Friday, October 02, 2009

You're being irrational!

As anyone who has watched the original Star Trek series knows, Mr Spock was big on logic. He was also big on labeling the behaviour of humans "illogical". For example, consider this quote:
May I say that I have not enjoyed serving under Humans. I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.
Season 3, episode 7 ("Day of the Dove")
Now it's true that humans do make logical errors from time to time. For example suppose Tom is considering hiring a contractor. A friend recommends asking for references because "Good contractors provide references." Sure enough, the contractor provides references and Tom hires them. Unfortunately the work is poor, and Tom complains, "I thought good contractors provide references!?"

But it's not just in the case of formal errors of logic that people's arguments and behaviour are termed "illogical"—or more commonly "irrational". For example, purchasing and selling decisions are sometimes called irrational simply because the commenter doesn't understand or agree with them. Why doesn't Grandma sell her home to make way for the skyscraper? She's been offered a very generous price! Why's she being so irrational? But Grandma has lived in that neighborhood for years and simply doesn't want a fancy new home with new neighbours.

People whose political views differ from ours are often slurred as being irrational. But what we really mean is that taken within our political framework their arguments make no sense. What really doesn't make sense is the idea that someone else's argument has to fit with our premises.

Logic proceeds from premises to conclusions. Without the premises, there can be no reasoning. Premises can be facts ("It is raining.") but they can also be desires ("I'd like to stay dry."). When Mr Spock complains about human emotions, he's suggesting that we should behave like computers. But who will program the computers?

Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am" sounds a bit as if it privileges thinking above other human capacities. Descartes was in fact questioning everything he believed until he reached the point of questioning whether he himself existed. Of course this is nonsense: if he was thinking this, then he must exist. Problem solved! Sort of. What about everything else in the world, including his senses?

Thinking is only part of what human existence entails. Feeling and emotions are perhaps more fundamental. And much of what purports to be reasoning may in fact be post hoc rationalizations. Simple exercises in reasoning—"It's raining and I'd like to stay dry, so I'll bring an umbrella"—depend on desires born of feelings (it's not pleasant to be cold and wet). When it comes to more complex motivations and behaviours, the roles of thinking and feeling get hopelessly entangled.

Of course Mr Spock is just a character on a TV show. The writers repeatedly emphasize that emotion is indeed central to human existence. What bothers me is the false dichotomy they set up between thinking and feeling. In general, our emotions don't cause us to act irrationally, and the notion that we should act more "logically" misses the point. This is illustrated in Season 1, Episode 12 ("The Menagerie: Part II"):
Captain Kirk: Eh, Mr. Spock, when you're finished, please come back and see me, I want to talk to you. This regrettable tendency you've been showing lately towards flagrant emotionalism...

Mr. Spock: I see no reason to insult me, sir. I believe I've been completely logical about the whole affair.

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