In one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Geenration, the android Data is visited by a Starfleet “android” specialist, who proposes that Data be shut down (through a simple on/off switch located near the back of his neck), so that Data can be studied and future copies of him made. Data is sui generis; he (and his twin, Lore) are the only androids known to exist. Their creator even programmed them with routines sub-rotines, and an emotion chip, no less, so that the androids could study, experience, mimic, and one day, maybe, FEEL human emotions.
A trial is held in this episode, “The Measure of a Man,” to determine whether Data is a machine (and thus mere property subject to being shut down and copied), or whether he meets – in even the sligtest degree – the definition of life,” such that he can properly object to the specialist’s procedure.
The trial climaxes with a discourse on the very nature of life itself. What, Picard, in Data’s defense does it mean to be alive? He and the specialist, Cmdr. Maddox, find common ground, seizing upon the word “sentience.” To be alive is to be sentient. Maddox, in turn, states that sentience involves three components: Intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness.
Someoe who is “self-aware,” according to Maddox, is “conscious of his existence and actions… aware of himself and his own ego” Picard then asks Data why he is in the courtroom proceeding at which these pints are argued. Data: “To determine my status: an I a person or property.” “And if you are adjudged to be property?” Picard asks. “I will be shut down and will have no rights at all.” Picard then looks at Maddox. “Well, seems reasonably self-aware to me.”
Intelligence, Maddox says, is”the ability to learn and understand and to cope with new situations.” “Like this hearing [to determine whether Data is a person or property]?” asks Picard, thereby answering in the affirmative the question of whether Data is intelligent.
Picard then slams Maddox: “I see he’s met two of your criteria for sentience. What if he meets the third? What if he has a conscience, to even the slightest degree?”
Picard the turns to the judge: “If he meets this third criterion, what is he then? I don’t know, do you? (to Riker) Do you? (to judge) Do you? (to Maddox) Well that’s the question you have to answer. Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible. In it we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product, the truth. For all time. Now sooner or later, this man, or others like him will succeed in replicating Commander Data. And the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery? Your honor, Star fleet was founded to seek out new life. Well THERE IT SITS! Waiting.”
The judge then takes a recess. She notes that the question of whether Data is man or machine, and of whether he has a conscience, simply is not, on some fundamental level, suspectible of a legal determination. “This question is beter left to the domain of saints and philosophers,” she says. “But, I have to nonetheless make a ruling, to speak to the future. And it occurs to me that we’ve all been dancing around the real question here. Does Data have a soul? I don’t know. I don’t know that I have one. But it the ruling of this court that Data should have the opportunity to explire the answer to this question for himself. I therefore rule that Data is not the property of Starfleet and that he has the right to chose whether to be disassembled.” Data then promptly informs Maddox of his refusal to submit to the procedure.
Strange, how in one, 45-minute television episode, the debate over “What is life” had more substance, passion, give-and take, and yes, life, then the entire debate in the U.S. Congress about the stem-cell research bill that President Bush shamefully vetoed. Andrew Sullivan describes the veto as political courage (how does he know that the veto signifies that, as opposed to say, pandering? This President has never cared about popular opinion, regardless of whether he should have). I think the veto signifies a complete failure on Bush’s part to immerse himself in the crucible. A more thoughtful President would have asked himself questions such as “Is a blastocyte conscious? Intelligent? Self-aware?” Had that President forced himself to ask those questions, he might have been forced to face some difficult truths – truths that may not – probably are not – truths when a fetus of a certain age is concerned. Instead, Bush took the easy way out, using the battery of false logic. “We were all embryos once.” (Yes, non-discarded ones that were not designated for no other purpose than destruction that conseratives couldn’t care less about saving.” “The children standing before me today as I sign this bill are not spare parts.” (No, they’re props). Was anyone proposing to kill a spare part, or something from which a spare part actually was to be harvested? Are scientists really creating embryos solely for the purpose of stem-cell harvesting? No, and no. Even if one agrees with an ultimate decision that Bush reaches, the rationale he employs to reah it is so disingenuous, so shoddy, and so untethered to reality that he all but defies you to take a stance opposite to his. If he truly believes a blastocyte is human life, let’s hear why – without the ad hominem attacks the false choice logic, the misstatements of fact, the facts that are relevant but not necessarily true, and the facts that are true but not necessarily relevant. That Bush can only defend his decisions by putting on a sideshow naturally leads one to believe that he treats the decision-making process not as a crucible in which impuruties are burned until the truth as reached – but to believe that he treats it as the grand finale of a circus act.
All of us – unborn and born – deserve better.