Monday, March 23, 2009

BSG's deity: not loving, and possibly insane (2)

NB: This essay, a modified version of the original, makes essentially the same points as the original does, but adds some clarifications in the later sections, which focus on the inadvertent outcome of the divine "plan."

[WARNING: What follows is probably the length of a small research paper. Maybe print it out and read it during your trips to the toilet. Watch out for hemorrhoids.]

What good is having a Master's degree in religion and culture if you can't apply it to a pop culture phenomenon like "Battlestar Galactica," whose noisy/quiet, but very spiritual, finale aired this past Friday to a chorus of fan cheers, jeers, and tears?

I want to discuss the BSG deity and its plan, but before I do, I'd like to address those viewers who were disappointed that BSG ended up taking such a spiritual turn. My question: What'd you expect? "Science fiction" is a broad term, usually distinguished from the fantasy genre, but it should come as no surprise that a large proportion of SF works are essentially religious ideas masquerading as SF. The creators of such works usually have little interest in the technobabble that enthralls fans of "hard science fiction." Much of what Arthur C. Clarke wrote, for example, took a religious tone, and I can name you a list of nominally SF movies that actually offer some sort of religious message. Right off the top of my head: "The Abyss," "Contact," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Dune," "The Fountain," "K-Pax," the Matrix trilogy, the six Star Wars movies, and so on. My point is simply that religion and sci-fi seem to mix very well, and if you're a BSG fan who feels hoodwinked, I'd advise you just to relax and go with it.

The creator of the rebooted BSG, Ronald D. Moore, has confirmed in interviews that the spiritual angle was something his show had "from the beginning," but luckily for us, we live in the age of textual autonomy-- a work stands on its own (or so the postmodernists contend), so if you don't want to take the author's word for it, you don't have to. People who respect authorial intent can also take heart, however, for Moore has said that his intention in writing the BSG story was to provoke thought, and he is also on record as noting that certain important characters and events can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

In other words, don't lose hope if you're one of the viewers who want to believe that the BSG universe is actually godless: you can probably find an interpretation of events that will satisfy your basic orientation. The easiest solution? Take your cue from the implications of Intelligent Design Theory. IDT is often used by theists (mostly Christian) who are looking for a "scientific" argument in favor of creationism, but the theory itself really says nothing about whether the Creator is indeed the God of the Abrahamic monotheisms. Be of good cheer: perhaps the BSG "god" is just an extremely old, extremely powerful alien and nothing more. At no point did any BSG character imply that this God created the entire universe.

Having said all that (and I admit that I, too, am a wee bit disappointed with how BSG's hard SF ultimately gave way to a muddled religious outlook), I'm going to take Moore at his word and assume that his intention was to end the show with a peek at his version of the deity. But as we'll soon see, the BSG deity, far from being the comforting god of love that Head Six and Caprica Six claim it is, has some deeply troubling characteristics, and the deity's "plan," such as it is, offers us a rather disturbing cosmology.* Moore's BSG finale might have been intended to end on a bright, hopeful tone, but if we follow the implications of the data we are given in the finale and elsewhere in the series, the overall picture of who this deity is and what it's all about is very dark, indeed.

I. Characteristics of the BSG Deity

Much of what we learn about the BSG deity comes from the last hour of the finale. We've known for several seasons that the deity has some sort of vested interest in the perpetuation of both humans and Cylons, or so Head Six has been telling us.** According to the angelic versions of Six and Baltar that appear in Manhattan, this deity dislikes being called "God," which automatically leads to the question of what this deity likes to be called, but BSG provides no answer on that score.

As the angelic Six and Baltar are walking through Times Square, 1500 centuries after our final glimpse of Bill Adama and Hera, we're privy to the angels' conversation:

SIX (apparently reading National Geographic over Ron Moore's shoulder): At a scientific conference this week at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, a startling announcement was made that archeologists believe they have found fossilized remains of a young woman who may actually be Mitochondrial Eve. "Mitochondrial Eve" is the name scientists have given to the most recent common ancestor of all human beings now living on Earth. She lived in what is now Tanzania. Over one hundred and fifty thousand years ago!

BALTAR (amused): Along with her Cylon mother and human father.

SIX (looking around): Commercialism, decadence, technology run amok... remind you of anything?

BALTAR: Take your pick. Kobol. Earth-- the real Earth, before this one. Caprica before the Fall.

SIX: All of this has happened before.

BALTAR: But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?

SIX: This time, I bet no.

BALTAR: You know, I've never known you to play the optimist. Why the change of heart?

SIX: Mathematics. Law of averages. Let a complex system repeat itself long enough, eventually something surprising might occur. That, too, is in God's plan.

BALTAR: You know it doesn't like that name. (in response to Six's dark look) Silly me. Silly, silly me.

Earlier in the episode, as the human Baltar lies in the African grass alongside Admiral Adama, Doc Cottle, and the newly-reinstated Lieutenant Hoshi, Adama marvels at Cottle's discovery that the hominids in the distance bury their dead and possess DNA that matches that of the 38,000 surviving humans of the fleet. Baltar affirms that the odds against such intimately parallel evolution are "astronomical," all the more reason to think that such evolution is the product of a divine hand.

This is enough data to start filling in some blanks about the deity that has apparently haunted BSG from the beginning. If we take Baltar's conjecture on the African plains literally, we've got a deity that has existed for billions of years, tweaking the evolution of life to produce humans-- not once, but already several times on different worlds: Kobol, Caprica, and the first "real" Earth. We can add our Earth, the second Earth, to that list.

Each of these places has evolved recognizable earthlife along with humans. The characters in BSG have long made reference to animals and plants that we recognize from our studies and travels; no new life forms are mentioned, and even back when the beleaguered colonials were fleeing through the cosmos, the few earthlike planets they encountered had recognizable forms of life on them.

All of this suggests that the deity's focus on parallel evolution extends to more than just humans: it's humans plus the life that forms the ecosystem into which humans fit. The existence of earthlife on some of the worlds of the Twelve Colonies might be explained by terraforming, but all that life wasn't brought over on ships from Kobol. No: if the deity wanted humans, it also wanted the earthlife to sustain them.

So we now have two properties of this deity: it's been in existence for billions of years, at the very least (enough time to shepherd the evolution of life), and it's been highly interactive with physical existence, actually expending energy to meddle with life's evolution. This deity, then, is not the God of the Deists, which is said to have created the universe and then sat back to watch it unfold.

But there's more: we know that this deity has personal attributes. It dislikes being called God, for example. It is also said to have a plan, and planning is something done by beings with minds. Head Six and many of the other Sixes have repeatedly claimed that God is love, or that God loves us, which is further evidence that this is a personal deity, and not one of theologian John Hick's impersonae (like the Tao of philosophical Taoism, or the sunyata of Buddhism, or the nirguna brahman of advaita vedanta Hinduism). Of course, the claim that this deity is a loving deity is a matter of contention; ultimately, I will argue in the negative.

Whether this deity has a noumenal aspect-- some untouchable, ineffable, unfathomable, existing-in-itself dimension-- is hard to say. I don't think that BSG provides any clear evidence in this regard. But we do know, based on the angelic Six's remark about letting "a complex system repeat itself," that this deity is performing what amounts to a massive moral-biological panspermia experiment: the biological facet of the experiment involves the deity's need to tinker with life's evolution so that humans are always the end product, and the moral facet lies in the deity's apparent desire to see (or its curiosity about) whether humanity, once evolved to its modern, sapient status, can break free of a troublesome cycle of violence. This cycle seems, time and again, to culminate in a Frankensteinian scenario in which humanity's creations, themselves having achieved a great measure of sapience and sentience, turn violently against their creators.

The BSG deity's need to repeat these experiments demonstrates its non-omniscience, an important property. As I wrote elsewhere, the deity has much in common with the God of process theology, which is also highly interactive with the cosmos, non-omniscient, and intent on co-producing (the process God isn't coercive; it's a persuader or impeller) moral results that ostensibly enhance human freedom and flourishing-- as well as cosmic novelty, which parallels the "something surprising" that the angelic Six alludes to. The process God acts as a font of possibility which allows for surprises, but whether the process God actually has a plan, per se, is debatable. In fact, the BSG deity also seems less to have a plan than to be interested in experimentation, which isn't the same thing as divine planning, classically conceived.

Furthermore, the deity appears to be internally conflicted-- possibly insane. After bringing life up to the human level (if I can be so arrogantly "speciesist" as to use the preposition "up to" to apply to human beings), it goes further, providing humanity with angels, prophetic visions, clairvoyance, and other forms of supernatural help-- the asteroid that smacks the shattered Raptor and causes the dead Racetrack's hand to fire the nukes at the Cylon colony could be seen as an example of this, and the resurrected Starbuck is an even more glaring example. This level of divine involvement might be evidence in favor of the BSG deity's loving interest in humanity's well-being, but it might also be seen as an extension of its desire to keep meddling even after the moral experiment has begun. Why not go Deist, sit back, and watch what humanity does with itself?

The above implies something else, too: God's non-omnipotence. Could it be for this reason that Six says that God's plan is never finished? Is there always going to be a need for the deity to violate its experiment by constantly involving itself in human affairs? While one could counterargue that the BSG deity might still be omnipotent, the evidence suggests that it isn't. The need to experiment implies, as mentioned earlier, non-omniscience, which is already a major strike against the deity: omniscience is often considered a component of omnipotence. The deity's repeated failure, despite constant involvement, to help humanity escape the cycle of violence is also evidence against its omnipotence. In classical theism, human freedom is often thought to circumscribe divine omnipotence. The amount of human freedom in the BSG universe is debatable, but to the extent that humans possess any free will in this universe, that freedom circumscribes the deity's power much as it might be said to do in classical theism.

So, to sum up our findings in this section, we can name the following attributes of the BSG deity (again, much depends on the extent to which we trust the truth of what the BSG characters themselves tell us about this deity):

1. God is said to be loving, though this is, as we'll see, a controversial claim when we tease out the implications of the deity's intentions and actions.
2. God is said to have a plan, but is actually more of an experimenter than a planner.
3. God's apparent need to perform experiments implies its non-omniscience. (An omniscient God would already know the results of any possible experiments, assuming the term "omniscience" implies (fore)knowledge of all states of affairs, including counterfactual states-- the mights, would-haves, could-haves, wills, won'ts, etc.)
4. God is a personal deity with a mind and will, and doesn't like being called God, even though the angelic Six seems to have no trouble referring to "it" that way.
5. God is highly interactive with the physical cosmos, not merely tinkering with the evolution of all life, including (and especially) human life, but also interacting with it in various ways even after the moral experiment has begun.
6. God has some traits in common with the God of process theology (a theology based on the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead).

At this point, we've crafted a list of basic theistic attributes that rivals what theists in our world say about their deities. Now, we need to turn from the question of this deity's nature to the problem of its actions.

II. Disturbing Aspects of BSG's Cosmology

As near as I can figure it, the BSG deity's "plan" is, as described above, essentially an experiment that will, the deity hopes, lead to a "surprising" result after enough repetitions. We can assume that the deity has already performed its experiment at least four times-- on Kobol, on Caprica, and on the two Earths, with the second Earth being an experiment in progress. It's highly likely, given the apparent number of habitable worlds in our galaxy and the deity's fondness for exact repetition, that the deity has performed (or is performing) this same experiment on other worlds.

While it's fair to ask why the deity is doing this, I don't think that BSG provides an answer. The question "why" is, in fact, a conundrum for many religiously-minded thinkers in our own, real world. Why would a perfect Creator create life, especially humanity, to begin with? A perfect being is, by the classical definition of "perfect," self-complete. It needs nothing. And yet... here we are, and here the universe is. As there is no universally accepted answer to the "why" question in our own world, I'll table it for the BSG deity as well, and will assume, as I do with this Earth's Yahweh, that the human appellation "perfect" doesn't quite capture the sacred and inscrutable nature of divine desire. Take that for what it's worth.

What we can say, based on the evidence provided in the series, is that the BSG deity has one clear aim, which is to lift humanity out of the cycle of violence. I'm unclear on whether this is the cycle of violence in general, or the cycle that specifically involves human/sentient machine violence, which seems to be the point at which humanity implodes. The experiments have, thus far, ended in failure, with humanity emerging on multiple worlds, evolving socially and linguistically into world-spanning civilizations characterized by a recognizably North American, English-speaking culture, developing sentient artificial life, and finally succumbing to nuclear holocaust when that life turns against its creators.

We know the Twelve Colonies speak twenty-first century North American English, using idioms and metaphors that we recognize, with only one notable difference in the lexicon of vulgarity-- the much-beloved "frak." Two explanations for such close parallel civilizational evolution suggest themselves. The first is that there is something mechanical-- dare I say Cylon?-- about humanity, something that makes it snap to a specific template as it evolves. The civilizations on different worlds might differ in their particulars-- variations in land and climate will affect the specific arrangement of cities, for example-- but the architecture, the fashions, and the general trends in current events will all be the same over time (which is why the civilizations all look and feel the same). That sort of close repetition isn't explicable by a concept like the Jungian collective unconscious. There's nothing inevitable about bread being called "bread," for example-- our own world history is evidence for this.*** If this is the case-- that the BSG deity has been carbon-copying humans onto different worlds-- then the deity is either insane or rather stupid, because the emergent mass behavior of a fundamentally mechanistic humanity will be incapable of producing surprises. The divinity should have realized that early on.

The second explanation is one we've touched on already: the BSG deity cannot stop itself from continuing to immerse itself in human affairs, and has continued to guide humanity's progress long past the point at which hominids evolved into their modern forms. The deity of BSG might not be omnipotent or omniscient, but it is, we can presume, powerful enough to affect the course of the development of language, culture, architecture, etc. A theological question thus presents itself: what is the deity hoping to accomplish if it can't leave humanity alone? And a darker question: if it's the deity that's guiding humanity even unto its own implosion, then isn't that deity responsible for each Fall that occurs? Where, in the midst of all that poking and prodding to shape each culture into a copy of the cultures on other worlds, was human freedom? Ultimately, human blood is on this deity's hands (or tentacles, or robotic arms).

In either case, the theodicy isn't a comforting one. Human suffering must be seen in the context of a massive and repeated experiment involving many worlds, an experiment in which the deity itself is meddling, inevitably to humanity's detriment. It is for this reason, then, that we must question Six's claim that her God is a loving one, for it could have altered circumstances in such a way that humanity would evolve into something morally better than what it is. The BSG theology differs from process theology in this respect: the BSG deity must be coercive to have instigated and sustained parallel evolution-- not just biological evolution, but sociocultural evolution as well. The God of process theology, by contrast, is not coercive at all. Humanity arose, but its arising was not inevitable, and in a universe for which God is the co-evolving font of novelty, creativity, and freedom, humanity's future evolution is open as well.

It seems rather cruel for a deity to create sapient, sentient life, then force it to jump through predetermined hoops (a critique that is also frequently leveled against the divinities of our world!). But the evidence in BSG, unlike the evidence in our world (which is open to more than theistic interpretation), strongly suggests that the BSG deity has been specifically channeling humanity along a certain narrow path. Why the deity even bothers with prophetic visions, angels, and resurrected saviors is a mystery.

If the ostensible goal of the deity is humanity's eventual leap off the samsaric wheel, the deity needs to resolve its own internal contradictions first before this can happen. The gift of freedom that the humans and Cylons cherish, and which is necessary for those two races to succeed in the divine experiment, is largely absent from the BSG universe. The existence of prophecy confirms this state of affairs: things will happen a certain way. Freedom entails the ability to do otherwise, but if events must occur as prophesied, then prophecy (like divine foreknowledge in classical theism) precludes freedom. BSG thus has some uncomfortable parallels with the world of Jack Bauer in "24." Bauer rarely claims to be making choices; he tends to view what he does as the only possible course of action. Bauer's world is a world of brute necessities, and as we muddle through the cosmology of BSG, we see much the same thing. (FYI, "24" is my other favorite show.)

The God of process theism and the BSG deity both seem to be aiming at the creation of a fulfilled humanity. For process theists, this means a humanity that enjoys maximal freedom and cosmic novelty; for the BSG deity, this means a leap off the samsaric cycle of violence and suffering. The BSG deity is aiming for that one moment when humanity will finally do something "surprising," perhaps embracing peace and love and breaking free of what René Girard would call mimetic violence.

But the critique of process theology applies to the BSG deity as well: does all this mean that we are merely grist for the cosmic mill, beings to be ground up in the hope of producing a wavefront (or a future generation) that finds fulfillment or divine blessing? Is all this cosmic churning merely to produce an ontological crème de la crème, and screw the rest? True: BSG has always been about the fleet's collective survival, humanity's collective survival, and not merely about the survival of just a handful. But BSG's darkness arises from a tacit affirmation of the theodicy I've tried to explain here: of the billions of people on the Twelve Colonies, only 38,000 make it to the promised land. Of them, only Hera, a newcomer to that group, is the true hope for the survival of both humans and Cylons. Evil and suffering are a necessary part of the divine experiment which will, it is hoped, evolutionarily produce people who free themselves from the vicious cycle. But evolution is a meat grinder, and many will be lost along the way to such a fulfillment.

III. Why God is Doomed to Fail

The problem for BSG's deity, though, is in the self-defeating combination of the divine experiment with the deity's behavior. We've already explored one aspect of this problem by noting the deity's continued desire to meddle even after the experiment has begun, a meddling that was probably instrumental in leading to humanity's fall in each case. We need to talk about another problem, though-- one hinted at by the way the series concludes.

Let's assume that the humanity discovered on the second Earth is truly human, untainted by Cylon DNA. We now add to the relatively small native population 38,000 humans plus Hera, a half-Cylon. I think we can assume that the pure Cylons won't be having children with any colonials or any native Earthlings: their track record in that department has been abominable. Even if the Cylons do have children, the most important thing to remember is that it's Hera who is the Mitochondrial Eve for our world: she is the MRCA-- the most recent common matrilineal ancestor-- for all humans alive today. Hera is everyone's great-great-to-the-Nth-power grandmother; mitochondrial DNA is passed down matrilineally. We are all, therefore, part-Cylon.

We've already established that the BSG deity repeats initial conditions as precisely as possible on each "lab" world by meddling with evolution, and that this evolution-- for whatever reason-- continues in precisely the same manner on each world, culminating in a Fall involving human-machine violence. This means, then, that modern humans on the Twelve Colonies are very likely also descendants of a Mitochondrial Eve like Hera: ancient humans there might have started off as purely human, but pure humans are gone by modern times. In other words, the colonials are already part-Cylon when we first meet them. The ancient Hera who visited the Colonies might have come, for all we know, from Kobol (here we have to rely on what little scriptural evidence the show provides us), itself a "lab" world, a fact we can deduce from the angelic Baltar's "take your pick" utterance, which implied that the BSG deity's experiment was performed on multiple worlds.

So when Athena hooks up with Helo to produce Hera, the union is more Cylon in nature than it first appears, because Helo is already mitochondrially part-Cylon. Hera is thus more than half-Cylon. Her entire purpose, based on what the angelic pair tell the human Baltar and Six on our Earth, seems to be her assumption of the role of Mitochondrial Eve on the new world. The fleet might have seen itself as trying to find a safe haven, but what the deity was actually doing was using the fleet to bring Hera-- leaven for the new human-Cylon bread-- to the second Earth.****

Because the BSG deity is not involving only one world in its experiment, we have to expand our scope to consider the deity's activity in the entire galaxy. The origin stories for modern humanity will vary according to which groups of humans visit which planets. In some cases, modern humanity will have evolved in "pure" form, created Cylons that rebelled against it, and either imploded or ended up breeding with those Cylons on a small or large scale, resulting in a Hera or Heras. In other cases, modern humans will have been the result of Cylon involvement, having descended from a Hera in their past. These humans, part Cylon, will evolve until there's a Fall, and the surviving remnant will either end up breeding with local Cylons or not. If they do breed with them, they'll produce a girl (it's always a girl, given the matrilineal nature of mitochondrial DNA) who will have a higher concentration of Cylon DNA in her than a regular human-Cylon half-breed. This latter type of being is what BSG's Hera is. Hera is actually a super-Hera, which makes us, here on our Earth, more Cylon than we might seem at first blush.

The human members of the colonial fleet are also, as I've noted, part-Cylon thanks to the probable introduction of a Mitochondrial Eve in their past. They, too, might breed with the local population (otherwise, their scattering will produce a population bottleneck; it boggles my mind that Adama would think humanity's chances for survival would be increased by sprinkling them around on empty continents). Even if our human protags are really, purely human, the eventual result is nearly seven billion part-Cylons: us.

When the BSG deity's experiment fails on a "lab" world, the evidence of failure is a nuked-out, useless planet. The deity either can't or won't go back again (cf. Kobol), and real estate is limited. You begin to see the problem, yes? Humanity has shown, up to now, no tendency to break out of the cycle in which it has been trapped (by its own devices, or by the deity's well-intended but destructive meddling, or by a combination of factors). The probability that it will escape the cycle at any given period in cosmic history is therefore low, and planetary real estate in our galaxy is limited. Pressure is therefore building: land is running out, and with each failure, with each new, nuked-out world, the problem is worsening.

But pressure is coming from another quarter as well. Imagine us, the descendants of Hera, with an already-high proportion of Cylon DNA. If a Fall happens on our world as we fight our own homemade Cylons, chances are that some of us will also conclude that our Cylons are people, too, and will breed with them. The resultant Hera will be even more Cylon in nature. On the first Earth, Cylons evolved to the point where they could reproduce (hence the casting-aside of resurrection technology), so it's conceivable that, on some worlds, the production of Heras between humans and Cylons can occur more easily, given more fecund Cylons.

The overall picture, if we look at the human population as a galactic whole, seems to be that aggregate Cylon-ness will increase over time: the deity's experiments will ultimately lead to the Cylonization of all anthropic life. The general increase of Cylon DNA in the galactic population, added to the rapidly increasing number of nuked worlds, points to the squeezing-out of all true human life.

Even if "Cylonization" doesn't mean the creation of 100% Cylons everywhere, at the very best, humanity in the galactic aggregate can expect to become part-Cylon over time. The insertion of Heras into a "pure" planet's history will see to it that that planet's modern humans will be mitochondrially Cylon. As each human civilization reaches a spacefaring level, part-Cylons will breed with pure humans. Because each planet will slavishly follow the template followed on other worlds (we've already established that this will be the case), it will invent its own Cylons. Some of the native population (part-Cylon or not) will breed with those Cylons; the Cylons themselves will mass-produce (or breed with each other, as happened on the first Earth) at a geometric or logarithmic rate. The pure Cylon population will, in each planetary scenario, likely grow much faster than the human populations, especially if a Fall happens, drastically reducing human numbers.

And the clincher is this: BSG establishes that most Cylons have a hard time dealing with the notion of free will. They are shown, at many points throughout the series, to be prisoners of their own machine nature. Cylons as a whole have less libertarian free will than pure humans do. And if the proportion of Cylon DNA in the galactic population is always on the rise, the chances that humanity-- or maybe we should call it "humanity" in scare quotes-- will break out of the cycle of violence spiral concomitantly downward.

Maybe it is important to ask why the hell the BSG deity would put its humans and Cylons through such a cosmic wringer. At the very least, we can agree that Ronald D. Moore's theology and cosmology, when teased out like this, offer us a much darker ultimate scenario than the happy one portrayed in the series finale. And even if the BSG deity decides to redo this experiment in other galaxies, the ultimate results will be the same, especially if the deity insists on undermining itself every time.

A final note for this section: the Cylons we first encounter, before we know anything about the Final Five, prove to be shockingly militant, mass-producing resurrection bodies and war machines at a frighteningly geometric rate, taking over tylium-rich planetoids and establishing bases on them, extending their hegemony through resurrection ships (I've long wondered: why only one Hub?) and so on. Such beings are far more viral and virulent than humans, especially when they lack internal quarrels and can still act in concert. What's to prevent the loose Cylons from one failed experiment from finding a planet on which the deity's experiment in peace and love has proved successful? Imagine the bloody result of that encounter. All in all, no matter how you slice it, BSG offers us little more than the infamous "grey goo" scenario-- one in which the machines overrun us all, leaving nothing but ruin. The logic of this process is inevitable, and stands in contrast with claims that the BSG god is loving or has all our best interests at heart.

IV. Conclusion

The deity of BSG has its own reasons for creating humanity. We can't know those reasons, but we can divine, based on the "canonical" evidence of the show, that this deity is interested in humanity's ability to break free of a cycle of violence of which the deity apparently disapproves (why Baltar describes God as "beyond good and evil," if the deity seeks humanity's good, is beyond me). We've seen, though, that this being, which is far less powerful than the God of classical theism, often seems to be working at cross-purposes to itself, sculpting the biology of many worlds into recognizable earthlife and recognizable humans, but not stopping there.

The deity seems to want, simultaneously and paradoxically, (1) tight control to guide humanity's biological and sociocultural evolution (even beyond the sapient stage, such that carbon-copy civilizations arise), and (2) to allow humanity the chance to choose to escape the cycle of violence that repeatedly ensnares it. Because of the deity's constant meddling-- not merely in the way it coerces biological and sociocultural evolution to result in North American cultures, but also in the way it sends "help" in the form of prophecies, angels, and resurrected heroes-- the deity is, ultimately, responsible for keeping humanity in the painful samsaric loop. Along with lacking omniscience, this deity apparently lacks the wisdom to recognize the probable results of its actions, despite repeated failures on different "lab" planets. There is a good case to be made that all this internal conflict and self-undermining behavior point to divine insanity and/or obtuseness.

This divinity therefore can be said to possess, at best, a questionable moral nature. But beyond its nature is the problem of the deity's actions. As we saw, there is a numbers game going on, but it's not the one alluded to by the angelic Six when she spoke of the "law of averages." No: here, the problem is one of limited real estate, the high probability of experimental failure, and an overall increase in the Cylon-ness of the galaxy-wide "human" population. While it might be possible for certain isolated populations of humans to remain genetically pure, it's more likely that any given modern human population will already contain Cylon DNA in low or high concentrations. The pressure of Cylonization and property-loss (i.e., nuked worlds) will ultimately lead to nothing but mitochondrial Cylons.

While I'm glad the finale very cleverly defied my expectations (I had bet that we were already watching nothing but pure Cylons, with humans being long gone), the end result of the BSG deity's actions will be the disappearance of pure humans, the only source of which will be, through the BSG deity's agency, a long and drawn-out "special creation" involving tight control of the evolutionary process to produce pure humans and modern human civilization on new real estate. But as virgin worlds run out, the production of humans will become infeasible without the creation of new Earthlike worlds. Whether the deity will go so far as to create new Earths is impossible to guess, but it seems unlikely, given the evidence: the deity could have restored Kobol and started over there, but it didn't.

Given this outcome, the deity's experiments with humans can be said to be doomed to failure, no matter how the experiment initially runs. The only true hope for humanity is for the deity to cease all meddling and allow humanity, finally, to run its course-- preferably on as few worlds as possible, to allow people enough real estate to succeed or fail on their own. That sort of deity, whatever name it likes to be called, might-- possibly-- be worthy of worship.

*My atheist friends will wryly note that most theistic cosmologies are disturbing. To be honest, I agree, starting with the idea that an omnipotent god requires any sort of propitiation.

**Head Six hasn't been the most consistent virtual being in this matter. On many occasions, she seems to cajole Baltar into actions that explicitly benefit the Cylons more than the humans. Part of the consistency issue has to do with BSG's writers' having made up the details of the story as they went along. But since much the same can be said for the real world's holy scriptures, which are a crazy-quilt of edited compilations, we'll just go with the flow and keep hermeneutics to a minimum.

***Come to think of it, our Earth seems to host thousands of languages, whereas the civilization of the Twelve Colonies, despite its hints at Latin (sine qua non makes an appearance), French (coup d'état), certain Asian languages (a ship called Incheon Valley), and older forms of English (the phrase "honor thy father" is heard at one point), is entirely anglophone, with variations occurring only in accents and local idioms. BSG's embarrassing lack of other languages is, I think, a linguistic chauvinism equivalent to the Star Trek alien problem: they all look and act human, and they all speak English. There are no aliens, per se, in BSG, but for the viewer's convenience, everyone speaks English. George Lucas got a lot of things wrong, but one of the things he got right in the Star Wars universe was its gleefully polyglot nature. Star Wars droids and aliens understand English, but feel no inclination to speak it... and if you listen carefully, you'll hear humans in that universe who also speak no English.

****As a side note, I think this is evidence in favor of my suspicion that the deity is specifically the Cylon God. The fact that the angelic Baltar calls it "it" in the singular also points to monotheism over colonial polytheism.



Unknown said...

Excellent post. However, as a recent seminary grad I took a slightly different approach. It all seems like Duteronomistic History to me. Again, a circular history...Baltar even talks about the decadence of "Earth" which was just like all of the other planets before. In this situation, perhaps God let's humanity punish itself for forgetting about God so that they can come again to rely on that God. Perhaps the suprising thing that the BSG God is looking for is a group of human/cylons that breaks the cycle. In this case perhaps the BSG God is harsh but ultimately loving towards humanity/cylons - cylonity?

However, this is all from a Judeo-Christian perspective...more on the Judeo side though.

rakerman said...

I thought there were a lot of interesting implications of the finale - I just wish it had been an alternative finale, instead of the real one. BSG finale: answer to a question we didn't ask

encyclops said...

Fascinating analysis! I'd been thinking about tackling the question of whether we're dealing with one god or many, since Baltar doesn't seem to know, but the larger question is definitely "what's the big idea?"

As I read your speculation about the increasing Cylonitude of "humanity," and the likelihood that this will actually diminish free will, I began to wonder if this wasn't exactly what our non-omnipotent deity was trying to do. In other words, what happens if we throw out the assumption that this god is trying to do anything good for humanity ("he's not on anyone's side," Baltar said, and perhaps he's right), and the assumption that it really wants humans to break the cycle of violence? What if this is a breeding program designed to produce perfect and entirely (rather than partially) controllable cyborgs?

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks to all and sundry for commenting.


Your speculation sounds consistent with my suspicion that this deity is specifically the Cylon God.