DRMacIver's Notebook

Spock is a Lie

Spock is a Lie

A lot of people’s model of peak intelligence is something like Spock (Star Trek Spock, not developmental psychology Spock): Freed from the petty constraints of petty human emotions, one can become a being of pure logic who can reason perfectly as a result.

There are two basic problems with this goal.

  1. Emotions are how you assign value, and it doesn’t really matter how good you are at reasoning if you don’t have preferences over outcomes.
  2. Also freeing yourself of emotion makes you very bad at reasoning.

My favourite representation of Vulcans comes from Diane Duane’s Spock’s World, where she presents the version of Vulcan logic that makes the most sense to me: Vulcans aren’t intrinsically logical, we’re just seeing the results of a world-wide religious norm of good behaviour. Vulcans absolutely have emotions, it would just be considered extremely rude for them to show them, and as part of that they’ve got very good at managing them. The Vulcans who wouldn’t get on board with this religious program left and became Romulans (Romulans also have their own norms around emotion management, but they tend to be more around staying ruthlessly secretive in the face of totalitarian opression. Or follow the path of Absolute Candor and tell everyone about their feelings as part of their assassin training).

Vulcans are thus basically a more emotionally healthy version of the British: The British (especially the British upper middle class) also consider it rude to have emotions in public, but nobody taught us how to manage them, so the result is that most of us are neurotic messes. Vulcans presumably know better than to do this, so probably meditate on their feelings and write emo poetry about them in private. The problem is that because we only experience Spock from the outside, we conclude that his presentation is his internal experience, and it is impossible that this can be the case given what we see of his behaviour.

Anyway, this is a post about reasoning and emotions, not about Spock’s emo poetry about Kirk (I confess I’ve never actually read any Spock/Kirk, because Kirk does nothing for me and Spock does little).

Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error lays out some of the evidence for this in practice: Damage which affects emotional processing usually results in people being unable to make good decisions, in large part because of inability to prioritise.

From a more theoretical standpoint, there are two major obvious candidates for the role of emotion in reasoning:

  1. Intuition is a fundamentally emotional experience, and is essential for good reasoning under time constraints.
  2. Cognitive dissonance is an emotion, and paying attention to it is a major guide for improving our reasoning.

Carol Tavris talks about cognitive dissonance in Episode 1 of Mindscape and it’s very good. She also has a book about this, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) that I’ve not yet got around to reading. The really short version is this though: Cognitive dissonance is the unpleasant feeling of noticing yourself holding two contradictory beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance is not intrinsically a bad thing - noticing that contradiction should feel bad, in that you should be driven to reduce it, but because we’re all so bad at discomfort tolerance we tend to overreact to cognitive dissonance and as a result come to bad conclusions where we justify having been right all along (often this is learned in a social environment where mistakes were unsafe).

The correct response to cognitive dissonance is to treat it as useful information, and to allow it to feed a desire to be more correct, without overreacting to it. This is hard, and it’s easy to fail in either direction: We can ignore the cognitive dissonance altogether, which leaves us with no impetus to improve our reasoning, or we can overreact to it and double down on our existing position, which leaves us stuck in a bad reason.

As a result, epistemic competence (being good at acquiring true knowledge) is fundamentally dependent on emotion management skills: We need to be aware of our emotions, and we need to experience them as safe, otherwise we will end up stuck with bad beliefs.