Star Trek on “the Truth of the World”

04/28/2017 11:31 am ET

Is Donald Trump the philosopher king of epistemological relativism, which sees knowledge as simply a matter of perspective? Is truth ultimately relative to our various cultural, political, and religious worldviews? Are there many truths, or none at all? Are we now in a “post-truth” universe of “alternative facts”?

For answers, we turn to a 1968 episode of classic Star Trek entitled, “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” in which the starship Enterprise encounters an isolated asteroid 200 miles in diameter. Analysis shows that it is moving on an independent course, at sub-light speed, correcting for gravitational forces. It is composed, moreover, of a hollow outer shell and breathable air within.

Further analysis of the asteroid’s trajectory shows more: It is on course to collide in 396 days with a planet inhabited by over 3 billion people.

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy beam inside to investigate. The asteroid turns out to be a multigenerational ship that has been en route for at least 10,000 years. Its current inhabitants, however, many generations removed from those who initially populated the huge ship, believe themselves to be on a planet called Yonada.

The three officers meet “the High Priestess of the People.” She is, of course, young, beautiful, scantily clad, and, it soon turns out, ready for love. She introduces them to “the Oracle of the People,” the source of all knowledge about the will of “the creators.”

Later, Spock reminds Kirk of the prime directive of noninterference with other cultures. Kirk concludes, however, that the prime directive is overridden in this case by the clear and present danger of planetary collision.

Suddenly there is an old man, who has apparently sought them out. “You are not of Yonada,” he observes. “No, we’re from outside your world,” replies Kirk.

“Where is outside?” asks the old man. “Up there,” replies Kirk, “outside, up there, everywhere.” The man nods, knowingly. “Many years ago,” he tells them, “I climbed the mountains, even though it is forbidden.”

“Things are not as they teach us,” he laments, “for the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.” Then he drops dead before them. The Oracle has formidable powers.

Meanwhile, the High Priestess has been falling in love with McCoy, much to his (and perhaps Kirk’s) surprise. But she remains serious about her responsibilities to her people, which include enforcing the truth of the creators as revealed by the Oracle. Sacrilege is punishable by death.

“I hope you men of space, of other worlds, hold truth as dear as we do,” she says to McCoy. “We do,” he replies.

While McCoy dallies with the High Priestess, Kirk and Spock try to determine how to adjust the course of the asteroid ship but are repulsed by the Oracle and barely escape with their lives. In the end, armed with nothing but the truth, Kirk confronts the High Priestess.

“Now listen to me,” he demands repeatedly, insisting she hear what she vehemently rejects as “your truth of your world.” What she and her people have believed, he maintains, is false. Yonada is a giant spaceship that has gone perilously off course.

The High Priestess listens but seemingly still rejects it all. “Why should the truth be kept from us? Why should the creators keep us in darkness?” The episode reaches its epistemic climax as she abruptly runs off to consult the Oracle, which immediately accuses, “You have listened to the words of the nonbelievers.”

“They said they spoke the truth,” says the High Priestess.

“Their truth,” replies the Oracle.

But this no longer satisfies her: “Is truth not truth for all?”

“The truth of Yonada is your truth,” responds the Oracle, “there can be no other for you.”

“I must know the truth of the world,” she insists.

In the end, Spock and Kirk correct the flaw in the ship’s control system and get it back on course for the planet it was meant to reach. McCoy asks the High Priestess to return to the Enterprise with him. But despite her love for him and her new knowledge of the world, she remains with her people. “I understand the great purpose of the creators,” she says. “I shall honor it.”

Star Trek rejects epistemological relativism. We all have our own ideas, but we don’t have our own truths. The prime directive requires respect for other cultures but it does not render all their beliefs correct. Group beliefs can be wrong, and ignorance can be deadly. We should all seek “the truth of the world.”

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