Audiences of the movie Avatar are asked to accept that, by means of a vaguely-described technology, Jake Sully’s mind is transferred into the body of a blue-skinned, nine-foot native of the moon Pandora. And they do accept it, with ease – even I, who consider myself attuned to issues of personal identity, bought the story without thinking about its strangeness until later.
The strange thing is that it’s not strange. We have no trouble at all accepting that the able-bodied Pandoran is the paraplegic Marine. Why? Because the personality, memories, desires, and so on, of the human are transferred to the Pandoran. There is no physical connection between the man, motionless in a pod, and the alien who is learning Pandoran ways; the two are linked only by the flow of information. The fact that this does not bewilder viewers is strong evidence that they – we – regard this psychological connection as identity. We follow Jake through interleaved episodes as human and Na’vi, convinced that it is one person’s story.
The movie can be seen as a giant psychological experiment on its audience, who might have reacted differently. (more…)