The Ultimate Technological Sublime

Gabriel Furmuzachi


We are interested here in a short philosophical analysis of teleportation which, we consider, constitutes the ultimate greatness of technology. The teleportation experiment is used in philosophy usually in connection with discussions about identity: for example, if the person who leaves from point A is the same person who gets to point B. For some, teleportation is a key thought experiment; for others, it is only a strange way of dying. Assuming that one day it will become reality, we would like to think about it as another way of experiencing the feeling of sublime. The severe drama encountered in “nature’s fury” could very well be reproduced in the teleportation cabin. There are no spectacular views of the Alps there, of course, but there is a nerve-wrecking feeling knowing that you, as a person, are going to be annihilated for a few seconds and then (hopefully) brought up to life in a another place. There is always a small chance for the machine to go wrong and you might never be coming back. You might be literally end up as a ghost in the technological ravine.


teleportation, personal identity, sublime, technological sublime, moral law, Kant

Let us imagine a world in which traveling has become much speedier than it is now. Almost instantaneous. You just get inside a booth, choose your destination, press a button and… you’re there! Long gone are the months and years spent on the Grand Tour! It does seem very efficient and clean, doesn’t it? Well, you might be a bit surprised to find out that it is neither. Efficiency? Not really - it takes too much energy and time to make it at all practical. In a graduate physics project at the University of Leicester in 2012, a group of students estimated that, with the kind of technology we have at our disposal now, the amount of information required to process (per human being - based on the four possible DNA pairs combinations) would be 4.55x10⁴² bits and sending the information would take 4.85x10¹⁵ years (which would render the speed of transfer somehow negligible - it would take much longer than the age of the whole universe). Still, let’s say that future technology will come up with solutions in this regard. Clean? It’s actually messy. Very messy. When you press the button in the booth, each particle in your body is converted into energy, then sent through the space and reconstructed at the destination. It might sound harmless but how could one really survive being ripped apart, cell for cell, neuron for neuron and what guarantee does one really have that the final assembling work does not go wrong? How could it be that, at one point, you’d be both there and not there any longer, that your brain would be half alive and half already… something else? The other option is to have you scanned and processed as information which would then be sent to your chosen destination as you would send an email and there you’d be recreated, particle by particle from a gooey mass of carbon. The trouble is, if at all possible, this is an attempt only to record your mental and physical state. Your body would still be alive in the booth and it’d up to the technicians there to put you out and destroy whatever is left of you, because, you see… your body at the point of origin needs to disappear. Now think about this - in 2016 there were about 3.7 billion people on Earth who traveled by air. That will be a significant amount of bodies to disperse if teleportation would be accepted as a real means of transportation. In comparison, when it comes to a body count at least, the scare of a hydrogen bomb would easily fade away. Still, should we somehow, in a rather distant future, try to stop worrying and learn to love the teleportation bomb?

Philosophy, at least, loves teleportation. Philosophy and Hollywood. But we’ll stick with philosophy for now. One of the uses it finds in this experiment deals with issues of personal identity. Since there is no wide consensus with regard to what makes us who we are, there have been attempts at looking at our identity through the lens of technology, hoping to pinpoint that… something without which we’d lose our sense of who we are. As some philosophers see it, the problem of personal identity is a problem of continuity through time. Traditionally, the inquiry builds up on the mind-body split with two obvious possibilities - we need either physical or psychological continuity through time.

Derek Parfit, a British philosopher, suggested that we should look at teleportation as a way of surviving - i.e., “continue to live after or in spite of…”. His idea was to make an analogy between it and having artificial eyes (Parfit 1984, 205) since the processes involved in seeing and in personal surviving are relatively similar. In the case of seeing, what is required is a causal relation between stimuli and visual experience, but this relation can be underpinned by any causal mechanism - an artificial eye, for example, or an electrical stimulus produced by a computer, etc.). Similarly, in order for one to survive in teleportation there should be a psychological continuity between P at t1 and P at t2 and, since for Parfit psychological continuity does require causation, this relation of psychological continuity can also be supported by any causal mechanisms. In normal cases, this is supported by the persistence of the brain, but brain persistence is not needed - teleportation-like mechanisms will do just as well. Parfit’s idea was that if you split into two (half here and half there), then neither of the two resulting persons will be identical to you. Nevertheless, each of the resulting branches is a survivor of you. Survival is not as bad as death, and may be almost as good as identity. As Parfit puts it, survival does “matter”. What is surprising is that even if there can be bodily or psychological continuity through time, there are cases where it is still possible not to have personal identity through time. This puzzling conclusion has been formulated by Parfit under the title of Impersonality Thesis. The central claim of the Impersonality Thesis is that all reference to persons can be discarded in favor of reference to bodies and experiences: shortly put, reality can be completely and impersonally described. What Parfit has in mind is the fact that a person’s identity over time consists in holding certain, more particular facts. These facts can be described without either presupposing the identity of a person, or claiming explicitly that the experiences which a person has are had by “this particular person”, or even explicitly claiming that “this particular person exists”. Or, to put it in another way, although we can assume that persons exist, we could still manage to give a complete description of the world, without claiming that persons exist. In Parfit’s own words: “Even when we have no answer to a question about personal identity, we can know everything about what happens”. (Parfit 1984, 266) We can talk about our selves through time without having to assume identity. Instead we can think in terms of continuity and degrees of connectivity between our selves. Parfit’s endeavor shows that the idea of a dividing self is possible. If the division of the self is logically possible, then the continuity of the self through time should not be conceived as personal “identity”. The resulting “selves” of an original self would have a relation of continuity without identity joined to it. These selves would be survivors of the original self. Although being different from their ancestor, they would preserve their psychological continuity through time which would be a question of degree and not, as we would expect, of all-or-nothing. A descendant self could have a more or less continuity with its ancestral self, depending on the case. Thus, we do not have to suppose the fact that the self is an entity beyond its bodily and psychological continuity. We do not necessarily need to say that we are today identical with who we were when we were a child. We can make sense of the phenomenon of ageing (by which we feel only continuity in greater or lesser degree with our past selves) but not identity. We do not have, therefore, to be perplexed with the issue “Is my current self identical to my past self?” and we can easily answer - more or less…

The conclusion brought about by the teleportation experiment is that we actually do not need a self in order to be able to describe reality completely. There is no underlying core of permanence which we should discover and cultivate as the seat of our identity.

However, there is more that teleportation could do for philosophy. It could give us material to think about our relationship to technology and about the place human beings would have in a world dominated by trust in the machines. If it would become reality, should it be seen as an apotheosis of self-destruction in the name of technology? Can it go the other way and become our ticket to experience the feeling of sublime (albeit, technological) at the touch of a button? How would that work? What would we call sublime in this context? Perhaps we should go back to Kant (where else, actually?) in order to understand it. Kant thought that there are two different kinds of sublime experience - the mathematical and the dynamic sublime. The mathematical sublime is a purely reflexive observation: we realize how tiny we are on the scale of things, we understand that we are just a blip in the universe. The practical sublime is what we experience in the face of the forces of nature, when our instinct of self preservation is ringing alarm bells, when we go through an earthquake or see a volcano explode. With the development of technology in the 19th and 20th century, human beings tried somehow to get over the feeling of powerlessness in front of nature. As David Nye puts it, “the sublime of the Grand Canyon was replaced by the sublime of the factory, of aviation, of automobility, of war machinery and of the computer”. Slowly but surely we got to a place where the feeling of sublime was summoned not by the incapacity to grasp the immensity and grandeur of nature but by that of technology, since we are now so deep inside technology that we have created artificial environments and complicated structures outside of which we are not really able to survive any longer. While the beautiful has limitations (which makes it possible to be absorbed as such and put into categories), the sublime goes beyond any attempts at confinement. It is so overwhelming that it provokes a struggle between our reason and our imagination in which neither of them has what it takes to overcome it and bringing us in a state of continuous agitation. For Kant, the dynamical sublime had nothing to do with human purposiveness. As a human being, there is nothing one can do in front of a lava-spewing volcano. Technology, however, changed this. Modern warfare (a nuclear bomb is often used as an example), nano-bots, genetically modified organisms are slowly but surely taking nature’s place. Kant’s idea of sublime grew onto such feelings as fear and awe instilled in us by nature’s spectacle of power. But this is always accompanied by an understanding that we have the capacity to transcend nature, to look at its rawness and realize that we have something that goes beyond it, namely - that we can choose to become morally autonomous beings, that our reason gives us the freedom to do that. We experience the feeling of sublime as soon as we get to understand this. Through the feeling of sublime provoked by experiencing natural phenomena we have the chance to downgrade our existence as bodies, as physical beings in a physical world and to live up to our vocation as moral persons. The sublime is an “experiential component to the practice of morality” (Stroud, 2003) and it points out that there is a rift between the natural side of humanity (the phenomenon) and the rational side (which is autonomous). Kant thought that we should always strive to reach moral perfection, to always try to arrive at our decisions following the moral law, guided by our reason and not by our inclinations. Here we have something phenomenal that has the capacity to make us aware of the higher realm of morality.

“Calculation based methods can help bring such possibilities to light, whereas the experience-based methods involved in aesthetic experience of the the sublime can help the agent realize the veracity of these possibilities and actually feel the concept of moral worth.” (Stroud).

As human beings, for Kant, we should only have one end in sight - that of moral perfection. The sublime is thus morally valuable since it delivers a practical support pointing out that such a perfection exists, that we can and should go over the satisfactions offered by the phenomenal world.

When we identify ourselves with the boundlessness of the sublime, “we cease to be anything in particular, but thereby become potentially everything” and this potential leads to a “dazziling emptiness” all and nothing are closely allied, since both are absolved from limits”. (Eagleton, 2005, 45)

While experiencing the sublime we… anihilate ourselves, we empty ourselves of the phenomenal, of the particular. As we literally anihilate ourselves in the teleportation booth. We press the button and we are reduced to energy and/or information. The only trouble is, going the teleportation way we seem to lose something very important - the freedom to choose the higher moral ground, to understand that we are capable of more than just respond to external stimuli. But do we? In the age of teleportation, we can only assume that nature will somehow lose in importance with regard to this (except for the dynamic sublime, even if, with technology we try to predict where and when nature would strike next, when the next volcano will burst, where the next hurricane will spread, where tsunamis are likely to happen). Even if the technological sublime is, as Lyotard had put it, immanent, it does not mean that it could not strike in us that capacity to strive for something higher. After all, one could find the sublime even in feelings of humility and vulnerability, in the simple realization of our human limitations, as Malcom Budd does it, in an attempt to strip down Kant’s moralizing aspect of the feeling of sublime.

With the sudden dropping away… of our everyday sense of the importance of our self and its numerous concerns and projects, or the normal sense of the security of our body from external natural forces, the heightened awareness of our manifest vulnerability and insignificance is, after the initial shock, experienced with pleasure. (Budd, 246)

On top of this, the technology has transformed the body itself to an unprecedented extent. And it keeps changing it into a sum of functions (which were originally carried away by different organs). Talking about a body, we talk about parts that can be replaced one by one (artificial eyes, artificial limbs, a pump instead of the heart, etc.) and, eventually, there will come a time when the whole body could be replaced, something which renders it… inessential. We still deal here with a process of transcendence but this time our own body is what will be transcended. (We could perhaps investigate here to what extent this kind of sublime is ultimately about embracing our own death drive. But we’ll leave this for another occasion.) With teleportation we would get to the point where we trust not only a part of our body to technology but also our whole existence.

The teleportation experiment in personal identity makes us realize that identity does not really matter, that we can make sense of the world and of ourselves without betting on an underlying self. Technological sublime seems to detach us from Kant’s much sought after freedom to discover our aspiration for a higher moral ground. Accepting teleportation, we also have to accept the fact that we are in the business of killing people (those bodies left behind in the booth) which puts us at the exact opposite end of what Kant would have expected from any of us. Teleportation brings us on a new territory of morality, not only by asking questions about how far technology can or should go, but also about our freedom which we seem to have abandoned with the press of a button. If, with Kant, an encounter with the feeling of sublime in nature made us aware of the necessity to care for other human beings, with teleportation, technological sublime seems to lack this component. However, we should not forget that technology is here to help us. We might want to teleport in order to stay in touch with those we love but are very far away. Isn’t this a proof for caring for others? We are ready to risk our integrity as persons and come out at our trip’s destination perhaps only as a survivor just for this. We could also end up as a stream of data on a malfunctioning harddisk. We could end up in a technological ravine because of the lack of moral interest, because of losing our vocation to choose. Are we ready to delegate this freedom to the machine?


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Presentation given at the Machines/Ravines conference, September 14–16, 2017, University of Łódź, Dept. of American Literature