Captain Kirk’s Dilemma

by Martin Yip

Among the many scientific innovations in the Star Trek universe is the transporter. Transporters move people or objects from one place to another in a matter of seconds within a range of thousands of kilometers. How it works is the person (or object) is first ‘dematerialized’ from matter into an energy pattern, then beamed to the target location, and finally ‘rematerialized’ into matter. In the Star Trek universe, transporters are commonly used as a means of transportation, just as planes and ships are commonly used in this universe. 

This powerful technology differs from all of the means of transportation that we currently have in one interesting way: it has the potential to create a problem of identity that is philosophical but also quite personal. To illustrate this, we should distance ourselves from both Captain Kirk’s universe and our own. Suppose we are living some years into the future, when the transporter has just been invented and heralded as the most efficient mode of transport ever developed. Suppose you have been given a chance to use the transporter. Would you try it?

The transporter enthusiast, like Captain Kirk, would see no problem with using it. After all, it serves its purpose – it gets him from point A to point B, quickly and without hassle. But the transporter cynic would see a huge problem. To the cynic, the transporter doesn’t get him from point A to point B. Rather, it destroys him at point A and recreates him at point B. That point holds even if the transporter works perfectly, that is, all information about the person is captured and converted without error or omission.

So, the enthusiast and the cynic disagree on whether transportation has actually happened. It seems that having a continuous identity is a necessary condition for transportation. If I board a flight from point A to point B, it is quite clear that the person who boarded the flight is the same person as the person who got off it (for the purposes of this article, we shall assume it is quite clear), and there is indeed a person, namely myself, that has travelled. But if I am dematerialized at point A and rematerialized at point B, the cynic might argue that there are two distinct people, even if their physical and psychological makeup are identical. The first person ceased to exist at the point of dematerialization, and the second person came into existence at the point of materialization. If this account is correct, there isn’t a person that has done any travelling!

This disagreement reflects the crux of the matter: how to define personal identity. The enthusiast holds what may be labelled a psychological view: A and B are the same person if they are psychologically connected. The person at point A and the person at point B have exactly the same memories, dispositions, beliefs, and so forth; therefore, they are one and the same person. In contrast, the cynic holds what may be labelled a bodily view: A and B are the same person only if they have the same body. The person at point A does not have the same body as the person at point B, as one body was destroyed and another body was created afterwards. Therefore, these two are not the same person.

If Captain Kirk had been presented with this problem, he surely did not find it alarming or troubling that perhaps a new Kirk came into existence every time he used a transporter. Convenience aside, however, these issues are worth pondering. What is it about you that defines you? Would using the transporter change your identity? And finally, does any of this matter?

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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