Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I learn everything from Star Trek

I recently had a fun discussion with some philosophy students about personal identity and the deeply held (but perhaps incorrect) intuition that spatio-temporal continuity is relevant to conditions for persistence.

I find that pop culture, especially of the science fiction variety, is such a wonderful cultural-encylopedia of reference for testing our intuition pumps. I mean, what else is pop culture but a seedbed of thought experiments?

I asked them if they ever feel robbed when watching Star Trek.

What I mean is this. Whenever someone goes through the miraculous transporter (e.g., convert Spock into energy pattern and re-materialize/re-realize in another location a few moments later), very rarely do viewers, philosophical or otherwise, experience a bait-and-switch in view of the spatio-temporal discontinuity. Rarely do we say to ourselves, “Geesh, that’s not Spock,” simply in virtue of the transporter-process.

I’m sure that this doesn’t cut that much ice in terms of the actual arguments about personal identity, persistence, and spatio-temporal continuity.

It does show, however, that deeply held intuitions may vary not just from one person’s mindset to that of another but from context to context in the very same person’s mindset. Possible lesson: metaphysical intuitions might be about as good as hunches or prejudices.

Letting go of the spatio-temporal continuity hunch in the discussion about personal identity invites all sorts of puzzles about personal identity, but not any genuinely new ones that don’t already exist.

The advantage for those who are both religiously inclined and physicalist (i.e., no such things as immaterial souls) about the nature of human persons is that this (i.e., letting go of the intuition in question) carves some conceptual space for still holding to a traditional Christian doctrine of resurrection, sans immateriality. After all, if spatio-temporal continuity is overrated, it doesn’t matter whether the discontinuity lasts a micron or an aeon.
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