Friday, January 13, 2012

Sheldon Cooper: The Nerd’s Paradox

The Big Bang Theory is a very highly rated comedy in Canada and the US, largely because of the break-out character of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons, who’s won two Emmy’s and a Golden Globe for his performance. On the surface, the show is about a group of nerdy friends in their late twenties, who are scientific geniuses but with childish preoccupations that socially handicap them. Why are such a TV show and the character of Sheldon Cooper, in particular, so popular?

Evading Angst and Subduing Technoscience

In the show, Sheldon has the most freakishly high intelligence in his group of friends, but has also regressed most to a childhood state. He’s thus the show’s most paradoxical character. He was a child prodigy with an IQ of 187, earning various graduate degrees, including a Ph.D., while still a teenager. He became a professional theoretical physicist, perhaps the most intellectually-challenging job, requiring a mastery of cutting-edge mathematics and a grasp of the most exotic, inhuman concepts, which are at the center of modern physics. He has an eidetic memory, which enables him to know virtually everything about what he regards as nontrivial subjects, namely all subjects that don’t involve adult social relationships.

If knowledge is power, then, Sheldon should intimidate the rest of humanity with his fearsome intelligence. But the opposite is true: Sheldon is routinely both pitied and mocked by everyone, especially by his friends who know him best. The reason is that Sheldon’s godlike intelligence is complemented by the fact that his emotions are those of a child’s, making him psychologically a boy in a man’s body. He’s obsessed with comic books, sci fi, video games, and trains; he likes to be sung to sleep and otherwise mothered; he’s unable to drive a car so he has to be driven by his friends. Despite his near-omniscience, which theoretically enables him to overcome any obstacle, his lack of emotional development renders him unable to comprehend let alone succeed in the field which adults care about most, the field of social interaction. Sheldon may suffer from Asperger Syndrome or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, since he lacks empathy, engages in restrictive and repetitive behaviours, and is socially awkward. Moreover, he suffers from phobias of germs and of being touched, among others. 

Sheldon is therefore effectively asexual, an alien or a god among human beings who, instead of terrifying his intellectual inferiors, is routinely mocked by them. When his friend Penny, who has lackluster intelligence, attempts to navigate his own scientific areas of expertise, tackling basic questions about how the universe works, she fails dismally but she’s neither pitied nor ridiculed for those failures, because she wields power in social relationships, being an attractive young woman with much sexual experience. The show thus presupposes the higher value of social relationships than of technoscience, so that neither mastery of nor failure in the latter is assumed to matter. Whereas in reality advances in science and technology radically reshape human life, Sheldon’s scientific progress is never applauded or shown to be consequential.

The key to Sheldon’s character, I think, is that he’s born with his superhuman intelligence. Instead of choosing to acquire knowledge, to eat the proverbial apple due to the sin of wanting to exercise godlike self-control, Sheldon’s forced to endure near-omniscience, due to his high IQ, his prodigious memory, and his mental illnesses which alienate him, cloistering him in the Ivory Tower. This means that Sheldon’s social failures can’t be interpreted as punishments for a sin of choosing to transcend a pre-established divine plan. The only responses to him that are left to us are pity and ridicule: pity, for Sheldon who will never know the pleasures of sex and love, and ridicule in playful retaliation for his childish selfishness, his temper tantrums, and his social awkwardness. Sheldon’s essentially a victim: he’s cursed by reason and while he’s blessed with compensatory characteristics that protect him from angst, those characteristics also ostracize him. (See Curse of Reason.) That is, the curse of reason is knowledge of our existential predicament of being animals tantalized by the possibility of our godhood. This knowledge causes angst, which we attempt to escape by distracting ourselves with fantasies and other delusions, most commonly with theistic projections of our vanities. Sheldon has an overabundance of the requisite knowledge, but he’s spared the emotional devastation from the existential implications, because he’s insulated not by theistic fantasies but by childlike ones. Those fantasies of superheroes, chivalry, and toy collections, however, tragically deprive him of the fruits of adulthood.

For Sheldon’s part, he’s aware that society disapproves of his means of coping with a god’s soul-crushing near-omniscience, but he in turn looks down on normal folks for their petty or bestial pastimes. However, Sheldon’s condescension is undermined by his own inchoate desire for normality. He has a child’s pride in his intellectual greatness and is offended when he’s not properly rewarded. Indeed, the notion that knowledge is rewarding is itself a childish one, often upheld as part of a pragmatic whitewash of the Scientific Revolution. (See Cosmicism.) Knowledge, freedom, and consciousness are curses, not blessings, because they’re necessarily embodied in animals which have only limited means of fulfilling their potential. Although our high degree of those three powers elevates us from the humdrum task of mere survival, empowering us with the leisure to artificially manage our evolution, we poison our cultures with the delusions that derive from our base origin. We lack the virtues to live with no illusions as intelligent, free, conscious beings, because our animalistic fight or flight instinct and other primitive neural mechanisms still establish upper bounds on our mental development. Primates that evolved to fear insects and darkness interpret the alien outer vistas, opened up to us by our talents for consciousness and intelligence, that is, the world beyond the one we narrowly inhabit as hosts for genes, as rife with potential dangers. Just as our biological limits betray our godlike aspirations to control our lives and to create our own sustainable worlds, Sheldon’s childlike baggage and escapist fantasies prevent his complete transformation into a posthuman.

Sheldon’s character of the paradoxical nerd seems to have social utility, which would explain his wild popularity. The TV show deconstructs the modern pretension of progress through technoscience, by presenting a stunted version of the rationalist’s hero. More specifically, the show posits that the genius needed for something like the raising of the global living standards would have to be offset by some such compensatory strategies as those employed by Sheldon and his scientific friends, who have their own childish obsessions together with their tragic results (inability to talk to women and over-dependence on mother). By laughing at the nerds on The Big Bang Theory, postmodern sophisticates can pretend that technoscience poses no danger and that their incredulity towards all metanarratives frees them from such pathetic traps. Of course, neither reason for laughing is justified; indeed, the cartoonish comedy of The Big Bang Theory is itself a distraction from the angst which awaits the use of even sub-genius human intelligence. In any case, while the show’s nerds are harmless and even emasculated by their means of coping with scientific knowledge, in reality science and technology are hazardous both to the existence of life and to the maintenance of our sanity. Moreover, while cynicism and apathy may enable the postmodernist to brush off traditional myths as sociopolitical propaganda, she likely buys into the scientistic religion of secular humanism, which includes faith in capitalism, democracy, and liberal social values. This religion has its own pathetic rituals, such as subservience to somnolent rules of political correctness. (See Scientism and Political Correctness.)

Pity and the Nerd: A Dialogue

Here’s how I imagine a dialogue going between roommates Sheldon and Leonard, regarding romantic love. The setting is their apartment.


Sheldon Cooper: Where are you going? Tonight’s Comic Book Night.

Leonard Hofstadter: I have a date, Sheldon.

SC: You’d rather be out with a woman than rummaging the comic book store? Hiding what precious little intellect you have to avoid intimidating her on the off-chance that your short stature will trigger the woman’s mothering instinct, which you can then exploit in some twisted fashion to have coitus with her?

LH: That’s disgusting! You have no idea what you’re talking about. For a so-called genius, it’s amazing how dumb you are about what’s most important.

SC: That being...?

LH: Like the song says, love is all you need. Romantic love, sexual intimacy. You’re just a child with no comprehension of the social emotions needed for adult life.

SC: Mmm, yes, a child with detailed knowledge of the physical processes that create the chemicals that use love and sex to preserve the genes, a child who’s innocent of the petty and beastly thought routines that you call emotional adulthood.

LH: Regardless of sex’s biological role, you’ve got no standing to criticize what you’ve never personally experienced.

SC: My my, Leonard, your anticipation of coitus this evening must be dulling your cerebral cortex. Do I have to murder someone to know that murder is wrong? My alienation from the hoi polloi allows me to study their behaviour objectively and see it for what it really is, unclouded by politically-correct sentimentality. 

LH: Who are you kidding? You don’t socially interact on an adult level, because you’ve got a thousand irrational fears, not to mention OCD which chains you to arbitrary rules like your commandment to read comics on Comic Book Night. You’re a broken man and most people feel sorry for you.

SC: Well now, is the inability to belittle oneself a weakness? I may rigidly adhere to the rules I set for myself, but we’re all imprisoned by the laws of nature and I understand that prison better than the blissfully-ignorant slaves of hormones. You may pity what you call my brokenness, but that’s like a sinner criticizing God’s majesty. God pities lesser beings and so do I.

LH: Get over yourself! You’re no god. You’re a mentally ill Texan and an arrogant child who thinks he ought to rule the world because he’s really smart. But even if you were omniscient, you wouldn’t have any wisdom.

SC: I’ll thank you to take that back, Leonard. You can call me a broken child, a sick, unwise, Satanic pretender to God’s throne, but a Texan?! That’s going too far. Let’s keep this conversation civil, if you please.

LH: I apologize. You’re not a Texan. But you are a pitiful child who’s never going to experience love.

SC: Dear Leonard, the sentimental nonsense you emit when your hindbrain is preoccupied with thoughts of sex! Why would I want to experience love? Instead, I can perceive the universe’s grandeur, the beauty of the mathematical patterns that force you to repeat this stale meme about the glory of an emotion needed for primitive pair-bonding. I can see the code that runs the Matrix and you’re mesmerized by hormonal illusions that control your every move--including your going out on a date on Comic Book Night!

LH: Which I’m now going to be late for, thanks to you. I’m glad we cleared this up. You’re a keen observer of the human condition and when you’ve amassed all of your knowledge, maybe you’ll have won a Nobel Prize and furthered scientific progress for all humankind. But you’ll have floated around like a ghost or banged on the window of a toy store like a child, unable to play because you don’t even know how to open the door.

SC: Well, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of sad. But I’d take a Nobel or a well-crafted comic book over the sexual rigmarole any day. Enjoy your date, Leonard, and I’ll return to my “childish” pursuit of unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity.


  1. I enjoyed this rant more than I have the sum of every episode I've seen.

    The lack of a laugh track factors into this enjoyment.

    1. Thanks, Tyciol. I made sure to watch every episode of The Big Bang Theory before I wrote this rant. The laugh track is indeed for babies, as is the show in a way. The show's humour is quite cartoonish, but what interests me most about it is that the show's popularity must be due largely to Sheldon's character, and his character taps into some issues I've been exploring in this blog.

  2. Wow, you should have been a writer for the show... that felt authentic! :)

    This all presupposes that scientific understanding is the obvious choice for understanding generally.

    I suppose someone else might want to understand most deeply the beauty of existence, though not through science... to contemplate the universe as a butterfly in one moment, and a grand multidimensional being the next.

    When you walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time, what should one do? Begin estimating the distance to the opposite side, or simply experience of the grand scale of the natural world?

    Perhaps the single most powerful stimulus for concern for the environment was not a growing catalog of knowledge, but rather the first pictures of the entire earth, hanging in space, changing forever our perception of it as unique, isolated, and fragile.

    Sheldon might respond: "I don't see what all the fuss is about... we're all doomed anyway following the inevitable expansion of the sun where each of us will be incinerated along with every other living thing. Have you seen the latest Iron Man?

  3. Thanks, Ryder. I made sure to watch every episode of the show before I wrote this blog on it, so I got pretty familiar with the ways the characters speak.

    I think Sheldon experiences beauty and pleasure through science but also through childlike pursuits, which is what makes him not just a scientific genius but a nerd. The problem is that some pleasures, like sex and romantic love, don't fall into either category.

  4. It's interesting that Ryder mentioned concern for the environment, because this post made me think of that too. You say "in reality science and technology are hazardous both to the existence of life and to the maintenance of our sanity." And in other posts you allude to some environmental concern as well. What are your thoughts on this, Ben? Do you think we should work to save ourselves, or not even bother, due to our inevitable demise?

    1. If by "save ourselves" you mean preserve the environment for future generations, I'm a little torn on this, but ultimately I think the continuation of our species is good because of our potential for existential heroism. See my recent article "The Question of Antinatalism"" and also my Dec 2011 article, "Should we Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?"