Battlestar Galactica, Rationality & Human Nature

Although its name conjures up visions of campy B-movie aesthetics, Battlestar Galactica (BSG) finds itself on most shortlists for best TV series of the past decade.[ref]I am speaking of the 2004 reimagining, not the original, which I have not watched.[/ref] I frequently find myself having to convince people that, despite it sounding like a still nerdier Star Trek, BSG is perhaps the most thought-provoking, character-driven shows that’s ever aired. Oh, and it happens to be set in space and there are sentient robots that commit near-total genocide against humans. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out.[ref]I’ll see you in a month or so if you start watching it—hopefully you haven’t been fired from your job for skipping work to watch yet another episode.[/ref]

Like all stories about sentient robots, BSG is about the deeper questions of humanity. What makes us as humans special? is the constant question being asked, sometimes subtly; other times blatantly.[ref]This is not the only question being asked, of course, but the one I’m most interested in here. Other interesting questions include: Can we create things that only benefit, and not harm, humanity? and Can we create technology that doesn’t begin to control us?[/ref] This is doubly the case in the BSG universe, where the robotic Cylons have evolved to embody themselves within flesh in a manner indistinguishable from humanity. We’re in Blade Runner territory here.

Separating humans from animals is a perennial problem in philosophy. Aristotle’s formulation declared us to be rational animals.[ref]He actually said that man has a rational principle, but the “rational animal” phrase is nonetheless associated with Aristotelian thought. Alisdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals works within this tradition.[/ref] Descartes later disparaged our bodies, making a radical split between the mind and the body. His ubiquitous Cogito, ergo sum[ref]Usually translated as “I think, therefore I am,” but better translated as “I doubt, therefore I am.”[/ref] formulation elevated our capacity for thought to the pinnacle of humanness.

These philosophical accounts of humanity have, for most of human history, played a secondary role to religious conceptions of the human. Whether created by accident or according to design; whether for nefarious or beneficent purposes, humanity has most often seen its relation to the divine as what has set it apart from all other things and creatures.

Jews and Christians have understood this relation to the divine in terms of the Imago Dei, that humanity has been created in the image of God. (Gen. 1:26-7) One strand of this thinking later combined with Platonic thought to give us the notion of the immortal soul destined for heaven or hell in yet another attempt to name what makes us as humans special.

And then there is the “Darwinian” view, which oft perplexes me.[ref]While the ensuing view is most often put forward by self-described Darwinians, I think it rests more on assumed reductionistic naturalism rather than being entailed by Darwinism proper, thus the scare quotes. Alvin Plantinga even goes so far as to make an evolutionary argument against naturalism.[/ref] On the one hand, Darwinians declare that there isn’t much that makes us as humans special—we are just more evolved in some ways than other mammals—and yet, from some of the same mouths, there is a brash declaration of rationality as that which sets humans apart.

All of the views above are variously held today, revealing a lack of cultural consensus about what makes us distinctive as humans. Amidst this confusion over who we are (and what we’re for), BSG gets interesting. Despite utopian visions of progress, the advent of computers have always made us uneasy, producing the reality of Deep BlueWatson, and the dystopian science fiction of The Terminator. Computers are pure logic and, in terms of brute strength, quicker and smarter than humans. BSG’s Cylons commit near-total genocide against the human race in the belief that their superior rationality makes them the new alpha species in the universe, cementing our fear of machines. Not only have they nearly wiped out humanity, they now have flesh and blood bodies that we can’t distinguish from our own.

The intersting thing that occurs here is that BSG rules out the capacity for rational thought as the distinguishing characteristic of humanity. Cylons are rationality par excellence, but are not human (even if they might be people), therefore our distinctiveness must lie elsewhere.

Just as BSG never explicitly asks the question, it never definitively answers it. Instead, it tells a constellation of stories: stories of our immediate and distant past; of origins that only defer our origin; of our various attempts in the present to live, love and survive, filled with pathos and hubris and laughter and tears. It hints at the answer, coyly suggesting that it might be our capacity to love,[ref]The Cylons are unable to reproduce until a Sharon/Eight falls in love with Karl “Helo” Agathon.[/ref] or possibly our capacity for self-delusion,[ref]I speak of Gaius Baltar who, I might add, somehow manages to provoke sympathy for someone complicit in the genocide of his own people.[/ref] or maybe it’s just the fact that we’re the type of beings who are constantly trying find out what it means to be whatever it is that we are.

BSG even explores how faith makes us us, which is rare and welcome in a science fiction series. The humans are polytheists, while the Cylons are monotheists (both have their atheists). Both sides claim to know who they are and what their purpose is by their relation to the divine. Faith drives much of BSG’s story, often to the consternation of the generally atheist/agnostic-leaning SciFi demographic. But the impulse to faith—even in its non-faith guise—is inextricably human and any attempt to answer “who are we?” without reference to faith is impoverished.

The first line spoken in BSG, from the lips of a humanoid Cylon to a human ambassador, is “Are you alive?” Perhaps this is a superior question to the one I’ve been exploring here. To be alive, truly alive, is more expansive and filled with potency than “what sets us apart?” Perhaps humans are those creatures who, though living, struggle to be fully alive, or who ultimately come to receive that life as a gift.

2 responses to “Battlestar Galactica, Rationality & Human Nature”

  1. Great thoughts. I too, like you, have to trouble getting people to look past the title and the stigma of the genre. People don’t seem to appreciate the fact that good storytelling transcends genres. I have a few older friends who don’t watch animation because they think Pixar films are only for kids.

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