Imagining Rationality

In the Star Trek movies and TV shows, the planet Vulcan is populated by a species who pursue logic and reason as virtues. They quickly disapprove when someone acts emotionally or engages in fallacious thinking.

The Vulcans are an interesting fictional device. They highlight the gap between human rationality and how we could be, for better or worse, if we were more rational.

In Star Trek: First Contact (1996), we learn that the technologically advanced Vulcans discovered planet Earth and the disorganized, recently-warring human species. Vulcan rationality must have played a role in their social and technological superiority.

Star Trek ‘s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was apparently unable to imagine the Vulcan vision in its entirety. Vulcan rationality tended to be a cheap veneer over struggles for political influence and social status.

Spock’s snide comments about human irrationality sound a lot like the way humans would jostle for influence, if pointing out logical fallacies was the way we did so.

Perhaps a transparently rational alien species would destroy the fiction. Perhaps their only possible behavior would be pointing out human irrationality, making us the bad guys. Perhaps they would just be annoying.

Doing Our Own Imagining

Let’s attempt to creatively imagine beyond what Roddenberry came up with.

Suppose rationality is a product of culture, rather than something that arises naturally. Certainly those college logic courses aren’t teaching something instinctive. (Have you ever met a toddler?)

From Star Trek, we learn that on Planet Vulcan, the young are guided away from emotionality and foolishness before their initiation as rational adults.

What if we changed our culture to work this way? What if human children were taught not to make or fall for fallacious arguments through education, counseling, parental guidance, exercises, and deep commitment to the virtue of reason?

Would our presidential debates and political advertisements be as ridiculous as they are now, or would this new generation see through the fallacies?

Would obesity-causing sugar water be marketed with imagery of athletic, attractive people, or would that come across as ridiculous to a rational population?

Would people make better decisions, such as saving more or living healthier?

Adversarial Truth-Finding

Since at least the era of the ancient Greek philosophers, Westerners have applied an adversarial model to resolve questions of truth. Philosophers take opposing positions and attempt to prove their claims or debunk the other’s.

This was a giant advance over the appeals to authority (civil, military, or religious) that characterized earlier attempts to discover truths. Compared to edicts from clerics or kings, a debate is more likely to produce a consensus, promote creativity, or uncover new evidence and arguments.

This basic model endures today.

  • Our courts are a debate between the prosecution and the defense.
  • Our elections often feature debates, or at least opposing views.
  • Our academics and scientists write journal articles, which are criticized by peers.
  • Scientific experiments are mini-debates between the null hypothesis and the alternate hypothesis. Statistics test whether the null hypothesis is unlikely.

Downsides of Arguing

Adversarial truth finding has served us well, but it comes with some baggage.

The definition of success is defeating one’s opponent by convincing the audience, the jury, or one’s peers that one side is right and the other side is wrong. This goal is only loosely connected with the discovery of truth.

Thus, our attorneys play tricks like overplaying the importance of unreliable eyewitness testimony.

Our stubborn politicians appeal to emotions and simplistic us-versus-them mentalities rather than explaining how their ideas – which are open to revision – will lead to the most good in a complex world.

Academics who should just change their minds instead engage in career-long defenses of falsified positions, so as not to “lose.”

The Next Frontier?

What if, on the other hand, pundits and the public began counting fallacies against politicians instead of calling them “zingers”?

What if we started granting extra respect and congratulations to academics, scientists, and politicians who changed their minds as a result of evidence and logic?

What if the appeals to emotion and ad hominem attacks that characterize our debates and political ads became too embarrassing to perpetrate?

What if reasoned debate was considered as important a topic in schools as math or history? What if it was used as the glue that ties together the other subjects into a coherent objective of the entire learning enterprise?

This could all be accomplished while maintaining an adversarial truth finding model. However, if we step back and look to the big picture, we can see our trajectory may point toward something new!

We progressed from authoritarian edicts to adversarial truth finding. Now we must wonder if adversarial truth finding was just an intermediate step in humanity’s progression towards a Vulcan-like culture.

What if the next step is to keep the logic, the evidence, the premise testing, and the statistics in our debates, but drop the concept of a winner and a loser? Participants in a truth finding exercise would focus on finding and documenting truths instead of beating each other.

Instead of an argument, it would be collaboration. Instead of taking sides, participants would embrace mutual skepticism.

There are certainly challenges to such an approach, such as a greater risk of groupthink. Also, if the short-term reward for doing the hard work of truth finding shifted from earning “winner” status to relieving uncertainty, a whole new set of fallacious thinking could emerge.

Yet, the potential benefits of such an innovation in human thinking might be comparable to the invention of science. Isn’t that worth exploring, even if the odds are long?

For now, the path to planet Vulcan involves improving the quality of our adversarial truth finding model, in politics, law, and academe. We can start by calling out the irrationality around us, just as a Vulcan would do.

Arkansas Society of Freethinkers
About The Author
Chris is a former president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, a toddler daddy, and a husband. He's studied Psychology, Philosophy, and business. Reach him at info@arfreethinkers.org.

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