Vulcan Logic

Sometimes reading the posts and discussions here I am reminded of some of the most interesting characters in science fiction: the Vulcans of Star Trek. Vulcans are depicted as having two main traits: they are extremely logical, and they are unemotional. These two characteristics are generally presented as if they are related, or even synonymous. Vulcans make decisions based on logic, in contrast to humans who frequently make decisions on emotional grounds.

When we try to overcome our biases and see the truth clearly, are we aiming to become Vulcans? Is Bayesian another word for Vulcan?

In some ways it does seem true. We talk about trying not to be influenced in our thinking by our hopes and fears, but to reason dispassionately and logically. Many or most of our biases are emotionally based and satisfy emotional needs. Vulcans have perfected the art of overcoming these sorts of biases. In many of our critiques here of bias, I mentally hear the voice of Mr. Spock chiding: "You are behaving most illogically."

One problem with the Vulcan emphasis on logic above all is that it is not clear what motivates Vulcans. Logic helps us to see what is true, but it cannot tell us what we ought to do. Indeed, although Vulcans in the stories are successful within the quasi-military structure of Star Fleet, where orders come from above and give them straightforward guidance as to what their goals should be, they seem to be at something of a loss if thrown into an ambiguous situation, separated from authority and forced to set their own goals.

This suggests that we do not want to become true Vulcans, but rather to retain a core of human emotionality surrounded by a shell of logic. Our emotions, our needs and our drives set our goals. Logic then helps us to achieve those goals. Logic is the means, but emotional satisfaction is the end.

I must admit that this sounds a little too pat. It is far from clear that we can separate our mental functions so nicely. Even Vulcans are depicted as suffering from rare episodes of near psychotic irrationality and emotion, as years of suppressed emotions seem to explode uncontrollably. I wonder if our efforts to channel and control our emotions may lead to similar catastrophic failures.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Mike Linksvayer

    I find the discussion here not about suppressing one’s emotions at all but about correcting that which one considers logical and rational but is not. Perhaps there is an emotional analog, but neither would have much to do with “vulcan” logic.

    It may not bear on the above, but one of the passages from this blog I’ve found most entertaining pokes fun at naitve Vulcan logic (third paragraph from bottom).

  • Gabriel M.

    Vulcans have tradition and their philosopher, I don’t remember the name.

    Objectivism would be a good approximation of sort, in terms of the relation between reason and motivation. — Prejudices and personal preferences, carefully cast as “rational”.

  • Robin Hanson

    Perhaps it would be good for someone to post a review on the literature regarding the relation on emotional arousal and cognitive bias. I doubt if it as simple as emotional = biased.

  • pdf23ds

    There’s a relationship between certain emotions and certain kinds of irrationality. Happiness and optimism are both linked to the overconfidence bias and the illusion of control. Fear is linked to loss-aversion bias. The desire for a certain outcome (which can be motivated by in-group bias) is linked to confirmation and disconfirmation bias. Then there are certain biases that don’t have any apparent emotional connection, like the representativeness heuristic, the clustering illusion (seeing cause and effect where none exists), the gambler’s fallacy, and the recency effect.

    I’m not sure there are any emotions that don’t affect some kinds of biases, but there might be emotions that are normally elicited in certain situations where the situation doesn’t require reasoning that trips any of those biases.

  • David J. Balan

    There is no doubt that our core desires are emotional and not rational, so it doesn’t make any sense to think that there could be a “perfectly rational” being. But this need not mean that reason is merely a slave to the passions. Reason in the form of moral philosophy can tell you when you should supress the impulses generated by your passions. Reason can also temper and elevate the passions; you can train yourself to *want* peace more and war less. Plus the exercise of reason offers satisfactions of its own, whether its proving mathematical theorems or doing crossword puzzles, that have no obvious basis in any core emotion.

  • Shimon de Valencia

    The concept of Vulcan logic is also linked to the concept of C’thia – or reality sensing. This is a process of perceiving the universe without preconceptions. In Dzogchen this would be termed ‘Natural Great Perception’, or in Mahamudra as the natural residing in the alaya (consciousness). Such C’thia does not allow for the interplay of emotions, which is [per se] a reaction to non-real perception. That is the perceiving of events and overlaying a ‘judgemen’ based upon our emotional reaction to such phenomenon. The Surak saw that this could lead to problems, and actually urged us to ‘identify with the other’ – ‘Do not stab the heart of the other with your spear; For you are he’. This arises from a fundamental understanding that we are all linked via the base field of conscousness, and that all phenomenon [and thus ourselves] are linked via a chain of interdependence. When we link the ‘Natural Perception’ with the (albeit passive) compassion arising from observing other’s as they are – then Vulcan philosophy is imbued with a high degree of compassionate understanding of the other (one of the three supports of IDIC). Where this falls down is when pedant’s [Vulcans without any high degree of training] interact with others without the benefit of intensive and long experience in the discipline of C’thia [which is usually mistranslated as logic – you can thank Amanda; Spock’s mother for that early boo-boo as an early Vulcan translator]. “Logic, Logic; Logic is the beginning of wisdom…not it’s end” Spock – The Undiscovered Country

  • menachem Har-Zahav

    Leaving residual emotions is what is wrong with you humans. Embracing our way of life is the only way you will prevent yourselves from self-destruction.

  • Frank H Burton

    Pluralistic (methodological) rationalists deal with this issue by, among a few other techniques, encouraging people to vet their emotional perceptions through reasoned cognition. See, or the Wikipedia article on The Circle of Reason or pluralistic rationalism. This social philosophy is the closest thing we have so far to a real-world version of “Vulcan logic+IDIC.”

  • charliijean .

    I know this post is really old, but I need to put my two cents in. The idea that Vulcans are emotionless is a misconception. They are very emotional to a dangerous extreme, see the Romulans. It isn’t that they suppress or deny their emotions, the Vulcan controls their emotions. If left unchecked the emotions rage like a wildfire and so it must be controlled to be a cigarette lighter instead.

    From my research into different philosophies and theologies the nearest that comes to Vulcan is Stoicism. Most think that Vulcans practice Zen meditations but I find that to be inconsistent with the Vulcan philosophy. As Zen teaches to emptying oneself of thought and emotion. Whereas, Stoicism teaches to control emotional response through logic and reason. To put it into simple terms.

  • Bayesian_Rationalist

    For someone who believes, like the late Derek Parfit, that moral truths exist just as mathematical and logical truths do, and that these truths are knowable through the use of reason, it’s possible to have an entire worldview based solely on logic.

    In Star Trek, the Vulcans are Utilitarians because they believe that it is logical to be a Utilitarian. This resembles recent work on meta-ethics by Peter Singer and, to a lesser extent, Parfit.

  • Scott johnson

    Interesting. I am an autistic man who struggles more or less successfully approximately every fucking day to control my emotions. I received my diagnosis only months ago but have hated propaganda (the intentional installation of bias ie commercials) all my life. Without a doubt, recognizing and effectively dealing with bias is completely topical at this very moment in the evolution of American and world culture.

  • Scott johnson

    It is my perspective that lovers of truth need to step up and take their place in the resistance against the president’s assault on truth, and that if this assault is not turned back soon, Dictatorship is coming to America. I think we have more or less about five months to go before he has subverted the intelligence agencies to the degree necessary to manufacture the kind of ‘evidence’ that will pass to substantiate his claim to be the arbiter of truth. If any of this resonates with any here, then somebody more capable than I please take these ideas and run with them.