Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Baltar's Sermon

Nicholas left a comment on my "Cylon God" post saying he wanted to know my thoughts on the sermon Baltar gave at the end of the "Escape Velocity" episode. Nicholas thinks he might have misunderstood because it sounded like Baltar was saying that the one true God was really people rather than a singular entity.

I have to say that yes, you are, in my opinion, a bit off, Nick. What Baltar did was try to make a statement that could be understood by anyone of any theological persuasion, even atheists and Zeus worshipers.

At the end of the episode, beaten and bloody, Baltar delivers a sermon to his followers. I can't find a transcript for it so I have to paraphrase the essentials as I remember them. Feel free to correct any errors or link a transcript.

Baltar starts by admitting that he has not been a particularly good man, he has been a profoundly selfish man, but he says that doesn't matter because there is something in the universe that loves him, that loves the entity that is Baltar. He chooses to call that something "God."

That's a pretty loose definition of "God." It's just something Baltar feels and that he thinks loves him. So, he feels loved. That "God" who loves him could be just a part of his own psyche or it could be an all powerful force. If you don't know Baltar from the show you could assume that entity that loves Baltar is his pet cat.

Baltar is not claiming to know that this entity is the "one true God," all powerful, all knowing, as his own followers seem to believe and as he has been told by his head Six. There was just a spark inside him and his belief that other people at least had this spark and intuition of being loved, at least by themselves, was also part of them. This is the only testimony offered, his own subjective experience that there was an entity in the universe that loved him. A singular spark that dwells in the soul of every living being, and that every being can find within himself if only you look for it: That could be the beginning of either theobabble or psychobabble.

Next, Baltar claims that God loves them all, at least those gathered to hear his sermon, because they are all perfect, just as they are. In the background, Lee Adama leaves, with a very worried and disgusted look on his face. Now what does "perfection" mean here? This is where Tory's influence comes in and where things begin to diverge from a lot of standard Christian beliefs.

In standard Christianity one of the problems with the world is that everyone falls short of God's glory. In Romans 3:23 Paul says: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That implies that people lack perfection. In standard interpretations of the Bible sin is defined as falling short of a standard of perfection established and evidenced by Jesus. Since no one can live up to that we're all sinners and imperfect. That view makes Baltar something of an Anti-Christ.

However, what is and isn't a sin varies from one sect to another. For Ted Haggard, one time leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, things like homosexual behavior and drug use would be sins, while for Andrew Sullivan being gay is no sin, it's something he openly embraces.

This is certainly not our Baltar:

This thing called "sin" and concepts about "good" and "evil," heaven and hell, God and Satan, angels and demons are missing from Baltar's theology so far. They are an important part of the standard Christian mindfrak that I've dealt with elsewhere on my blog, and in other writings, so I'm not going to dwell on that much beyond saying this is where Baltar diverges from standard Christianity.

Next, Baltar says you must love your faults, embrace them. If God embraces them, how can they be faults? (Are faults the same as sins? If God didn't want us to be sinners, why did he give us sinful desires? He would seem to be punishing us for his own mistakes.) Baltar also says; "You must love yourself because otherwise you can't love others." That sentiment is not alien to many forms of Christianity and there is some truth to it and we are given a particular example when we are shown, while Baltar is saying it, a picture of Starbuck collapsed on a table in the Demetrius. Then we see Sam Anders quietly approaching the sleeping Starbuck. She does have a problem loving others and it seems that's because she doesn't love herself enough.

As we watch the Demetrius scene Baltar goes on to say that when we know what we are we can see the truth about others. And that truth is that they are perfect, perfect just as they are. God only loves what is perfect, and he loves us, therefore he loves us just as we are, because we are perfect.

If not for the particular examples shown during Baltar's sermon I would say Baltar's preaching is a pretty vacuous, meaningless feel-good theology. The sermon could almost have been given by some TV evangelist in our world. Exactly what does it mean to love yourself? Does it mean to indulge all your desires? Does it mean you can abandon guilt? Maybe to Tory. And will loving yourself really give you the ability to see "the truth about others"? I don't think so. It might be a good place to start though, but the truth is not that we are all "perfect."

There is no perfection for any human being. It can't even be imagined what that would be. If there is anything close to a perfect person in Galactica I think it would be Helo. Tall, strong, solid and an on target moral compass, willing to look for humanity in the Cylons. However, he's not perfect for every situation. He's perhaps a perfect soldier who won't follow immoral orders and will give his life for the good of the civilization -- but he doesn't seem to be a leader people follow, he's not a scientist who could come up with a Cylon detector. His role and character has limits.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Cylon God

This post now linked by the "So say we all" Galactica blog carnival. Submit your own entries here.

I loved this last episode, "Escape Velocity," not because it was a great episode but rather because it finally answered some questions that had been nagging me since the series started and also because there was lots of Baltar, my favorite character played by the most strangely talented actor I've ever seen.

As episodes go, this was just a small, character driven, open ended and sometimes weirdly incoherent part of an on going story. There were no big events, just little events threatening to grow into serious problems. There was no closure on any of the stories started and continued, just promises of dire consequences to come. And those promises meet the expectations I had when I wrote my first Galactica post on this blog, "Why the new Battlestar Galactica is more important than "Expelled!" or Vox Day's writings." The show's 4th and final season looked to be a rich vein of speculation on religion, morality and society.

One of the questions that had been nagging me for awhile was why Caprica Six, head Six, and some other Cylons were using such familiar Christian terminology. Caprica Six told Baltar that God created the Cylons (yet it was a matter of history that men had created the Cylons), Head-six told Baltar that she was an "angel" of god. They've used phrases like "one true God," and Cavil said the Sixes believed God would "save their souls." The way Baltar prayed with his hands folded and kneeling (I don't think Jews and Muslims do it that way). The way that Baltar's cult sets up his shrine, like a Catholic saint. Even praying for miracles and asking similar questions about God's will; "Does God want my son to die?" It says they believe this God is all powerful and everything that happens that they can't comprehend is God's will. It's not the kind of a God that a scientist would normally believe in.

We don't know why the Sixes believe in God. Does she have some artificial memory of someone telling her so when she was a child? Is it part of some artificial and programmed memory for a creature that was born as an adult and who never had a childhood? It suggests that whatever thing did program her is ready to play the role of God, at least for the Sixes. (Then why not Brother Cavil? Why is he programmed differently? If they are programmed.)

How long have Cavil and Caprica Six been "alive" to collect experiences and form their own opinions? Could she have come to such a conclusion on her own? If she did so, why did she? Was her belief unplanned for by those who made and programmed her to be humanoid?

Then there are some episode titles that play with biblical phrases, like "He That Believeth In Me," "The Hand of God," "Valley of Darkness," "Epiphanies," "Exodus," "A Measure of Salvation" and "Rapture," and they've been using that "clue" stuffed riddle of a picture that resembles Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" to promote the show. Then add to that how people have been having mystical experiences, following visions and getting miraculous messages in temples and what not. Is that really the supernatural or is it some unknown technology?

Throwing out the word "God" is no big deal, there could be all kinds of gods, but then "angel," "one true God," "saving souls," and it all starts to sound very Christian. Those terms and concepts are too familiar for a foreign culture so distant in time and space from our own. We don't have to go but half way around this planet in our present time to find ourselves surrounded by more exotic forms of religion where those concepts don't fit. In India you might see Hindus offering flowers and fruits to pictures of strange looking gods. In Japan you might see odd Shinto rituals where they dance with a broom to keep evil spirits away. It's an exotic touch that makes us feel far from home. But I don't ever feel that far from home watching Galactica.

If Six had been using terms like "The Designer" for God and "memory patterns" for soul then we would have picked up on the religious parallels and understood how god-like Cylon technology was without needing all the extra assumptions that come with the Judeo-Christian concepts. The Christian terms and concepts carry too much cultural baggage. And worse, they actually obscure the issue because there are so many different interpretations of Christianity in our culture.

These days I don't know what Christians believe when they babble on about theology. Do they literally believe in talking snakes? Do they think they'll go to heaven and do more duck hunting there? One time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee actually expressed that belief not too long ago.

Christian beliefs, all using similar terminology, can run the gamut from Pat Robertson to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from pope Ratzinger to John Shelby Spong. They've all got their own personal Jesus, made in their own image.

Some people on the forums I've visited have been assuming, until recently, that when Cylons talk of "God" they're referring to something like a legendary figure from the past, possibly an early designer of robotic Cylons or the first human/cylon hybrid. They may be, but using culturally loaded terminology is not the usual way that's done. In Star Trek, and some of these Galactica people worked on Deep Space Nine, they didn't have Christians or get that close to Christian-like concepts with their alien religions. In the Stargate series you get a lot of "gods" too, usually high-tech aliens, but not such direct use of Christian terminology.

Later Star Trek incarnations even suffered a tiny bit in the credibility department for not including Christians. There were no sky-pilots in space, no military chaplins in Starfleet that we knew of. I mean, even after a few hundred years you'd think there might at least be a few Unitarian Universalists left who still talked about the Bible and had a little chapel set aside for services. Okay, maybe the fundamentalists and evangelicals might have gone extinct, but evolution accepting methodists too? It's likely that standard fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity has too narrow a view of man and the universe to survive solid proof of evolution and Turing testable artificial intelligence. It's not, however, necessarily true of the thousands of other variants of Christianity.

Yet, even with this variety of Christian options all the religions in the later Trek series were alien religions, humanity seemed to have gone entirely humanist in Starfleet, and the terminology they used for alien religions was carefully chosen for an exotic flavor and not to sound too Christian even while commenting on either the positive or negative aspects of modern religion.

But now, here we are light years from Earth, without Earth's history, in who knows what time period, and we've got Roman gods and some form of pseudo-Christianity with Baltar in the role of Jesus. The fact that they're using concepts and terminology borrowed from Judeo-Christian monotheism suggests they are either trying to draw some parallel or were lazy about inventing this originally Cylon religion.

I don't think they were lazy.

This episode finally made some more direct parallels to New Testament events (and I expect more parallels to come). After Baltar's cult was attacked by another religious group, Baltar stormed into one of the services to honor Zeus. He called Zeus a serial rapist and started throwing religious icons to the ground. It recalled the story, in Matthew 21:12, where Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. Jesus's crucifiction would soon follow.

They aren't trying to be "realistic." They're trying to make a comment about religion in our very own culture. This is science fiction as metaphor. This is more slipstream than sci-fi. I don't think there is any good way to rationalize how Roman religions, religions from pretty much the middle of the evolution of humanity's religious concepts, got out into space. We don't even know if the events in Galactica are in our past or our future yet.

I've suspected for awhile that, at least in part, this show has been a warning about what might happen if we approach the technological singularity described by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge with our current political and religious structures as they are.

For one thing the humans in the show did the absolute worst thing you can do when approaching such a technological shift, they outlawed artificial intelligence while the Cylons held on to it (in fact are it). Thus Cylon technology accelerated and passed through the "technological singularity" while humanity became technologically stagnated.

Artificial intelligence is suppose to be the key driver for the singularity. The humans out-lawed it. The Cylons were it. And now the Cylons live in a god-like post-technological singularity world.

There may be something akin to a Cylon "mainframe" that is fairly god-like in its powers. It apparently wasn't any of the 7 humanoid models that decided to make 12 humanoid models and then hide who exactly the final 5 were from the 7 we originally knew of. Some unknown entity on the Cylon side seems to be calling the shots for some mysterious reason.

In "Escape Velocity" we may have gotten a glimpse into that god-like entity's motives and it's another parallel to the biblical story of Jesus. It happened when Tigh was visiting the Six in her prison cell and Six told Tigh about "becoming human" and then learning through pain and changing because of it. She didn't know what guilt felt like until she felt it. She didn't know what love was until she feel in love with Baltar. She didn't understand death until she realized Baltar wouldn't always be there. Jesus also "became flesh and dwelt among us" perhaps to experience such things himself. Of course, I don't believe that biblical story, but it's an interesting idea.

I like the Galactica version of this "god became flesh" concept better than the biblical story and I'm not even sure Six is being honest in telling it. She may be saying it so Tigh will accept her. The Bible story never really explored Jesus's emotional state much or told us what exactly he learned from his suffering and pain. Jesus didn't seem to change and grow like Six has. Jesus wasn't really one of us, just another stranger on the bus trying to find his way home. He was always other worldly, unlike our poor lost, and final, Cylons.

However, telling this human side of the story that never actually happened to Jesus seems to be a big influence on a lot of creative types who have converted to Christianity. Anne Rice converted and wrote such a story of Jesus; "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt."

Six, getting back to the point, also might be growing in ways her original programmer didn't want. One thing about the Sixes is that all of them we've seen, Head Six, Caprica Six, Natalie, and Gina, seem to be out to cause and gather pain. They are always putting themselves in situations where they either wind up dishing it out or getting pain. So while Head Six talks Baltar into being a punching bag martyr in front of his followers, Caprica Six is in the brig hammering on Tigh's face and then kissing him. And Gina got herself tortured and raped.

And if the Cylons became flesh to learn about humanity, consider the things that ex-Chief Tyrol is learning. Back at Tyrol's apartment Tory had told Tyrol that he was made to be perfect and that he can turn off his guilt over Cally's death. Tyrol reminds Tigh that he planned to be the same man he always was. Tigh says yea, "...feel what you gotta feel, but don't risk us."

But Tyrol can't be the man he was. He starts to fall apart, he yells at Adama, saying how he hates his life and he didn't really like Cally all that much... she was just "the best of limited options." Tyrol even reminded Adama of his threat to kill Cally during the workers' strike and said he felt like killing her himself. (If there's ever a murder investigation into Cally's death he's going to be the primary suspect now.) His relationship with Cally was dysfunctional and he wasn't over his affair with Boomer either. He once said he didn't think about Sharon anymore, but how could he not now that he knows he is, like Boomer, a Cylon.

Adama demotes him after he spews all this poisonous emotion. Now his life is going to be even worse. Well, Jesus and Buddha never learned those life lessons, did they? There's a hell of a personal Jesus for you, fired, dysfunctional marriage, then widower and terrified of his dangerous secret. Such a cross to bear.

A lot more happened in this episode, but I'll pick up those threads later when the story lines reach some more closure.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Kevin Eleven is a lying sack of santorum

Kevin 11, the screenwriter for "Expelled," had been telling us on his blog that he doesn't say anywhere in his film that Darwin or atheism were the cause of Hitler's policies. Yet according to this "Open Letter to a victim of Ben Stein's lying propaganda," by Richard Dawkins, people like Michael Shermer have gotten letters saying things like this:

Now I truly understand who you atheists and darwinists really are! You people believe that it was okay for my great-grandparents to die in the Holocaust! How disgusting. Your past article about the Holocaust was just window dressing. We Jews will fight to keep people like you out of the United States!

It turned out the author of the letter had just seen "Expelled."

Some blame is put on Ben Stein for the film's mendacious suggestion that Darwin and atheism are to blame for Hitler. However, Stein was only a hired actor speaking the lines given to him by Kevin 11. He didn't necessarily know. Kevin is the one who did the "research" and crafted the blue print for this propaganda film. He has less of an excuse.

And if you go to his blog you'll find Kevin continually trying to deny he has made any such connection. In the comments section of his blog, for example, this one, he wrote: one is arguing that Darwinism is a sufficient condition for Nazism, but it is a necessary one, because Darwinism provided the philosophical and scientific justifications for pre-existing prejudices and hatreds.

New communications technologies, railroads and trucks were necessary conditions to kill millions, but Darwin's theory was not. Without the trains and trucks for the transportation of the victims, Hitler's henchmen could not have gotten them to the camps easily. Without the communications technology, Hitler and his henchmen couldn't have passed their orders across Germany and Europe.

Does anyone really think that all the pogroms and antisemitic violence before Darwin would not have been worse if only they had better technology? The attacks against Jews back during the Crusades, the Pogrom of 1096 in France and Germany? The massacres of Jews at London and York in 1189-1190? In the eleventh century there were Muslim pogroms against Jews in Spain.

I had already noted before that the Germans had plenty of philosophical and pseudo-scientific justifications without using Darwin. In fact, many of the justifications used were specifically Christian.

Not only are "necessary conditions" such as railroads and radio generally considered morally blameless, or at least not something to be abandoned because they enabled mass murder, the idea that Darwin's theory is even in that group is utterly bogus. The first assumption in this faulty logic here is that because the killings of millions of people like that didn't happen until after Darwin that his theory might be a necessary condition or cause. But killing people, killing Jews, in large numbers, hundreds and thousands, goes back to before the Roman empire. The only big change was in humanity's capability to organize and move people.

Kevin 11 admits that his research pretty much involved reading books like Peter Weikart's "From Darwin to Hitler," which is itself a political propaganda book.

Brian Flemming predicted it would happen on his last blogpost, but I couldn't believe they'd be that stupid.

It appears that the producers of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" (in the making of this film) have used John Lennon's song, "Imagine," in their film without getting permission. Yoko Ono, and Lennon's sons are suing the filmmakers.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Circuitry is thicker than Blood: Spoiler review of "The Ties that Bind"

Again, there was good and bad to this episode. On the bad side, no Baltar and Tory's transition into a full blown monster seemed to abandon the promise made by last week's episode, "Six of One." On the good side, there was an almost shocking, and still very scary, TV death scene made possible only by abandoning that promise. I wouldn't have seen it coming except for the previews and the fact that people over at Galactic Water-cooler interpreted those previews and saw it coming and I, of course, read them and had the shock spoiled.

The major event in this episode was the death of Cally, and except for broadcasting what was going to happen to her in the previews the whole thing was well done. It was the only game that started and finished in this single episode. The other events in this episode were all part of slower moving games that have been going on for awhile and where we see only one or two moves made per episode. By the "slower games" I mean things like the Cylon civil war, Starbuck's quest for Earth and Apollo's involvement in law and politics.

I'll get to the other elements of this episode, like the Cylon civil war, Apollo's new role and what's happening aboard the Demetrius after a bit more of those games have played out. But I will say that Starbuck's and Anders's relationship is getting interesting. I don't know what it means yet. Starbuck might be going insane and they seem to be foreshadowing a mutiny to come, but then, like Tory's tears with Baltar, it's quite possible I'm misreading the clues.

Here's the recap on Cally's death game to see how it's played:

We start with Cally being all strung out, taking some pills, wondering where her husband, Chief Tyrol, is. Then we cut to Tory and Tyrol in a bar. Tory tells Tyrol how she is being flooded with new sensations and how she never liked the taste of ambrosia till now. She's beginning to like her change into a Cylon. Not Tyrol, he says he doesn't like change. It appears Tory is trying to seduce him. She puts her fingers on his elbows. He's stern and resistant to her seductions. Cally enters the bar and sees Tory with her husband. She makes a scene and Tyrol leaves Tory to go back to his wife and try to convince her he's not having an affair with Tory.

Thus part of Tory's potential motive is set up, sexual jealousy.

Cally next finds a note about a meeting in a weapons locker hidden inside the hinge crevice of the door to their apartment. She sneaks out to spy on whoever is in the weapons locker, hiding in some crawl space near-by. She hears her husband, Tory and Tigh talking about being Cylons. They're even clued into the fact that it's possible she might find the note.

After learning this, Cally runs back to their apartment, puts the note back into the crevice, before Tyrol comes home. She tries to pretend she knows nothing when he arrives, keeping her back to her husband as her face plays out the emotions she can't hide. Tyrol promises and promises to love her and be there for her. She can't believe him. She suddenly attacks him with a huge heavy wrench, knocking him out but not killing him.

Then she makes a really stupid, very human, move, torn up by her emotions she heads towards an airlock, apparently planning to commit suicide and take her baby with her. It's heart breaking, the actress does a good job. Then Tory appears and walks into the airlock. Cally shuts the door threatening to take Tory with her.

"Stay away from me!" Cally yells at Tory. "You all used me!"

Tory tries to explain herself, "We didn't know... We're still the same people. We're not evil."

Cally starts to understand, though still suspicious. Tory knows what Cally is planning and says, "Don't do this to your child. Don't do it to yourself."

"What have I done?" Cally begins to change her mind and realize how crazy she's been acting.

Cally gives up the child.

Tory seems to have saved her from her irrational and emotional decision. At this point it's not obvious that Tory will kill Cally unless you saw the previews and even then it's not clear how it will play out. Then, quite suddenly and without warning, Tory whacks Cally with a powerful one armed back hand and sends her flying backwards about ten feet.

From an adjoining, glass walled room next to the airlock Tory holds the child and begins to prepare to eject Cally into space. They look at each other, Tory seems to enjoy this situation, and then Tory pushes the button and -whoosh!- out Cally goes.

I was sympathetic to Cally's suffering and it seemed Tory was, at first, helping her and offering some understanding, but it turns out that Tory was a monster, full of coldblooded deceit. Is her humanity only a convenient lie? I noted in my review of "Six of One" that during Tory's sex scene with Baltar that her emotions didn't connect to any obvious reading of her thoughts. Both Baltar and Tory had secrets that could get them killed and they didn't trust each other with them. But it seemed maybe they could in the future. Tory wasn't telling Baltar she was a Cylon and Baltar wasn't telling her everything either. The scene offered an intense emotional ambiguity, mystery and suspense that keeps me going back to Galactica to see what happens. However, this change in Tory seems to preclude ever learning what Tory's tears meant, if anything. She's long past crying it now seems (or maybe not).

The fact that she cried back then helped add to the surprise this time. Yet, I'm disappointed because there's more to it than just the show itself that influenced my desire to see those tears explored. As I noted in my previous review, the scenes sparked an interesting discussion on this Galactica forum.

Some people on the forum started displaying really sexist attitudes saying things like "Are there any women out there who have not poured on the charm (and not, necessarily, gotten on their backs) to try to get their way at some point? It's not unusual. In fact, it's pretty common interpersonal interaction." Alas, nothing in this show contradicts that view and it should be contradicted.

That view misses the point I think. And that's when I began to think I understood what the tears meant in the last episode. They didn't understand what kind of game Tory was really being asked to play by "sleeping with Baltar" and I thought the writers might show us the cost of such deceptions. Frakking someone is not going to get you "darkest secret" information they couldn't torture out of Baltar. They call it sleeping with someone, but it really means playing a risky (for humans) emotional game where you get the other person to trust you so much, make them think you love them, that they'll honestly share secrets that confront with their deepest fears.

People don't open up like that just because they've had sex. Psychologists work long and hard to get there with patients. People open up because they trust you with their lives and darkest secrets. Tory has no problem with such betrayal now it seems, she quickly got Cally's trust, but those tears from the previous show said, yes, maybe, just maybe, she did have a problem with lying to Baltar. And it appears that Head Baltar was wrong when he said that "Tory was fragile" and "handle with care." So far it seems that scene between Baltar and Tory... that moment, lost like tears in the brain -- the brain of screenwriter Michael Taylor.

If Tory hadn't understood that human side of the risk, then Baltar would have more likely figured her out before she figured him out. Now it's apparently Baltar who is in trouble if he continues his relationship with Tory. Besides that, I lost an implied bet with Gooby Rastor over at Galactica Station when I commented on his review of "Six of One."

In the end, it was Tory who made the seemingly "rational," if monstrous, decision to kill Cally while pretending to risk her life to help her. If Tory hadn't done that there would have been no real way to assure herself that Cally wouldn't reveal their secret to other humans. Tory could have asked Cally to keep their secret, trust her husband, and trust her since she was helping, include Cally in Cylon meetings so she knows what they're dealing with. But that probably would have been a mess considering Cally's emotional state.

In the end, if Cally was really going to kill herself and her child, then the net result of all Tory's actions were to save the child (but for what end? Tory risked her life for the child.)

Cally on the other hand was stupidly human. She would, herself, had to have become cold blooded and kept her cool to win the game against the Cylons. She could have, if she were emotionally able, went along with her husband's promises, hugged him, then collected evidence, until she had enough to give to the Doctor, Adama and/or the president. But you know those humans, they're just not all that rational. They often let their feelings tear themselves apart instead of acting rationally.

Even when it came to attacking her husband Cally left the note, the only evidence she had, behind when it was no longer prudent to do so. And if she wanted the Cylons dead, she should have kept hammering at her husband's skull until his brains splattered out. Nothing she did was smart. But, it's like Nietsche said:

"Those who fight monsters should take care that they never become one. For when you stand and look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
-- Frederich Nietsche

And that seems to be the overall theme of the new Battlestar Galactica. How monstrous do the humans have to be? Can they ever find any shared "humanity" with their enemy? Will they ever try?

Maybe they shouldn't. If we keep seeing Cylons lying and taking pleasure in killing people, then how can the writers expect us to sympathize or side with them? Tory happily turned into a monster and that makes me less sure of what to expect from the rest of the Cylons? Some people think humans and Cylons are meant to get together in later shows. Maybe the Cylons are the embodiment of evil? Supposedly they're just not "human" in the same emotional sense. Yet humans have "enjoyed" torturing and killing Cylons (like Starbuck did, and Cain's crew). Could it be that there are just some "bad apples" in both bunches? Or are all Cylon women homicidal sluts?


Was Tory always a monster?

An interesting comment on the water-cooler forum from bkitty:

Tory never was ethical. If she wasn't as a human, why would she be as a cylon?

She is drunk on the power of the baseline change she sees in herself. A sober person has reason and social taboos for guidelines to behavior. A drunk person is freed of those inhibitions.

This is Tory as she always was. Uninhibited, she is realizing her terrible potential.

Drunk or sober, a person is accountable for his/her actions. The only difference in decision-making is the amount of personal/social inhibition.

She is who she alway was with NO BRAKES!

I have a feeling she may be "stopped" by one of the others. Possibly Tyrol? He flat out said he doesn't take change well. Once he recovers from the shock, and eventually finds out the truth, what will he do?

This incident makes Chief a wild card.

Was Tory ever a human? If she was Cylon from the beginning that's how they made her, hiding her true identity until they wanted her activated. If she was always Cylon and not replaced by one, then yes, this side of her has always been there. Unlike Boomer, it doesn't seem to bother her. I think she's happy to be playing for the other side now.

Still, trying to steal an election isn't the same as murder. Also, the motives for stealing that election were, supposedly, for the "greater good." And Tigh, another secret Cylon, helped her try to steal it, so maybe there was a "greater evil" behind the good hidden unconsciously in their intent from the beginning. Killing Cally wasn't for any greater (or human) good. It just protects the hidden Cylons.

And a drunk may be deprived of reason, social taboos and inhibitions, but Tory still has plenty of reason and purpose, though certain social taboos, inhibitions and moral sentiments seem to be gone. And that reason and purpose seem to revolve around Cylon goals she wasn't directly informed of, like saving hybrid babies.

Saying a person is accountable for his/her actions assumes there is someone to hold you to account. And who, exactly is going to hold Tory to account? Indeed, from where we sit as viewers, Chief could go either way. You hope, on some level, that he still has some humanity left, but deep down you know you want more scares and conflict. If their problems can be resolved simply by Chief holding onto his humanity, then you'd start getting bored with Galactica.

Nicki Clyne's blog entry on Cally's passing.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

My Galactica Pitch:

Baltar's Last Stand

Critics of Baltar's religion are calling his god "the Cylon god," he hears one of his followers praying in her sleep, "Dear god, make me a Cylon like Baltar so that I never have to die," and he learns that the first disciples of his cult heard of the "one true God" concept from a Six back on New Caprica. He thinks that he is being used by the Cylons to lead humanity to a surrender that will make them the religiously brainwashed cattle of the Cylons. He becomes disgusted with himself and thus begins a major transition in his views and character. He no longer wants to be or feels he is a Cylon.

He finally sides fully with humanity.

When his growing cult decide to take over some of the Galactica fleet's smaller ships and jump toward a Cylon fleet to surrender, Baltar himself has secretly sided with a group that wants to blow-up the Cylon resurrection ship. He's on a suicide mission to blow it up.

The above, I think, might be an example of how a high concept pitch is made in Hollywood, but it's probably longer than most and even then doesn't carry everything I'd like it to.

Just in case any Battlestar Galactica producers are reading my blog, a doubtful possibility since searching for "Battlestar Galactica, blog" turns up over 3 million links, I want to pitch this idea that's been evolving on the Galactic Watercooler forum with some input from me.

I observed that the driving force in the choices for who is a Cylon and who isn't was sadomasochism. (After all, this is a show that loves torture scenes. They tortured Leoben in "Flesh and Bone," they tortured one of the Sixes in "Resurrection Ship," they tortured Balter in “Taking a Break from All Your Worries” ...).

The writers will make the most sadistic choice possible. Consider Tigh, the guy who would sacrifice anything to destroy the Cylons learning that he is a Cylon. No other choice could have been as sadistic. So, while all the best clues point to Baltar being a Cylon the choice would be too expected and Baltar even wants to be a Cylon. The factors that weigh against him being a Cylon can be ennumerated thusly:

1) Baltar wants it, thus it has no emotional punch when he discovers he is Cylon.

2) Too many people expect it, thus it would not be a surprise.

3) Baltar doesn't have a good Cylon role to play at present. Saul Tigh, the second in command on Galactica, and Tory Foster, the right hand woman for the president are both in powerful positions to take down and influence Galactica's destiny.

All this weighs against Baltar being a Cylon for dramatic reasons, but not logical ones. It just wouldn't be emotionally effective to reveal Baltar as a Cylon even though so many clues point towards him.

However, NickB then offered his theory that the writers will make Baltar find out he's a Cylon only after they get him to accept and embrace his humanity, perhaps after he's made a sacrifice and "betrayed" the Cylons. It would be a nice mindfrak for the audience if after initially thinking Baltar was a Cylon at the beginning of the series (as many people seemed to), then dismissing him as too obvious a choice, it would be a triumph of writing to reveal him as a Cylon, having made him such an obvious initial candidate and then persuaded everyone that he was human.

Nick's theory addressed reversing two of the three points, Baltar wanting it and us expecting it, but he doesn't address how it could be best accomplished.

Adding substance to Nick's theory we can get Tory involved and accomplish the reversing of all 3 points:

Taking point 3: Baltar doesn't have a good Cylon role to play at present.

Baltar's role for the Cylons is to spread their religion.

And Baltar might also begin to embrace his humanity when he hears one of his disciples (who he is sleeping with at the time) praying in her sleep, something like; "God, dear God, please make me a Cylon like Baltar so that I never have to die?"

He discovers that many in his cult believe he can lead them to be accepted by the Cylons and made into Cylons if they please the Cylon God. Once he realizes that they've latched on to his secret wish to be a Cylon, Baltar would be more motivated to dig out what he thinks is his humanity and start to embrace it.

He discovers that the boy who was "miraculously" cured wasn't really all that ill after talking to the doctor and that his cult basically talked themselves into believing it was a miracle. He would also discover that the first women in his cult to adopt the religion first heard about the "one true God" from a Six back on New Caprica. Thus he starts to suspect that the Cylons are manipulating him to lead the religion.

Taking point 1: Baltar wants to be a Cylon.

Baltar begins to get disgusted with the religion and he blames the Cylons.

He goes back to his old atheism and starts wondering if such a religion is a form of psychological tyranny and mind control that is in some sense worse than the police state tactics that the Cylons used on New Caprica. (The basic arguments for that can be found in Nietzsche, Feuerbach, and even Hitchens and Harris.) He shares these doubts with Tory and when she learns that Baltar's disciples want to be Cylons she sees a shared religion as the only peace that is possible between Cylons and humans. So what if it's just a Cylon mainframe, it's god-like in its powers. She would start to more fully embrace what she thinks is her Cylon nature and this Cylon goal. Arguing with with Tory, Baltar says the religion will essentially reduce humanity to the state of being Cylon cattle, they won't be allowed to develop science, but will have to take lying myths as reality, they won't be able to create meaning for their own lives but will have a religious meaning imposed on them.

Tory points out that cattle, like cows, couldn't survive in the wild and that they have pretty good lives compared with their wild cousins. Thus, Baltar begins to figure Tory for a Cylon.

Baltar, now seeing the negative effects of the religion, begins siding more fully with the humanist values that he once preached but didn't really hold to. He starts to speak against the "Cylon God," but has to go against his new love, Tory. She convinces him that it's too late, he's done the damage and his current views no longer matter. His disciples believe in his religion, not in him.

His disciples now plan to steal a few of the smaller ships in the fleet and jump toward a Cylon basestar and surrender to the Cylons instead of following Galactica (towards Earth?). Baltar gains the trust of a group that wants to destroy the resurrection ship flying with the basestar and volunteers to sacrifice his life by flying his scout ship into the basestar and then overloading it's nuclear engine.

He tells his followers that he will go ahead of them just in case the Cylons don't accept them. If they shoot him down, or if there is trouble, they should head back toward Galactica or look for a planet to settle on. They all jump in near the basestar and start broadcasting "We come in peace. We surrender" on all channels. Baltar goes on ahead, escorted by Cylon raiders -- but when he gets near the resurrection ship he darts off course, overloads the engines and rams into the resurrection ship.

Baltar's ship punches through the hull like it was thin cardboard. The resurrection ship turns out to be hollow. It's a decoy. Baltar, being in a spacesuit, ejects from the scout ship before it blows. As he is flying out of the scout ship it blows up and it appears Baltar was too close -- he's hit by a fast flying bit of wreckage from his exploding scout ship.

The next thing Baltar knows, he's waking up in a Cylon resurrection Jacuzzi.

To be continued... maybe?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Six of One" : The dissapointing part

In my last post I said I would write about an element of Battlestar Galactica that I found disappointing. I said it had to do with the notion of automatic anthropomorphic free-will and human-like desire in the Cylon toaster-style robots and the raiders. I said it took us back to a pre-Asimov, pre-Turing conception of robots. It's Frankenstein and Karel Capek's R.U.R..

I would also add an earlier example, the Jewish myth of the golem, an artificial creature created by magic, often to serve its creator. The word "golem" appears only once in the Bible (Psalms 139:16) and in Hebrew, "golem" means "shapeless mass." Adam is called "golem," meaning "body without a soul" before God gives him life. In a lot of the stories the golem runs amok and threatens innocent lives because the magicians aren't really wise enough to understand God's magic.

The very word "robot" has its roots in the Czech word robota, meaning "work", or "forced workers" or "slaves" because of Karel Capek's play, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Capek's robots also rebelled against their creators and tried to wipe out the human race.

Victor Frankenstein is punished by his creation for going against the laws of nature and creating a monster.

If you recall the very beginning of the new Battlestar Galactica, during the first three-hour miniseries, we were told that the Cylons were created by Man to make life easier. Then the Cylons rebelled and started the first war. Why would they rebel? How come they even have the capacity to rebel? What did life without their human masters offer them? Where would such a desire to be free of their masters come from? It didn't matter much at the time because the Cylons were just a convienent trope used to introduce conflict into a drama. The show wasn't about the Cylons, but about the people. So, it didn't really matter at the beginning for us viewers. They could have gone with the whole "evil robots" trope and written a different story. But the answer is beginning to matter now because of the religious subtext of the story.

In the early, pre-Asimov, stories of man-made life the mad-scientists and magicians had to tread into "spiritual" and magical explanations for life and soul and intelligence. They had to tread on the old "there are some things man was not meant to know" excuse for why we were really ignorant of what life and mind were. God simply didn't give it to us and didn't want us to go there. It was forbidden fruit on the tree of knowledge. It was a reminder that creation is God's prerogative, not man's, and that trying to emulate God is a presumptuous and dangerous business.

It's an attitude that still haunts the human psyche and we see it cropping up in debates over stem cells, abortion, cloning and genetic engineering. It's the attitude behind Baltar's claim that God is changing the Cylons, behind the Sixes who also attribute this to God. It's an anti-science, anti-naturalist position.

And I say; "Get the frak over it!" We already know Things We Were Not Meant To Know. Our grandparents knew them. Robert Oppenheimer became the Destroyer of Worlds long before I was squeezed out of the womb. We've gone to the Moon, we've transplanted hearts and Google is our Oracle of all wisdom. The idea that there are sacred limits to human knowledge and creation is a backwards religious delusion. There are no sacred boundaries to protect us from ourselves. Stern moral indignation is the weakest of arguments and the silly imaginings of TV writers won't change that. If there were a drug created from genetically engineered stem cells and aborted fetuses that could extend our sacred God-given lifespans by a hundred years, the Pope might be the first in line.

Hubristic mania is everywhere, Ray Kurzweil is telling us the singularity is near, David Pearce says that genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The robot stories generally changed in literary science fiction after Allen Turing started proposing that it was possible to program a computer to think like a human being. It was no longer a question of magic but of algorithms.

Why the Cylons rebelled is becoming one of the essential mysteries of the story now that things are changing. What the Cylons are and why they did what they did matters to the question I began this series of posts with, the argument between atheists and theists and the role of religion in our culture. It matters because there are two ways to explain "robot minds"; they are either supernatural golem or they are naturalistic AI and algorithms. And there's a third option too, genetically engineered cerebral tissue which avoids the problem of either theism or atheism side being right.

I was hoping for AI and naturalism, but there was a scene in this last episode which pointed more towards a supernatural golem's soul or genetically engineered cerebral tissue in spite of talk about "original programmers" and what not.

The scene that disappointed me was on a Cylon baseship, after the human-like Cylons had voted to do some "brain" surgery with a Bosch electric drill on the Raiders so they wouldn't act independently. One of the Sixs marched in to tell Cavil that he had to stop lobotomizing the Raiders. (We were also shown the interior of a Raider's brain being operated on and it was made of fleshy, gooey red stuff. Are these robots or cyborgs? If it's brain flesh that looks like a product of genetically engineered cerebral tissue, so, then why was computer AI outlawed on Caprica in the first part of the series?)

The Six tells some chrome-plated Cylons to come in. Cavil is puzzled and tells the Six, "Centurions can't vote."

"Oh they're not here to vote," says the Six.

Cavil commands the Centurions to leave, but they don't.

Then Six reveals that, "The telencephalic(?) inhibitor that restricts higher functions in Centurions. We had them removed."

"Say what?!" Cavil says, horrified.

Apparently removing the little cigar shaped inhibitor somehow made the 'bots aware that things were not going the way they wanted. They had a desire that went beyond just carrying out orders. The Centurions then gun down everyone but Six in a massive spray of blood and machine-gun bullets.

Since when do you have to give a robot something akin to "free-will" and then take it away by adding another device? Golem souls come in complete, irreducible packages, algorithms make intelligence a collection of thousands of parts, a "society of mind." Why build the Cylons with that kind of free-will function in the first place if its a problem? Did the humans who first created the Cylons also give them free-will and inhibitor devices?

Why would whoever is controlling their manufacture now keep doing that when they've already made Manchurian candidate humans, people whose will isn't so free? What the frak did the humans use the 'bots for that they would need what we think of as "free-will"? We're making robots now that do all sorts of things and there is more chance of cows rebelling than there is of self driving robot cars and smart bombs rebelling.

And keep in mind that "free-will" is just a short cut term borrowed from folk psychology. If free-will is not in some unknowable metaphysical and supernatural category then it must refer to something far more complicated and layered than it seems. If our will is so "free" then why can drugs and implants effect our behavior? Free will is considered something of an illusion by many psychologists and AI researchers today. There have been a lot of experiments in this area, Micheal Gazzaniga's experiments on people with split brains. There were also Benjamin Libet's experiments and you can also check out Daniel Wegner's book, "The Illusion of Conscious Will."

Wegner says that it's a false idea that our conscious thoughts cause our actions. It's an illusion caused by confusing correlation with causality. When we decide to do something, we are first aware of our conscious thoughts about the action, then we observe the action happening, and finally we conclude that our thoughts caused the action. In fact, unconscious processes caused both the conscious thoughts and the action.

To even have a will of any kind you have to have desire. You have to be able to form long term goals. To have the illusion of free will you need conflicting desires to choose from. So where do these robots get these desires for autonomy or even self-preservation?

The other aspect of these scenes is the fact that the Cylons have now lost their innocence, they're just as guilty of enslaving "free-willed" golem-souls as the humans were and now they've got their own rebellion. They aren't better than us in that way.

"Six of One" : The disturbingly delicious part

The last episode of Battlestar Galactica I saw, "Six of One," was both deliciously and subtly disturbing (in a good way) and yet also disappointing (in a bad way, obviously, and which I'll deal with in the next post. HINT: The notion of automatic anthropomorphic free-will and human-like desire in the Cylon toaster-style robots takes us back to a pre-Asimov conception of robots. It's Frankenstein and Karel Capek's R.U.R.. They've taken science fiction backwards to the days before it was informed by Alan Turing's essays, the growing field of AI, and Asimov's stories).

In this post I'll deal with the good stuff which, as usual for me, involves Baltar. It starts when the 4 Cylon sleeper agents, Tigh, Anders, Tory and Tyrol, decide they want information from Baltar about why they might be here and who the 5th Cylon might be. Tigh says, in his most I-am-a-fucked-up-badass voice, "Baltar's good at two things: lying in a jail cell and lying in a woman." Thus it is implied that Tory Foster, the only female among them, should sleep with Baltar to see what kind of information she can get. Tory, at first objects, saying only "There's no way..."

I would have had Tory tell Tigh, "hey, you frak Balter if you want information." She should feel that Tigh, Tyrol, and Anders were essentially trying to pimp her out for information. It's not what I'd expect from Tyrol and Anders, but they didn't really suggest it. It didn't feel right on several levels but that wasn't the deliciously disturbing part, that was just a feeling the writers had lost track of the characters. For a group that just wants to live their lives like nothing has happened they are already starting to compromise themselves. I had a hard time imagining Tory, Tyrol and Anders going along with Tigh's idea without putting up a more significant protest. Tyrol and Anders are married men with a high regard for their wives. However, it did seem in character for Tigh to say it. Tigh was willing to let others do suicide bombing on New Caprica. And Tigh's wife, Ellen, flirting with Lee at a dinner party... playing footsie, and then what she did for Tigh when he was in prison on New Caprica. Even then Tigh backed down saying, "You don't have to get on your back for him."

Tory slept with Baltar eventually, on her own. It might have seemed out of character for some of the Galactica women, but Tory's character hasn't been strongly explored yet in any of the episodes I've seen. What we do know of her is that she will try to steal an election and how vital she was for the New Caprica escape logistics. Still, using sex duplicitously is beginning to seem like a very Cylon thing to do. The women in the Galactica universe that have used sex to dishonestly manipulate people were Caprica 6 using Baltar and Sharon/Athena sleeping with Helo to gain his trust, at least initially. In both cases the Cylons MAY have actually fallen in love with their victims. And then there was Ellen sleeping with Cavil to get Tigh out of prison. And in the end it was Ellen who got more used by Cavil.

I don't think Tory had any intention of following through with the 'suggestion' to sleep with Baltar when she started spying on him. She barely flirted with him. She just asked the kind of general questions a reporter might ask, and she noted how things like the "miracle" with the cured boy from the last episode always seemed to center around him. She got him talking and it was Baltar who went in for the seduction. Baltar is apparently a clinical sex addict. It was when Baltar began to claim to believe in "the one true God" and then, whether by luck or "divine" intervention Baltar also hit on the way the "Watchtower" song seemed to haunt the 4 Cylons when they first gathered. Baltar talked about "... a distant chaos of an orchestra tuning up and the grotesque, screeching cacophony... as if someone waved a magic wand, music emerges from the chaos." This got a brief "moment of recognition" reaction from Tory. Did she think Baltar might be the 5th Cylon at that point? Did she think maybe he too had heard the music? Soon after, Tory says something like, "I can't be seen with you," and leaves and then Gaius talks to himself, literally. He talks to his "head Baltar," a Giaus Baltar look-alike that no one else sees but Baltar. It gets as typically creepy as with the "Head 6" dialogue, but it's a bit more like madness now.

His "Head Baltar" tells him that Tory is special, "she's fragile," and to treat her with care. Maybe Tricia Helfer couldn't show up that day, but I think it meant something that Balter was seeing himself rather than her for the first time. Perhaps it's a signal that his internalization of Caprica 6's message has happened and he has now reached the stage where he believes what she was preaching. Baltar doesn't argue with himself like he argued with his "Head 6."

Bear McCreary, the composer who does the music for "Battlestar Galactica," even singled out this scene for discussion on his blog. He wrote that he lavished more time and attention on Baltar’s conversation with himself than any other scene and that he "raise the musical stakes." It seems to have worked, it was the most surreal Baltar scene in a long time. But this still wasn't the deliciously disturbing part.

We don't see what happened between Baltar and Tory that made her decide to sleep with him. There are a lot of reasons she might have decided to do this, but it seems Baltar pursued her and she gave in.

This is when things, finally, as I promised, got deliciously disturbing. While Baltar and Tory are having sex, Tory starts to silently cry. Baltar was on top of her and enjoying himself when he noticed Tory just lying still beneath him with tears forming in her eyes. Baltar asks "Am I hurting you?"

Tory says, "No. It's just something I do when I have sex."

Now, my first impression of this scene was that the writers and director had screwed up somehow. It didn't seem emotionally real at first. It wasn't until I went to check on the Galactica forum I like best and noted that I wasn't the only one who was baffling over the scene that I realized it was actually quite a brilliant bit of artistry. It had baffled people in good way. They were disturbed by it and asking if this seemed in character, and what exactly happened here?

I'm not particularly sexually active, so, I can't say that I've had a lot of sexual experience, but one thing is for sure, I've never had a woman gently, and quietly, weep while I was inside her. Seeing as how the emotions I usually see are things like loving smiles, pleasurable moaning and an occasional animal grunt, I think having someone tear up and just lay there would throw me off. It would undercut my confidence too. I would think I was doing something wrong even if she said it was "just something I do during sex." But not Baltar.

It's as if there was this emotional abyss separating Baltar and Tory and Baltar tries to cross this emotional chasm with an insight and understanding I don't have. He compliments her on her depth of feeling, calling it a blessing. Tory asks "Do you suppose I could be a Cylon?" Baltar indicates that she could, he says that Cylons have feelings. It looks like Baltar might have at least a shred of decency, insight and empathy.

But was Baltar really honest with Tory? The scenes I saw of Baltar with the Cylons didn't give the Cylons much emotional depth, in my opinion. On New Caprica they were argumentative and cold-blooded killers without empathy. When the Cylons took Baltar back with them to their basestar, Caprica 6, the woman he thinks he loves, was voting for killing him. At one point the two women who slept with Baltar decide to torture him for information. How the frak does Baltar come up with the impression that Cylons feel things all that deeply after that? I suppose they still treated him better than the humans did.

And why was Tory crying? She said that it was just something she did during sex. But I didn't believe that because she's hiding a lot of what she knows about herself. She hasn't told Baltar that she's a Cylon and she's testing him to see if he can figure it out.

She may also be releasing all the emotion she had built up after finding out she was a Cylon. After all, she has to keep it hidden and she can't express her fears to any but the other three Cylons and they're not particularly sympathetic -- they failed at that test when they let Tigh ask her to sleep with Baltar and didn't stand up for her. If she's held the emotion associated with her new self knowledge inside her body, then when her body relaxes and she feels safe enough to be vulnerable, a physical release might trigger the emotions she's holding back, emotions larger than she can handle. I've heard that some people cry when they get massages for that reason.

Maybe it was having intimate sex with Baltar and realizing the guy is crazy. After all, Baltar also started telling her that, "The one true God has been giving the Cylons emotions," which should sound crazy. At least it sounds crazy to me, maybe not to Tory. Are the screen writers actually going to make God an active character in their story? Are these the kind of people who think God is active in this world too? Are they going to let this be credible to Tory? Will she investigate the possibility the boy's cure was a miracle or not to check him out? Baltar isn't, he seems ready to believe.

In the end the emotions didn't connect to any obvious reading of either Baltar's or Tory's thoughts. Both characters have secrets that could get them killed and they don't trust each other - but maybe they could. Tory is still hiding the truth she learned about herself and Baltar hasn't told her anything about having had a working Cylon detector and then lying about knowing who is a Cylon. It's this kind of intense emotional ambiguity, mystery and suspense that keeps me going back to Galactica to see what happens.

Here's the disappointing part 2 of my review.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What the frak is going on with Baltar?

Before I get to Gaius Baltar I want to note that in my previous post I had predicted that the young boy, Derrick, that Balter was willing to die for in the episode "He That Believeth in Me" was the 5th Cylon. I thought the lymphocytic encephalitis that killed the Cylons in "A Measure of Salvation" was what the boy had too. Galactica humans are immune to it.

I think I was wrong. The boy is not the 5th Cylon.

I'm betting now that the fact that both the boy and the Cylons had some kind of encephalitis is a red herring to make us wonder if there is a connection. ( Still it's a whole lot of encephalitis going around. Maybe the writers just encephalitis on the brain ;> ) I went over to one of the Galactica forums and found that very idea discussed. Turns out that I heard wrong, the boy was only said to have "viral encephalitis," not "lymphocytic encephalitis" which could be a different virus. I also misunderstood how the term encephalitis is used. Encephalitis is a blanket term for inflammation of the brain. Saying all encephalitis is the same is like saying all cancer is the same. Encephalitis is a symptom, not a cause. Meningitis, rabies, syphilis, and malaria can all cause encephalitis.

I'm not a medical expert and so my initial impression was that it didn't seem possible for a child in advanced stages of such an infection to turn around so rapidly and seem entirely cured in about 30 minutes without some Cylon trickery or a miracle.

I had to look it up, here. And here's what that website said:
"Treatment for encephalitis depends on the virus or other germ that caused it. People with mild cases of encephalitis can recover at home as long as they're watched carefully by a parent or other adult in the household. Most cases of encephalitis just run their course and the person gets better without treatment."

Now it looks like the cult might be fooling themselves, talking themselves into seeing a miracle where it was just nature taking its course. Baltar might be helping them fool themselves, or he might himself be taken in by the illusion of a miracle. He had said the boy "looked worse" when going to the restroom to shave, but that was just a subjective impression by a non-doctor (though in this series Balter also seems to be some super-scientist, a common and unrealistic sci-fi trope that can do anything sciency).

Baltar being a super-scientist just might know he's scamming on the cult's expectations for him.

Let me recap that part of the story to put this in context: First the mother of a young child visited Baltar in prison and asked him to bless her child. The child's mother thinks her boy is suffering a deadly illness (this was never confirmed by a doctor). Then Baltar, while acquitted of the charges against him, is shamed and humiliated in court before all the last remnants of humanity. When Baltar gets out of prison, with more than half the population hating him, that same mother and some of her friends take Baltar to a small monotheistic cult where they consider Baltar to be some kind of prophet or maybe even a "savior." When the mother and sick child are brought to him again, with hopes that Baltar's prayers might heal the child, Baltar says he prayed for the boy, as his mother had asked him to, but we never saw Baltar pray.

Later when the mother questions God, "does God want my child to die," and just seeing the sick child, it seems to lead Baltar to his first moment of honest self-reflection and a sincere prayer. Baltar puts his hand on the boy's head, looks up, and then admits his own humble failings to their monotheistic God, he reveals his feelings of guilt, and then he offers to die in place of the boy. It’s not something he'd have sincerely done in the beginning of the series.

Later yet, as Baltar goes to a restroom with one of the women to shave off his beard, he remarks that the boy seems to have gotten worse. While he is shaving two men come in and one of them tells Baltar how his own son died under Baltar's orders. The two men then make an attempt on Baltar's life. One guy has a knife to Baltar's throat and is starting to cut it when Baltar goes all self-pity and guilt, remembering he offered up his own life, reminded of it by his "Head 6" (the "hallucinated" version of the beautiful female Cylon Baltar knew on Caprica), he tells everyone out loud that he is ready and willing to die in payment for his sins. The guy who was ready to cut Baltar's throat is baffled and startled. He can't kill Baltar so easily now.

Then the woman Baltar came with manages to clobber both men with a pipe claiming she felt God giving her strength. When they go back to the cult's quarters they discover the boy seems miraculously cured.

Now, Baltar had said before that the child's own immune system had a chance of curing the boy, so he might know there is possibly a low probability of a miracle here and also that the cultist want to talk themselves into believing they'd witnessed a miracle. Also the fact that the cult was mostly young, attractive, and sexually willing women could motivate him to want to be seen as their prophet since he does take advantage of it. Or... Baltar might be fooling himself too and talking himself into believing the miracle. That will no doubt be dealt with in a future show.

I don't think Baltar can continually be presented as a lying sack of shit who manipulates everyone, especially not after what he has just been through. If he did he'd no longer be an interesting character, he'd be cartoonishly evil. The writers have done a great job with Baltar's character so far, I don't think they're going to slip up now and turn him into a cartoon. They know that the hook for a villain like Baltar is to make him just sympathetic enough for us to identify our own weaknesses with him, just enough to care. I'm a pretty hard core atheist, but if I'd been through what Baltar had been going through I think I too might pray to a God I thought had a very low probability of actually existing. What harm could it do? What else could he do in that place, he doesn't have a lab or computer? And when you're that low in your own opinion of yourself you just might look anywhere for help, even improbable gods.

Also keep in mind that Baltar's "Head 6" has been repeatedly trying to mindfrak Baltar. She's been trying to push him toward belief in God and the belief that he has been chosen by God. She gives him answers and points him in the right direction. She is always loving but intolerant of Baltar's lack of faith. She is always stern and abusive when he turns from the path laid out by the one true God. This conversion seems to be part of her goal.

It seems to me that Baltar, in his desperation, is now more than sincere enough to consider the possibility of a God. He doesn't have the knowledge of God the cultists think he does, so he's not sincere about that. And as a scientist, and therefore at least a methodological naturalist, he is necessarily going to have real problems integrating such religious concepts as "prayer works" into his world view. (Galactica's writers may not understand the problems though -- at least as those difficulties exist in our world.)

There is something going on with Baltar as far as how he is connected to some source of information through "Head 6" that it seems he shouldn't have. But are the writers really going to introduce a miracle working "one true God" into their story to explain such things? I don't think you'll ever get confirmation on that as a miracle, but it's a wimpy kind of God who's only miracles are sometimes fiddling with life's chance die rolls. Such things are vulnerable to "confirmation bias."

The other thing that seems to be going on with Baltar is that he's discovering that he's having a hard time living with himself. A lot of people died because of his decisions. He's got guilty secrets he can't ever tell anyone about or they really will kill him. He gave Caprica 6 access to the defense mainframe, he knew Boomer was a Cylon and never told anyone. He's done such things, in part, because he hasn't really taken a side in the war and neither side cares much about him. He'd rather have peace, but he has no means to achieve it.

Baltar's guilty secrets only isolate him from the human culture. The Cylons know his guilty secrets and they also know they can't entirely trust him. As someone who, until recently, has been mostly concerned with staying alive I think deep down Baltar would have rather been a Cylon because they don't die so easily. They're the side with the technology and science he adores. As he said before on the Cylon ship - at least he'd have a place that he belonged. He couldn't really fight them before because he wanted to be one of them. He wasn't, when he surrendered, expecting them to be a bunch of Nazis. He's now learned they have some inhuman flaw that he can't live with.

The religious group, in Baltar's eyes, is also flawed by its loony approach to life -- praying and expecting God to do things for you instead of doing them yourself. But it's an easier flaw to learn to live with than is Cylon inhumanity.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Why the new Battlestar Galactica is more important than "Expelled!" or Vox Day's writings

I've been following the crowd, blogging on some of the same subjects I find that PZ Myers and others are writing about. They've decided subjects like Vox Day's WorldNutDaily articles and his book, "The Irrational Atheist," and the soon upcoming movie, "Expelled!", are deserving of attention and here I am having already decided that I'm not going to watch "Expelled!" merely after reading Ben Stein's and Kevin Miller's writings nor am I going to finish Vox's book after reading one chapter.

Sure, they're probably dangerous propaganda and should be dealt with, but they're also looking to be rather dull and unpleasant experiences. I'm just not that kind of masochist. It isn't a pleasant job to slog through the dull, tendentious and insulting prose of Vox Day or bore myself with media hype for "Expelled!." The more I'm exposed to their drivel, the less I care. An atheist would have to be just as masochistic to deal with that stuff as a liberal would be to watch Fox News (not that watching Battlestar Galactica isn't a bit masochistic too, they love to torture their characters). Besides, PZ and kellym78 are on the job.

I've been following the crowd and I'm beginning to think the blogging crowd is wrong about what is effective and important. I would suggest that for our culture that the new Battlestar Galactica, on the sci-fi channel, is more subtly influential, more accurate a reflection of our society, than most of the flea books, propaganda outfits and stupid partisan websites that have tended to be the subject of my blog so far.

Sure, there are also many blogs and forums already dealing with the show, but they're mostly fannish and going after it from a different angle than the one I'll be taking.

What I'm going to do is look at the issues of atheism versus theism and the role of religion as it is seen through the Battlestar Galactica lens. And this, the show's 4th and final season, looks to be a rich vein considering how it started. From the beginning the show has been morally challenging, psychologically complex and politically controversial and it looks like it will get more so.

In fact, Galactica's contribution to the religious and political debate seems to be the best reason to watch it since when considered as mere drama it's full of apparent plot holes and soap opera level characters.

One thing the show gets right is the way it undercuts the divisive partisanship of the internet religious and political debates. Both sides of the war, Cylons and humans, have their atheists and their theists. In the end the atheists and theists on the human side are working together just to survive, yet the mutually antagonistic feelings are still there. In one episode the president of the colonies, Laura Roslin, starts getting religious visions and heads off with some separatists to find Earth, a place the less religiously literal consider mere myth. Adama says of the separatists, at first, "let them go, we don't need them," and "I can't believe anyone could be that stupid."

Of course, it turns out that Roslin's visions and ancient scroll interpretations do lead to evidence that Earth exists and a clue as to how to find it. Adama changes his mind and that leads to the next more accurate depiction of belief and non-belief in our society: Religious beliefs among the Galactica characters are fluid, just as they are in real life. People change their minds and move back and forth through shades of gray between belief and non-belief. One of the most clear examples of this is the character of Gaius Baltar.

Gaius Baltar starts out as an out spoken atheist, apparently he had written books advocating atheism, perhaps much like Richard Dawkins or at least Carl Sagan. However, he is having some new and strange experiences that have started him on path towards religious belief. I think Baltar is basically getting mindfraked by a Cylon android.

I'll have more to say on that in future posts here as the show progresses. In the meantime here's a brief recap of what they've been doing with Gaius Baltar:

In the very first episodes (miniseries? pilot?) Baltar unintentionally gave the Cylons access to the Colonial defense mainframe and thus he nearly destroyed humanity. At the time he was sexually involved with a tall, beautiful blond that he thought worked for a corporation in the defense industry. Wanting to keep her around he gave her the access codes so her employers would have an illegal advantage in future contract bidding. In exchange, she helped him design a navigation program used by Colonial warships, and she sneaked back-doors in the program that disable all but a few Colonial ships.

The day the attack happens the beautiful blond, Caprica 6, reveals to Baltar that she is a Cylon and that she used the information given to her to shut down the Colonial defenses. Baltar's planet is getting nuked when he eventually finds a Raptor, a small military shuttle type spacecraft, that's willing to take on a few passengers. The pilots use a lottery to decide who gets on, and Baltar doesn't win it. Then one of the pilots, Karl Agathon also known as Helo, recognizes Baltar as a brilliant scientist and gives up his place on the ship feeling that his own life is less important than to get a famed scientist aboard the Battlestar Galactica.

And the guilty secrets they throw on Baltar just keep piling up from there.

Aboard Galactica, Baltar also started "hallucinating" a relationship with Caprica 6. No one but Baltar can see her and she gives him answers to questions Baltar shouldn't know. She has the uncanny ability to know future events. Is she in tune with another plain of existence outside of spacetime? Like God? She plays games with Baltar's head, sometimes claiming to be a chip in his head, sometimes a symptom of his psychosis, sometimes an angel of God. When claiming to speak for God she is often loving but intolerant of Baltar's lack of faith, stern and abusive when he turns from the path laid out by the one true God.

But don't let that Biblical phrase "one true God" throw you. Galactica has not, so far, been a Christian show. The allegorically Christian elements have been there from the start, but the mix was odd and the religion of the characters has tended to be more like ancient, pagan Greek religion. However, that "one true God" may have just popped up in the last show I saw, which was called: "He That Believeth in Me," and performed a miracle.

Still, I doubt if they're going in that direction because if Caprica 6 was really a believer in a monotheistic, Christian-like, God when she helped to nuke humanity then she was the kind of believer whose ethical grounding was similar to future toddle chopper, Vox Day's morals: Morality was what God wanted and there were no humanistic principles involved. The well being of her fellow sentient creatures didn't enter into her morality.

Helo (the guy who sacrificed his means of escaping a nuked planet for Baltar's sake), by contrast, when faced with a similar choice decided to save the Cylons from genocide when the president and Adama tried to infect the Cylons with a virus, (see "A Measure of Salvation") And Helo, as far as I know, has never talked about his religious beliefs. But I sure get the impression that if God herself came down and told Helo to do something like genocide, then Helo would tell God to frak off, unlike Caprica 6 or Vox Day.

Helo's ethical principles seem to be not only above fleet and presidential orders but also above any religious belief he has (if he has any). Also, when Helo saved the Sagittarion refugees from a murderous doctor, in the 3rd season episode "The Woman King," he never cited any religious principles or spoke of any shared beliefs with Mrs. King. In that way he also seems to contrast with Baltar because, apparently being in the atheist and agnostic camp (if he is), Helo and Baltar would represent alternative atheistic moral groundings.

But then again, even though the original Caprica 6 was initially comfortable with the near genocide of humanity, later when she is reawakened in a new body aboard a Cylon ship she is having "hallucinations" of Baltar and suddenly, (out of nowhere and seemingly inconsistently) developing a radically different conception of what God wants -- and she's decided God didn't want humanity to die after all. And the only Jesus figure around is her "hallucinated" version of Gaius Baltar.

Well, if you haven't been watching the series you are probably totally confused by now. Don't worry, you'd still be confused if you had watched the whole series. Still, if you want to understand what looks to be the bulk of my next blog posts you might want to start watching Battlestar Galactica now. If you already are watching it, stay tuned to this blog because I'm going to be speculating in more depth as to why I think the child Balter was willing to die for in "He That Believeth in Me" is the 5th Cylon (hint: the virus that killed the Cylons in "A Measure of Salvation" was lymphocytic encephalitis. Galactica humans are immune, but as I recall that was the same encephalitis that the child had). Why the Cylons attacked humanity in the first place and more.

Battlestar Galactica is several orders of magnitude more useful to the religious debates between theists and atheists than all the partisan propaganda that's spewed by both sides in the blog wars I've covered here so far.