Sunday, April 29, 2012

Phineas Gage, the Borg Queen, and Rational Choice

The story of Phineas Gage is a fairly well known one: a railroad construction worker in the mid-19th century, Gage took a spike through the brain. He, surprisingly, lived, but his behavior was forever altered. In particular, his emotional state changed considerably, and he lost the will to make decisions. Psychologists and Neurologists have since hypothesized that the two are linked: without emotional capacity, people are unable to make decisions. Wikipedia tells me that Antonio Damasio is one of the first of these people. Obviously the link between emotions and the ability to choose rationally is supported with more than Gage, but I don't know how well established the fact is.

But, given my post yesterday, it seems to make sense. At both a personal level and a social level, our ability to choose from any number of available states of the world is driven, in some measure, by our aesthetic sensibility. With no sensibility - the metal rod through that part of the brain - we have no way to choose; we're perpetually Buridan's ass, indifferent between every possible outcome and thus paralyzed, without a utility function. Now, some people have taken this to then condemn rational choice (choice isn't rational! It's emotional!) but that, of course, misunderstands the point of rational choice.

For some reason in my half-asleep dream state, these thoughts combined with a movie Anna and I watched yesterday - Star Trek: First Contact. The Borg, a collective entity bent on assimilating the universe, had hitherto been presented to us as a collective: every individual Borg was pursuing the same plan, had the same thoughts. First Contact changes this vision and introduces the Borg Queen. Instead of speaking with the voice of the collective, she speaks in first person. She is supposedly a manifestation of the collective, but she is presented as a leader with the drones acting as her agents. Instead of a well operating machine, the Borg become like an ant colony.

I was always somewhat unhappy with the turn they took with the Borg, though for that particular story it worked out perfectly. But what had made the Borg distinct was their lack of hierarchy and individuality. With a queen, the Borg were hard to distinguish from any other enemy - for all we could tell of the Romulans, all but a very few might well be drones for the purposes of the show. After my half dream last night, though, I think I have changed my mind: if the Borg really are a passionless race, how could they possibly be driven to expand? At least with Data there's the plot device that he's 'programmed' to evolve, which keeps him from being a mere tool. The self-motivation of the Borg makes no sense - but with a Queen, even if she is just a manifestation of certain aspects of the collective, the Borg become possible to understand. Without some sort of passion, how can the Borg choose between conquering the galaxy and mastering the square dance, stuck as the Phineas Gage of the galaxy?

None of this excuses what Star Trek: Voyager did with the Borg, though. That's a different story...

1 comment:

  1. The Borg in Voyager seek perfection, I thought it was a superior rendition to that of TNG's "blank ambiguity" with regard to the collective consciousness.