Since ancient times, philosophers have pondered the question of what it means to be a person. David Hume observed that we cannot say much definitively about our world because we do not have other worlds with which to compare it. (Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 30) This is especially true about intelligent life because we know of only one intelligent species: us. Science fiction, because it can step outside our ordinary world, can show us who we as humans are. This is especially so when it shows humans interacting with aliens. Science fiction can at least speculate on what alien worlds and alien intelligences are like and give us ways to contemplate our own humanity and what it means to be a person.
The 1999–2004 television series Farscape is excellent at portraying what it means to be a person because for almost the entire series, there is only one human being — John Crichton — involved in the action, forcing us to see aliens through his eyes. Science fiction commonly portrays human-alien interaction as aliens entering the human world. Farscape reverses the mise-en-scène by having the protagonist John Crichton enter the alien world. In this, Farscape is like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series in which a person is transported to another world and is forced to quickly learn how to survive. But quite differently from the John Carter series, Farscape does not portray a human conquering primitive aliens. Instead, the show places the lone human, and us the viewer, as the alien struggling to adapt and fit in.
In its 88 episodes and three-hour film, Farscape explores what being a person means in terms of ethics and identity, and what it means to affirm or deny that another is a person. It is a story of love, solidarity, recognition, and the struggle to find peace within the threat of war. What Farscape most shows us is how the person one is is a product of one’s choices and actions.
Recognizing a person
We recognize that John Crichton is a person. But because we have experience only with human persons, we recognize as persons only beings who look like us. However, as Harry Frankfurt points out, the attributes we use to define a person are the attributes that
are the subject of our most humane concern with ourselves and the source of what we regard as most important and most problematical in our lives. Now these attributes would be of equal significance to us even if they were not in fact peculiar and common to the members of our own species. What interests us most in the human condition would not interest us less if it were also a feature of the condition of other creatures as well. (Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will,” 6)
The other characters of Farscape are aliens but also persons in that they have the same attributes that we regard as most important and most problematical in our lives. Moya is a spaceship but also a person. Moya is alive, is intelligent, wills, feels fear and worry, and is capable of enjoyment and love. Moya even has a child in the show, another living spaceship named Talyn. Moya can communicate to the others only through Pilot, whose sentient species sends its best persons to serve on Leviathans by biologically linking with them in a lifelong symbiotic relationship. Pilot is a person. Despite his consciousness being joined with Moya’s, he has his own will and desires and Moya and Pilot are occasionally at odds with each other. (“Bad Timing,” 4.22)
Zhaan is a plant but still a person, in nearly every respect a humanoid being with intellect, will, and emotions like ourselves. The Sebaceans, Luxans, Hynerians, and other species of crew members we meet in the series — Nebari, Banik, Interion, and Traskan — are, despite their different appearances, more easily recognizable to us as being persons because they act like us and have the same concerns as us. Scarans are not as easily recognizable as persons, more because of their behaviors and values than their appearance.
But beyond the basic characteristics that define a person, what are the ethical and existential implications of what it means to be a person? A person has a distinct identity and consciousness of their self, but both of those are generated and defined through interactions with other persons and are therefore contingent and malleable. Farscape understands this and deviates from the typical literary form of conflict between good hero and evil villain. Farscape shows that the line between being a good person and an evil person is easily crossed, and it demonstrates in surprising ways that monsters are created and that evil is often an emotional response to unresolved pain.
Christine Korsgaard’s answer to what it means to be a person is that it is as the possessor of a personal identity that you are the author of your actions, and responsible for them. And yet at the same time it is in choosing your actions that you create that identity. What this means is that you constitute yourself as the author of your actions in the very act of choosing them. (Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, Kindle locations 375–377) What this means is that persons are not mere objects pushed around by physical forces, something too many philosophers and scientists have forgotten. As beings with free will, persons make their own choices and their decisions mold their character and chart the course of their lives. We see that vividly throughout Farscape. Who we are as a person is a product of the dynamic between the social environment and our own choices in response to events around us. We have a significant hand in making who we are.
Each person in Farscape is forced by circumstances to make difficult choices in response to extreme situations, and these choices help constitute their selves. As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel describes, our sense of self requires interaction with others to socialize us into proper ways of behaving. (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit) Following Hegel, Axel Honneth describes our practical identity as depending on receiving recognition from our society’s institutions. We learn from our culture which behaviors and traits are valued and which are not. We receive recognition when we act appropriately. Through recognition we are socially accepted, allowing us to navigate our social environment successfully and form a sense of self and social relationships that better enable us to achieve our goals. (Honneth, Struggle for Recognition, Disrespect, The I in We)
Our dependence on others to constitute our sense of self means that our sense of our practical identity requires an amount of faith in the social environment and institutions. Each person on Farscape has had that faith shattered, making their choices, and thus their identities, fragmented and fragile. Each person on Moya is in involuntary exile, and, what is more, each does not know how to get home or if they even can go home.
John is the most exiled, completely out of his element and potentially cut off from Earth forever. The others are at least in a cultural universe they are familiar with, though they are each cut off from their home in that universe. D’Argo is falsely imprisoned by the Peacekeepers after his is framed for murdering his wife. Rygel is the legitimate ruler of the Hynerian Empire but he was deposed in a coup by his cousin and imprisoned in a deal with the Peacekeepers. Zhaan did commit the crime for which she is imprisoned, assassinating a tyrant leader, and the political nature of her crime means she cannot return home. Pilot is on Moya against the wishes of the elders of his world, so he, too, is cut off from his home. Chiana joins Moya late in Season 1 when the crew rescues her from Nebari authorities who are forcibly taking her back to be mind cleansed because she is a culture dissident. Chiana does not want to go home but that her home considers her a criminal affects her deeply. Aeryn is deemed by the Peacekeepers to have violated their rule against contact with unclassified alien life forms (namely Crichton), and she is ruled irreversibly contaminated and exiled. Having nowhere to go, she remains on Moya only to find out later that for that, the Peacekeepers declare her a traitor. The injustice of these condemnations is not lost on Aeryn, and it shakes her faith in the social institutions in which she was raised and her sense of what is good and proper.
Each person on Moya needs to choose how they, isolated from their culture, will act and constitute themselves. Each needs to answer for themselves the question of what it means to be a person.
John Locke’s theory of personhood
But what does it mean to be a person? The philosopher John Locke defined a person as “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places.” (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 335) Locke’s account of personal identity centers on one’s self-reflective consciousness and concern being able to be extended backward to one’s previous experiences and forward to one’s future self. It is the same self then and now if the consciousness that reflects on it now can be extended back to a past thought or action. Locke also said that what is me as a person is located where my current consciousness resides. He speculated way back in the 1690s long before science fiction, that there could be a transfer of consciousness from one body to another in which my personal identity that can remember past experiences now resides within a different body.
Farscape explored Locke’s ideas in three plot lines. One is the episode in which a weapon fired by the Halosians interacts with a malfunction on Moya causing the consciousness or souls of the crew members to transfer to another crew member’s bodies. (“Out of Their Minds,” 2.9) After the consciousness transfer, each possessed their own consciousness and traits of speech and movements within the body of another. Locke would say that if the consciousness of Chiana is in the body that we knew as D’Argo, then we would have to say that that body is now Chiana. Indeed, Chiana has to explain to the others that “I’m Chiana,” because in her consciousness she is the person Chiana even if she now finds herself within another body.
In another body, each person gets to feel what it is like to have the sensory stimulations of another body. Crichton and Aeryn get a chance to feel what it is like being in the opposite sex’s body. The novel solution the crew members devise to keep things straight while they work to reverse the consciousness transfers is to hang photos of their “real” bodies around the neck of the body in which their consciousness currently resides — a clear illustration of Locke’s concept of persons in consciousness transfer. They do work out a solution to revert back to their original bodies before the 44 minute episode ends but not before the show uses the situation for good comedic effect.
Another more serious exploration of Locke’s ideas is a story arc that begins in the episode “Eat Me” (3.6). A criminally insane genius, Kaarvok, has developed a device that can instantly twin a person into two exact genetic duplicates of each other — as Kaarvok says, “equal and original.” The twinning device is his modest solution to supply food within his own petty domain in his captured Leviathan: he can twin any life form and use one for food without reducing the quantity of livestock. Having started with only Sebaceans aboard the ship, he made do with what he had, but, as he admits, after 30 to 40 twinnings, the Sebaceans have degraded into nonsentient bestial beings. When Crichton, D’Argo, and Chiana blunder onboard as they search for supplies, Kaarvok is thrilled to have new genetic stock and he succeeds in twinning D’Argo and Chiana before anyone realizes the threat. Crichton manages to thwart the episode’s villain, but as Kaarvok is engulfed in an explosion, his twinning device bursts and a blob of its energy hits the fleeing Crichton, twinning him.
Both Crichtons escape and the episode ends with the two Crichtons playing rock-paper-scissors, but each and every time they make the identical move in the game — showing us the true exactness of the twinning (though unintentionally assuming determinism).
Because both Crichtons share the same memories up to the point of the twinning, both, by Locke’s standard, are Crichton. For that reason, both Crichtons are convinced the other is the clone and himself the original — how else could they think of the situation? However, from that moment on, their experiences differ and, by Locke’s standard, they are now different persons. At first, Moya’s crew take advantage of the two identical but separate Crichtons to their advantage (“Thanks for Sharing,” 3.7), but an emergency causes the two Crichtons to separate — one with Crais and Aeryn on the ship Talyn, and the other remaining with D’Argo on Moya. Over six episodes, we switch back and forth between the different lives of the two Crichtons until in a two-part episode, “Infinite Possibilties” (3.14, 3.15), the Crichton on Talyn with Aeryn is killed shortly after she finally gives up her long-running resistance to admitting her love for Crichton. With his death, Aeryn is understandably devastated.
When Talyn and Moya are reunited, Aeryn is confronted with dealing with the other Crichton who is the man she loves but not the man she has loved. The Moya Crichton is eager to be with her, as was the Talyn Crichton, and Aeryn is understandably in a quandary as she fears watching John die in her arms again yet has the amazing possibility of being able to love again. She expresses her agony to him: “…you’re just like him I mean, you are him.” Crichton’s slightly bitter and fully warranted response is: “No. I’m me. I was here. I missed that dance.” (“I-Yensch, You-Yensch,” 3.19) The two Crichtons are living examples of Locke’s definition of personhood as memory. It takes some time for Aeryn to decide and declare to Crichton that there is no distinction in her mind anymore between the two Crichtons. Her response, given the trauma of seeing the man with whom she was intimate die, shows considerable emotional courage because in her person, her memory, she has suffered a loss the surviving Crichton has not.
The most intricate and long-term exploration of consciousness transfer and identity is the story line over two seasons of the character of the neural clone. Scorpius, once he learned that Crichton had knowledge of wormhole technology buried in his subconscious, places a neural chip in Crichton’s brain to attempt to extract the information. The chip implanted within Crichton’s mind a neural clone of Scorpius who could explore Crichton’s mind. According to Locke’s standard of a person, the clone has Scorpius’s memories up to the moment of implantation into Crichton’s brain and therefore is Scorpius. The clone is programmed with instructions from Scorpius, but because it is now separate from Scorpius, it possesses a will of its own. In attempting to influence Crichton’s behavior, the clone leaks into Crichton’s consciousness, and the two begin to have conversations with each other. Crichton names the clone “Harvey” after the Jimmy Stewart film and has a long battle of wills with Harvey, though Crichton learns he can get insights on Scorpius from talking with Harvey.
Scorpius is able to retrieve the neural chip at one point (“Die Me Dichotomy,” 2.22) and upload the information it received from Crichton’s mind, but to both his and Crichton’s surprise, Harvey lives on inside Crichton’s mind. The clone’s consciousness has bled into Crichton’s mental space and lives on. Despite having no physical body, Harvey is now an independent person, with memory, sentience, will, and self-determination, including a desire for self-preservation. Living inside Crichton’s mind, Harvey can experience all that Crichton does, but being a separate person, like all the other persons on Farscape, he is continually constituting himself through his experiences, choices, and actions in response to his environment. Harvey, having full access to both Scorpius’s and Crichton’s memories, is constituting a new consciousness and personality. It is fascinating how Harvey creates himself as a blend of Scorpius and Crichton. Despite having no physical body, Harvey can think, feel, and act freely as does any person.
Perhaps then, the best definition of what it means to be a person is to be a loci of individual action that is continually making itself though its choices and actions. To be that kind of loci requires self-reflective consciousness, memory, will, humane concerns, and self-constitution. Outward appearance does not matter. A person’s a person no matter how small… or scaly, or colored, or anything, What matters is what’s inside.
Not that these explorations in Farscape cover all the aspects of the question what is a person, but Farscape does more than most shows have in exploring the reality of what is a person.