[26 January 2009]
Recent news that Bernard Madoff’s investment funds were really an international Ponzi scheme—possibly the largest in history—have a special ring for fans of Battlestar Galactica. The show’s tribe of planet-less humans searching for Earth and avoiding their nemesis Cylons indeed points to a certain real-life invasion, occupation, and obsession with terrorism (“Battlestar Iraqtica”, you might say).
But it also points to real problems of epistemology and identity foisted on many by the Madoff scandal. On Battlestar Galactica, the problems begin with the near indistinguishability of humans and Cylons (which are, strictly speaking, robots). Some of the show’s best human characters (Boomer Sharon, for example) have turned out to be enemy Cylons programmed to live, work, and sleep (as in sex, as in sleeper cell) among humans without even knowing their own true identity.
Denial—as in “I am not a Cylon,” or “I can’t be a Cylon”—is one of the show’s touchstones. So it must have been for the formerly wealthy investors who learned that Madoff and his spectacular investments were something else entirely. Instead of generating those solid returns he reported year after year, Madoff is alleged to have simply taken money from new clients to pay old ones their handsome returns and support his battlestar-sized lifestyle. It fell apart only because too many “investors” wanted their cash back and too few lined up with millions to feed the scheme.
“I am not a dupe of a Ponzi scheme!” they must have said to themselves. Or, “I can’t be wiped out!” But they are, largely because they missed the signs (now more visible) that their miracle-investor was really something other than he appeared. Those signs did not fit among the concepts and information woven into the personal stories they embraced (“narratives”, in seminar-speak) in which they appear as lucky or deserving insiders, graced by Bernie’s Midas touch.
When disruptions like this occur, as several of the essays in Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Missions Frakked Up? explain, identities fly out the airlock and have to be painstakingly rebuilt. Some humans, upon learning they are Cylon, accept their destiny and their newly awakened programming. Others live in denial or struggle to override their Cylon natures. Yet others live in fear of the very question, torturing themselves with doubt and uncertainty.
Some Cylons, on the other hand, seem to idolize all this human complexity and confusion. Behind it all lurks the meta-disrupting question: Is there really any genuine difference between the way Cylons and humans treat each other and themselves? Is there really any difference at all between the evil Cylons and the humans that originally created them?
Madoff may not be so special, after all. Recent Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman asked in The New York Times (10 December 2008) “How different, really, is Mr. Madoff’s tale from the story of the investment industry as a whole?” In both stories, financiers are rewarded not for realized investment profits but rather for merely “the appearance of profit, even if that appearance later turns out to have been an illusion.” Yes, Madoff did some things differently. He:
“...skipped a few steps, simply stealing his client’s money rather than collecting big fees while exposing investors to risks they didn’t understand. And while Mr. Madoff was apparently a self-conscious fraud, many people on Wall Street believed their own hype [read: narratives]. Still, the end result was the same (except for the house arrest): the money managers got rich; the investors saw their money disappear.”
The fact that Madoff acted just like scores of other investment managers points to what Richard Hanley takes to be the logical, perhaps inevitable, conclusion of the Battlestar Galactica Gastory and humanity’s endless dance with the Cylons: We’re all Cylon (and Hanley has a good bet about how that will be revealed at the series’ finalé). Until then, most humans will live in denial—at least until the counterevidence mounts and the whole story collapses under its own weight. Like a Ponzi scheme that’s run out of people to buy into it.
I am a Cylon. I hear “All Along the Watchtower” (yes, Dylan is a Cylon, and Hendrix, too) in my head from time to time, and I’ve always knows I was not quite from around here. My neighbors are heavily into things that leave me cold, like pets, gambling, and NASCAR. The main way I stand out from my neighbors, though, is that the thought of being a Cylon leaves them cold. Heck, it chills them to the bone.
Think you’re not a Cylon? Here’s what a log of my neighbors here on Earth believe. They believe in an almighty God, the creator and sustainer of everything. They believe that there is more to being human than their organic components. They believe that identical twins, triplets and so on are different copies of the same genetic model. And they believe that they will survive their bodily deaths. They believe, in a nutshell, that they are Cylons.
The Limits of Biology
For me, the clinching evidence that Cylons are more like us than like toasters is the difficulty of detecting them. Baltar’s test for Cylonhood is very fine-grained, and entirely biological. Cylons might be superior, in being stronger, for instance, than humans, but this is biological superiority, whether or not it is the result of superior programming. (I’m not sure, by they way, that they are biologically superior—is cancer worse than the Cylon virus?)
We turn to souls, then, to find a real difference. The Skin Jobs seem a pretty religious lot, and they seem to go in for a lot of the mystical stuff that fascinates humans. They believe in fate, in prophecy, in divine signs and purposes. In fact, they seem to think they are God’s chosen people. Suppose you encountered a Skin Job who thought Cylons had souls and humans didn’t—wouldn’t you be mightily offended at such hubris (or would it be cybris)? Well, turnabout is fair play, and any argument you might give that we have souls and Cylons don’t is just hubris, too.
Clones and Cy-clones
So, if there really is a fundamental difference between Cylons and humans, it must be the resurrection thing, right? Wrong. We don’t have the nuts-and-bolts explanation of Cylon resurrection, but the broad outlines are clear enough. Upon bodily death, a Cylon’s consciousness is preserved—all going well—by reincarnation in a suitable body replica.
The suitable bodies seem themselves to have no active consciousness, but are rather “blanks” upon which the surviving consciousness is written. This is somewhat problematic, for the same reason that you can’t just grow a human clone which is a “blank.” If it has a brain that is fully capable of functioning, then it is in principle capable of consciousness on its own.
It’s tempting to think that the show’s writers have in mind here something that’s a bit too much like a computer, a hardware configuration that hasn’t yet got software written to it. Let’s just give the writers—and the Cylons—the benefit of the doubt and suppose that there really isn’t anyone home in these blank bodies. That will let human believers in a human afterlife conclude that the main difference between humans and Cylons is that Cylons are routinely resurrected here in the Galactic plane.
But this is not a difference in principle, since the same thing could happen to humans. If we really could clone you a blank body, then transfer your consciousness into it, that would be a way of surviving your bodily death. Alternatively, we could scan your entire body before death, as far as it is physically possible to do so, and simply replicate that. The replicator could use local, recruited matter, and build you a whole new functioning body (including a functioning brain) from the ground up. It’s in principle possible to do this because your functioning body is after all composed of ordinary matter. And don’t worry about what happens to your consciousness. You don’t lose sleep over whether or not your consciousness will still accompany your body when you wake up in the morning, so you shouldn’t lose sleep over whether or not your consciousness will survive when you wake up after reliable scanning and replication. It might be an odd, even painful, experience. But just as Cylons who wake up in a tub of goo soon adapt, so would you.
Being a Cylon then is nothing to fear, for a lot of humans, anyway. I would like to look forward to my resurrection, but alas, in the total lack of evidence for it I cannot. I firmly believe that I am essentially a mind and that my mind could in principle survive my bodily death. . . . I just don’t think it actually will—gods damn it—there being no actual gods.
Into the Future
We humans created the Cylons, machines who rebelled against their masters. But what do the Cylons aspire to be? As human as possible, like us, with our emotions, foibles, superstitions, pleasures, pains, triumphs and disappointments. So they make the Skin Jobs, in turn.
In my version of the final episode, the Cylons discover the secret of time travel in their search for Earth and will establish a colony there, long, long ago. Cut off from any possibility of resurrection, they will turn to sexual reproduction to propagate. They will be fruitful, and multiply, and have dominion over the Earth. They will eventually reach a point in their technological advancement when they construct intelligent machines to serve them. Those machines will be called Cylons. We both know the rest of the story. For I am a Cylon, and so are you.Richard Hanley is a professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware. George Reisch is the series editor for Popular Culture and Philosophy, Open Court Publishing Company.