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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Meaning of Battlestar Galactica


In some ways I was a rather strange child, certainly strange for a boy. For example, I absolutely hated comic books, and I still do. I was always slightly embarrassed for their creators. They had pretensions to grandeur, to the sublime, to the epic, while in reality, their work never seemed to rise above the puerile. I have had many grownup friends who are still comic book aficionados, and they invariably try to convince me that comics are different now. For one thing, they are no longer called “comic books”. They are now called “graphic novels” (sure, and Tony Soprano is in the waste disposal business). For another, the characters are more complex, more morally ambivalent now. Fine, but if that’s the case, why do they still feel the need to parade around in absurd costumes? Only little boys and fetishists can be impressed by capes, masks and tall boots. Then they try tell me how much deeper the stories are now, how they have so much more to say about the human condition, or about human nature. And still, I have yet to see a comic book story that hasn’t already been told — and told better — by Homer or Sophocles. In a sense, comics do tell us something about human nature, namely how far it has degenerated, how its leaden wings can no longer be uplifted by culture.

In general, my attitude has been much the same towards science fiction as towards comics. I could sometimes appreciate its attempts — however clumsy — to use the future to tell us something about our present. After all, when a technological society needs a mirror held up to it, Homer can sometimes seem an unsatisfactory hairdresser. Unfortunately, the characters in science fiction were usually so papery thin it even seemed silly to refer to them as such. Of late, there has been an exception that proves the rule. Two nights ago I watched the final episode of the television series Battlestar Galactica (I mean the new re-make, not the 1970s original).

I admit to being very impressed overall by BSG. Interestingly though, my satisfaction has almost nothing to do with technology. The creators have charmingly opted to make certain things low-tech: the Galactica has no networked computers. The telephones are all landlines and have a comforting little buzz when they ring, instead of the annoying chirp (or worse, the Kanye West ring tone) of a cell phone. They listen to music on what look like cassette tapes. The aging Battlestar creaks and groans, its lights flicker. Although there is just enough futuristic flash to impress us, it is not used as a crutch. Instead, BSG impresses us with its attempts to grapple with abiding philosophical problems. I would like to examine three of these.

1. Who Are We?

The human race has been almost entirely wiped out in a nuclear attack by the Cylons, a race of robots, built by humans, who have rebelled against their masters. This occurs some forty years after a previous war between the two races which ended in a truce; nothing had been heard from the Cylons since then, until their sudden sneak attack. The small fleet of human survivors must flee into the depths of space to escape them.

It is soon discovered that during their years of silence, the Cylons have evolved, or rather, they have evolved themselves. They have now taken on a form externally indistinguishable from humans. Furthermore, they have infiltrated the human fleet, making it difficult to visually distinguish human from Cylon. As the series continues, it becomes difficult to distinguish them in other ways as well: Cylons fall in love; they do things that are less than rational, indicating free will of some kind; they experience anger, indecision, remorse, jealousy.

And most importantly, Cylons look for meaning in their lives. At first, the most prominent thing that separated Cylon from human was that the former had “resurrection technology”, meaning that they did not die. But this caused them just as much anxiety about life’s meaning as the fact of death does for humans. And eventually, even this difference is erased, for when their resurrection technology is destroyed, Cylons too learn what it means to cease to exist, and to mourn the passing of the dead.

At first, humans could at least identify themselves through their difference from, and opposition to, the Other. But by the end of the series, one wonders if there is any meaningful difference at all between the two races. Two uncomfortable questions arise: Are Cylons really just humans after all? Or conversely, are humans really just fancy machines?

2. Is Survival Enough?

Immediately following the holocaust, the human survivors are in shock. Everything everyone once knew is gone, including friends, loved ones, homes, their entire way of life. There is anger too, but humanity is not in a position to launch a credible counter-attack against the enemy, so wreaking revenge is not an option. The only thing they have at the moment is that they are alive. Commander Adama wisely realizes that this will not be enough to keep them going in the long run. They must have something to survive for. So, in essence, what Adama offers them is a “meta-narrative”, an over-arching story or narrative that can lend a sense of purpose to people’s lives. As Plato would put it, Adama offers them a “noble lie”. He gives them a legend, supposedly drawn from sacred scriptures, about a lost thirteenth tribe of humans that settled a planet called “Earth”, a story which Adama himself does not really believe. If they can just find Earth, all will be well, he tells them. Now the people have something to work towards, the possibility of finding a new home, and this goal is given extra meaning by its association with the gods, with the sacred. Instead of aimless wandering, humanity has a mission. (I cannot help but wonder if the show’s writers are saying in some veiled way that religion itself is a noble lie?)

3. Are We Worthy of Survival?

In his work The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote something to the effect that ethics is not about achieving happiness; ethics is about becoming worthy of happiness. Battlestar Galactica has something similar to say about survival: It is not enough merely to survive, not even if we are lucky enough to have a meta-narrative that gives us something towards which to strive. We must also be worthy of surviving. To go on living without being able to look oneself in the mirror is a kind of torture. And if we are mean or vicious creatures, the universe as a whole would be better off without such meanness or viciousness existing in it.

Throughout the series, there are various grave temptations to do things that we all know are fundamentally wrong, at least in normal circumstances. There are incidents where the possibility of torturing a Cylon is very tantalizing, or where military goals can be achieved only by knowingly and consciously killing one’s own civilians. There is even a point where human victory can be secured by the complete annihilation of the enemy — in effect, genocide. The temptations to wrongdoing come from the high stakes involved: the very survival of humanity as a species. Thus, if we could torture a Cylon prisoner in order to extract information that might secure the fragile future survival of humanity, should we not do it? In ethics, this is traditionally known as the problem of “dirty hands”, the problem posed by doing evil that good may come of it. Before we decide, we must answer a further question that several of the characters in the show repeatedly had to ask themselves: “If I do this thing, if I torture this Cylon who in most relevant respects seems much like myself, our species will survive. But, can we still call the species that survives human?” If we define the term “human” not biologically, but rather by a certain set of shared values that civilized peoples claim to share, then the answer must be “No”. As my favourite philosopher, Lord Shaftesbury, put it, “the least step into villainy or baseness changes the character and value of a life” (it is no accident that Shaftesbury was a powerful influence on Kant). Defiling one’s deepest moral commitments is, or ought to be, too high a price to pay for survival.

These are observations that seem especially pertinent in an age when many things, many evil things — torture, “waterboarding”, “extraordinary rendition”, “shock and awe” bombing of cities, secret detention without due process of law, you name it — are done by supposedly civilized peoples in the name of security.

The Answers?

In conclusion, Battlestar Galactica’s achievement is to get us to wrestle with some profound philosophical themes which we, as humans, have a duty to ponder at least once in our lives. It dares us to ask three questions about ourselves: Who are we? Why are we here? Are we worthy of being here?

Of course, people who aren’t philosophers like to be served answers with their questions. But with questions like these, any answer will seem too unnourishing, too much like the proverbial parsley on the side of the plate. Nonetheless, here are the tentative answers I have settled on: To the first, I answer, “We are what we value.” To the second, “We are here to serve those values.” To the third, “Our worthiness depends on what we have done to make ourselves worthy.”

So say we all.

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