When Star Trek metaphors fall short in explanation

8 mins read

Atheism has always been criticized for its supposedly lackluster view of the world. I say “supposedly” here because most of the people who make claims about how sad and fruitless it is to be nonreligious tend fall into the religious camp themselves. A recent NPR article by Alva Noë titled “Why Atheists Need Captain Kirk”  compared atheists to Spock and his Vulcan logic as a means of criticizing the atheist community for being too analytical and therefore unappealing, compared to the more intangible worldview of religiosity. I think that’s false.

The author — rightfully so — criticizes the atheist community for indulging in scientism. Atheists, of course, aren’t the only ones who do that, but an idealized view of science as a perfectly rational system untouched by human error or bias is something you come across fairly often in those circles. Swarthmore, in all of its liberal arts glory, is no exception. It was a legitimate point to make, but it’s somewhat ruined by the idea that scientism is bad — not because it is an unrealistic view of the world, but because science has sometimes done scary things. I could just as easily make the same claim about religion — that it has all the idealized positive traits that religious people ascribe to it — except for when it doesn’t. It’s not much of an argument, and the idea that atheists blindly see science as infallible without realizing that science is what created the atom bomb is not an accurate depiction of the situation.

There is a reason that people resonate with the character of Spock, though. I can’t definitively say that scientists and atheists do — some kind of poll would have to be done — but I would understand if that turned out to be the case. Spock values logic and analytical discourse in coming to conclusions about the world.  He’s an extreme, but using “Kirkian” philosophy to counter that simply because Kirk is Spock’s polar opposite makes no sense. Spock is an extreme, and Kirk is too: are we to simply trade out one extreme for the other? At this point, it seems to be more of a case of differing values than one side of the argument being overtly more flawed than the other, as this author would suggest.

I struggled while reading this article to determine whether or not I would be considered a “Spockian” atheist. I suppose I would, but only because this article then delves into extremes and doesn’t come back. It latches onto one very flawed, stereotypical idea of what an atheist is and runs with it. It makes the mistake of prescribing the mathematician’s view of the world to “Spockian” atheists such as myself. The mathematician’s point of view is the notion that someone who prefersthe more concrete and logical aspects of life must be wholly incapable of thinking in the abstract or the romantic. But if one makes that flawed assumption, of course “people might come to think,” As Noë suggests, “that the inner life of a scientist would be barren.”

The Spockian world is “the denial of meaning and value” which cannot be reconciled with the idea that atheists can still experience the more ephemeral aspects of life. What’s the point if everything is just twirling atoms in an empty void, after all? All I can say is that this article takes the term “Spockian” far too literally, as if atheists are actually alien creatures physically incapable of comprehending human emotion. Knowing about the inner workings of something does not take away the human appreciation of it. Knowing that emotions are just biochemical processes in the brain doesn’t lessen the impact they have when you feel them. Knowing the science behind a sunset doesn’t mean I don’t think sunsets are beautiful — which I do.

The article mentions in passing that religion and religious people are guilty of the same over-idealizing blunders as science and overzealous scientists. However, it so clearly stacks the odds against the very idea of being nonreligious that any objectivity is lost in the void of stereotyped misinformation. I can’t help but think this person has never actually talked to an atheist or watched any interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is very clearly in awe of the world not in spite of his in-depth scientific understanding — that should apparently mar all worldly beauty beyond any hope of rescue — but because of his understanding.

A Spockian worldview gives atheists the task of explaining “how you get meaning and value” out of quarks. But the notion that “meaning” or “value” are essential components to the conversation is a false and ultimately unnecessary paradigm best left to first-year philosophy seminars. It’s an understandable conclusion to come to with this author’s version of “Spockian atheism” that leaves no room for anything other than hard, cold logic and strictly detached scientific understanding. If one assumes that atheists see no meaning and give no value to anything, it’s easy to say that that is a quandary. It’s an inherently flawed idea, though — one not made to build an argument on simply because the atheist wandering around outside measuring flowers with a protractor, baffled at the very concept of something being considered pretty is an atheist from a cartoon, not any atheist in reality.

Atheism does not need an alternative to Spockism — at least not this article’s greatly flawed version of it that probably doesn’t even exist. Even if it did, living by the tenets of Captain Kirk wouldn’t be any better. Scientism is not a problem confined to the atheist community and shouldn’t be treated like one: it’s a mindset that even liberal arts colleges that actively try to place value on courses of study other than STEM sometimes fall into. Even though that’s the case, I’m sure most Swarthmore students would agree that the problem can’t be fixed by speeding off into the exact opposite direction. Can’t we just all meet in the middle and be McCoy?

1 Comment

  1. I feel like you improperly characterized the author’s argument- I didn’t view her piece as an attack on atheism for being “too logical” but as a criticism of those who view ‘science’ as a perfect means of coming to very definite conclusions about all facets of the human existence. As she points out, science is just a tool of gathering information about the world that 1) can’t be divorced from the contexts in which these scientists operate (which is why societies with clear power differentials have used the scientific method to develop theories like eugenics or weapons like the atom bomb) and 2) can’t explain absolutely everything about the human experience. Her criticism was directed at atheists who use blind appeals to the ‘rationality’ of science to dismiss religion without comprehensively acknowledging the role theism plays in answering “big questions” about the human experience. This article wasn’t an attack on atheists for not being capable of being sufficiently mystified by nature, but rather an acknowledgement that science cannot be the sole explanation atheists rely on for defending a worldview that has broad implications about humanity

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