Personal identity and race in Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar is a cousin of some famous thought experiments from the philosophy of personal identity. For example, here’s a product of Daniel Dennett’s imagination circa 1978:

Several years ago I was approached by Pentagon officials who asked me to volunteer for a highly dangerous and secret mission. [They] had succeeded in lodging a warhead about a mile deep under Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they wanted me to retrieve it for them. … The difficulty that brought the Pentagon to my door was that the device I’d been asked to recover was fiercely radioactive, in a new way. According to monitoring instruments, something about the nature of the device and its complex interactions with pockets of material deep in the earth had produced radiation that could cause severe abnormalities in certain tissues of the brain. No way had been found to shield the brain from these deadly rays, which were apparently harmless to other tissues and organs of the body. So it had been decided that the person sent to recover the device should leave his brain behind. It would be kept in a safe place as there it could execute its normal control functions by elaborate radio links. Would I submit to a surgical procedure that would completely remove my brain, which would then be placed in a life-support system at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston? Each input and output pathway, as it was severed, would be restored by a pair of microminiaturized radio transceivers, one attached precisely to the brain, the other to the nerve stumps in the empty cranium. No information would be lost, all the connectivity would be preserved.

Sounds pretty Avatar-like to me! Even the plot devices are similar: In Avatar, one reason why the hero needs to remotely control an alien body is that the alien planet’s atmosphere is toxic to humans but not aliens; in Dennett’s thought experiment, the hero needs to remotely control his own body in order to avoid exposure to toxic radiation. (Of course, there are some differences. Dennett’s essay has a cooler ending whereas Avatar has more dragons.)

Anyway, it looks like Avatar’s implications about race have gotten a little more attention than anything it might have to say about personal identity. I was especially interested by this widely-linked io9 piece by Annalee Newitz accusing Cameron of being motivated by “white guilt,” as if that’s a bad thing. I’ll put a few spoiler-ridden thoughts on this below the fold.

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