Sunday, November 3, 2013

Trek Tropes: Mind vs. Soul

Now that I've once again tackled the Prime Directive - the grand-daddy of Trek Tropes - it is time to cover some new ground.  These next posts won't be quite so long and wordy, I promise!  I am looking to start discussion here, not end it.

Anyone who has watched Star Trek for long enough knows that its writers, in all eras, have had an obsession with the notion of separating the mind and body.  From "Spock's Brain" to "Body and Soul" (VOY: 7:7), and including cinematic moments like the mind-warping abilities of the antagonist in "Star Trek Five: The Final Frontier", Star Trek writers have woven a not-always-consistent, but generally-coherent philosophy on the human mind and soul that reads something like this:

"If we had enough technology, we could figure out how the neural impulses within the brain collectively generate the entire personality with all of its knowledge, memory, and character."

To serve the plots of many-a-story in all of the modern Star Trek franchises at a minimum, doctors have made reference to "brain wave patterns" that were like fingerprints, uniquely identifying the presence of a single life form's consciousness.  In many other episodes, Star Trek characters have been disembodied, floating outside their physical forms and merging again later with no ill affects (other than that their bodies were clinically dead until that ether that was their ball of thoughts reappeared within).  Still other episodes have involved crew members taking on more than one consciousness, sometimes with no ill affects (other than the loss of bodily free will) and sometimes with life-threatening consequences.  One particularly famous episode on Voyager (Tuvix - VOY 2:24) involved the DNA of two different people being melded into one new person - and that amalgam possessing an amalgamated personality.  And still another Voyager episode (Faces - VOY 1:14) involved one person being split into component DNA sequences, producing two unique personalities from one whole consciousness.

Those things may sound like competing ideas, but they all fit under the broad envelop titled "the soul is a plasma with definite physical qualities - its linkage to the physical world is absolute."  Some stories call for that linkage to be literal.  Aliens who feed on neural energy (Time's Arrow - TNG 5:26/6:1, Coda - VOY 3:15) like it's spaghetti, brain wave patterns that you can read and deconstruct into absolute proof of a presence like in Cathexis (VOY 1:13) or personalities linked to DNA...all of it suggests a soup of souliness made up of electrons and chemicals and impacted by biological processes.

I find this theory of the soul in stark contrast to my own, and this, naturally, is bothersome to me.  I believe that the soul carries with it something ineffable quality that requires the physical world to manifest, but that cannot fully be explained by physical laws.  Neural pathways have an almost-infinite capacity for thought complexity and uniqueness, but thoughts are not a soul - the mind and the soul are different, as observed by Descartes when he deconstructed his beliefs down to the few things he believed he could trust in the absence of his senses.  Catholics believe that the body and soul are inextricably linked, to be sure, but not in that DNA determines the structure of the soul or that if we can track every neural impulse, we could model the soul.  In Star Trek, the writers have opted to eschew dualism - popular in sci-fi lit circles as a mechanism for explaining that ineffable quality I mentioned before while still allowing for cool body swaps and disembodied consciousness and other sci-fi tropes of pseudo-spiritualism.  In its place is physicalism as a means to explain such things in purely rational terms, since Trek tries very hard to avoid discussions of faith that are not inherently skeptical.  I disagree with both of those philosophies, but what I think it not really the point of this article.

What I did want to talk about was the tendency for Trek to be so focused on making everything make sense that stories within the franchise have become increasingly bogged down by a philosophy that strips humans of their humanity.  When you really think about it, if the soul is something that has mass and dimension...a physical thing that happens when neurons work together in a certain way, what does that say about all of the high-minded things we've ever striven for in the whole of our history?

Lest you all think I'm being too hard on Trek or taking it too seriously, I will add the caveat to the above discussion that I have thoroughly enjoyed some of the episodes I mentioned above and others that employed mind/soul dynamics in a manner consistent with Trek's vision for humanity.  In fact, when you get right down to it, intelligent Holograms who possess the capacity for morality are also founded on the "physical soul" and the EMH was the breakout character on Voyager for a good reason.  We'll talk more about the EMH, Data, and other intelligent machines/computers later, but it suffices to say that their position outside of humanity often makes for good storytelling if you are willing to suspend disbelief and not over-analyze the spiritual ramifications of their existence.

But I do have moods where I really think about such matters when remembering Trek...

I believe that the soul is that spark of Godliness that we carry that causes our chaotic neural networks to coalesce around the formation of certain agreed-upon truths that pave the road toward the better angels of our nature.  Without it, we would be capable of thought and logic and reason...but not of morality.  And I don't believe that this spark of goodness can be measured.  While it may be possible for an alien race to feed on the electrical charge generated by our brains, the notion that there might exist a race that literally fed on our souls, as in Coda I find highly incongruous and disturbing.

This is one trope that will probably always chafe inside my head...and I'd love to hear what others think about it.


  1. I had a chance to see Gene Roddenberry in the mid '70s at a local college (Wittenberg in Columbus, OH) wherein he spoke of human minds being taken out of bodies and put into robotic starships, either as a brain in a bottle or as a software simulation--i think it was the former, but could be mistaken. (Remember Spock's Brain?)

    This, plus the plots of The Lights of Zetar, or Turnabout Intruder, make me think Roddenberry thought of consciousness a bit like folks used to think about heat and caloric--a fluid that was exchanged between hot and cold bodies. I believe he thought consciousness could be poured out of one brain and into another, much like heat flows out of a steaming tea and into a spoon.

    Keep in mind that science at the time didn't understand neural networks any better than "perceptrons" and had no grasp on emergent properties of cellular automata. However, I believe we're at a point in our understanding of such things that stories like these will be as well-grounded in science as Venusian jungles.

    1. Interesting! And not altogether surprising. Pretty much all of Trek canon...not even just the original series, seems to be suffused with the notion that the soul/consciousness can be slurped out of a person's brain like a milkshake. Even after we added neural networking to our scientific knowledge base and it entered into medical descriptions on Trek, we still got a lot of "neural energy = fluid" concepts.

      Heck, the entire Vulcan mating practice (remember the silly finger rubbing thing?) appears to be the practice of sharing soul juice.