Monday, May 19, 2008

Who's bullshit is this? A new mystery at the heart of BSG


A nephew of mine graduated from college and it was commencement weekend here. As a result, starting last Friday night, the house was crowded with relatives and then through the rest of the weekend my time was taken up with them, (I saw "Iron Man" and went to commencement parties), so I wasn't able to use the normal time slot I'd set aside for blog writing on BSG. And in addition to that, I could only watch one showing of this episode, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and that while it was talked over by several relatives.

The result is that this is not a coherent review of the episode, instead what I'll do is continue to add to this review by reviewing other reviews that get linked by The Battlestar Galactica Blog Carnival, "So Say We All." That way I can catch up with what happened on this episode later.

Some questions that I'll be trying to answer in the coming week are:

1) Why did Athena shoot Natalie?

I was left really baffled towards the end. What's going on with Athena and her daughter? Why did her daughter fill a notebook with crayon drawings of the blond 6s? Did I miss a clue? And why is Athena so freaked out about it that she shoots the 6 called Natalie, the least blond of the 6s? It has something to do with the Opera House Visions, but what? Does Athena see a 6 and Baltar stealing her daughter in that vision?

2) Who's bullshit was Natalie preaching to the Galacticans?


In this episode Natalie, one of the Cylon 6s, made a speech to the Quorum about the impact that the possibility of death has had on Cylon society. From what I was able to gather she argued that the Cylons had suffered in developing their individual and social identities due to the fact that they didn't have to face death before the civil war. She said something to the effect that, I paraphrase, "In our civil war we watched our people die and we learned that in order for our existence to have any value we needed to have mortality."

I'd like a transcript of that speech because right now my impression is that it's utter bullshit. The question, the new mystery, is just who's bullshit is it? Is this the Galactica writers preaching what they really think, or did they put that bullshit into Natalie's mouth in order to later argue against it?

One clue to the fact that the writers know its bullshit is that Natalie gets shot and thus her whole claim to the value of death is one she'll have to face herself. Would she really rather die? We'll see how she faces death because, judging by the previews, she's not dead yet.

However, this is old and oft repeated bullshit we've been given as a serious philosophical view in hundreds of movies and books for a long, long time. What Natalie said has already been said by fantasy writers like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King and so many others, telling us to go gentle into that good night and not rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Natalie's speech seemed to echo the elven sentiment, the realization that a finite life can press the mind toward something meaningful, that death is a blessing, found in Tolkien's Silmarillion: "But to the Atani I will give a new gift."

Those Men with the greatest understanding treated death as the Gift it was originally intended to be, and when their time came gladly gave themselves up to it. We see this, for example, in the earlier Kings of Númenor, and Aragorn also accepted the Gift at the natural end of his life. For most Men, though, the Gift was tainted by Morgoth, and they came to fear it rather than embrace it. This fear reached its peak in the later years of Númenor, where even the long life given to the Númenóreans was not enough, and wise men did all they could to try to escape death altogether. In the end, this desperation led to Númenor's destruction when Ar-Pharazôn led a battle fleet to the Undying Lands, falsely believing that they held the secret of everlasting life.

Views like this show up in a lot of vampire tales, "The Mummy," and "Pirates of the Caribbean" too. The curse of immortality is that one is trapped here, unable to escape and move on. The curse works by shear irony: every worldly thing is given, power, immortality, but it does not satisfy.

However, thinking there is something to move on to, on the other side of Baltar's river, is not accepting death. It's what Ernst Becker would call "The Denial of Death." One of the ways that death shapes our thinking is the lengths some people go to deny it. This makes a few people dangerously delusional. Muslim terrorists apparently flew planes into a couple skyscrapers thinking they would get an immortal life in paradise with 72 virgins.

Natalie's speech was the kind of thing that immature religious people, who actually deny the reality of death, say in order to sound like grown up atheists. Some who say it, as apparently Natalie and Tolkien, actually do think that when they die that they'll really wind up on the other side of Baltar's river hunting ducks with Mike Huckabee.

It’s one thing to say that, "this is how things are, we die and it effects how we view life," but it’s another thing entirely to say "this is how things should be because death is a gift that gives life meaning, value and/or purpose." And that is what Natalie and Tolkien, and many others, seem to be saying.

Death doesn't give life value, meaning or purpose. Life actually has far more than one purpose, value or meaning and they are all up to you. Death does nothing but put a limit on your choices for finding purpose, value and meaning in life. Transhumanists, like Max Moore, call people like Natalie and Tolkien "deathists."

In our world such views line up with the thinking of thanatophiles like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama who would argue that radical life extension will cause serious social problems. They might even be right. But avoiding the problems isn't the only factor determining policy. We aren't going to get rid of cars and other technological innovations because of pollution, environmental destruction, and the squandering of natural resources. We are forced to find other solutions that allow us to keep our cars and cell phones and electric lighting. Right or wrong, if people could chose not to die, they would. I would. I say find other solutions to problems caused by those choices because we're solving the biggest problem of all.

The whole purpose of life, to the extent it has one singular purpose, is to avoid death. We don’t seek out death. It comes to us unbidden, and we unwilling participate when we have no remaining alternatives. And because we, in our current state of technology, can not defeat death we invent the suicidal self-destructive and romantic sophistry required to think death is a good thing. However, when talking social policy we're usually talking about other people's death, not our own. Many deathists can be hypocritical about that. Consider people who chose to die in order to end their suffering from cancer and other such incurable conditions, many deathists like Leon Kass don't support Jack Kevorkian.

If choosing not to die were one of the available options, I'd choose it, providing I saw a prospect for some good living ahead. I'd love to have Cylon technology protecting my life and mind. I'd rather be paying for that than for life and health insurance. I'd even give up ever having children for that kind of immortality if we couldn't escape from this planet for the stars and over population became a problem. However, all we can do today is thwart death imperfectly by giving the next generation more tools than we had.

It's not because I'm one hundred percent certain there is nothing coming after death, though this seems the most likely possibility, but rather that I've got zero confidence in people who say there is more. You see, the thing about dying is you only do it once and there’s no changing your mind afterwards. As long as I live death is a possibility even with Cylon technology even though it might get harder to die. So, I wouldn't trust a deathist like Natalie any farther than I could throw the the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

3) Are Starbuck and Helo supposed to be morons?

Starting off this episode there was a big minute or two of drama centered around the fact that the Cylon basestar jumped into the middle of the fleet before the poo-barge did and almost got blown up by the Galactica. They had tried to jump at the same time but the poo-barge had a techno glitch and came in late.

Ummm... Why didn't they have the poo-barge go first and tell them the basestar was coming? Even jumping together would require Helo having that explanation. Why not explain that there is a basestar coming and why you shouldn't shoot at it.

Did I miss something? Was there a good reason they thought they should jump together?


Oh dear, I feel like I missed an important episode because I was so busy and distracted this weekend. More than half the reviews linked at the blog carnival seem to have begun with the word "wow," whereas I probably would have used the semi-word "wha??" and clearly I needed to pay closer attention but I didn't have enough attention to give.

Updates are coming... stay tuned.
UPDATE:

Thanks to a comment from M, and the Battlestar wiki, I now have that transcript of Natalie's speech to the Quorum:
"In our civil war, we've seen death. We watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the Resurrection Ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time. As if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die, and not return. The one human flaw, that you spend your lifetimes distressing over - mortality - is the one thing...well, it's the one thing that makes you whole."

Some of the arguments in the comments section below have to do with whether this is bullshit, and if not, what does it mean. Note that the two people who are saying it means something, MB and M, don't agree about what it means.

Len Neighbors' blog post on this episode has a nice paragraph on viewing BSG:
The real power of this religious debate as a storyline is that it destroy's the audience's birds' eye view. Up until the middle of season three, we were perched on high like clockmaker gods, watching what had been set into motion, knowing who was what. Sure, there were little mysteries here and there, even some big ones, but none like this. For the first time, we're stuck in the same place the characters are: picking a side to believe in as a matter of faith. We might know what the characters on both sides of the debate are doing and saying, but we don't know what's true, and what's not.


10 comments:

spurge said...

I think you may have missed something. I vaguely recall them talking about having to couple the two jump drives together for some technobable reason.

normdoering said...

spurge wrote:
"...you may have missed something. ...having to couple the two jump drives together for some technobable reason."

Ahhh, well that's one question down and two more to go.

James Newberry said...

I'm with you completely on the Death Gives Life Meaning bullshit. This is a straw man -- and it is given way too much credence in far too many science fiction films and books.

M said...

While I agree that death doesn't automatically gives life meaning, I do think that never-ending life does tend to take away the meaning of moments. In a century, it's conceivable that nothing of great importance happened to a particular individual on the grander scale. But his personal, non-"Historical" moments matter, as assigned by him. If you have forever, what's an earthquake? or a housing crisis? or having your flight be delayed for four hours? And there's certainly no impetus for ending a war against a mortal enemy.

MB said...

i think your missing the point. The 'gift' of death in these stories is the ability to join with a god. In both the BSG and Tolkien universes, the immortals (elves and cylons) can never fully experience their god because they cannot die. Only those that die can have that experience. At least that is how I always interpreted the writers intentions. I think the Natalie cylon was starting to think along those lines.

normdoering said...

MB wrote:
"i think your missing the point. The 'gift' of death in these stories is the ability to join with a god."

No, I'm not missing it, I'm denying it. You can call it mind-melding with God or duck hunting with Mike Huckabee, it doesn't matter. I'm saying that the belief that there is anything for an individual to experience after death is a denial of death.

As for what Natalie intended to say, you may be right -- but did she ever mention the word God? Without that word being used, her speech was bullshit. By leaving that concept out she's doing exactly what I accused her of: "Natalie's speech was the kind of thing that immature religious people, who actually deny the reality of death, say in order to sound like grown up atheists. Some who say it, as apparently Natalie and Tolkien, actually do think that when they die that they'll really wind up on the other side of Baltar's river hunting ducks with Mike Huckabee."

What meaning does death give to life if there is nothing on the other side? If we just cease to exist?

MB wrote:
"In both the BSG and Tolkien universes, the immortals (elves and cylons) can never fully experience their god because they cannot die. Only those that die can have that experience. At least that is how I always interpreted the writers intentions. I think the Natalie cylon was starting to think along those lines."

She may be thinking along those lines, but Natalie was not talking along those lines as far as I can tell. However, Baltar's head 6 does and I assume there's a connection in the thoughts of Natalie and Baltar's head 6.

Also, the belief that you'll join up with God takes faith, so there's that other point I made: "It's not because I'm one hundred percent certain there is nothing coming after death, though this seems the most likely possibility, but rather that I've got zero confidence in people who say there is more. You see, the thing about dying is you only do it once and there’s no changing your mind afterwards. As long as I live death is a possibility even with Cylon technology even though it might get harder to die. So, I wouldn't trust a deathist like Natalie any farther than I could throw the the Great Pyramid of Khufu."

If you're so sure you get to join up with God after you die, then what are you bothering to hang around here for? Why not fly a plane into a skyscraper and go join up with God now? What keeps you here?

M said...

1) I'm guessing Hera was dreaming the shared dream. In the opera house, she "knew" she was supposed to go with the Six. Athena sees this and is threatened. I think Athena just chose Natalie because Hera ran to this Six and clung to her leg.

2) Strangely, and this obviously reflects my own personal perspectives, I didn't hear Natalie's statement as being religious in nature or having anything to do with whether or not something exists after the moment of death. I heard it as a very Humanistic, as in Humanism, point of view. I'm glad this blog carnival brings me to other interpretations.

3) Agreed. And it was stupid to jump into the middle of the fleet. What if they jumped into another ship? Although, that's Galactica's fault.

normdoering said...

m wrote:
"1) I'm guessing Hera was dreaming the shared dream. In the opera house, she "knew" she was supposed to go with the Six. Athena sees this and is threatened. I think Athena just chose Natalie because Hera ran to this Six and clung to her leg."

And Baltar too? We haven't seen either Baltar or Hera waking up from that dream.

You've got an interesting guess, but I'm not betting on it till they explicitly explain it that way. Hera is also a hybrid, perhaps of the kind that jump basestars, and she may be in touch with some extra dimension of experience that neither her parents, Baltar, Roz or the 6s understand.

m wrote:
"2) Strangely, and this obviously reflects my own personal perspectives, I didn't hear Natalie's statement as being religious in nature or having anything to do with whether or not something exists after the moment of death."

Remember, Natalie has a BSG history: She talked God talk with Cavil prior to the civil war. Cavil even said of her that "she thinks she has a soul" (or something like that). So, it's not just one speech you have to go by.

m wrote:
"I heard it as a very Humanistic, as in Humanism, point of view. I'm glad this blog carnival brings me to other interpretations."

Beware of theists bearing humanistic phrases. They're usually attempting to sneak in a semantic Trojan horse.

m wrote:
"3) Agreed. And it was stupid to jump into the middle of the fleet. What if they jumped into another ship? Although, that's Galactica's fault."

It would be safer to jump in a mile or two or ten ahead of the fleet, or behind it and catch up. But hey, people do incredibly stupid things during war time and endanger lives, so it's not entirely unrealistic.

M said...

Thanks for letting me play along.

I absolutely agree that the main through line for the Sixes is god, as Fate is for the Leobens. But, I don't think that everything must be about religion for someone who is religious. I found this transcript (near the bottom).

I think I understand what you are saying, but I still don't see that this passage is specifically about god or the beyond. It seems very much about life before death to me.

"As if each moment held its own significance." That's the line that rings this as something different for her. When there is death, "gone forever," all of a sudden, the moments started to matter. Whereas, as I've written before, they don't have to when you have forever.

"[...]mortality - is the one thing...well, it's the one thing that makes you whole." I think she's right on. Something has to end in order for it to be complete. To be infinite is to always be unfinished.

I'm not saying that she's no longer going to be about god, or living for god, or evangelizing the one true god, etc. I just think that this character can come to realizations that do not have to be directly related to her main message point.

normdoering said...

Thanks, M, for that bit of transcript of Natalie's speech.

Alas, I'm not convinced. This is not really humanist, and certainly not transhumanist:

"In our civil war, we've seen death. We watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the Resurrection Ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time. As if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die, and not return. The one human flaw, that you spend your lifetimes distressing over - mortality - is the one thing...well, it's the one thing that makes you whole."

Let's start with her use of the concept of "significant moments."

Why wouldn't there still be important, significant moments that matter to an immortal? Why does any kind of moment matter?

Some moments that stick in our memory, like the first crush you had on a teacher, the first time you had sex (hopefully not with that teacher), the first time you saw "2001, A Space Odyssey," the first time you saw an attack ship on fire, burning bright as magnesium, off the shoulder of Orion, the first time you rode on the back deck of a blinker and watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. Those are moments that stay with us because they change us and we grow a little more with each change. And because of death all those moments will be lost in time... like tears in the rain. Death robs us of all those moments in the end. We only have those moments for a moment.

Then she says that "for our existence to hold any value it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die, and not return." That's the part where she's sneaking in a Trojan horse. You're being given a false dichotomy between nihilism or religion.

I'll say more on that later. But if you note in my post, the name Max More is a link.

It's a link to an article called "Meaningfulness and Mortality" written back in 1991, over a decade before Natalie's words were written by the Galactica writers. In that article Max More deals with a similar argument made by Bernard Williams in an another essay called "Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality."

I agree with Max and these arguments are old and all over the web. Natalie, an essentially transhumanist kind of being is not being much of a philosophical transhumanist.