Monday, October 12, 2009

Brain brain and brain! What is brain? Star Trek comic gold

Brain and brain! What is brain?


Time for our aperiodic dose of Star Trek philosophy related geektitude.

This particular episode is one of the gawdawful funniest Trek episodes, but does raise some interesting philosophical issues. The premise of this episode is that a highly advanced culture steals Spock's brain for purposes of powering a sophisticated system of machinery and computers that maintains their underground environment. This description is only partially accurate. The culture is not advanced at all, precisely because it's technology is so thoroughgoing and dominant a part of every aspect of life. At one time, the inventors of this technology would have property been described as "advanced" but their descendants are as helpless as children, unless aided by the technology.

The female population of this planet, garbed in 60's go-go gear, has become so dependent on completely reliable machinery and what amounts to "plug in" knowledge, that they no longer are able to see to it that members of their society are educated. They are only able to acquire a "quasi-education" temporary implants of technical know-how. That's as good as it gets on Sigma Draconis

At some point, the go-go girl ancestors must have felt it to be unnecessary to educate in our old-fashioned sense. So, now the only thing resembling a "teacher" is a device that implants the knowledge they may need to do some HVAC work or steal a brain, but the effect is only temporary. This device looks suspiciously like a salon hair-dryer. Sexist? You make the call.Do note though, that the women on this planet are not rocket scientists, but this is not simply because they are female. Rather, it is the result of complete reliance on the technology and the implantable knowledge.

One is reminded of the first spread of literacy on Earth. Before it was common, human beings could memorize entire epic poems, often, so we are told, on one hearing. Now, this talent is extremely rare. Our trade off. Civilization as we know it. Writing, and symbolic systems of mathematics have brought us to our present state of advancement, with the price of the atrophy of some of our mental abilities. So, part of what this episode asks us is whether we could unintentionally go "too far" with similar technology, and become child-like and completely dependent upon that technology? It asks if this is something we would want.

To somewhat ameliorate the sexist nature of this episode, the males on this planet are none too swift either. They've also paid that price. The whole smelly lot of them, save a few that are servants of the underground civilization, have been relegated to life on the cold surface of the planet, with limited vocabulary, and suspiciously artificial looking furs. They refer to the women as 'those who give pleasure and pain.' They apparently don't bathe shave or date, and are not very good dinner conversation. So, we seem to have a whole planet of dimbulbs.

Any reader of Derek Parfit's brain transplant thought experiments may detect a whiff of the familiar. As well, Daniel Dennett's "Where am I?" has a similar resonance.

You will see, in this episode that McCoy and Kirk have trouble reminding themselves that Spock, or rather his body, is not really Spock at all. Spock, on the other hand, without his body, has no idea where he is, and has apparently lost a normal sense of spatial location. He feels as if he spreads into infinity, with no boundary. Wow. Maybe the go go dancers laced his brownies with LSD? (Can disembodied brains actually consume brownies?)

Later, he reports that he feels sensations as if he is circulating blood and breathing. Why? No. Not 'shrooms' but because he is the central controller of the life support system. He is the HVAC. He is the water purification system. He also seems to be able to tell that his medula oblongata is operating from first hand experience. Vulcans.

This was the first of the 3rd season episodes, and by general consensus, is one of the worst. Comedy gold though!

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