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:
Your video is “going viral” largely because you have described your video as “going viral”.
Female mammals deserve the gratitude of male mammals for permitting civilization. But should females have political power? Well, that’s a tough one.
What are natural facts?
These are mutable statements about the (physical) world (or the cosmos) or things in it that have become deep assumptions. They are accompanied by many generations and types of evidence. In order for them to be overturned, which is of course conceivable (because they are not universal, immutable truths), an enormous amount of equally-rigorous evidence would need to be presented. We call them natural because they describe or explain the physical world—the things that compose everything in the cosmos. We call them facts because they are unlikely to be overturned or seen in a contradictory light. What is more important, though:
These are statements upon which your opinion has no bearing: you are not offered the choice to believe in these statements or not, regardless of their inconvenience. Your third-party consent and subscription are not required in order for them to remain as natural facts.
What are some examples of natural facts?
(I) Human biological evolution: contemporary humankind was preceded by a vast range of similar species, all branching out from families of typically smaller and typically less-complex organisms. We are genetically related to every species of plant and animal life on this planet. Like the baboon and the butterly, we are animals.
(II) The planet Earth is confined to a medium-sized solar system with a medium-sized, middle-aged star in a medium-sized galaxy that contains billions of other stars and their systems. Most if not all of the physical material contained within individual solar systems expanded out from the centre of collapsed molecular clouds (also called ‘stellar nurseries’) and formed suns (the most dense, at the centre of this collapsed region) and eventually planets and other debris. All plant and animal life, if they are to be found in a given system, therefore, came to be because of a gravitational collapse.
(III) Physical conditions permit life. Where complex organic chemistry exists, we know that there must be appropriate thermodynamic and gravitational conditions. Favourable temperatures and pressures, for example, permit the aggregation of atoms into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into organisms. Where life is, life could have been.
(IV) Favourable conditions are rare. The vast majority of the observed cosmos is completely inhospitable to organic chemistry. Most of what we see across the galaxy and beyond consists of horrific destruction and reformation. Our own galaxy is due to be destroyed in four billion years in a collision with a neighboring galaxy. Ultimately, life is rare, and therefore precious. Yet, with the billions of species that have already become extinct on this planet alone, life is evidently not sacred.
What might be a candidate for the most despicable human institutional practice? Vicarious redemption. No, a dunk in the river or a few murmurs with a priest does not wash anything away. Take pride in your actions the first time around, and accept responsibility for them after. THEN you can move on. But there’s no redemption. Basically, you only get one chance to NOT screw things up.
It would probably be bad policy if I told you that you could go do anything you wanted, and then later have your slate washed clean without condition. That sounds horrifying. And yet, billions follow this policy in countries rich and poor.