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Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"What does it mean to be human?"
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Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952
Star Trek: Voyager "Once Upon a Time" - syndicated television episode.
Farscape The sci-fi channel original sf series.
Children of the Star by Sylvia Engdahl, Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2000, (3 novels in one quality pb volume, $20.00)
In order to avoid the traps that are strewn in the path of the Seeker, traps that lead to inadvertent power abuse, traps that lure the unwary into imposing their own agenda upon others "for their own good" the mystic must work within the scientific method (Hod on the Tree of Life).
No other Literature that I have yet encountered is so replete with examples of the scientific method's brand of Independent Thinking as a process (not selling a particular conclusion or philosophical thesis -- but selling the process whereby humans invent new conclusions and theses) than Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Gene Roddenberry told us, while we were interviewing him for the Bantam paperback Star Trek Lives! that in every script he wrote, and within the very premise of Star Trek itself, he deliberately asked a question -- without answering it. Leaving it to the reader/viewer to answer the philosophical question at the heart of the matter.
This kind of writing encourages viewers to think for themselves. This kind of independent thinking is the best defense against the Powerful who would attempt to abuse their power by pre-empting your free will (e.g. tv commercials) -- and it is also the best defense you can have against abusing your power to influence others to your way of thinking.
When you have developed the habit of questioning everything you're told and finding your own answers, you begin to realize that your answers don't match the answers others arrive at.
You go through a process of discovering how your first independently thought out answer is wrong -- contradicted by facts that come to light later. You learn to revise your first conclusion, knowing the revision will probably be wrong too, but it will be closer to Truth. You learn not to hang onto conclusions arrived at by faulty means or on the basis of flawed data. You learn that thinking is process. You learn the difference between fact and opinion. You learn that all conclusions -- most especially scientific ones -- are only intermediate steps in a process. And you learn that the process itself is far more vital (essential to LIFE) than any conclusion it might lead you to.
You learn also to revise your thinking process itself from time to time, in light of new discoveries. You learn that life is change, that uncertainty is not to be avoided but relished, that the unknown is not a threat or a challenge, but an opportunity to live.
And in this process of applying independent thought to Life, you learn that you could not progress in Wisdom, advance on the Path, or find a real zest in life while laboring inside someone else's conclusions.
You come to object to having others attempt to overshadow your free will with their ideas not because their ideas are wrong, but because they aren't your own mistakes which you and you alone can grow by correcting. Then it becomes clear that if you overshadow someone else's free will with your own current (tentative) conclusions, you are preventing that person from growing into their own Wisdom.
But that clarity can not dawn until after you have developed an ingrained habit of questioning everything you are told and finding your own personalized and tentative hypotheses and turning them into your personal theories.
I have three powerful examples of how this vital Initiatory experience in the nature of truth can be gained from imbibing Science Fiction/Fantasy.
First note Star Trek:Voyager "Once Upon a Time." In this episode (introducing the holodeck children's fairy tale about Slaughter and Treevis,) Naomi Wilder says "My Mom says that cooperation is more important than competition."
Note the child did not say that this is in fact TRUE, but rather that her mother says it's true.
After watching her friend, the holocharacter Slaughter (a water elemental who is friendly enemies with a Tree Sprite) evaporate when he faced a fire bigger than he was, Naomi feels guilty and sad. She had told Slaughter that water puts out fire, which made him too bold when facing an enemy larger than himself.
So she researches "water" and figures they can save Slaughter by making the holoforest cold enough that the evaporated Slaughter would condense.
Meanwhile, Naomi's mother faces death from internal bleeding on an away mission stranded on a dry planet. Neelix lost his sister in an attack in the forest near his home. Seven of Nine lost her parents in a crash. These bits of personal character-background illustrate the theme of bereavement and guilt tied together as with Naomi's experience of mis-advising Slaughter about Fire.
Neelix tries to keep Naomi from knowing what's happening to her mother. The Events show-don't-tell that bereavement/guilt is best dealt with via a team approach (cooperation) and so is saving a life.
Meanwhile, the very young and innocent Naomi Wilder has trusted Neelix to tell her the truth -- but she still questions everything, and she discovers for herself that he's withheld information about her mother. She runs to Slaughter on the holodeck. Her trust has been shaken, and in that trauma she relies upon her own reasoning. She is being raised on a fairy-tale which inculcates independent thought. Watch this episode the next time it's rerun!
I have a photocopy of an article here dated February 2000 that appeared in some magazine -- I do not have the attribution. I believe it might be the Sci-Fi Channel's own magazine. The caption on one of the photos says:
"In general, Science Fiction strives to answer the question "What does it mean to be human?" Farscape addresses this question through its characters ... "
This is why Farscape is gathering such a following among sf/f fans in general, -- but most importantly among Star Trek fans. But I do not believe that most science fiction including Farscape "strives to answer" that question so much as it discovers even more questions inside that one.
"What does it mean to be human?" is directly addressed as the core theme in a trilogy of novels recently made available in a single volume titled Children of the Star by Sylvia Engdahl.
The premise of these novels is that people colonize 6 planets in their own native solar system, and then the sun goes nova with almost no warning. (OK, the science is a bit shaky all the way through the premise -- it's from the early 1970's, right after Star Trek:TOS.)
At the time of the nova, there exists a shaky colony on a world around a distant star not able to support human life. The refugees land at the colony faced with the extinction of their civilization. They set up an artificial religion and culture to support original scientific research that might provide an answer.
Our Hero, Noren, is a young man who thinks for himself, and is thus branded a heretic. He then finds himself not executed but invited to join the original researchers striving to find a way for the species to survive with their history intact.
He has a lot of philosophical problems with this -- because he values Truth above all -- absolutely above all and everything. But he's young and doesn't realize the real nature of Truth, even when he discovers their quest is doomed to failure. Throughout it all he never stops thinking for himself no matter how much agony and grief it causes him.
Naomi Wilder had to be taught with a fairy tale to think for herself. Noren seems to have been born able to do that and for it finds himself ostracized.
Question: Is independent thought a natural attribute of human beings, which is beaten out of us by cultural conditioning? Or is independent thought something that has to be beaten into us by cultural conditioning? Or is it a gift of a blessed few doomed to live ostracized by the human-herd? Or perhaps all of the above and more? What does it mean to be human?
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952
SPECIAL BONUS: a direct comment from Sylvia Engdahl about the novels reviewed above:
I'm a little troubled by the phrase "extinction of their
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg,
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