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Commander Data, the pale faced android of Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG), played by Brent Spiner, is one of my favorite television characters of all time. For those of you who don’t know, STTNG is the first of the many spin offs of the original Star Trek series; it ran for seven years during the eighties and nineties. I think it is by far the best of the Star Trek series, and Data is probably my favorite character (captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is also one of my favorites). Data is a highly sophisticated and advanced artificial life form whose unattainable aspiration in life is to become fully human. However, a basic fact about Data, which makes his goal impossible, is that his programming does not endow him with the ability to feel emotions. Though Data is different from human beings in other ways (for example, he possesses superior strength, and calculation abilities), this seems to be the central thing that distinguishes him from people, at least in his own estimation of himself: he can never “feel.”

Now, one of the most intriguing aspects of Data’s character is that it turns out to be not so simple exactly what this means for him. Thus Data’s character becomes, in some ways, an exploration of the question: what do you get when you take a human being, and extract from him only the ability to feel emotion? What are emotions, exactly, and how are they distinguished from other mental events? In the original Star Trek, emotionlessness was explored through the Spock character, a “Vulcan.” The difference between Data and Vulcans, however, is that Vulcans merely suppress their emotions, whereas the Data, though a self-aware individual, positively lacks them. I find this to be a much more interesting idea. Vulcans are always illogically pointing out that emotions are “not logical” (and you get the impression that they themselves aren’t really convinced). Data, however, conveys the paradoxical sense that he wants to feel but, almost painfully (if he could feel pain!), cannot.

Throughout the series, as Data’s character develops, we learn how much of a complete person Data is able to be without emotions, and thus what it does not mean from him to lack them. For one, it does not mean that he lacks morality. Indeed, his programming includes strict ethical obligations, and on numerous occasions, Data applies these with an extreme and nuanced philosophical rigor. I’ve always been impressed by how the writers of the show often used this aspect of his personality to implicitly discredit the dangerous and false idea (believed, for example, by “the Borg,” another cybernetic species of the Star Trek universe) that human morality is grounded centrally in sentiment and emotion, and the dangerous opposite notion that evil primarily results from a lack of these things. Certainly this is a part of why people do evil, but it is not the whole of it, or the heart of it. Likewise, doing good is not simply a matter of being swayed by positive emotions–Data shows us that being good is more basically grounded in things like a real perception of justice and truth, and in the valuing of and respect for life and personhood. Really goodness is metaphysically prior to emotion. That is, we will experience these emotions more and more as we align our will with goodness, or less and less if we decide towards evil–I think that both of these processes are at work in us as individuals and collectively as a society. We don’t have to wait for our emotions to confirm what we know is right: our conscience tells us this. Data has a conscience, but no emotions, and so is still able to do what is right. As a person that often finds it difficult to feel the empathy towards others that I know my sense of fairness and justice demands of me, I find Data’s ability to continue to do good, even without this, comforting.

Besides his ethical nature, Data is apparently able to experience many of the other things that we are often inclined to associate with our “emotional side.” He exhibits creativity, curiosity, and even wonder. He is able to form deep friendships, and exhibits loyalty and faithfulness to his friends. You might even say that Data loves, in that he constantly wills the good of others. Yet it is also clear that Data is sadly incomplete, that he does miss out on much of the human experience, and he knows it. He rarely gets a joke; when he does, the best he can do is point out that he understands it was intended as humor. He has constant trouble reading the complex and unpredictable emotions of his crew-mates. Often he hurts someone’s feelings without intending it, or without even understanding the nature of the offense he’s committed.  Or he finds himself the brunt of some an awkward misunderstanding. I find myself identifying with this aspect of Data’s character as well. Here is an example of such behavior (though from a later episode, it takes place early on in Data’s career–Picard is involved in some sort of time traveling incident, and finds himself re-experiencing his ship’s first mission):

Here are some other good Data moments. This one is Picard defending Data’s right to live:

Here Data with some insight on death:

Finally, this one demonstrates some of Data’s greatest weaknesses and strengths:

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