How are you going to work today, Mr. Spock?

Vulcan (Star Trek)Absolute reason is a bad strategy for decision-making. It is inefficient and costly. Any creatures that, as Mr. Spock, were cursed by an absolute reason wouldn’t have many chances of passing their genes to the next generation.

Since the 1960’s, Mr. Spock, the pointing-ears ET from Star Trek, is the pop icon of the absolute reason, the idea that an evolved being would be free from emotions and passions, and thus could make the most logical and proper decisions under any circumstances.

But Mr. Spock is an ideal that neither can nor is worth reaching for. Not because of intrinsic human limitations or some idealistic nobility of our emotions, but simply because his perfect reason makes him by far the most idiotic being in the Galaxy.

Answer this simple question: how are you going to work (or home, whatever) today? If you don’t live in some critical place, this is just trivial. You will not think much to answer “I’ll take the tram” or “I’ll drive”. Maybe you will hesitate between few reasonable possibilities, “But if it’s sunny, I’ll walk to work”.

Now, imagine Mr. Spock answering the same question. Being perfectly rational, he would first consider all possibilities, from the most obvious – tram, walking, teletransport – to the most ridiculous – jumping on a single leg, stealing a car. Mr. Spock would then assess the pros and cons of each of these options. Then, he would attribute statistical weights to each one and short-list the two or three most efficient ways of going to work. Finally, Mr. Spock would roll dice to choose between those few statistically equivalent options.

Obviously, this process would take so long that when he had finally made his mind, Enterprise would have already departed for its 5-years mission and he would find himself jobless waiting in a long queue at the Vulcan unemployment office.

The absolute reason of Mr. Spock is as much paralyzing as it was the absolute memory of Funes, the memorable character of Borges. Humans and many other animals, on the other hand, have an entire machinery of emotions to aid them with decision-making. We feel lazy to walk home, we fell right to take a tram, we feel embarrassed of jumping on a single leg, we feel afraid of stealing a car. And all these feelings come much faster and before any reasoning.

From the natural-selection point of view, absolute reason would be a disaster. A hypothetical proto-human with particularly strong instincts to be a science officer would become a prey much before leaving any offspring on Earth. From that, we can only conclude that absolute reason is a lethal trait.

MB

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Categories: Cognitive Sciences, Life Sciences, Science

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4 replies

  1. I think you missed a few episodes. Star Trek TOS explored emotions on a number of levels. It was lack of emotions that Spok brought to the table along with the notion that emotions were irrational.

    A better conclusion might be that mating is irrational given your premise.

    You make Spok out to be a robot – he was not. Emotion is what causes fear or rage, they are the best and worst of human behaviors.

    When you use the term ‘absolute reason’ I can’t be certain of what you mean, but if by this you mean ‘nothing but reason’ you are misrepresenting it here to make a silly point, one that I’m not sure is even worth making.

    In your examples, when you felt too lazy to walk, you ‘reasoned’ that it would be more work than you are able to do or willing to do. When you felt embarrassed for jumping on one leg you ‘reasoned’ that it would make you appear foolish to others and not be very efficient at getting you home. When you feel afraid to steal a car you ‘reasoned’ that the risk of getting caught and going to jail was much higher than you were willing to risk. All of your examples used reason to arrive at some emotional state. You just didn’t have to do the reasoning in your conscious mind so you don’t see it happening. A lot happens in our subconscious mind – or do you think about breathing in and out all day?

    Just because you didn’t have to explain your ‘reasoning’ when you say you felt lazy doesn’t mean you didn’t use reasoning in the decision.

  2. “when you felt too lazy to walk, you ‘reasoned’ that it would be more work than you are able to do or willing to do” No. It is not like that the brain works. Emotions work in an intermediate level between basic instincts and reasoning. We fell emotions and often make decisions before reasoning about the events that caused them. You can learn more about that by reading some high-level popular science like S Pinker or A Damasio.

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