Friday, July 18, 2014

I have a feeling this'll be one of the more controversial posts...

No Fiction Friday this week. Probably none next week. Book-related stuff is heating up.

So, before I start, let me be very clear: I am, generally and overall, a Star Trek fan. Further--and perhaps unusually, given some of the stances I've taken on other works of which I'm a fan--most of my views on Star Trek more or less coincide with the general consensus of the fandom or, in cases where there is no consensus, at least within the Overton window. For example, I like TOS, TNG, and DS9; I think VOY and ENT are crap and the Abrams reboot movies are Star Trek in name only. I think Picard is the best captain, DS9 the best series overall, TOS the strongest on humor and interplay between the characters.

But I have one opinion that I've only slowly become aware of, which assuredly places me on the lunatic fringe of Trek fans: the more I think about it, the more I realize I really dislike Spock.

First off, I'm just going to come out swinging at Vulcan culture in general: the whole "emotions are bad and need to be controlled" thing is a crock of shit. Why? Because that feeling that emotions are bad is itself an emotional response. The backstory for the Vulcans establishes that they established a philosophy of strict "logic"* because they disliked how violent their culture was and preferred a more peaceful one. Those are both emotional reactions too. There is no logical basis to prefer any situation over any other, because to have a preference is to be emotional. As such, it is impossible to make a decision without including some degree of emotional consideration.

Which, of course, the Vulcans do. Now, I'm not going to assume they have the same emotions as humans. In humans, a distaste for violence is generally some combination of fear of being hurt, emotional empathy for others getting hurt, and aesthetics. In Vulcans, it may very well be a combination of scvetznarg and b'foth. But the simple fact that they do prefer to avoid violence, that they try to minimize it, proves that they have preferences and are acting on them, which is to say that they are emotional beings.**

Yet Spock insists he is motivated by pure logic, in contrast to inferior human emotionality. Bullshit. Logic is not, on its own, a decision-making mechanism. Logic is a system for deriving justified conclusions from already-established premises, nothing more or less. Logic cannot tell you which of two courses of action is better unless the premises already contain some definition of "better"--a concept which is, in itself, inherently derived from emotion. We can tell some of what Spock considers "better": he wants to survive, and for others to survive, but in a pinch he values the survival of the Enterprise crew, and Kirk and Bones in particular, above the survival of all others. There is no logical reason to prefer living over dying unless you establish in the premises that some aspect of living is desirable or some aspect of dying is not. Spock is loyal; he has friends; he has a moral code. None of these are things which can exist without the inherently emotional preference of some state of being over some other state of being. Vulcans are not dedicated to logic; they are dedicated to rationality, which is to say to using a combination of evidence and logic to choose the best course of action, where "best" is defined as "likeliest to achieve my [emotionally] preferred outcomes."

Which wouldn't be so bad--it's not inherently bad writing to have a character who is self-contradictory or hypocritical--if not for the fact that Spock is frequently held up as an object of admiration. (Admittedly, more by fans than the show, which correctly depicts Spock as smug, self-satisfied, and almost always wrong about anything other than matters of pure fact.) Unfortunately, Spocks are quite common in real life, especially online where obscuring one's kneejerk emotional responses is easier. I cannot tell you how many discussions I have been in about ethics, politics, or aesthetics--all fields which are fundamentally about identifying and pursuing preferences, and therefore necessarily contain a strong element of emotion--where someone tries to pretend that a fa├žade of apathy (or even the genuine thing) somehow makes their opinions more valid than the opinions of people who passionately care about the issue at hand.

Remember, a purely rational being is necessarily an amoral being. They might fake having a moral code in order to achieve their preferred outcomes, for example if they have to deal with gatekeepers who aren't amoral, but ultimately there is no principle that a fully rational being won't betray if it's the best way to achieve their preferred outcomes. A moral being will necessarily sometimes choose to forego a preferred outcome if it requires immoral behavior to achieve.

So basically, Spock is a hypocritical racist who espouses an amoral philosophy while holding himself up as superior, and reflects neatly one of the more obnoxious forms of GIFT. Which may even be partially inspired by him--I have definitely met people who reference childhood viewing of Star Trek as formative in their pursuit of and insistence on their own superior rationality.

To be honest, he's pretty much an asshole.***

*We'll get to why that's in scare quotes in a minute.
**But, you protest, plants and amoebae are able to exhibit behaviors without having emotions! Why can't Vulcans? Because unlike plants and amoebae, Vulcans are conscious. They are able to observe their own thought processes leading up to their behaviors (which we know, because a major part of their culture--and ours, for that matter--is deliberately monitoring and seeking to alter those processes). That's what emotion is--an awareness (in humans, possibly subconscious) of one's own motivations for behavior. And yes, this also means that Data had emotions from the start. He is, for starters, envious of humans.
***Until Wrath of Khan, when he all of a sudden embraces his emotional side and becomes awesome just in time to die. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" is not only an emotional statement, it's an irrational one. It would be one thing if he expressed it as preferring the rest of the crew survive more than his own survival, but the way he phrases it places something ahead of his own preferred outcomes, which for a purely rational being are the only things that better. What it actually is, is a moral judgment, and therefore fundamentally irrational. Positive character growth!


  1. I think this comes from the same problem as with Kyubey in Madoka - people have a really hard time writing emotionless characters, and often don't have a good idea of what a truly emotionless character might actually act like.

    I've observed that, as Star Trek went on, the writers began retconning Vulcan society to move away from "emotions are bad" to "seeking balance between rationality and passion," and retconning Spock as putting himself at one extreme of that constructed dichotomy because of his shame in his mixed heritage - like in the first film, where you see him applying and being rejected from a severe monastic Vulcan order that claims to eschew emotion entirely.

    Of course, as you point out, the fandom gets it wrong, because, as you've also pointed out elsewhere, that's kind of what fandoms do.

    1. I think the problem is that "emotionless character" is a contradiction in terms. If a character truly has no emotions then they don't have motivations, they have programming, and at that point they're not a character, they're a prop or plot device.

    2. I see what you mean, but if you don't mind my asking for a clarification: you define a "rational being" as "one which acts--to the best of its abilities according to its current knowledge--to maximize the probability of attaining preferred states of being and minimize dispreferred states." Would you argue that there is no way to categorize some states as preferable without emotion? I need to brush up on my Bentham...

    3. Precisely, yes. Preference is itself an emotional state.

  2. I was always under the impression that the Vulcans were perfectly aware that they were emotional (indeed, too emotional). They aren't emotionless, and aren't trying to be so. They're just trying to *suppress* it -- which is (and is acknowledged to be, in-universe) harmful in and of itself. It's true that Spock insists he's being logical - the fact that he really *isn't* is an integral part of his character. I don't think the writers were being unsubtle about this; they're aware that decisions are emotional. What makes Vulcans interesting is that they're full of contradictions.

    1. I addressed that in the first paragraph: I know Vulcan culture is all about suppressing emotion, my point is that they're *not*, they're just privileging one set of emotions over another. Which is fine, except it makes them colossal hypocrites. That in turn wouldn't be a problem if Vulcans weren't so often depicted as the Wise Elders and moral guides of the Federation.

      Then again, the Federation is a spectacularly corrupt and hypocritical organization, so I guess it does kind of fit. I just wish fans weren't so quick to take Vulcans at their word.

    2. "I just wish fans weren't so quick to take Vulcans at their word."

      That was my point - I'm not. I'm not disagreeing with your point, I just think it is a more important part of the Vulcan portrayal than you suggest. I guess it's a death-of-the-author thing - I think the Vulcans ARE depicted in the show as emotional despite their efforts. It's rarely acknowledged, except with Spock (which is part of what makes him the archetypal Vulcan), but it is there.

  3. I take issue with your position that a rational being is necessarily amoral. Rationality is perpendicular to morality - a perfectly rational being is precisely so moral as their preferences. In the case of Spock, his statement on the needs of the many and the few is in fact not irrational, but protorational - it is a necessary value judgement on which rational action can be built, but in no way does it conflict with an attempt to act rationally, except in the very narrow sense of a purely selfish being (and even then, 'selfish' becomes hazy when one admits of a preference for certain rules or states outside oneself - particularly empathy of any stripe).

    1. A rational being is one which acts--to the best of its abilities according to its current knowledge--to maximize the probability of attaining preferred states of being and minimize dispreferred states. Spock's aphorism, however, necessitates sometimes privileging the preferences of others over one's own preferences. Adopting that aphorism as a principle therefore reduces the probability of attaining preferred states and is therefore an irrational act.

      More broadly, moral behavior requires acknowledging that there is something higher than purely rational behavior. Consider the distinction I drew (mostly in the Madoka posts) between saving and helping. One might have a (likely very strong) preference for one's loved ones to be safe and happy, but one has a moral obligation to respect their autonomy and consent. As such, it is perfectly rational to force safety and happiness on them, say by locking them up and drugging them to the gills, but as a violation of their autonomy it is an abhorrent act.

      I mean, yes, ultimately morality itself proceeds from one's preferences, but if we're willing to stretch out that far then we quickly reach the tautological, where every action taken by everyone is rational and the word loses any useful meaning.

    2. Hm, okay. Two points I'd address.

      First, Spock's aphorism (I'm calling it Spock's Aphorism from now on, it just rolls off the tongue/keyboard) doesn't actually say anything about the preferences of the many. It addresses specifically needs, and makes no statement about how those needs are to be assessed - but presumably, Spock has some reasonably clear idea of what constitutes a need, starting with 'not dying horribly of radiation poisoning' and working out through shelter and food and so on. What he considers a need isn't really important to this discussion - the key point is that, presumably, it is his preference to address the needs of the many over the needs of the few. There's no tautology or recursion here. 'Need' is a very different word to 'preference'.

      Second, your last paragraph paints the slope as slightly more slippery than it is. One can paint a clear divide between taking the action one prefers to take and arriving at a state (or more properly a series of states - rationality ought to consider more than immediate gratification) one prefers over others. Humans act in a way that they prefer to act despite having the knowledge that it's not optimal all the time, largely, I think, for the three reasons of an inadequate intuitive assessment of probabilities, an inadequate intuitive sense of scale, and a prioritization of present preferences over easily-predicted future preferences. The tautology is easily avoided, and if we avoid it, we can see that Spock's Aphorism does not describe a decision metric between actions, but between states - precisely the metric which rationality must have from an outside source.


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