This week I watched another stellar (pun intended) episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). I’m still new to TNG so most of these episodes are first timers for me.
Once again, I was stunned by the willingness of the writers to delve into questions that probe the very basics of humanity and morality. That’s something few movies or shows attempt to do today.
This particular episode (The Quality of Life), examined two important philosophical questions: how do we define life and is all life equally valuable? It may seem that these questions are better left to be discussed in the halls of academia. However, how you answer them can have crucial consequences in the real world.
Throughout history, the way societies have answered these questions have influenced views on slavery, civil rights, the equality of genders, and whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice.
Bravo to TNG for raising these questions for consideration. However, the way in which they answered them raises more questions than even they were prepared to deal with.
What is life and are all lives equally valuable? TNG answered both incorrectly. Let’s take a look.
On stardate 463307.2, the USS Enterprise-D arrives at Tyrus VIIa, a moon of the uninhabited planet Tyrus VII. They are there to inspect a new mining technique for possible use on other planets.
During Commander La Forge’s evaluation at the mining station, a power grid malfunctions. The malfunction gives Dr. Farallon, the project’s lead developer, an opportunity to demonstrate to La Forge the effectiveness of a new device she has been working on.
Over the course of several years, she has modified a common industrial servo mechanism and created what are known as “exocomps”. These mechanical devices have the ability to both replicate tools to effect repairs and a capacity to learn.
Subsequently, an exocomp repairs the grid in a matter of minutes instead of the months it would have taken engineers to do so. La Forge, recognizing the engineering importance of the exocomp, requests that it be brought to the Enterprise for evaluation.
Back at the Enterprise, Farallon confesses to Captain Picard that the project is behind schedule. However, she asks if he could delay his report to Star Fleet for 48 hours while she uses the exocomps to speed up work on the mining structure.
Picard agrees and sends Data, the Enterprise’s highly intelligent android, to assist Farallon in the work.
Exocomps Learn And Exhibit Self-Preservation
At the station, Farallon sends one of the exocomps into an access tunnel to perform repairs. In a short time, the exocomp returns without completing the task. When she attempts to send it back into the tunnel, it blocks her commands by burning out her control pad. Subsequently, there is an explosion in the tunnel that would have surely destroyed the exocomp.
Data, intrigued by what he has witnessed, brings the exocomp back to the Enterprise where he and La Forge try to determine why it malfunctioned. They find that the exocomp had shut itself down and in the process had increased its circuit pathways by 632%.
La Forge comments that somehow the exocomp seemed to know that the conduit would explode, and, therefore, it willingly left the access tunnel.
This remark prompts Data to perform a level one diagnostic on the exocomp. He finds that the exocomp is now working normally. However, its sensor logs reveal that it had burned out its own command circuitry, and then hours later, when it was safe, repaired itself.
From these findings, Data deduces that the exocomps have some sort of self-preservation mode. This leads him to question the very nature of life, especially as it relates to himself. If you’re familiar with Star Trek TNG, you know that many of the episodes center around Data’s quest to become human though he is essentially a robot with human appearance (android).
I know, I know. Data was considered the only sentient artificial lifeform in Federation society. Science fiction can make the impossible possible. That’s why we like it. But there can’t be artificial life. I’ll explain later.
Data Seeks An Answer To What Constitutes Life
In his search to find out what constitutes life, Data seeks out advice from Beverly Crusher, the ship’s doctor. Crusher has a difficult time answering the question but concludes, “that it was not specific actions that defined life, but the struggle to maintain life, such as self-preservation.” Data is now convinced that the exocomps are a lifeform and asks Farallon to stop using them.
Data Seeks Protection For The Exocomps
Data then calls for a meeting of the general staff to discuss what he has discovered about the exocomps, adding that the exocomps also seem to have an awareness of their environment.
Picard is sympathetic to Data’s theory and states that if the exocomps are a lifeform then they must be examined, as this is a primary mandate of Starfleet and the Enterprise.
After performing more tests on the exocomps, Data is convinced that they exhibit clear signs of intelligence.
The Crucial Climax
Subsequently, while observing the mining operation, Picard and La Forge become trapped on the station and are in danger of a deadly radiation leak. Dr. Farallon suggests that the only viable solution is to use the exocomps to neutralize the radiation long enough for Picard and La Forge to beam back to the Enterprise.
Since this would result in the exocomp’s destruction, Farallon suggests their command pathways would have to be modified because of their tendency to self-preservation.
Data strongly objects to the plan as it would mean ordering a lifeform to die for another lifeform. Second-in-command Riker overrules Data and orders the plan to commence.
However, the plan cannot proceed because Data has locked out the transporter controls.
He argues that the exocomps are a lifeform and have the right to life. During a conversation with Riker, Data offers to go himself, but Riker responds that the radiation would destroy him.
Data points out that he has the power to choose to sacrifice himself while the exocomps are not being offered that right.
Riker then proposes that Data ask the exocomps if they would agree to the plan. Data finds this suggestion acceptable and releases control of the transporter.
Long story short. The exocomps save Picard and La Forge, but one remains behind so that the other two can get away safely.
Data Rationalizes His Actions
Later Data explains to Picard why he was willing to endanger two friend’s lives for several small machines. Data relates that a few years ago, Picard himself had made a passionate appeal before Star Fleet that helped establish Data’s own status as a lifeform. Data says that he had chosen to champion the exocomps for the same reasons. A sympathetic Picard notes, “It was the most Human decision you have ever made.“
Isn’t that a great story? Combine it with all the other techy things going on, and you have one first-class science fiction tale. But, as I said, TNG often raises more questions than it’s prepared to answer.
Let’s take a look.
How Do We Define Life?
Data’s observations that the exocomps seem to have an inclination for self-preservation, an awareness of their surroundings, and the ability learn leads him to conclude that the exocomps are potentially a lifeform.
But here’s the question: are these qualities sufficient to qualify something as a lifeform? I don’t believe so.
When the air in my house drops to a certain temperature, my thermostat becomes aware of it and turns my furnace on. Is it a lifeform? No, it’s programmed to do that.
If one of the tires on my car becomes punctured, it will repair itself in order to prevent a blowout. The tire has exhibited self-preservation. Has your computer ever warned you of an impending virus attack and told you not to open up that website because it will damage the computer?
On the surface, we have to be careful to use awareness and self-preservation as definitions of life.
A Contemporary Definition Of What Constitutes Life
Without getting too complicated, let’s use Wikipedia for a current definition of life. Wiki says that if an organism has these characteristics, it is considered living as opposed to inanimate:
- Composed of cells
- Can maintain homeostasis
- Undergoes metabolism
- Adapts to their environment
- Can respond to stimuli
- Can reproduce.
Some may find this list controversial but outside of those who may define a virus as a lifeform and some far out types, this list is pretty comprehensive. Oh, and by the way, a preborn infant meets all these criteria.
Let’s see how many criteria for life the exocomps fulfill.
Do Exocomps Have Cells?
We are told that Dr. Farallon made the exocomps out of machine parts. They are not to our knowledge composed of organic matter or cells. They fail on that account.
Yes, I remember the Horta. That was a living creature from the original Star Trek series that was composed of silicon. Oh, that’s right. It’s science fiction so living things don’t have to fit our categories. They can redefine categories.
But if inorganic matter or cell-less objects can be lifeforms, then potentially anything can be a lifeform. If so, then we could ask a question like, “what do sleeping rocks dream about?”
I realize that there are some people who believe that all things are considered to be alive in some respect. In that case, be careful the next time you want to skim a stone off a body of water. You may be violating its civil rights.
In order to make sense of the world, we have to have categories. Ask Aristotle about that one. So, in our world, the exocomps are not lifeforms. In science fiction, anything goes.
Can Exocomps Maintain Homeostasis?
Quoting physician Walter Cannon, The Scientific American defines homeostasis as any process that living things use to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival.
We are not told whether the exocomps fulfill this requirement. We don’t know if they have a self-sustaining energy source or whether they eat or consume some other kind of energy. If they rely on an outside source to supply energy, then they are not a lifeform.
Yes, I know that pre-born babies and infants need someone to provide food for them. But they do have the future potentiality to feed themselves.
The exocomps fail this category.
Can An Exocomp Experience Metabolism And Grow?
One definition of metabolism is the set of life-sustaining chemical transformations within the cells of organisms. Since exocomps don’t have cells then this definition doesn’t apply.
Another definition of metabolism is the sum of the physical and chemical processes in an organism by which its material substance is produced, maintained, and destroyed, and by which energy is made available.
As far as we know, exocomps can’t grow physically. We know that they can self-create more circuits, but they cannot add more wire. Humans can add more muscle mass.
Exocomps fail this category.
Can Exocomps Adapt To Their Environment And Respond To Stimuli?
We know exocomps can fulfill these two functions to some extent so I will grant them these two categories.
Can The Exocomps Reproduce?
This seems to be the category that really does the exocomp in. As far as we know, Dr. Farallon has not created the exocomp with reproductive organs. If they don’t have them, they can’t reproduce, right? If they can’t reproduce, they’re not living, right? Even the Horta was able to reproduce.
It appears Data had to do a lot more evaluation of the exocomp before he started making decisions based on his belief that they were lifeforms.
Science Fiction Fallacies
Okay, so if we use our contemporary categories, the exocomps are not a lifeform. Now, I realize that this is science fiction and our categories don’t always apply.
But if that’s the case, let me point out some absurdities and logical conclusions that even fail in a future science fiction type universe.
Logical Absurdities # 1
If the exocomps are a lifeform, where did they come from? We know that they were created by Dr. Farallon. Does that then make Dr. Farallon their God?
Shouldn’t they then worship and obey her in all things? Who is Data to tell her what she can or can’t do with her creation?
These aren’t trivial questions.
Do All Lifeforms Require A Creator?
It’s a logical conclusion that all lifeforms require a creator. If they don’t, then we are only left with a few other options.
Life arises from spontaneous generation
This is a philosophical absurdity because we know that something cannot arise from nothing. Life cannot arise out of non-life.
Most evolutionary scientists believe, however, that it is entirely possible for life to arise out of inorganic matter. How did that original matter get here? From outer space, of course. More science fiction.
Nonetheless, the predominant theory proposed by scientists for this possibility is called the RNA World Theory.
In the RNA World theory, scientists propose that inorganic matter in the form of RNA molecules eventually lead to the formation of DNA. However, recently, this theory has been shown to have insuperable problems and another supportive report was retracted because its data and conclusions were shown to be erroneous.
To date, no experiment has been performed to show the possibility of inorganic molecules evolving into organic molecules.
Life was always here
We know this was not the case with the exocomps. We also know that finite lifeforms cannot be eternal. Eternal causation is a philosophical absurdity. Look it up.
It’s all an illusion
Okay, the third option is favored by many in eastern religious traditions. Everything is an illusion or maya and we’re all just part of the same big picture. This is also an absurdity, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.
The only conclusion is that all lifeforms require a creator, and, if so, that creator should be worshipped and glorified for its power to give life where no life existed before.
Should Dr. Farallon Be Worshipped By The Exocomps?
Dr. Farallon was a created being. Also, the materials she used to create the exocomps were not created by her. So, again, worship is due to the ultimate Creator.
Data missed this fundamental fact lying behind the creation of all lifeforms.
In his rush to pronounce life, he was in some respect playing God. This led him to make another misjudgment on life which could have had serious consequences for the actual lives of others.
Is All Life Equally Valuable?
When Picard and La Forge became trapped on the mining station, Data made the decision that he could not allow the exocomps to save them. Since they were in his opinion a lifeform, he could not sacrifice them without their consent.
Data made a grave error in judgment here. Were the exocomps as a lifeform of the same value as Picard and La Forge? That raises this question: are all lifeforms to be equally valued just because they are lifeforms?
Sorry, I’m not going to chalk this one up to fuzzy science fiction agnosticism. I have some beautiful plants in my living room. Some of them even show awareness by bending to the sun for more light. They are definitely lifeforms.
But they are not on par with human lifeforms. If I had a need for heat, I wouldn’t hesitate to burn them for fuel. Why not? Because they have no soul. Humans are different from all other lifeforms.
Did the exocomps have a soul? Could they have had a soul? Sheeesh! They were created by a human. The soul is immaterial. Unless Farallon had a bunch of souls sitting around in her laboratory, and she knew how to secure it in a metal box, and … you get the picture.
Only an immaterial Creator can create a soul. Picard and La Forge had souls given them by their Creator. They were of much more value than an exocomp and should have been saved at the expense of the exocomps.
How did Data miss this?
Why Humans Are To Be Valued Ultimately Over All Other LifeForms
There is another reason why humans are not be valued equally amongst all other lifeforms. A man is not the same as a bacteria or a tree or a monkey. He is created by the same Creator, but he is distinct in that he is created in the image of God.
Man is finite and perishable. God is infinite and eternal. But God in his goodness chose to share some of his communicable attributes with us.
We can love, show mercy, be righteous, demonstrate justice, exercise wisdom, and lay our lives down for our neighbors.
We’re lead to believe that the exocomps did exhibit some sense of self-sacrifice in their rescuing of Picard and La Forge. However, the exocomps didn’t tell us that. It’s possible that’s what they were programmed to do. If so, then they couldn’t do otherwise.
Exocomp And Human Afterlife
Did the exocomps really face any eternal consequence if they were destroyed in the rescue attempt? If they perished, would they go to exocomp heaven or hell? They would go to neither because they have no soul.
However, if a man dies for his friend, he risks his body and perhaps even his soul.
No, Data’s action was not the most human decision he ever made. If you’re willing to sacrifice another human life for something you believe might have a higher value, you’re not acting humanely at all.
Data, though, got one thing almost right. No human being can be compelled against their will to lay down their life down for another regardless of the reason. That includes noble-sounding ideas like establishing world peace or spreading democracy throughout the world.
However, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, entered history as a man and willingly laid down his life so that we, regardless if we’re male, female, gentile or Jew, could experience the fullness of what it means to be human and have a relationship with our Creator.
On a final note, the episode didn’t end with a memorial service for the destroyed exocomp. I guess the crew of the Enterprise came to their senses.
Philip Miller says
I just watched this episode, and I liked your commentary. My biggest problem was that the episode never differentiated between “life” and “intelligent life”. Even in the Star Trek future, not all life is treated equally, they make it very clear that intelligent life takes priority. It would have been a simple fix to refer to them as “intelligent”.