Philosophy in Battlestar Galactica

From Battlestar Wiki, the free, open content Battlestar Galactica encyclopedia and episode guide
This article deals with the philosophical aspects of Battlestar Galactica. For information on the book by Jason T. Eberl, see Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy. For the Open Court book, see Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up?.


Philosophy in general

Philosophy has been called "the study of study itself", or "the study of thought". The nature and purpose of philosophy each begin with clear, logical, and exhaustive thought. Philosophy is can be recognized as a process as well as an an end product of its own process.

Role of Philosophy in Battlestar Galactica

Philosophy, or at least a great deal of rigorous thought, seems to figure significantly in the themes of many episodes of Battlestar Galactica. However, due to the very nature of philosophy, as well as the way scripts are written and altered leading up to the production of television and film works, it would seem important not to attribute a given philosophy to any single event or theme within the series- at least not in a concrete fashion. Philosophy, whether written into a script or imagined in the mind of the viewer, seldom offers permanent or universal solutions to the various problems it can address. Rather, there are ancient and classical themes that correlate to the series and also to current events as they have happened before, are happening, and will happen again!

Due to this definition and the inherent nature of philosophy, the philosophical content of Battlestar Galactica can be understood to originate as much in the minds of the viewers as in the those of the writers, producers, and actors that create the series. Thus, it would seem feasible that part of the overall allure of Battlestar is for many viewers a feeling of being engaged and involved with the stories. The rich plots and themes invite many viewers to ponder and unravel many of the same questions that have occupied and continue to occupy the minds of philosophers. In this way, dialogue about the struggle of humanity and the nature of the universe is stimulated.

Topics for philosophical treatment and debate

Philosophical content in Battlestar Galactica generally seems intertwined with the political, military, religious, economic, social, and spiritual struggles and concerns of both man and the cylons. The dilemmas that each group faces often raise the common and perennial problems in philosophy- as well as the concepts of justice, free will, determinism, and other philosophical problems.

Naturally, these dilemmas can occur within contexts as diverse as law, politics, economics, sociology, criminology, and occasionally relate to specific issues involving sciences such as medicine, biochemistry and robotics. For example, artificial intelligence such as that of the Cylons raises questions about how whether they should be treated as people or "thing"s.

Accordingly, the viewpoints of various fans and detractors of Battlestar Galactica, some more philosophical than others, have been assembled in "So Say We All: An Unauthorized Collection of Thoughts and Opinions on Battlestar Galactica", by Richard Hatch. Topics such as artificial intelligence, terrorism, and politics are discussed from the viewpoints of various authors.

Human and Cylon Philosophy

The philosophy of the humans in Battlestar Galactica seems significant influenced by their polytheistic human religion and the colonial culture that existed before the first Cylon attack. As the series progresses, the crises and dilemmas that the humans face influence their thought and decision-making.

Cylon philosophy seems to be anchored strongly to their monotheistic religion and collectivist culture. However, the Cylons seem to gradually evolve from a less tolerant version of monotheism to a more tolerant one that displays elements of deist, universalist, or unitarian theology- that is, some sort of all-encompassing, universal religion. This reflects the evolving belief of some Cylons that the complete destruction of mankind is not part of God's plan, and that mankind plays some role in in the future of the Cylons. Indeed, a new idea that surfaces with the birth of each of the hybrids is that that they may eventually join as One to achieve a common goal.

Vitalism seems to play a role in the Cylon religion. Vitalism is the basis for the concept of morphic resonance, conceived by Rupert Sheldrake, where telepathic connections and collective memories exist within a species [c?]. Indeed, Cylons appear to have such an ability. (Examples?Episodes?) Anthroposophy is a quasi-religious new age cult. Its founder Rudolph Steiner claimed that its teachings led "from the spirit in the human being to the spirit in the universe." [c?]

Philosophical problems and dilemmas

As they do in the real world, philosophical problems that arise in the series seldom come bundled with clear solutions.

  • "Water" contains material that can be examined in light of the viewers understanding of determinism versus free will and also responsibility. Sharon Valerii's apparent blackouts or Disassociative Identity Disorder and subsequent acts of treason, sabotage and assassination during these episodes raise these classic philosophical problems: determinism versus free will. Valerii seems unable to exercise control over her volitions, therefore the Galactica crew jumps to the conclusion that Cylons are deterministically or genetically inclined to display malevolence toward humans. Saul Tigh affirms this notion with his war story of a Cylon assault on his ship and crew (TRS: "Scattered"). The Fleet models its inhumane treatment of non-human captives based on this and other assumptions.
  • The philosophical concept of eternal recurrence addressed by Arthur Schopenhauer and the Stoics is roughly analogous to the suggestions repeatedly voiced by Leoben Conoy in "Flesh and Bone", when he says "all of this has happened before, and it will happen again". Time is viewed as repeating or recurring in cyclical state of timelessness rather than a novel linear progression.

Moral Dilemmas prompting philosophical evaluation

Free Will and Responsibility: The selfish and cowardly Gaius Baltar struggles continually with the concepts of personal responsibility and free will despite coaching from Caprica-Six, who places emphasizes the importance of rational free will Caprica-Six. In "Taking A Break From All Your Worries", prior to interrogation under the affects of an hallucinogen, Caprica-Six asks Gaius Baltar if "without free will", he would have any dignity whatsoever- and whether "God can even pity such a creature". This may be a reference to Kantian philosophy which links human dignity to rational choice, free will, and accountability for one's actions, and further classifies these things as prereqisites to the establishment of human dignity. An extension of this is that the recognition of human dignity necessitates accountability for actions, implying a requirement for the harsh punishment of bad deeds when committed by rational minds.

Gaius Baltar struggles to grasp this concept throughout the episode, breaking down the elements of his past choices and later exclaiming "I am not responsible!", an argument propounded by key Nazis during the Nuremberg Trials who claimed to have simply followed orders- following groupthink consensus without exercising their own rational autonomy.

Throughout the season, cylons begin to defy their own consensus and status quo, act in their own interests, and make individual choices despite harsh consequences. In Season 4, boomer makes a decision against the consensus of her own model, a move from determinism to individualism. This is a sign of the Cylon's moral evolution, following their more obvious intellectual (learning) and physical (invention of new models and technologies) evolutions.

Punishment of Cylons: Soon after the discovery of Cylons in the midst of humans aboard Galactica, the punishment of Cylons escalates along a familiar slippery slope. The draconian beating of Sharon Valeri during interrogation by human captors. Summary execution through the airlocking of "dangerous" Cylon captives also occurs around this time. The wanton beating and rape of Number Six by humans eventually follows, apparently serving little purpose other than to satisfy bloodlust and provide recreation for some the crew. This raises philosophical questions in the minds of viewers about whether these actions are in any way logical, justifiable, necessary, or inexcusable. Obviously these instances are presented to viewers in such a way that they run the gamut within these classifications, but with plenty of room for thought. Additionally, larger questions are raised about whether Cylons in their various forms (centurions, raiders, and "humanoid" models) should be treated like humans, like inanimate "machines", or like something else. These "larger" questions are more on the cutting edge, topics that are currently still being prodded by philosophers in the current age. This line of thought continues in season 4 as the raiders are lobotomized, the centurions are given free will, and Cylons argue about "playing God".

Application of Political Philosophy to Battlestar Galactica

  • Viewers can apply Political philosophy to the various crises faced by the civilian and military leadership in Battlestar Galactica. In "Dirty Hands", tensions arise between Chief Tyrol and Admiral Adama over Adama's strict utilitarian emphasis on the obedience of his crew and order within the Fleet versus Chief Tyrol's populist appeals on behalf of tylium plant laborers.

This relates back to President Roslin's similiar stewardship of individual rights, autonomy and ethical considerations in the face of utilitarian and military neccessity.

Common questions in political philosophy arise over the value of democracy and freedoms, the capacity for civil liberties within a military and those held by the interdependent civilian population riding along in Galactica's wake. While civilian workers are given the right to organize themselves politically and in labor groups, the military, which depends on the chain of command for its efficacy in protecting itself and civilians, sets clear parameters on loyalty. With his involvment in labor issues, Galen Tyrol lands in the middle of competing interests that share a delicate balance. Nevertheless, president Roslin and Admiral Adama trust him to deal with his new role responsibly. It seems possible that when they cede some power to this competing voice, they have learned a lesson from their past authoritarian stance and the subsequent reactionary challenge posed by Tom Zarek, who is more along the lines of a radical Marxist.

The election-rigging activities undertaken by Laura Roslin and Saul Tigh in "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II" raise several questions commonly addressed by political philosophers, namely centered around the concepts of representation, governmental powers, and balance of power.

Zarek's radicalized struggle for the human rights of prison inmates and Galen Tyrol's organized labor movements at both New Caprica and the tylium plant aboard the Hitei Kan both initiate tension between utilitarian concerns of the military and the colonial government's respect for the autonomy of individuals, presenting challenges to President Roslin, Admiral Adama, Galen Tyrol, Tom Zarek, and others.

Application of Legal Philosophy to Battlestar Galactica

Some viewers may apply their understanding of legal philosophy to the events that unfold in the courtrooms of the Colonial Fleet legal system. The challenge represented through the efforts of the civilian and military leadership of the Fleet to harmonize their values with the harsh demands of their predicament seems to be a major theme within Battlestar Galactica. In some instances this conflict goes beyond the decision making of political leaders and they defer to the Colonial legal system. This legal system has an underlying philosophy, structure, and body of law, that is inherited from the Twelve Colonies. After Gaius Baltar is captured, the immediate response of the citizenry is an overwhelming call for summary execution, even from Admiral Adama. Laura Roslin, who in the past advocated summary airlocking of Cylon captives, apparently bases her decisionmaking process on a belief in Gaius Baltar's right to a fair trial, or perhaps on humanitarian grounds. It also seems possible that she draws a solid distinction between accused combatants and civilian criminals as opposed to military traitors prosecuted by a military court. This matter is complicated since Baltar was a civilian working for the military under contract when he shared information with a seemingly friendly co-worker who turned out to be a Cylon. It also seems possible that Roslin's past actions have forced her to examine firsthand the costs and benefits associated with summary execution versus other approaches (TRS: "Taking a Break From All Your Worries", "The Son Also Rises", "Crossroads, Part I", "Crossroads, Part II").

Examples of Philosophical content in The Original Series

It happened before, before it happened again. the Original Series also tackled many current issues of its time, including racism, war, and the nature of democracy.