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CGP Grey’s STAR TREK Video Asks Philosophical Questions About the Transporter

In the above video, entitled “The Trouble with Transporters,” educator and entertainer CGP Grey discusses the philosophical questions that using a Star Trek transporter poses. They are so profound they would even leave Captain Picard scratching his incredibly smooth and shiny cranium.

For those unfamiliar with the Star Trek transporter, it’s a machine that allows people in the Trek universe to dematerialize from one location, “energize” (be turned into energy), and then rematerialize in another location. Grey describes it in more detail, saying that “first, the transporter scans you down to the quark, [then] takes apart your atoms, and [then] sends the pieces of you to the destination for reassembly…”

And while transporters are definitely great for ease of travel, as well as getting folks out of some real hot Earl Grey tea in a moment’s notice, they do pose the question: If you’re broken down into pieces in one spot, and then rebuilt somewhere else, are you still you, or are you a different you? In other words, even if we accept the idea that transporters could tear down and rebuild a person’s exact physicality, could they also tear down and rebuild the exact same consciousness? Or would the physical you be rebuilt, resulting in a consciousness that, while still possessing all your memories and feelings, would be totally new?

To further complicate matters, Grey says that breaking down and transporting a person’s same atoms is the “optimistic version” of the transporter, and can’t be how it really works, because sometimes people who use transporters are either divided or combined. This leads to the idea of turning you entirely into energy, and then using that energy to rebuild you somewhere else, in which case you’d be rebuilt with the same blueprint, but totally new atoms. Again, would this be you? Could you be rebuilt with different, and yet simultaneously identical, parts?

The deep philosophical questions that the Trek transporter forces us to ask about ourselves is especially interesting considering the fact that in a very real way, everybody already deals with this problem; everybody’s bodily cells are replaced roughly every seven to 10 years after all. We also have breaks in our consciousness—like the breaks proposed by the transporters—when we’re knocked out with anesthesia or even when we go to sleep every night.

So is the you of now the same you you were 10 years ago? Will you be the same you 10 years in the future? And most importantly, were Riker and Troi friends with benefits, or more of an on-again off-again thing? These are some seriously profound questions. And now you—whoever that is—will have them stuck in your consciousness for quite sometime.

Welcome to the world of Star Trek.

What do you think about CGP Grey’s take on the transporter problem? Check out our Because Science breakdown of the transporter problem below for comparison, and then let us know!

Images: CGP Grey

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