In what has to be my favorite episode of the 1960s TV series Star Trek, “The Corbomite Maneuver”, the Enterprise is outmatched by an alien with superior intellect and technology. Balok has given the Enterprise ten minutes to prepare for their demise. When the clock runs down, he will destroy her. After attempts to break away from Balok’s tractor beam which pushes the Enterprise to her limits, Chief Science Officer Mr. Spock logically analyzes the situation and is forced to admit defeat. “In chess, when one player is outmatched, the game is over. Checkmate.” All seems lost until Captain Kirk, never to be constrained by something as limited as logic, realizes a way out: the bluff. “Not chess Mr. Spock. Poker.” he replies with his characteristic confidence and swagger.
I’m a geek. I freely admit it. Okay, I embrace it. I regularly tell my students at the beginning of each quarter that that beneath the good-looking, mild-mannered professor standing before them lies a logic-filled animal oozing with the trifecta of geeky passions: Star Trek, computers, and philosophy. The nervous chuckles that can be heard around the room really is unveiled code for “what have I gotten myself into?” But I didn’t realize how cool I actually am until I started watching the hit television show The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon, an only slightly-exaggerated persona of a semi-robotic theoretical physicist, is a type of Mr. Spock dropped into modern, suburban Pasadena. When the lovely Penny throws a birthday party for his roommate Leonard, Sheldon is lost when Penny asks what he got Leonard for his birthday.
Sheldon: That’s because I didn’t bring one.
Penny: Well why not?
Sheldon: The entire institution of gift giving makes no sense! Let’s say that I go out and I spend fifty dollars on you; it’s a laborious activity because I have to imagine what you need whereas you already know what you need. Now I could simplify things–just give you the fifty dollars directly and then you could give me fifty dollars on my birthday and so on until one of us dies leaving the other one fifty dollars richer. And I ask you, is it worth it?
Penny: Sheldon, you’re his friend. Friends give each other presents.
Sheldon: I accept your premise. I reject your conclusion.
Penny: [mechanically and on the advice of Wolowitz] It’s a, non-optional, social, convention.
Sheldon: Ah! Fair enough.
Wolowitz: [looking at a dumbfounded Penny] He came with a manual. . .
I’ve been writing a series of essays on existentialism and religious faith and one of the main themes is to unpack the distinction between what we can know rationally and what we know existentially. Both Spock and Sheldon exhibit behaviors consistent with a purely rational take on things: I can only know what I can grasp by a set of logical rules. Penny and Captain Kirk fall more on the existential side. You give a friend a present because . . . he’s your friend. You can outsmart an unbeatable alien opponent by using that all-too-human capacity to bluff. Any fan of the original Miracle on 24th Street—a favorite of my family during the Christmas season—plays out this theme as does the Carl Sagan-written Contact and many many other films and television shows. These themes are played out in popular media because they capture something significant about human nature and the contrast makes for good drama, comedy, and storytelling. They also provide us with the basis to understand a lot of contemporary social conflicts.
So the next time a policeman pulls you over for speeding, try telling him that you’re anxious to get home to a romantic evening with a woman who just can’t wait to tear your clothes off and that if he doesn’t understand this to be good grounds for speeding maybe he should try reading a little Kierkegaard.
Let me know if it works.