Posted by: dswerling | May 27, 2008

God, Ethics, and “Star Trek”

Sci-Fi apparently ran out of things to play on television for Memorial Day, because they were having a “Star Trek: Enterprise” marathon running today. Rather than keep on debating in my mind whether consciousness is immaterial or not, I decided to just watch the show. Now honestly, I don’t care very much for “Star Trek: Enterprise.” I sort of liked the older ones (though I found them tedious at times) because they often had good social commentary, but I often find “Enterprise” to be very modern, in the sense that it has what seems like a lot of fighting and a lot of sex with the old boring “meaning” sucked out of it. However, I observed something in one episode today that made me think a lot. You’ll have to forgive me if this isn’t the exact layout of the episode (if you happen to know what the real exact layout is feel free to let me know) but this is how it went to the best of my understanding.

Some star system in some distant part of the galaxy is being ravaged by a disease that the inhabitants are unable to cure. Starship Enterprise shows up with technology several centuries ahead of this star system, including warp drives that will provide for inter-star-system contact and a known cure for the star system’s ailment. The captain of Enterprise at first intends to help the sickly citizens of the star system, but is convinced against it by Enterprise’s doctor, who reminds him that natural selection must take its course. He says that “nature must be allowed to decide who lives and who dies” and he reminds the captain that some other race (I think it was the Vulcans) “held back” the humans after their discovery and during their fledgling efforts to reach interstellar travel, and it’s best to let species evolve or die off on their own. The Captain changes his mind, leaves some drugs that will ease the symptoms of the disease, and departs in hopes that the system will be able to heal itself before all of its citizens are destroyed.

Now I find this episode interesting because it really seems to epitomize an American viewpoint of ours. I think this viewpoint comes from all the movies we see where people are given tremendous disadvantages, and are somehow able to work over them, whether it’s a black woman in the south becoming a college professor, or a mentally challenged northerner finding his way into living a normal life. We Americans love those stories of triumph of the human spirit. We love it when the underdog is able to win. We love it when the big hulking crowd favorite is defeated by the guy everybody counted out, and we all get a message about how far determination can get you. Now I’m not going to say this belief is all bad. I certainly appreciate the value of hard work and determination and I think it’s great that our American culture puts such high value on these things. However, quite frankly, I believe these stories make something that’s incredibly rare look very common. For every southern black woman who overcame segregation and became a college professor, there were a dozen more who were beaten and fire-hosed back into their place at the bottom of society, and for every mentally challenged American that finds his way to a normal life, a dozen more get stuck in an institution. I appreciate the value of hard work, determination, and courage, but what I’m saying is that if the majority of people who made the minority of people require that hard work, determination, and courage in the first place were a little more thoughtful and open minded, we wouldn’t need people to “overcome.” If people had been thoughtful and recognized their own bigotry, we wouldn’t have had segregation and that black woman becoming a college professor never would have had to worry about “overcoming” in the first place. If Americans were more compassionate and didn’t often view the mentally challenged as stupid or to be laughed at, then mentally ill people wouldn’t have to worry about making their lives “normal.” It just amazes me sometimes, how we can all go to inspiring movies where some person overcomes great hardship at the hands of his fellow man, applaud this as upright and American, and then go out and be that “fellow man” whose hardships real people out there most overcome. Jesus said “First take the stake out of your own eye, then recognize the splinter in your brother’s eye.” Aint that the truth!

So recognizing this particular episode of “Star Trek” in context of a greater American mentality, I would like to now point out what I saw as philisophical problems with the Captain (and the Doctor’s) logic. First off, I would like to point out that the Doctor’s advocation to “let nature choose who will live and who will die” seems like the reification fallacy to me. “Nature” is a term that is abstract, similar to “God,” so to say “nature must choose who lives and who dies” is foolish, nature cannot choose anything. Furthermore, if the Doctor advocates letting the inhabitants of the star system die off by saying “nature is taking its course,” he is contradicting himself, because humans and aliens alike are all part of his “nature.” Therefore, in reality, if “nature” really were to “take its course,” then Enterprise’s captain should feel free to act on his compassionate instincts, because Enterprise’s captain is just as much a part of “nature” as minerals and rocks and atoms and elements are. To say that the Captain’s intervention would be “against nature” is either asserting that nature somehow has a will or doctrine (similar to religion, which is often what naturalists proudly state their belief is free of) or that humans are somehow “above nature.”  In either case, the Doctor’s assertion is appealing to the supernatural, so by its own standards the “nature taking its course” defense does not preclude the Doctor or the Captain’s moral responsibility to act in this circumstance.

Furthermore, there is a moral difference between the two options the captain of the Enterprise has with regards to helping the sick citizens of the star system. The Captain can help the citizens build a lightspeed reactor which will allow them to reach other civilizations, hopefully providing a cure (to clear up one concern, the assumption in the episode was that somehow this disease cannot spread to other species, I’m not sure why.) The Doctor also develops a cure for the illness, which the Captain can leave behind to cure the alien race, and then allow them to continue living. I can see where the “non-intervention” policy holds in the first case, but not in the second. I do have a certain amount of belief in the “prime-initiative.” Using an example from today’s world, I would like to compare and contrast the oppressive governments in the Middle East with the situation in Darfur. In my view, there is a practical difference between destroying a country’s government and taking over from preventing genocide. I believe governmental systems must evolve to the best of their ability, and we cannot insert our views and our knowledge into other cultures. However, I do believe that invervening to stop genocide is worthwhile, because the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians is more important than the abstract implications of cultural revolution. Also, stopping a genocide could be much less extensive than complete takeover of the government. Returning to Star Trek then, I believe this rule holds true in this particular situation. Granting the citizens of this more primitive star system warp-drives could lead to uncontrolled warfare and an “over eager” reaction from a civilization not quite ready for such technical advances. However, preventing a civilization from extinction by granting them a drug seems different to me. The lives of hundreds of billions of living beings, be they human or not, is surely important, and it seems strange to imagine it ever being moral to let hundreds of billions die for pure philosophical speculation.

My final two arguments apply primarily to the Doctor and the Captain. I believe they are both human, though I do not know, but let us make the assumption that they are both human. It seems that in this particular advanced age of Star Trek (and right now, incidentally) we are being told to “leave our emotions out of [it]” and a Vulcan crew member as well as the Doctor say the Captain must “put his compassion aside.” However, I would like to point out that for the Captain to put aside his compassion is to immediately ignore one of the central things that makes him human, to ignore one of the central things that defines him from the exotic animals he finds running around on planets that he visits. Certainly for the Lion in the Jungle, he cannot be compassionate, because only by being merciless and bestial can he survive. However, for the human in today’s city or the Captain on the deck of a starship in a distant time and place, an extremely important defining trait that identifies him as human is to act compassionate, act in accordance with what he feels is right. In ignoring this call, the Captain acts against his own humanity, and against his place in nature. Were the Captain somehow a Lion, or a Tiger or Grizzly Bear (and a very intelligent one at that) he could feel perfectly fine acting “naturally” by simply ignoring the suffering citizens for help, but as a human, to act “naturally” is to act compassionately, and the Captain ignores his own natural instinct to do what is good for some abstract concept of “nature.”

Finally, in context of what the Doctor tells the Captain, I feel that this is a great example of the Christian doctrine of “original sin,” better explained in secular terms as “human nature.” The Doctor informs the Captain that somehow this particular species of aliens might have the biological fate to simply die off, and that allowing them to survive might cause lasting problems for humans in the future. Besides being guilty of the reification fallacy again, this is remarkably good rationalization and justification if you ask me. How convenient, that humans could be gifted with the knowledge of nature so that they can act in accordance with its will! How convenient that this will would interlock perfectly with the hypothetical best interest of humanity far in the future! I understand that the same argument could be leveled against God and theism, but what I’m saying is just that this urge to justify and rationalize things we know are fundamentally wrong manifests itself in every belief, whether the belief be supernatural or natural, religious or atheist. Humans are on an eternal march of justification, and until we realize this, little real progress can be made.

I found this episode of Star Trek very thought-provoking and interesting. However, I must admit that at the end of the show I was very dissapointed with the Captain’s judgment. I find it disturbing too, that this viewpoint would be expressed in “Star Trek,” because I believe that the values shown in many of our pop-culture shows and cultural literacy items represents the common cultural values of our nation today. I sincerely hope that were any situation like this to arise, no matter how great or how small, any human would be sure to keep these things in mind, and I hope act on his or her compassion, not on desire.

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