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Star Trek’s Prime Directive – A lofty idea with a few wrinkles

Image FET-OPEN call deadline via Twitter

In the fictional world of Star Trek, the Prime Directive is a core regulation of Starfleet. To understand what the Prime Directive means, we have to know how Star Trek depicts its moral universe.

Star Fleet officers usually see themselves as an alliance of “good guys” belonging to the United Federation of Planets, as opposed to the “bad guys” made of up species like the Cardassians and the Borg.

Starfleet is concerned about right ethics, so the Prime Directive stipulates noninterference with other species’ planetary development.

This applies to space exploration through normal time¹ and to time travel. Violating the prime directive results in court-martial, except in extenuating circumstances.

The Prime Directive sounds like a great idea but, we could ask, what exactly does “non-interference” mean?

Extreme causal loop time travel paradox animation

Extreme causal loop time travel paradox animation – Wikipedia

Religious and New Age people, for instance, tend to say that humanity is invisibly guided by advanced beings residing in the universe, astral realms, heavens and throughout time.² If so, a Federation starship crew might have a moral responsibility to help primitive but eligible species develop better ways of living.

Despite its lofty ideal of non-interference, the Prime Directive is often breached. Moral dilemmas are key to dramatic storytelling and, it goes without saying, TV ratings. In real life, St. Paul says that moral dilemmas are best solved by following the spirit instead of the letter of the law.³ So it’s not surprising that the Prime Directive is often messed with.

As any good popcorn popping cultural studies or phony entertainment critic will say, art follows life and life follows art.

A relatively novel mystery arises with The Prime Directive’s treatment of temporal paradoxes. For obvious reasons, Star Trek’s writers never fully answer the tricky question: Could a time traveler going back in time be certain what choice out of many possible choices would be best? Or, for that matter, is there a single, best choice?

English: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as Borg Locutus...

Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as Borg Locutus – Wikipedia

Possible answers to these conundrums lead to notions of a plethora of potential outcomes and universes (to include parallel universes) and a multiverse (which differs from parallel universes).

Tantalizing cosmological questions have been posed by both mystics and subatomic physicists, but no universally agreed upon answers have been found due to their speculative nature.4

But one thing is certain. The Star Trek mythos is no silly fantasy but, rather, provides us with some of the best imaginative thinking in 20th and 21st century science fiction.

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¹ Technically, Star Trek might be at odds with reality because warp speeds are faster than the speed of light but travelers experience no time dilation. But being good sci-fi, fans are obviously willing to give the benefit of the doubt.  They weren’t as forgiving with Space 1999, which was visually interesting but a bit of a bomb.

² For some, demons try to get us off track.

³ Usually associated with St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:6, the idea has other applications. See

4 Sometimes the speculation is forwarded as a hypothesis, which is good, healthy science or mysticism. But other times it is not, as with those claiming to have advanced knowledge that others lack. In religion and the New Age, these mentally unwell characters may be ego-inflated holy men and women or, from my experience, some religious studies professors who do their esoteric “thing” under the cover of academia. In both cases, these half-baked manipulators are blind to their own prejudices and do everything possible to convince you that they know better. Watch out!

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Temporal Paradoxes, Retro-Causality, Time…

Wonder Woman #37 (1949) script by Robert Kanigher, art by H.G. Peter – via Tumblr

Most theories about temporal paradoxes, retro-causality and time can get pretty complicated.

Wikipedia outlines many current philosophical positions on temporal paradoxes, so rather than go nuts by trying to rewrite what’s been said there, I’ll just link to it:

If you’ve at least scanned over what Wikipedia says, read on…

I think a lot of the current thinking about temporal paradoxes, retro-causality and time is flawed because, on the one hand, thinkers talk about going back in time, but on the other hand, they continue to philosophize as if time suddenly becomes linear again, once you’ve gone back in time.

From what we see in the latest new physics experiments, time is more like a multidimensional patchwork quilt. This means, if I can put it simply, that all of time is always interactive.

One of the analogies I sometimes use when trying to explain my view of time is to say that it’s like a ball of spaghetti, with each strand of spaghetti being a kind of wormhole cutting through and connecting different moments and places in time.

We cannot time travel on the macro level. We have no time machines. As much as I’d love to, I can’t go back to, say, New York City in the 1930s or to ancient Rome at the time of Caesar. But some subatomic particles do appear to time travel. And we have repeatable scientific experiments to support this.¹

Also, some report experiencing a kind of psychological – if not large-scale physical – time travel, especially when entering into deeper, meditative states of awareness.²

Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts – A trance medium who talked about multiple universes way before the idea became popular (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for ethics and time travel, in the TV show Star Trek, which often involves the idea of time travel, the following hypothetical problem arises:

If a person had to choose between influencing two or, perhaps, more possible historical outcomes while traveling back in time, how would she or he know which choice would be right?

One might say that the best ethical choice would be right. But even those of us stuck in the present know that “right ethics” are not always easy to determine.

One hypothetical solution to this equally hypothetical problem involves the idea that every time we make a choice, a new universe branches off, creating a potentially infinite number of universes for each choice we make.

Again, there are several other theories about time travel mentioned at Wikipedia. It’s beyond me to go into each one, especially when I feel that most of them are loaded with faulty assumptions from the outset.



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