The Logic Of Vulcan

As an avid fan and regular viewer of Star Trek (in its many iterations) I often find myself contemplating the reasoning underlying the different premises, cultures, and characters we are presented with in the Star Trek universe. I once gave a speech, for example, on why the Federation was socialist. My reasoning being the strange lack of currency and major business interests (that weren’t tied to the federation in some way) on Earth.

Recently I have been watching new episodes of Enterprise, the Star Trek prequel series that is now in its 4th season. This year the writers have apparently decided to better fill out the history, religion, and character of Vulcan society. The theme that arises again and again is that “logic” is not only at the core of Vulcan spirituality but defines on the deepest level what it means to be Vulcan (whether these are two distinct ideas or one in the same is a matter of opinion).

Right now on Enterprise, Vulcan society is rediscovering the teachings of their most revered spiritual leader, Surak. Yet in spite of having lost the knowledge of these teachings for many centuries They obviously did not lose their beliefs regarding the way Vulcan’s should and should not behave. Basically they believe that to be Vulcan is to be a stoic being that holds logic above all else, and that any display or experience of emotion is a weakness that will ultimately hinder them in the execution of their duties and obligations.

In the Star Trek universe, and indeed on Vulcan, logic and emotion are opposites. One is a strength, and the other a diametrically opposed weakness. The problem with this view however is revealed when examining the broader academic categories under which these two terms fall. Logic is philosophically an aspect of epistemology (the study of knowledge i.e. how we know what we know). Emotion falls within psychology (a science studying the cognitive and physiological causes of behavior).*

The point is that making the two opposites combines philosophy and psychology in a manner that they do not combine. Logic is a system designed to analyze identity. It gives us a means of checking to see if our premises are consistent with or contradictory to each other (it will not necessarily tell us if they are true), and for identifying conclusions that result from a set of premises etc. Emotion to be the opposite, and in the Vulcan view a necessary underminer of logic, it would have to be a process unto itself that always inhibited the recognition of contradictions, inconsistencies, and consistencies within one’s own reasoning. Yet even strong emotions do not necessarily inhibit the ability to use logic for those that know how to use it.

Personally I have known many individuals who could come up with extremely tight logical reasoning while experiencing an extreme emotional state. In these cases it was their premises and not their reasoning that ended up being off. Consider for example the logical implications of the premise that the entire world is “out to get you.”

The flaw in the Vulcan worldview is not however the depiction of emotion as a set of states that can inhibit one’s logic (as this is not inaccurate), but rather the presentation of logic (an epistemological system) as their psychological core. Logic simply cannot be one’s psyche. Strangely enough (or perhaps its not strange at all) there is a strong correlation between the logic/emotion dichotomy of Vulcan, and the objective/subjective dichotomy of objectivism.

While objectivism does not discount the value of emotions as a source of information, and as a meaningful part of human experience, it does define subjective to mean, in application, acting on emotion-inspired whims. Thus most (edit: **) emotion-inspired action would lack the necessary consideration of context to be objective. The implication of this is that emotion can hinder objective reasoning.

In fact I think the Vulcan’s may be objectivists (though not necessarily in the Randian sense of the term) at heart. What they are ultimately trying to accomplish with their suppression of emotion, and strong adherence to logic is objectivity. They believe emotion hinders sound reasoning and judgment (in this context “sound” means to be both true and logically valid). In the Star Trek universe this typically works for them, and technically there is little reason that it shouldn’t.

Vulcans get into trouble, however, when they choose to disregard the emotions of more emotional (and perhaps less logical) beings than themselves. In a classic episode of Star Trek, the original series for example, Spock (the Vulcan science officer of the star ship Enterprise) finds himself leading his first away mission on an alien planet. On that planet they enconter giant, wooly, spear throwing aliens who manage to kill several of the crew members.

When the rest of the team returns to the shuttle craft the human crew decides that they wants to retrieve and bury the bodies of their fallen comrades. Spock however considers this to be an illogical and dangerous waste of time and resources. The result is a near mutiny. Effectively the episode is a morality play. It depicts Spock’s attempts to lead his crew without respect for the inherent emotional nature of humans as being naive and dangerous, and indeed it was. (In Spock’s defense, the humans in Star Trek the original series were far more hot-headed, reationary, and downright “emotional” than they are in later series.) But the problem in this episode was cultural not philosophical. It was the cultural mores and beliefs of the humans that inspired their emotional response and that ultimately came into conflict with Spock’s cultural mores and beliefs (which happened to specifically inhibit an emotional response in him).

This is typically how Vulcan/human conflicts, whether small or large, play out. They typically end up being cultural issues and not philosophical differences. In fact it is the relative valuation of risk of both humans and Vulcans that typically ends up creating the conflict. When risk seems disproportionate to the value or likelihood of a gain Vulcans consider a given action illogical. However Vulcans typically end up taking the biggest risks of all when they are convinced that the action it entails is supported by sound logical reasoning. Thus in spite of the many attempts within the Star Trek universe to depict it as such, humans are not superior to Vulcans due to their emotional nature, nor are Vulcans philosophically inferior to humans due to their categorical suppression of emotion. Likewise emotion is not a weakness, and a lack of it is not a strength - at least not in the Star Trek universe. Your own mileage may vary.

*"Emotion" also potentially falls within cognitive science -I say “potentially” because I do not believe there is a consensus on the matter.

**(Edit: I put "most" here but I was thinking and unfortunately left out "short term" -the idea is that if you act on an emotion before you understand its cause you are acting subjectively. I did not mean to imply that objectivism created a dichotomy between emotion and logic).

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I have also applied a bit of

I have also applied a bit of objectivist thinking to Star Trek, specifically DS9 and I remember thinking that there was no way the Klingons could have ever gotten off their home planet with their anti-intellectual mentality. Nothing in Klingon culture rewards scientific advancement.

Actually war's are notorious

Actually war's are notorious for spurring scientific advancement particularly in the areas of weapons and armor development etc. Klingons being so driven by their desire to fight would have a strong impetus to develop the tools of war. Also the Klingons are supposed to be more diverse than is typically presented in the show. To put it simply they are not all anti-intellectual.

I'll take your word for it,

I'll take your word for it, I am no expert. But I wonder if there wouldn't be a collective action of sorts. Scientific progress is good for the Klingons generally, but no single Klingon wants anything to do with it. As far as I can tell, honor and glory come only from success at physical combat.

But praise from those higher

But praise from those higher up in their hierarchy -those that have already won glory in battle also wins them glory. You forget they have a very centralized government, and if the chancellor of the Klingon empire asks you to develop weapons to defeat their enemies and ensure the continued dominance of the Klingon empire, not only would you do it but you would find glory in doing it. Especially since Klingon politicians are particularly good at propaganda. Klingons make war songs about everything, from actual battles to chess tournaments.

The distinction I always see

The distinction I always see is that emotion tells us our goals, and logic tells us how to achieve them. So any use of emotion at all in analyzing how the world is, how it was, or how it will change based on hypothetical actions is foolishly illogical. For example, liberals, to my eye, are constantly making the mistake of analyzing how the world is based on how they want it to be, which makes them sound like idiots because they are frequently wrong.

But, as the objectivists miss to their detriment, logic alone does not give us goals, aesthetics, etc. I need to know how I feel about outcomes A and B to decide if I want to logically plan a strategy to achieve one of them. Reason does not tell us which composers to prefer, Ayn Rand's ridiculous ratiocinations to the contrary.

As I mentioned objectivism

As I mentioned objectivism does not reject the use of emotion both as a source of information (how we feel about something would help to determine one's goals) or as a meaningful part of human experience. It does not create an emotion/logic dichotomy. All I was saying was that the subjective/objective dichotomy in objectivism is very much like the logic/emotion dichotomy of the vulcans. This is because Rand ties subjective action to acting on emotion. But the key part of this is the word "whim." One can still have emotion inspired actions that are well thought out and are not based on a short term whim.

It would be downright false to presume that objectivism denies all use of emotion in favor of some sort of pure emotionless logic like the vulcans do. Actually the parallel I see between them is the fact that a common critique of Rand is that she confounded psychology and philosophy much like the vulcans do with their emotion/logic dichotomy.

Or to put it in Rand's words:

"An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions -provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows -or makes it a point to discover -the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand....

...His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow -then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction -his own and that of others."

-Playboy's interview with Ayn Rand

Perhaps I was not clear with my comments about how objectivism treats emotion. So let me make it clear Objectivists do not see any conflict between logic and emotion. But one must understand their emotions before acting on them. Which is why in objectivism, subjective action is considered to be acting on an emotional whim. Obviously the term "whim" is kind of vague which leads to the confusion.

One of the reasons there is

One of the reasons there is no money or corporate activity on Star Trek is exactly because of the reason Patri stated. Its written by militant liberals and this is the fantasy universe they want. no problem with that, its just a fact. i enjoy the show from a technical standpoint but the one dimensional attempts to parallel world events make me laugh out loud.