Friday, April 6, 2007

God and the Machines

In a recent post on Bob Blechman's blog, entitled Cylon Monotheism: Religion in Battlestar Galactica, Bob makes reference to my own post here on this blog, in which I praise the incorporation of religious themes in the show, specifically making the humans all pagans in the Greco-Roman mode, albeit with a tendency towards secular humanism, while the Cylons, technological creations of the humans who evolved from robots to some form of biotech human enough to breed with us, are portrayed as monotheists, albeit with a tendency towards fanaticism. Bob disagrees, however, with my own positive evaluation:
I concur that Battlestar Galactica is wonderful, both as Sci-Fi and as television drama of any kind. However, I find the Cyclon's religious affectations confusing and troubling within the total context of the show.
As a model media ecologist, Bob raises some very good, thought-provoking questions. as he goes on to write a bit later on:

If, in spite of being created in the image of their creators, Cylons reject polytheism, how did they stumble across monotheism?

In a 1977 Issue of ETC: The Journal of General Semantics, in an article titled "Alphabet, Mother of Invention," Marshall McLuhan and Robert K. Logan speculate on the possible origin of monotheism:
"Western thought patterns are highly abstract, compared with Eastern. There developed in the West, and only in the West, a group of innovations that constitute the basis of Western thought. These include (in addition to the alphabet) codified law, monotheism, abstract science, formal logic, and individualism. All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C. We do not consider this to be an accident. While not suggesting a direct causal connection between the alphabet and the other innovations, we would claim, however, that the phonetic alphabet played a particularly dynamic role within this constellation of events and provided the ground or framework for the mutual development of these innovations."
Perhaps Cylons, while surely literate, as robots are not subject to McLuhan's and Logan's media assertions. One could argue that Battlestar Galactica is not media ecological at all, and therefore need not adhere to the tenants of ME. The humans of BG can develop an advanced civilization without the benefit of alphabetic literacy, or, if their alphabet is phonetic, they can retain their polytheism in spite of it.

Religious robots, while intriguing, remain a problem, especially self-ordained monotheistic robots. I believe that the depiction of Cylons as monotheistic in the absence of human mortality or alphabetic literacy can only be seen as a true leap of faith on the part of Battlestar Galactica's creators.

Now, I admit that the fact that I am intrigued by all this and moved to write about it brands me as an irredeemable geek. So be it!

Bob raises the question of whether Battlestar Galactica is media ecological or not. The temptation, as a fan, a fan of anything, is to defend the program and provide rationales, rationalizations, logical explanations, for all of its inconsistencies and inaccuracies. That's what fans do to shore up the universe that they we want to believe in (this bears more than a passing resemblance to the ways in which followers in any given religion seek to interpret their sacred texts in order to maintain the plausibility of their belief system). But I'm not interested in doing that. Frankly, it seems to me that most science fiction film and TV is more about presenting an engaging narrative (or more often, an engaging set of visual effects) than it is about producing a credible scenario based on scientific extrapolation and/or speculation (SF writing is quite different from the audiovisual forms, however).

And even when they do a good job on the science and technology side of things, the creators seem to know next to nothing about the field of communication, and invariably get things wrong, or simply fail to imagine what nonhuman communication might be like. Typically, the aliens are less alien in their communication than members of oral cultures can be. Then you have something like Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the concept of meaning in communication seems to totally escape him, along with the distinction between the signifier and signified. I remember when the film came out, back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and one of my Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers came back after seeing it, and was marveling at the possibilities of universal communication through music that the film seemed to present. I tried to explain that it didn't matter if the symbol was speech or music, because it would still have to mean something. I didn't get through to him, however, no doubt due to his inebriated state of mind.

Even Star Trek: The Next Generation fell prey to this. I recall an episode that involved contact with a race that the Federation had been unable to establish communication with in all previous attempts, despite the best efforts of both sides, as the alien speech was translatable (through the "universal translator"), but just didn't make sense. Captain Picard finally figured out that the aliens speak in references to stories, i.e., myths, legends, and the like, so that to indicate that I'm in trouble I might say the equivalent of "Daniel in the lion's den." Certainly an original idea, but it makes no sense, because they could not communicate in narrative unless they had grammar and vocabulary, which presupposes the possibility of making novel statements without referring to some story which could only have been communicated through grammar and vocabulary in the first place.

So, it would not surprise me if Battlestar Galactica messed up in trying to conceive of alien communication. Except that the series makes no attempt to do so. The humans all seem to speak English (what a throwback to the good old days of SF!), as do the Cylons. Whereas the Star Trek franchise did make the commendable effort to develop alien languages, notably Klingon, along Sapir-Whorfian (therefore media ecological) lines (as a warrior race, the Klingon language relies on the imperative form of verbs much more than we do, and their imperative forms are much more developed and complex than ours), and Star Wars introduced the amusing technique of using subtitles with alien speech (back in 1977 when it was first seen in the theaters, everyone laughed out loud when they saw it), Battlestar Galactica does not seem to be very interested in languages. In contrast, J. R. R. Tolkien began by creating fictional languages, and based on his "Elf Latin" he created the myths and legends of Middle Earth (I wrote a paper on this once, and it was supposed to be published in an online proceedings, but that never got organized, so maybe I'll post it here, if there's sufficient reader interest--ha ha).

Battlestar Galactica is interested in visual symbols, however, which fits in with the visualism of Greek culture (as opposed to the oralism of Hebraic heritage, a point central to Walter Ong's work, as Tom Farrell explains in the first major book-length examination of Ong's scholarship, Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, and also see An Ong Reader: Challanges for Further Inquiry). And there is some evidence of something along the lines of runes or hieroglyphics as they encounter ancient religious artifacts, I believe (but to be honest I was not paying much attention to these things, so I would have to look at the episodes again to be certain).

But to get back to Bob's post, he essentially raises the question, do they have alphabetic literacy on Battlestar Galactica? The answer appears to be yes. I just took a quick look at the program's website and checked some of the images in the Gallery, just to confirm that the writing "Battlestar Galactica" can be found on insignia on uniforms and mugs, and of course it's also written on the ship itself. Given that the humans are Greco-Roman in their orientation, it is not surprising that they would used the Roman alphabet that we all use, but it's also part of the program's conceit that these humans from a distant part of space are essentially the same as us in the way they speak, dress, behave, etc. And if the humans have alphabetic literacy, it follows that the Cylons, who were created by the humans to serve them, and who are superior to the humans in just about every way, would also have alphabetic literacy.

Now, we can turn to the media ecological thesis that monotheism is a by-product of alphabetic literacy. Bob cites a seminal article by Marshall McLuhan and Bob Logan, published in the general semantics journal Etc. back when Neil Postman was the editor. After McLuhan passed away, Logan went on to write an entire book, now in a revised edition, entitled The Alphabet Effect: A Media Ecology Understanding of the Making of Western Civilization, and one of the early chapters is devoted to the argument that Moses and monotheism, not to mention The Law, was an effect of the Semitic alphabet, aka aleph-bet. Another book that carries the thesis into controversial new areas is Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (a similar argument about the alphabet bringing about the end of goddess worship was made by Joseph Ashcroft in his doctoral dissertation completed in the old media ecology program at New York University). But the argument that the alphabet led to monotheism was first put forth, I believe, by Harold Innis in Empire and Communications (and see also Innis's The Bias of Communication).

So, from a media ecological point of view, monotheism is all but inconceivable without writing, and appears to be specifically linked to the alphabet. Does this mean that cultures with alphabetic literacy necessarily move from polytheism to monotheism, however? Here, I think the answer is no. As Lynn White, Jr. says of technology in Medieval Technology and Social Change, an innovation opens a door, it does not command. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans developed monotheism on their own, however much they eventually accepted the idea as it spread from the Jews to Gentiles via Christianity. For that matter, while the Semitic alphabet made its way to India in antiquity, where it led to the invention of the number zero and positional notation in mathematics, it did not lead to monotheism per se. What does seem to occur, however, is a tendency towards more abstract notions of the divine, so that the literate elite in ancient Greece and Rome rejected the mythic narratives and personalization of the gods (criticizing Homer), and turned toward a form of religious worship that acknowledged "the gods" as a higher power, and along the way reduced the number of deities, and even moved Olympus from a mountain top to the more distant sky. Hinduism also moved towards more abstract conceptions of the gods, to the extent that they could be seen as manifestations of one divine force. And of course Buddhism is so abstract that there is no god in a personal sense. Along the same lines, in the west the abstraction of monotheism eventually leads to deism, and finally to abstracting God out of existence with atheism.

So, it would be conceivable for the humans on
Battlestar Galactica to have alphabetic literacy, but never arrive at pure monotheism. Alternately, it would not contradict anything in the narrative to date if it were the case that they had developed monotheism, but rejected it, much as, for example, in the New Age movement we find people raised as monotheists who have turned to neo-paganism. Battlestar Galactica's scenario indicates that the humans that populated the 12 colonies (whose names correspond to zodiac signs) split from those of us on the 13th colony of Earth some time in the distant past. If the split came during antiquity, before monotheism caught on beyond the confines of ancient Israel and Judah, and the Greco-Romans who split had no further contact with Judaic culture, it would be conceivable that they might never invent or adopt monotheism, and just continue to move towards a more abstract polytheism that eventually yields to secular humanism. This possibility is reminiscent of a Star Trek episode (original series) with the absurd scenario of a planet somehow populated by aliens who are more or less human and followed a similar course of history, except the Roman Empire remained pagan and persisted into their equivalent of 20th century Earth; at the end of the episode, Captain Kirk and company realize that references to "sun" worship were actually about worshiping "the Son," implying that Christianity had just been introduced.

Now for the big question that Bob raised: How could it be that the Cylons are monotheists when the humans that created them are not? Since the Cylons do have alphabetic literacy, they therefore have the necessary prerequisite for monotheism. One possibility is that the humans developed monotheism, but it never caught on among them, and instead was adopted by the Cylons. This would follow the pattern of Christianity originating with the Jews, who largely rejected the new religion, and likewise Buddhism originating with the Indians, who mostly remained Hindus or became Muslims. The alternate possibility is that the Cylons developed monotheism on their own. As they have the alphabet, and appear to be quite capable of independent thought and novel ideas, this certainly seems within the realm of possibility. And this would be, in my opinion, the more interesting scenario.

But what troubles Bob is the idea of religious robots. Now, holding aside the question of whether it was the older, robotic Cylons who embraced religion, or the newer, organic models, Bob wonders whether it makes sense that a robotic religion would emerge if the Cylons cannot die, but rather simply have their consciousness transferred as long as there is a resurrection ship or facilities within range. And he is right in making the point that one of the important functions of religion is to help us to come to terms with our own mortality (see Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, which I brought up in a previous post). But however much the Cylons have extended their lifespans by decreasingly the likelihood of imminent demise, they would have to be aware of the possibility of true death should they find themselves out of range of resurrection, or should the technology fail (and media ecologists know that nothing is foolproof and fail safe), and anyway sooner or later entropy will catch up with them and they will die along with the universe. So they still must live with the knowledge that eventually their consciousness will be extinguished, and perhaps the need to deny death may be all the more greater when they are so much closer to immortality than we are? But, apart from this issue, there is the question of whether death is the only reason for religious belief? In the absence of death, might a race of beings turn to religion for other reasons, say to provide a sense of the meaning of life, to provide guidance on how to live their lives, to establish a sense of justice and morality, or simply to provide legitimacy for their social arrangements and actions?

Another possibility I haven't mentioned is the possibility of divine revelation, that God actually exists and revealed Himself to the Cylons. Within
Battlestar Galactica this possibility seems to be inconsistent with the fact that the Cylons have committed genocide against the human race. But I don't think there's anything in particular that that the program shows us that actually indicates that the Cylons are deluded fanatics--that is, the program presents the Cylons' beliefs in a neutral manner, and it's only our own incredulity that keeps us from entertaining the possibility that they really are on a mission from God (remember Sodom and Gomorrah?).

Certainly, there is nothing new about violence being committed in God's name, so I think viewers can recognize in the Cylons something very familiar. The obvious connection is to Islamic terrorists, and more broadly to religious fanatics of all stripes and colors, but all major religions, I believe, have taken up the sword at one time or another in their histories, in order to wipe out the infidel. Nor is there anything about alphabetic literacy that is inimicable to violence. McLuhan often stressed the militancy of the alphabet, given its bias towards homogenization. The alphabet was a great technology for military organization. Before the alphabet, battle was basically a matter of running amok and trying to kill as many of the others as possible--that was the way the Trojan War was fought. Jump ahead a few centuries after the introduction of the alphabet, to the era depicted in the recent film 300, and order and discipline, modeled after the alphabet, becomes the rule, one that was intensified by Alexander the Great, and even more so by the Romans--it was all about holding a line (like the written word), uniformity in forming a shield war and phalanx, etc. For more on this, see McLuhan's follow-up to his bestselling The Medium is the Massage, his War and Peace In the Global Village.

Which brings me to a point of great significance for our discussion, the myth of the origin of the Greek alphabet, which McLuhan discusses in both The Gutenberg Galaxy (and see my previous post on Gutenberg!) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. According to Greek myth, the alphabet was introduced by Cadmus, who was a Phoenecian, in fact the son of the king of Phoenecia. This acknowledges the Semitic origin of the alphabet, and it follows that the Semites of Phoenecia, traders who sailed all around the Mediterranean, would be the source of the alphabet's dissemination to Greece. The Greeks called it the Phoenecian alphabet, from which is derived the term phonetic. Cadmus was told by the oracle at Delphi to found a town, which became the city of Thebes. Before doing so, however, he was forced to slay a dragon, and then, following Athena's instructions, sowed the dragon's teeth, from which sprung up a race of men called Spartes (Greek for "sown"). All of them were armed for battle and savage, and Cadmus tricked them into fighting among themselves until only five were left, the ancestors of the five noble families of Thebes, who took Cadmus as their king.

McLuhan felt there was an important insight in this myth, relating to the association between the alphabet and the military. The significance of the teeth is that they occur naturally in a line, looking relatively identical, and therefore are the body's analogues to the letters of the alphabet (alphabet as extension of the teeth); teeth also have much to do with the consonants of the alphabet, as the action of tongue in relation to teeth results in different sounds (e.g., "s" and "t"). Of course, teeth are sharp, they are natural weapons, and again they resemble an army of men, at least an orderly one of the sort made possible by the alphabet.

So, do you see where I'm going with this? The Cylons are Battlestar Galactica's very own Spartoi, they are the new beings sown from the dragon's teeth, they have a Phoenician/Semitic link (again the most obvious connection being to fanatical Arab Islamic terrorists, and note also the Semitic sounding music during the opening credits, as well as the similarly styled rendition of "All Along the Watchtower," which only the final four newly discovered Cylons could hear, in the season finale).

Do I have to spell it out? It's not a question of whether the Cylons have the alphabet, or alphabetic literacy. The Cylons are the alphabet sprung to life, they are what you reap when you sow the dragon's teeth. They are the alphabet as it evolves into the printing press, and mechanization takes command, giving rise to mass production, the multiple, identical copies that, ultimately, are written in the letters D-N-A, so send in the clones. As letters on a page, the Cylons naturally worship a divine Author-ity. Looking at it from this angle, Battlestar Galactica is very media ecological.

A few further thoughts come to mind, however anticlimactic they may be.

A descendant of Cadmus, King Laius of Thebes, was the father of Oedipus. And the Cylons are trying to fulfill an Oedipal fantasy by killing their collective father, the humans, and marrying their mother Earth. Is Battlestar Galactica a Greek tragedy? It certainly has many of those elements.

But at its conception, it was more of a Biblical narrative, of wandering in the desert, of revelation at Mount Sinai, and eventual arrival in the promised land. A perfect theme for this time year! Could it then be that the Cylons have more in common with angels than with demons, being nearly immortal, superior in power, more certain about God, interested in breeding with humans (as angels were early in Genesis), great and terrible (let us not forget the angel of death who slew the Egyptians' first born)? Can anything less than an act of God then save the remnants of humanity? Will the Cylons turn out to be fallen angels? Will a savior arise?

Well, the hour is growing late, and tomorrow The Sopranos are back on, introducing a very different set of issues, so the Cylons will just have to wait.