Star Trek: The Next Generation is my favorite television series. I’ve been rewatching it recently with my wife and I got to the episode called “The Measure of a Man” (check out my plot recap and review here). This episode brings up some issues I felt were pretty relevant for discussing here. We will explore only two major aspects of this episode: personhood and self-sacrifice. There will be SPOILERS for the episode in what follows.
The episode centered around the question of whether Data could be property. Properly speaking, it seems the episode was centered around whether Data was to be considered a “person” in the legally relevant sense. The arguments brought up regarding this question were interesting, particularly for those of us interested in philosophy of mind.
Data’s conversation with Maddox, the scientist who wishes to disassemble him in order to build more of him, centers around phenomenal consciousness. Data argues that although he has no doubt Maddox could preserve the content of his memories by simply downloading the, erm, data from his brain, he thinks there is something more to these thoughts and memories than simple facts. There is a “feel” to thoughts which have a kind of aboutness that is ultimately beyond the facts and into the realm of experience.
Frankly, this is a stunningly complex argument to make for a television show. It reflects a kind of appeal to phenomenology: the content of thoughts and the “aboutness” or taste of them. Some philosophers of mind (and I would agree with them) argue that there is a real notion of this phenomenal aspect of thought which goes beyond the simple facts. Indeed, this very aspect of thoughts and feelings–the ability to have an “about” aspect to them–is the very criterion for consciousness which some philosophers appeal to. In context of the episode, if Data really has this “aboutness,” I would say it is indisputable that he would be a person (not to say that consciousness is required for personhood, but surely a self-aware, conscious being would by necessity a person be).
Ultimately, the episode climaxes in an argument over what is it that determines someone as human or a person, and Maddox summarizes the standard definitions well by appealing to self-awareness and consciousness–though again this is disputable: surely I am a person even when unconscious!–and the arguments center around this question. These are interesting and necessary questions and I think they get at the depth of the philosophical debate surrounding this issue.
Interestingly, this episode also clearly focuses on the concept of “self-sacrifice.” William Riker does not want to prosecute the case against Data, but he is forced to in order to save his friend. In one epic scene, he ends up flipping Data’s power switch off and as Data collapses he says “the strings are cut” referring to Pinocchio. The final scene shows Data finding Riker staring out into space, clearly pensive over his actions and hurt over his own seeming attack on his friend. Data, however, states that although Riker knew his actions would “wound” him, Riker still prosecuted the case because he knew the alternative would be, for Data, at least akin to if not literally death. Thus, Data says, Riker “saved me.”
This kind of self-sacrifice is found exactly at the heart of the Christian message. Christ was wounded for our transactions, and, as Riker does here, Jesus came knowing that such wounding would happen. These wounds were borne for our sake.
“The Measure of a Man” is one of those rare episodes of a serial TV show which forces viewers to take a step back and think–really think–on a topic. Whether you agree with the conclusions of the episode or not, it must be admitted it raises a number of interesting topics to explore. What do you think of this episode? What additional themes did you pick up in it? How do your favorite shows resonate with your worldview?
Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!
Star Trek: TNG Season 2, “The Measure of a Man” and “The Dauphin”– Check out my ongoing recaps and reviews of Star Trek: TNG episodes at my “other interests” site, Eclectic Theist. Here, I review this episode and the following one. More recaps may be viewed here or by searching on that site.
The photo in this episode was a screenshot capture of the episode. I claim no rights to it and use it under fair use.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
A memorable episode with much more substance than most episodic TV, alas, including STNG. If the scientist wanting to disassemble Data to create an army of androids was successful, he would have done so based on the premise that they were not human beings, not sentient beings, and not deserving of “personhood” status. He would have created a race of oppressed slaves, and we would then be subject to judgment because of our treatment of them. Amazing point!
Yeah it really raises some questions of morality in our own situation and how we treat those which we have deemed non-persons.
I love TNG. The writers definitely were stimulated by a lot of ultimate questions, even if they sometimes fell short of dealing with them. I am reminded of the Turing test for intelligence, which I don’t think addresses “aboutness” or accounts for the reality of firsthand subjective experiences. We need a good theory of mind to speak on personhood, and these theories do not spring forth from naked scientific data; they must be supplied a priori.
I agree, and I think that point was what made this episode so meaningful for me: the acknowldgement that there is something like “aboutness” which goes beyond raw data in order to make up the “feel” of a memory or thought.
Data was obviously a machine. Do you suppose that God breathed the “breath of life” into Data to make him sentient? (Like in Genesis 2:7) How else could Data have been a living being?
This idea that God put a soul into Data could explain why the Star Trek people were unable to build more androids like Data. On the other hand, they never seem to take God very seriously on TNG.
If God put a soul into Data, we could wonder why God did that. And why didn’t God make a whole race of androids? Why just a few?
I was recently writing about this topic on my own blog, if you’re interested.