I was reading this question and it got me thinking. When someone gets transported, the original form is destroyed and either recreated or recycled into a new copy of it upon arrival. However, philosophically speaking, the two copies are so indistinguishable as to be considered the same object/person. And, given the widespread use of transporter technology in Star Trek, it's obviously an argument that has been decided.

I know the subject was touched upon in a few episodes, but I want more. Has any Star Trek material — episode, novel, or even comic — discussed at depth the philosophical ramifications of (or differences between copies produced by) transporter technology?

Note: I already have the comic Star Trek: Forgiveness, which does touch upon the subject somewhat. However, no serious discussion was undertaken in that comic.

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    Aside from occasional comments from characters (especially in Enterprise), "Second Chances" is the closest thing I can think of, although I'm not sure that's exactly the kind of philosophical ramifications you were thinking of Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 19:24
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    Well, there's the entire episode where Riker's original doesn't get destroyed.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 19:56
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    @cde Whether transporters copy or not is not the question being asked here. There are other existing questions for that.
    – Schwern
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 1:59
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    See scifi.stackexchange.com/a/63351/16696 Canon (if you consider Enterprise canon) shows the in-universe creator of the transporter specifically state that the copy/destroy process is METAPHYSICAL NONSENSE
    – user16696
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 2:16
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    @cde If you would post an answer please, then it can be discussed better than this long comment thread on the question.
    – Schwern
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 2:30

4 Answers 4


The Voyager episode Tuvix deals with a transporter accident which combines the most annoying parts of Neelix and Tuvok into a single person called Tuvix. It deals with the ethical ramifications of having to kill Tuvix to restore Neelix and Tuvok. For once in Star Trek, there's no neat solution.

I'm going to go beyond the bounds of the question, beyond Star Trek, and reference the cryptically named New Outer Limits episode "Think Like A Dinosaur" which isn't about dinosaurs but the ethics of a matter transporter. Somebody happened to think dinosaur aliens would be cool. It takes a very literal interpretation that transporting is copying. You can watch it, it's not too bad. It's not Star Trek, but it directly tackles the issue.

The interstellar travel machine works by making an exact molecular copy of the travel called "jumper" at the place of destination, however the original human being is eliminated through incineration as to balance the equation. The transportation is aborted and Kamala [the transportee] is brought back to life before being incinerated, with a huge trauma for the pain and experience she went through. Later the Hanen says the molecular copy was succesful and orders Michael [the transporter operator] to balance the equation, which will mean killing Kamala.

Going beyond sci-fi, the ethical thought experiment associated with the transporter is The Swampman.

Suppose Davidson goes hiking in the swamp and is struck and killed by a lightning bolt. At the same time, nearby in the swamp another lightning bolt spontaneously rearranges a bunch of molecules such that, entirely by coincidence, they take on exactly the same form that Davidson's body had at the moment of his untimely death.

This being, whom Davidson terms "Swampman," has, of course, a brain which is structurally identical to that which Davidson had, and will thus, presumably, behave exactly as Davidson would have. He will walk out of the swamp, return to Davidson's office at Berkeley, and write the same essays he would have written; he will interact like an amicable person with all of Davidson's friends and family, and so forth.

Interestingly, this was proposed in 1987. Obviously Davidson was not a Star Trek fan. One camp holds that the creature which comes out of the swamp is not Davidson and has no causal relationship to Davidson, even if it acts indistinguishably from Davidson. It has no history, and is merely a coincidence.

The other camp says of course there's a relationship, the swampman was created based on Davidson's state at the time. If Davidson was different just before he was disintegrated, the swampman would be different. The idea that it's an extraordinarily improbable coincidence makes the thought experiment divorced from any useful reality.

Yet another camp says the whole thing relies on there being a mind/brain duality, the idea that "the mind" is distinct from the physical organ of the brain. They reject this and adhere to mind-brain identity, that you are a bag of chemicals and that's that. If the swampman is physically identical to Davidson, then it is Davidson.

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    See also the Hofstadter/Dennett-edited compilation of philosophy-of-mind articles The Mind's I for interesting further discussion of this topic. My own educated guess based on what I know of Gene Roddenberry is that TOS never addressed the question because he felt there wasn't one. As an avowed Secular Humanist he would have no doubt at all in the "bag of chemicals" explanation. The transporter moves your matter as energy, so it moves all of you; there's no soul to worry about. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 23:38
  • The swampman passes the Duck Test for Davidson. Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 2:30
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    The idea that a transporter could combine two people (of different species no less) into one person with a composite personality... That's soft science fiction even by Star Trek standards-- edging into Doctor Who territory.
    – Beta
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 4:04
  • @Beta It even merged their clothing designs ;p A pretty impressive orchid. Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 12:36
  • @Beta How dare you! Doctor Who never merged people in a transmat!
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 19:25

It's brought up in the novel Federation, when

Zephram Cochrane is beamed aboard the Enterprise after being rescued from his abductors

The man is initially confused how he got onboard the Enterprise, and is frustrated by the crewman who just keeps telling him he was 'transported'. He even guesses that the Enterprise may have used some secret military technology, which explains why the crewman is being so unhelpful in defining how he was transported.

Eventually the crewman realizes why the man is confused, and explains that the transporter is a matter-energy converter. The man reacts with shock, since he believes that he's now just a copy and the original is dead. The crewman uses some technobabble and explains how they tunnel the exact molecules from one place to another, and that they may have reassembled the man, but he's still the same man.

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    Although all the TV sources (and I think the encyclopaedia) about transporters indicate a very different mechanism to "tunneling"...
    – HorusKol
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 2:19
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    If that's how it works, then where did Thomas Riker come from?
    – KSmarts
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 15:01
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    @ksmarts the bag of convenient plot devices.
    – user16696
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 15:19

The philosophy of transportation is discussed at length in the very early (maybe the first?) tie-in novel Spock Must Die by James Blish. The plot revolves around an evil duplicate of Spock created by a transporter experiment.

Unfortunately my copy is 1500 miles away right now or I'd quote some. Here's some synopsis from Wikipedia:

Doctor Leonard McCoy and Engineer Montgomery Scott discuss McCoy's fear of the transporter. McCoy posits that an original person is killed upon dematerialization and a duplicate is created at the destination. Scotty explains that the technology converts matter into energy, transmits it and reassembles it into the same original object, but McCoy is not convinced and he wonders what happens to the soul in a transporter beam.


I cannot comment on Organic Marble's answer (not enough rep), but Spock Must Die! is the first instance I know of in Star Trek where they wonder about that, and indeed mentions the possibility of the soul and what happens to it.

Spock's answer (for what it's worth) is that the motive for the question is its own answer.

In actual canon material, in the episode "Second Chances" Riker ran into himself one day in the form of an unexpected transporter-generated duplicate, and the spare Riker was treated as just as much William Riker as the one whose adventures we'd been following, minus the advancement in rank.

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