Is the Transporter a Murder Machine: The Transporter, John Locke & Personal Identity

The transporter has been part of Star Trek since the filming of the first pilot, The Cage, in 1967.  Originally the transporter was created as a cost saving device since it eliminated the need for costly effects shots of shuttlecraft taking off and landing. In the nearly sixty years since, there has hardly been an episode of the show in which the transporter does not play a role, and in some cases, a significant plot device.

Most characters are ambivalent toward the device, using it time and again without a second thought.  A few characters dislike, or even fear, the transporter.  Dr. McCoy gripes about having “his atoms scrambled and unscrambled by some computer”.  In an early appearance on the TNG Lt. Reginald Barclay admits to having gone to great lengths to avoid using the transporter for fear he may never re-materialize.

Barclay’s fear is that at the end of the transporting process nothing will materialize and thus he will have been killed.  This happens a few times throughout the show, but we are given to believe it is a rare occurrence.  But is not the only kind of fear of never rematerializing one might have.  Some have argued that the transporter is not a super-fast form of transportation, but rather a murder machine.  Every time someone gets into the transporter they are killed and a new person materializes on the other end; a person who began his existence at the moment of materialization, whose “memories” of the past are merely copies of the memories of the now deceased traveler dematerialized on the transporter pad.  No one survives transport.  You are killed and a copy of you is made, and you are not the same thing as a copy; if you are, than a forgery of a great work of art is the same things as the original.  Despite the seriousness of this concern it is never addressed on screen.

Well, technically this isn’t true.  In episode Daedalus, the inventor of the transporter, Emory Erickson, mentions this concern but it is literally dismissed by literal hand waving and calling such concerns “metaphysical chatter”.  Far from being a wave-offable nonsense, the Star Trek transporter does raise interesting questions about the identity of persons over time.  Questions concerning identity are discussed throughout Star Trek, just not in ways that involve the transporter. Here we will look at John Locke’s theory of personal identity and see what it tells us about our prospects for surviving the transporter.

To say some thing or person is “the same” is simple enough to understand, but there is an ambiguity that needs to be addressed: When we say something is “the same” as something else it could mean two things:

Qualitatively the Same: there are two (or more) objects that have similar or identical properties. In the case of a work of art and its forgery these objects are the same in terms of size, shape, texture and the like, but have different histories and separate special existences (i.e., they don’t take up the same space, at the same time).


Quantitatively the Same: It is a singular ting that is itself at any time and place.  Such is the case with Spock’s pet Sehlat, I-chaya.  Young Spock tells us I-chaya is now very old, having once belonged to his father, Sarek.  I-chaya (Yesteryear) is the same living being now as she was in the past.

The worry about identity and the transporter is not over the qualitative identity of the person.  The person at the start of the transport is qualitatively the same as the person at the end.  They have the same physical features, they would be recognized by others that knew him and he would report being the same person.  The worry is about the quantitative identity of the person.  Did the person on the pad die and a different person with the same qualities appear elsewhere?   Unless otherwise stated when I say ‘same’ from this point on, I am referring to quantitative identity.

Locke gives three criteria for identity:

  1. When we see one thing we know it is that thing and not something else.
  2. Two things cannot be at the same place at the same time.
  3. One thing cannot have two beginnings, nor two things one beginning.

The first two are simple ideas, not stated very simply.  The first criteria is that we know a thing, at a time and place, is itself.  A thing has only one quantitative identity.  The second says something similar.  At any time and place there can be only one thing.  Neither of these criteria is worrisome regarding the transporter.

It’s the third that is the problem.  The first clause says that everything that exists has a beginning.  A unique beginning.  When that thing came to exist, it came to exist at a particular time and space and nothing else came to exist at that same time and space.  The second clause says that a singular thing cannot come into existence twice.  My house might burn down and be rebuilt to the same exact specifications (flaws and all) but my house ceased to exist when it burned down and what is in its place in the future is qualitatively identical, but not the numerically same house (more on this coming in a future essay about the Enterprise pre and post refit).

At the start of the transporter process a conscious, physically whole and intact person steps onto the platform.  His body is scanned (apparently at a quantum level somehow) after which it is broken down at an atomic or subatomic level.  That matter is beamed to another location where the matter is reassembled according to the information gathered from the quantum scan.  Voila! The person on the pad is now elsewhere continuing his or her life as if nothing has changed; near lightspeed travel, no baggage check required.

But where was the person in the time between being broken down and reassembled?  To say a person survives the transporter we need to address a logical implication of Locke’s third criteria: identity over time must be continuous and without interruption.  A thing cannot exist, cease to exist, and come to exist again.  Didn’t the transporter kill Spock, Picard, Data, Archer, et al. as soon as they were reduced to atoms and quanta elements?

If I throw Spock into a giant industrial blender and give it a spin, Spock would be reduced to a green slurry of Vulcan mush, and we have a word for that: dead.  Spock would be dead.  If this is the case, how is the transporter any different? 

“Of course, it’s different” you might say, “after the transport there isn’t dead body on Cestus III or Starbase 12.  There is a living breathing person.  No one has “died”.

This is partially correct.  There is a living, breathing person planet-side, but nonetheless, someone did die.  The transport process starts with one person and ends with another; the first one having been killed.   A person is more than the matter that makes up his body, but just having that matter is not enough; the matter has to be put together in the right way.  The above puree of Spock is made of all the same matter that the person Spock was made of, but sameness of matter does not make puree of Spock, Spock.  Spock ceased to be once his matter was scrambled like a spinach smoothie. Given this, consider the following argument:

P1- Living persons are made of matter.

P2- If that matter is not configured in the right way, the person will not exist.

P3- The transporter reduces a target (in this case a living person) to constituent matter.

P4- Being reduced to constituent matter is not configuration that allows the person to continue to exist

Conclusion- A person dies during the transporter process.

“But still,” one may object, “what about the person at the end of the transporter process?  Isn’t he or she the same person despite having been reduced to atoms mere moments before?”

The person at the end of transport is a quantitatively different person, else we violate Locke’s third criteria.  If he is the same person, then he existed when he got on the transporter pad (an existence that began sometime in the past) , ceased to exist when he was reduced to atoms and quanta, and existed again when he was reassembled.  Meaning, this one person had two beginnings. What Locke would say of the person at the end of the process is that he is a numerically distinct person.  Though he seems to recall past events, these did not actually happen to him.  He has only existed for mere moments, and when he beams up to the ship he will cease to exist and another person will be created with qualitatively identical, though false memories.

The transporter is an integral part of the Star Trek universe.  How many stories and plot points would not exist, or at least be quite different, without it is hard to say.  However, from the standpoint of at least one 17th-century British philosopher, the transporter is perhaps nothing more than a high-tech murder machine.  But then again, 20th-century philosopher Derek Parfit once argued that though the transporter may murder you, perhaps it is as good (or bad) as ordinary survival.

Important Episodes

ENT- Daedalus, or just pick literally almost any episode and the transporter is likely used at some point.

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