The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Monday, March 7, 2016

Star Trek transporters aren't suicide machines

I really like the YouTube channel CGP Grey. But his latest video The Trouble with Transporters contains some rather serious philosophical and metaphysical mistakes.

The thesis of the video is that the Star Trek transporter technology is a silent holocaust (1:45).
"...your experience of stepping into the transporter will be a funny sound, a bright light, then nothingness eternal, while down on the planet a brand new life complete with all your memories up to the moment before your death popped into existence..." (1:20)
This description is some combination of scientifically false and philosophically bankrupt.

The video seems to be asking us to accept metaphysical Dualism in which consciousness cannot be fully explained as the result of processes in the body and in particular the brain. There is not one shred of scientific evidence to support metaphysical Dualism. There is a mountain of evidence to the contrary. That mountain is called "neurology".

Dualism comes from a pre-scientific time and originates in the religious idea of an immortal soul. It's falsehood is the consensus view in all relevant sciences (neurology, psychology, philosophy, etc.). It is a supernatural proposition and so by definition irreconcilable with the scientific method.

The video grants that the transported body experiences no discontinuity in biological activity. Not in any tissue or organ. Since the brain is an organ, it too experiences no discontinuity in its function. Since consciousness is nothing more than a description of part of the the function of the human brain, the transported person experiences no discontinuity in consciousness.

It's really that simple.

And we don't even need fictional technology to see this in action. Our body is made of cells, which in turn are made of atoms, and on down until you get to the particles from the Standard Model. In particular, the matter particles i.e. quarks and leptons. (Yes, here comes the requisite physics.)

Even these fundamental particles aren't permanent objects.

Matter is not made of permanent objects having unique identities.

For example, there's no unique history of a particular electron. Electrons are fungible excitation in the electron field. In Quantum Mechanics, we predict the behavior of particles according to laws which include consideration for an infinite number of interactions which would create and destroy the particle in question from one moment to the next.

There is quite simply no philosophical justification for the absolute persistence of any physical object given appreciation for this lesson from the study of matter at the smallest scale. So there is no justification to say that I am absolutely persistent as a physical entity, just sitting in my chair.

The Star Trek transporter is an unnecessary addition to the thought experiment because modern physics already forces us to confront the exact problem this video raises.

But the video brings up the "problem of consciousness" and insists there's something "unmeasurably different" between the pre-transport and post-transport copies of a person (3:46). Now, there is something importantly different. Location in space! But that's entirely measurable. And it suffices to describe everything different about the histories of the pre-transport and post-transport person as physical objects. The problem of consciousness never enters into it.

The video even goes so far as to call the transporter a "suicide box" (3:33) which it obviously is not. Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Death is the end of the life of a person. The life of someone who goes through the transporter does not end. Sure, transporter errors can cause their life to end. So can car rides.

Star Trek transporter errors can also apparently duplicate a person. This raises interesting questions, like which is the "real" person, but even then nobody dies. So no one committed suicide. So it's not a suicide box. Tom Riker wasn't forced to commit suicide.

Finally, and most ridiculously, the video claims it's "impossible to know" whether you are the same person as the person who you were when you went to bed least night (5:00). This is some combination of false and bullshit because all healthy people act as if they are the same person day to day, and treat others the same way. Any definition of personhood that claims otherwise is inconsistent with reality and therefore a complete and total bullshit.

Redefining words to fit an otherwise comically false narrative is classic pseudophilosophy. I never expected such poor content from this otherwise great channel.


  1. Could be worse. You might get merged with a fly.

  2. Consider this: you walk into the transporter machine, it duplicates your exact state of matter into another position in space (and malfunctions by not erasing your original state of matter). What do YOU experience? Just walking into the machine and nothing happening, right? Then the machine realizes that it forgot to erase the original state of matter and kills you. Eternal darkness follows...

    1. Kjan, we know that eternal darkness doesn't follow because we know that your perception of light and dark are the result of neuronal firings in the optic nerve, which has not disappeared from the universe. It's been moved from one place to another.

    2. As I've argued it's philosophically bankrupt to allow for my optic nerve to continue to be my optic nerve so long as it's only natural, physical processes which destroy and rebuild it from moment to moment (quantum interactions, biological processes, etc.) but to disallow for my optic nerve to continue to be my optic nerve when a technological process does essentially the same thing.