The Nature of Reality in Star Trek
The question of reality is one of the most difficult issues in the Star Trek’s universe, since it also represents such philosophical themes as the interaction with other creatures, the nature of God, the boundaries of time and space, and the conflict between real and virtual. The show proposed a set of answers to these questions in different stages of its evolution, and, therefore, the problem of reality reflected the socio-cultural circumstances in which Star Trek has been shown. Moreover, it also questions what it means to feel and understand reality, but there is no single answer as there are million of the worlds that interact with each other overcoming time and space. The creators argue that people, on the one hand, surround themselves with illusions in order to understand the world better, converting it to their needs. On the other hand, different versions of reality are the result of a higher intelligence that constantly produces new options for life. This essay argues that due to the alternative reality, Star Trek explores the human limits in both time and space, increasing physical and intellectual horizons for finding the most optimal conditions for life.
The main cause for the alternative reality is that someone starts to doubt the objectivity of his/her world, prompting to search a consistent criterion for phenomena and things. In fact, such question stimulates to find other civilizations in Star Trek. However, it is also a philosophical question that turns the mass product into a serious study of reality. The episode 12 “Ship in a Bottle” (Season 6) deconstructs obvious stereotypes of reality, proposing to consider it from another perspective, namely through the reflections of Professor Moriarty. He explicitly cites Descartes when tries to understand what is happening with the people on the ship. The professor continues to regard the whole world as a product of one’s consciousness, and, more importantly, the latter is also the product of another reality. This logic leads to the conclusion that every type of reality connects with the previous version, continuing indefinitely. Moriarty’s reflection are similar to the idea of the library of Babel, which was designed by Borges: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries”. Moriarty takes control of the Enterprise through the computer, trying to experience the life outside. Finally, he proves that it is easy to show that reality is no more than a product of one’s mind, and thus, simulation and reality do not differ from each other.
In addition, the episode proves that reality can be a virtual software, the source of which is not always found. The Borges’ characters cannot understand the Library of Babel as well as Captain Pickard and Regina cannot recognize that they are only “beamed” in the holodeck’s simulation: “That truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, no rational mind can doubt”. Although Captain Pickard’s program finds a way to reprogram the holodeck, Data resolves that he and others never actually left the holodeck. Moreover, Bostrom assumes that a supercomputer can generate reality in such way when human conciseness is a part of this project (p. 243). However, it is impossible at the modern stage of life: “At our current stage of technological development, we have neither sufficiently powerful hardware nor the requisite software to create conscious minds in computers”.
The show developed the idea that people cannot believe in the reality of their world, trying to find a way for escapism. They even start to believe in the violation of physical laws, but their mind is equally limited by the parameters of this reality. In the end, people have to stay in a particular version of reality in order not to lose their mind. In this case, Star Trek reflects the actual social processes at the end of the twentieth century, namely the possibility of virtual worlds. The first computer games especially have affected the idea of multiple worlds, stimulating people to think about the alternative simulations/realities of human life. The current episode is a reaction to the philosophical and social-scientific questions about the probability of the material/virtual world. The emergence of the Internet has proved that the idea of multiple worlds is not an illusion but a real fact. Due to this, the nature of reality also requires time and space.
Time affects the perception of reality too, because the same events are frequently perceived differently by various people. The idea that time can have a different meaning is the basis of the theory of relativity which influenced the creators of the series. Additionally, the perspective of traveling to other worlds was also significant in the twentieth century, since the global transformations in ecology, economy, and military forced the humanity to find some alternative ways of existence. The episode 25 “Inner Light” (Season 5) shows how Captain Pickard lives forty years as a humanoid scientist whose planet is destroyed by the nova of its sun. However, the members on the ship experience it only for a few minutes at this point. This episode proves that time is what distinguishes one reality from another, changing its nature and perception. Furthermore, it questions the existence of a single reality again, because it is unknown what is the main and the secondary reality in this situation. Therefore, a parallel universe exists as a combination of the various historical or narrative layers, eliminating the logical border between the past and the future as well as the local and the global. This idea proves that there is no clear boundary between different time periods that can be ignored by a high-tech machine.
The problem of the nature of reality does not only imply the existence of different times simultaneously. The issue of time travel is one of the most popular in mass culture, so does not come as a surprise that Star Trek also tried to reflect this theme. For instance, the episode 15 “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (Season 3) replicates this idea in two stories: the space journey ship of Enterprise-C and return of Denise Crosby, who was killed in the first season. In this episode, Captain takes key decisions, as for example, when he decides to travel through the universe. It also shows that one can do the same things with the matter as well as time, and, consequently, these things are not explosive. However, in this reality, the United Federation of Planets was on the verge of defeat in the war with the Klingons. Thus, Jean-Luc Picard convinces Garrett that she should sacrifice herself in order to improve relations with the Klingons and prevent the war. In other words, owing to the idea of alternative reality, the authors try to understand the human capacities and purposes, and the victim keeps this reality from a collapse. Moreover, the episode has another implication, since the authors believe that reality cannot exist without a man. It depends entirely on human consciousness and mind, although without them the world will not disappear. Another crucial thing is that people should develop human qualities when traveling and discovering alternative realities.
The show also exposes the idea of space as an integrated part of reality. Basically, space embodies the idea of the border in the world that can be overcome through technological discoveries. The main issue in this case is that the nature of reality consists of material and physical objects that are not eternal. For example, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) shows the appearance of unknown space probe near the Earth that can deactivate all devices and objects, broadcasting the negative signals. Consequently, it can change the Earth’s weather and destroy the planet. The idea indicates that people can search for different realities, but finally they return to the only one. Moreover, they should take care of it and do not seek alternative methods that can ruin it. It is not surprising that Captain Kirk sent a team in the past, seeking whales in order to prevent the death of the mother planet. According to Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, “the imprint on the global environment of the industrial era was, in retrospect, clearly evident by the early to mid 20th century”. Following this idea, the captain tried to return to the beginning of the century, when mankind has not yet committed so many disasters.
In conclusion, Star Trek explores the nature of reality in different ways, proving its existence and denying it at the same time. The show suggests that the reality is not only the product of human consciousness, and, perhaps, some super program or intelligence has created it. However, a person cannot perceive it since his/her abilities are limited. This fact arises the problems and bounds of human knowledge in the twentieth century. Hence, the experiments with genetic code, time, space, and weapons of mass destruction have been done by different nations at this time. In addition, the characters are trying not only to find an alternative reality with answers to the basic philosophical and social questions but also to understand the nature of their reality. Travel in time and space is a method of overcoming their physical and mental limits for the final goal – exploring the human nature. The authors argue that people often discover the other worlds simply because they have already infected their reality, namely the Earth, endangering its life.