Unreal Nature

August 30, 2013

In Your Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:39 am

… you don’t feel as though you have died while a likeness of you has been put in your place.

This is from the essay ‘Personal Identity’ by Deborah Knight found in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film edited by Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga (2009):

… In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit asks you to imagine the following: You have a meeting on Mars, and one way of making it on time is to go by teletransporter. You have never been teletransported before, but those close to you who have been teletransported before assure you that everything will be fine, so you decide to go ahead. The teletransporter works in the following way: when you enter it, you press a button and fall immediately unconscious. A scanner records everything physical about you down to the exact nature of each of your cells, and then it destroys you. The information it has recorded is sent to Mars (“at the speed of light,” as Parfit nicely notes). On Mars, a replicator produces a new version of you from entirely new material. When you wake up on Mars — or when the replica of you wakes up on Mars — you, or more precisely your replica, can detect nothing out of the ordinary about your body and remembers everything that you would have remembered up until pressing the button in the teletransporter. Your situation is thus rather like that of Captain Kirk when he asks Scotty to beam him up. Perhaps the flow of the narrative in Star Trek prevents us from asking a main question about the use of the Enterprise‘s transporter, something highlighted by Parfit. In Kirk’s case, he tells Scotty to beam him up, and seconds later he emerges from the Enterprise‘s transporter. It all appears so seamless in Star Trek that we might be forgiven for overlooking the fact that, in one sense, Kirk has been destroyed and replicated. If you pressed the button in Parfit’s teletransporter and put the scanner to work, you would be destroyed, and later, on Mars, a different individual would be created.

Parfit’s point is that although you have been destroyed, both body and brain, this experience somehow manages to go unrecognized. Your replica wakes up on Mars, and your replica’s experience seems to be your continuing experience. But the “you” on Mars is in an important sense not you. It is a perfect duplicate, to be sure, but a different individual. Nevertheless, in Parfit’s thought experiment, you don’t feel as though you have died while a likeness of you has been put in your place. In this version of teletransportation, things are experienced as seamlessly as they are when we watch Kirk arrive back on the Enterprise. Because, as Parfit notes, you (on Earth) “do not co-exist with [your] replica,” it is “easier to believe that this is a way of travelling.” But Parfit offers another version of teletransportation to tweak your intuitions. He asks you to imagine that the technology of teletransportation changes so that after you press the button on Earth, everything else goes as before, except you are not destroyed. Rather, you wake up in the same teletransporter where you last recall pressing the button, while your replica wakes up on Mars. You learn that you will die very shortly, and that your replica will continue on in your place. But for a short period, you and your replica will coexist as distinct individuals.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] You might even talk to your replica, or see your replica by means of a video telephone call. Parfit’s question, the point of the thought experiment, is this: In this second scenario, should you (the one on Earth) care that you are about to die and that you will be survived by a replica who is both physically and psychologically a perfect copy of you? In a bold move, Parfit will argue that having a replica is “about as good as ordinary survival,” in other words, that we should not look at your situation on Earth as “almost as bad as ordinary death.” Personal identity, for philosophers who subscribe to this notion — which David Hume notoriously did not — is for Parfit of considerably less importance than survival, and on both versions of the teletransporter thought experiment, Parfit argues, you survive. True, you survive as your replica, but aside from the fact that on the second scenario you do not have the subjective experiences your replica enjoys during those few days when you both exist, what matters about you continues with your replica, and Parfit argues that this sort of survival should be good enough.

The teletransporter thought experiment vividly illustrates a problem that can be easily overlooked by those caught up in the narrative flow of Star Trek. Certain films, by contrast, draw our attention to just the sorts of issues that can otherwise be developed by means of philosophical thought experiment. Just what is the relationship between narrative fictions of the sort we find in fiction films and the sorts of philosophical thought experiment that proliferate in the philosophical study of personal identity?

How can you know what it is to “feel as though you’ve died”?

Parfit’s teletransporter is different from the Star Trek process. In the latter, one is given to believe that the ‘matter’ of the person is somehow transported along with his ‘person-hood’ ( = life force, memory, identity). There is no body left behind; no death. If, in Star Trek, they ever showed a dead body anywhere in the process, I guarantee you it would not be overlooked.

The other theories of personal identity that Knight discusses in this essay (those of Locke, Hume, and Dennett) seem to me to go to mistake an effect for a cause/source. They claim that identity is a story or stories that we weave about ourselves, with no solid (necessary) foundation. However, who is it that does the weaving (or in Locke’s case, the remembering/ not remembering)? Identity seems to me to belong to the author, whatever the tales he does or does not make or remember.

Knight ends her essay with this:

… Cinema restricts access to first-person experiences; so, at best, filmic examinations let us see how personal-identity issues might look from a third-person point of view. Perhaps we should adopt the idea that, whatever we are talking about when we talk about personal identity, it cannot be something answered, as it were, entirely from the inside, but needs outside corroboration. If this is right, then films that closely track central characters can help us to understand the enigma of personal identity.

I can’t see any need or even possibility of “outside corroboration,” though I agree that film does help us investigate, observe, think about, the nature of our own personal identity from other perspectives. Though I disagree with Parfit’s theories, I’ve greatly enjoyed his thought experiment. For me, personal identity is the “first-person” as source; that is identity. Personal identity is where “here” is. First person singular. It is the owner of the first person singular. Whether I may be copied once or multiple times, there’s still going to be only one “here” and one first-person singular that is mine.

My most recent previous post from this collection is here.



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