I suppose the title of this post is really rhetorical in that the question already has an answer. We do.
In case you were wondering, this article isn’t about Watchmen. Instead, it’s about Watchers. You can find the idea of them in comics, film, television, and various other media. They are depicted as either very powerful enlightened beings, or hidden organizations with more knowledge than most people. You can find them as a race of cosmic beings with large craniums within Marvel Comics, a secret society of men and women that observe Immortals in the Highlander television series, and even the Ascended in the StarGate series.
Aside from their great power and knowledge, Watchers generally have one more thing in common: they have some sort of code that permits them to observe but rarely–if ever–interfere with the existences of those either “beneath” them, or unaware of certain facts of life. This idea can also be found in Star Trek‘s Prime Directive: where by law the Federation cannot interfere with the development of civilizations that are not as advanced or as cognizant as those of their member worlds.
This means that this agreement of “non-interference” not only prevents these powers from abusing their abilities, but also helping others with them as well. Of course, as I’m sure something like TV Tropes will point out, there is always a conflict of some kind with regards to said beings following these codes and also certain “bending” and “tweaking” of the rules from time to time. Certainly, there have been instances in Star Trek itself where more powerful beings have more than interfered with “lower planes of sentience” … and I’m not just talking about Q either. I mean, you could argue that the Enterprise and the Federation it represents have evolved to the point where certain advanced beings can safely–to some degree–interact with them without causing permanent harm, but there is a really fine line there. It’s also not really what I want to talk about.
No, I think this trope of non-interference has always bothered me on a creative geeky level to some degree and I’m going to try to explain why.
Basically, these advanced beings or secret organizations–who dedicate themselves to observation–do not want to harm anyone intentionally or otherwise, or endanger themselves and existence as they understand it by “interfering.” But my issue is three-fold. First of all, if you follow Einstein’s theory that an observer of an event is also a participant–that an experiment is affected by the mere presence of an observer–then these beings “interfere” all the time simply by existing. If you have a certain amount of power–of any kind–or a presence somewhere it will affect your surroundings. I mean, yes, there is a big difference between sitting and doing nothing, and acting in said space but your mere presence changes things just by you existing.
So perhaps, in these various forms of fiction, said beings are aware of the fact that by existing they do change matters so they try to minimize the effects as much as they consciously can. Maybe some of them make a point of not observing: claiming that the material no longer interests them, or is somehow inferior to them but in reality knowing that the temptation to act would be too great or, again, by simply looking they affect matters. Add telepathy and psycho-kinetic powers along with spatial-temporal manipulation to the mix and you can more or less figure out where it can go from there.
Of course, there is the other side of the weird coin which is that perhaps perception itself by these beings determines the material plane’s very existence or, to quote George Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived.” Imagine if said watchers started perceiving a thing in a different way, or began ignoring it entirely. In essence, they could make something cease to exist by diminishing or denying it. Changing someone’s perceptions or having them ignore a thing can definitely change the world as human beings have proved many times in fiction and in reality.
Essentially, you can also say that by actively not looking or paying attention to the rest of the “normal world,” they also affect reality. In the case of the Highlander Watchers, if they stopped observing and went away, a lot of the historical lore and information on the Immortals that pop up among humanity would be lost. I suppose it could said that this wouldn’t hurt anyone–I mean no one would really ever know what was lost or not–but as these plots unfold it is never really as simple as all that. Imagine, for instance, an evil Immortal is gaining power and you know as a Watcher that if he or she continues at this rate, they will rule the world. You have the knowledge to stop them or at least help someone indirectly in doing so. Of course, the rules exist for a reason and the idea of possibly making things worse or revealing your presence to those who don’t understand you or your work are definitely barriers to overcome right there.
This is not the only series where such a moral conundrum happens. In StarGate, there have been Ascended Ancients and even the character of Daniel Jackson that have realized that if they let events continue unimpeded in the material plane, villains like Anubis or Adria will not only cause damage to that plane but potentially their own as well. Yet the argument is that the code exists for a reason. As a result, they can interfere, but only in small plausible ways in that reality: as though they are playing some sort of game or helping to write a novel where continuity has to be maintained (I really like that word, continuity), but then they aren’t really just watchers anymore are they?
There is also another saying, which only recently I realized was created by the philosopher Edmund Burke, he which he states: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
I know that this is a moral argument and that in the case of actual cosmological beings in fiction, they may have a greater understanding of reality and morality than flesh-based beings do. In fact, we can even go as far as to say they would understand the way of things far more than Einstein ever could. It feels like a cop-out to state, but we are also talking about fiction and imagination.
Yet with our limited understanding of things, you can see why it is very hard for an observer to remain perfectly neutral and not affect the reality around them. These beings and orders are still part of the world and the universe. They may be on a different level, but that doesn’t mean they are removed from everything. In fact, the idea that they have limitations–even and especially self-imposed ones–illustrates that they are not all-knowing, all-powerful, or perfect themselves. Is enlightenment recognizing your own limitations along with those of others and acting, or not acting appropriately?
Is not acting a sign of wisdom or a kind of paralysis: a fear of making things worse than they are when–by not interfering–you could be making a situation dire in any case? Also, if an observer is a part of life, then by not acting are they really living?
How many cultures and civilizations in our world would have reached the places they are at now if they did not bother to even meet each other? I mean, yes, there has been a whole history of colonization and imperialism and destroyed ways of life, but there has also been trade, and innovation, and new knowledge. And what is “higher” or “lesser?” Is it that observers are any better than physical beings, or that they are just different and have different constraints?
I guess, as these things go, this is a whole lot of armchair philosophy, but it is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. So in terms of fiction, who watches the watchers? Well, I will say again that we do.
And it can be very entertaining.
4 thoughts on “Who Watches the Watchers?”
I really enjoyed your post and I will be thinking about it for quite some time. If it matters to you, I think it was very well written.
Of course this matters to me. It is a very nice compliment. This is one of my more philosophical posts and I’d not only been thinking about it for a while, but I really had to think about how to express it here. Anyway, thanks again. 🙂
Well you did an excellent job of it. And, you’re welcome.