August 4, 2007

The human emotional predicament as Star Trek thinks it

Star Trek over its long history has done some fine work to help people think about being human by providing plausible contrast cases: characters who are half-human or not quite human. One persistent topic: the question about how central having emotion is to being human. They started with Spock, the Vulcan who aspires to be only reasonable. His mode is echoed later in Data, an android who claims to lack emotion; one also hears some kind of an echo in Seven of Nine, from Voyager, who is new to the whole idea of individual consciousness and personal feelings.

A helpful and surprising variant on this theme is “The Loss,� episode 84 from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Counselor Troi loses her empathic powers, and comes up against a strange fact about humanity: our emotions are not obvious and not public, though they are also not hidden or inaccessible. We know each other by observation and induction, to some extent, and we are frequently not quite sure what other people are feeling. This, like emotion itself, is sometimes a handicap, sometimes an advantage. There is a fine scene in the episode in which Commander Riker comes to comfort Troi; she does not know what he is up to, and so there is an awkward dance between them, familiar from every teenage date movie: he loves her, does not want to force his affection on her. She suspects, but doesn’t want to misjudge him. Eventually, they figure things out. He tells her that previously she has been superior, aristocratic, and that there is something of value in her new vulnerability. (One hears echoes of the Laches: would someone with perfect military competence and perfect knowledge of the state of a battle be braver than the ordinary soldier, or would he or she be shut out of the possibility of bravery, as perhaps the all-powerful are shut out of generosity?)

There are a couple of points to make here, in a preliminary way. The human predicament is an interesting predicament, and it is worth paying close attention to it before seeking to transcend or abolish or improve it. Also, people have spent a lot of mental energy doing just the sort of thought experiment that Star Trek tries: developing a coherent picture of beings who are almost human, and then trying to understand what those beings would gain and lose by their difference. The Greek gods are profitably seen as one such experiment. One final point: it is quite interesting that the warp drive that keeps the Enterprise flying is in so many episodes a philosophical investigation. Humans aren’t programmed to respond only to car chases and bits of skin, even in the Twenty First Century.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:34 AM