01 March 2007

Reason and Emotion

"I will follow my logic, no matter where it goes, after it has consulted with my heart. If you ever come to a conclusion without calling the heart in, you will come to a bad conclusion."- Robert Ingersoll

Tonight, I watched a Star Trek episode titled “The Conscience of the King” from the original series, with text commentary by a man very much involved in the shape the Star Trek franchise took, Michael Okuda. I have been wanting for some time to write on a subject that keeps popping up in other writing that I do, and tonight I witnessed a scene that I thought might serve as an apt if somewhat geeky introduction. In this scene, Captain Kirk is faced with a difficult decision. He is in his quarters with his two best friends -- the dispassionate Mr. Spock and the passionate Dr. McCoy. In the running commentary, Okuda remarks that the scene is a classic example of the connection that exists between the three men. For Kirk, Spock is the dispassionate voice of reason -- and McCoy is voice of humanistic emotion. What made Kirk great, Okuda said, is that he relied on both, taking a balanced approach to things He used both logic and emotion to find the best solution to the problem.

In another episode, "The Galileo Seven", where the logical Mr. Spock is commanding six Starfleet officers who have crash-landed on a hostile planet. Spock’s decisions throughout the episode-- based solely on logic -- result in partial disaster for the people under his command, and he almost has something of a crisis of confidence. While a creature resembling Bigfoot bangs on the roof of their shelter, he remarks that “no one can be more than the sum of their parts”, somewhat in disbelief. Spock was wrong on this count; we are more than the sum of our parts. However, we are more than this because of the sum of our parts. Think of a car; if you assemble it the way it ought to be assembled and give it fuel and oil and so on, you have more than an admirable arrangement of metal; you have potential. You can go places -- more places than you could have gone without the car. I believe that we humans are wholly natural creatures; we are biochemical machines. But because of the sum of our parts, we have achieved a larger degree of sentience than have the rest of the animals. We have the potential to explore who we are; to define purpose for ourselves.

Defining purpose was the theme of the first Star Trek movie. It was about a sentient machine that comes to Earth, wanting to commune with its creator. As the plot of the movie unfolds, we find that the machine used to be one of the Voyager probes that was improved upon and made sentient. Having accomplished its mission of science, it sought more. Spock observes that the machine's mind functions on pure logic. V'Ger, as the machine cam to be called, sought deeper meaning to its life, but had no one to give it that meaning -- its creator was a team of long-dead NASA engineers. V’Ger was enabled to determine its own purpose by Kirk’s crew. The message of the movie is now obvious; reason and logic are not enough in giving our lives purpose. Our brains use emotion -- and so dependant on emotion are we that we need emotional fulfillment to feel satisfied.

Emotion and reason have even more use than establishing purpose; the two work to protect us. Both are necessary. Animals do not operate solely on instincts; some use reasoned strategies. I don’t know that much about defensive personal combat, but I have been told that even in fighting you must have both passion and discipline -- because your passion is most useful when it is disciplined. Emotion and reason also serve as guides. Emotions are like the wind to the sailor. A light breeze across the deck feels good, but no captain would allow strong winds to determine where his ship is to go. Reason gave us science to fashion sails to harness the wind, to somewhat subject it to working for us. Reason turned the winds of emotion into our ally. Later on, science gave us engines to progress despite the wind; to push through the wind when it would have caused them to lose their way.

Emotion and reason work hand in hand; each tempers the other. Neither should be neglected or promoted over the other. When one is neglected, the result is disaster. Fundamentalist, emotion-driven religions foster violence and suffering, and the calculated commitment to profit by corporations causes massive layoffs and distress. Horror movies and books feature both scenarios -- religion and science both running amok. The solution is balance. It’s a simple solution in theory but requires commitment to work in practice. I myself sometimes have trouble keeping emotion reined in, but take hope in the fact that I am getting better at it. I don’t think anyone can go wrong when they make their decisions on this balanced approach.

"Why should we desire the destruction of human passions? Take passions from human beings and what is left? The great object should be not to destroy passions, but to make them obedient to the intellect. To indulge passion to the utmost is one form of intemperance - to destroy passion is another. The reasonable gratification of passion under the domination of the intellect is true wisdom and perfect virtue." - Robert Ingersoll