Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Trouble With Spock

     I was just a teenager when I first watched Star Trek, but even then I immediately realised that the character of Spock was absurd. It is not possible for a rational animal to operate completely by logic, without any emotions.
     All animals, including us, are programmed with certain basic drives and responses. You can see that easily with the busy bee, going about its energetic business like a tiny organic robot, without a thought or an emotion in its minuscule head. As greater complexity develops, the ability to react by learning in order to fulfill those drives increases. "Emotion" is the name we give to the subjective physiological and chemical changes the drives induce in us. "Logic" is the method by which we learn to solve problems which arise in the fulfillment of the drives. Since the problem solving process often proceeds at several stages removed from the original impetus, logic can often lead us astray - such as when we seek money in order to buy food, shelter, and clothing, and end up seeking it obsessively for its own sake.
     Dedicated Trekkies will tell you that Spock was only half-Vulcan, and that the Vulcans aren't completely emotionless. They are periodically given to outbursts of intense emotion. Probably this is because they are not naturally emotionless, but have adopted that state by means of a psychological philosophy. That is impossible. Emotions evolved before thought. They are the core of an animal's psychology; they arise from the deepest, most primeval core of the brain. Emotions can be controlled, channeled, and turned into servants rather than masters, but they cannot be eliminated.
     That is one fundamental reason why a being such as Spock is impossible. But it wasn't the flaw I immediately saw when I was a teenager. Gene Rodenberry, the writer, was presumably thinking about the way emotions can get in the way of proper decision making. One recalls the acronym, H.A.L.T.: never make a decision when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. It is true that, if you are not beset by such emotions as fear or revulsion, you can better determine how to save a life - but also how to take a life. That is the big flaw. Logic can tell you how best to achieve your goal, but it cannot possibly tell you what the goal should be. Attempts to do so will inevitably lead you on a ever downward spiral searching for a first premise.
     Think about it. If Spock is to function effectively as the Enterprise's first officer - indeed, to undergo the long years of study and training to reach that position - he must believe in its mission. For a human being, that is easy; satisfying curiosity is an end in itself. But what logical argument can Spock give? The greater benefit of Vulcan-kind, or the Federation, or civilisation? What logical reason is there to seek that? But if he doesn't believe in the starship's mission, he will have to do the job for selfish reasons of his own. What could they logically be? Glory? Power? Money? How logical are they? They are vanity, and a striving after wind, as the author of Ecclesiastes and every prominent philosopher has pointed out.
     It is noteworthy that, every five years, Vulcans undergo an intense mating urge. Obviously, Rodenberry realised that mating cannot be logically justified, for what are lust and love except emotions? But when the mating is done and a baby Vulcan is born, what logical reason can the parents have for caring for it. Love? That's an emotion. Because otherwise the poor thing will die? So what? What logical reason is there for helping it live? Because all Vulcan life is sacred? Who says? Because otherwise the parents' line will die out and the Vulcan race will eventually become extinct? So why is that a bad thing? Can you give a logical reason why any lineage or species should survive, or even why Spock himself should continue to exist?
    If all this sounds shocking to you, remember that it is a natural conclusion of much postmodern thought. That human (and Vulcan) life is sacred, that the race should continue, that lying, stealing, and murder are wrong are not conclusions; they are first premises or axioms. You cannot arrive at them by logic; they are self-evident, they are the starting points of logic. In their absence a wholly logical society would be so totally amoral it could not exist.
     Just the same, it is clear from the series that Vulcans are not totally logical. Their society is constructed on a bedrock of first principles which are never questioned, nor should be. Like humans, they have an inborn moral sense which only needs to be channeled. As C. S. Lewis succinctly put it in "The Poison of Subjectivism", the moral law is an objective reality and logic the method by which it is grasped, and that the human (or Vulcan) mind has no more ability to create a new morality than to create a new primary colour.

     Even sillier than the idea of an intelligent being without emotions is that of a computer or robot which has them. I shall discuss this in the next article - unless you wish to return to the Index.