Star Trek: different sorts of darkness

Star TrekAs I am told by Wikipedia, the subtitle of the latest Star Trek film (“Into Darkness”) reflects the “indecision” and “crisis of leadership” of the young Captain James T. Kirk. But I would here like to briefly highlight two other sorts of darkness buried in the plot of the movie: the “darkness” of the future for us as human beings (the “darkness” of the unknown) and the “darkness” of genetic enhancement (the “darkness” of the morally wrong).

But first, a warning: Do not, under any circumstances, understand the above paragraph as an endorsement of the new Star Trek film. It is lame. I merely provide the philosophical reflections below in the hopes of helping you to keep your mind occupied during the course of what will generally be an aesthetically unpleasant event, should you have to view it. Popcorn also helps.

Let’s begin, then. In regard to the first point above, the “darkness” of the future, every human being knows that the future is unknown. I am, as usual, doing a spectacular job of telling you nothing new. But few human beings reflect on the fact that the future needs to be that way for us, that knowing the future could actually harm us as human beings. As thinkers such as Robert Sokolowski and Leon Kass have pointed out, it is significant that in the ancient Greek legend of Prometheus (as told by Aeschylus), the titan not only gave humans fire (that is, technological power), but that he also hid from men the knowledge of when they would die. Why is that significant? As Kass puts it, in giving man the gift of “blind hopes,” Prometheus knew that “ignorance of one’s own future fate was indispensible to aspiration and achievement” (see Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, p. 126). That is to say, if you knew that you were going to die anyway at some point–say, an hour from now–would you really bother trying to do much with the fire? Hope flourishes only in the absence of sight.

This understanding that it is fitting for the future to be unknown to us, an insight known to wise human beings since early in the Western intellectual tradition, is part of what is so very preposterous about the character of “Spock Prime,” the Spock from the future in these new Star Trek films (henceforth “old Spock”). He is apparently a wise man, a man (well, man/Vulcan) of high intelligence and refined moral sensibilities. We are led to believe in his moral goodness from his attempts not to unduly influence the younger version of himself. But therein lies the absurdity: would he not realize that his very presence, the very sight of him, would ruin everything for the young Spock character? Seeing himself grown old would take away some of the openness of the future for young Spock.

For example, at the beginning of this latest film, we find the younger Spock inside a volcano that is about to explode. He closes his eyes and stretches out his hands as if to prepare for death. But he knows that he is going to make it–he has met his future self, after all. So why all the theatrics? Why not just kill a little time inside the volcano by checking intergalactic Twitter while awaiting the inevitable rescue? Apparently young Spock has a flair for the dramatic, all cool Vulcan logic aside.

Here’s where you try to respond to me, in exceedingly nerdy fashion, with a complicated theory about history has been changed by old Spock traveling back in time, creating a parallel universe, so maybe in this universe he really could die, etc. But if that is the case, then why would young Spock bother calling up old Spock later in the film to talk shop about Kahn? If it is all so different, why assume that old Spock would have met Kahn? No, they are meant to be part of the same timeline, somehow. And this makes Old Spock is one reckless dude, morally speaking.

And if you don’t think it makes much sense in the world of the summer blockbuster movie, imagine how messed up it could get in real life. For while we do not seem to be making much progress towards time travel, we are indeed making scientific progress in our genetic technology. This may one day open up the possibility of human cloning, potentially creating a situation similar to old Spock/young Spock, for a clone is like an identical twin, only set back in time. That is, if I clone myself around age 30, then in 30 more years my clone will see in me what he is likely to look like around age 60. As the philosophers Robert Spaemann and Hans Jonas have discussed, this would rob the clone of some of that very openness (“darkness”) of the future that is so necessary for us as human beings.

The second sort of darkness one finds in the new Star Trek film also relates to the subject of genetic technology, for the primary antagonist in the film is a genetically-enhanced human being named Kahn. (Yes, in a blatant reboot/appropriation/ruining of the character from the original series and the second Star Trek film.) Kahn has been genetically made to be, in his own words, “more of everything”–he is smarter, stronger, and more savage than an ordinary, “unimproved” human being. Yet here is the paradox: he is nonetheless a tragic figure. Being better has not made life better for him.

Now the film’s answer to this paradox is easy: Kahn has been woken from his cryogenic hibernation and forced to design new, more militarized starships in anticipation of a war with the Klingon empire. In order to get him to do this work, his fellow frozen shipmates have been used to blackmail him. He has to build the ships or they will be killed. Kahn nevertheless attempts to use his ingenuity to save them, but in the end he fails, and this puts him in a murderous rage.

Um, fair enough. But there is a deeper and important lesson to take from this about the prospect of genetic enhancement, and here I give the movie some credit for its artistic presentation of the lesson: “human enhancement” is an absurd project unless the future is known. For success in human life, for a life that turns out well, is not just a matter of good genes; rather, success results from the happy intersection of certain genes (and the qualities to which they contribute) with particular historical situations, particular circumstances.

For example, if you wake from your cryogenic sleep with all your loved ones being held hostage by a warmongering Starfleet admiral, then you will have a hard time achieving happiness, no matter how “enhanced” you may be. (So do try to avoid that).

But on a more serious note, if biotechnology continues to advance, then enhancement technologies may one day be on the horizon for us here in the real world. The human genome has pretty much been mapped, and now researchers will busy themselves by trying to figure out what genes do what. As they figure things out, new possibilities will open up. Those with enough money might well be presented with the choice of making their children smarter or more athletic through genetic manipulation while those children are but embryos.

Yet such genetic intervention would ignore the fact that the future is always unknown. No one knows exactly what qualities would truly give a child an advantage in the future. Should your child be better looking? More socially inclined? Stronger? Any “improvement” you would pick would ultimately lack rational justification, because you do not know what the future holds. Being stronger might not be as advantageous in a highly technological future as it is in a primitive society. Being better looking might make your child more of a target for potential assaults in situations of future societal collapse. You cannot know what the future will require of humans, and so you ought not to engage in actions (such as genetic manipulation) whose successful completion would require such knowledge.

Of course the movie doesn’t go into the matter that deeply. They just need a tough guy to get in a fistfight with young Spock on top of a couple flying cars while Spock’s comely girlfriend looks on anxiously. But don’t let that stop you from achieving wisdom; even in all this silliness, it is there for the taking. Wisdom, like the kingdom of heaven, suffers violence, and the violent bear it away.

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One Response to Star Trek: different sorts of darkness

  1. CMrok93 says:

    When there’s not action going on, the movie is still a lot of fun to watch. That’s just how Abrams rolls, and it totally works for the guy and the movie. Nice review.

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