Thursday, May 20, 2010

Star Trek the Original Series "Who Mourns for Adonais" or "I didn't ask to be born!"

Well sort of..

It's been a while since I've done a post on Star Trek, but one of our Fellows, also a hapless victim of the dreaded Trekomonas infection, got me to thinking along those lines by bringing up a book that I've promptly ordered for myself, The Metaphysics of Star Trek. It does indeed deal with metaphysical issues raised in the various Trek series, but also delves into other realms of philosophy, like philosophy of language. So in the interests of finding fodder for courses I teach, I've put in that Amazon order. The book hopefully leaves some original series stuff untouched, so I can indulge my Trekomonas without repeating other's work.

Well, talking about this book also reminded me that there are STOS episodes that I need to mine, know I need to mine, but for various reasons have not mined. One is the second season episode Who Mourns for Adonais (complete non-embeddable episode)

Embed is here:

Once again, why does CBS not allow embed? Most illogical.

And the transcript

The basic premise of the episode is simple to describe. The Enterprise is captured by a gigantic hand in space that actually belongs to Apollo, yes, the Greek God, who has been waiting for humanity to come looking for him. It seems the other Greek Gods have moved on to some other dimension, having come to the conclusion humanity no longer has much use for them. Apollo is the one hold out. He remembers the good old days when the humans worshiped the ol' gang, and wants some more. In fact, he believes he deserves it.

"You will gather laurel leaves, light the ancient fires, kill a deer, make your sacrifices to me. Apollo has spoken!"

He wants the crew to populate the planet he now inhabits, stay, and praise him. In return, he promises a sort of Eden, a Greek symposium on steroids, most decidedly hedonistic, not of the boring chattering Platonic variety.

Well, Kirk refuses, puts up a fight, and Apollo eventually "returns" to the other Gods asking their forgiveness for being a bad judge of human character.

The episode raises interesting questions in (at least) two areas; philosophy of religion, and ethics. I'll try to touch on some:

The first area:

Is Apollo actually a God? He is technologically dependent, so, keeping in mind Clarke's third rule , I think it would seem unlikely you will say yes, unless you hew to a non-traditional conception of deity, which allows for limitations in powers, beyond the mere inability to carry out the logically impossible.

It is interesting that in order for Apollo to work his tricks, he needs the aid of energy generating/harnessing technology. He uses it to generate the gigantic hand apparition, make himself grow to gigantic proportions, and produce electrical storms. While it is possible, on a non-traditional conception, that Gods would be limited in this way, it is open to us to say that such beings would in fact not be Gods, by definition, but something much more like what Arthur Clarke had in mind when he formulated his third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," that is; very advanced beings, perhaps even denizens of other dimensions parallel to our own, that nevertheless, in order to travel about and have causal powers in our set of dimensions, must make use of certain contrivances, perhaps even to generate for themselves "bodies" that can move about in this world.

That line of thought is the gist of this exchange:

KIRK: Apollo's no god. But he could have been taken for one, though, once. Say five thousand years ago, a highly sophisticated group of space travellers landed on Earth around the Mediterranean.
MCCOY: Yes. To the simple shepherds and tribesmen of early Greece, creatures like that would have been gods.
KIRK: Especially if they had the power to alter their form at will and command great energy. In fact, they couldn't have been taken for anything else.

But, this brings us to the immortality/mortality distinction. Apollo implies that his gallant band are immortal, but cannot live forever in our particular set of dimensions:

CAROLYN: ...What happened to the others? Artemis, Hera?
APOLLO: They returned to the cosmos on the wings of the wind.
CAROLYN: You mean they died?
APOLLO: No, not as you understand it. We're immortal, we gods. But the Earth changed. Your fathers changed. They turned away until we were only memories. A god cannot survive as a memory. We need love, admiration, worship, as you need food.
CAROLYN: You really think you're a god?
APOLLO: In a real sense, we were gods. We had the power of life and death. We could have struck out from Olympus and destroyed. We have no wish to destroy, so we came home again. It was an empty place without worshippers, but we had no strength to leave, so we waited, all of us, through the long years.
CAROLYN: But you said the others didn't die.
APOLLO: Even for a god, there's a point of no return. Hera was first. She stood in front of the temple and spread herself upon the wind, thinner and thinner, until only the wind remained. But I knew you would come. You striving, bickering, foolishly brave humans. I knew you would come to the stars one day. Of all the gods, I knew and I waited, waited for you to come and sit by my side.

Is Apollo an immortal being who is nevertheless limited in these ways? It seems so. He tells of his "gallant band" of cosmic travelers (no, not Deadheads), happening upon Earth thousands of years ago:

"...Yes, my children. Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis. A gallant band of travellers. We knew your Earth well, five thousand of your years ago."

So, this raises questions as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of true deity. Immortality seems to be a necessary condition, but is it sufficient? We see, in the episode that Apollo is very powerful, but not all-powerful. He claims to know everything Kirk and the others are planning, but apparently does not. Various limitations, even if he is immortal. So, is he a God?

Consider this analog: Would we humans become Gods if we were able to craft technological ways to preserve ourselves, or more particularly, our persons? Suppose there was a fail safe way to make use of a chain of computer "houses" for our complete personalities, and we could make use of these as our biological bodies fail. Alternatively, suppose there were a fail safe way to use bio/nano tech to "jump" persons between created biological bodies as they aged and died. Would this immortality grant us the status of godhood? The answer would seem to be "no", for we all, after all, began to exist at a point. We all are dependent for the origin and maintenance of our existence on other things. We are contingent beings, to use a term of art.

But, suppose there were technologically limited yet truly immortal beings, beings who had no beginning, and will have no ending. Suppose that among the limitations they encounter, is this: They must make use of contrivances to function in our three dimensions. Would they qualify as gods?

What if these immortals were indeed the same sort of petulant arrogant narcissists that Apollo is in this episode? (Moral shortcoming, treating Kirk and crew as mere means to his own ends, is it not?) Does this moral imperfection and the technological limitation mean that Apollo is no god?

For those of us who have grown up in monotheistic traditions, I suspect the answer is "yes." But, for many thousands of years, before the advent of these faith traditions, I believe the answer would have been "no". "No, and these Gods are beings we need to treat with kid gloves, or better yet, maybe we'd be better off sacrificing the occasional kid to them."

Enough philosophy of religion. Now, on to the second area of questions brought up by the episode, ethics. More specifically, the role of recompense, and whether some forms recompense are morally required of progeny vis-a-vis parents or progenitors.

This explains the title of this post. Sometimes parents, when arguing with children, make some sort of reference to their kids' existential dependency upon themselves, if not in regard to origins, at least with regard to maintenance. Almost invariably, this earns the smart-ass rejoinder: "I didn't ask to be born!"

Well, their is a moral argument behind that smart-ass response. It depends on a major premise to the effect that one cannot be obliged to repay services that one has in no way asked for, or bargained for.

Consider this analogy: I take a vacation, come back find my roof redone, siding replaced, cars repaired, and etc.. The neighbor, it turns out, did all this, and now expects payment. Am I obliged? No. There was no agreement beforehand, and no general expectation of such actions. I had these services foisted upon me, and for that reason it is unfair of the neighbor to expect payment. He's nothing more than a high end squeegee man.

Well, kids are in a similar situation. Sure they owe their existence, maintenance, and eventual ability to function in society to the efforts of their parents, but they have all this foisted upon them. So, there cannot be an obligation to repay, based upon services rendered. So the argument goes.

It brings to mind similar arguments concerning similar progeny relationships. What is the obligation of a citizen to his country, given that he receives many benefits from membership, but in no way entered into any sort of voluntary agreement to live in the country? And, how about our obligations to our cultural progenitors? Do former colonies owe something to parent cultures or countries due to benefits therefrom received? What, if anything do we owe England, given our rich cultural inheritance? Do former enemy countries that were rebuilt after WWII owe America something, due to services rendered? How about Iraq and Afghanistan?

"Who Mourns.." asks us this question in regard to the Western civilization that the "gallant band" of space travelers made possible. While Apollo and his gang apparently did not literally create the human race, they do seem to have given us cultural and intellectual benefits aplenty.

The end of the episode from the transcript:

APOLLO: I would have cherished you, cared for you. I would have loved you as a father loves his children. Did I ask so much?
KIRK: We've out grown you. You asked for something we could no longer give.
APOLLO: Carolyn, I loved you. I would have made a goddess of you. I've shown you my open heart. See what you've done to me.
(He becomes a giant.)
APOLLO: Zeus, Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite. You were right. Athena, you were right. The time has passed. There is no room for gods. Forgive me, my old friends. Take me. Take me.
(And he disappears one last time. Carolyn cries.)
MCCOY: I wish we hadn't had to do this.
KIRK: So do I. They gave us so much. The Greek civilisation, much of our culture and philosophy came from a worship of those beings. In a way, they began the Golden Age. Would it have hurt us, I wonder, just to have gathered a few laurel leaves?

The episode makes it easier to take Kirk's side, because Apollo is such a jerk about it all. But, suppose he were no jerk, and Kirk made his "we've outgrown you" arguments. Suppose that Apollo actually requested only that the crew render the occasional kid sacrifice, or build and maintain temples and a priesthood as they made their way about the cosmos, nothing more. Suppose he requested they treat him as a God, but only in these relatively inconsequential ways. Suppose Kirk pressed him, saying,

"We have the one God, that's quite enough, and we've outgrown treating you and yours like Gods. You expect us to play the role of cargo cultists. Yes, we owe quite a bit to you, but we didn't ask for it. So, we won't even do that little bit you ask."

Do you think Kirk would have been in the right in responding in this way? I think most would say we do certainly owe the 'gallant band' thanks and perhaps some sort of recognition of the benefits accrued, but the question here is, should we render that thanks in the way Apollo requests, treating him as a God, even though we know he is not one. After all, when we render thanks and want to return favors, do we not often ask how the recipient would like to be repaid? And, as long as the request is reasonable, and easily met, do we not usually acquiesce? Is this request reasonable? It could be easily met.

Lastly, suppose there were no other way to repay but in the way Apollo requests. For some reason he is constitutionally unable to receive any other form of recompense. Does that change your mind, if you have answered "no" to the above paragraph? What if, as Apollo seems to hint in the conflicted bit of dialogue with Carolyn, praise and love of his being, as if he were a God, is in some way necessary to his "survival", do we owe this to him?