Who Am I? Star Trek's Theory of Consciousness

An individual 'transporting' into a group

Beam me up Scotty.

"Beam me up Scotty!" {cue sound and visual effects}

Even if you're not a Star Trek fan, this quote from the original show has probably penetrated our culture deeply enough to be familiar to you. For me, it's often been the starting point for some disturbing thoughts about a world with transporters.

If you're unfamiliar with transporting, Wikipedia summarizes the Star Trek transporter like this:

A transporter is a fictional teleportation machine used in the Star Trek universe. Transporters convert a person or object into an energy pattern (a process called dematerialization), then "beam" it to a target, where it is reconverted into matter (rematerialization).

The use of transporters in the Star Trek suite of programs left some uncertainty about whether a transporter beamed the atoms and information or only the information from place to place. Either would be a little worrying, but the later raises some interesting questions about the nature of the 'self'.

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Mind Separate From Brain?

I am not a dualist. My experience of the physical component of emotional states convinces me that without my body, I would be a fundamentally different 'me'. And I see no evidence for anything like a soul independent of my body. What mechanism would sustain the information pattern that is 'my soul'? And if there was some bodyless soul, divorced of large portions of the experiences that constitutes 'me', to what degree would it be me?

The Star Trek universe shares my physicalist leanings. Their transporter converts a person to an energy pattern that describes the full state of the body, discards the body, then recreates a new, identical body in another place based on the stored pattern. A physical body in a precise state is the individual; the conscious life form.

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Organic vs Technological Bodies

The writers also make a distinction between artificially created bodies and fully organic bodies. The later are, in some way more real than the former. Fans of the show are invited to consider the contrasts between the character Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the single appearance of the character Tuvix in Star Trek: Voyager. Data is an android; a Pinocchio character, always striving to transcend his artificiality despite his seeming peer status as a crew member. Tuvix is a blended individual, the result of a transporter accident that combined Tuvok and Nelix into a single, new individual.

Data is generally considered to be a device (even by himself) and is believed by some to be property. Tuvix is accepted as, and considers himself to be, a real individual.

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Many Deaths Make a Life

But if the individual is their body and the information state of the matter that makes it up, what happens to the individual when one body is discarded and another constructed to match the information state? It is not a stretch to believe that the 'you' that is being transported is destroyed when dematerialized. Killed in other words. Then, a facsimile is created in another place in such a way that the facsimile retains the life narrative of the now dead 'you'.

This duplicate carries on your plans and duties, relationships and goals on your behalf. In fact, this new individual considers itself to be you because they can trace a logical sequence of events that is tangent to your memories.

That the dematerized and marterialized individuals are not in fact the same person is illustrated in Second Chances. In this episode, Commander William Riker is rematerialized in two different locations. The two Rikers are unaware of each other and continue on diverging lives for 8 years before they finally meet. Both consider themselves to be the 'real' William Riker.

It could be argued that neither is the real (original) Riker, but both might be legitimate proxy bodies authorized as carriers of the Riker life narrative.

In a world with transporters, the life of an individual can be alarmingly short. Each transporter event kills the current individual and creates a new proxy to continue accumulating events in a shared life narrative.

Individuals in this universe willingly submit to the belief that their personal, physical self is disposable. And they are willing to live as a series of physical beings that all react to events using the same evolving personality matrix, and work one by one to build a single life narrative.

Life as a relay with personality and memory as the baton. I'm not ready to die. Please don't beam me up!

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Last updated: 2016-11-08 | Published:

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