Saturday, May 24, 2008

Exploring "Battlestar Galactica"

About a month ago, my friend and co-worker at Barnes & Noble turned me onto Battlestar Galactica. It took a while for me to be convinced that I should watch it because I do not have a lot of time and, let’s be honest, there is a lot of crap on TV. He spoke about the show, however, with a glimmer in his eye that spoke to more than his inner Sci-Fi geek. I decided to try it because I trusted his recommendation and needed some entertainment that was dichotomous with some of the drier philosophical readings I have had to work through lately. Last semester I started reading graphic novels again for that same reason, not the just any comics but quality storylines such as Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, The Watchmen by Alan Moore, Green Lantern: Rebirth by Geoff Johns, and Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War- Volume I also by Geoff Johns. I highly recommend these titles for quality of writing, artwork, and literary value. To Andy and Cousin Doug, I am indebted.

I am also indebted to both of them for turning me onto Battlestar Galactica. It is one the best shows I have had the privilege to watch. For those of you laughing at this point, check out the pilot/3-hour mini-series. If you are, like me and at least two others that read this blog, then you will agree and be hooked. I guess I picked the wrong show, however, if I wanted to shy away from deep philosophical and literary issues because it is packed with questions of this sort from moment one. However, enough with the advertising without pay. I intend to add Battlestar Galactica as another project of this blog and encourage your responses. I will attempt to address:

1. Religion – Cylons are monotheistic while the humans are polytheistic. There are signs of Christianity, Mormonism, and Greek mythology that warrant exploration.
2. Humanity under Pressure – I will not be giving much away when I say that the scenario of the show is based on the idea that 99.999% of humanity is wiped out and the remainder is being relentlessly pursued and under threat of being killed at any moment. How does social interaction and human value change under such conditions and what does it mean?
3. Morality – there are so many moral questions in this show I do not even know where to begin. Since I like to argue and nothing makes for an argument like controversy, I will at least tackle the issue of abortion that comes up in the show. If the morality of abortion is different when there are so few of us left then can that morality change when we are safe and plentiful? How does the issue of personal freedom play into all this?
4. Social Justice – when are freedoms and non-basic rights justifiably sacrificed? Are they ever even if those very freedoms somehow put the larger group at risk? When is it justified for the military to overthrow the civilian government and who gets to decide?
5. Genocide – what constitutes enough of a threat by one group to justify wiping out every man, women, and child of that group?
6. Human Essence – what does it mean to be human? Self-awareness or consciousness? The ability to love and hate? What will it mean if and when we either create or meet something else that has these qualities?

I'm sure there will be more but six questions seems like an appropriate number of topics to start with, especially since the character Six in the show is way hot in that Amazonian, super-naughty, wipe out your species kind of way. I hope you watch the show, read along here, and participate in the discussion.

Best Wishes,


MoralEinstien said...

alright, so you finally gave in... well, i've been waiting to philosophize battlestar, so here goes.

in season 1 episode 11, tom zarek reappears to run for vice president. his platform is nothing less than total reform, which obviously distresses the current president laura roslin. among the points he makes to the press one stands out. we know it as a traditional objection to communism, however in the context of the show it takes on a whole new meaning.

zarek asks, what are we working for? not, what do we recieve in payment for our labor, but what is the purpose of continuing to do our jobs? he nods to a nearby gardener and says that this man has no reason to continue gardening (on a luxury ship) other than habit. indeed once the human race has been reduced to 40,000 people, aesthetics tend to lose their value. the deeper question i find in zarek's rhetoric is not one of economic importance. there may be no way to motivate work in a necessarily communistic society, besides habit. yet, this is not what zarek seems to be after. rather, he is asking, what is the value of each life in a society that literally depends on every member for its survival?

the obvious answer would be that each person must have the same inherent worth, true equality must be the norm. but the gardener, and his juxtaposition with a group of politicians makes us feel that something is still wrong. if we all have the same inherent value what makes one man a politician and the other a gardener/janitor? Rawls would say that it is their individual level of skill and cultivation of innate talents that manifest as different career paths, and that a man's job is not his value. but clearly, where every member of the last humans in existence is needed in both a reproductive capacity and in some labor capacity, people ARE exactly as valuable as their job.

consider the following: the president and a gardener are on a ship that has just be shot. the ship is decompressing fast and there is only one oxygen tank with barely enough air for one person. who gets it? obviously the president. though she may insist that the gardener take it (because she really is a caring president) if the gardener as any awareness of self, he will know that the fleet needs a president more than a gardener.

although we don't get to hear too much about the specific reforms zarek proposes, his point resounds. how is this new society to be ordered? shall we carry on the old ways that apply to different circumstances, or shall we develop new forms of organization, economy, and government that reflect the new situation?

and here's the kicker: if you answer yes to reform, than it shouldn't be much of a stretch to apply the same reform to a group of 100,000 humans (the last of their kind). still, why not use the same reform for 100,000,000 humans? and what about 6 billion? does the amount of people we have really affect the ways that we value each other? if it does than what we need is not an economic reform but an ethical reform.

Jason Epps said...

Holy cow, Aaron. Enough said.

Now to you, Roger, a very hearty THANKS A LOT for getting me addicted to this stupid show when I'm already too busy! The last time this happened was when I bought the old BBC Classic, "I, Claudius," but it was only about 12 or 15 episodes - not a full three hour pilot with 70 episodes following!

Ronin said...

Moral Einstein,

Thank you for the well-crafted response and please accept my apology for the lateness of my reply. I remember now why I felt so intimidated by you in our Philosophy of Genetics class together my first semester of Philosophy.

A bit of trivia for everyone: Richard Hatch, the actor who plays Tom Zarek, played Apollo in the original series. I do miss his feathered hair and machismo comments he made with the male Starbuck played by Dirk Benedict. I also think Zarek plays one of the most interesting characters on the show. He does seem to evolve, for lack of better words, into a character of depth, which raises an interesting dilemma regarding the nature of terrorism and political activism. I cannot wait to find out where his storyline goes in the back half of Season 3 and into Season 4.

OK, here’s a few of your quotes and some comments of mine that I’m sure we’ll come back to if our comments on Battlestar Galactica continue.

*** “… what is the value of each life in a society that literally depends on every member for its survival? ***

It seems that everyone is more valuable in the Battlestar Galactica scenario than they would be as part of a population of 12 billion. We see evidence of the opposite scenario everyday. The denser the population of an area, the less likely anybody will say hello to you as you walk down the street. A mall shooting is forgotten more quickly in a metropolis than in small town. Two words: Internet Dating. It may be a maxim that the greater the population, the less personal we must become. I don’t think I am saying anything new here. Maybe we can only care so much and after that point has been reached, we simply must detach. Maybe that is what happens to doctors who see too much death. Their patients cease to be human because to think of them as anything other than a case study hurts too much.

This is what makes Battlestar Galactica and humans under pressure so fascinating. When our personal, work, and global social groups are easier to comprehend, we can love, sacrifice and find meaning in life because we can actually comprehend the value of life. Maybe this is not a commentary on the goodness or badness of human nature but on the limits of human abilities. I know from motorcycle racing that the closer I was to death, the more alive I felt and maybe it’s not so much different for Adama and Roslin and the people they lead. If this is true, what does this say about population control in the here and now when we are pushing 7 billion? Do we have an absolute right to breed in all cases and who gets to determine or enforce such restrictions?

*** “… where every member of the last humans in existence is needed in both a reproductive capacity and in some labor capacity, people ARE exactly as valuable as their job.” ***

I might disagree with you a bit because as you said, both reproductive capacity and job value to the group must be factored into the equation. If you only have oxygen for one person, do you choose the sterile computer programmer or the fry cook with a sperm count through the roof?

*** “… if you answer yes to reform, than it shouldn't be much of a stretch to apply the same reform to a group of 100,000 humans (the last of their kind). still, why not use the same reform for 100,000,000 humans? and what about 6 billion? Does the amount of people we have really affect the ways that we value each other? If it does than what we need is not an economic reform but an ethical reform.” ***

This is a huge question but I agree that the work on social justice is far from complete and ethical reform is needed. What should society look like? Certainly not like our current form of democracy. Partisan politics has divided this country and made us arguably ineffective with achieving any meaningful social progress. The gap is widening between the rich and the poor. We spend $1 on food stamps and foreign aid to every $14 we spend on the military and police services. I don’t have an answer but a starting place may be to get rid of the two-party system. It is too rigid and commits a politician to a party position versus a position of true conscience and individual thought. How many people are like, “I like that John McCain character but them Republicans are sucking the life out this country so I better vote for the Democrat.”? Reverse that to fit your party preference if you wish. This country needs Statesmen (or women). Where have they gone and how does are system facilitate true Statesmen?

OK, back to Battlestar. If you say that moral truth exists then the morality of a Galactica scenario should be the same as in a population of 12 billion. Consider abortion and the death penalty. Both seem immoral when the population is low but many arguments advocating both seem to make more sense when the population is high. If you argue in favor of moral universals then there is also a downside with how we are living today that we also must take from Galactica concerning democracy, social justice, and rights. In the show, Communism seems that it might have some advantages over democracy. Zarek never mentions communism directly but his prison speech certainly had a communist feel to it. Civil liberties also seems be less important than in their previous society. Lastly, forget the free market … nothing but problems. Maybe I am reading this wrong and it is simply a matter of being in a perpetual state of war with the Cylons. We recognize that war seems to have its own set of rules, morality, and justifications but what does that say about morality as a universal principle?

Thanks again for the comments and keep it coming. I’m off to catch up with my fiancĂ©e on some more Battlestar. She cheated on me and is two discs ahead.

Best Wishes,