Mind vs. Matter – Reflections on the Star Trek transporter

“Two to beam up,” says Commander Riker over the communicator.

Behind a panel in the transporter room, O’Brien slides a couple knobs and looks up eagerly towards the Transporter Platform. For a while nothing happens. O’Brien seems tense, a drop of sweat dripping on his forehead. Unfortunately, people still sweat in the 24th century.

“Boost the pattern buffer,” another crew member shouts over his shoulder. O’Brien keeps working on the console, trying to maintain his calm. He’s almost got it.

Then the sound effects grow louder, and within seconds the First Officer of the Enterprise along with the Chief Engineer materialize back on the ship. Everybody sighs in relief. Crisis averted.

Unless this happens to be a transporter accident episode, in which case we might be dealing with two Rikers, instead of one.

But that’s a different story.

star trek transporter the next generation
A transporter in TNG (CBS/Paramount)

Of all the technologies present in the fictional universe of Star Trek, the transporter is perhaps the most memorable. And that’s no surprise. It is featured in almost every episode of almost every show (ST:Enterprise had to ruin the curve), and there are whole episodes centered around it (the so-called ‘transporter accident episodes’). But ever since its first appearance on Star Trek: The Original Series in 1966, Star Trek fans and scholars have pondered on one important question regarding this marvelous piece of technology: Is the transporter a disguised ‘death-and-cloning’ machine? In other words, is the person who steps out of the transporter the same person who stepped in? Is their identity preserved? Or are they simply an exact clones sharing exact memories?

It’s not easy questions to answer.  In fact it is impossible, as it always is when one tries to analyze fictitious technology in a fictitious universe. It was never meant to be analyzed. In all iterations of Trek, the characters rarely show any qualms about the validity of transporter technology, and when they do it’s almost always about the device malfunctioning.  So it is safe to assume that within the universe of Star Trek, people are satisfied that the transporter does what it’s supposed to do. A literary device serving a purpose. And since the transporter is unlikely to become a real technology in the foreseeable future – it would violate many principles of physics as we currently understand them – there’s no practical use in wondering about its life-or-death implication.

Nevertheless, these questions make for an interesting thought experiment about personal identity and the nature of the self. I don’t intend to provide a full analysis of transporter technology here (there’s already plenty of that on the internet), but rather to briefly examine the issue of personal identity from two perspectives and tie it back to Star Trek.

First, a few words on the transporter:

Of Matter and Men – The Transporter

So, how does the transporter work in Star Trek?

Two Kirks in the episode The enemy within
In the episode “The Enemy Within” a transporter accident creates two Kirks

No doubt, the franchise has produced several technical manuals and in-depth descriptions of all the technology featured in the shows, including the transporter. Sadly, I haven’t read any of them, nor do I intend to. I briefly considered getting my hands on the TNG Technical Manual for the purpose of writing this post, but ultimately considered it superfluous.  Given that it’s all made up words anyway, I didn’t see the benefit. Therefore, all my knowledge of the transporter comes solely from what was presented on the TV screen (or what I can remember from the 700+ episodes of the franchise).

Finally, it goes something like this: The transporter first scans your body on a quantum level, disassembles your molecules, converts the matter to energy (somehow), beams the energy to the a different location, and finally converts the energy back to matter, putting you back together just as you were. It’s short and possibly oversimplified, but that’s as much as one can say with certainty. If you want, you can find more on the Memory Alpha page for the transporter, though of the technical details are unclear and sometimes inconsistent, as Star Trek famously is.

Many practical questions remain unanswered: How is the matter converted to energy? What kind of energy? How is the energy stored and transported? Are the same particles that form the person at the destination, or is it only a ‘pattern’ that’s stored, and the person recreated using new, identical atoms (a tricky notion, since particles are indistinguishable at the quantum level)? No matter how much we speculate, I doubt we can provide any scientifically satisfying answer.

Nevertheless, if your body is disassembled molecule by molecule and converted into energy, it’s hard to argue against the transporter as a death-machine. It’s hard to massage your way out of that conclusion. What’s death if not that?

Yet, day in and day out in the universe of Star Trek millions of people step into that ‘death-machine’ with the same easiness that you and I have when stepping into a car. A phobia of the transporter (as in the case of Reginald Barclay in the episode “Realm of Fear”) is as unusual as would be the phobia of stepping into a car in our world. In short, they’re not worried about it. We can, therefore, operate under the assumption that people (or other species) more advanced than us have thought about the issue (this is, in fact, revealed in Enterprise) and have concluded that the transporter is not a death-machine, and that the person who steps in is the same as the one who steps out.

How is that possible when it sounds so unlikely?

This seems the right place to step in and talk about identity. The philosophy of personal identity is a topic too long and complicated to do it justice on a single blog post by a person who’s admittedly not an expert. As such, my opinion is probably oversimplified.

Generally speaking, the issue of identity is tied to one’s overall worldview. Ideas regarding how the world works, the nature of reality, knowledge, experience, etc., are necessarily taken into account. Here, I examine two philosophical principles that relate to identity: Materialism and Dualism:

The Materialist answer

The most obvious and simple answer to the question of identity is the Materialistic one: that a person is nothing more than the sum of his or her total chemical composition. A bunch of atoms arranged in a certain way make up all of Captain Kirk. And as long as that particular arrangement of atoms is preserved, Kirk remains Kirk all throughout the beaming process.

An often cited deficiency of this answer is that the human body is a constantly changing machine. In 5 years your cells may look different than they do now, your atoms might have been replaced by other atoms, in different concentration and bonding patterns. That certainly doesn’t change your identity, even though your chemistry has changed. The Ship of Theseus is a well-known thought experiment that addresses this problem.

An excellent video explaining the Ship of Theseus paradox (and more):

Nevertheless, those changes happen slowly over time, and from moment to moment we are more-or-less the same. In the context of the transporter, that doesn’t matter so much. If the transporting process takes only a couple of seconds, then we may disregard the Ship of Theseus paradox.

A more problematic concern arises when considering that under the materialistic definition of identity, there’s no difference between two identical clones (duplicated to atomic resolution). Though physically identical, it doesn’t seem right to consider the two clones as the ‘same person.’ A copy is a copy. For example, if I clone Captain Kirk to produce an identical copy, say ‘Kirk-2,’ and then kill the original Kirk leaving only Kirk-2 alive, it would be ridiculous to make the claim that Captain Kirk is still alive. The clone is alive, no doubt. Kirk-2 looks exactly like Captain Kirk, shares the same DNA, the same memories – artificial though they may be. Yet Kirk-2 is not Kirk.

So, how does this fit within the context of the transporter?  In few episodes of Star Trek we’ve seen the transporter capable of creating copies (e.g. Second Chances). This inclines to question if anyone that comes out on the other is a not copy of the disintegrated original. In that case, the transporter is indeed a death-and-cloning machine.

Considering a more charitable alternative where the transported crew member is not a clone, but matter converted to energy and then back to matter, the outcome hardly looks any better. Under the materialistic definition of identity, the initial chemical composition that made up the transporter crew member was disintegrated. For the couple of seconds that matter exists as energy, its continuity is disrupted.

Can we consider the newly re-assembled matter as the same human being?  Or is our concept of continuity misguided?

The Cartesian viewpoint

One way to circumvent around the issues arising from the materialistic perspective is to consider Cartesian Dualism. This view considers the universe – and as a consequence, humans – composed of two kinds of substance, the material (i.e. the Body) and the immaterial (i.e. the Mind). One can think of the Cartesian ‘Mind’ similar to the concept of the ‘Soul,’ present in many religions, though one doesn’t have to. Mind-body dualism can exist independent of religion (although it is hard to divorce this idea entirely of its spiritual connotations).

Of course, for the scientifically inclined dualism sounds completely implausible, as only the material world is directly measurable by science.  But a lot of philosophers since the time of Rene Descartes have subscribed to this idea. The indeterminacy and the observer effects associated with Quantum Theory have even made some scientists reconsider dualism as a viable theory.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this.

If we accept dualism as a valid worldview, then we may equally accept that a person’s identity lies in their mental state rather than in their physical state; i.e. in their Mind rather than their Body.  That is to say a person is their Mind. This casts the transporter device under a different light. If the essence of you is the Mind, then what happens to the Body becomes irrelevant. Let it be manipulated, transformed, copied, disintegrated, dematerialized, twisted, or torn to pieces. As long as the transporter preserves the Mind, then we may confidently say that it also preserves the person’s identity. How exactly the transporter handles the Mind, we don’t know – we can’t even begin to fathom since one is physical and the other is not – but that’s science-fiction for you.

But is this semi-spiritual explanation valid for the secular world of Star Trek (I suppose you’d have to exclude DS9)?

In many occasions Star Trek has given indications of embracing Mind-Body Dualism.  The abundant presence of “non-corporeal beings” and “telepathic abilities” in the Star Trek universe could suggest the works of a non-physical mind (although these phenomena may also be justified through material science).   Another example is The Traveler, a character introduced in the first season of The Next Generation. The Traveler has the extraordinary ability to mold time and space with the power of his  thought, claiming that “space, time, and thought are the same thing.” We could interpret this two ways: 1) that thought is part of the physical universe, just as space and time are, or 2) that the universe is the harmonious conjunction of the physical (space and time) and the non-physical (thought).

Moreover, in an article published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, “Souls, the Final Frontier: Human Intuitions of Mind in Star Trek(Vol 28, pg 81), author William Simpson analyzes the ways in which the religious concept of the “soul” is present in franchise. He claims that “various Star Trek series both explicitly and implicitly utilize the religiously resonant concept of the soul.”

Turnabout intruder switch
In the TOS finale, “Turnabout Intruder,” Kirk and a female character switch bodies.

Still, this approach is not without its hiccups. Cartesian Dualism gives a convenient philosophical way out of the transporter as death-and-cloning machine, but the theory itself is riddled with problems which philosophers have recognized over the years. For example, no satisfying explanation exists about how the substances (the material and the immaterial) interact with each others. Because they must. We know that our brain, which is physical, affects our thoughts, which are allegedly mental. The brain falls within the realm of physical science, and we can use science to understand it, but the mental is more elusive. In the context of Star Trek, the transporter must have a way to deal with the Mind, but the device itself is physical, designed to handle physical matter. Or have they figured a way to handle non-physical matter? Does the Mind just ‘tag along’ as the body is converted to Energy? We don’t know.

Conclusion

The topic is by no means exhausted. A ton of articles on the internet discuss the issue of the Star Trek transporter with varying scopes and conclusion, and I welcome you to check out some of them. Here, I wanted to focus not so much on the transporter technology as on the issue of identity itself within the context of the transporter. I’ve noticed that whenever one brings up the question of the transporter, they always assume an intuitive understanding of personal identity and instead jump directly into the question of technology and physics. I wanted to muddy the waters a bit. The transporter may work because it preserves our identity in a way that we didn’t expect, because we didn’t have a proper understanding of identity. We don’t, we may never will, and that’s why the Star Trek transporter may always remain a mystery to us.

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