Monday, September 29, 2008

Battlestar Gallactica and Philosophy

By Hanno

I had a professor at the University of Texas who taught a course called "Philosophy and Literature," which I mistakenly thought would be about, uh, literature. Instead Nick Asher (famed logician and philosopher, good guy, too) used science fiction as the backdrop for philosophical thought. We read Dune, Nueromancer, some David Brin, etc.. [Interesting side note: Nick wrote me a letter of recommendation for graduate school based on that one course, and the papers I wrote for him. I went to see him to make sure the letter writing was going okay, and he told me that he was having a little difficulty, given the course, in not sounding totally out of his mind as he described my work.]

Lord Matt has been trying to get me to watch the new Battlestar Gallactica series on DVD, and claimed there was much philosophy contained therein. Still not sure what he had in mind (although I do think some classic philosophy of mind questions are at work... unfortunately, that's not my cup of tea.) But lately one theme has struck me.

In the first season, the civilian authority and the military authority come to an agreement, splitting sovereignty by granting him control of military matters, and her authority over all others. No big deal is made of that agreement, but in the second season, trouble brews as the President urges a member of the military to not pay attention to her orders, compromise her mission, and complete a task the military commander has already rejected. The officer does what the President asks, which then prompts the military commander to suspend, arrest and jail the "President," amid questions of legitimacy. This provokes a civil war (though a one sided civil war, as the military has full control of, uh, the military.) Some people support the President, others the Military leader. Sides are drawn up, and chaos is about to reign.

Hobbes, in his classic Leviathan, argued against splitting sovereignty (giving one person or group of people authority over one area, and another over another) for precisely the same reason in 1651. He argued that the purpose of sovereign authority was to get people out of the state of war by making fear of other people irrational. But splitting sovereignty sets up a situation which makes it easy for people to rationally justify civil war, and hence plunging the community into the very state the establishment of government was meant to avoid. In his day, sovereignty was split between the King and Parliament, and when they came to a clash on some point of controversy, the result was the English Civil Wars.

Hobbes writes:
"A kingdom divided in itself cannot stand: For unless this division proceed, division into opposite armies can never happen. If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these powers were divided between the King, and the Lords and House of Commons, the people had never been divided, and fallen into this Civil War;"
Of course, BSG then blows it by healing the rift without any attempt to solve the problem. The two leaders just look at each other and start working together.


MButkus said...

There are certainly a number of issues in the philosophy of mind, but it also speaks to political philosophy and Aristotelian teleology (if we strip away the veneer of civilization, reduce humanity to its most desperate conditions, I think we get an interesting picture of who we are as a species - this gets into the reasons we enter into the civil state as imagined by Locke, Rousseau, and, as Hanno notes, Hobbes). I plan to address aspects of this political philosophy during the filmosophy discussion of V for Vendetta.

Now, regarding the "make nice" ending, I agree that it was a little abrupt (this, in and of itself, would make for an interesting story arc that could have been explored over a longer stretch of time), but that's my interpretation of the author's intent, which may or may not be valid. ;-)

DeadMilkmenMike said...

when is said filmosophy taking place?