SOMEBODY WROTE “STAR TREK IS philosophy for stupid people”.
I wouldn’t say it’s for stupid people.
I wouldn’t say that sentiment is entirely wrong, either.
I’d say it’s just easy to dismiss the philosophy of Star Trek (and of any pop culture-based philosophy, for that matter) as something that would appeal to stupid people. And, with “aliens” that look like this, it’s easy to dismiss Star Trek fans as… well… as stupid as this obviously-a-dog-wearing-a-dumb costume.
Well… some folks may think there’s a the correlation between Star Trek and the collective stupidity of its audience (that particular folk was Chuck Klosterman, I think), and that’s fine. Like anything in pop culture, Star Trek got its fair share of smart fans and a more than generous helping of stupid fans.
But, if Star Trek is philosophy for stupid people, the show is putting out some pretty heavy philosophical stuff — for stupid people.
I’m no smart guy, but I’m pretty sure that the writers wouldn’t waste their time writing episodes for a fanbase with the mental acuity of a Pakled.
Just ask a Trek fan to describe the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of A Man”, and you’ll hear a bunch about how philosophically deep the episode is.
That’s because it is a philosophically deep episode.
Normally when I’m making the case that Star Trek is philosophically deep, I’d rattle off a list of philosophical episodes and themes — but I’m not going to do that right now.
All I’m gonna say is if you want to watch a tv show that, if you say you watch it you can claim it’s because it’s “philosophical”, give Star Trek a look.
…or you can watch Rick and Morty.
Because you need to have a high IQ to understand that.
But really. Go ahead and watch the Star Trek episode “City On the Edge Of Forever”.
and “Plato’s Stepchildren”.
and “Encounter At Farpoint”.
and “The Inner Light”
and while you’re at it, you might as well watch “Darmok”.
Now, any incarnation of the Star Trek franchise is chocked-full of philosophy, but my personal favorite philosophical Star Trek is Star Trek: the Next Generation. I prefer ST:TNG (as the fans call it) to other Star Treks because there’s less this:
and A LOT of this:
No, really tho… I prefer Star Trek: the Next Generation to other incarnations of Star Trek because Star Trek: the Next Generation, 1) it was the first Star Trek series I watched on a regular basis, and 2) the series wields philosophy with the subtlety of being struck on the head with a cudgel.
Wait a minute…
So I guess Star Trek is philosophy for stupid people.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Anyway, my likely stupidity aside, the one thing I appreciate about Star Trek IS that the show’s philosophical themes are easy to comprehend. You don’t have to study philosophy to see the philosophy in an episode of Star Trek.
There’s a bunch of philosophical topics and themes to explore all over Star Trek universe (there are six separate incarnations of the tv show and 13 films), so you can take your pick of which one strikes your philosophical fancy.
…but the Star Trek thing that makes me think most philosophically is the Holodeck.
I know not everyone reading this is a Star Trek fan, so I’ll have Wikipedia explain what the Holodeck is to you:
The Holodeck is a fictional device from the television series Star Trek. It is presented as a staging environment in which participants may engage with different virtual reality environments. From a storytelling point of view, it permits the introduction of a greater variety of locations and characters that might not otherwise be possible, such as events and persons in the Earth‘s past, and is often used as a way to pose philosophical questions.
Thank god for that Wikipedia.
Now, according to Wikipedia, the Holodeck can be used in various ways, including…
Re-enacting Klingon rites of passage:
Re-creating accidents to get Riker off when he’s charged with murder
and for creating hot Holodeck babes to get Riker off in general…
Wikipedia* says that the Holodeck can also be used “as a way to pose philosophical questions”.
But here’s the fun part (and when I say “fun” I mean PHILOSOPHICAL) about the Holodeck: we can also ask philosophical questions about the Holodeck.
Namely, why the Holodeck? Why would we want to use the Holodeck in the first place?
If you weren’t thinking philosophically already, I bet you’tr doing some philosophical thinking now!
Ok… If somebody told you, “hey buddy. I’ve got this fantabulous machine that you can step into and live any life you choose”, would you do it? WAIT — before you say “sure, why not?” let me drop a name on you — Robert Nozick.
Although the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002), is known (around philosophical
nerds fans) for his book on political philosophy Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), he is probably best known for his thought experiment, THE EXPERIENCE MACHINE.
If you’ve watched The Matrix, you know this one.
Red pill, people. Choose the red pill.
Whether you’ve watched The Matrix or Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Hollow Pursuits” (or seen neither), you probably already have an idea of what The Experience Machine is. But if you don’t know the concept, Nozick says (about the Experience Machine):
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any
experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate
your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or
making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be
floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into
this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?
Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to spend a day or twenty years inside a machine designed to give us nothing but pleasurable experiences?
All I’m gonna say is
…and a plate of nachos.
Now, the way it’s described, Nozick’s Experience Machine initially sounds like a great thing. The crewmembers of the star ship Enterprise D (that’s Picard’s Enterprise, but y’all already knew that) enjoy the Holodeck as something that evolved 23rd century people are into.
You know there’s something wrong with that 23rd century kind of thinking, right?
Philosophers notoriously have a knack for making everything that’s fun un-fun, and like a true philosopher, Nozick managed to make the idea of climbing into a pleasure machine created by superduper neuropsychologists un-fun.
Before we jump into the Experience Machine for some good-time hedonistic fun, Nozick asks us a question.
Of course, there’s a question…
The question at the core of the Experience Machine is, Is pleasure all that matters?
The answer is supposed to be no.
Listen: The thing (aka, the catch) about the Experience Machine is, despite the lure of a life of good times inside the device, the purpose of Nozick’s thought experiment is to persuade us that life is more than just pleasurable experiences. The point of the machine, Nozick says, isn’t to demonstrate the awesomeness of life in the Matrix, but to show that we should prefer an authentic life in the real world to an (in)authentic one inside the machine.
Nozick gives us at least three reasons why we shouldn’t want to plug in:
First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has been long in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide. It will seem to some, trapped by a picture, that nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?
Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality,
to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct.
There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it
can be simulated.
So… according to Robert Nozick, I shouldn’t want to spend any of my time living Experience Machine-induced “experiences” with Will Gardner
Just as Star Trek’s Lt. Barclay shouldn’t want the Holodeck pleasures of a romantic relationship with ship’s counselor (and Commander Will Riker’s imzadi) Deanna Troi
Reggie Barclay and I ( and we collectively) shouldn’t want to go into the Experience Machine because, by going in, we deprive ourselves of the real (authentic) experiences that make a meaningful life. Philosophers, and ordinary folks, should prefer truth to a pleasurable fiction.
But why, right?
You know, lovers of wisdom say we (should) want authentic experiences because we need truth if we want to find wisdom, and through wisdom and truth, we find deeper meaning…blah, blah, blah.
Life shouldn’t be about just pleasure. As John Stuart Mill tells us, we should want to be a dissatisfied Socrates rather than a satisfied pig.
AAAANNNNDDD — if we learn anything about the Holodeck from watching Star Trek, we’ll see that Holodeck “experiences” have the potential to cause problems in the real world. In the episode “Hollow Pursuits”, Lt. Reggie Barclay becomes so involved in his life inside the Holodeck that he neglects his responsibilities in the real world. Barclay’s work performance (he’s a member of Lt. Geordi LaForge’s engineering crew) is below standard and his constant tardiness (because he’s in the Holodeck) nearly endangers the safety of the Enterprise. Barclay’s Holodeck depictions of his superior officers, especially his Holodeck of Cmdr. Riker, cause “problems” when Barclay’s superior officers discover his Holodeck fantasies.
Worst of all, Barclay’s Holodeck addiction is preventing him from overcoming his real world social anxiety.
Eventually, Barclay realizes what we, the viewers, already know: life inside the Holodeck is nothing more than a hollow pursuit. Barclay’s Holodeck relationships aren’t authentic– and more importantly — he is depriving himself of the opportunity to form real friendships (and romantic relationships) with his real fellow crewmembers.
And you know what Aristotle says about the importance of real friendships…
…and on a personal note: I think, for a society that has advanced past the use of money, like they have in the 23rd century of Star Trek, it’s odd (to me) that an experience machine on a starship would be seen as an advancement in human progress.
I mean, you’d think a culture advanced enough to provide a ship’s counselor on staff would know about the dangers of VR addiction.
Also, who is monitoring what goes down in the Holodeck, anyway? I mean, I can’t keep a post of naked boobs up on Facebook for more than three minutes before I get one of those “your post was removed because it violated community standards”things. Who’s keeping watch over community standards violations on the Enterprise’s Holodeck?
You gotta assume there’s some sick shit going on in there.
If you think Star Trek is dumb philosophy for stupider people, you’re kinda wrong on that. Despite all that living in their mom’s basement stuff, Terk fans tend to be pretty smart people — that’s why Star Trek has been cranking out pop culture-ready philosophy for over a half century.
One great thing about Star Trek is that the writers assume that the fans are not only capable of understanding the thump-to-the-back-of-the-head philosophical stuff, but also the deep philosophical subtext that gets us talking about dudes like Robert Nozick and asking ourselves if taking a dive in the Holodeck or Experience Machine is really worth it.
Just in case you forgot, the answer is it’s not. BECAUSE THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN MERE PLEASURE.
I don’t know how you feel about the Experience Machine, but
all I’m saying is that
I prefer my nachos with guacamole.
*You may have noticed my excessive use of Wikipedia. It’s true. I refer to Wikipedia a lot. I know, Wikipedia has the reputation for being a less-than-accurate source of information. Rest assured, before I use Wikipedia as a source I check with additional sources for information. So far, so good…. I think.