Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Spock Fallacy

I love Star Trek. I love it quite a lot. (Just ask @masstreble over on Twitter if you don't believe me.) Buried within the Star Trek mythos are quite a lot of different wonderful, positive and utterly human ideals, and so it enjoys a special place in my heart.

It's not all good, though. For as much as Star Trek elevates science and rationality to being the centerpieces of its Utopia, it often cares very little for the actual practice of science. It is also, unfortunately, where we get one of the most quintessential embodiments of the fallacy that rationality must entail emotional detachment. Indeed, many people seem to believe that scientists and others who value rationality are somehow "cold" emotionally (of course, this would make sense if one considers the analogy between irrationality in game theory and the statistical distributions associated with temperature, but I digress). While it is true that many of us embrace our analytical natures and try to deconstruct, analyze and reduce our experiences, that doesn't mean that emotions aren't an important and vital part of that process, to say nothing of our lives on the whole.

We can reason about our emotions, and choose rationally to engage in some action do bring about desired emotional states. For example, I spent money to buy the equipment needed to play video games because I enjoy them, not because it makes sense when emotions are removed from consideration. Practically everyone does this to some degree, but part of being rational, analytical and self-aware is to exercise introspection about this process.

Ironically, I think that much of Star Trek has actually gotten this right, but what sticks in people's minds is the image-- the idea-- of Spock as being both the nearly platonic ideal of a rationalist and of being incredibly unemotional. This image, intended or not, seems to resonate within our culture, leading to that stereotype of the unemotional rationalist being reinforced.

People are, and in my opinion, should be emotional agents in addition to rational agents. The effect, then, of the Spock fallacy, is to create a false dichotomy between these two views of the human condition. Rationality may then be rejected on the basis of not being compatible with intuition or emotion. This is particularly and appallingly clear as applied to religious issues; atheism is often dismissed as lacking in emotional appeal (see Rebecca Watson's recent video on the subject for a good refutation of this argument).

Part of the problem is that in setting up a false dichotomy between rationality and emotion, it is all too easy to forget that rationality is, amongst other things, a strategy for finding the truth. Sometimes the goals of finding truth and being happy appear to be in conflict, and at these times, it is rationality that must win. This is not to say that emotions cannot play a part of such decisions, or that the importance of happiness is somehow overlooked by a rational analysis.

Since I am a physicist by training, I like to argue from limiting cases, and what could be a greater example of the importance of emotion than that of romance? Is it not possible to rationally argue, for instance, that in the interests of long-term happiness, a troubled romance should be ended? This may appear to be in conflict with the importance of emotions, and may even seem to play into the stereotype of rational analysis being "cold." On the other hand, is this not an example of how emotions and rationality can be happily wed?

Rationality and emotion need not be seen as orthogonal to each other, as indeed they are both important parts of being a full and complete human being. Instead of Spock, then, maybe we should think about what Julian Bashir has to teach us.


Saver Queen said...

Excellent post. I'd never thought about this before, but it's true, that Star Trek, TOS in particular, helped to perpetuate this stereotype.

I think that science, rationalism and emotions can co-exist quite peacefully. I think our emotions helped to guide what we value, and science helps achieve these goals.

Take the work that I do. It's really empathy, compassion and other feelings that guide my work. I don't fight against HIV & AIDS because it logically makes sense to strive for this goal (although it does) - I, and most others in this line of work, do so because it causes us anger to see others unfairly put at risk, unable to access prevention strategies, treatment and support. It causes me emotional pain, and it creates internal motivation to make change.

But science shows us the path to achieving these goals. We can use science-based approaches and learn about what works and what does not. For example, science has proven that harm reduction - rather than abstinence based policies - has better results. So we can employ these policies instead of just following our intuition or ideologies that may have ineffective or adverse effects. That's where I see science and emotion working together.

At least in TNG Picard proved to be a highly ethical person, whose emotions seemed well aligned with his sense of right and wrong, and this co-existed with his highest regard for science, although even Picard was a somewhat closed, unemotional individual. Still, there were evidence of his emotions at the very least. Unfortunately, the most emotional person on the ship (not coincidentally a woman) proved to be flighty and um, a little dumb. So I think your theory stands in both series.

Chris Granade said...

I agree entirely, and feel much the same way about why I'm in research. It's not because being a researcher is the most rational thing to be (though it may well be), but because of the joy of learning about our world. My emotions do play a large part of why I am a scientist.

As for TNG, I think that they got it a lot better with Data, since he was always seeking to learn about emotions and gain emotions himself. Not that I even think that Spock is bad per se, but that a lot of what made him cool and interesting got lost under that unfortunate stereotype.

Saver Queen said...

Hmm, quite true. Data was an interesting addition in this regard; he placed a value on humanness, and on human vulnerabilities and eccentricities, particularly the awkwardness of human emotion.

And I love that you remind us that learning is joyful.

Chris Granade said...

Hey, thanks for adding to the conversation! In order for our culture to change so that rationalism is seen in a positive (even essential) light, we need to discuss what it means to be rational as emotional beings. I think fiction gives us a lot of opportunities to do so, and so I love seeing good comments like yours furthering the conversation.