Fifteenth in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.
Debating in a vacuum | “This Side of Paradise” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 1, Episode 24 | March 1967
It’s a widely accepted truism that McCoy, Spock, and Kirk represent a Freudian Trio: id, super-ego, and ego respectively. If that were the case, then McCoy would be a relentless monster, Spock a moralistic nag, and Kirk deformed by his efforts to reconcile the other two. Sorry, Trekkie pop psychologists, but you’ve misread Freud. It’s not that legitimate Freudian Trios don’t exist: the diner scene in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle provides a good example. Kirk, McCoy, and Spock, however, ought instead to be read as a Peircean Trio — i.e., as in the pioneering 19th-century American logician and semiotician C.S. Peirce.
Science Officer Spock proceeds inductively, from particular premises (hard data) to cautiously stated general conclusions; Dr. McCoy, on the other hand, proceeds deductively, diagnosing illnesses and other mysteries by comparing general conclusions (forms and norms that he regards as inviolable laws) with particular premises (unusual symptoms, clues). McCoy’s beef with Spock is the emergency room doctor’s with the ultra-cautious laboratory researcher, and vice versa. Both agree, however, that intuition and imagination have no place in the reasoning process. Kirk, meanwhile, proceeds via what Peirce was the first to name “abductive” reasoning. When it comes to resolving irresolvable conundrums, he relies on a mode of reasoning that makes use of inductive and deductive conclusions… but doesn’t exclude intuition and imagination.
Having arrived on Omicron Ceti III, in the amazing episode “This Side of Paradise,” in order to catalog the destruction of Elias Sandoval’s colony under the bombardment of deadly berthold rays, the Enterprise landing party discovers that Sandoval and the others are alive. What to make of this situation? Their body language says it all.
McCoy, arms deferentially behind his back, signals that he is perfectly willing to accept the pronouncement of medical science on the matter, just as soon as he can feed a few symptoms into his tricorder. “Just an educated guess,” he jokes, “I’d say that man is alive.” Spock, arms akimbo, remains skeptical and sardonic, unwilling to trust either McCoy’s pronunciamento or the evidence of his own senses: “Berthold rays are incontrovertibly deadly… If a man is exposed long enough, he dies.” Kirk doesn’t seek a synthesis of their opinions. He folds his arms, stubbornly resisting both deductive and inductive conclusions before he’s had the opportunity to brood over the matter, in a negative-dialectical fashion, shuffling through the pieces of the puzzle until — in a flash — the entire picture is revealed.
Spock’s inductive reasoning, and McCoy’s deductive reasoning, are valuable — as we’ve seen in many other Star Trek episodes — and abductive reasoning depends on the insights of these approaches. But Omicron Ceti III is a puzzle that only abductive reasoning can solve. (“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, all one color,” Kirk will muse later. “No key to where the pieces fit in.”) In this scene, Kirk finally says: “Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum. Let’s go get some answers.”
Among other things, Star Trek is an ongoing debate about how one should reason (in the vacuum of space, even). Kirk demonstrates how best to go about it: stubbornly, intuitively, boldly!
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
ALSO ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker