Understanding Human Culture in 42 minutes
Star Trek: The Next Generation has been justifiably lauded for many things, and in many ways. There are, of course, classic episodes and films, too many to count. One episode in particular, however, demands our revision.
From the links below you can view Season 3 Ep 4, entitled “Who Watches the Watchers.” It is a thoroughly compelling account of how rational beings can grapple with the mysterious. The crew of the Enterprise finds itself once again violating the Prime Directive when the bronze-age (yet rational and cohesive) subjects of an anthropological study accidentally encounter the advanced technology of the Federation.
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What we see here in this work of science fiction, is that, whilst it may not be the only subject of inquiry, understanding how societies evolve may very well be the most important. It maximises context and disciplinary reach, and provides lessons for all levels and units of analysis for all generations. See how the proto-Vulcan-esque society handles the problem of what to do when faced with the ‘unexplainable’. Does the society shrivel, and declare divinity, or does it push forward with their own reasonable questions? If we had been visited (accidentally) by a kind and inquisitive alien intelligence a thousand years ago, how would we have reacted—compared to these delightful beings?
On the surface, the point is simple: gradual progress peacefully eradicates superstition. And this is most definitely our point, too. But beyond that, the episode reminds us of several key epistemological lessons:
- All description and explanation—THINKING—requires the identification of evidence.
- Evidence can be linguistic-mathematical (e.g. calculations) and physical (e.g. observation of an object).
- The identity of the evidence is necessarily abstracted (i.e. encoded).
- Whilst the identity of the evidence is abstracted, the evidence per se is not abstracted (i.e. the physical components of the objects definitely exist without identity).
- We consider an explanation as accurate when we have evidence for it.
- If implausible explanations are explanations with little or no evidence, then implausible explanations are not desired.
- When confronted with a situation with no evidence for ANY explanation, the process of explanation is suspended. When no evidence exists for any explanation, no explanation is possible. In this way, rationality is merely “using evidence to identify explanations”.
- Superstition, then, is one form of assuming explanation without evidence.
- But, since quantity of evidence is directly proportional to quality of evidence, better quality evidence is to be preferred. This means investigation yields better and broader evidence, and, by extension, better explanations.
- Since investigation is necessarily an ongoing and incomplete process, better investigation is expected over time.
- Assuming a constant rate of improved investigation, evidence will become better and broader over time.
- As such, explanation can never be ultimate, but will be better. Hence, implausible explanations are to be rejected until they are plausible.