Philosophy literally is the love of wisdom, but that definition probably isn`t very informative. In my view philosophy is best thought of as an activity, an enterprise that largely consists in seeking wisdom through exploration. So the philosophic Enterprise has a mission not unlike that of the Starship Enterprise. Metaphysics – literally, “after physics” – is the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of existance.
Why explore at all? Because travel broardens the mind. When we visit other places and other people, we often encounter different ways of living, and this provokes us to examine our own lives anew. If we are objective and reasonable in this examination, sometimes we will conclude that there is more than one way to live, sometimes we will conclude that the way other people do things is not the way for us, and sometimes we will conclude that we ought to adopt that other way of living. So travel isn`t just about exploring other people and places, it`s about exploring ourselves and testing our limits. Ofcourse, not everyone who travels is objective and reasonable – sometimes travelers think they already know how to live and that the only possible interaction with those who think differently is to convert them. But in general, travelers are more likely to examine their lives than those stay – at – homes who presume that home and home ways are best. Nor are stay – at – homes usually enlightened merely by being told about other places. Travel enriches the mind because it makes other places real – it enables the traveler (temporarily at least) to detach themselves from the comfortable familiarity of home, to try something different on for size. And as any traveler knows, living away from home works even better, allowing genuine immersion in a different place. It is human nature to want what is familiar and to complain about what is not, and one needs time to get over those prejudices and see the new surroundings as they really are.
Star Trek asks us to imagine with hope, a future in which we have thoroughly explored the Earth and learned its lessons. By the twenty-third century, Earth has achieved peaceful, enlightened, worldwide government, with an end to all forms of discrimination based on sex, race, and species membership. Naturally enough, the boundaries of exploration have been extended into outer space. And just as early explorers on Earth discovered other human life and human civilizations, the explorers of outer space discover extraterrestrial civilizations. Exploring this world has broadened the human mind, and we should expect that the exploration of other planets, other worlds, will broaden it further.
There is one significant limitation on the mission of the starship Enterprise – it cannot discover what is not actually there. Hence it may be that important alternatives to accepted ways of living and thinking are overlooked, simply because no one has ever tried to live or think that way. This is where philosophy enters the picture: philosophers try to examine all the possibilities. Whereas the starship Enterprise traverses outer space, the philosophic Enterprise traverses logical space, visiting various possible worlds – that is, sets of internally consistant conceivable ways that things might be. It stays as long on each possible world as is appropriate, long enough to get a feel for the place. Its continuing mission: to boldly go where few human minds have gone before. And occasionally to return home, richer for the experience, since the major goal of such travel, remains the exploration of ourselves, the exploration of inner space! I feel that this is the reason why I find the human mind so fascinating and have studied human phsychology for most of my adulthood.
This activity is not easy. Not only is it difficult to discover different possibilities, it is even harder to suspend your home beliefs and customs long enough to engage strange new worlds seriously. Yet that is what philosophers must do, and proper philosophical training is a slow process of release from one`s former prejudices. One method that philosophers use for this purpose is that of thought experiments – experiments we conduct solely in our imagination. Devising such experiments is something of an aquired skill, as is imagining the experimental situations with sufficient vividness, and that`s where the appropriate fiction – engages our imaginative faculties. This is the role of Star Trek in “doing philosophy.” Many of the situations in Star Trek resemble those in the thought experiments of philosophers, and watching a Star Trek scenario unfold forces us to entertain notions that our home prejudices would otherwise blind us to. For fifty minutes or so, we get to live in a different world, to try it on for size.
Looking at philosophy through the lens of Star Trek is a strategy I have adopted with some success, but here I am going to turn the tables and look at Star Trek through the lens of philosophy. I neither praise Star Trek nor bury it. There is much to ponder in the Star Trek series: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager, and the motion picture series. My interest is in showing how an introductory grasp of philosophy can lead you deeper into Star Trek, since Star Trek is by its nature so deeply philosophical.
Two brief remarks about the diverse discipline of philosophy. First I am part of the Analytic or “Anglo-American” school of philosophy, and moreover accept naturalism – roughly, the view that philosophy is and ought to be continuous with the natural sciences, since both enterprises employ the combination of reason and empirical investigation. Hence the philosophical lens with which I look at Star Trek, with particular emphasis on the scientific and technological devices and processes it depicts, is not representative of the whole of philosophy. For example, some philosophers think it`s hopeless to take an objective, scientific approach to studying the nature of the mind, that one must start instead from the inside – that is, from the subjective, phenomenological nature of mental experience. Other philosophers would be interested in the mysticism of Vulcans, Bajorans, and the Native American Commander Chakotay. Still other philosophers would be interested in the examination of Star Trek as mythology, as “text,” or as “cultural icon.” I am none of those philosophers. Second, even within the analytic, naturalist approach there is substantive disagreement over many philosophical issues, and I am sometimes in a minority. I shall often present and argue for what I take to be the most defensible position on an issue, but this should not be taken as representative of what all philosophers think. That said, I will consider the important views on an issue even if I must ultimately reject them.
As for metaphysics, it can be relatively pure or relatively applied. Star Trek raises some pure metaphysical issues, as in The Next Generation: “Where No One Has Gone Before,” when young Wesley Crusher wonders whether thought is the basis for all existance. The Next Generation is in fact my favourite series.