Vulcans, Houyhnhmns, and Other Logical Fallacies

Mr. Spock is my favorite character from the original Star Trek.  I am intrigued by the concept of Vulcans because they privilege logic over emotion.  However, despite their claims to be completely unemotional, they aren’t. This descrepancy may simply be because Vulcans are really not as unemotional as they claim–and a convincing argument could be made for that–but I suspect that the real explanation for this is our anthropocentristic view of the world.  As human beings, we seem always to priviledge our species above all others, creating everything in our own image; science fiction is evidence enough of that.  Most alien species imagined are really just caricatures of human traits, often set at combative odds with each other.  In Star Trek, for example, Vulcans and Klingons are foils for one another, one motivated by logic and distrusting feelings, the other motivated purely by emotion and distrusting rationality.  And the humans, the heroes of the story, are positioned somewhere in between the two, embracing logic and emotion alternately, but they always seem to come up with the right action to save the day; even their most illogical, emotional decisions pay off in the end.  However, even though the logic/emotion combination found in humans is the most valued position within the Star Trek universe, logic is nonetheless priviledged above emotion because Vulcans are Earth’s greatest allies while Klingons are Earth’s greatest enemy.  Even when Klingons have joined the Federation in The Next Generation, they are still considered dangerous and unpredictable.  On the other hand, Vulcans, though sometimes irritating and limited by logic,  are still ultimately wise and, in many ways, superior to humans.  I admire the Vulcans’ discipline and emotional control, but at the same time, their underestimation of the value of emotion is a flaw.

This priveliging of rationality and eschewing of emotion always reminds me of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the strange ultra-reasonable horse-race, the Houyhnhmns.  Like the Vulcans, the Houyhnhmns represent an ultra-rational society whose foil is the simian-esque human Yahoos.  Like in Star Trek, the human hero Gulliver chooses to learn from and align himself with the rational Houyhnhmns and ignore the similarities between himself and the Yahoos; however, Gulliver desires to be exactly like the Houyhnhmns.  The similarites between Star Trek and Gulliver’s Travels are limited, but essentially, both offer some sort of parable about the value of logic and the dangers of emotion.

And it would seem that this is representative of our culture; we seem to believe that logic and emotion are antithetical and while we do value them both at different times, we prefer the relative predictability, and therefore safety, of logic.  However, I would suggest the possibility that logic and emotion are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  If, for example, my instincts prove to be correct time and time again, isn’t it logical to trust my feelings?  Maybe you don’t buy that; trusting one’s gut is a gamble because there is no evidence to support what is felt.  And yet, our culture is unable to conceive of anything apart from emotion, as it is everyone’s terministic screen.  The representations of logical societies in the two examples above both exhibit emotion in their dislike of emotion.  Even their embrasure of logic involves emotion; if we traced their motivation logically, we would find that they embraced logic because they wanted to get away from the complications of emotion, and desire is, of course, based in emotion.  It may be a logical desire, but it is still desire.  Logically, then, this suggests that emotion can be logical, or that logic can be derived from emotion.  Or perhaps that emotion can be a type of logic in itself.

My point is that it is unnatural to suggest that there is a solid barrier between logic and emotion.  Vulcans always fascinated me because I am tempted by the desire to leave emotion behind like they do.  But it’s possible to be emotional without being controlled by emotion.  Mr. Spock is my favorite because he is a logical being who can also appreciate the value of emotion.  While he may often disagree with Captain Kirk’s logic, he can still understand emotion and accept it as a valid basis for action.  What Vulcan’s view as a disadvantage is probably his greatest strength.



5 thoughts on “Vulcans, Houyhnhmns, and Other Logical Fallacies

  1. In an episode of Enterprise, Captain Archer is possessed by the soul of the Vulcan who founded their philosophy of logic. Archer has flashbacks to the time period this philosopher lived: when Vulcans nearly wiped themselves out from nuclear war because of how aggressive they were. Vulcans are terrified of the passion within themselves! Vulcans see themselves as the Incredible Hulk, “Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

    We fear our emotions because we don’t understand them. That is, emotions flow from experiences, memories, and knowledge gathered throughout our life, but which remain hidden under the surface of our conscious mind. God-given instincts crouch there as well. Through these things, intuition (emotion is a form of intuition, I believe) springs to life from the vast amount of information that doesn’t reach our conscious mind. Someone smiles at us and we feel happy, without analyzing the smile. However, our intuition is sometimes based on false or irrelevant guides. Without the ability to judge the source of our emotion, we are unable to judge its validity. It is like a voice in the darkness calling to us.

    Because logic discards subconscious impulses, it has the benefit of dealing with only the current situation. (Except, as you point out, it is impossible to do so in reality, but for the sake of discussion, the two ideas can be separated.) This may give you a “fresh, clear” perspective, but it also discards any past experiences or instincts you are otherwise unable to access, but that may be able to provide insight into the current situation.

    If we seek to understand where our emotions are flowing from, we can benefit from both streams. Not only do we train our logical thought to seek a broader and deeper range of information, but we can purge unhealthy emotional impulses (another way to say this would be “heal emotional wounds.”) For a long time, I joked about not liking pets or babies. I consciously recognized that neither was true about me, but I had an almost-uncontrollable impulse to joke about it whenever either topic came up. Once I became aware of the emotional impulse behind it I was able to deal with it. In the process, I learned both about who I am, and about other people. I had almost (consciously) forgotten about it, but as a child/pre-teen I wanted tons of pets. I got a hamster and a rabbit first. My hamster escaped and died trapped in the floorboards. My rabbit either escaped or was eaten by dogs. My next two rabbits died from unknown causes (probably the heat + not enough water.) I blamed myself and refused to keep pets out of guilt. That was nearly twenty years ago! I wouldn’t pet a dog because I may have made a mistake as child? Understanding the wound was enough to heal it. I joked about not liking babies to cover the pain of believing I would never have a child myself. Understanding isn’t enough to heal that pain, but it was enough to show me healthier ways to deal with it.

    What I’m trying to say is that I believe you are quite right that logic and emotion are not mutually exclusive and that both are valuable. We should listen to both and evaluate both as best we can. Understanding what each is and where each comes from helps us to judge wisely. Sometimes we have time to stop and reflect and sometimes we do not. A person who has faulty math skills cannot rely on his logic any more than a person who has unacknowledged emotional wounds can rely on their intuition. Taking the time (when we have it) to examine ourselves and to train our minds helps us make better decisions when we simply have to trust ourselves and react.

    (oops, I’ve written almost as much in response as you wrote to begin with. And just to agree with you… )

    • In an attempt to be brief (which is a skill I’m trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to teach myself through this blog), I just want to add to the conversation by responding to the ideas in your paragraph 3. I think that the benefits of a “logical” approach to a situation are what attract me so much to that position. But I don’t think that a person has to shirk their emotions in order to achieve, in however small a measure, a sense of objectivity. The logical side of our human brains allows us the possibility (sometimes) to extract ourselves from our personal and emotional involvement in a situation in order to understand it and/or make a decision about it. This is what I have to do when I grade papers, for example. I have to remove myself from the emotional connection that I have with the student and assign a grade based on the merits of the paper. If I didn’t the majority of my classes would have lovely A’s, but as it is, I wrestle with my emotions every time I know that I have to give a poor grade to a student I like. I know that the possibility of human objectivity is limited, and that some people are more adept at this than others, but it keeps me sane and honest. As we’ve both conceded, it is not possible for us as humans to completely disregard past experiences and emotions, but I do think that it is possible for us to be honest about our experiences and emotions and make logical decisions.

      I also want to add that I think logic is as natural for humans as emotion is. A few weeks ago, I helped grade for a UIL writing competition in which students had responded to a quote about how humans are essentially wild animals underneath a veneer of civilization. To a person, all the essays I read agreed whole-heartedly with the quote, but I did not. As I read their arguments (most of which drew on Hitler and the French Revolution for evidence) about the human capacity for cruelty, my mind constructed counterarguments. So I’ve been chewing on that for a little while now, and I disagree with the idea that human nature is basically animal-like because the existence of civilization. The fact that the majority of humanity longs for order rather than chaos, for peace rather than war, for gentleness rather than violence indicates to me that humanity is essentially logical even as it is essentially emotional. Our minds are designed to balance our emotional behaviors; we were designed with the capacity for self-control, and it is as natural, I think, to desire self-control as are the impulses that we control. That’s what separates us from animals. My dog cannot choose to act other than her instinct tells her, but I can.

  2. Indeed, both are natural! This is because logic and emotion are not fundamentally different. Both are responses based on information received. Emotions and intuition come from ‘logical’ processes that occur off-camera (so to speak), while logic is essentially the same thing, but on-camera. It’s unreasonable to expect ourselves to deal with all the information we receive and with the entirety of our life experience within the confines of our conscious internal monologue. However, our conscious mind gives us the opportunity to choose, rather than to run on autopilot.

    Many people, like your students apparently, seem to mistake destructive behavior as fundamentally depraved. Excepting truly mentally-ill behavior (perhaps; Richard Beck would have something to say about this, I’m sure!) dysfunctional behavior is the result broken emotional math. That is, for any number of reasons, we begin to believe things that aren’t true, and so any emotion flowing out of it becomes faulty – and probably dysfunctional. Some of the most obvious of these fallacies are: sex = love, fear = respect, financial success = good person, etc. Less obvious (but not less common): disapproval = hate, controlling = loving, loving = possessing, etc. We may be able to consciously reject these ideas and yet hold on to them subconsciously.

    (Speaking of possessive love…) Isn’t this what “Til’ We Have Faces” is about? Seeing the truth about ourselves – seeing past our damaged assumptions and beliefs and seeing ourselves and our behavior for what it is. It’s been awhile now, but I recall a lot of interplay between Orual’s rationalistic teacher and the primitive local religion, as well, but I don’t remember well enough to say more on that topic.

    However, even as I agree with myself (of course) as I write this, I am troubled by it. It sounds as though I have reduced all of human behavior down to math. Granted, the vast majority of the math is hidden from view, but I haven’t described anything of which I could not easily draw a diagram. My intuition tells me I’ve missed something important. Am I simply resistant to the idea that we are not magical, ethereal creatures impossible to comprehend or do I know something I’ve not yet realized?

  3. I haven’t read _Till We Have Faces_ in a few years, either, so I don’t feel confident to answer your ideas about that. But if I remember correctly, there is interplay between the two, but the Greek teacher is definitely presented in a very favorable way while the religion is dark and contemptible. In the end, I think, Lewis overturns both, but it seems clear to me that he valued the logical teacher. And he certainly valued logic as well; as an apologist, he attempted to construct logical arguments in defense of his religion, right?

    I’m not sure I agree with your equation of human activity to math. I’m thinking of logic in terms of rhetoric, perhaps more about constructing complex arguments than mathematical equations. We may have broken emotional logic, but I’m not sure that we can reduce that to math. Instead, I see that someone in that situation has instead learned to trust a fallacy as sound logic. Very likely, a skilled counselor or therapist could help that someone trace the logical (mis)steps and see how the faulty argument was constructed, in emotional terms, of course. I agree that we are able to control and reject notions without purging them from our subconscious, but I am just resistant to the idea of math here, at least as more than a simplified metaphor. And maybe that’s all you mean it as. I guess I’m splitting hairs in saying this, but I find rhetorical logic far more subjective and flexible than math. Mathematical equations do not change, as far as I know; that’s the value of it, right? But logical arguments can change depending on circumstance. Also, if things boiled down to math, then our actions would be infinitely more comprehensible. We would just have to figure out each others’ math and then we would be able to understand each other. For crying out loud, that would make it infinitely easier to understand ourselves! Instead, the process through which we become persuaded of some “truth” in our lives is infinitely more complicated than an equation. That tangled progression that makes up our notions makes it so difficult to trace the logic, or ill-logic as it often is. I guess math doesn’t work for me as a metaphor because there is an answer in math. But in argument, there is only persuasion. I don’t even know if I’m making sense, but there it is.

  4. I started out using math as only a simplified metaphor, but perhaps I carried it too far. Maybe that’s where my resistance to it is coming from. At any rate, you are making sense. Certainly it is a remarkably tangled web that forms our emotional substrate! “Math” is insufficient as metaphor.

    What I believe is important for us to understand is that emotion and intuition do not appear ex nihilo but they arise from a subconscious logic matrix. That matrix is so complex we could never hold it within our conscious minds at once, so we often distrust it simply because we do not understand it. But it is valuable for that same reason, it uses more data points to construct its logical response than our conscious mind could. Because of that complexity, however, its response cannot be expressed as simple word-thoughts, but has to be expressed in ways we call “emotions” or “feelings.” “Logical fallacy” is definitely a more accurate term for the problems I referred to. The problems caused by “overly-emotional” or “coldly-logical” behaviors are both well-attested to, so I won’t reiterate them, but what I’m pushing against is the common idea that we should simply accept our emotions as they are; enjoy them when we think they are good and work past them when they are not good as though they are uncontrollable or inevitable. Instead, we should seek to understand why we feel the way we do – because there is a “why” somewhere down there. That is, we should work down to them, not *past* them. Like many great tasks, it is impossible to ever complete such an undertaking, but that doesn’t make it less worthwhile. We can’t be perfect, but we can grow and heal.

    I don’t say any of this because I think we disagree. I think I’ve been saying more or less the same thing you did in your original post: Emotion can be valuable as long as we seek to use it and not let it use us. I’ve only tried to add a “how” to that, which is I believe is to seek out what logical fallacies we may harbor that produce unhealthy and unreliable emotional responses. I think it’s also our responsibility to do what we can for our friends if we see those fallacies within them.

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