Sunday, November 8, 2009

Star Trekkin' on Vulcan Illogic & Morality

The other day, I bought Star Trek: The Movie, and Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn. It's been a long time since I've seen those films, but it seemed nostalgic and fun at the time. And to an extent of course, it was. But... Re-watching Star Trek reminds me of my love-hate relationship with that entire universe.

On the one hand, of course, Star Trek represents optimism and a vision of the future where humanity has transcended most problems of scarcity, the standard of living is high, and there is relative peace throughout the world. I love that.

On the other, it would appear that their supposed means of achieving all that is a quasi-socialist, clearly totalitarian (yet oddly headless) state where virtually no one we encounter is employed independently of the Federation, and within that realm at least they seem to even reject money. Now, conveniently - most economic problems can be solved by magic, and that's exactly how it works in the world of Star Fleet. Apparently, resources are now infinite, and thus they can build hundreds of massive ships & space stations, infinite weapons, gadgets - not to mention clothing & feeding the many thousands or perhaps millions of officers & enlisted personnel. Since resources are apparently endless, economic calculation is a thing of the past, so socialism can finally work.

It's the kind of utopia that appeals so greatly to legions of academic intellectuals who's hubris knows no bounds because it just presumes that all societal problems are ones which can be solved by forcing people to do "the right" things. In short, all the world's problems will be solved - apparently - by employing exactly the types of ideas that have produced the greatest economic destruction & human misery ever seen in human history...

Don't worry though, it will work this time, because the technology is better, the planners & designers of society are smarter and the new socialist man will have developed by the 23rd Century - that way no one will ever disagree with the resource allocation defined & enforced by the Federation. The state will run everything, and everyone will be happy. This time, the state will just listen to all the scientists who obviously know best what the countless billions of individuals they rule should be doing.

No flaws there, right!? Forget that in real life, "society" has no designers and is the product of the free & voluntary actions of individuals and their influence on each other. Forget that individual determinations on relative value of anything isn't something that is objectively knowable by a third party, or is even the same from person to person.

So yeah, while I like the optimism and the vision of the future (and the often pro-science aspects of the show, for that matter) and while the goals are quite good - the absurdity of the writers' assumptions on how those goals could ever be achieved are often just too much to stomach.

However - for me, that's always been more of a cursory complaint. It is fiction, after all, and they certainly don't spend much time explaining the inner workings of much of it. I'm not even sure if Earth has a president in the 23rd Century, or if there are still sovereign nations, though I have to presume that the military industrial complex (which really is all Star Fleet is, right?) is controlled by an elected body of some kind. Who knows. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain...

Never mind that. What's really bothered me as a strong & passionate supporter of reason is actually the presentation of Vulcan "philosophy".

Spock & other Vulcans within the Star Trek universe persistently make claims such as; "logic dictates ___", and other utter nonsense.

I am supremely annoyed by this. Logic simply doesn't dictate anything on its own!

It's a means of cross-checking ideas and forming proper syllogisms in order to analyze our thoughts. It helps us by making sure our premises do not conflict with each other, and then provides the means by which we can review sets of premises to form consistent conclusions. Logic is an amazingly useful tool for anyone needing the means to assess information. However... Logic in and of itself isn't a SOURCE of knowledge. Logic can tell you if your premises are contradictory - but it cannot provide them for you!

Syllogisms can be logically correct and still lead to completely asinine conclusions if the premises accepted are incorrect to begin with.

For example:
Premise A: All birds with webbed feet are ducks.
Premise B: Penguins have webbed feet.
Conclusion: Penguins are ducks.
The above statement is logically correct.

The conclusion arrived is consistent with both premises. Except... Premise A is idiotic. Logic "dictated" that Penguins are Ducks - and we all know damn well that they aren't.

So logic - by itself - doesn't produce correct conclusions out of thin air, as the Vulcan community repeatedly seems to suggest. Worse still, I find that about 90% of the premises Spock & the rest of his species seem to build their syllogisms from are often completely subjective, and many times they are ridiculously incorrect.

I was originally going to write in depth about the problems with the way logic is viewed and represented by the series' writers, but then I found this brilliant article over at Distributed Republic, which did it for me:
"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. [For] 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.

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."
And indeed, author Rainbough Phillips is correct.

Logic & emotion are not opposing features of the human psyche,as logic isn't even on that spectrum to begin with! As a result, most of the statements made about logic are just absurd and wind up being horrendous examples of rational, logical thinking largely because premises simply go unquestioned - as if logic itself had produced them out of the ether.

The big problem with this is the ethical & moral "conclusions" assumed by the Vulcans... .

For instance, Spock's "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" isn't a statement that follows from "logic" as he claims, but from value judgments on the relative worth of people and ideas. If liberty & individualism is a highly placed value, then the needs of the few (or the one) weigh the same, if not more than, the needs of the group. Additionally, of course, groups are merely the formal labels we ascribe to individuals within geographic or ideological proximity to each other. Claiming that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few ignores that the group has no identity apart from its individual members.

Regardless, how exactly is this something that can possibly be defined objectively? All value judgments are predicated on unique conditions only knowable by the one doing ascribing the value, and far from being objective and intrinsic - they are subjective and always changing. This applies to stuff, of course, but it also applies to how we rate the worth of different people... As callous as it may sound, most of the drama of human interaction is about nothing but the constant changes in comparative value of one person to another.

How many of us would say that their closest & best friends today are the same as they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago? How many breakups have been caused by partners who have begun to value each other less than someone else, or even simply less than other things? As much as I think a lot of people would like to believe that all people should always be of equal value, this simply isn't the case. Human value isn't intrinsically equal because value is a personal, subjective trait imposed by the valuer on the subject. Much like people ascribing divergent levels of worth to inanimate objects, we also ascribe different levels of value to people, and for a near-infinite number of reasons.

Spock's statement ignores all this entirely. So do quite a few human philosophers (ones being tapped into by the writers of Star Trek, no doubt).

There are numerous thought experiments presented by ethicists where we are forced into a "no-win" situation which requires us to defend some moral valuation of some human lives against others. One famous type of such "experiment" goes like this: There is a train rapidly approaching a fork in the track. The train is currently on a path to go left, but 5 workmen are on the track and are not aware of the on-coming train. They will not be able get out of the way in time. There are 2 workmen - who likewise will not see or expect the oncoming train - on the track to the right of the fork. You are in the unique position of seeing both tracks, the on-coming train, and are capable of flipping the switch to make the train change forks.

You have 2 options:
  1. Do nothing, watch the train take the left fork & let 5 people die, or...
  2. Switch the train to the right fork, saving 5 but actively selecting to kill 2 others.
Which is the more "correct" moral choice?

The Vulcan (and often utilitarian philosophers out there in the human world) simply assume that value is objective and can be quantified numerically. Therefore, each human has a quantitative value unit of 1, 5 humans = 10 units of value, 2 humans = 2 units of value... Problem easily solved, save 5 people, let two die. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and all that... So you pull the lever.

Problem is, in reality, as I said value is dependent on the person doing the valuing. Say instead of 7 strangers working on the tracks, it's your two sons on the right, and 5 ex-cons on the left? Do you weight the lives the same? Just because there are 3 more human beings on the left, you should take action which you know will result in the deaths of your two sons, merely because you were saving more people on the left? Is "ex-con" a reason to reduce the relative weight of those 5? What if it's 5 strangers & 2 of your best friends? What if it's 2 close friends on the right, one "best" friend on the left? Would you really forgo saving the people you love, in order to save a greater number of strangers?

Is it really just a simple equation? 5 > 2, so we save 5... Really?

I think not. But this is an unfortunately common problem with the Vulcan characters on the show, and one which is equally common among self-defined "rational" humans in the real world as well. This also outlines some of the many problems intrinsic to a lot of thought experiments posed by ethicists. In the real world, there are almost never only two solutions to a given problem, and there is a big difference between help & make people aware of their danger, and actively choosing to divert knowingly causing people's deaths. So, like James T. Kirk reconfiguring the Kobayashi Maru, I don't accept the premises given and choose an option not presented in this case.

Incidentally, I do actually have an alternate solution and reasons for choosing it, but it actually distracts greatly from the point...

...Which is........ There's just no way for "logic" to answer moral questions independent of subjective determinations of value, and we need those first in order to proceed to come up with answers. Logic itself cannot produce a value judgment or a motivation. What it can do, is help you identify whether or not the value judgment you've made is consistent with your other principles, and whether or not the course of actions you are planning on taking are likely to produce the desired outcome. Logic is just a means of analysis... And it's an amazingly good one. But as Miss Phillips puts it above, it simply cannot be the root of a person's psyche or behavior.

The Star Trek universe offers a lot of overly-clean "solutions" to ethical & societal problems, but most of the solutions presented are based on exceedingly flawed premises and ignoring severe problems of epistemology. Given the way Gene Roddenberry and the subsequent writers have consistently failed to understand basic aspects of philosophy, I suppose this shouldn't be surprising.

It's still kind of painful to watch.

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