The Philosophy of Star Trek
Last revised: 2000.05.27
Scott Whitmore isn't a "staff writer" or anything. This is just a hobby website after all, and it's not as if I'm going to hire people. But he wrote me a fascinating letter last year which I recently discovered (I know, it sounds strange, but E-mail sometimes gets by me for months at a time). In any case, he had a lot to say about the philosophy of Star Trek, and I found some of his comments quite insightful and interesting. He said I could use his comments on my website provided I credited him as the author, and I have done so. I should also point out that even though I describe myself as the "editor", the following comments are actually un-edited, although I added a couple of notes and removed the preface where he introduced himself.
... the ethics of matter-transport. In Trek, the technology (in fact, most technology) is universally accepted; those few who don't like it (McCoy, Barclay) are considered weird. The ethical and theological questions are completely ignored. This is completely unrealistic. We have all seen how fierce the moral and ethical debates are surrounding various technologies: nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, biological weapons, genetic engineering, cloning, abortion and embryonic harvesting, man-machine interface, artificial intelligence, digital identification. There are even minorities of people who disapprove what we might consider basics, such as fossil fuels, pesticides, and industrial waste. I recall from ST lore that the first successful transport took place about 50 years before the TOS period, so it's not any older of a technology for them than fossil fuels are for us. Are the concerns so light that they don't deserve a hearing?
As has been amply demonstrated on the show, Trek transporters do in fact disintegrate and recreate objects, including human beings. People have even been "restored from backup" minus a few hours' memories. One could easily argue that the original person is killed. What about the person's soul? Does it go on to wherever souls go, or is it "copied" along with the body, or is it annihilated? Is an individual that has been transported no longer truly a person? Does he have the rights and dignity of a person, or is he now Starfleet Property? Is he morally responsible for the behavior of his "original"? I think Trek would probably offer one of two answers, which vary only slightly from each other:
There is no "soul" as distinct from the biological processes of the person. Measurable biological life defines life. As long as you are physically alive, you are a person. As long as you have the same DNA or an observable physical continuity, you are the same individual. There is nothing "else" to worry about.
There is a "soul," but it is a quantifiable energy phenomenon which is destroyed, recreated, and stored as a pattern along with the "body" during transport. Thus the episode where Lt. Barclay encounters the energy parasite while "in the matter stream" in mid-transport. He is clearly conscious and capable of action despite being disintegrated. Are we to believe that a transporter beam could fulfill the wildest dreams of the sorcerer -- isolate and trap a living soul, and assign it to a new body?
No matter how you look at it, it raises interesting questions about what transporters could do. One could set the transporter to regenerate tissue such that people could have eternal youth, given regular treatments. One could do instantaneous "plastic surgery," sex change, or a whole host of modifications, even down to the genetic level. Individuals selected for certain types of labor could be modified into "workers" or "soldiers" or whatnot. One could clone himself any number of times and use the clones as slaves (or worse, as organ donors). A starship or starbase could even maintain a storage tank of raw biomass and a library of physical and mental profiles, and generate personnel as needed! (BTW, I am surprised the Borg don't do this, rather than keeping a bunch of drones on meat hooks.) How can you define individuality or personhood under these circumstances? There is nothing in the Trek worldview except mere squeamishness or lack of creativity that would seem to prohibit these activities. Yet none of these possibilities is explored, and no philosophical problems are voiced.
Which brings us to a larger issue: the Federation's treatment of religion. The Federation religion appears to contain the following tenets.
A. Materialism (Part 1 - Cosmology). Everything that is, is visible, tangible, and/or quantifiable in some way. There is no supernatural world and there are no supernatural beings. Godlike beings that appear to have supernatural powers (such as Q) are only "extradimensional" or "evolved" or have technology we don't yet have. In general, there are no mysteries; there are only unsolved scientific problems. Science and technology therefore occupy the highest priority in human development, because they enable all problems to be solved. Even poorly-designed, malfunctioning or misapplied technology is better than none at all (Editor's note: the holodeck is a good example of this mentality).
B. Materialism (Part 2 - Anthropology). Man is a highly complex machine that arose ex nihilo by chance through macroevolution. Life is strictly physical in nature. There is no "soul" or "spirit" except as an epiphenomenon of neural activity. Psionics (and, for that matter, all mental activities) are no exception; they are only a certain "frequency" in a continuum of natural energies, and can be manipulated through technology. There is no survival beyond death; instances of "near death experiences" are hallucinations or psionic projections. It is generally wrong to kill, because death is the worst possible evil that can happen to an individual. Yet it is acceptable to kill for the greater good of humanity or the Federation (Editor's note: or for the sake of one's friends, as when Neelix and Tuvok were accidentally merged into "Tuvix" during a transporter accident. He pleaded for his life before Captain Janeway, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. She had him executed so that his matter might be reorganized back into Neelix and Tuvok again).
C. Atheism. There is, for all intents and purposes, no Supreme Being, since if He exists, He is invisible and therefore irrelevant. The worship of gods is at best ignorance of the facts about the "gods" (i.e. they are aliens), and at worst a psychological weakness. This concept is not totally alien to human religion -- after all, Buddhism is atheistic while still acknowledging the existence of "gods" and in some sense worshipping them -- but the general disrespect with which worship is treated betrays, instead, irreligion. Religious practices that are centered on self-actualization rather than on worship of supernatural forces are acceptable. Examples: Chakotay's Native American "vision quests" or Vulcan "meditation." Worship is vaguely acknowledged and tolerated (in TOS, the Enterprise had a chapel) but it is something that should be done quietly, privately, and with some embarrassment, like bowel movements. One certainly shouldn't fashion his behavior according to religious beliefs --only the "ignorant" and "fanatics" do that.
D. Humanism. The human race, taken collectively, is the primary source of moral authority. Individual humans and other races are authorized to make moral judgments to a lesser extent. Humans are basically good. The moral problems of individual humans are the result of poor upbringing, tragic circumstances, or ignorance. Moral perfection increases with time, education, and technology. Alien races are judged by how closely they meet human moral standards. Major moral principles:
Voluntarism. Duty to your commander, your government or your race should be your primary consideration. There is no universal moral standard with which one's duties may be contrasted; the commands of a superior are absolute. Conscientious objection or rebellion is merely criminal or insane. The only exceptions are when there are conflicting duties. Examples: 1) Worf is torn between duty to the Klingon Empire and Starfleet. 2) The ship's captain is mentally incapacitated or controlled and for his/her own best interest must be disobeyed (you can't disobey an evil order, just a crazy one). Generally, the smaller the social unit demanding loyalty, the less loyal you must be to it. Duties to spouse and children, for example, are subordinate to duty to the Federation. Particularly enlightened beings may rise above even this in concern for "the galaxy" or some unfortunate alien race, and suffer nobly at the hands of small-minded partisans. But generally, duty to the Federation and its interests is the highest duty. Although individual Federation officials may at times err in judgment, the righteousness of the Federation collectively speaking is beyond question.
Benevolence. "An it harm none, do as thou wilt." This is the rule in "off-duty" personal conduct. Recreation, amusement, leisure and comfort are encouraged. Any form of recreation is permitted so long as it is not physically risky or harmful (which is why there's "synth-ahol" on starships); safe, mild, harmless entertainment is best. Any and all sexual practices are permitted so long as there is no coercion or socially inconvenient consequence (such as unwanted pregnancy -- we may theorize that abortion on demand is the law of the Federation) and it is kept out of sight. Emotional comfort, ease and placidity is very important; excessive negative feelings (especially pain, despair or rage) are seen as an illness, since there is really nothing to feel bad about. Mutual toleration and appreciation is mandatory; intolerance of anyone's preferences is not officially illegal, but is severely punished by social disapproval.
Imperial Kindness. Because humans are good, they have the special right and responsibility to go forth all over the galaxy and do good deeds. (Aliens are allowed to help, but humans are still on top.) Ideally, all planets and all races should ally with humans, because humans are the most good race there is, and would be glad to share their goodness with all. Bringing goodness to others primarily consists of placing them under Federation authority, giving them advanced science and technology, and rescuing them from catastrophe. Whether the recipient society views these things as good is irrelevant; they just don't know what's good for them, that is, to be like us. The written rule is one of non-interference ("Prime Directive"), but this is followed only when active interference would cause more "harm" than "good."
E. Determinism. On the whole, biology dictates behavior. Humans are the race most capable of free thought and action, and have the most cultural diversity. Other races are stereotypical. All members of a given alien race share the same culture, beliefs, and personality traits. For example, all Ferengi are shifty and greedy, and believe in the Rules of Acquisition. Aliens who spend a lot of time with humans (example: Nog) sometimes acquire the human capacity to break stereotype. (Editor's note: cultural contamination in in Star Trek is a one way street. Vulcans can learn to emote after enough exposure to humans (eg. Spock, Tuvok), but humans don't become more logical after exposure to Vulcans. Klingons can become more ethical after exposure to humans (eg. Worf), but humans don't become more aggressive after exposure to Klingons. Ferengi can become less materialistic after exposure to humans (eg. Nog), but humans don't become more materialistic after exposure to Ferengi. After all, we've figured out the one true and righteous path, right? Sounds like the cultural self-satisfaction of Columbus and other murderous European conquerors).
F. Socialism. All people should work according to their abilities and receive resources according to their needs. Individual achievement is recognized socially but not rewarded materially. Individual freedom is not important. Economy should be centrally planned by the government, since they know best who needs what. Commerce and competition are necessary evils. The profit motive is evil. Social problems are caused by scarcity and/or unjust distribution of material goods, but modern technology renders competition for resources obsolete. Federation citizens have access to all the material things they need thanks to the Federation government, so they are free to be truly happy and to maximize their human potential.
The problem is not that Fed Religion is internally inconsistent, but that it is inconsistent with reality. NO human civilization has been able to erase the religious impulse from the minds of the majority of its people. NO human civilization has successfully combined lock-step totalitarian government with soft, fuzzy good feelings and compassion. NO human civilization has successfully combined excellence in all areas of human endeavor with collectivist, socialist economics and politics. I just can't believe it.
First of all, no society in the history of the world that has been Marxist, as the Fed clearly is, has achieved anything worth a darn. The only ones that have been even close to successful are the Soviet Union (now extinct, or at least dormant) and China (which is a stable society with roots far deeper than its present government). In the Trek timeline, there was a period of horrific genocidal war in the 21st century followed by a worldwide dark age. What motive could get humanity all the way to the stars by the 23rd? What got Western civilization through the "dark age" that followed the sack of Rome? Sunny confidence in the essential goodness of human nature? A love for scientific exploration? Baloney. There are basically two motives behind all human progress: economic advancement (for either survival or profit) and religious belief. Both were absolutely essential to the successful Middle Ages that followed. Both were necessary for the birth of modern science in the Renaissance. A society must be very advanced and leisured indeed to produce philosophers that churn out anti-capitalist and anti-religious ideas and a rarefied intelligentsia that takes them seriously.
If the Federation of the TNG era is that sort of society, then I'd expect it would also be rather decadent and corrupt. We don't see more than a hint of this on the show, which is a weird bit of metaphysics -- it's as though Star Trek were 24th c. pro-Fed propaganda rather than 20th c. sci-fi. I would expect to see widespread corruption in Fed politics, akin to what is observable in ancient Rome or the modern USA. I would expect an atmosphere of deep oppression and resignation among the people, a byproduct of the Fed having used force to stamp out religion and individuality. (Or maybe they use drugs and pleasure-generating machines to control people, like in THX-1138 or Brave New World.) I would expect a lot of indolent and restless people, perhaps being kept in check by martial law, occasionally rioting or even making terrorist attacks. I would expect entire planets of serfs devoted to mining or farming that would support the rest of the Fed, and gulag planets for prisoners. Maybe they keep Earth neat and tidy by only allowing the upper crust and politically connected to live there, banishing the masses to other planets or space stations, and keeping the "help" out of sight when they're not at work. I would not expect technology levels and standard of living to be uniform -- sure, you might have only the best on Galaxy class starships, but backwater colonies would probably be in pretty bad shape. I would also expect a lot of the privileged characters (such as the ones who'd be on the Enterprise) to be spoiled, self-important, possibly cruel or sexually perverted, and generally of low character.
In conclusion, if I ever found myself somehow transported to a future where the Federation ruled Earth, I would probably join the Maquis, or the underground Church (I'm sure there is one, like in China). I would not submit to Federation authority if I could help it, and I wouldn't step into a transporter!
I should make note of the fact that I don't necessarily agree with him on every issue.
For example, he uses the meaningless Creationist strawman term "macroevolution" at one point, which leads me to think that he must either be a creationist or, at the very least, one who has read a lot of Creationist literature. I don't necessarily have a problem with that, so long as he understands that his belief in Creation is purely religious, and not based in science. I don't have a problem with religion, but I do have a problem with religion masquerading as science. If you don't have much faith in science and you believe that God created the Earth, fine. At least you're being honest. But don't tell me that creationism is a legitimate scientific theory, because that's a lie. And don't misrepresent evolution theory, because that's dishonest. When you try to judge religion based on scientific validity, you're playing by the rules of science and you'll be doomed to failure. Religion and science don't mix. Attempts to describe one in terms of the other only diminish both.
Another disagreement involves his complaint that Trek treats mysteries as opportunities for scientific investigation rather than unsolvable supernatural events. I would point out that while he may find the idea disturbing, that is the scientific method. Scientific advancement never would have progressed beyond the medieval period if we were content to label every unsolved mystery as "supernatural" and stop investigating it. My problem with Trek is not that it treats mysteries as opportunities for scientific investigation, but that it treats mysteries as being solved as soon as they invent a technobabble term to slap on it. Mere categorization is considered a resolution by some people (most notably psychologists), but not by real scientists or engineers.
And finally, I believe he overstates the importance of religion to societal development. I agree with him that religious faith seems to fill a basic psychological need in human beings, and I agree that its diminution in Trek society is highly unrealistic, particularly in light of the fact that they are surrounded by things for which they have no rational explanation (eg. telepaths and godlike beings). However, I believe he goes too far when he suggests that religion causes "progress". Regardless of whether we define "progress" in terms of world population growth, technological advancement, or societal upheaval, there is no evidence whatsoever for this conclusion. Religion existed during periods of progress, but that doesn't prove it caused them. We must avoid false cause fallacies, and we must take note of the fact that rates of population growth, technological advancement, and social upheaval have actually increased during the decline of religious influence over the past two centuries. This directly contradicts the idea that religion causes progress.
However, in spite of those nit-picks, I still enjoyed his article and that's why I put it up on my site in its original form.
After reading his article I thought I would add some of my own thoughts on Federation culture, in four areas:
Technological Determinism: the philosophy that technology will eventually solve every problem facing human society, including undesirable behaviour such as hate, crime, etc.
Genetic Determinism: the philosophy that genetics control behaviour (more so than environment).
Pseudoscience: the use of scientific terminology and language to describe unscientific ideas.
Isolationism: the philosophy that we should never interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. In Trek lingo, "the Prime Directive".
Star Trek preaches two things about technology:
Technology can solve all of the problems of mankind, including the problems that stem from human nature such as war, hatred, greed, etc.
Technology should not be questioned. Eventually, it will solve all of its own side effects.
Now, I'm hardly a Luddite. I love technology, I work with it every day, and my idea of "roughing it" is to leave the cell-phone at home. I believe that technology has greatly improved our standard of living, but I also believe that dark side of human nature has not been affected at all by technology. Furthermore, I am aware that every technology comes accompanied by detrimental side effects (either physical or social, or both), and we must intelligently weigh those side effects against the benefits of any technology, rather than blithely crowing about the benefits and ignoring the side effects.
The Evil that Men Do
"Poverty, disease, war ... they'll all be gone within the next fifty years"- Counselor Troi, STFC. Note the dishonest positive rhetoric, typical of communist societies. Tasha Yar grew up in poverty and fear, and people still contract fatal diseases in TOS and TNG, yet Troi insists that all of that disappeared long before Captain Kirk was born.
I find it quite ironic that you can't watch TNG without seeing Shakespeare at every turn, because according to Star Trek, technology has eliminated greed, hatred, violence, jealousy, and every other stain on the impeccable character of Man. Many TNG episodes (such as "Symbiosis" and "The Neutral Zone") make a point of dwelling on the "evolved" 24th century inability to comprehend present-day human weaknesses. In other words, they may perform Shakespeare, they may watch Shakespeare, they may study Shakespeare, and they may even memorize Shakespeare, but if their rhetoric is to be believed, they can no longer relate to Shakespeare.
Humans in the 24th century are paragons of virtue, a shining symbol of moral leadership for all other races to aspire to. Greedy snake-oil salesmen? Not on Earth ... try Ferenginar. Warmongers? Look to the Klingon Empire. Deception? Go to Romulus. Sloth? We wouldn't hear of it! Everybody works hard for the "common good", never once thinking of reward. Rape? A telepath once did it on the "astral plane", but of course, he wasn't human. Jealousy? Riker watches his ex-girlfriend curl up with every man in the quadrant, and it doesn't bother him at all. And why should it? He's a politically correct Star Trek TNG Man. Captain Kirk would have kicked him in the teeth and slept with his woman.
So how have they accomplished this emasculation of mankind? According to Trek dogma, they didn't have to do anything! The appearance of advanced technology magically removed man's flaws, and they can all reap the benefits. Now, I'm hardly a Luddite. I love high technology. But the notion that it will change the fundamental nature of Man seems wildly naive. Technological determinism preaches the following:
All crime and evil stems from unfulfilled material desires.
Advanced technology allows us to make so much stuff, so cheaply, that no one will want for anything.
Without unfulfilled material desires, crime and evil will disappear.
This is a massively flawed theory. It is ridiculous to claim that crime and evil wouldn't exist without material desires. Many of the most heinous crimes in history have been perpetrated by the wealthy, not the poor. O.J. Simpson is hardly the only example; centuries ago, European royalty was born to obscene wealth, yet they were legendary for arbitrarily torturing their subjects.
Star Trek's philosophy of technological determinism is not new. A century ago, some believed that if everyone was guaranteed food, shelter and clothing, society's ills would go away. They were wrong. Today, we've actually realized that dream. Any welfare bum in my country can get food, shelter and clothing (and more) provided for free by the government. Have hate, crime, jealousy, greed and sloth disappeared? Not yet, and the last time I checked, Hell was nowhere near freezing over, so it won't happen for a while.
One more thing to ponder: would it actually be a good thing if the "dark side" of humanity were erased? Sure, it sounds good to say we should eliminate hatred, lust, greed, sloth, etc. But a TOS episode once opined that we need our dark halves to survive, and I think there's something to be said for that idea. What is aggression, if not the driving force behind all great leaders? Don't hatred and xenophobia come from our need for community? Our "wolf-pack" instinct drives us to form communities and defend them from outsiders, does it not? And if greed and sloth didn't drive us to invent labour-saving devices, then what did? Take all of those things away, and you have ... Emasculated TNG Man. Newly divested of that which propelled him to the top of the food chain, and ripe to be moved one notch down on that food chain.
Asking the Hard Questions
As if it isn't enough to claim that technology can eliminate "undesirable" human traits, Star Trek tries to sell us on the idea that technology should never be debated. Again, I'm hardly a Luddite, but a society is a complex system, and a new technology, just like any societal development, will inevitably cause side effects. Whether the benefits are worth the side effects is the question we always ask, but not according to Star Trek. In Star Trek, technologies never have a dark side.
Again, I stress that I love technology. Hell, I'm an engineer and a network sysadmin; two occupations that rely completely on technology. But if you look at the history of technological developments, there are always negatives attached to the positives. Sewer systems were perhaps the first truly society-shaking invention in history, but they also reduced the importance of agriculture and made the modern mega-city possible. I live in a city of millions and I love it, but there are a lot of people who hate mega-cities with a passion. Combustion engines gave us steam ships, trains, and cars, but they also gave us massive air pollution. The assembly line enlarged the middle class and helped end the so-called "gilded age", but it also created huge numbers of boring, dead-end industrial jobs. The computer gave us the wondrous boon that is Quake 3 Arena, but it also gave us fat, pale kids who never go outside. And finally, radio and television gave us real-time news reporting from around the world, but they also gave us Michael Bolton and the Jerry Springer show.
As you can see, even the most seemingly benign technologies come with price tags attached. We've become accustomed to taking these price tags in stride and weighing them against the benefits, but this calculation is unnecessary in the world of Star Trek. In Trek, technologies are never questioned. No one ever wonders about whether they're worth the price. No one even asks if there is a price. Two of the most glaring examples of questionable Treknology follow:
Transporters. Amazingly, the philosophical issues of matter/energy transportation have never even been discussed on the show! The occasional objection to transportation is always portrayed in the same light as modern-day fear of flying: superstitious and irrational (although ironically enough, Doctor McCoy's concerns were later shown to be justified, since "transporter psychosis" was later discovered and presumably solved). However, real-life philosophers have debated the ethics of the transporter, irrespective of its reliability, ever since Star Trek hit the airwaves. There are three reasons to fear the transporter:
Destruction of the body: suppose I walked up to you with a flame-thrower and blasted you until you were nothing but a pile of charred remains. Would this be murder? Most people would say yes. But what if I possessed some quasi-magical technology which could later reconstitute your smoking remains into a precise copy of you? Suppose I escaped from prison and used this technology, and then used the duplicate "you" to prove that I was no longer guilty of murder? Would the police accept this without question? Or would there be a court trial of epic proportions? One would think that the ensuing trial would involve heated and divisive philosophical schisms in history, but in the world of Star Trek, there is no debate at all. No questions. Not one word of dissent.
Discontinuity of brain function: The TNG episode "Relics" provided an interesting example of the nature of transporters. In this episode, Scotty remained in a transporter's "pattern buffer" for decades, without perceiving the passage of a single day. No dreams, no memories, no aging, no facial hair growth, no perception of time whatsoever. This is obviously a discontinuity of brain function. Discontinuity of brain function, in conjunction with simultaneous discontinuity of physical integrity, is death by any definition of the term. Of course, there are those who heatedly disagree:
Some say that discontinuity of consciousness is not death because people who are resuscitated after cardiac arrests are considered to be alive. However, a cardiac arrest is merely the cessation of heart function, not brain function. When brain activity ceases, a state of "brain death" is declared.
Others say that this process is analogous to suspended animation, in which a person is frozen and then "thawed out" later. However, suspended animation is not analogous to transportation because physical integrity is not lost at any point in the process- the mind and body are merely suspended. The transportation process involves simultaneous discontinuity of the body and the mind.
Some claim that there is no discontinuity, using Barclay's perceptions in "Realm of Fear" as proof. "Since he didn't perceive any break in consciousness," they argue, "he was clearly conscious throughout the entire procedure." Frankly, this is a moronic argument. Of course Barclay didn't perceive a discontinuity! Since consciousness is required for perception, it is impossible by definition for anyone to perceive a discontinuity in his own consciousness! "Realm of Fear" proves nothing (apart from a startling lack of intelligence on the part of some Trekkies).
The Soul: One of the most ancient questions is the question of whether any part of us transcends our physical existence. And without presuming to resolve this raging debate here, I would like to point out that if you do believe in the concept of a soul, the concept of transporters is even more ethically questionable. Star Trek, in apparent contradiction to its atheistic philosophy, seems to fully support the concept of a soul. People can continue to exist outside of their physical bodies in Star Trek, they can be "possessed" by invisible spirits (or "non-corporeal energy beings", as they would call them), and they can even exchange souls with one another (remember Kirk walking around in a woman's body?). So, when someone is transported, what happens to the soul? Is it transported along with the original? Is it destroyed during the process? Is it cast free? What happened when Riker was accidentally copied? Did the second Riker get a brand new soul? Did the two Rikers split a single soul (soul fission?) Again, these are questions that no one on Star Trek thinks to ask, much less answer.
Medicine. One of the biggest problems in many modern industrialized societies (particularly where I live, in North America) is the preponderance of the pill-popping mindset. Do you want to lose excess weight, and get in shape? Old-fashioned types would suggest that you exercise regularly, eat a well-balanced diet, and avoid junk food. But nobody wants to hear that, so let's pray that the pharmaceutical companies can invent a magical pill! Pop the pill, and you can erase the effects of a self-destructive and unhealthy lifestyle, right? Sadly, the "forget the healthy lifestyle, the doctor can fix me!" mentality pervades Star Trek:
ST4: Doctor McCoy stumbles into an elderly woman on kidney dialysis, and gives her a pill which completely cures her in minutes. Decades of progressive degeneration, erased in minutes with a pill! The scene is played for laughs, but it has the effect of reinforcing the annoying present-day mentality that we won't need healthy lifestyles if we simply make better pills.
"The Neutral Zone": In this TNG episode, a frozen 21st century singer was "thawed out" on the USS Enterprise. Doctor Crusher found massive organ damage due to decades of alcohol and drug abuse. She eliminated all of this damage with ... drugs. Again, this promotes the annoying technological determinist idea that our unhealthy lifestyles are fine- we just need more advanced drugs.
STFC, "Booby Trap": In these incidents and many more, we hear about a radiation vaccine. Yup- in the future, we won't need to avoid radiation exposure any more! We can bathe ourselves in gamma radiation, thanks to some really advanced drugs. Yet again, prudent behaviour is shunned by Star Trek's writers, in favour of insanely self-destructive behaviour in conjunction with really good medical drugs. Would it kill these people to develop a radiation suit?
Hey, technology is good. It's vastly improved our standard of living over the past century. It's helped us eliminate certain social injustices. But it also creates its own problems, and it hasn't improved the character of Man at all. This century has been witness to many improvements in society, but it has also been witness to some of the most monstrous events in human history. Events such as Stalin's purges and famines, Hitler's holocausts, or the European "ethnic cleansings" of recent history were driven by the same flaws in human nature that have been causing us grief since time immemorial. Star Trek's mentality of "technology improves society and has no side effects" can only be the result of historical ignorance and shallow thinking.
I rant about this on the Racism page. Suffice it to say that many years ago, racists discovered that you could make any racist proclamation you wanted, so long as you performed a clever word substitution: wherever the word "race" appears, simply replace it with "culture". In this way, racists have remade themselves for the new politically correct age. Amazingly, they have actually performed the ultimate racist coup: they have pushed the old definition of racism out of the limelight, in favour of a new definition which permits them to continue making their racial generalizations.
Do you remember the "melting pot"? Well, say goodbye to that old idea; we're in the age of "cultural diversity", which is a euphemism for ethnic balkanization. Do you remember when people dreamed of a colour-blind world? Now, we "celebrate our cultural differences", and pat ourselves on the back for being "racially sensitive". Can you imagine if someone wanted to hold a parade to highlight the differences between the black race and the white race? That doesn't sound quite right, does it? But what if it's a parade to highlight the differences between black culture and white culture? Suddenly, it's OK!
Star Trek hasn't caused this societal disease, but it is symptomatic of it. In Star Trek, racism has merely changed gears to focus on differences in nose, forehead, and ear structure rather than differences in skin colour. Just as white racists tend to assume all blacks are alike, all asians are alike, etc., Star Trek portrays every species but humans as monocultural. Non-human species always have precisely one religion. One language. One clothing style. One hair style. One set of shared values and ideals. One concept of morality. The handful who deviate from cultural norms can only do when "enlightened" by exposure to humans and their presumably superior moral code. It reminds me of rednecks who think all asians act the same, or who think that all blacks act the same, etc.
Star Trek routinely does something which I consider unconscionable: it uses a blizzard of pseudoscience to lend an atmosphere of false realism. It reminds me of the "X-Files" character "Fox Mulder", who likes to make vague claims that "recent developments in quantum physics" support every one of his crazy ideas. Trekkies like to claim that Star Trek is "hard science fiction" (as opposed to "unrealistic science fantasy" like Star Wars). In some extreme cases, they even go so far as to claim that it's all technologically feasible! Do they say this because they've analyzed the events of Star Trek for scientific accuracy? Not a chance- most of them don't know a coulomb from a joule, or the difference between Young's Modulus and Dave's burger special. The only reason they say this is because Star Trek uses lots of cool science buzzwords.
Don't be fooled by style over substance. According to the troglodyte mentality, Star Wars is unrealistic because it has mystical powers (the Force), ghosts (Obi-Wan's disembodied voice and shimmering visage in TESB and ROTJ), virtual demigods (the Jedi), and even possessions by malevolent spirits (found in some of the novels). The whole franchise has a mythical aura about it, whereas Star Trek has a "futuristic atmosphere". But is Star Trek really any different, once you dig beneath the surface? Let's take a look, shall we?
Ghosts. We've seen ghosts in Star Wars. But have you ever seen a ghost in Star Trek? No? OK, how about a "disembodied consciousness"? Does that sound a bit more familiar? How about an "astral projection", "energy being", or "neural energy pattern"? Are we starting to get the picture? Does it sound a bit more like Trek? Ahhh, now you're getting it.
Mystical forces. Do they exist in Trek? Of course not, right? But wait a minute ... what about "telepathic contact", or "psycho-kinetic energy"? Hmm ... that sounds a little more familiar, doesn't it?
How about demigods? Does Trek have demigods? I hope you didn't answer "no". In TOS we saw Apollo himself, straight out of Roman myth, complete with all of his powers. We met Trelane. In TNG we were introduced to Q. We met an omnipotent Dowd. We ran into a smiling interstellar Cheshire Cat who swallowed the Enterprise whole and experimented at leisure on its crew. Not only does Trek have demigods, but it goes one step further than Star Wars and features full-fledged gods. They demonstrate their omnipotent powers. They defy the laws of physics. They shake. They bake. This ain't "hard sci-fi".
And finally, we come to the subject of possessions. Surely, Trek has never featured a possession, right? After all, this is science fiction, not "The Exorcist". Well, sorry to disappoint you, but Star Trek has indeed featured possessions. Lots of 'em. We've seen Enterprise crewmen possessed by dead spirits, we've seen Captain Kirk and a woman exchange bodies, and we've seen Data possessed by malevolent spirits more than once. We've even seen Captain Picard possessed by an "energy creature", beamed out into space as a disembodied spirit where he had no physical form yet Counselor Troi could still sense his presence, and then reassembled back into a living person again!
Star Trek actually has more mythical content than Star Wars. Hell, it's even had a character from actual myths: Apollo! It just packages it in the language of science, and its writers hope that you'll be gullible enough to buy into it as "science fiction." But they will only fool the gullible and the shallow. Once you dig beneath the surface, a scientifically reasonable idea is identified by its observance of physical laws, not its use of cool-sounding technical terms.
The Prime Directive
So you think the Prime Directive is proof of Star Trek's philosophical depth, right? Funny thing though ... when I look at it, the Prime Directive seems more like a return to the sort of moral cowardice and isolationism that nearly kept America out of WW2.
Crack open those mouldy old history books and look up the American Neutrality Act of 1935. It forbade interference in wars that could be classified as internal conflicts between other nations, thus evoking obvious parallels to Trek's Prime Directive (and to the Klingon civil war in TNG, in which Picard was forbidden to directly interfere). The Neutrality Act forbade American interference when the Germans aggressively seized neighbouring European countries. It forbade American interference when the Germans invaded France. If FDR hadn't gutted it with his hotly debated Lend-Lease program, it would have kept convoys of supply ships sitting in American ports while Britain burned and eventually fell to Nazi Germany. When you think about the righteousness of the Prime Directive, consider the fact that if America obeyed its own Neutrality Act, we would all be speaking either German or Japanese right now.
The moral justification for the Prime Directive obviously comes from the atrocities committed by European conquerors during their imperialist age. Every foreign nation they encountered became a target for rape, pillage, massacres, and cultural obliteration. It was a shameful period in European history, and one that many still refuse to acknowledge (as evidenced by the continued celebration of Columbus Day in America, even though Columbus was a mass murderer). Their credo was cultural imperialism, whereby they believed that as good Christians, they were "saving" native peoples by destroying cultural artifacts and killing or torturing people who refused to convert to Christianity.
This was obviously immoral (although the mentality of forcing Christianity down peoples' throats survives to this day in the form of persecution of science teachers for teaching evolution and other church-inspired social diseases). But the Prime Directive aims to eliminate the possibility of a recurrence by going to the opposite extreme! It's immoral to rape and pillage a foreign land or eradicate its culture, but is it really any better to sit idly by while people are dying? This issue was hotly debated during the recent flare-ups of ethnic violence in the balkan states, and the public decided that it is wrong to sit on your hands while people are being senselessly murdered.
If Captain Picard had come upon two nations attempting to "ethnically cleanse" one another, he would not have come to the same decision. No, he would have gone with his Prime Directive and decided that it would be "wrong" to interfere. He would sit in orbit and watch from a distance as children are torn from their mothers' arms and shot to death. He would sit in his ready room and idly read Shakespeare while whole families are tortured to death. He would memorize Romeo's vow of vengeance while calmly explaining to his crew that they should ignore the plight of the innocent. And if anyone on the crew questioned him, he would smugly respond that they should have faith in the righteousness of the Prime Directive, no matter how bad it may seem.
Well, Captain, if that isn't religious faith, I don't know what is. When the Federation runs into a situation which forces them to question the Prime Directive, they put their faith in the infinite wisdom of the law. It seems that they believe the law has a plan, which is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals and which should therefore not be questioned, no matter how serious the objections may be. Like those in America who think constitutional rights outweigh morality, the Federation seems to worship its own legal documents above all else. Maybe religion isn't dead in the Federation after all.
Numerous readers have written with what they believe to be an obvious criticism of this article: "Star Wars culture isn't perfect either." Some of them go on to make the same observation about Babylon5. The problem with this criticism is that their concerns fall into the same trap as David Brin's brain-damaged criticisms of Star Wars: ignorance of context.
In Star Trek (in the TNG era and beyond), the society of the Federation is invariably described as "paradise" by the characters onscreen. It's been lauded as a "socialist utopia" by its fans. The producers describe it as "idealized future." The message is clear: it supposedly depicts the perfect human society.
Star Wars and B5 (and most other sci-fi films such as Starship Troopers, the Alien series, Demolition Man, Blade Runner, etc) each depict societies with serious flaws of their own, but here's the difference: they know it. In Star Wars, the word "Empire" is inextricably tied to the word "evil". Even the Old Republic had serious problems, hence its eventual collapse. It was not sold to us as "paradise" or "utopia".
There's nothing wrong with depicting flawed societies: every film does it, in varying degrees. After all, our society is imperfect and so are we. Therefore, any realistic film must depict an imperfect society. But when you depict a deeply flawed society and describe it as "paradise", that's annoying. When that society is actually worse than contemporary society in some ways and you still describe it as "paradise", that's just offensive. It means the producers are trying to tell us that our society should be like the one they're describing. And that is why I harshly criticize Star Trek's "utopian" society.