In a couple blogs I follow – Self Aware Patterns, Scientia Salon – a thought experiment came up recently (in different contexts) concerning the old television show, Star Trek. In that series, it is common practice for crew members to ‘beam down’ from their star ship onto a planet via a ‘matter transporter.’ The experiment isn’t so experimental, it’s reall simply the question: Kirk steps into the transporter and apparently disintegrates, only to re-integrate on the planet’s surface; now, is the Kirk on the planet surface truly a continuance of the Kirk in the star ship, or has the starship Kirk perished, and his neurological patterns reconstructed in a reconstructed duplicate of the first Kirk’s brain?
Rather than exam that question and try to settle the matter, I thought it would be interesting to pursue a variant experiment, on the presumption that one of the Kirks actually changes his mind….
Star Trek: The Possible (Re)Generations: This week’s episode, “Too Many Kirks”
USS Enterprise, Captain’s Log, Stardate 252525.25: I am transporting down to the planet Doppelganger to convince the inventor of the transporter, Doctor Duplicity, to return to the Federation. Transporter systems throughout the Star Fleet have been going haywire at an alarming rate, leading to profound epistemological and metaphysical questions among the men, women, and – well, whatever those things from Gamma Nine are – who are committed to boldly go where no man or woman or whatever those things are from Gamma Nine have gone before. We must find the answers to these questions, or demonstrate that propositions concerning them are nonsense.
James T. Kirk stepped onto the transporter platform. “Is the rest of the team already on the planet, Ensign?”
Ensign Chekov responded in Russian; he had been speaking exclusively in Russian since the last time he had been transported aboard the Enterprise, apparently no longer able to speak English. Brain scans had revealed that the cells in his brain that had allowed him to do so had been replaced by a first edition of the Brothers Karamazov. Another failing of the transporter! But Kirk had faith in the capacity of modern technology to modify text uploads correctively.
“I’ll take that in the affirmative, Ensign. Very well; energize.”
The hum of machinery surged; Kirk felt himself coming apart, atom by atom – “Something’s gone wrong – stop!” But it was too late. It suddenly occurred to him that he was dying; it was the last thought he ever had….
James T. Kirk stepped off the transporter platform on the planet Doppelganger. Everything seemed to be the same as it ever was, but somehow he felt, well, discombobulated, as though every cell in his body was vibrating to some rhythm he had never known before. He was a great fan of classic rock, but this felt like death metal! Nonetheless, he pulled himself together to walk up to the old man in the white lab-coat, Doctor Duplicity, and held out his hand. The Doctor demurred. “I never shake hands – I stir them. Won’t you step into my parlor?”
But Kirk was in a confrontational mood. “Doctor, you must return to the Federation! The transporter systems you designed for us – they’re all going wrong. Last week, Uhura beamed up with bigger breasts and grey hair! And Sulu has gone gay!”
Duplicity hung his head, “I was afraid of this. The programming of biological units can get very tricky, especially when new….”
Kirk grabbed him by the collar and shook him. “You MUST TELL me WHAT’s going ON HERE!”
Duplicity pushed him away. “Calm down! Gad, you remind me of that old ham actor, William Shatner! All right, I can’t hide the truth anymore. I was saving it for my memoirs, but giving it a plug here might boost sales. There never was a transporter system – material transport across space is impossible. What you call a transporter is actually… a cloning device. It beams a wave of quanta, reappearing as particles, programmed to combine into a clone of the original, including its neurological patterns.”
“And… the original?”
“Dead, of course. The biological theorists were right. But -” he held out a comforting hand to Kirk’s shoulder, “but don’t worry, son; you are just as much James T. Kirk as James T. Kirk ever was – before he was blasted into sub-atomic particles and died.”
But Kirk pulled away. He felt shrunken, weak, not quite himself…. Indeed, he didn’t know who he was anymore. A thousand thoughts spun about in his brain – memories he could no longer claim as his, values he no longer believed in – that vicious bloodhound he should have phasered at the poker game – dam’ dog won every pot. Oh, if only he had known!
But slowly, he pulled himself together and straightened up. Cool blue eyes stared with fierce determination at Doctor Duplicity.
“No,” he declared, “that can no longer be. I live, I am now – but I am not Kirk!”
A year later, Kirk James, as he now liked to be called, sat in his office, as administrator of the Doppelganger Hospital for Bewildered Clones, with his closest colleagues – nurse McCoy Bones (as he now liked to be called) and Doctor Spock Missy (as she now liked to be called).
“Gentleman -” he said, “and lady, first order of business – the Board of directors say we need to reduce cost in our Quantum-Level Brain Surgery Department. Any suggestions, Bones?”
“I’m a nurse not a doctor, dammit!” Bones retorted.
“Quite right.” He pressed the intercom. “Uhura, get Doctor Dammit on the line and tell him he has to come up with some way to cut costs in surgery this week -”
“Phone him yourself, you chauvinist pig!” Uhura’s voice snapped back. James winced. He had supported her involvement in radical feminism, but now she was sounding like a stereotype. Of course, possibly that was because there were two of her, now….
“Gentle man – and woman -” he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “now we must get on to the big project. As the new technology arrived?”
“Yes, it arrived safely yesterday,” Missy assured him.
“Yes – no transporter involved.”
“Good, good!” The machine in reference was the Singularizer. It had been developed by Professor Monotone at the University of Male Menopause on the planet Stigma. Purportedly, it used the genetic material of a clone to regenerate the body and being of the clone’s original, whole.
“Kirk, don’t you realize how dangerous this could be?” complained Bones, “We step in that box, we might not ever come out alive! Haven’t we tampered enough with the laws of nature?”
“Let nature get a lawyer, then. But I’m not going to my grave thinking that my existence depended on the death of James T. Kirk – one of Star Fleet’s finest commanding officers, even if he was a ham actor.”
“There is no logic to that,” Missy noted, “- that’s why I love you, James; I always have.”
“We’ll discuss that tonight if we survive.”
“Or our clones will, if we die,” Bones muttered.
“That’s a risk we’ll have to take. Is it it all set up, Missy?”
“In the basement behind the rubbish tips.”
“Good! Well, then,” he rose to his feet, “let’s boldly go where no clones have gone before!”
A year later, T. Jimmy Kirk, the new head of the Doppelganger Hospital for Bewildered Clones, was on his communicator with the engineer assigned to dismantling the wildly out-of-control Singularizer, which no longer needed any clone to enter its singularizer chamber – it was sending out singularizer beams across the planet. Except the singularizer beams didn’t singularize, they multiplied. “Have you yet tried everything you could think of, Scotty?”
“I’ve given her all I got! And me name’s not Scotty, it’s Irish.”
“Where the hell’s Scotty?!”
“I think he’s off getting a wee bit drunk.”
“Well, send Welshy off to look for him!” He slammed down the communicator and looked at his most trusted colleagues: Spock 1.1, Spock 1.2, Missy 3.0, Bones the Doctor, Bones the Nurse, Bones the Lab Technician and Bones the Janitor.
“Well, this is a fine how’d’ya’do.” he remarked in exasperation.
Spock 1.1, the literalist, held out his hand. “How do you do?”
Spock 1.2, with his suspicious mind, asked “how do I do what?”
Kirk glared at them. “I seem to recall one of my previous selves telling one of your previous selves that he needed you. He was wrong. You! Bones the Lab Technician!’
Bones scowled. “I’m a doctor, not a lab technician, dammit!”
“Then you -”
Another Bones scowled. “I’m a nurse, not a lab technician Jimmy!”
“Oh, well, then you -”
“Go down and give Irish a hand.”
“But I’ve only got two – which one?”
Bones left. But another bones piped up: “Uh, Jimmy, that was the Janitor. He lost a few neurons in the last cloning. I’m the Lab Tech.”
Kirk tore his hair. “Will you go down there and -”
“No,” Bones the Lab Technician replied, “I’ve decided to spend the rest of my days reading poetry.” And he pulled out a volume of Wordsworth.
A fuzzy haired Englishman in a floppy hat and multicolored scarf suddenly appeared in the doorway. “I think I have a solution to you’re multiplicity, Kirk – just regenerate into Captain Picard.” He popped out again.
“What the -?!”
Nurse Bones assured Kirk, “He’s the doctor who -”
“That’s another universe!” He sank his head into his hands and wept.
A knock on the door sobered him up. “Come in!” he and his colleagues sang out in harmony.
It was one of the now many Doctor Duplicitys, a data-spread in hand. “Kirk, I’ve made an analysis; at the rate the Singularizer is multiplying all those on the planet Doppelganger, as well duplications resulting from transporter failures across the Federation, well … let’s just say that every planet in the known universe will have a billion members of the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise – alone – in about 6.7 years.”
There was silence – interrupted by the communicator buzzing. Kirk listened to it on ‘private’ mode, then responded, “Yes, Mrs. Kirk, I’ll be home by dinner.” He flipped it off.
“You married your own clone?” Duplicity asked dubiously.
“She had an operation.” Kirk rose from his desk and went to the window. The square mile plaza before the Hospital was filled with various Kirks, McCoys, Spocks, Duplicitys, Uhuras, Sulus, etc., etc., etc., all wondering exactly who they were, and what their geneology actually amounted to. He contemplated the unspeakable – multicide – the elimination of all clones – as the only way of preserving the integrity of the universe. This universe, anyway. “There’s only one solution,” he murmured. “I’ve heard of a weapon of total destruction -”
“Good heavens,” cried Duplicity, “Not the Next Big Bang Device!”
Kirk turned slowly to face him – or at least the ‘him’ that was in the room at the time. “Yes, I mean -”
The door flew open. “Wait!” a voice rang out. There, standing before them was a man appearing, in all identifiable ways, even upon closest inspection, to be none other James T. Kirk.
“Who are you?” suspiciously minded Spock 1.2 demanded.
“I am – the original James T. Kirk.”
“You must be joking,” Jimmy Kirk quipped.
“I don’t know anybody named Joe King. I am James T. Kirk. You see, the Star Ship transporters always needed to retain at least one quantum particle from the original in order to perfect its cloning duplication; and the Singularizer has been producing clones to the number that every clone has at least one quantum particle from the original. There are now enough Kirk clones in the universe, such that, by borrowing a quantum particle from each of you -”
Jimmy Kirk winced as a nose hair pulled itself free and flew up the professed James T. Kirk’s nose – “Ouch!”
“Yes, there it is, the last particle; I am now complete, fully reconstituted in my original form.” He stepped to the window to look out over the multitude of suffering humanity. And in this form, I can lead you all, to the next level of higher consciousness in the ground of being -” He threw open the window, clearly prepared to minister to the masses with a sermon.
Jimmy Kirk narrowed his eyes – Spock 1.2 wasn’t the only one there with a suspicious mind. “Wait!” he demanded. James T. Kirk turned toward him. Jimmy smirked, and asked, “And, what is your favorite color?”
James T. Kirk’s face reddened and his eyes danced while his brain searched itself for answers. “I… I don’t know!” he admitted. His particles blasted into nothingness.
“Well,” said Jimmy, “another would-be messiah bites the dust.”
(But in fact he was the original James T. Kirk; he just couldn’t remember his favorite color.)
Jimmy sighed. “That leaves us no other recourse. To save the universe from ourselves, I fear we must destroy -”
His communicator buzzed.
“Nay, this be Scotty!” It must be, thought Jimmy – he sounded totally sloshed.
“Report, Engineer Scotty 2000!”
“It’s all over, the Singularizer is nay-more!”
Everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief. “Scotty!” Jimmy cried jubilantly,” I knew you could do it, you old toolie -!”
“T’warn’t me, Jimmy! T’war Bones the Janitor! He pulled the plug from the wall-socket.”
Jimmy slowly closed the lid on his communicator. There was still all those millions, trying to establish identities for themselves. Not to mention the Social Security numbers, and the IRS forms needing done by April 14…. But the universe was saved.
Still, he felt the ponderous weight of being the replacement for someone other than himself, the terrifying sense of being somehow, well, mediocre.
He turned to his colleagues to note:
“Ever get the sense you’re a character in a really bad B-Movie?”
Next Week, on Star Trek:
“Captain, I’m trapped in a Chinese room! And I don’t speak Chinese!”
“Don’t worry, Chekov, we’ll slip symbols under the door, eventually you can pretend to learn the language!”
“You’re turning me into a failed Turing machine!”
“Chekov – we – are – now – Borg – you – will – join – the – hive -”
– On the next exciting episode of Star Trek, the Possible (Re)Generations!
– This is a public service announcement – Friends, if you have work to do around the house, the P-Zombie Agency has millions of unemployed dead –
– Alice, can’t we get anything decent on TV these days?
– Ralph, I told ya, let’s go bowling! It may be more expensive, but at least we’ll meet some interesting philosophers there!