Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The pilot of Caprica: “polytheism good, monotheism bad” and the morality of artificial intelligence


Jewish date:  29 Kislew 5770 (Parashath MiqQeṣ).

Today’s holidays:  Day 5 of Ḥanukkah (Judaism), Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent (Roman Catholicism).

Worthy cause of the day:  “ - Hope for the Holidays 2009”.

Caprica (TV series)Image via Wikipedia
Today’s topic:  The pilot for Caprica, the prequel to Battlestar Galactica (new series), has shown up on Hulu, and since it is riddled with religious ideas, it is my job to blog about it.  Where do I start?…
  • The show’s page on Hulu features in its header graphics the character Zoe Graystone apparently naked (posed to avoid frontal nudity and not showing anything below the shoulder blade, so please, do not freak out) and holding an apple with a bite out of it.  The symbolism of Ḥawwah (Eve) should be apparent to almost anyone.  (Though this apple business really is not from Genesis.  What sort of tree the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was is not recorded, and considering the passage in question is esoteric, not really meaningful.  But I digress.)
  • The teenagers Zoe, Ben Stark, and Lacy Rand frequent a virtual reality club in which people can practice practically anything they want in the way of sex or violence, no matter how perverse.  Arguably this is a direction that any holodeck-like technology almost certainly will be developed, and there is the obvious moral question of whether anything done in virtual reality, especially to a nonsentient virtual character, should be treated the same way as doing the same thing in physical reality.  Breaking the stereotype for teenagers, the trio are disgusted with virtual depravity and interested in fighting it.
  • Three theologies are mentioned.  One character, a Tauron, claims to be an atheist.  Society in general seems to be polytheistic, worshipping Greco-Roman deities, such as Athena and Mars.  Zoe, Ben, and Lacy have secretly joined the Soldiers of the One, a group which worships the One True God and using infinity (∞) as their symbol.  Polytheism is claimed to be tolerant and welcoming a variety of theological views.  The Soldiers of the One, however, are portrayed as absolutist, authoritarian, and intolerant.  This ties in with the teenage trio being disgusted by the virtual reality club, but it goes much further than that.  Ben, wearing a vest of explosives, proclaims “The One True God shall drive out the many” and blows himself up, killing Zoe and everyone else on the train in the process; the principal of the Athenian Academy, a crypto-Soldier of the One, considers him a hero.  I am aware this attitude of “polytheism good, monotheism bad” goes back to Battlestar Galactica (the new series), and it is does not reflect the way things work on our planet.  Islam, a form of monotheism, is a popular pro-terrorism religion, but while there are Jewish and Christian terrorists, they and their attacks are extremely rare, as neither religion idealizes, promotes, or condones violence for the sake of politics.  Furthermore, polytheists are not entirely peaceful and tolerant.  E.g., Christians in India have been on the receiving end of Hindu violence lately.  Not to mention that Ḥanukkah exists due to a civil war caused by an attempt to impose the polytheistic ancient Greek religion upon monotheistic Jews.  I sincerely hope that the writers break free from the “polytheism good, monotheism bad” attitude and come up with something better and less insulting by the next episode.
  • The Orange Catholic Bible of Frank Herbert’s Dune series demands “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”, and the writers for Caprica have taken this up as a major theme.  Zoe was killed in the suicide bombing, but luckily for her, she created a duplicate of herself in virtual reality.  Zoe II is not identical to Zoe I; she is not created from a brain scan but rather from an amalgamation of all data on Zoe I available via the Caprican equivalent of Google.  However, Zoe II resembles Zoe I to such a degree that her father, Daniel Graystone, ignores the distinction, arguing that Zoe II is Zoe, even having a copy of the original’s soul, and shrugging off the notion that what Zoe I has created is an “abomination”.  Daniel also correctly notes that the unnaturalness of what Zoe I has done does not necessarily make it immoral.  Daniel thus sets out to bring Zoe II into the physical world and succeeds at the very end of the pilot, with Zoe II becoming a robotic Cylon.  I am looking forward to see how the artificial intelligence theme is developed further, including moral questions as to how to treat artificial people.
  • Minor items:  Sacrifices are brought in temples to the polytheistic gods.  Taurons wear gloves during mourning to symbolize separation from the world.
Peace and happy Ḥanukkah.

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