Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Straw Vulcan

This is a bit of fun with philosophy from Julia Galef. Julia did not invent the term “Straw Vulcan” but she explains it very well. She may not look like the stereotypical philosopher, but she is first rate. She brings some fun to a discipline that really needs it.

The term comes from “straw man” which means an argument that is against a caricature of your opponent’s argument. To bolster your argument, you create a weak version of their opponent, then attack it. “Vulcan” is a planet from the Star Trek series. Citizens of that planet are said to be very logical. They solved their problems of modern warfare by adopting a culture that taught emotions are bad. The “Straw Vulcan” says that this version of a person who thinks logically is problematic.

If you have watched Star Trek, you know that Spock, the primary Vulcan character, is always getting in trouble because he over emphasizes the use of logic. Because he does not consider the emotions of others, he makes bad decisions.  Other characters refer to him for facts and help with weighing the odds, but in the end, they trump his advice based on their intuition. What Julia explains is, this is not an argument for why we should value emotions over logic it is an example of someone who uses logic poorly.

Rational thinking has become associated with focusing on utility and quantifiable things such as money, productivity and efficiency. Emotions are said to “get in the way” of rational thinking. There is some truth to that but it also shows a misunderstanding of why we are trying to think about anything in the first place. If you are trying to figure out how to pay for your kids’ college it’s not because you want them to take care of you when you’re old. You might want them to do that, but their education is for them. The desire is first an emotional one.

I think you’ll enjoy it, especially if you are a Star Trek fan but you don’t have to be. She goes through 5 fallacious behaviors that are associated with the Vulcan characters. These are typical misconceptions about what it means to act rationally and what is wrong with rational thinking.

The straw man version of rational people….

1.       expect others to act rationally.
2.       wait until they get all the information before making a decision.
3.       believe anything tuition based is irrational.
4.       believe being rational means not having emotions.
5.       value only quantitative things.

Oddly enough, there is a very rational, scientifically based therapy that flies in the face of this. If someone wants to change their behavior, like stop drinking or procrastinating, a therapist might use something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT recognizes that our feelings affect our actions and that we can’t always control them. But it doesn’t attempt to suppress them instead it recognizes them and looks for ways to start new behaviors. In other words, it’s perfectly rational to be aware of your emotions.

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