Monday, November 01, 2010

Battlestar Galactica and the Eternal Return

"A man's character is his fate." Heraclitus

Over the past month, I've been re-watching Battlestar Galactica from the perspective of modern myth, as well as strikingly poignant melodrama. I realize that there's not a whole lot at this point that can be said about this show that probably hasn't already been said before, somewhere else, but I still can't resist tossing in a few passing thoughts.

First, I found myself thinking a great deal about the tired argument of determinism versus free will in the light of ourselves as individuals, as personalities, rather than it being a matter of the inherent nature of the universe. This shift of emphasis is key.

The decisions that we make at any given point are in a real sense "pre-determined," as who we are is defined in many ways by the decisions that we make when faced with specific questions. Though there is no way to test this for sure, it stands to reason that if we are again faced with the exact same dilemma, while in the same frame of mind, being who we were at that moment, we would make the same decision. Again, and again, and again. It is fixed. And these decisions have very little to do with the rationalizations that we may convey to them, they have much more to do with an amalgum of hard-wired responses mixed with what we can kind of crudely call our software. Less mechanistically, many traditional theories of economics have proven themselves flawed - that is, theories that are based on purely rational "game theories" - because they don't take into account any of the cultural or emotional elements at play. The Dow reflects confidence of a certain kind far more than anything tangible.

So, in a manner of speaking, all prophecies are self-fulfilling. But the fixed point is identity, not externally driven destiny. A man's character is his fate.

This isn't a new idea to me, I play with it some in the novel I'm working on now (Fallen Nation: Party At The World's End)-- but I feel it is dealt with quite well by the BSG writers.

This leads me to another underlying element of the cosmology of BSG, the idea of Eternal Return. This is dealt with in different ways by philosophers and writers over time, but it essentially boils down to the idea that in an infinite universe, the same cycle of events will occur time and again. This idea is somewhat distinct with the idea of Eternal return that Eliade explores, altough there is a way in which this pertains to BSG plotlines as well. This is how prophecy and destiny can be said to occur from the outside, as we are not perhaps without free will, but in an infinite universe, we are possibly committed to playing the same role as one who has come before, and before them, and so on into infinity as well.

The wikipedia article has a number of starting points that you can explore on this. I found this particular amusing: "The first line of Disney's Peter Pan is "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again." This line has been cited as the inspiration behind the same theme in Battlestar Galactica."

Though I'm not much for plot analysis, or getting spammed with complaints of spoilers, I feel that a show that has run its course can be opened up in such a way. So close your eyes now if you've not seen it, and enjoy the series-- for its occasional failings it is in my opinion one of the best Sci-Fi Television shows ever produced. (And it is all available Instantly on Netflix.)

When the Cylons and Colonials discover the first Earth, they discover an Earth that came before -- itself raviged by nuclear war. Throughout the series by that point we've seen various elements of what could be described as prophecy -- events re-occuring in a similar to way as how they had thousands of years before, like when they encounter the Eye of Jupiter -- and there is the idea of "floods," as Baltar refers to them when dying on the Basestar with Roslin (though they seem to literally be nuclear holocausts), and these are ongoing evolutionary tipping points that push the ongoing circular narrative of exodus, homecoming, recapitulation, hubris and conflict, and another flood. How many times has this happened? Hypothetically, in a truly infinite universe, an infinite number of times. The Cylons are closer connected to their genetic memory in the fact that they maintain memory through the process of resurrection, but humans and cylon alike are constantly plagued by flashes of genetic memory, and memory of their role within this never-ending drama.

On our own planet, there is some evidence that this occurs in ecosystems, where there is a stasis of a sort that occurs for a long period of time, and then there is a catastrophe or series of catastrophes, for instance a comet strike and increased volcanic activity... and then the dinosaurs come to prominence. And then over 100 million years later, bam. Same thing, comet strike and volcanos, and you have the rise of the mammals.

Though I've already railed against the idea of reincarnation in its most literal sense, this is an experience I've had many times-- of meeting someone, and feeling like I've known them before. Of a certain series of events having a certain gravity, and this nagging sense that it had happened before and would again. But what does any of that mean? And how can we know?

I don't know. How can we really know anything?

At any rate, it's a fun show.


  1. I think perhaps the feeling of repetition may be due to the high probability that time is a mental artifact, taking for granted that manifestation is a mental process that is defacto real.

    So, if your mind reorganizes sense-data into a linear sequence that moves primarily in one direction only, then it must be taken into account that only certain facets of consciousness give a good god damn what your time-delusion says is 'new'.

    This would mean that the potential for deja vu, or the feeling that events are of a cyclic structure, could be explained by this contradiction of conscious-time-sense versus subconscious-block-time.

    Your subconscious knows about stuff that your conscious mind hasn't assigned a place in the timeline for yet. Thus, in the back of your head, on the line between occulted and normal consciousness, you have memories of the future.

    I suppose it would be like a video's buffer. You have the whole video existing as a solid block, and the machine reorganizes the block into a timeline that is coherent to us. The analytical mind can't see the entire file, even though it's all already there.

    However, another framework may apply: Genetic Memory + Limited Situational Configurations.
    Meaning that there are only so many ways a given set of actors can play out, and over the course of geologic time, all these various structures or 'stories' will have been played out and stored in the genetic tape-recorder, so when the Newtonian World throws the same environmental factors at the same psychosocial factors, you end up with a great deal of the same outcomes.

    But I do go on. ~m~

  2. I think it's possibly a bit of all of the above.

    I was having a conversation earlier today about how I simultaneously see consciousness as a kind of optical illusion, like those "magic posters" where you unfocus your eyes in the chaos and see an image, and as the only yardstick from which I can draw any value-- the only sensible axis mundi.

  3. I think time is like fractal art, only it is comprised of cycles made of cycles made of cycles, etc. Just to jump into the middle of it take the cycle of a human life, birth, infant, youth, young adult, middle age, old age, then the end of that cycle, death. within each of those parts of the cycle of life there are other cycles, say of young adult: falling in love, marriage, children, divorce, followed by middle age.
    For anyone interested I have just started a blog to discuss such matters at Check it out and give me a comment on what you think.

  4. There are many ways to conceive of time. Yet, cultural differences aside, we seem to experience it in roughly the same way. I certainly can't experientially zip ten years into the future, and try as I might to dip into the reality represented by memories, those worlds are now gone. They cannot be touched. Nothing makes this more clearly evident than when a loved one dies.
    It has often been said that it is desire that is the requisite component of pain and loss. But the rigid nature of time, as it applies to us, is perhaps equally so.

    And so it might be interesting to think about time conceptually as a fractal, as cyclical, etc. from this one particular angle all of that conjecture seems rather specious- when someone is lost to us and all we can touch are the now finite and fixed memories that remain.

    This isn't to say that our language and culture don't play a large role in how we perceive time, or that there's no sense in thinking of time in non-linear ways-- certainly time can have a progression without necessarily being conceived of as linear. But it's hard balancing ideas with harsh reality.

  5. For something to make sense (or to be meaningful) is has to be right in that sweet spot between unfamiliar and jamais-vu-inducing-repetition. This leaves a lot of room for things (including personalities and behaviors) that are terribly familiar in ways that are difficult to describe. Something that is too unusual is likely to be forgotten (white noise all sounds the same). This may correspond to some instances of deja vu.

    Then again, from what I understood from an article I skimmed years ago, it's possible for deja vu to occur as a neurological glitch (the example given was a patient with bizarre non-repeating hallucinations, all of which seemed very familiar).

  6. I think I read an article about this somewhere that explained and described the phenomene in simple and accurate terms.

    I think I won't go too far by saying that memory is an extremely important survival tool. Dreams have something to do with sorting out memories.

    Déjà-vu, perhaps, is no different.

    The mind can't really function if it is constantly overriden with all kinds of perception, so it sorts things out and actively integrates lots of perceptions as "irrelevant" to help you build a consistant mental framework.

    So whenever something happens to you, there is an active process to turn it into a physical memory. The mind does this to help itself with sorting through perceptions to help YOU prioritize through your decisions, if there are any to be made. "This, I know, it is club sandwich." "This, I know, it is the face of my friend Clarisse." "This face next to Clarisse's, I don't know, who is this? Perhaps I should ask. How should I ask" and so on.

    To make itself at ease with new elements, the mind works by "tagging" new events as, we might say, "old news".

    So what does déjà-vu means in this context ? What does it mean, for instance, to meet someone for the first time and yet feel like you've done this before ?

    Well it seems to be some sort of memory bug telling you that there is really nothing out of the ordinary with what you're experiencing : it is, indeed, a "new event" comprised of "new perceptions", but underneath it all, the info you're gathering and "live-tagging" is... nothing you haven't seen before.

    So maybe it's our own brain's way to tell us that it is tired to see similar things everyday, and that we should look for novelty to keep it fit and entertained XD



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