Why you should care about the transporter.
If you don’t watch Star Trek, or you think science fiction is dumb, you may turn up your nose at giving serious consideration to the “transporter” they use on the show to get from here to there pretty much instantaneously—you know, the “beam me up, Scotty” contraption? On the other hand, if you do [watch] and you don’t [think SF dumb], you may be tempted to violence when you read on. I knew I had an incendiary topic when I took my show on the road to the Science Fiction Research Association conference, and so it proved.
The choice of presentation was my students’ idea. As a class project we all brainstormed ideas for abstracts we could submit. I thought I might put together something about Atwood’s latest environmental-apocalypse novel, or Stephenson’s nerdy utopia in Anathem (how I wish I lived on Arbre!), or link them together (by their use of fictional religions, say). But the day I happened to air my covert-dualism thesis in seminar, my students were emphatic that this was The One.
Interestingly enough, in the real world the transporter was a last-minute kludge: on a skimpy budget they couldn’t afford to build the little space shuttle that had originally been planned for moving crew members from the main ship down to the surface of alien planets and back, and so…. Voila! Just step onto this circular plate, punch in the coordinates, get irradiated by a special-effects beam, and you’re there, with no pricy sets. Shuttlecraft? We don’t need no stinking shuttlecraft!
But the transporter opens up some large cans of worms, both in the real world and the fictional Star Trek universe. The crew members, not to mention the writers and fans of the show, are very blasé about the transporter. They treat it like just a glorified elevator: you get in, doors close, briefly there’s no scenery, then you emerge into different scenery. No big deal, and only ninnies or eccentrics nurse any serious phobias about it. But in fact the transporter’s principles of operation are totally different from any conveyance that moves bodies through space.
Starfleet personnel talk glibly about “dematerializing,” being “converted into energy,” and then “rematerializing,” but I fear these are euphemisms. Clearly the rematerializing step must involve the construction of a living body from scratch, from material components gathered at the destination rather than the point of departure, because matter itself can’t be transported that fast. I mean, that’s the whole idea of a transporter. If the crew members were actually moving, it’d just be equivalent to a pneumatic tube or giant slide taking you down to the planet. No, the only thing that actually travels is digitized data. This is not something about which we should be nonchalant.
What exactly happens during dematerialization? An energy beam surrounds the body, we might see a little misting and glinting, and then nothing: empty air. Evidently, a body is vaporized at one position and then a body is created at another position. The prospect of having your body reduced to transparent gas, even if only temporarily, should make you, at the least, think hard about your metaphysics.
So this is why science fiction matters, even when it’s plainly goofy, dumb, crazy, or otherwise fails to correspond to reality. Religious beliefs sometimes fit those descriptions, and religion matters, doesn’t it? Star Trek, Avatar, and a few other things I’ll get to in a minute are participating in grand philosophical debates that have been going on for several millennia now about the relationship of minds to bodies.
An extremely brief review of dualism
Are you identical to your body? If you think you=your body, you’re a materialist. If you think you’re not your body, what do you think you are? Maybe there’s some central essence of you that’s not made out of matter, that’s independent of the substance of your body? If you find this account convincing, you’re a dualist of some kind. Cartesian dualism, people often say, in honor of Rene Descartes, the 17th-century thinker who made a very explicit commitment to dualism, but of course the idea of some kind of nonmaterial central core of being wasn’t original with him. Dualism comes in many different flavors, but in the Western tradition it’s worth mentioning Paul of Tarsus as predecessor to Descartes, and Plato as predecessor to Paul. These guys all felt that the true you is something immutable and insubstantial, and altogether preferable to your gross, aging, temporary body. Ideas about souls, spirits, ghosts, shades, astral projection, reincarnation, and other conceptually similar phenomena, have been around for a long time in many cultures. There’s a strong desire not to be at the mercy of what happens to our body—“fastened to a dying animal”—as Yeats put it. Dualism is just a very natural way for us humans to think, regardless of whether it’s accurate.
The transporter is a fax-shredder machine
So, the transporter has always made me uneasy. Imagine a combination fax machine/shredder which destroys the paper originals every time it sends data. The data gets reproduced at a distance, certainly, but it’s on different paper. Notice, I’m not griping about the accuracy of the copying. Feel free to assume an arbitrarily high resolution for the process of digitizing all your physical parameters, and then recreating you in analog form using physical components gathered at the other end. Call it a perfect copy down to the atomic level, even the quantum-level if you like. We can assume the guy who steps out of the transporter will be indistinguishable anatomically and psychologically from the guy who stepped in. And that guy won’t have any peculiar physical or mental sensations, or any sense of loss or fear (provided he hasn’t read this essay). His memories will assure him that his life extends into the past in an unbroken continuum. But none of that guarantees that the guy who stepped into the transporter moments ago didn’t die when the beam “dematerialized” him.
“Just how are you defining death?” said the indignant science-fiction fan at the conference. I don’t know that I really need an airtight formal definition to make my point. In general, you don’t want processes to happen to you that make any significant changes to the matter in your body. Look: if a shark bites off your head, you’ll die from being cut into a mere two pieces. If you fall by accident into some industrial machine whose purpose is to turn beef carcasses into one-inch cubes, you’ll die from being cut into, uh, a lot… several thousand? Just a minute…
I’m back. It’s surprisingly difficult to google up numbers on the average volume of a human body, though other people besides me have asked about it. Isn’t it strange that you can’t turn around in public without bumping into a scale, although what people really want to know, for reasons of medicine or fashion, is actually either: how much of me is fat tissue? Or: how much space am I taking up? Or: is my surface area smooth and firm or more bulgy or wiggly? None of which are things the scale can tell you. But weight is easy to measure, so our doctors and fashionistas have gotten us into the habit.
Here’s a research article with some plethysmography figures I can extrapolate from. Let’s see, these young women averaged just under 62 liters. I’m a bit taller than their average, and—well, I never weigh myself, but I know I weigh more than that—these chicks look to’ve been pretty darn compact in their silhouettes. Okay, if I assume they weigh 86% of what I do, then that would make me about 71 and a half liters, assuming I’m just as dense as they are, but I doubt I am, I’m probably fatter, so it’s even more than that. So, 72 liters converts to how many cubic inches? More than 4300. Yes! We’re definitely in the right ballpark. In order to provide less than a thousand cubes, a person of similar density would have to weigh 36 pounds. Establishing an upper range of normal is trickier, because I can’t continue to assume constant density. A woman of my body composition who is twice my height cannot exist, for reasons of biological and physical law, but if she could she would have to weigh 377 pounds before she hit 10,000 cubic inches. Fatter individuals, with their decreased density, would reach this boundary much sooner. In any case, we’ve demonstrated that “several thousand” covers most cases, QED.
And a trauma leaving you in thousands of pieces is nothing compared to the transporter, which minces people much finer than that. If you step into a beam that takes apart all the matter in your body—every cell, every molecule—why would you assume that was a survivable event?
What should it take for a person to be willing to step into a fax-machine shredder? Let’s agree to banish any worries about the informational content suffering any loss or degradation, or any imperfections in the physical reproduction process. Let it be a perfect copy, in the sense of indistinguishability, but that original piece of paper will be destroyed. So, assuming your instincts of self-preservation are robust, you should take this step only if you’re confident that the paper on which you’re printed is irrelevant to what makes you continue to be you.
The problem of fission—two Rikers
In any type of digital copying device, once the data has been scanned, in principle nothing limits how many copies you can transmit. Even in the Star Trek universe, doubling has sometimes occurred. In a 2nd generation episode called “Second Chances,” we learn that a transporter accident eight years in the past created two Lt. Rikers. From that point on there existed two men who are indistinguishable at the cellular and genetic level, and whose brain patterns match, according to scans performed by Dr. Crusher. For eight years the Rikers have led independent lives, unaware of each other’s existence—one alone on a deserted planet, the other one getting promoted to commander. When they meet they don’t like each other. They’re not identical subjectively: they don’t share thoughts, and injury or death to either one of them would leave the other unaffected. Since the Rikers aren’t identical to each other, obviously they can’t both be identical to that man who stepped into the destructor beam—I mean the transporter beam—eight years before. That proves that the transporter can make copies. It can create a new individual, indistinguishable from the original, but not subjectively identical to the original, despite his own psychological confidence that he is the original. And I would argue that this is in fact occurring every time the transporter is used. One person is destroyed and a copy of that person is created. This isn’t something that happens only when the machine malfunctions; it is the process. Just beneath the surface of the plot in Star Trek is routine carnage, crew members slaughtered right and left in almost every episode. From a materialist perspective there is no other way to look at it.
Covert dualism, science fiction and religious belief
So why do Star Trek fans embrace the transporter technology? Whether or not they are fully aware of it themselves, the Star Trek characters and fans cannot be answering the mind-body question as thorough-going materialists. They are covert dualists, secretly believing that some essential core of a crew member’s unique selfhood is not biologically dependent, and that this core element can under some circumstances be decoupled from the body and then somehow reconnected, plugged back in, so to speak, to a sufficiently similar body elsewhere, and resume its biological existence unimpaired, like a hermit crab trading one shell for another. Now, if this belief is fully conscious, is maintained under all circumstances, and is fully consistent with one’s other metaphysical beliefs, that is not what I mean by covert dualism: that will be overt dualism, like that of Plato, Paul, or Descartes. But humans are tricky operators, able to adopt beliefs temporarily for sheer pleasure, flicker in and out of degrees of wavering belief, hold incompatible beliefs simultaneously, or even to have beliefs they themselves are unaware of, or would deny publicly. Some type and degree of covert dualism is utterly essential to an enjoyment of Star Trek, because the best that a hard-boiled materialist can say for the transporter is that it causes no suffering when it kills, and the victim’s family and friends are not bereaved.
It might be argued that transporter fans are not necessarily any kind of dualists if they are sufficiently unreflective, if, like a Supreme Court nominee being questioned about a divisive cultural issue such as abortion, they have simply never allowed the vexed question to arise in their minds at all. If a viewer meets this description, accepting the transporter in unquestioning childish faith, as a piece of magic requiring no further analysis, then she is still holding, albeit passively, an attitude that materialism is not relevant to the narrative situation: that we need not think deeply about the role biology and physics play in actual human life. Such a person, through sheer inattention, is broadly classifiable at one extreme of the possible mixture of motives—different proportions of wishful thinking, avoidance, fantasy, and positive spiritual commitment—that I am lumping together under the heading covert dualism.
Science, clearly, exists in a state of some tension with religion. There’s a well attested negative correlation between having scientific training and professing religious faith. And the higher achieving the scientist, the less statistically likely she is to adhere to faith. I’m not aware of any similar surveys of science fiction fans, but my impression, among my own acquaintance, is that people who have made major commitments to faith in their lives don’t have a big appetite for science fiction, and vice versa. Perhaps science fiction and religious faith are in competition as strategies for satisfying some of our loftier humanistic/spiritual desires: to understand how things work, to feel connected to cosmic issues, to experience mind-blowing awe at the scope of our world, to explore the boundaries of the known and the unknown or perhaps unknowable. What am I? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? We also need to come to grips with the strong fears and drives that we have, such as our preference not to die, or get old, or sick, or hurt.
Finding a way to hypothetically manage to be immortal is certainly not the only motive behind religious faith, or science fiction either, for that matter. But both religion and science fiction do provide a convenient arena for thinking about the issue of mortality, or how we could maybe get around it. Mainstream dualists in the Christian tradition that flowed from St. Paul to Descartes and beyond posit that there are two parts to every person, a body and a soul, and that the soul is the more important part, and is also indestructible. Covert dualists in the Star Trek tradition are able to get part of the benefits of believing in souls, without having to sign on for the whole faith package, which can be somewhat difficult to sustain in the modern world as science keeps encroaching on supernatural explanations. Covert dualism is a uniquely modern phenomenon, supporting and supported by science fiction, replacing full-throttle commitment to religious afterlife with similar notions which are still deeply held, but vaguer and unnamed, whose emotional satisfactions are thus less vulnerable than religion to erosion by science.
Avatar and the singularity
James Cameron is another writer who locates his spiritual message in that broad intermediate metaphysical zone of covert dualism. The movie Avatar can be watched comfortably, affirmatively, by a wide-spectrum audience ranging all the way from overt dualists who are certain that souls exist, to out-and-out deniers of souls, materialists, as long as they don’t think about it too hard. Yes, there is a so-called Tree of Souls in the movie, but we are free to attribute the spiritual component of this entity to native folklore. The plot makes at least a gesture in the direction of naturalizing the unearthly phenomena that we see: the planetary consciousness called Eywa need not be interpreted as a supernatural being; we can think of her as a supercomputer instantiated biologically.
In the climactic scene of Avatar, Jake Sully’s subjective consciousness escapes from his dying human body by being uploaded into Eywa and downloaded again into his Na’vi avatar. Good luck with that, my fine blue friends! When we perform uploading and downloading operations with our own home computers, we’re making digital copies, not transferring unique originals. Despite superficial differences, fictional situations involving the transfer of a unique consciousness, as in Avatar, are completely isomorphic to the Star Trek transporter situation: something has appeared to move from here to there, and that something is, from most perspectives, indistinguishable from a previously existing sentient being, but it’s still not going to be that being subjectively. Not unless something like a unique soul can somehow jump across the gap between bodies, or be magically zapped there, or crawl along the electrical connections in parallel with the digital data transmission.
Covert dualism isn’t limited only to fictional situations. In the real world, many futurists are seriously striving to develop artificial intelligence with the goal of escaping biological aging, accident, and death by digitally “uploading” consciousness into supercomputers. Clearly such people are not believers in traditional theories of an immortal soul, or they would direct their energies heavenward instead of toward the upcoming singularity. But neither are they complete materialists if they’re hoping to shed their mortal body and swap it out for something more durable.
Answering objections, and resituating the mind-body problem
Patternism. Some singularitarians and AI specialists may well object to being characterized as any kind of dualists: nobody believes in a soul less than they! They believe nothing is required for the maintenance of a consciousness except a pattern of the right sort and complexity. The exact platform on which the pattern is instantiated and run is completely irrelevant: brain tissue, computer circuitry, or gigantic formations of ants can equally well exhibit personality if arranged into the proper configuration, and if they are arranged into the pattern of me, then they will be me.
On the face of it, pure “patternism” seems to provide an alternative to the traditional materialist-dualist split on the mind-body problem. “Content is fancy form,” says famed cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in Metamagical Themas and if that is true across the board (not just in computer coding, or at some theoretical subatomic level), then indeed there is only one thing to be concerned with, after all, not two. In Le Ton beau de Marot, Hofstadter writes movingly about his feelings for his dead wife Carol, whose pattern of thought, he believes, he has partly absorbed into his own. I admire Hofstadter greatly, and by no means wish to disparage the depth and fidelity of his and Carol’s relationship. I don’t doubt he knew her thoroughly. But that “Carol” which exists as a pattern reproduced in Hofstadter’s own mind can hardly be equated with a continuation of Carol’s subjective experience. Carol herself is no longer having any subjective experiences, unless some form of dualism is correct. Indeed, Hofstadter’s mental “Carol” predated Carol’s death, so if “Carol” were really Carol, there would have been two of her. Thus, patternism as a solution to the mind-body problem is vulnerable to problems of fission, no less than the covert-dualism cases already examined.
Let’s stipulate that advances in artificial intelligence and scanning techniques make it possible for a human personality to be captured completely in a computer program. If I hope to escape biological death by uploading myself, surely I would prefer to oversee that process now, while still in full possession of my faculties. But the Jean-Braithwaite computer program, once created, can just as well be run before I’m dead. Would I then be subject to two simultaneous sets of experiences? Clearly not. There would be two of me extant in the world—sort of—but I would only be one of them. The program could be copied and run an unlimited number of times, to no effect at all on the biological me. Later, at the point of death of my original biological body, my subjective consciousness would be in exactly the same position as dying Jake at the end of Avatar. There’s nowhere else I can go, unless I have a unique separable soul that can hop into the computer at the last second.
It may be that I’m imputing oversimplified views to some or most patternists who look forward to uploading their personalities. They may be perfectly aware of the fission problem, but they disregard it because they aren’t actually hoping for survival in quite the same afterlife-y sense as the person who imagines sitting on a cloud among angels, playing a harp. Perhaps patternists don’t hope to wake up someday playing their harps inside the computer, but merely intend to live on in the same sense that Shakespeare lives on, by having recorded some of his way of thinking for later reproducibility, only more so, because the record will be fuller. That’s fine, but it sidesteps the mind-body problem as we usually think of it. Could it be that the way we usually think of it is wrong? Maybe this unique subjective consciousness I’m so attached to is not such a big hoo-hah as it seems to me? Maybe the “self” is just a kind of optical illusion, an epiphenomenon of other functions of the mind? Maybe a sufficiently good copy of the pattern that is me really would be me, in any meaningful sense. I can’t feel that way, but perhaps that’s because I’m too crass, fooled by clinging to this illusion of being a unique self.
If all the self that anyone ever has is just the pattern, then fission scenarios are no longer problematic, since it’s only the abstract type that counts, not how many tokens happen to instantiate the type physically at a given time, nor what they are made out of. Of course… that would also include the special case where the number of tokens is zero. Really pure patternists can relax right now. We don’t need supercomputers to be ourselves any more than we need our meat-based brains. An abstract pattern can’t ever be put in physical danger; its continued existence, as a pure abstraction, is guaranteed. On this theory no person can die any more than a number can. We are all pi in the sky already, inhabiting Plato’s heaven of pure form before, during, and after our little tango in bodily form.
A word about occidocentricism. You may have noticed my argument veering in an easterly direction a couple paragraphs ago, the idea that the “self” might be illusory. This is yet another way of approaching the mind-body problem which avoids the traditional materialist-dualist split. If there is no self, then materialism and dualism are both mistaken, and, indeed, we should probably begin to call this metaphysical topic by a different name, since “the mind-body problem” privileges western, and specifically Pauline, traditions. It suggests from the getgo that “mind” and “body” describe distinct things, one of which must comprise, or house, a unique self.
Biological naturalism. Philosopher/cognitive scientist John Searle has long been an opponent to Douglas Hofstadter and rafts of others who pursue the dream of artificial intelligence. (And let me just say for the record that that happening to agree with Searle about how consciousness works doesn’t mean endorsing his positions in general, or his disposition for that matter.) Like Searle, I think excessively heavy weather has been made of the mind-body “problem.” On this planet at this time, all the instances of conscious entities for which we have well-corroborated evidence are associated with, indeed precisely coextensive with, biological entities. It seems sensible to begin by thinking of consciousness as a biological phenomenon and build our conceptual foundation there. (This is not to say that no non-biological consciousness could ever be achieved under any circumstances, just that there is no good evidence any exist in our vicinity right now.)
In no way is it out of the ordinary for a biological organism to exhibit mental states: on earth, consciousness is the norm for volitionally mobile creatures above a certain complexity level. It’s easy to see the evolutionary advantage that a subjective sense of a unified self would provide in preserving the integrity of a mobile body with many moving subparts. You take care to keep your toes out of the fire because they’re your toes, etc. Consciousness and bodily health go together: living bodies in which all consciousness has permanently ceased are a fairly rare occurrence and require a maximum of medical intervention to keep up any of their biological functions at all; conversely, disruptions of bodily integrity affect consciousness, and when they’re severe enough they end it, temporarily or permanently.
We shouldn’t ask whether subjective experience is grounded in the body; we should ask how; this is the only real “problem” in the relationship of minds and bodies.
One last tussle over the Star Trek transporter.
Interlocutor: But look here, the cells in your body turn over something like every seven years, and if you look at atoms, the turnover is even faster. So, the transporter is just doing what’s going to happen to you anyway, replacing your atoms with other atoms. If what makes you you is the matter you’re made out of, you’re in big trouble anyway.
JB: Gradual replacement of small components—atoms and cells—is consistent with biological survival; in fact, self-repair processes are the essence of biological life. Sudden disruptions over a large percentage of the body are correlated with severe trauma and death. The transporter “replaces” every part simultaneously; we have no reason to consider any such process compatible with subjective survival. The closest analogy I can think of in the real world would be a simultaneous crushing and burning so intense that it consumes your whole body instantly.
I: Earlier you mentioned wishful thinking. Your analogy shows fearful thinking. What reason do you have to assume the transporter function is not compatible with survival? It doesn’t crush or burn you when you dematerialize.
JB: What does it do, then? You remind me of those hearty types who are always urging their more squeamish friends to jump straight into the swimming pool and “get it over with.” Thanks, you go ahead if you want, but I’m a gradualist. I prefer to ease into the water an inch at a time and avoid unnecessary shocks to the system.
Buddhism, bundle theory, concessions. Patternism, in its own special way, is more like dualism than it is like materialism, since it regards the body as inessential to survival, but we have yet to dispose of the Buddhist no-self approach. I’ve saved this chore for last because, well… the Buddhists are right. Selves are what they call “compounded objects.” There is no one thing that we can put our finger on as the self that satisfies all our intuitions and serves all reasonable analytic purposes, simultaneously. Philosopher Derek Parfit has reached the same conclusion: we, like all other complex, evolving objects, consist of “bundles” of properties.
I believe the best foundation for understanding ourselves is that we’re biological organisms, specific individuals of a specific mammalian species; on that basis it is no more problematic to ask if we persist over the years despite cell turnover than it is to ask whether the elephant I’m looking at today is the same elephant I saw last time I visited the zoo. I trace my biological existence back through time for (ahem) several decades; even though it hasn’t been comprised of exactly the same atomic components for all that time, my body defines a smooth spatiotemporal continuum; when I want to get a comprehensive grip, I claim that entire, wiggling, four-dimensional object as myself. And yet….
I don’t feel equally attached to all parts of my past. I now disavow many beliefs I officially held at age 20, when I was briefly under the delusion that I was a libertarian or something of the sort. (Really I was a covert liberal.) It surprises me when my younger brother bothers to continue resenting alleged ill treatment from our first decade together—okay, I was probably guilty, but what does any of that have to do with me? Don’t I get to reinvent myself philosophically, outgrow my bad habits, and be issued a fresh moral slate?
As a U.S. citizen with a decent job, I’m pretty well placed on Maslow’s scale. I’m not forced to spend a lot of time contemplating my material needs, and I don’t. I invest greatly in creating a paper/digital record of my intellectual labor, often behaving as though I thought my resume were my soul or central essence. On the average day, there are at most a few hours in which I feel exactly coextensive with my body. Sometimes the boundaries of myself seem to expand so that the car I’m driving, the rollerskates I’m wearing, the shovel or toothbrush or sex toy I’m wielding seem just as much me as any of my body parts. More often my sense of embodiment contracts so that I notice only the parts that interface with what I’m reading or writing—I seem to consist mostly of eyes and fingers, and a little discomfort in the back or neck, and my intelligence striving to thrust itself past the plane of the screen or page into some infinite abstract realm. So I’m not altogether unsympathetic to dualism; who could be? We all yearn to build more stately mansions to house what we think of as the best parts of ourselves. All I ask from philosophers and science-fiction fans is a decent respect for biology, the seat of our health and wellbeing, the sine qua non of our consciousness.
Robert Sawyer’s Mindscan deserves mention here as a fiction which explores the possibility of backup, bootleg, or otherwise additional copies beyond the first. This novel can be read as a critique of what I’m about to call covert dualism, though Sawyer doesn’t use that term, of course, since I’ve only just coined it. Sawyer, incidentally, is a self-identified atheist.
 Star Trek The Next Generation. Episode #150 (season 6) “Second Chances.” Also see “Unnatural Selection” (Episode #33 (season 2)) in which Dr. Pulaski is rejuvenated when her hair is run through the transporter, and “The Enemy Within” from the original Star Trek (which features two post-transport Captain Kirks.)
 Facts about the behavior of matter at one level of organization don’t necessarily transfer to every level: there are notions which are useful in physics but not in biology. Physically, heat and cold are different degrees of the same thing, but biologically and psychologically they are separate phenomena: different sensing mechanisms detect them, while excesses in either direction pose quite different physiological dangers—all despite the fact that biology is (per materialist assumption) ultimately reducible to physics.
 A contrast proposed by logician Raymond Smullyan.
 As long as they don’t get dogmatic about it. If they insist on always shifting the focus of attention to lower and lower levels of organization, at which only swirling fragments remain of what we thought was us, they are failing to respect the nature of biological objects. “You can’t step into the same river twice,” and all that—sure, sure, but at the macro level I find there’s a meaningful distinction between taking two successive dips in the Rio Grande, versus getting myself over to the Ganges for the second swim.
 The concept of bundle theory goes back to 18th-century philosopher David Hume. Amusingly, Parfit calls the Buddha the first proponent of bundle theory.