Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Star Trek and religion

I saw a really interesting episode of Star Trek the next Generation the other day. It was called "Who watches the watchers?" of season 3. It's about how Enterprise accidentally get mixed up in revealing the presence of the Federation to a greatly underdeveloped society on some backwater planet. This of course breaks the prime directive, which says that the federation may never interfere with the doings of another culture. What makes this episode so interesting is that the indigenous society (called the Mintakans), currently in what could be compared to the bronze ages, was developing towards a "rational" society. One without religious beliefs. That is until Picard and friends showed up with the pew pew lazers and beaming up and down to the ship. The Mintakans take the Enterprisers for gods, and specifically Picard whom they call The Picard. Picard is of course quite despondent about the fact of having violated the prime directive so horribly, and with such (according to the views of the Federation) devastating effects to the society of the Mintakans. According to Star Trek, religious beliefs would be a backward development of a society.

Picard tries to explain to the leader of the Mintakans that he seems to be a god to them just as they would seem as a god to cavemen. Eventually she understands his reasoning (it still takes Picard being injured by an arrow to convince the rest of the society however). When the Enterprisers encounter beings that greatly surpass them in development and/or power (like Q for example, or the Traveller), they never view them as Gods however, only as other creatures who have developed further. What is the difference between the Enterprisers and the Mintakans? At first I thought that it just was one of technical development.

It got me thinking, how far developed must a society be to stop viewing the things they do not understand as magical? Even if there are constantly things happening in the Star Trek universe that Picard and his crew can't understand or explain, they never think of it as magical, but only as something natural that they just haven't the knowledge to explain. This is a fictious setting of course, but could be compared to our own society. The less you know about how things work, the more likely is it that you ascribe it magical properties. But my question is, is there some sort of line of knowledge where you simply no longer ascribe anything magical properties, although you don't understand it, because you know so much about how other things work?

But then I realized I was looking at it the wrong way. Although I honestly believe that religion and mysticism, and whatelse there might be like it, originally stemmed from a need to explain things that could not really be explained by any other means, I think that since then religion (and the like) has gotten a whole nother purpose. It still retains it explanatory position to many, but has mainly become much of a set of moral guide lines, which doesn't really have much to with science or knowledge at all. But since then we have also gotten the means to explain many of those things that we previously weren't capable of. I don't even think the most religious fanatic honestly thinks that it is God being upset when there is thunder. Or maybe another way to look at it would be that the scientific cause for thunder is what happens when God gets upset. So it's just another step. We know what happens when there is thunder, but we don't know why. What is the meaning of it? And how can we make sure to control the meaning of it? (I of course don't think there has to be a meaning to things at all, it's just a human way to look at things. But I understand the need some feel to attribute meaning to everything).

In the episode the Mintakans argue about what they should do to please the Picard. Some of them say that since they do not know exactly what the Picard wants, they shouldn't really do anything. Some say instead that they should do something, just to be on the safe side (the something being to sacrifice Troi). And this is really what the difference between religion and science comes down to, in one way. They're both about control. But the one side says it is meaningless to do anything without turning to that which really controls (religion)(I am not saying religion is about controlling god, but about having control over your own life by understanding what god wants). The other side says that it is meaningless to do anything without turning to that which we can control ourselves (science). And in all times has there been people who've tried to explain things scientifically vs religiously (for example some greek philosophers and Gong Fu Zi who didn't turn to the supernatural to explain how the world could work). And people who don't believe one bit in the supernatural still do alot of things just to be on the safe side. "It can't hurt" they think. "At least I've covered all possibilities". So it is about control. Either you feel better about something when you think that you've got control over whoever has control (pleasing god) or feel better when they themselves have the control (experimenting, theorizing). In the end it is still about being in control. The control of what happens or the control of why it happens.

I'm not sure what makes a person prefer one over the other. Obviously they think that one mode of control is better than the other, but why that is... And although some have tried, it doesn't seem possible to combine these two forms of control (but like mentioned alot of people do, but they would never admit it). If you prefer one form, the other form is made meaningless.

I'm not sure I have a conclusion to all this (and besides I have to run to work now). Sometimes just randomly rambling about something can be quite fun too (at least to me!).

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