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"The Meaning of a Deathless Life"

(forthcoming in Philosophy and Battlestar Galactica)

David Vessey, University of Chicago


When Helo and Athena hear that their infant daughter Hera is still alive aboard a nearby Cylon baseship, they are understandably desperate to see her and get her back. Clearly Helo, a colonial pilot, can't retrieve her, but Athena comes up with a plan to be reunited with Hera. With difficulty, Helo kills his wife. Athena is downloaded into a new body on the Cylon resurrection ship and is soon reunited with Hera on the baseship. Athena, a humanoid Cylon, cannot die. Caprica Six puts it bluntly in the Miniseries: "I can't die. When this body is destroyed, my memory, my consciousness, will be transmitted to a new one. I'll just wake up somewhere else in an identical body." As you might imagine, there are times when this comes in handy.

               We know now, at the start of the fourth season, that it is not so simple as Caprica Six presents it. If a humanoid Cylon is killed out of range of either the home planet or a resurrection ship then the Cylon does die. In addition there is another analogue of death, boxing, that can occur to a whole line of humanoid Cylons if they are "fundamentally flawed." But these exceptions aside, the ability of the humanoid Cylons to survive death not only separates them form the colonists, it separates them from every other major TV or film android, including the various kinds of Cylons in the original series. It also provides an important philosophical test case for questions of the meaning of life. Is the fact we humans will die an essential part of making our lives meaningful?

               Battlestar Galactica has always incorporated themes from Greek and Roman mythology into the religious views of the colonialists. Yet for the ancient Greeks the definitive boundary between humans and the gods was that the gods are immortal and the humans are mortal. Humans, even heroes, have fates—a predetermined time of death—and it is this inescapable death that provides a meaningful context to their lives. The Greek word for fate, moira, literally means portion or allotment, so one's fate is one's present allotment of life. Death always came at the appropriate time; your task in life is to be in a position when that time comes to have lived successfully. The responsibility of Greek warriors, for example, was to live life as successfully as possible given their place in society so that they can accept their fate, so that they can die with honor and not in shame. Death was what made life meaningful; the gods had no such concerns. The question again, then, is whether a deathless life like that of the humanoid Cylons can be a meaningful life. The Cylons have many of the resources for living meaningful lives—they have agency, they reflect on their existence, they see themselves as playing a part in a larger plan not of their making—yet I will argue that their inability to have what I will call a 'successful death' keeps them from living fully meaningful lives.

Conditions for a Meaningful Life

Someone might want to emphasize that no matter how complicated the humanoid Cylons are, they are still machines, and machines are not alive, properly speaking. Therefore they cannot have meaningful lives. Or perhaps while acknowledging that the humanoid Cylons are alive, someone might hold that as living machines they are not significantly different from non-human animals, responding to stimuli in their environment and seeking to fulfill certain natural instincts or acquired desires. That person might say that humanoid Cylons could have an easier of harder life—perhaps even a more or less successful life—but not a more or less meaningful life. Such a conclusions follow from the obvious fact that a condition for a life to be meaningful is that you recognize you are living a life shaped by reflective choices; your life could not simply be a matter of biologically given, goal-directed responses to stimuli in your environment and still be meaningful. Cats, for example, no matter how luxurious their lives, don't reflect on the significance of their luxury, so no matter how easy or hard we may consider a cat's life, it is altogether different from a life that could be meaningful or meaningless. Having a cat as a pet might contribute to the meaningfulness of the owner's life, but the cat's life itself is neither meaningful nor meaningless.

               It's easy to see the difference between an easier/harder life and a meaningful/meaningless life by simply considering the case of someone who chooses a difficult life on the grounds of it being a more meaningful and rewarding life. People often will sacrifice their own happiness or well-being for "higher" values; they will even sacrifice their life rather than violate a principle which they see as giving meaning to their life. Socrates, drinking the hemlock rather than abandoning philosophy or admitting to corrupting the youth, is a perfect example. In one sense all Greeks lived for their death. That is, they lived such that their life could be considered complete when their fate arrived. Socrates' claimed philosophy is the true living in preparation of death since philosophy is concerned above all with freeing the soul from the concerns of the body. And what is death but the feeing of the soul from the body? So when Socrates was forced to choose between corrupting his soul by breaking the law or dying, the choice was easy. To do anything but die at that time would have meant turning against just those values that gave his life meaning. Dying to preserve what you believe in is an extreme case; giving up convenience and ease of life for something you consider meaningful is commonplace. A necessary condition for living a meaningful life is recognizing this distinction and choosing one's life accordingly. To live meaningfully requires being ready to sacrifice convenience and ease of living to preserve that meaning.

               What is significant in these decisions is not only that the decision is the person's—again, agency over one's life is a necessary condition for living a meaningful life—, but also that the person sees his or her life as belonging to or contributing to something larger than it. Actions and episodes in our life may have meaning, but to speak of a meaningful life as a whole, which is what we are talking about here, requires considering your life as a whole. The values which provide that kind of integrity to our lives may be chosen by us, but they can't be solely up to us, for they provide the context that makes our choices contribute to or distract from the meaningfulness of our lives as a whole. The meaningfulness of life must have its origin something beyond ourselves; we choose to place our live in that context, often regardless of the pleasure or pain it will cause. Socrates chose the philosophical life as he saw it as the most meaningful life, and sacrificed political comforts for his choice. Non-human animals never make those kinds of choices. One important consequence of this to keep in mind is that life is only meaningful if it is seen as a meaningful whole. Thinking ours lives are meaningful may not be enough to make it so, but it we think our lives are not meaningful, or if we don't seek to see our lives as meaningful, they are guaranteed to not be.

               If humanoid Cylons are living machines more akin to non-human animals than to humans, we would be right to say their lives have no meaning, regardless of the fact they don't die. (This of course is not to say their lives can't be full of joys and sorrows, successes and failures.) However I think it would be wrong to see the human Cylons in this light, and I expect most followers of the show would agree. For one thing, the humanoid Cylons seem to have free will. They can choose to deceive each other—as D'anna does when going to visit the Temple of Jupiter or as Athena does when she says she would stay with Hera on the baseship; they can decide when to share their memories with the other versions of the same model—as Athena does when protecting Helo on Caprica; and they can change their minds on significant matters—as Caprica Six does when lobbying for living alongside the colonists rather than killing them. In addition Boomer and Caprica Six claim to have a conscience, a sense of moral right and wrong; a moral conscience is a sure sign they are more than simply responding to stimuli. Finally, and the list could go on, humanoid Cylons see each other as possible role models; the two "war heroes" are seen by the other humanoid Cylons as not only successful spies, but as living admirable lives. All these examples suggest that it makes sense to speak of the humanoid Cylons as living not just easy or difficult lives, nor just successful or unsuccessful lives, but more or less meaningful lives. In contrast, the sentient Cylon raiders, who are also alive, respond to their environment, and download their memories into new "bodies" are the proper analogue to non-human animals. Boomer says as much about them: "More of an animal maybe, than a human models like a pet."

               But what about animals that serve a useful function: seeing eye dogs, the St. Bernards bringing mini-barrels of brandy to stranded skiers, plow horses, truffle hunting pigs, the unfortunate animals used to test life-saving drugs for humans, or, more to the point, pets that can fly in formation, shoot down Vipers and Raptors, protect baseships, and, when killed, learn from their mistakes? Such creatures are surely valuable and many save lives, what is it that leads us to say they are not leading meaningful lives? In these cases there is still the matter of them having a choice over their lives. In none of the examples are the non-human animals in a position to decide they would rather not live the life they were trained for—there is no opt out clause—nor does it seem within their ability to opt out. And without the ability to opt out, it doesn't make sense to say they opted for those lives. A meaningful life needs to be a life chosen and a sign of being able to choose one's life is being able to choose otherwise, even if choosing otherwise amounts to choosing death.

The Importance of a Successful Death for the Meaning of Life

We should thus add to the list of things that differentiates human from non-human animals that humans are concerned about their death. It's not just that humans are concerned about avoiding dying—all animals seem to have instincts towards self-preservation—but humans see death as a challenge to a meaningful life and as something that one needs to come to terms with if one hopes to live fully. To think about our life as a whole requires us to think about our death. We can only say that our life as a whole is a meaningful life if we can recognize that at some point our life is complete and that were death to strike this might be a loss, especially to others, but not a tragedy and not an injustice. Let's call such situations successful deaths—cases where we have reached a point where we can see our death as contributing to rather than taking away from the meaningfulness of our life. An unsuccessful death is one that could only be seen as a kind of failure, and our life along with it. We saw above that a life as a whole must be seen as meaningful by the person to be meaningful. However a life as a whole is never seen as meaningful if death has not been come to terms with, if death is not seen as a kind of failing and as something to avoid at all costs, but as something that is appropriate for and thus can contribute to our lives as a whole.

               The humanoid Cylons are understandably far less concerned with death than we mortal humans. Where this kind of unconcern for death is sometimes taken as a sign of wisdom among mortals—the ancient Stoics thought learning how to not fear death was necessary for happiness—for the humanoid Cylons, their lack of concern comes from living in a situation where true death could not be anything but a failure or a flaw.

               When I speak of a successful death I mean more than simply succeeding in dying; there's not much to praise in that goal since it is something all humans will succeed in at some point or another. The most common way of thinking about a successful death is in terms of the various ways that things can go for you after death. Of course this is not the only way of thinking about successful death—we can come to terms with death even if we believe there is no life after death; some might even think life is made more valuable if this is all there is—nevertheless, it is the most common way of considering a successful death and the most relevant comparison to the Cylons. Socrates could have a successful death as he thought it would mean being freed from the weights of the physical body to finally contemplate the nature of reality in all its beauty; others might think it means going to heaven, or being reincarnated at a higher level of existence, or perhaps escaping the circle of rebirth once and for all. In all these cases they come to terms with their death because thy see the meaningfulness of their life tied with what occurs to them after death. Since the humanoid Cylons, again bracketing the two exceptional circumstances of being too far from a resurrection ship or being boxed, are straightforward examples of beings who survive death, it would seem that the distinction between a successful and unsuccessful death would apply to them. But we can also see why it wouldn't and why the Cylon case is so unusual.

               When we look at the most obvious examples of what I am calling successful deaths (and again I need to stress that believing in or obtaining a life after death is by no means necessary for having a successful death; such are simply the most relevant examples), in every case people live life in such a way that their existence after death—in whatever form that takes—will be an improvement over their current situation. Importantly that improvement occurs as a result of them living their life well. In these examples, people receive eternal bliss because they lived piously; people are reincarnated as higher beings (or escape reincarnation altogether) because they freed themselves from desire and attachment. How they live their lives explains what happens to them after death and, most importantly, achieving a successful death contributed to their living a successful life. It is because their life shaped their fate after death that what occurs in death gives meaning to their lives. Still, the successful death is the condition for the meaning in their life, not the consequence of it. It is not how they lived their life that made their death successful, but how they saw their death, and what would happen after their death, as intimately connected to how they lived their life that they could come to terms with their death. This could not be not so for the humanoid Cylons. How they live has no impact on what happens after their body is killed; they simply continue on where they left off, albeit back at the resurrection ship or home planet. Being killed is inconvenient, but it does not provide them with a perspective on their life as a whole, surely in part because what happens after being killed is the same regardless of how they acted before being killed. In the clearest and most similar human examples to situation of the Cylons—life after death—the dissimilarities make all the difference.

The Humanoid Cylons and Death

A successful death is not available to the Cylons, not even in the two forms that are most comparable to death—being killed out of range of a resurrection ship or the home world, and being boxed. Neither could count as a successful death as the first only occurs in a situation of failure, and the second only occurs in a situation of shame. Let's consider the examples from the show for each. Although there were clear signs of mourning when the infected Cylons had to be left to die without resurrection, and although the colonists use the idea of being too far from a resurrection ship as a torture threat, the Cylons are not existentially preoccupied about whether a resurrection ship is nearby. They changed their attack strategies after the destruction of the resurrection ship, but that was simply a strategic decision, not one made out of anxiety over annihilation. Gina, the Number Six who had been tortured on the Pegasus, killed herself in a nuclear explosion with full knowledge that the resurrection ship had been destroyed. For her, death may have been a relief, but that sort of death as an escape from traumatic suffering is not a death that contributed to a meaningful life.

               Boxing, resurrecting the memories into a box, rather than into a body, is the method used by the humanoid Cylons if one of the twelve lines develops an unfixable flaw. It's not death per se as their memories could be re-incorporated, but it does, perhaps indefinitely, shut down a line of humanoid Cylons. It's only happened once (so far); that was to D'anna as a result of her pursuit of the truth of the final five Cylon models to the exclusion of working together with the other humanoid Cylons. She had been committing repeated suicide-by-Centurian-proxy (having a Centurian shoot her without it remembering doing it) for she found that in the gap between death and resurrection she could get glimpses of the final five Cylons, which apparently are closer to Cylon gods than the humanoid Cylons. The final five are not supposed to be discussed, much less sought, and the D'anna line is boxed. Of course if the memories of her experiences are ever required by the other humanoid Cylons, she could always be un-boxed. But boxing, like dying away from a resurrection ship, is certainly not a death that contributes to a meaningful life. Here the difference between her and Socrates is most clear; Socrates' lived such that his death was a natural extension of his life, the culmination of his life and part and parcel of how he saw his life as meaningful. In D'anna's case it brought to an end (perhaps temporarily) her pursuit for meaning in her life.

               That her religious fixation drove her to the point of being boxed is the clue to seeing how the humanoid Cylons could be seen as having a meaningful existence, even if being incapable of a successful death. Consider the important exchange between a Brother Cavil and D'anna on the resurrection ship right before she is boxed.

Cavil: You know the drill. Long, deep, controlled breathing. At least you'll never have to go through this again. The decision wasn't easy, but the conclusion was inevitable. Your model is fundamentally flawed.

D'Anna: No. It's not a flaw to question our purpose. Is it? The one who programmed us. The way we think and why?

Cavil: Well that's the problem, right there. The messianic conviction that you're on a special mission to enlighten us. Look at the damage it's caused.

D'Anna: I would do it all again.

Cavil: Yes, we know. That's why we've decided to box your entire line. Your consciousness, memory, every thought your model ever had is going into cold storage, indefinitely.

D'Anna: One must die to know the truth. There are five other Cylons, brother. I saw them. One day, you're going to see them too. One day.

Cavil: Goodbye.

D'Anna: Brother. Brother. Brother...

D'Anna's motivations for her quest are significant; she is explicitly asking about the purpose of their existence in terms of a higher being, their programmer (a Cylon version of their creator, perhaps the first hybrid). That D'Anna connects this search with death might suggest she sees the connection between a successful death and a meaningful life, but of course it is not truly death she is experiencing, it is being resurrected. Nonetheless, she seeks insight into a purpose hoping they have a role to play in a larger plan not of their making. Leoben speaks of destiny, Six and Sharon speak of what God wants for them, and D'Anna is trying to glimpse the "truth" of their purpose.  As we saw, one of the necessary ways humans see their lives as a whole as having a purpose is seeing it as contributing to "something larger"—again, the most common example is as playing a role in a divine plan. The Cylons share this way of making meaning for their lives; their religious views give them direction in their lives. That they can ask about the meaning of their lives—the possible place of their lives in a context not of their making—is a necessary condition for being capable of living a meaningful life.

               We should note that although the Cylons do draw a sense of purpose from following God's commands, this is not universal and what those commands are is not shared across all seven models. For example, Number Six says that God prohibits suicide, yet a Doral model blows himself up as a suicide bomber, as does Gina, and a Brother Cavil model kills himself after being wounded on New Caprica. It is also held by most of the humanoid Cylons that God has called on them to "be fruitful"—and this command dominates both their drive to have humans fall in love with them, for they cannot procreate except when in love, and their concern for protecting Hera—yet a Brother Cavil, the least religious of the Cylons, openly doubts that God in fact does want them to have children. Regardless their differences interpreting what God wants—something certainly not unique to Cylons—they follow God's commands simply because they are God's commands. There is no promise of a reward after death, nor threat of eternal suffering after death, and so no clear downside to ignoring God's commands. In this respect their religion differs from all human monotheistic religions. Their motivations for acting religiously can't be a simple as hoping to avoid eternal suffering.

               The divine command to have children, and therefore experience love, is a particularly philosophically interesting one, especially as it relates to their immortality. Plato in the dialogue The Symposium speaks of having children as an expression of the desire for immortality. The gods are naturally immortal and the Greek heroes can become immortal through having myths told about them. For the rest of us we live on through our ideas and through our children. What is significant about the humanoid Cylons is that their children must be human/Cylon babies, and as such they seem unlikely to share in the immortality of their fully machine parents. Granted Hera's blood did temporarily cure Laura Roslin's cancer and protected Athena from the Cylon virus, suggesting that all human/Cylon babies might be resistant to disease in ways humans, and Cylons, are not, but this is not the same as being able to download their consciousness upon death. Presumably the only offspring available to Cylons are mortal offspring. Interstingly this means that the meaning available to the Cylons explicitly substitutes one of Plato's models for immortality, resurrection, for the other, childbirth. And unlike them, their children are capable of living meaningful lives with successful deaths.


There are a number of examples in science fiction and fantasy literature (and television shows) of characters cursed to immortality, either terminally and eternally bored, or desperately seeking death. What makes the Cylons different is, first, they see themselves as playing a role in something larger than themselves. This is a source of meaning that operates independently of whether they are mortal or immortal, yet it is not sufficient for a meaningful life. In Greek mythology Sisyphus, a human who thought he could be more clever than Zeus, was condemned to the most meaningless existence imaginable: for all eternity he had to roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down right before it reaches the top. Sisyphus is the model of a meaningless existence, yet he plays a role in a great, god mandated scheme. What makes Sisyphus's and curse so severe is his inability to escape his circumstances. He is stuck with endlessly repetitive events with no hope of escape. So it is not enough to be part of a larger plan for a life to be meaningful; as we saw above in the example of life-saving pets, you need to be able to opt out.

               Some agency over your life, and your death, is necessary in order for life to be meaningful. That criterion was what eliminated cats, trained pets, and Cylon raiders from the ranks of the potentially meaningful; they were purely reactionary creatures, albeit with exceptionally complicated reaction strategies. Albert Camus, the French existentialist writer, begins his discussion of Sisyphus with the claim "The only philosophical question is suicide"; if Sisyphus has a way to opt out of his curse, it would change the meaningfulness of his situation. It's important then that the humanoid Cylons have the option of suicide, of intentionally killing themselves away from the resurrection ship. Agency, reflecting on their existence, seeking to understanding their existence as part of something larger—all are necessary for a meaningful life, and all are common between humanoid Cylons and mortal humans. The difference is that humans, precisely because they must die, must try to understand what it is to have lived a complete life such that death can be a successful one whenever it comes. It is only because we will die that we must try to see our lives as a meaningful whole. For the humanoid Cylon such is meaning is impossible—since they are continually resurrected it makes no sense to view their lives as a whole, and were they to die, by being too far from a resurrection ship or home planet or by being boxed, it could never be a successful death. Like the ancient Greeks who saw mortal fate as giving a meaning to life which the gods lacked, so too humans can have a meaningful life in ways the humanoid Cylons lack. The final season of Battlestar Galactica will surely reveal more about the Cylons, their culture, and perhaps above all their religion. But already the humanoid Cylons are unique example for philosophy not only for their ability to survive death, but because how they live has no impact on what happens after they die; they simply download and continue where they left off. Thinking about what this means for the meaningfulness of their lives helps us to understand their behavior better, but as importantly it helps us to better understand how thinking about death might contribute to make our lives meaningful.

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