NPR attacks “Spockian” atheists

Krista Tippett, the Martha Stewart of Spirituality, must be influencing her National Public Radio (NPR) colleagues, because they seem abnormally soft on religion. Rarely on that station do I hear anything critical of religion, or anything about atheism at all. So now we have someone who seems to be an atheist, Alva Noë (a professor of philosophy at Berkeley), who has written a completely clueless piece at the NPR blog Cosmos & Culture called “Why atheists need Captain Kirk.”

Noë’s thesis is based on the idea that Spock was robotic, emotionless, and, well, just not well rounded; and that many atheists and scientists—he conflates the two, though about 30% of scientists are religious—are just like the Big-Eared One.  We need to be more like Captain Kirk, who, I guess, was a warm, emotional human being. However, Ben Goren, who called my attention to this execrable piece, claims that “Spock himself was the most emotional character in the original Star Trek.” I wouldn’t know, as I am one of the few Americans who never saw a single episode of the series (science fiction isn’t my thing). But I do know that Nöe’s thesis stinks like rotten fish.

Here’s what Noë says. First, he argues that scientists are human, with human traits. But, it seems, we have only the bad human traits because we do stuff like make atomic bombs:

Scientists, and cultural defenders of science, like to think of themselves as free of prejudice and superstition, as moved by reason alone and a clear-eyed commitment to fact and the scientific method. They reject religion as an irrational and ungrounded burden of tradition. They see religion the way Europeans (and some Americans) see Americans. As somehow backward.

To which one might reply: Science is all those things. Between holocausts!

Scientists supported Hitler the same as anyone else. Their scientists and engineers made missiles and gas chambers. Ours made atomic bombs.

So we have prejudice and superstitions, like everyone else. But we seem to be lacking the other stuff—the good stuff that makes us human as well. We’re Spockian! (Worse: we’re not emotionless, but our only emotions are evil!):

I’m pro-science, but I’m against what I’ll call “Spock-ism,” after the character from the TV show Star Trek. I reject the idea that science is logical, purely rational, that it is detached and value-free, and that it is, for all these reasons, morally superior.

Spock-ism gives us a false picture of science. It gives us a false picture of humankind’s situation. We are not disinterested knowers. The natural world is not a puzzle. [JAC: It isn’t???? Why are there scientists, then?]

Part of what Spock-ism gets wrong is that science isn’t one thing. There’s no Science Party or Scientific Worldview. Nor is there one scientific method, advertising to the contrary notwithstanding.

This is scientism (i.e., prejudice against scientists) on stilts.  In truth, science itself is logical and rational and is the only way to find truth. Scientists aren’t purely rational or logical. Nevertheless, we’re good enough to find truth, for we’re constantly policing each other and can’t make stupid or false claims lest other catch us out.

And yes, there is no “scientific method” per se, but there are methods that are scientific, including the use of reason, the making of hypotheses, the appeal to evidence, and replication. Those methods have enabled us to find zillions of truths about our cosmos, whereas religion, with its “revelatory method,” hasn’t come up with a single verifiable fact about the Universe, much less the Divine.

All Noë is doing here is trying to diss science.  He mentions atomic bombs, but what about antibiotics, GPS technology, the Green Revolution, golden rice, the age of the Earth and Universe, and evolution—the many things found out by whatever “nonscientific method” we use? Why does he leave those out, but mention gas chambers and atomic bombs? Could he have some animus against science? I think so.

There’s more nonsense:

Spockians like to pretend that science has proved that there is no God, or that fundamental reality consists only of matter. But both of these claims are untrue. The first is untrue because science doesn’t concern itself with God one way or they other. As for the second: Science has no more proved that only matter is real than it has proved that there is no such thing as love, humor, sunsets or knuckleballs.

This is remarkably obtuse for a philosophy professor. No we can’t prove there’s no God, because science can’t prove anything absolutely. But we haven’t seen any signs of a god, and shouldn’t we have by now–especially if God wants us to know Him! (Ask Francis Collins or the Templeton Foundation, by the way, if science doesn’t concern itself with God: Collins thinks the “Moral Law” is evidence for God, while Templeton directs its $70 million/year budget towards finding evidence in science for the divine.) Science has been the greatest God-killer in history, and it’s because science doesn’t need God to find out things. In that sense we do have something to say about God, just like we have something to say about the Loch Ness Monster.

And about “only matter being real,” well, it depends on what you mean by “reality.” My thoughts are real to me, and though they’re the product of matter, they aren’t material in themselves.  Mathematics isn’t made of matter, but it’s real in some sense.  What we adhere to is not that matter is the only reality, but that everything in the cosmos obeys the laws of nature. That’s called “naturalism.”

The meat of Noë’s piece, however, is the claim that atheists and scientists (again conflated) are not fully human. Remember that he faulted us earlier for being human, what with the building of gas chambers and all:

Spockians give science a bad name. If you think of science as being in the business of figuring out how atoms spinning noiselessly in the void give rise to the illusion that there are such things as love, humor, sunsets and knuckleballs, then it isn’t surprising that people might come to think that the inner life of a scientist would be barren.

I suspect this is what is at stake when people find it hard to believe that atheists have active spiritual lives — or that they might experience wonder or awe. It isn’t the non-belief in God that makes atheism seem puzzling. It’s the active adherence to the Spockian worldview. For the Spockian worldview is the denial of meaning and value.

In this context, it is no answer to critics of atheism to say that, as a matter of fact, atheists feel awe in the face of nature, that you don’t need God for wonder.

For in a Spockian universe there is no such thing as nature, there is just material process, particles and fields, in the void. Nor, for the Spockian, is there any such thing as wonder, not really; for what is an emotion, but a conjury of particles in the nervous system?

Well if people think that atheists or scientists don’t experience wonder or awe, or even a form of nonreligious spirituality for many, then they don’t know atheists or scientists. Has Noë read Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality? We are just like everyone else, except that we have a different job (a great one!) and we’re a lot less religious than most. I’ve been around scientists all my life, and I don’t recognize Noë’s stereotype in my colleagues. We like to read, go to museums and movies, and eat and drink good stuff. Most scientists have hobbies. Scientists, in fact, know a lot more about the arts and humanities than humanities and arts people know about science.  Really, what kind of clueless person could characterize us like this? It’s a stereotype based on either ignorance or prejudice, and it’s not true.

Noë’s other accusation, which should by now have gone the way of the Edsel, is that atheists and scientists have no way to derive value, meaning or morality in their lives. The fact that these traits are, in fact, abundantly present in largely atheistic countries like Sweden and Denmark should have told Noë that he’s barking up the wrong tree. Granted, he says that religious people don’t have great ways for getting meaning and value, but at least they have ways. (Note, too, that he says “we” when referring to nonbelievers, leading me to think that he’s an atheist):

The religionist, it should be noted, is not much better off. God doesn’t explain meaning or value any better than the laws of physics. But in one respect, the religionist may have an advantage: Atheists, in so far as they are followers of Spock, have an explanatory burden that religionists don’t carry — that of explaining how you get meaning and value out of particles, or alternatively, that of explaining why meaning and value are an illusion.

This guy is a professor of philosophy, and yet he claims that there is no good secular way to find meaning and value in one’s life? Has he not read the ancient Greeks, or his fellow philosophers through Hume, Kant, Spinoza and up to Singer and Grayling? Does he ever get out at all, even in his own profession? And yet he has the temerity to lecture us, his fellow atheists, to take off our pointy ears and become more like Captain Kirk—to become more like religious people:

The big challenge for atheism is not God; it is that of providing an alternative to Spock-ism. We need an account of our place in the world that leaves room for value.

What we need, then, is a Kirkian understanding of science and its place in our lives. The world, for Captain Kirk and his ontological followers, is a field of play, and science is a form of action.

If i were talking to friends, at this point I would hurl a stream of invective, including some not-so-nice epithets about Professor Noë. But this is a family-friendly site, so I’ll just close by saying that the good Professor is bigoted against atheists and scientists, even if he’s one of us.  The prejudice that we’re cold and inhuman, lacking meaning and value, is a stereotype that isn’t supported by the facts.  The biggest mystery is why anybody would let Noë write this kind of stuff on a website sponsored by a supposedly thoughtful organization. And if he got paid one cent for writing this, that’s way too much.




  1. GBJames
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink


    • Diane G.
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink


  2. Scote
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Spockians? The term Nöe is looking for is “Straw Men”… :-p

    • davidintoronto
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      By coincidence… just this morning I was reading TV Tropes’ article on “straw Vulcan.” 😉

      • Scote
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Nice find. This seems on point, from the link:

        “The most common mistake is to assume that logic and emotion are somehow naturally opposed and that employing one means you can’t have the other. Excluding emotion doesn’t make your reasoning logical, however, and it certainly doesn’t cause your answer to be automatically true. Likewise, an emotional response doesn’t preclude logical thinking — although it may prevent you from thinking in the first place — and if an emotional plan is successful, that doesn’t make logic somehow wrong. “

  3. Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Atheists are cold an emotionless? I don’t know. The prevailing need to whack this ninny up-side his head with a shovel seems pretty well rooted in anger to me.

  4. Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Kirkian? Screw that! We need to be Picardian!!! What’s wrong with that dope? 🙂

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Make it Noë!


    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Make it Noë!


    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Actually I think the problem is that atheists are too much Holmes and not enough Watson.

      No, we’re too much Professor and not enough Skipper (or is it too much Captain and not enough Tennille?).

      No, we’re too much The Man and not enough Chico.

      No, we’re too much Andy and not enough Amos (unless it’s the other way around).

      Wait wait, here it is: we’re mostly too much Paul, and also too much John but also not enough John, nowhere near enough George, and frankly completely lacking in the Ringo department.

      This is the problem with making analogies between one-dimensional fictional characters (or dramatis personae) and caricatured socio-demographic groups: it is at once too easy and too hard – and completely useless.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        Too much Cher, not enough Sonny.
        Too much Starsky, not enough Hutch. (seeing if I can get more 70s obscure)
        Too much Schreiber, not enough Burns.
        Too much York, not enough Sargent.
        Too much Dick, not enough Tommie.
        Too much Ironside, not enough Mannix…

        This is fun!

        • Grania Spingies
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          Now make it rhyme.

          • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

            Too much Father Stone, not enough Father Ted.

          • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

            Too much Heckle, not enough Jeckle.
            Too much Rhoda, not enough Vigoda.
            Too much Crawford, not enough Lawford.
            Too much Nicks, not enough Styx.

            • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

              Wow. My hat is off.

            • Posted September 16, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

              All my problems, I must admit, would melt away if I could be more like Abe Vigoda. Especially in the looks department.

              • Posted September 16, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

                Not to worry. Eventually, we’ll all look like Abe Vigoda.

              • Bill the Cat
                Posted September 18, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

                I resemble that remark…

        • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          LOL Too much York, not enough Sargent

          Of course religion is too much Harry and not enough Lloyd.

          Too much Forrest and not enough Bubba.

          Too much Tywin and not enough Tyrion.

          Oh it just goes on forever …

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      I’m nerdy in the extreme and whiter than sour cream
      I was in AV club and Glee club and even the chess team!
      Only question I ever thought was hard
      Was do I like Kirk or do I like Picard?

  5. Kevin
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    There is such beauty in both Spock and Kirk, if Alva can’t see that it is understandable that justifications for purpose in his life might fall short of some ideal. An ideal he appears to think is threatened mostly by logic.

  6. merilee
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink


  7. wonderer
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Ironic that William Lane Craig’s response to his latest question of the week…

    …begins with.

    Anonymous, I can’t help but observe that you seem to be emotionally caught up in this objection. I think the first thing that needs to be done, then, is to try to disentangle your emotions from the philosophical issues at stake here. Then you will be able to think more clear-headedly about the arguments.

    And then WLC proceeds to defend the atrocities in the Bible.

    • William G
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      WLC talks out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to emotion and reason. Here he chastises the questioner for letting emotion get the better of him/her, but in his book Reasonable Faith, the entire second chapter is a shameless appeal to emotion about how a godless universe would be too bleak to endure.

      He gets so caught up in lurid descriptions of Nazi war atrocities, going so far as to italicize especially gruesome bits, that he forgets to spend any amount of time establishing how the presence of a god makes morality objective.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

        That’s how they all argue. Whatever sounds kind of good at the moment.

        No one ever accused a theist of being too consistent.

  8. eric
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I have occasionally used the Spock analogy, but in a very narrow fashion to argue against people who think context-based reasoning is a character flaw and that if you aren’t consistently applying the rules of science to every thing you do, you are being irrational and inconsistent. In my usage, Spock represents a person who thinks it is admirable to use the same decision-making methodology (here, science) in all circumstances.

    Noe is using it in a broader sense to argue scientism. I agree with Jerry about this and disagree with Noe…and as a proponent of the Spock analogy, I further object to Noe’s poor use of it. 🙂

  9. Greg Peterson
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I saw this piece over the weekend and thought it was basically too stupid to respond to. Made me want to go all Pon Farr on Nöe’s hindside.

    You were actually pretty gentle, Jerry. That is one of the weirdest, dumbest thing that I’ve seen from an ostensible atheist in some time.

    As to NPR, I don’t know–there are several outspoken atheists that appear on various shows, not AS ATHEISTS promoting atheism, necessarily, but Bobcat Goldthwaite and Paula Poundstone have both discussed their atheism on NPR shows, as has Ira Glass (and “This American Life” had that wonderful Julia Sweeney piece several years ago). Even Tippett has had several atheists on her two shows over the years. I actually think they do pretty well, reason-wise. This Nöe piece stands out to me as the sole example of profoundly stupid atheist-bashing from an NPR source.

  10. Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne is a Fellow at SGI and I am but a lowly Communicator, but I must jump in to note that Jerry’s post and the NPR ed piece he’s criticizing are both stumbling on the NOMA issue, which dear old Stephen Jay Gould got almost right. The divide is not between Science and Religion, as he thought, but between Decidable and Undecidable propositions, explained at greater length at

    Philosophers have been stumbling around this area for some time (I use William Clifford and William James from late 19th century as the archetype) and I contend we will get clearer arguments here if we pay attention to when we try to use scientific arguments in the undecidable domain, or philosophical arguments in the decidable one, without realizing their inapplicability.

    Is can’t get you to ought no matter how hard you push, nor can philosophical oughts be invoked to override what is when it comes to the facts of the physical world (Ken Ham a case in point)

    • Greg Peterson
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      With respect, James, I don’t actually view your comment as on point. What Nöe did was a hatchet job on atheists. I don’t think this is simply finding oneself tresppasing on the wrong side of NOMA. Jerry’s use of “clueless” is charitable, but probably accurat. I’m not sure Nöe MEANT to be a dick, but that was the effect of his piece. For me the most powerful objection was experential. I don’t know those atheists! Oh, a few, sure. Some with autism spectrum disorders, even. I hope we’re not call THEM Spockian. But most atheists I know are deeply feeling, awestruck, lauging-crying-singing-dancing folks. I just think Nöe needs to go to a proper party sometime. That’s the real issue.

    • eric
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I disagree that Gould got it almost right. He got it wildly wrong. The basic, pithy description of his blunder is tat nobody can or should put a limit on what religions get to say. If someone thinks God revealed some fact about the physical world to them, then that’s a legitimately religious belief. The NOMA concept that religions should stick to non-physical claims…wrongity wrong wrong. Implausible in practice, and philosophically unjustifiable (what, can God not make such statements?). I really like Gould but this particular idea of his is nothing more than a liberal ‘why can’t we all just get along’ daydream.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Do read what I had to say first before shredding it. Where Gould got it right was in sensing a different realm of argument, where he got it wrong was in drawing the line between religion and science. While scientific evidence can be used to support or dispute philosophical beliefs, they cannot resolve the deepest of them, and my point is that atheists and religionists can get into equal quagmires when they fail to realize they have jumped to another domain without realizing it.

        • eric
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

          There is no “other domain” for religion. That’s the point that you and Gould got wrong.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see the connection.

      NOMA is a theological claim, and erroneous at that so certainly decideable. E.g. we know that there are no magical agency that creates species, as some religions have claimed, et cetera.

      Decideability is a part of computer science, which is a theory of physical, computational, resources. It is but one part of the constraints put on empirical methods, others are quantum mechanics (inherent randomness), relativistic mechanics (non-locality), et cetera.

      But that is not what you consider: “Propositions are “decidable” to the extent that you can work out what sufficient evidence would be for accepting or rejecting them (like the Earth revolving around the sun, and not the other way around). Propositions are “undecidable” though whenever it is the nature of “sufficient evidence” that is turning into the point of dispute.”

      Your “decideable” propositions are what we call testable hypotheses. When you work out the hypothesis you decide that they are “decideable” under your schemata.

      And your “undecideable” propositions are what we call “open questions”, if they are useful and connected to tested hypotheses. Those we decisively know how to answer: “we don’t know”. We certainly doesn’t have any basis to claim that they are “undecideable”, and we have no way to connect their openness with the CS sense of decideability. That lies in the nature of that we “don’t know”.

      Unless there is a theological sleight of hand that claims that open questions are not open, the question of the efficiency of science is not a theological issue. Hence it is completely unrelated to Gould’s NOMA.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps I should also add that I don’t see why secular organizations (like NCSE does :-/) would accept, humor or even consider theology. It is apologetic buffoonery that the religious have found useful.

        But it has no connection with the actual world, and it is of little use for the secular society. Unlike science.

    • Gamall
      Posted September 17, 2014 at 2:57 am | Permalink

      Even granting your premises, something being “undecidable” does not give one license to make stuff up to fill the void.

      Terrible terminology, by the way; those words (decidable and undecidable) already have a very precise, fundamental, and useful meaning in mathematics and theoretical computer science. There’s no point in overloading by the muddy mushy meanings proposed here.

      • Posted September 17, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink

        Gamall: Bullseye. Very well and succinctly said.

  11. Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Straw Vulcan!

    I am Spock. According to a quiz on Facebook. But, then, according to another, I’m Peter Quill (Starlord). Go figure.


    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      Ah. David in Toronto (#2…) beat me to that trope…


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Ha ha I was Picard according to a FB quiz once. My favourite captain is the much underrated Captain Sisko though.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        I’m a Captain Janeway man myself. If for no other reason than Kate Mulgrew is a spectacularly gifted actress. Watch her on Orange is the New Black if you get the chance. She just chews up scenery almost every time she’s on camera.

      • Another Tom
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Yay! Another Sisko fan. He’s my favorite too and so often ignored in favor of Kirk vs Picard.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          Yes – I really liked Sisko. He didn’t want to be in Starfleet & he had to work through a lot of heavy things. I thought the character really developed & I loved the episode where the worm hole aliens have him experience living in the US south in the 30s, then in a much later episode, when they all want to go to the holodeck, he says that he didn’t want to because back in the time the holodeck was simulating, things were bad for black people. I like how they talk about how the holodeck leaves that bad stuff out.

          That 30’s episode was really great; I loved how all the women had to write science fiction under pseudonyms too.

          There was really good writing on DS9. I think Carl Sagan’s son wrote for the series for a while too.

          • Grania Spingies
            Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

            Also, Sisko has the most beautiful singing voice in the Alpha and Gamma quadrants. Possibly in the whole damn universe.
            Even though Janeway is my favorite.

            • Another Tom
              Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

              Sisko must have been a singer in another life. 😉

              • Grania Spingies
                Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

                No kidding. It was this funny little exchange that made me realise that just maybe the guy had a whole ‘nother talent I needed to investigate.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

                Another reason why Sisko is awesome. 🙂

              • Another Tom
                Posted September 16, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

                And then there’s this from the following season: LinkText

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Straw half-Vulcan, no?

  12. Sean
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Who’s life has more meaning and value:

    The person who thinks they are the center of the universe and are praying for a [insert sky god’s name] to return to earth and [insert prefered apocalypse description here]

    The person who realises that we are all clinging to the same very insignificant rock, hurtling through space protected by a paper think atmosphere. That we all have one, and only one, life to live and we should maximise our short stay at the party, make as many friends, and spread as much love as possible, because it could all end tomorrow with one errant meteorite.

    “It’s one life to live, so live it the best you can” – Kanye West

    • Greg Peterson
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Or, Sean, the way I think of it sometimes is, what can be more meaningless than praising a perfect being “just for being you”? A perfect being by definition can gain NOTHING from the experience, right? Whereas giving blood or donating to cystic fribrosis research or buying lunch for a friend who lost a job can be wonderfully meaningful…because meaning. This notion that doing something for God is meaningful is very strange. And there is another issue, sort of like Euthyphro’s Dilemma, to deal with: Does God command that we do things that are meaningful, or are things meaningful because God commands them? If the first, then things must be INTRINSICALLY meaningful, so that God can be a source of information about meaningful activities, but not the source of meaning itself; if the second, then God could command ANYTHING and it would be “meaningful.” Trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper could be meaningful if God declared it thus. This is nonsense. Meaning is a human activity, not a divine fiat. And meaning IS an activity–we make it, we don’t find it.

  13. Another Tom
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Does Nöe not realize that the whole Vulcan restraint of emotion, and embrace of logic and reason is because they had a nuclear war that almost made their species extinct? From what I’ve seen, Vulcan’s experience far stronger emotions than other species and because of their near miss with extinction they have decided to restrain their emotions and embrace reason as a method to minimize further risk of extinction.

    Oh, and as for being like Kirk, I guess we’re supposed to eye-bang every man, woman, and alien we come across. If you go back and watch the original series the acting style implies that Kirk is having sex with everyone and everything, including Spock. Just pay attention to how much deep eye gazing Kirk has with just Spock. I’m sure that wasn’t the case when aired but now they are having a gay old time. Or maybe in Kirk’s case an omni old time.

    • Another Tom
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      One more thing, Kirk also is kind of atheistic in that he never takes any being claiming to be a god seriously as a god. There’s one episode where the Enterprise comes across the alien that Apollo is based upon who ends up disappointed that humans don’t consider him a god anymore. Then there’s Star Trek V and the quote, “What does god need with a starship?” Kirk regularly encounters powerful aliens but he never assumes that they are actually gods. Instead he treat’s their claims skeptically.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Beat me to it. Even Spock was a rube compared to the hypersexual egomaniac Kirk when it concerned trickster aliens. But at least Spock was a little more hip than the “great white captain upstairs”.

        His musicianship does seem a bit pedantic, with a straight-up 1-4-5 progression consisting of nothing but 7(+9) chords. And he seems to have no problem undermining ship discipline in that episode. But at least he wasn’t stuffing tribbles or anything.

        • Filippo
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          “His musicianship does seem a bit pedantic, with a straight-up 1-4-5 progression consisting of nothing but 7(+9) chords.”

          As opposed to rock “power chords”?

          “If hit ain’t country hit ain’t nuthin’.

          • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

            🙂 I would’ve expected maybe some kind of alternate tuning – anything but an equal-tempered 12-tone scale.

            • Posted September 17, 2014 at 6:14 am | Permalink

              He’s a Gamalan man!

              (I can here pwer chords behind that lyric!)

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      It is ironic (as I discuss in my NOMA Revisited piece) that we are talking about the FICTIONAL character of Spock and the FICTIONAL “history” of his IMAGINARY planet. Humans use art in this way to create realities that relate to many things, as I noted in my piece of the brilliantly perceptive “Invention of Lying” by Ricky Gervais

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Nice to see a reference to that very clever film! I was thinking about it earlier today while reading the Catholic Crybabies post, and PCC’s assertion that humanity would be better off had we never cooked up religion: thinking of the awful things people do to one another, how we strive for power and control, how weak we are in our appetites contra our enlightened self and mutual interests: I think if we hadn’t invented gods we would have invented them anyway (to mangle the old saying).

        Not that PCC is wrong (he’s right), and not that we shouldn’t work to throw off the yoke of superstition and magical thinking, but I think the yoke was all but inevitable.

        And here the Noe’s of the world would see us all wear it all the same because oh look all the nice people wear one.

      • Posted September 17, 2014 at 6:15 am | Permalink

        The Invention of Lying is one of the cleverest films I’ve seen in ages. I need to watch it again …

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Vulcans mate once every 7 years – Kirk’s balls would be bluer than Spock’s tunic.

      • Another Tom
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        That’s ignoring all the side tail that Kirk seems to get from 60’s airmen to improbably powerful alien women to rock monsters.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I think the only other fictional science fiction-y character to get more action than Kirk has to be Captain Jack Harkness – he slept with both sexes & just about any alien species. 🙂

        • Filippo
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Right, who needs phasers and photon torpedoes when one has Kirk’s libido?

          • Another Tom
            Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

            Other crew members do help but mainly what I saw was that Kirk seduces an alien (as a distraction?) while Spock solves the problem.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for reminding us! Kirk is an anachronistic promiscuous star-pig. Certainly we don’t need more of THAT in our culture.

    • G Wilson
      Posted September 17, 2014 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      Well, exactly. The author of this tendentious waffle plainly has no idea what the characters of Star Trek are about. Spock follows Kirk, who’s a questioning thinker that challenges and tests with falsification criteria – even when presented with a supposed “god”. From Star Trek V:


      Kirk: What does God need with a starship?

      McCoy: Jim, what are you doing?

      Kirk: I’m asking a question.

      “God”: Who is this creature?

      Kirk: Who am I? Don’t you know? Aren’t you God?

      Sybok: He has his doubts.

      “God”: You doubt me?

      Kirk: I seek proof.

      McCoy: Jim! You don’t ask the Almighty for his ID!

      “God”: Then here is the proof you seek.

      [Shoots Kirk with lightning]

      Kirk: Why is God angry?

      Sybok: Why? Why have you done this to my friend?

      “God”: He doubts me.

      Spock: You have not answered his question. What does God need with a starship?

      “God”: [shoots Spock with lightning; then addresses McCoy] Do you doubt me?

      McCoy: I doubt any God who inflicts pain for his own pleasure.


      “Atheists need Kirk”? Quite. Religion needs Kirk more.

      • Filippo
        Posted September 17, 2014 at 4:34 am | Permalink

        From what relatively little I know, I gather that it has been the “received wisdom” (from omniscient souls hardly if ever identified) that Star Trek V was the worst of the lot. This sentiment is usually offered without also offering proof such as what Kirk & Co. would require.

        I have heard it said that the movie was too “cerebral” for the average movie goer, as if that were somehow a fault and a reason for the movie’s failure. I gather that the above superb script dialogue is evidence for this.

        As one is occasionally reminded in postings here:

        “Most people would rather die than think; and most people do.” (Bertrand Russell)

  14. briandupuis
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Nöe apparently never saw Star Trek V (the one the fans agree to never speak of again). There, the crew meets “God” face-to-face… and it’s *Kirk* who doubts it and demands proof with simple, rational, questions. (Thankfully, you can skip the movie and watch the scene directly by googling “What does God need with a starship?” Kirk’s lines are almost exactly what we’d expect a militant atheist to say when confronted with a self-identified “God”.)

    If Nöe is trying to cast Kirk as the accommodationist of the original cast, his grasp of Star Trek is as shaky as his grasp of atheism.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      @ Brian~ Roddenberry on religion: “I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will — and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.”
      I think you’re correct, Noe missed the core of Star Trek entirely.

  15. Amy
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I always think it is weird that people like Nöe can be a professor, but weird things happen all the time…

  16. Sastra
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Atheists, in so far as they are followers of Spock, have an explanatory burden that religionists don’t carry — that of explaining how you get meaning and value out of particles, or alternatively, that of explaining why meaning and value are an illusion.

    Yes, once again we are treated to someone who doesn’t understand (or won’t understand) the possibility of a nuanced and sophisticated approach to the horrible monster of reductionism. If — as the theory of naturalism has it — the physical has ontological priority over the mental — then clearly everything mental (thoughts, beliefs, abstractions, values, emotions, aethetics) doesn’t really exist. Or, worse, must be discounted as insignificant. So goes the argument. Dualism can’t be dismissed because it’s just so hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea that nothing has a fundamentally purposeful explanation. Like doesn’t always lead to like.

    It seems to me that like many critics of atheism Noe isn’t really singling out the odd atheist or two who tries to couple Mr. Spock’s lack of emotion with Dr McCoy’s scorn: “Beauty? Love? They cannot be held in the hand norseen with a microscope. Therefore, I see no reason to believe in such a dang fool things.”

    No, just like presuppositionalists he’s accusing atheists of being inconsistent. Since reductionism must entail greedy reductionism, the atheist world view cannot account for values, thoughts, emotions, and so forth.

    And so atheists — real atheists — will aim at Mr. Spock as sole role model. Apparently the concept of a method which tries to eliminate undue bias can’t be separated from its users.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      He’s overly analytical, Jim.

      • Filippo
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        “I’m a doctor, not a philosopher.”

  17. Chukar
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    “Spock-ism” and its defects is a straw-man argument. I myself particularly dislike “giraffe-ism” as people stretching their necks without warrant does nothing to benefit society at large.

  18. Chris Walker
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m more of a Tuvok man, myself. Loved his interactions with Captain Janeway.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      I always liked Spock’s dad Sarek. He looks just like some Romans of the Republican period (immortalized in busts).

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        He looks very like one of the Romulans…


        • bacopa
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

          Mark Lenard played a Romulan captain in the episode “Balance of Terror” before he came back the next season to play Spock’s dad.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I think that was Ant’s joke – he has dry humour. 🙂

          • Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            You don’t say.


  19. Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Anyway, I’m on Facebook (James Downard in Spokane WA) and Twitter (Rulon James Downard there) and those venues are available for further discussion. Have fun here, and anyone who can get Mr. Spock himself (the character, not the actor) to comment let me know, to file in the Second Coming nonevent category.

  20. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Wow Noë manages to screw up Star Trek, human nature & science all in one post!

    First of all, Ben is right, Spock was emotional. He just kept it all suppressed. That’s why when Vulcans get old & start to die, they can’t keep their emotions under wraps & start weeping constantly.

    Besides the faulty metaphor, Noë seems to mix up science with scientists. It’s like confusing engineers with brakes on the car – damn engineers just don’t stop as well as they should & they always need to have those brake pads installed! Noë seems to have missed that scientists are human too – all the information enters their brain through that annoying, feeling thing called the amygdala first, just like it does with every other human & every other mammal. He’d know this if he cracked a science book every now and then instead of misunderstanding old Star Trek episodes.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      “when Vulcans get old & start to die, they can’t keep their emotions under wraps & start weeping constantly”.

      Not all Vulcans, the presumption was that Sarek (Spock’s father) had a disease that had such symptoms. “Sarek suffers from Bendii Syndrome, an incurable and terminal neurological degenerative illness that makes him lose control of his emotions.” [ ]

      A way to finally reconcile the mostly cold father and the mostly emotional son, I think.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Was Spock the “most emotional character,”* though? Martin Landau claims he turned the role down because of its limited emotional range (although there’s some dispute about Landau’s recollection).

      I would agree with you that Spock felt more emotions than non-fans generally realize. Some of the more interesting stories involving Spock and his people dealt with the fact that their dedication to logic did not come naturally; it was a social mandate requiring unending personal discipline, meant to suppress urges that had led to epic bloodshed in Vulcan’s past.

      But did Spock think and act more emotionally than, say, McCoy? Certainly not if measured in dammits and angry declarations of what one doesn’t do for a living. 🙂

      * Not including the pilot, in which Spock behaved very little like the Vulcan we came to grok and love. Also not including pon farr. Fighting over a mate every seven years? Kirk did that half a dozen times a month.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        Remember – Spock was also half human. I think all Vulcan’s were very emotional – just they controlled their emotions. I recall Spock’s mom spoke this about his father – he seemed like a hard ass but he really wasn’t because he showed affection in his own way.

        • Posted September 16, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

          Absolutely. I don’t discount Spock’s humanity, even though he worked so hard to suppress it. It’s one of the things that made Kirk’s speech at the end of Wrath of Khan one of the more poignant moments in sci-fi cinema.

          Spock had emotions; I just think “most emotional character” is off the mark. He certainly didn’t speak or behave as emotionally as other characters. Now, was he more emotional way deep down in his katra than his shipmates? That’s something for Betazoid psychoanalysts to debate. 😉

          • Posted September 16, 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

            At practically every opportunity, Spock was mind-melding with some weird alien and writing in agony, or going into heat and raging furiously, or one way or another turning the emotional histrionics up to 11.

            Of course, by the end of the episode, he was back to his old self with nary more than an ironic lift of the eyebrow to indicate he wasn’t a meat robot…but, clearly, his primary plot device function was hyper-emotionalism.


            • Posted September 16, 2014 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

              I might quibble with some of that, but the delta’s not especially relevant. My disagreement isn’t with the notion that Spock could be emotional. Rather, as I’ve indicated twice now, I dispute the description of “most emotional character.” That’s a categorical comparison of Spock to his shipmates. Spock was more emotional than Kirk, McCoy, or Scotty? I don’t see it. But I’ll keep your thesis in mind the next time I watch the old series again. 🙂

              • Posted September 16, 2014 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

                Spock was constantly doing this sort of thing. I don’t remember any other character with even a single emotional outburst that dramatic.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted September 17, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

                In general Vulcan emotions are pretty heavy — when Sarek mind melded with Picard, Picard almost couldn’t take it.

  21. Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    This commentary has deeply misunderstood Spock’s character. Vulcans are not emotionally deficient. They have deep, passionate emotions. Logic for them is a value and a discipline, something they choose because they feel it makes them nobler beings. Plus, I don’t recall manyof the humans in Star Trek expressing much in the way of religious affiliation.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Gene Roddenberry was an avowed humanist and thought we’d be free of religion by the 23rd Century.

      If only.

      • jeffran
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        I think we’ll get there. Hope, anyway.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        If you had asked me 35 years ago whether marijuana and same-sex marriage would be liberalized in the US by now I would have been confidence they would be, and more so than they are now.

        If you asked me eight years ago, I would have been much less confident.

        My point being it’s difficult to foresee trends in the mid-to-long-term but I do believe humanity will be humanist in 200 years.

        And I do think that the US is on the verge of a generational tipping-point and 35 years from now the “None” category will be the next-largest “religious” group after Protestant Christian – Catholics are only 22% of the population, and at 9-ish percent we already outnumber the Mormons, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, believing-Jews, and Scientologists combined.

        But in the US Bible Belt, and outside the US and the EU? Eeesh. That changeover could take the whole 200 years.

        • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

          I totally agree there. Esp. about the generational norm-tipping behavior. What I’m seeing from a lot of younger folks here in conservative Colo Spgs is very heartening. I could drive ten minutes east, to the plains, and it would be just like rural Tennessee. But the trends seem solid, and the tipping inevitable. Usually, it takes crises to cause such widespread cultural innovation, and I think our times qualifies.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Not surprisingly, since Roddenberry was a humanist.


    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      And Vulcans chose it above all, as I understand it, because war nearly trashed their civilization. Roddenberry’s response to the WW’s, I think.

      The Vulcans that split off are the openly passionate, war-making Romulans.

      [I’m sure the name and their social structure akin to the Roman empire was a play on the Remus and Romulus twin myth.]

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        There is an explicit referencing of “Romulus and Remus,” but the Vulcans do not represent Remus. In Star Trek: Nemesis we encounter the “Remans” who obviously refer to Remus. In the myth, Remus is killed by Romulus; but in Star Trek, the Romulans enslave the Remans. I guess it was never meant to be a manifestation of the Roman mythology; they just mined ancient culture for some cool sounding alien names.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          Vulcans look so much like Roman Republican senators – dress and facial appearance. I’m sure they scooped all that.

        • Posted September 16, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          read Diane Duane’s ST novels about the Romulans to see a nifty representation of that culture. Much better than the silly ones in STNG (with the uniforms that prevented lifting your arms).

          • Posted September 16, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

            I’ve always wondered how both Romulans and Vulcans sport a haircut that is popular on the who planet. No one ever seems to have thought to try out a different style.

    • Posted September 17, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      It is unbelievable how many psychologists and philosophers and neuroscientists of emotion make this sort of mistake, too.

  22. Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    It’s McCoy who is the emotional one; Kirk’s the one who just wants to shag everything in sight. If people are going to use Star Trek analogies they should get it right.

    I get called Spock sometimes. I’m not sure if that’s my interest in science, my aspie lack of affect, or a slight on my sex life (Vulcans undergoing pon farr every 7 years). Doesn’t bother me at all.

    Worth adding that the Vulcan creed is Kol-Ut-Shan – ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’ – and their mind melding ability makes human empathy look like phrenology.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      I get called Sheldon, which I think is basically a smart ass Spock.

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        By rights Sheldon would be an atheist, especially having rejected his upbringing.

        I don’t think any of the characters in The Big Bang Theory actually identify as atheist though.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          I think Sheldon has mentioned “the deity he doesn’t believe in” but I get called Sheldon for other reasons – usually explaining science or mocking pseudo science.

          • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

            That is delightful – your acquaintances are jealous! I trust you wear their mockery as your armor and/or badge of honor – if not, you should do!

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

              Yes, you should have seen me go off on the paleo diet, followed up with an email with several links to refutations written by anthropologists. 🙂

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      They are all emotional, of course.

      – McCoy’s emotions are open and simple, indeed he is mostly grumpy.
      -Kirk’s emotions is to turn every situation into a winning one, for his and his crews benefit. (Well, not so much for the crew when the situation involves females…)
      – Spock is the one with the deep, complex emotional life. He is the foil that makes the other two, and mostly Kirk, more than one-dimensional characters.

      I don’t think there is an easy way to measure amount and quality of emotion.

    • Posted September 17, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Kirk is *supposed* to be the balance between the two, with little bits of Spock in McCoy (he *is* a physician, after all) and little bits of McCoy in Spock – he does care, if one pays enough attention. This is all done to a supreme extent in “The Empath”, which is also (in a way) a critique of hypocritical christians.

  23. Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    What we need, then, is a Kirkian understanding of science and its place in our lives. The world, for Captain Kirk and his ontological followers, is a field of play, and science is a form of action.

    Kirk isn’t a scientist unless ‘science’ is tearing your shirt and wrestling a lizard.

    McCoy is just as much a scientist as Spock.

    I blame the last two movies for Bones-erasure.

    • Another Tom
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Kirk doesn’t just wrestle a lizard, he made a cannon and fired it at a lizard.

      Kirk is supposed to have genius level intellect, but he’s a starship Captain not a scientist. (Also, not a doctor, dammit)

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        I’m quite happy with Kirk not having the answer all of the time. That’s what really ticked me off about Janeway.

  24. Kathy
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    The person who wrote this drivel earned a B. Phil from Oxford, a Ph.D from Harvard and is a professor at UC Berkeley. Wow, I’m scratching my head. Perusing his publications leads me think he’s been in his own special bubble for a long time.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      I think you can get away with bullshit philosophy but attempt a bullshit Star Trek analogy and you’ll get called on it.

      We have higher standards.

    • eric
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, and to think Berkeley used to have Feyerabend. He was a pretty wild hair postomodernist but at least he was interesting. The quality of their ‘science critiquing’ philosophers has really gone downhill.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      That’s right: even well-educated esteemed individuals can be capable of stringing a lame one-liner out into an essay for (a little if any) money and (limited) attention.

  25. Stan Pak
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Argument from gas chambers is quite stupid and inaccurate. If one reads the history of these inventions, they were designed initially for good purposes, to remove lice from clothes or similar ends.
    Use of gas on people came not from scientists or even engineers, but from army officers. At least that was first experimented on Soviet POWs and Poles in Auschwitz with Zyklon B. In Treblinka, there was no scientists designing chambers – soldiers used tank engine to generate exhaust gases channeled then to chambers. Later, the newer built chambers were designed by engineers in Reich. But still, I never heard of actual scientists involved in the process.
    So, if the blame should be put, it should come more to engineers, than scientists. But I find it logic ridiculous anyway. It is like blame the car engineers or petro-chemists that they are guilty of death on roads caused by DUI drivers.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      The hatred of Jews was religious in origin. The Nazis didn’t just wake up one morning hating Jews – anti-semitism dated back long before the Enlightenment.

      And the Holocaust didn’t happen because the Nazis had the technology and were just looking for someone to test it out on.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Yes, exactly. It was the poisonous ideology (with historical roots) that was dictating the directions of action. The technology was just there available, re-purposed for evil deeds.

        • reasonshark
          Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

          This is what I find most groan-worthy about the naive “science did bad things too” accusation. When Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were deep in their gruesome atrocities, they weren’t doing it with the mindsets of nihilistic hyper-scientists. Their motivations and actions were moralistic, committed to principles, and based on their own comforts and emotions wedded to self-righteous and even narcissistic ideologies. The tribalism that fuelled their “us versus them” style of thinking – such as the paranoia that Stalin and Mao took to extremes – is a deeply human and deeply intuitive and emotional mindset, easily triggered.

          And generally, compared to the numbers killed by emotional, moralistic, and self-righteous people, the number of atrocities committed by amoral scientists treating people like things is negligible.

      • Another Tom
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        The Nazi’s were big fans of Martin Luther’s 1543 work: On the Jews and Their Lies, and found it inspirational. There are probably other antisemitic writers dating further back but Martin Luther is the biggest name I know for pre-Enlightenment antisemitism.

    • Posted September 17, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Inaccurate because it ignores:

      (1) The science/technology distinction.
      (2) The conceptualization of science as a *meta-method*. (Admittedly this how I characterize my own view, but it is shared by others.)

  26. BuddyI
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    “Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” – Captain Kirk, Wrath of Khan

  27. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Ironically, a far far better critique of the Spock philosophy from an !*atheist*! point of view was given at Skepticon a few years ago.

    It would be “fascinating” (as Spock would say) to do a thorough comparison of the problems with Spock’s philosophy in the piece above and the bit here.

    On a different point, unlike Martha Stewart, Krista Tippett is not a convicted felon, does not have a vast media empire, nor is a practicing Roman Catholic.

    • Daniel Engblom
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      I was just about to link this Julia Galef’s lecture, which speaks well about much that is wrong with this common stereotype about black and white either rational or emotional. (when it can perfectly well be rational to be emotional.)

    • Daniel Engblom
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Oh, and I should say, Galef isn’t here creating and then attacking a straw man, she’s talking about how common this straw man is and the ways in which it is wrong, so she would definitely be against what Noe writes.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      Let’s try to avoid embedding videos in the comments. The Roolz, I believe, tell you how to link without embedding.

  28. Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    @ Jerry~ I find more and more of late, NPR has succumbed to the influence of Koch money. The Templeton Foundation is an excellent example. As a result, I find myself having to strain their content through the same BS filter I use on the MSM.
    Loved the quote “Krista Tippett, the Martha Stewart of Spirituality” got a pretty big laugh from that. As always, a concise analysis of anti atheist polemic.

    • Filippo
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Also, NPR, has more and more since 2004 acquiesced to the need to “entertain” and to be “edgy.” I’m getting borderline sick of catty, fatuous little digs and comments, and the infiltration of anchors’ personal opinions in the sheeps’ (what IS the plural possessive of “sheep,” plural?) skin of fact/ultimate, highest truth.

      Bob Edwards, Noah Adams, Carl Kassel,
      wherefore art thou?

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      I am sure if the GOP had any idea this would happen, they would never have attacked the funding for public broadcasting in the US.

      Unless … !

  29. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    What an amazingly poor understanding of every issue and character in the piece. It is like a poor first year philosophy students essay, based on an extremely simple one dimensional understanding (probably third hand) of the issues and characters.
    There were decent philosophical papers exploring the place of emotion in fields supposedly dominated by reason, science and philosophy. He doesn’t, as Jerry mentioned seem to have read much philosophy, or science fiction.
    In Issac Azimov’s stories the government was ‘the council of science’.

  30. reasonshark
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Dualism: an intuitive but unjustified assumption, born from lack of imagination, that “thoughts and feelings arise from/are made of matter” and “thoughts and feelings are real” are mutually contradictory propositions. Because obviously, minds are magic. Also, atheists are stupid and probably not very nice people anyway. Blah, blah, blah.

    Like religious, superstitious, and pseudoscience apologists, Noe is just another cookie-cutter romantic. His argument rests on the line of thought that humanity, our human mental and emotional faculties and consciousness, are all mystical magical vunder special things that are just oh so fundamentally different from all else and my gosh, they are what separates humans from mere rocks and even animals. He probably wouldn’t actually call his dualism mystical – or call it dualism, for that matter – but the gist is the same anyway, as evidenced by his unoriginal strawmanning of atheists and scientists as nihilists.

    So once you realize that this is the foundation upon which he builds, the mess he’s produced is unsurprising, even depressingly predictable. Tick off the usual suspects: nihilism accusation, tu quoque fallacy used to make science look bad and hypocritical, confusion of science with human scientists, buying into the bullshit that religions have a monopoly on human ethical and philosophical concerns, etc.

    It doesn’t help that Noe can’t tell the difference between scientific reductionism and nonsensical “we’re-just-atoms” denialism. That’s pretty much a dead give-away that he’s talking rot, but then this tendency towards romantic deification of human mental faculties pretty much guarantees a load of strawmanning, insulting, and self-righteous posturing will ensue.

    I’m starting to wonder if the bigger problem – the one that’s behind religion, superstition, political ideologies of the worst sort, pseudoscience, anti-science, etc. – is actually romanticism, at least of this sort.

  31. Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    claims that “Spock himself was the most emotional character in the original Star Trek.”

    God, no. The occasional flashes of emotion did stand in stark contract to his normal, flat demeanor, and that was enough to make somewhat likeable, but overall he was pretty cold.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Vulcans present as unemotional but that’s because they keep their emotions under control. They’re closely related to the Romulans; without that control – i.e. giving into emotions – they’d be equally warlike.

  32. Erik Verbruggen
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    It is easy to see what he’s trying to do: create a Catch 22. Either scientists are accurate/objective but emotionless (atomic bomb etc.), or they are “humane” and thus subjective. I would agree with the second, but the self-correction as described by Jerry means that while our findings may be biased at times, they give us an increase of knowledge (apropos, I think we should still be happy that the Manhattan project was the first to develop an atomic bomb).

  33. Filippo
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    sub Good Grief!

  34. ladyatheist
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Modern fundamentalist Christianity appeals to emotion — they feel the spirit, get love-bombed at stadium events, and Jesus is their boyfriend. They wear shirts that say “I Love God.” They fear death, Hell, and excommunication or shunning. They find the idea of gay love repulsive to the extent they can’t allow gay people to love each other. They are governed by their emotions.

    So… it’s *logical* to deduce that atheists would be more effective at deconversion if we used the same tactics, but it’s illogical to think that we are too logical as people.

  35. pktom64
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    They see religion the way Europeans (and some Americans) see Americans. As somehow backward.

    While we’re on the subject of debunking nonsense, may I add that not all Europeans see Americans as “somehow backward”? (Though that’s not diminishing the all too common anti-américanisme primaire of some of my fellow Europeans…)

  36. Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t you have said it was a straw man argument and saved yourself a lot of words?

  37. Gordon
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    As one in the “cultural defenders of science” I am reasonably sure that I am not as free of prejudice and superstition as I perhaps should be – but I have no problem with rejecting religion as “irrational and ungrounded.”

    Weird lot philosophers, even for academics.

  38. Jim Thomerson
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    To comment on Jerry’s lack of interest in sci fi. I was an avid fan up to about 1980. At that time, the importance of biology was becoming more obvious, and more stories were based on bad biology. I could no longer suspend disbelief.

    My intended comment is that scientists tend to be either si fi fans or si fi avoiders; not many middle grounders. I wonder if anyone has studied this to any depth.

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Physicists seem willing to suspend disbelief in time travel and travelling faster than light but biologists insist radiation gives you cancer, not superpowers.


    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I think there may be something to that. It’s gotten to the point where I have a difficult time stomaching (modern) fiction. I’m always left wondering what it tells me about the author, rather than buying into the premises being offered.
      I look around me at the books lining the shelves, and I’m hard-pressed to find any fiction… and I cut the time-waster cord in ’96. Strange how some of that stuff occupies the brain 40 years later, just because of when the brain was exposed to it.

    • merilee
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      The only sci-fiish book I’ve ever enjoyed have been the Hitchhiker’s Guide books, which are probably not really sci-fi. I read a lot of science and a lot of (fairly literary) fiction but don’t much like the two combined. I’m not a true scientist, but have taken a lot of university level science courses and have worked in a few labs in my youth. I’m definitely a sci-fi avoider – find it hokey (here come the flying asteroids aimed at me ;-))

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

        Well, chacun à son goût. I grew up with it. After watching _Doctor Who_ and _Star Trek_ on tv*, I started reading Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, and progressed from there. But I’d say, most of the fiction I read nowadays is fantasy, albeit with sf a close second. (Detective fiction, of the hard-boiled variety, is a distant third.)

        Asimov (why do so many fols spell it “Azimov”? is that commoner in the US?) inspired me to become a biochemist… until Nigel Calder’s _The Key to the Universe_ led me to do physics instead.


        • Posted September 17, 2014 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          Asimov’s Foundation series is the best SciFi I’ve read.

          I find most fiction bores me. Especially these days: Most current writers are more concerned with style than content. Bloddy Hell, tell me a story! I don;t care whether it’s true or not (though true is great). But tell me a story and keep it interesting.

          A recently-read NF book that I can highly recommend: Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. It’s about probably the most famous UK double agent in WW II. Really excellent read.

  39. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I would respond to Noë thusly:

    – Science, and its concomitant advanced technology, is of immense value to society as witnessed by statistics on pretty much every value of health, capital, et cetera.

    – Spock is the most human character of the Star Trek universe. Deep down as a terribly emotional Vulcan species held at bay with a terribly rational overlay, and more openly as a conflicted meld between his inheritances as irrational human and rational Vulcan, civilian scientist and military officer.

    He is a foil to Kirk, who necessarily for the fiction can wring success out of any situation but hence would be a very one-dimensional character without his complicated friend.

    Or perhaps more succinctly: @%#!

  40. Keith Cook
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Spock had a human mother, and as the science officer his natural inclination towards being logical topped his emotional self. Also Spock had a sense of irony which belied his Vulcanism, I swear I saw his lips twitching.
    After reading my first full on science books I was awed, that is: a mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, and might, yep it made me feel the above even to this day.
    These explained empirical truths to our existence with no religion required. Phew! to dropping that baggage.
    This Spock-ism article is science envy in a tunnel and there is a train coming. I think you gave it what it deserved Dr Coyne.

  41. Chris
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink


    The religious complain when atheists do a “Kirk”, “Spock” or anything in between so I think that this idiot needs to go on the ignore list.

    And FWIW Spock was very emotional. For a Volcan. Or for msny people living at that time.

    • Chris
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Apologies. Much phone-related spelling fail there.

  42. grasshopper
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Oh,Noës … Beam me up, Scotty. There’s no intelligent life on NPR.

  43. Posted September 16, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    sigh, one more jackass who never saw ST and declares he knows Spock. Watch the episode Turnabout Intruder to see Spock logical and caring very much for everyone he serves with. Watch “Gem” and see three men really care about each other.

    I grew up wanting to be Spock and still do. Kirk was a great character, but he was a womanizer. I do love him for his iconoclastic tendencies. Screw gods and the prime directive!

    • Posted September 16, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      I had a bit of a crush on Spock. I thought it was great that on DS9 when they go back in time to the original enterprise, Dax admits the same to Sisko.

      • Posted September 17, 2014 at 4:12 am | Permalink

        I had more than a bit of a crush. It was either that or I wanted to *be* Spock.

  44. Posted September 16, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    let’s get the dynamics straight: the conflict is not between captain kirk and mr. spock; it’s between mr. spock and dr. mccoy.

    spock represents logic and regulations; mccoy compassion. kirk’s role is to decide between the two (see: “the enemy within”). only on rare occasions does kirk rely on his skills as a scientist (see: “arena”) or logician (see: “i, mudd”).

    as the decider (no, not you, gwb!) kirk represents responsibility and ultimately the show’s moral trajectory, which often couldn’t be found by strictly obeying the rules, even the prime directive against interference in alien cultures (see: “a taste of armaggedon” and “the apple”).

    kirk role also means he alone gets to shoulder the burden of tough moral choices, especially when he must compromise or there are no good alternatives (see: “the city on the edge of forever” and “a private little war”).

  45. Posted September 16, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    let’s get the dynamics straight: the conflict is not between captain kirk and mr. spock; it’s between mr. spock and dr. mccoy.

    spock represents logic and regulations; mccoy compassion. kirk’s role is to decide between the two (see: “the enemy within”). only on rare occasions does kirk strictly rely on his own skills as a scientist (see: “arena”) or logician (see: “i, mudd”).

    as the decider, kirk represents responsibility and ultimately the show’s moral trajectory, which often couldn’t be found by strictly obeying the rules, even the prime directive against interference in alien cultures (see: “a taste of armaggedon” and “the apple”).

    kirk role also means he alone gets to shoulder the burden of tough moral choices, especially when he must compromise or there are no good alternatives (see: “the city on the edge of forever” and “a private little war”).

  46. J Smith
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    This is probably way late in the discussion, but FYI, in case it hasn’t been brought up, Noe wrote a curious book about Consciousness (Out of Our Heads), in which he made some interesting and valid points about basic problems in the field, but then subsequently went on to describe his theory – or should I say non-theory about how consciousness is ineffable and out there – literally not in our heads like the title suggests but rather in the interaction of our minds and bodies with the external world, somehow almost like a miracle consciousness occurs in that interaction. I might be slightly condescending, but I couldn’t make out what he was getting at besides something like this.

  47. ploubere
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    This is the comment I posted on the NPR site:
    “This article is inane. Atheism simply means not being theist, i.e., not accepting the belief in an anthropomorphic deity who created and runs everything. That doesn’t make you unfeeling and uncaring. In fact, it doesn’t define anything about your personality or worldview, except that you don’t buy into fables without some supporting evidence.”

    • merilee
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink


  48. Posted September 16, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    People like Noë seem to be terrified of reduction. So what if everything, at base, is “just” material processes? Understanding things at the level of those processes can be just as interesting and awe-inspiring as examining and trying to understand higher-level emergent phenomena.

    I think the aversion many people demonstrate for reduction is two-fold: they feel they won’t be able to appreciate the emergent phenomena if those phenomena are “unwoven”, and they fear learning about things at the most fundamental level won’t leave room for god.

    And you know what? Noë’s got it backwards, anyway. People with “Spockian” tendencies get shit done. If everyone was Kirk, humanity would just be spinning wheels.

    • Posted September 17, 2014 at 4:17 am | Permalink

      I’d add one more “fold”. If we find at the base that it is material processes, that means no one is that different, and no one is a special snowflake. Us humans do love to imagine that we are so very special.

  49. Posted September 16, 2014 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    1) This idea that scientists are an embodiment of the work process is one of the more malicious prejudices there is, and — as Noë admits openly — dehumanizing. It is too silly to take seriously, as if trumpet players routinely starve to death for the profession won’t allow them to eat and drink. Or could it be that the weather man never saw a sunset or a thunderstorm, beceause we only ever see them inside in front of their weather map?

    2) Mathematicians and logicians prove, the rest of us can only hope to support our ideas with evidence. There is a) no evidence for any deity known to humankind b) even worse, any proposal of such beings can be shown as impossible, incompatible with everything we know and as demonstably false. Some people want to argue about a vague class of beings that allegedly exist (at least n=1) yet this class of entity is derived from mythological texts which are demonstrably fiction. The end. The “lets pretend biblical texts etc don’t exist and let’s assume an entity X existed with properties Y” is nothing but dishonest trickery. I can assume all kinds of things and claim that it could be true. If I can’t tell how I know about it, then my claim is just a guess. If this guess goes against everything we know, it should be discarded. c) we do know some things about how persons/minds work. We know for example, that mind is what the brain does, and brains are made from physical stuff and evolved in habitats on earth. The idea that creators of time can be “fathers” (male etc) is preposterous nonsense even in a metaphorical sense. We know that minds without bodies (some material stuff) are easy to imagine, yet impossible with everything we learned so far.

    3) Richard Feynman already explained how one can appreciate the beauty of a flower, and how knowledge opens up additional perspectives.. And yes, musicians can and routinely do appreciate music.

  50. chris moffatt
    Posted September 17, 2014 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    “Alva Noë (a professor of philosophy at Berkeley)….”

    Nuff said. I gave up reading after four paragraphs during which I noted the straw man fallacy, the no true scotsman fallacy, argument from assertion and argument from misinformation. This is a philosopher?

    As for why NPR would give this stuff space, NPR hit the skids when they parachuted in the apparatchiks being let go from RFE and VOA after the “collapse of communism”. When was the last time they aired views from a socialist or a trade unionist or even a simple worker bee. Nowadays they only concern themselves with views from the centre right and the far right (the friday kabuki with EJ Dionne and David Brooks for example). As for news they seem to get that off the wire or from press releases much of the time. Even when they have reporters supposedly on the ground in places like Irak or Syria all we hear is the party line as spouted by the US state department.

    I gave up on NPR when they became a government propaganda outlet during the Bush regime. I never have missed it much but sadly, these days the same fate is befalling both BBC and CBC….which are both becoming mere government mouthpieces part of whose mission seems to be the re-establishment of “respect for religion”, if not religion itself, in keeping with the promotion of religion by Cameron and Harper. Sometimes I don’t think atheism is winning.

  51. JoeBuddha
    Posted September 17, 2014 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    I gave it up when the default go-to guy (yes, guy) for somber consideration of world events was an old white Republican congressman.

  52. Posted September 17, 2014 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    He’s describing sociopaths, not atheists or scientists…

  53. Posted September 17, 2014 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I still listen to NPR, given that there are no viable alternatives where I live (unless you go to short wave; but then even the BBC is changing).

    The thing I also dislike about NPR these days is they are going in for the “entertaining chit-chat” crap of the commercial radio DJs / talking heads. One of the main reasons I went to NPR yearsa ago was to escape the horrible, irritating DJ crap, post 1980. And now the NPR people (espeically the local on-air people) are starting to do it.

    I’m assuming this is to appeal to a younger audience. Holy Hoppin’ Hank, are people really that silly?

    I guess this is also the reason I can’t stomach more or less any commerical (US) TV.

    Seems to be linked to the rise of video games and the shortening of attention spans.

    • Posted September 17, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      I still listen to NPR, given that there are no viable alternatives where I live

      Oh, but there is.


      And it’s actually quite wonderful, “all things considered.”

      Don’t worry that you’ll be left out of the loop. First, you’ll still absorb plenty of news through osmosis just by being in touch with others. And if there’s a real crisis, you’ll find out about it.

      But there’s another factor to consider, and it’s closely related to the financial / payroll / etc. reports I often create for the day job. Many of the reports seem senseless to me, and I’ve come to realize that there really are only two reasons to ever run any report. First is because somebody else (especially a governmental agency) is demanding the information from you, and whatever the real reason is their problem, not yours; you just hand over the data. Second is to help you make some sort of decision. But, before you run the report, you need to know what decision you’ll make. Will you buy more or less of something based on what the report says? Hire or fire people? Change the products or services you’re offering, or charge more or less for them? Open or close branches or satellite offices or manufacturing facilities? Give people bonuses? Have a talk with some managers somewhere to put the fear of Jesus into them? But if there’s nothing that you’d do differently based on what the report says, then why are you running the report?

      Same thing with the news. What will you do differently with your life based on what you hear or see on the news?

      Come election time, you should set aside some time to research candidates so you can vote intelligently. But, the rest of the time, unless your job is in international relations of some sort (including aid or the military or whatever) it’s unlikely anything except very local news is going to change how you live your life, save you might worry yourself to death over things you have no control over — or, at least, waste time daydreaming about what’s going on half a planet away when you could instead be daydreaming about what you’re going to do to make your own life better here.

      So stop worrying and shut off the damned babble box already!



  54. Danbite
    Posted September 17, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    This Alva Noe article makes me lose hope in humanity!

  55. Posted September 17, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I’ve met and worked with a lot of scientists in my career, but never encountered anything like Noë’s strawman. These “Spockians” must be as rare as hen’s teeth. Perhaps someone should ask him to produce a live example. He writes, “We need an account of our place in the world that leaves room for value.” This seem to imply that he believes in objective values, like those favored by the faithful. In that case, why doesn’t he grab a butterfly net and join Sam Harris in his attempts to snag objective “goods” and “evils” out of the luminiferous ether? If he means subjective values, it’s hard to imagine what he’s going on about. Atheists have been cobbling together systems of “value” lo now these many years. I suggest, for example, that he consult my fellow atheist Trotsky’s writings on proletarian morality. Unfortunately, that particular system didn’t work out too well. Perhaps Noë would do well to heed the advice, “Be careful what you wish for.”

  56. gluonspring
    Posted September 18, 2014 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    “Atheists, in so far as they are followers of Spock, have an explanatory burden that religionists don’t carry — that of explaining how you get meaning and value out of particles, or alternatively, that of explaining why meaning and value are an illusion.”

    The religious have an equally difficult problem — that of explaining how you get meaning and value out of God(s).

    I am being totally serious when I ask, “How does that work?” How can a God give your life meaning? What is meaning or value that some third party, any third party, even a god, can confer it on you?

    • Posted September 18, 2014 at 12:54 am | Permalink

      “The meaning of life is what you make it. There will be as many different meaningful lives as there are people to live them” — A. C. Grayling


    • Chukar
      Posted September 18, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      “What is meaning or value that some third party, any third party, even a god, can confer it on you?”

      Meaning & value are gained the same way you learned your native tongue. All those word sounds now have meanings & values – definitions – which you carry around inside you, permitting you to compose sentences, such as the one above, which appear to have meaning & value.

      Don’t get hung up on the definition of the word “confer.” Your own nervous system is the primary facilitator of this process. Wittgenstein may be useful.

  57. Bill the Cat
    Posted September 18, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    That’s Doctor Noe!
    (apologies to Ian Flemming.)

  58. Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    As good little Kirkians, we must learn first to ask: Can I schtupp it? And if negatory, ask: Can I whack it?

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