Countering the Straw Man of “Spockian” Atheism September 15, 2014

Countering the Straw Man of “Spockian” Atheism

In a piece at NPR entitled “Why Atheists Need Captain Kirk,” University of California, Berkeley philosophy professor Alva Noë posted his thoughts on what he calls a “Spockian” worldview. He rejects this “Spock-ism” (a reference to the character on Star Trek) and its

idea that science is logical, purely rational, that it is detached and value-free, and that it is, for all these reasons, morally superior.

He further takes issue with the notion that

Spockians like to pretend that science has proved that there is no God, or that fundamental reality consists only of matter.

While Noë refers to Spockians as atheists, scientists, and “cultural defenders of science,” he clarifies this a bit more in the comment section:

I see that I might have give the false impression that I think that atheists are all Spockian. My actual position is that what the controversy about atheism is all about — why religious people find it impossible to believe that atheists experience emotions like awe, wonder, etc — is a tendency to confuse atheism with Spockianism (read: Reductive Materialism with its attendant problematic isms such as individualism, anti-realism, internalism, subjectivism, etc).

Although Noë’s lack of initial clarity (and suggestion that it “isn’t the non-belief in God that makes atheism seem puzzling,” but “the active adherence to the Spockian worldview”) seems to contribute to rather than dispel such misconceptions, fair enough: he doesn’t think all atheists reject value and are emotionless robots. Still, he sees a conflict between atheists who subscribe to a reductive materialist view that suggests “love, humor, [and] sunsets” are merely “illusion[s]” and atheists who claim “active spiritual lives.”

Noë offers no examples of offenders, beyond the half-Vulcan of fiction, but it’s difficult to see why this is a conflict. Even if he had offered many examples of atheists eschewing value and meaning in life, surely they are not the ones laying claim to active spiritual lives. This would seem a direct contradiction: to say in one breath that there is no meaning to life, all emotion is illusory, etc. — and to boast in the next of emotional experience and spiritual depth. These must be distinct camps of atheists, then. There is no conflict in distinct people holding distinct opinions.

Furthermore, despite his claims to the contrary (“The big challenge for atheism is not God; it is that of providing … an account of our place in the world that leaves room for value”), atheism is really focused on one thing: a-theism. An understanding of the world without a God leaves ample room for value (see: Humanism). Sure, someone can come to the conclusion that there is no value because there is no god… but Secular Humanists all over the world have reached a different conclusion. Atheists like Richard Dawkins (“Chapter One: A Deeply Religious Non-Believer” in The God Delusion), Matt Dillahunty, and Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape, Waking Up, etc.) have written and spoken about the value to be found in the world, in nature, in humanity and/or in spiritualism. So the hypothetical Spockian atheist finds himself arrayed against a good number of what Noë might call “Kirkian” atheists; and the challenge that Noë seems to think atheism has to address has been addressed many, many times over by people who appreciate sunsets, love, humor, and who find value in life.

It’s also worth noting that anyone who claims science has conclusively proven the non-existence of God or gods is grossly misrepresenting facts. (Likewise, be wary of anyone who tells you that science has proven the non-existence of leprechauns, werewolves, or vampires. Or Vulcans, for that matter.) Again, we’re dealing with a vague “Spockians like to pretend,” rather than examples of these “Spockians” in action, so it’s hard to know who Noë had in mind when writing this. Without offering examples, it seems a bit presumptuous to suggest that atheists have a duty to counter his theory.

Finally, Noë suggests that Spockians are at a disadvantage to theists:

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.

Seeking to understand the biological and chemical components of human emotion, thought, and appreciation for beauty doesn’t mean that those things don’t exist or shouldn’t be countenanced. Knowing that there is a measurable, observable cause to something doesn’t diminish it. Saying that human emotion is a product of intricate chemical and biological realities is not a value judgment. The “Spockian,” as defined by Noë, certainly sets himself up to fail on numerous fronts (not least of all by making bold and unsupported claims), but it doesn’t follow that he’s worse off than the person making other, and often greater, unsubstantiated claims.

Ultimately, Noë’s “Spockian” atheism strikes me as a curious caricature of atheism as I know it. I’m glad he acknowledges that not “all” atheists fall into this bucket, but it’s unfortunate that he thinks we need to debunk his theory — not least of all because he presents no evidence that Spock-ism exists anywhere outside of fiction — especially since there are actual alternatives to his emotionless caricature. Noë appears to have ignored real atheism, opting instead to tackle little more than a green-blooded hobgoblin of his imagination.

(Image via Dooley Productions /

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