Consciousness and pop stuff

Star Trek in general

Posted in Idealism-or-similar by Trevor on November 8, 2009

So. Star Trek then. With its army of computer-savvy fans, can anything original be written about this show? I would say the answer is “No”. (Barring mad things like the USS Enterprise is made of marscapone.)

But that doesn’t matter because the point of this blog isn’t to say original things; it’s to classify pop culture things according to their assumptions on consciousness. But rest assured, everything I talk about here has probably been discussed in detail by someone out there in internet-land.

The Star Trek universe is, on the face of it, a Consciousness-as-Property universe. However it also contains a few tantalising tendencies (if you find this sort of thing tantalising, which I do) towards the Idealism-or-Similar camp.

First up, let’s talk Consciousness-as-Property. The big, ol’ example right there in the middle of the show, the one everyone talks about, is of course Mr Data.

Mr Data: A big, ol' example.

Mr Data: A big ol' example right in the middle of the show.

Now I won’t blather on about this too much because it’s kind of obvious. Mr Data is the android who is a member of the Star Trek crew. He looks and acts like he’s human (mainly) but he’s entirely artificial. He usually doesn’t have emotions but in some episodes and movies, he gains them by having the relevant chip inserted in his head. Read all about Mr Data here.

So the obvious question is: is Mr Data sentient? In fact, the same question occurred to the writers who, in the second episode of the Next Generation series, addressed this very question. In the episode (“The Measure of a Man”), Mr Data is scheduled for dismantling but he goes to court to prove he is a fully-experiencing person, despite his physical difference, and so deserves legal rights. The court rules against him and he is destroyed at the end of the episode, never to appear again. No, of course that’s not true, you can guess how it really ended.

So generally speaking, Star Trek writers and viewers are pretty comfortable with the idea that an artificial copy of a person is also a conscious, sentient, experiencing person. He doesn’t need a soul, he doesn’t need to have some special organic life-essence. His consciousness just arises as a property of his physical, positronic brain. That’s Consciousness-as-Property, bang to rights.

The second example everyone talks about is the Doctor from the Voyager series. The Doctor doesn’t physically exist in the normal sense. It is a 3-D moving hologram of a simulated person that is projected into the medical bay by the ship’s computer. He can also grasp and lift things – he has a sort of “physical presence” because the computer also projects a sort of human-shaped force-field into the space he appears to occupy.

Star Trek Doctor - arbitrarily bald

The Doctor in Star Trek Voyager. Cruel hologram programmers made him bald. But it's okay, they also programmed him to like it.

So is the Doctor sentient? Generally speaking, the characters within the show accept that he is, as do the fans. Someone on a Star Trek discussion forum posted this very question – “Are Mr Data and the Doctor sentient?” It generated 5 pages of discussion, and generally the response was in the affirmative, Captain. Though some people were more willing to attribute sentience to Data than to the Doctor. Read the forum here.

Let’s say the Doctor is sentient then. This isn’t just a straightforward case of Consciousness-as-Property. The Doctor isn’t a clever robot; he’s more like a virtual creature in a computer game. This will lead us towards the Idealism-or-Similar view. More on this later.

Before that, this: the character of Moriarty from The Next Generation series doesn’t get as much press as Data and the Doctor, but he’s more interesting. In the show, Moriarty is a character from a computer-generated holographic world, which the crew can experience in their entertainment machine called the holodeck. Read about the holodeck here.

Moriarty is only a virtual person, a character in a complex computer game. In the episode called “Elementary, Dear Data”, someone says they want the holodeck game to include a character who’s smart enough to be a real challenge. The computer creates the character of Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories (not The Goon Show). But this Moriarty is so clever that he realises that the world he inhabits is not the real world, and that he himself is not a real person. He immediately loses interest in being a character in someone else’s game (well you would, wouldn’t you), and wants to take part in the world outside. This can’t be allowed so he is put back in the databanks. In a later episode however, he reappears and, by being very clever, manages to get control of the Enterprise itself. Shenanigans ensue.

In the end, he is tricked into thinking he has left the holodeck when in fact he has just stepped into another virtual world inside another computer. This new virtual world includes a huge amount of exciting, spacey things to discover, so Moriarty and his lady companion can live on indefinitely, exploring their computer-generated universe, having a great time and generally not causing such trouble for the Star Trek crew. It’s a groovy story. Moriarty should’ve got his own spin-off series. Instead he went on to be the butler in “The Nanny”. Life sucks arse.

The conscious computer-generated hologram, Moriarty.

The conscious computer-generated hologram, Moriarty, the Criminal Genius who went on to become a butler in 'The Nanny'. Bummer

So. What’s the Consciousness Verdict? Here’s where the “Idealism-or-Similar” view comes into play. Moriarty is certainly presented as sentient, that’s why the Captain decides not to switch him off a second time. However, the world which he perceives (e.g. space, time, physical things) doesn’t really exist as such. It exists only as computer chip pulses which encode the information. The brain which Moriarty has “in his head” is not what causes his conscious experience. It’s the computer that generates him that does this. The reason he perceives any world at all is because the computer generates it for him. This is the Idealism-or-Similar approach.

Furthermore, at the end of the episode the crew all stand around looking at the computer box which houses Moriarty and his universe, spying on him a bit via a monitor. And the Captain says something like, “Who knows? Maybe we’re all just in a box on someone’s table, with a bunch of people watching us too.” Ha ha ha. Very droll. Of course, yes, it’s a reference to the fact that, yes, they themselves are only characters in a TV show and we, out in the world, are watching them on a little box. Hilarious.

But … within the world of the show, the Captain is also musing on the possibility that the world that they experience is just “virtual” and they are just “virtual people” of a sort. In other words, he’s pondering on the possibilities of Idealism-or-Similar. Hmmm.

One final bit of blather, just for fun. This isn’t particularly relevant but bugger it, it’s my blog. In one of the earlier Next Generation episodes, the crew receive a visit from a Mysterious Being called The Traveler. He has a funny shaped head. Don’t they all? And he can move very big things around, like the whole ship, just by thinking about it in a Special Way. Young whippersnapper, Wesley Crusher, the Ship’s Teenager and identification-figure for the adolescent audience, learns new things from The Traveller and for a brief time, is able to perform the same spaceship-moving feat. When asked how it is possible, they simply reply: “Because time and space and thought are one”. Now I don’t think the writers intended this to be a statement of Idealism, I think they meant it as a bit of quantummey-sounding bullshit, of the type that Deepak Chopra sells. But it can certainly be read as a statement of Idealism if we want to – “Time and space and thought are one” – George Berkeley could’ve said that, the most famous idealist of all time.

The Traveler from Next Generation

The Traveler: Like Deepak Chopra. But with real powers.

So. In the light of all this forensic evidence, I’m going to put Star Trek into the Idealism-or-Similar camp. The show acknowledges the possibility that the world we perceive is really just our own “conscious experience manifold”; and the real world is beyond our ken. The characters sometimes wonder if this is, in fact, the case. And it’s also manifestly demonstrated – by the action of successful spaceship movement – that time and space and thought are one. It’s a sort of Idealism (or more technically, phenomenalistic representationalism). Defy me if you can! Shit, this is way too long. I’ll stop now.


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