An OSU Professor on What Star Trek Can Teach Us About the Pandemic and Philosophy
Oasis says not to look back in anger, but this year—2020—a year unlike any other, it’s been a bit hard to look back with anything but: a global pandemic, racial violence and protests, Rudy Giuliani. It’s all been senseless and necessary, funny and frightening. For those of us privileged enough to find shelter from the mortars of 2020, art has been our one true escape. Books, TV, movies, virtual shows and performances—what has 2020 been without all its art to save and distract us?
But art, of course, doesn’t just distract. It also invites us into worlds that mirror our own, to play around in this philosophical safe space and explore ideas that have the potential to shape us.
Joseph Orosco is a professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, and he teaches a class in the College of Liberal Arts called “Star Trek and Philosophy.” We spoke with Orosco about about Star Trek’s treatment of a virus outbreak in an episode called “Miri” and what it can teach us about humanity during a pandemic.
When we just signed on to Zoom I saw the photo of you in the Star Fleet uniform. So I was just curious a little bit about your personal history with Star Trek. How did it come into your life?
What's funny is always when you talk to Trekkies they always have some sort of personal story that usually involves something with one of their parents, and so that's true with me. Star Trek was this show that I grew up watching as a little kid with my mother…. Growing up I always liked the stories, but it was only about maybe five years ago or so that I started thinking [that] I wanted to make some money off of my hobbies [and] I started thinking, you know, actually Star Trek has a lot of really rich narratives and stories, and [it] explores all these aspects of the human condition.
In “Miri,” the crew of the Enterprise stumbles upon a planet that is an exact duplicate of Earth called Earth II. When they beam down to the planet, the crew discovers a plague has killed everyone except for children. Tell us about why you show this in your class.
The reason that I show this episode is because I think that it raises some interesting questions about how we react to extreme stress, in the case of something like a pandemic particularly.... What I like about a lot of science fiction and dystopian kind of stuff is the apocalyptic nature of a lot of things, and I take the meaning of that word to be important. Apocalypse is not the end times or end of the world, but actually means “revealing,” a great revealing. Apocalypse is that time in which the truth is shown and revealed. And so I think that a lot of dystopian work is interesting because it says if there's some kind of crisis or disaster, that something true about the world or ourselves comes out in a way that is normally covered over.
So I think that this episode shows a kind of interesting way in which human nature is revealed in the stress of dealing with something like a global pandemic.”
You’ve talked about science fiction, in this case a TV show like Star Trek, and its ability to present us with these imagined worlds so that we can discover a real future, and I think that’s true with literature as well.
You know, if you look at literature, you start to realize that dealing with epidemics, pandemics, and disease in this kind of way, this really is a component of the human experience at least since we've been “civilized.”
I was thinking about some of our earliest stories in civilized society going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh. There are the scenes in that story that describe the rivers in the Tigris and Euphrates just littered with bodies, and they're not bodies from warfare but bodies from disease. This experience of collectively dealing with disease really is a feature of civilized humanity, and what it means to be humans living together in this “civilized” kind of way, we can tie this to the experience of ancestors going back at least to that period of about 4,000 BCE.
So the consolation to me in thinking about all of this is that it really is giving us an opportunity to think deeply about what it means to be human, what it means to be living with one another, if we can take the time to think about that, because we look at the way in which authors like [Albert] Camus or [Giovanni] Boccaccio or The Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that this is something that we have had to face. And there have been times in which this has really seemed devastating to us, but we have overcome them.
It's kind of a catchphrase these days but, truly, “we're all in this together.” It's all of us battling against this pandemic. But, as you mentioned, it also connects us to past pandemics and to past societies that have dealt with pandemics, that have gone through pandemics, and that have changed as a result of pandemics.
I wonder if you can think of any ways in which, at least from your perspective, that that we are changing right now as a result of this pandemic.
In my Star Trek classes, when we're thinking about what goes on with the children on Earth II, the way that they're presented in that episode, it's kind of similar to something like William Golding's Lord of the Flies. If there's a crisis then everyone is just going to go feral and they're all going to just take it out on each other.
And in “Miri” it seems at first that that's what's going on with the children, that they devolve into these really violent, brutal, scary kinds of creatures … and that's what happens when there's a pandemic that wipes out the bonds of government and authority.
In my class we explore the kinds of philosophers that explain why that would happen and why that's true, folks like Thomas Hobbes, who says that, “Look, you know, human beings are ultimately very sort of selfish creatures. And if that's your basic motivation in life, ultimately, people are going to come into conflict with each other because ‘I want this, you have that. If there's no overarching government or authority to tell me not to take it from you, I'm going to take it from you.’” And I think that things like the [toilet paper] hoarding and the protests [against lockdowns] that were going on in so many states were reflections of people who believed in that kind of narrative about what we are ultimately as human beings, that we got to watch out for ourselves because everyone else is a jerk.
Another sort of set of behaviors that started to occur during the early weeks of the pandemic was just the sort of blossoming of all these networks of mutual aid that were taking place, particularly in places like Portland …. I tie this to the Russian philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin. His views were that it may be the case that human beings are competitive. He looked at the data that Darwin was providing and is like, “It does seem that there's a sort of notion of competitiveness amongst beings to survive, but,” Kropotkin says, “that couldn't have been the whole story of human evolution. If it was the case that we were always self-interested, always competing, then we would never have gotten to where we are.”
So in my class we look at these kinds of competing stories about who are we fundamentally. And I think that a lot of my students get when they're in despair. They like to sort of focus on the Hobbes story, they think that that really explains things, but when you start to look at other examples like mutual aid networks where people are going out of their way to take care of one another, when that's revealed, [the students] start to think more carefully about their own life. They realize, “I don't always act selfishly, right, I don't always look out for myself. I recognize that people in my life sometimes are jerks, but not all the time.”
And just that one little moment, that one moment of recognition that some of us are jerks but not jerks all the time is enough to sort of really change our moods in terms of what might be possible because, yeah—we may be jerks, but maybe we won't be jerks today. And that can be a hopeful moment because maybe today can turn into tomorrow, and then into the next day. And in those moments of not being a jerk, lots of things can grow lots of different kinds of possibilities for maintaining hope.
Listen: Joseph Orosco talks understanding the pandemic through science fiction and literature, and about Star Trek’s treatment of a virus outbreak in an episode called “Miri.”