Monday, June 21, 2010

You Sir, Mr. Spock, are Most Illogical

It would be hard to grow up in America today and not know who Spock is. Even though he is a fictional character he is probably more well known than Franklin Pierce (who is Franklin Pierce you may ask? my point exactly), who is not a fictional character. The real question is why? Why is he so famous?

Part of the reason why Spock is so well known is that his logical approach to things resonated with a lot of people. When people watched Star Trek they were able to connect to the characters in one way or another. The personalities of the characters was intentionally chosen to represent common stereotypes that we have as a society, and furthermore they were chosen to portray and extreme representation of the stereotypes. Thus in our society while we do not typically find people that are actually as logical as Mr. Spock, we still connect to him because to some degree we act like that. In short, Spock is well known and looked up to because we see our own thought processes in his manner of thinking.

While logical thinking is generally a good thing, Spock does make a few fundamental flaws in his thinking that make his basic approach self-contradictory and therefore illogical. My motivation in writing about this topic is not based on a nerdy desire to split hairs about how the writers of Star Trek (and to a large degree Leonard Nimoy) represented a logical character like Mr. Spock, but rather to point out a flaw in many people's thinking that is very pervasive in our society today. So while the logical nature of Spock is admittedly an extreme archetype, his personality is exhibited throughout our society to a lesser degree in most individuals. This means that all aspects of his personal philosophy, and therefore logical flaws, are reflected in our society.

There are many aspects of Spock's approach that are not problematic, such as his analytical approach to problems, and his desire to make the correct, or the most expedient decision, given the circumstances. But the problem arises in his basic approach to achieving these desirable goals. His basic method in achieving these attributes is to disassociate himself from all emotions. The relative merits of ridding one's self of emotions and passions can be debated but where Spock's contradiction comes in is in his denial of emotion as nothing more than an illogical aberration. At many points in the show and in the Star Trek movies, Spock reacts to the emotions of others as "most illogical". With this I admit Spock does have a point, to some degree. There are those who take actions based on their emotions, of hate, fear or greed, that lead them to do or say some rather irrational things, but the problem arises when Spock asserts that people (primarily himself) should not have emotions.

It is one thing to ague about the relative merits of how our emotions influence our decisions, but to assert that logic demands that we not have emotions, or that our decisions should not be dictated in any way by our emotions, is to deny reality. And denying reality is by definition illogical. Logic does not determine how things should be, but how we approach them.

Let me use a simple example to illustrate this. This example is a type of a reductio ad absurdum argument. Consider two towns, Fairfield and Halifax, on opposite sides of a mountain.
Now we might say that logically the quickest and shortest path between two points, in this case the two towns, is a straight line. But the only problem is that there is a mountain in between the two towns. Surely it would be illogical to say that logic dictates that the mountain should not be there because it prevents travel between the two towns by the most expedient and logical path, a straight line. If someone from Fairfield (the local logician perhaps) stood at the base of the mountain and proclaimed to the mountain that it was illogical and it would be better if it just went away, then after a while the local authorities would probably send someone (with a white coat) to go collect him.

The problem here is that the "logical" person is not using his logic to figure out how things work, or how to get from Fairfield to Halifax, but rather to make a statement to the universe in general that, "I think things would be better and easier if the universe worked in such and such a manner. Until then I will claim that the offending mountain [emotions] is illogical and an obstacle to reality."

It is one thing to say that it would be easier to travel from Fairfield to Halifax if there were no mountain in the way, it is another to say that the very existence of the mountain is illogical simply because it makes the journey difficult or even impossible. It is the same way with emotions. People who make decisions based solely on their emotions, or an emotional response, rarely make a rational decision. But to say that emotions themselves, or rather the existence of emotions, is inherently irrational and illogical is to deny the very existence of emotions, which by definitions is illogical.

Again I emphasize the point that the role of logic is not tell us how the universe should be, or how things should act in the universe, but rather how things relate to each other. As the ghost of Christmas past put it in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, “[Things] are what they are, do not blame me!”

So let us consider what we have. We must acknowledge that people have emotions. On this point both Spock and I are in agreement. Where we disagree is in the implications of these emotions. To Spock, ideally people should not have emotions because it causes them to make seemingly irrational decisions. Thus the ideal case for Mr. Spock is to get rid of his (and everyone else's) emotions. But this view is inherently illogical because it is just like our logician from Fairfield, standing at the base of the mountain saying to the mountain, "You are illogical!"
It makes more sense to not just acknowledge that people have emotions (or passions, if you prefer) but to work with and interact with that reality. For Mr. Spock there is a whole segment of reality of which he is denying its existence and is refusing to interact with it (a rather ironic statement to make about a fictional character). Just because we acknowledge that people make decisions based on their emotions does not mean that we think that they will always make rational decisions, but rather it is an acknowledgment of the fact that they will make irrational decisions.

The key difference here is that in the approach taken by Spock, all emotions must be done away with (i.e. the logician wants to tear down all the mountains). But in reality emotions cannot be done away with, and they must be incorporated into our logical understanding of the world. Perhaps I can make this point with a quote from Richard Feynman:

[Transcript of the critical part: "You will have to accept it, because it is the way nature works. If you want to know the way nature works...we looked at it carefully, that's the way it looks! You don't like it? Go somewhere else. To another universe where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy. I can't help it! OK?! If I'm going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to the human beings who have struggled as hard they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like, and I cannot make it any simpler."]

My point is, while dealing with human emotions may be very frustrating, and while they may lead people to make seemingly irrational and illogical choices, they are still part of reality and therefore it is illogical to deny them or to refuse to work with them. As Dr. Feynman puts it, "You will have to accept it, because it is the way nature works."

This does not mean that we just have to accept our emotions the way they are, because we also learn from experience that we can change and affect the way our emotions work. We are not completely at the mercy of a set of random emotions, or biological impulses. We have the power to change that, but we must also realize that we are what we are and we cannot change reality. Now as I mentioned at the beginning, the degree that we should let our emotions or our passions have rule over our decisions is open to debate, but to deny them completely, as Mr. Spock does, is most illogical.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

For Father's Day

Today, in many countries in the world, is a day to celebrate fathers. I just thought I should share a little something for fathers.