Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Doctor Who and Philosophy

This Christmas I got two excellent presents: a brand-new Kindle and a copy of Doctor Who and Philosophy. But halfway through reading the hard copy of Doctor Who and Philosophy, there were just so many passages I wanted to save for later that I took the rare step of buying the Kindle edition and finishing up the book there. It’s a great read, and we’re in for a long discussion. If you’re already into Doctor Who, stick around for the full discussion, if not, feel free to hop to the real bottom for the short version.

The first part of the book focuses on the topic of identity. With respect to the Doctor Who universe, the big questions revolve around how the various reincarnations of the Doctor can be the same person. Most of the material assumes the answer is ‘yes, they are all the same person’, while the parts that take the opposite approach end up being a bit more interesting largely because they are a bit more creative. You’ll see the same theories show up in pretty much all the chapters: the main two seem to be Locke’s theory (persons A and B are the same person if the later person B remembers being person A) and the four dimensionalist theory (persons A and B are the same person if the later person B is connected spatiotemporally (via space and time) to person A). Much of the discussion focuses around the problems with the various theories, which often boil down to:

  1. Amnesia – are person A and B the same if person B has no memories of being person A?
  2. Teleportation – are person A and B the same if person B shares no physical cells with person A?
  3. Cloning – are person A and their clone person B the same people?
  4. Regeneration – similar to (2) but instead of sharing no physical cells, shares some arbitrary percentage of cells with person A

I personally lean towards the four dimensionalist theory as having the least number of contradictions. Also, it curiously isn’t brought up at all, but Douglas Hofstadter’s theories on mind and consciousness are specifically targeted at answering these questions and the interested reader is referred to I am a Strange Loop. Going the four dimensionalist route, the way to resolve the contradictions seems to be:

  1. Amnesia – Memories don’t matter: As long as person A can be connected through time and space to person B, they are the same people.
  2. Teleportation – Physical state doesn’t matter as long as it’s the same between person A and B. Specifically, this would be the same as saying that teleportation reduces to wormhole travel, where there is a clear spatiotemporal connection.
  3. Cloning – This seems to be the problematic scenario: here, persons A and B are always spatiotemporally related, so we have a problem. The only resolution would be to lean towards the No-cloning Theorem, which states that arbitrary quantum states cannot be perfectly copied. This of course still has two problems: (1) it may be the case that cloning people doesn’t require cloning down to the quantum level, or that (2) imperfect copies are still viable, so that a copy with 99.9999% (pick an arbitrary number less than 100%) of the original could still be created, which if given a sufficiently high number, could pass for the original. Thus, we don’t appear to have enough information yet as to determine if this is a legitimate concern or not.
  4. Regeneration – A simple case: there’s always a spatiotemporal connection between the pre-regenerated person A and the regenerated person B, so no problems here.

The meta parts of this section are pretty interesting too, and dive into what it means for episodes to be “in canon” and for even entire seasons of Doctor Who to be canonical or not. I’ll leave the great gems in there to the interested reader.

Part two of the book is a bit of miscellany, focusing on the science and logic of the Doctor Who series. The topics are fairly disjoint here, and discuss theories about time travel as well as biology and the philosophy of mathematics. My personal favorite here was Chapter 8′s discussion of how famous philosophers would judge the Cybermen’s take on being logical, as it’s the case of having the expertise in philosophy and using it to attack an interesting Doctor Who problem. The author picks out Hobbes, Mills, and Hume, and uses them to judge how logical the Cybermen really are. This is a bit of a contrast with the other chapters in this section, where the authors don’t appear to have enough expertise in the (admittedly tough) subjects they’re discussing to really give their topics the full discussion that Logically, What Would a Cyberman Do? gets. What do I mean by this? Let’s take an example. In Chapter 11, Could There Be Carrionites?, the main question is, “Can physics be done without mathematics?”. The question is very interesting, and one point that several pages rely on is Balaguer’s work that apparently does this for some small set of quantum mechanics. According to the chapter in question, this all relies on Hilbert space, which any discussion about is omitted. However, if you clicked on that Wikipedia link to “Hilbert spaces” you’ll see that it doesn’t appear to be a replacement for mathematics at all – it still reduces down to math at the end of the day and math is still required to do physics even if it all uses Hilbert spaces. The author admits that the work is pretty complex – I would definitely agree – but at the same time since it appears to be outside of the author’s domain we really don’t get any substantial discussion of the problem.

I would equate this to being similar to asking me to write a chapter on philosophy for a book – I could come up with an interesting idea and follow it through, but I completely lack any sound education in philosophy, so you (the reader) would be likely to be not really sold on what I’m trying to sell you. This is the difference between a chapter that I couldn’t put the book down for because it was so engaging (Logically, What Would a Cyberman Do?) and a chapter that I struggled through because it didn’t seem to have the necessary level of expertise in the material or just didn’t sell it to me in a convincing manner (To Be is Not To Be Perceived_and Could There Be Carrionites?). The good news is that all the chapters have an interesting premise, both philosophically and with respect to the Doctor Who_ series, so you will at least get something from each chapter.

The third part of the book returns to a more focused topic, namely the issue of ethics in the Doctor Who universe. Each of the main races in the Doctor Who universe are examined: the Time Lords, the Daleks, humans, and the Cybermen, and a number of philosophical theories are used to do so. Ones that I was familiar with show up (specifically existentialism) while one that I had never heard of (the ethics of caring) gets its own chapter as well as some other mentions in other chapters. Most of the chapters review classic questions or issues you’ve seen before, including the Minority Report question (is it ok to kill someone you know will become a killer before they’ve done anything wrong?) and an issue I see on the West Coast quite a bit, the animal rights issue. One chapter focuses on Kant’s categorical imperative, and tells us how the Doctor and Rose Tyler share such a strong love for saving the universe and doing their duty that it prevents them from living a safe life together in love, which turns out to be pretty interesting as well.

The show stealer for me is Chapter 18: Cybermen Evil? I Don’t Think So!. This chapter puts forth the claim that the Cybermen really aren’t evil like the Daleks since they really are trying to minimize pain (despite the downside of minimizing pleasure) and really are altrustic as a result. It’s an engaging read that kept me glued to my brand-new Kindle from start to finish and there are three main reasons why this chapter really stands out:

  1. The author believes their idea is controversial – I personally don’t think it is but I can see why others would think so, when a traditional Doctor Who enemy is being reinvented as misunderstood instead of evil it’s easy to see where the controversy lies
  2. The author is willing to go against what the Doctor says – most of the book accepts everything the Doctor says or tries to prove things along his point of view, but here, the author is willing to say “this thing the Doctor said just doesn’t make sense!” And that’s a refreshing point of view to take, since clearly the Doctor isn’t perfect and does make mistakes, it is reasonable to assume that not everything he says must be correct.
  3. The author knows the Cybermen are villains in the Doctor Who universe, and thus offers ways for the Cybermen to improve their villanous image that are actually practical and make sense.

This chapter sets the bar pretty high, but let’s trek on!

Part four keeps up the focus with a discussion of the nature of existence itself. It’s a bit of a miscellany section again, beginning with a discussion of a topic we saw earlier: the question of identity in the Doctor Who universe. More or less the same theories show up again – Locke’s theory in particular seems to show up in every one of these chapters, and by this point in the book you’ll recognize it coming a mile away as well as the problems with it. These sections dodge the problems we discussed earlier: here it is stated that the Doctor has bodily continuity, while previous chapters say that his regeneration replaces every atom in his body, so he really doesn’t. Regardless, you’ll read through these chapters pretty quickly.

Two chapters mix it up a bit with a discussion of the Doctor’s ethics: one focusing on comparisons between the Doctor and Jesus, and another that focuses on Davros’ dialogue at the end of Series Four that the Doctor has turned his companions into killers and has thus earned the moniker “Destroyer of Worlds.” The discussions here are excellent – the former chapter pulls in Feuerbach’s theory that we essentially place what we consider to be the best of human qualities into our version of Jesus Christ and that the main force behind the revived Doctor Who series has essentially done the same from his point-of-view for the Doctor. The latter chapter is mainly focused on the question of “is the Doctor responsible for the actions of his companions?”, to which a very strong answer of “maybe” is reached. He is responsible in that he has injected his worldview into his companions but not in that they aren’t equal partners: the Doctor has a wide variety of knowledge and experiences that his companions simply don’t have, and his companions are oftentimes consumed by emotion – whereas the Doctor is at least willing to give the aggressor a chance at peace, whether they be even Dalek or Cyberman.

Speaking of equal partners, the other chapters in this section focus on the Doctor’s main foil): the Master. I may be biased since I like the Master, but these chapters come off great as well – Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Hegel are all pulled in to attempt to rationalize the Master’s behavior over the years. My favorite ends up being Nietzsche, but that’s largely due to my already being familiar with his work. Still, all three sections focus on a single philosopher and sell their cases well: the first explains the Master as evil due to his nihilist outlook, the second explains the Master as simply chaotic (pulling in many older stories with the Master), and the third explaining the Master via what I would consider to be an earlier version of the Great Man Theory (that great figures, good and evil, are largely responsible for changes in history). That description isn’t entirely accurate, but it’s close enough – of course, read the actual text if any of that piqued your interest!

The fifth part of the book takes a bit of a turn into the world of aesthetics and how it’s portrayed in_Doctor Who_. It starts off with a discussion on the Weeping Angels, who provide for an amazing episode with the Doctor in Blink. The discussion is focused around what it means to be scary or horrific, and why many existing theories don’t really fit when we consider the Weeping Angels, who are in fact pretty scary. It’s a bit of a shame that it only focuses on Blink, since there are two episodes from Series 5 that feature the Angels that would really add a lot to this discussion.

The section continues with a chapter focusing on a different Doctor Who foe, the Daleks. Here, the discussion focuses on the author’s statement that “the Daleks are beautiful” and what beauty really means. In contrast to the Angels, there’s more than enough material here about the Daleks (them being pretty frequent foes of the Doctor) and more than enough theories from philosophers to show just how complex a seemingly simple concept like beauty really is to pin down.

The section concludes with a discussion of Leibniz’s worldview and how it meshes up with the Doctor Who universe. It starts off a bit rocky for me – Leibniz’s monads seem just a bit too dense for me to really get a good handle on it – but the last half picks up with an in-depth discussion on some older Doctor Who material, specifically centered around the Matrix), the Time Lords, and paradoxes that can arise around them.

Finally, part six of the book takes on what culture itself means in alien worlds as well as our more familiar human world. It starts off with great with an in-depth look at why the Daleks really work as villains in the Whoniverse, and why pure rationality may not be the best way to go. Another chapter picks up a similar theme from a different direction, taking on the question of myth versus science, and ending up taking more of a balanced approach in the end. We also get a good look at exactly why Doctor Who is a reflection of British culture (and vice-versa), while the last chapter of the book goes a bit on the meta side, delving into why philosophy and Doctor Who are such an appropriate match, and how the Doctor is really a philosopher at heart.

Whew! We’ve covered quite a bit here, and it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees! Let’s do a quick summary of what we’ve seen here:

The Short Version (aka tl;dr)

Let’s start off by saying that I’m a relatively new Doctor Who fan – I’ve only seen the Ninth Doctors onwards. That being said, I’m in love with the show and when I saw this book, immediately wanted it for Christmas. It’s a great book and definitely the best of the X and Philosophy series, and would definitely recommend it to Doctor Who fans. Here’s a short list of the pros and cons that I jotted down while reading this book:

Pros:

  • Almost all the chapters put forward an interesting premise and follow it through to satisfaction.
  • Older Doctor Who material is pulled in and explained well to newcomers: there’s definitely a lot of catching up that I have to do now thanks to this book, and now I know exactly what I want to check out.
  • A few chapters really stand out as being great – the authors’ chapters in particular are extremely well written, as well as Chapter 22: Overcoming Evil, and Spite, and Resentment, and Revenge and Chapter 29: The Evil of the Daleks.

Cons:

  • The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is on the cover of the book, but there’s only one or two really short references to him throughout the entire book. As the book is published in December 2010 and the Fifth Series ends in June 2010, it seems like just long enough to either include him in or cut him from the cover. It’s especially odd to leave him on the cover since the Fifth Series has a number of interesting time-travel-related questions in it that I was really looking forward to seeing here.
  • While it may be forgivable that the Eleventh Doctor is missing in action here, it’s strange that 99% of the discussion stops at the end of Series Four, at “Journey’s End.” This means we don’t get to even see the end of the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) at The End of Time (with two minor exceptions) and once again, we’re missing out on a ton of great material by not getting really any coverage of it or The Waters of Mars.
  • Although many of the chapters are distinct from each other, the most prevalent question by far is “is the Doctor still the same person before and after regenerations?” This would be fine, but since this shows up for at least six chapters of the book (four of which are in a row), this means you’ll become very familiar with Locke’s theory of memory continuity very quickly, and unfortunately, you’ll become bored of it very quickly.

The pros really add up and make it worth the inexpensive selling price, but the cons stop it from being what I would call perfection. So now that you know what you’re getting into, Doctor Who fans, pick up this book and get reading!