Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stargate Epistemology

I love Stargate SG-1.  It's probably my second favorite TV show of all time (behind the incredibly under-appreciated comedy series Better Off Ted).  I like it so much, in fact, that I'm watching the whole series (all 10 seasons!) on netflix right now. Sometimes I feel guilty about watching netflix instead of reading, but then I remember that the only way my apartment ever gets cleaned is when I have the tv on in the background, and I don't feel so bad.

One of the best things about Stargate is that it delves into some really complex topics, from ethics to epistemology to the very definition of a God (including several incarnations of how to deal with the Sati problem) in enough detail that it actually makes you think about the right thing for the characters to do.  The show also deals with pretty much every major sci-fi trope, including time travel, advanced alien races, faster than light travel, artificial life forms, and parallel universes.  Not to say that the show isn't sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it is without a doubt expansive.

As I'm watching through the whole series, I find it to be a good analogy to my experience of reading through the Old Testament in big chunks.  Before doing so, I had only digested the Old Testament in little pieces, and the whole thing read quite differently.  Likewise, watching whole seasons of Stargate over a few days is quite different than watching them one episode at a time.  The big thing I'm noticing is that there are certain themes that are popping up relentlessly, in almost every single episode.  There's two specific themes I want to mention here.

First, the epistemology of the main characters.  It seems like every other episode, someone is getting their memory erased.  Off the top of my head, I can think of three instances where characters got taken over by aliens, two where a character was taken over by a machine, four where characters had their memory wiped or replaced, two where all the other characters had been replaced with aliens, one where the main characters were themselves machines (but didn't realize it), and two where a character was brainwashed.  They deal with the topic of epistemology a lot.

What I've noticed is that their answer is always the same- and it's the answer the viewer intuitively agrees with (or at least, the answer I intuitively agree with).  The "right" action for the characters to take- the action the viewer, who is generally omniscient after the first 15 minutes or so, is rooting for the character to take- is to be suspicious.  In the Stargate world, someone is always trying to trick the good guys, but they never actually know someone is trying to trick them.  Now, it's pretty clear that the only way to get by in that kind of world is to be suspicious of pretty much everything.  But I'm going to argue that that's the only way to get by in any world where there's even the possibility that someone is trying to trick you.

All these different episodes give us some concrete (if farfetched) examples of how and why it's important to be skeptical.  They attempt to demonstrate that bad beliefs have bad consequences.  If we take that as a given (and I think most people would), then we're left with the question of how often we're proffered a set of bad beliefs.  The answer in our modern society, no matter what you believe, seems to be all the time.  Since so many of us hold mutually exclusive beliefs, we ought to be really suspicious of all of them- including our own.  I've gone on the record about skepticism in the past, but I left out the fact that (almost) everyone is a skeptic- of other people's beliefs.  You have to be, or you just end up at some useless pluralist belief.  The better question is how we treat our own beliefs.  I seem to agree with the writers of Stargate- the only reasonable way to treat our own beliefs is with a hefty dose of skepticism.

The second really interesting topic is the question of what it even means to be a God.  There are several alien races running around the Stargate universe, but there's three main ones that impersonate gods at various points: the evil Goa'uld, the benevolent Asgard, and the frighteningly god-like Ori.

I'm always a little disappointed by the writer's treatment of the Goa'uld.  The Goa'uld are a race of parasitic snake-like creatures that crawl into people's heads and take over.  They imbue their hosts with great strength, intelligence, and healing powers, and they have the proverbial sufficiently advanced technology that appears like magic.  They go around enslaving human worlds, pretending to be gods from ancient earth cultures (Ra, Apophis, Anubis, Nerti, etc).  Problem is, they make really unconvincing gods.  They war amongst themselves.  They have children which eventually usurp them.  They are considered immortal, but they seem to kill each other fairly frequently.  It all sounds a great deal like the gods of ancient Egypt (not surprising, since that's what most of it is based off of).  It seems to betray my modern western monotheistic bias that I find such depictions of gods unconvincing.  So far as I've been taught, people in the ancient world actually believed these things.  The fact that I can so easily dismiss them- not just as true, but even as reasonable plot devices in a story- makes me question whether the idea of any God at all does not sound plausible to me simply because of the culture I was raised in.  I wonder if I had been raised in a purely secular culture if I would view the Christian monotheistic God- who sent his Son in human form to be sacrificed at the hands of humans in a small corner of the desert a few thousand years before society had advanced to the point of being able to accurately verify and record such events- with the same level of smug indifference as I currently view the false gods of the Goa'uld.  I roll my eyes at the gullibility of the humans taken in by the Goa'uld, but humans really and truly did believe such things at one point- no doubt with simillar resolve as religious people today believe.

The Asgard present another interesting case study.  They are a benevolent race that protects human societies from the Goa'uld, but they still pose as gods.  They consider these societies to not yet be "ready" (read: advanced enough) to abandon their religions.  Frankly, it's a pretty condescending view of religion (it seems pretty clear the Stargate writers are atheists), but it shows the viewer something of an unattended side effect.  There are a few episodes where SG-1 tries to convince some native peoples to take some drastic action to save themselves instead of trusting in the power of Thor (the Asgard take on the form of old Norse gods), and it's shocking how very little difference there is between an Asgard world and a Goa'uld world.  In almost all cases, the people are sort of blindly flailing at some idea of God, rather than interacting with the gods as they are.  Typically, the people have no direct interaction with the diety of choice, but they construct whole theologies and moral systems around them.  It's really interesting to see the parallels between blindly following a "good" false god and blindly following a "bad" false god.  At least in the Stargate universe, it matters less than you'd think.

It's the last race that I find the most interesting.  The Ori are a group of "Ascended" beings from another galaxy that ultimately seek dominion over our own galaxy.  They have a sort of treaty with the "Ancients", the group of Ascended beings that live in our galaxy, but that doesn't stop them from sending what amount to missionaries- albeit extremely powerful and aggressive missionaries- into our galaxy.  These Ori are really close to our definition of gods- they have powers well beyond our comprehension, and well beyond our ability to interfere with.  Really, there are only two things that disqualify them being gods- first, they're not good guys.  They have most of the powers of gods, but they use that power for inherently selfish purposes (they draw power from worshipers, so they go about "converting" every civilization they find).  We have this idea that any formulation of God is necessarily benevolent, but I'm not so sure I buy that notion- and Stargate makes an attempt to call us out on our seemingly artificial limitation on the character of a god or god-like being. 

The second thing disqualifying the Ori from godhood is that we know they're not gods.  We know that they are ultimately just beings like us who ascended to a higher plain of existence.  This begs the question, what exactly do we mean by God in the first place, if not a being that exists on a higher plain of existence than us?  If it's not intuitively clear to me that we can assume the character of any God would be benevolent, it's even less clear that what it even means when we say "God".  If what we mean is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, then we have a good definition, but at the expense of leaving any room for our own lack of understanding.  I guess what I'm saying is that it's not intuitively clear to me that we can define God in the first place, much less why such a being would necessarily be the only possible kind of super-powerful-godlike-being.  The only way I can imagine arriving at a particular conception of God would be if God revealed himself to be a particular way and of a particular character (as many religions claim he has).  But even if we take this route, we've negated the effectiveness of a great deal of apologetics arguments.  The nature and character of God does not seem to me to be evident from the world we live in, so the only possible convincing evidence for God would be direct revelation- a claim that unfortunately many different religions make.

But my favorite part of Stargate is watching as two characters- Teal'c and Bra'tac- try to convince their fellow Jaffa that the gods they serve are false.  It's not at all close to a one-to-one mapping onto the way Christians and Atheists interact, but it's usually an epistemologically interesting discussion.  Plus, it usually ends with Teal'c and Bra'tac beating the pants off some bad guys.


  1. My brain devours your thoughts. Please don't stop sharing them.

  2. I thought the Goa-uld were a more compelling bad guys than the Ori. The Ori were pretty stupid in my estimation. Of course, Morena Baccarin was hot, but that's about all they had going for them. The Goa-uld had this connection to earth's history, to ancient languages, and to ancient religion that made them cool even though the writers clearly didn't use them to their full potential. Plus it was kinda funny how these super-advanced aliens with plasma blasters and interstellar travel didn't even have security cameras on their ships. I got a good chuckle out of that.

    (Did you see the episode where the Goa-uld impersonate demons and the devil and Tealc is all like "I didn't think any Goa-uld could match the goodness of the God in your Bible"?)

    Now, what do you think of Buffy epistemology?

  3. I just watched the episode "Demons" Teal'c claimed to have read the Bible, and yet he didn't notice how much of a b*stard God was? I also can't figure out why SG1 can defaeat all these false Gods and yet at least O'Neal and some others (e.g. Hammond) still believe in "God". I think the Go'auld pretty much match the Earth 'God' in being an asshole, and basically 'worship me or go to hell'.

    The reason the Go'auld didn't have security cameras and such was they were arrogant, they always underestimated their enemies, they believed they were far superior and that no one would beat them, and it was to be their downfall.