Monday, October 5, 2009

The Eschatology of Star Trek

Talking about the eschatology of a show like Star Trek is silly for two reasons. The first reason is that eschatology is normally a religious term and Star Trek isn't exactly religious programming. The second reason is that eschatology deals with serious beliefs about the future and Star Trek is a work of science fiction whose purpose is to entertain.

That being said, I'm going to do so anyway. The first reason is because, as I said in my post about eschatology, I think that the term can reasonably be applied to any beliefs about the future that affect how we live our lives in the present. The second reason is that, while Star Trek is a work of fiction, in many ways it represents Gene Roddenberry's vision of what life in the future would be like. The third, and most important, reason is because it's an interesting thing to think about.

I think we can talk about the eschatology of Star Trek in terms of a few major claims that the show makes about our future. The first claim I want to talk about is the claim that technology will one day solve all of our problems. This claim is common in a lot of science fiction writing. This sentiment is best expressed by the maxim, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Out in space there are still problems, but even those are often solved by the correct use of their technology. The shows and movies make it clear that on Earth, problems like violence and poverty have been solved centuries ago. The message is pretty clear. If we want to make the world a better place, we should invest our time and energy into developing new sciences and new technology.

The next claim is one that comes up less often, and they aren't always consistent with it, but it sometimes get mentioned that within the Federation they no longer use money. This is likely related to the first point. If technology has eliminated all of our problems, including scarcity, then it makes sense that traditional economic models would all be out the window.

Of course, when they say that in the future we won't be using money anymore they're making a significant statement. The implication is that Capitalism is a flawed economic system and someday we'll realize that we're better off without it. The present day implications of this belief are a little less clear, since there aren't ever any detailed discussions about economics in the twenty-fourth century. At the very least, though, it seems to suggest that our current economic system is flawed and that we should be looking for a better alternative.

The last claim I want to talk about is that in the future most people won't take religion seriously. This isn't true of the original series, but in Star Trek: The Next Generation it's pretty clear that religious beliefs like Christianity are viewed as backwards superstitions. Some people may hold on to beliefs because of tradition or to provide moral guidance, but nobody seems to believe in a God who answers prayers.

When religion comes up, the main characters will often say that the people of Earth used to be religious, but they have since outgrown such silly superstitions. The implications of this belief are pretty clear. Gods and spiritual forces don't exist, and the people who believe in such things are irrational. Furthermore, society will be better off when no one takes those kinds of beliefs seriously anymore.

It's an interesting view of the future and when I was growing up I tended to agree with it. Obviously my views have shifted quite a bit since then. Watching Star Trek these days is interesting because it shows me how much my opinions have changed over the years.

I'm interested to hear what you have to say. What do you think of Star Trek's vision of the future? How does it line up with your beliefs about humanity's future?


  1. Science Fiction often projects into the future using analogies. This technique doesn't seem to work all that well, but what else do we have to go on?

    I think this Star Trek viewpoint might be an example, where they make an analogy based on how we in the present view past societies and their beliefs. We label the religious beliefs of the Greeks and pre-Christian Romans as mythology or superstition.

    So maybe an advanced future society looking back at us might similarly view our beliefs as primitive. This seems to imply that they have found some higher source of truth beyond what we know now.

    But what could this source be? It's hard for me to believe that it would be Science. Science doesn't have much to say about questions of meaning and purpose. It's just a collection of techniques that have been useful in discovering facts about the physical universe.

    So I guess I have to say this vision of the future, although entertaining, isn't all that likely. Not to mention that bit about doing without money is right out (:-).

    By the way, did you ever read the short story "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke? It has a religious theme, and you might find it interesting.

  2. I don't think I've read "The Star," but I've read a few other books by Clarke and they always seem to have odd religious undertones.

    The portrayal of religion in sci-fi is always a tricky thing. Predicting the future is always really hard, but in some ways predicting the future of religion is the hardest. Let's take the Greco-Roman thing as an example. The Greco-Roman polytheistic worldview was very stable, with some subtle changes, for hundreds of years.

    Then this odd strain of Judaism emerges and in a little more than two hundred years it becomes the dominant paradigm throughout the Roman Empire. Now that tradition has been relatively stable, again with some slight changes, for about seventeen hundred years.

    The safest prediction is that there won't be any major changes in world religions in the foreseeable future. Major shifts in religious beliefs are, statistically speaking, a freak occurrence. To put it in religious terms, dramatic changes in people's religious beliefs usually requires an act of God.