Phantom Self at the movies – Avatar

Phantom Self at the moviesAudiences 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.  They might have considered the lives of Jake the Marine and Jake the Pandoran to be two different lives.  Although a technological link makes the Pandoran into a psychological clone of the human, and also gives the human ‘memories’ of the Pandoran’s experiences, there is a difference between a copy and the original.   When a plastic surgeon makes an Elvis imitator looks just like Elvis, we don’t say the imitator is Elvis.  If the audience thought that way, they would regard Jake the human and Jake the Pandoran as two different people – the latter a hero, the former a disadvantaged, passive, somewhat corruptible minor character.  That is how they should think if people are identical to their biological organisms. The movie makes clear that there are two biological organisms, one fully human and one (mostly) Pandoran, which exist in different places at the same time.

The fact that audiences overwhelmingly do not react this way tells us something important about the ordinary concept of a person.  It tells us that we are not biological organisms, but informational entities that can be copied from one organism to another.

One Response to “Phantom Self at the movies – Avatar”

  1. Bravin Neff says:

    I like your site. The Matrix is another movie example with a similar theme of teletransporting personal identity, albeit into the virtual world.

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