In Defense of Spock

Eric Orwoll responded to Modern Romance. In his response, he compared me to Spock from Star Trek in being “coldly analytical”. I took that as a compliment.

Eric, what you call “coldly analytic” I would call “abstract”. In a way, abstractions are alienating. They distance us from embodied experience: from sensation, emotion and action. There is a zen to being and doing. You don’t want to miss the forest for the trees, but you also don’t want to miss the trees for the forest. Abstract thought cannot help you in a moment of action where milliseconds count.

However, that doesn’t mean abstract thought is divorced from embodied experience. Abstractions are just more removed from embodied experience. There are more layers of representation and information processing between an abstraction and the experiences it relates to.

Abstract thought is emotional. It is just removed from the physical expression of emotion. Emotions are what motivate us: they set us in motion. Without emotions, we would do nothing — we would just die. All people are emotional, and all are equally emotional. What made Spock different from McCoy was not the absence of emotions. It was the way he expressed his emotions.

Spock kept his emotions under control. His ideal was that all his actions should be driven by “logic”. What does that mean? As I see it, it means that his actions should be consciously chosen, driven by his will, not by his immediate emotional reactions. The will is emotion that has been channeled through and regulated by consciousness. Spock was more conscious, more thoughtful, more abstract, and more rational than his human counterparts. That was the nature of his character, as I see it.

Eric, you suggest that abstract thought distances us from others. There’s an element of truth to that. But emotions can also alienate us from others, and abstractions can also be a way to connect with others. Abstractions can transcend the limitations of our emotional ways of relating to others.

We evolved to live in small groups, like most primates. We are not very good at dealing with strangers. They tend to make us anxious, angry or aroused. Strangers activate strong emotions in us.

Even a typical high school has a larger population than a normal primate social group. Emotions that work so well in a small group become dysfunctional in a large group. That’s why high school is so miserable for many people. They can’t figure out how to socially interact in this new, strange environment. Those who succeed do so by signaling their affiliation to some smaller “tribe”.

In the modern world, we have left behind the ancestral primate condition of living in small groups. Most of us live in big cities. We interact with strangers on a daily basis. We acquire the necessities of life by participating in a global economy with billions of other participants.

We have developed cultural adaptations to deal with our emotional evolutionary baggage. Politeness is a good example. We pretend to be friends when we interact with strangers, because this form of interaction is more palatable to one’s inner monkey. When I buy a cup of coffee, it is just an exchange of money for a product, but I and the barista pretend that we are friends engaging in an emotionally mediated transaction.

People often complain about “greedy corporations”. That attitude is based on ignorance. Corporations provide us with food, running water, electricity, shelter, clothing, entertainment, knowledge and many other things at a reasonable price. Without corporations and a market economy, most of the human population would die from starvation, and the survivors would have to eke out an existence by subsistence farming or hunting and gathering.

But people see corporations as bad, because they interact with corporations through abstract ideas — laws and money — rather than emotional empathy. “The corporations just don’t care!” Of course, they don’t, but so what? A complex economy can’t be organized with empathy. Abstract ideas enable a much greater degree of cooperation than empathy.

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Eric, you say that perhaps men are failing to connect with women because men are being too analytical. Women want a connection with the “human” side of a man, the emotional side. Are men failing with women because they are too emotionally repressed?

It is true that social awkwardness seems to go along with being abstract, and that is a barrier to meeting women. But I don’t think that’s something a person can change. Some aspects of personality are built into one’s character. Spock is Spock. If you are one of those socially awkward intellectuals, you might as well use your intellect to your advantage. And I wouldn’t say that emotions are more human than abstract thought. Both are human.

What can you do if you have the wrong emotions? What if your emotional reactions are an obstacle that prevents you from attaining your long-term goals?

It may be true that women want an emotional connection with a man, but they are not selecting men with whom they could have a real emotional connection. If anything, they are selecting the exact opposite: cold-hearted men who are good at simulating the emotional responses that women find attractive. Women are selecting for illusion, not reality.

If women want real emotional connections with men, then ironically it is their own emotions that work against it. Women define the game and men play it. If being emotionally honest was an effective strategy, then men would adopt that strategy.

The problem is emotion, not thought. We can’t trust our emotions in the modern world. We have to critique them, analyze them, understand them and regulate them.

This applies to the political sphere as well as the personal. The Vulcans developed their method of emotional control to prevent conflict. Most political debate is just ideological trench warfare. Each side has some sacred moral value that the other does not. Each side has a strong emotional attachment to its group and ideology. Emotion cannot resolve such disputes, but rationality can get above the emotional-moral level to a more abstract level where they can be resolved.

We have to stop romanticizing our emotions, as if they were magical and infallible. That was one of the points of Modern Romance. Emotions are biological processes designed by evolution. They are not magic, and they don’t always work.

To adapt to modernity, we need to be more like Spock. We need to think.

Live long and prosper.