan Dennett is also sceptical. He coined the term intuition pump to describe John Searle’s famous Chinese Room argument’. Dennet thinks the argument primes our intution in a cetain direction – the direction Searle wants us bend towards – though that intution is incorrect.

I have a lot more time for Searle and the Chinese Room criticism of the aims of some AI research than I do for Dennet’s refusal to consider subjective experiences seriously in his account of consciousness. But I do think Dennett – and Wittgenstein – are on to something with their wariness of thought experiments not solidly rooted in direct experience. Parfit, though, is wishing only to elicit our reactions to his scenario as the kick-off for a discussion – he’s not trying to convince us of any position simply with the thought alone.

Parfit ended up holding a quasi-Buddhist view of personal identity. In fact, a few years ago, the New Yorker ran a piece about Parfit mentioning how “Reasons and Persons” was being memorized and chanted, along with sutras, by novice monks at a monastery in Tibet (it turns out the story is true but it happened in a monastery near Dharamshala, not in Tibet).

I’m not sure I agree with Parfit in the extent of his disbelief in the continuity of selfhood – or at least, perhaps the radical change to my worldiew and even to my day-to-day life that would be a consequence of completely embracing it is a bit too much to contemplate – but I’m with Parfit in being extremely uneasy about the Transporter. I think the Transporter is a killing machine. Much like the trick in the film, The Prestige.

Here is Parfit on killing yourself with teletransportation:


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