The Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate is one that has been going on for decades. Recently, however, with the impending release of The Force Awakens and a new Star Trek movie coming out next July in time for the franchise’s 50th anniversary, the debate has been renewed quite a bit.
Fuel has been added to the fire by statements from prominent science advocates like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, both of whom have stated their preference for Star Trek – or at least, certain elements of Star Trek. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bill Nye specifically said that he likes Star Trek because it’s more about science, while:
Star Wars has magic in it. You know, it has the Force, and it’s really about family conflicts, and it’s, uh, Shakespearean – it’s these – it’s nobility, essentially. There’s commoners, and there’s all-powerful kings, essentially.
Nye contrasts this with Star Trek, which he says is more of an “optimistic view of the future with science.”
Here’s the full interview (it’s only about a minute and a half long).
There are several things wrong with Nye’s statements.
The Scientific Nature of the Force
We get the primary explanation of the Force from Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope (ANH). Obi-Wan tells Luke that the Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
The next explanation we get of the Force is in The Empire Strikes Back (ESB), when Yoda provides Luke with some additional context.
Life creates [the Force], makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.
From these explanations, there are two important things revealed about the Force:
- It is energy (not matter).
- It is detectable.
These are scientific claims, not mystical ones. Consider gravity: It is an invisible force that acts upon matter, but which is not matter itself, and which is detectable. According to the explanations of the two characters who perhaps know it best, the Force in Star Wars is just like gravity in that way.
If this is not enough to counter Nye’s (and likely others’) claim that the Force is magic, there is another important aspect of the Force that demonstrates its scientific nature: Predictability.
Throughout the Star Wars canon, the Force is shown to consistent and reliable. Those who are able to use it – through natural ability and training – do so consistently with predictable results. For example, Yoda tells Luke that lifting his X-wing out of the swamp follows the same principle as lifting a stone; when Luke says skeptically, “You want the impossible,” Yoda backs up the claim he made by lifting the X-wing out of the swamp. This is just one instance of the predictability and reliability of the Force. It follows rules, whether we know them or not, and the whole point of using the Force is that you can accomplish what you intend to accomplish with it – whether for good or evil.
Predictability is a key tenet of science, whereas the very point of magic is that it is frequently unpredictable. Given that the Force is predictable, and used reliably by Jedi, Sith, and others, it is false to call it magic.
Magic in Star Trek
By saying that Star Wars is about magic while Star Trek is about science, Nye is also ignoring the use of magic and religion in Star Trek. At the very least, just take Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, in which the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise discover a supernatural being. That pseudoscientific piece of crap is Star Trek canon.
Not being as well versed in Star Trek as Star Wars, I can’t point to other specific examples from my own knowledge. But a quick search of Memory Alpha – a Star Trek wiki – brings up articles like this one on magic and this one on sympathetic magic. Sure, in some cases the “magic” is waved away with technobabble, but simply saying, “Oh, yeah, that was technology, not magic,” doesn’t actually make something more scientific.
Not to mention the whole Vulcan mind melding thing. Or the Vulcan nerve pinch. Or the Vulcan death grip. No such things work on humans now, so why would we believe that they would work on humans in the future? Oh, right, because, science.
The Science of Magic, and Vice Versa
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy both universes (though, I enjoy Star Wars more), and their relative merits and flaws don’t change that for me.
But if your argument is that one is better – or even that you prefer one over the other – because it has more/less magic/science than the other, then at least be honest about what you’re calling magic and what you’re calling science. Otherwise, you just sound ignorant.