Between Spock and McCoy

The crew of the original Enterprise, except Hi...

Image via Wikipedia

As a Star Trek lover (all incarnations) this article resonated with me as a good explanation of the balancing act required between reason and emotion. Massimo Pigliucci writes about the Platonic and Humean theories:

Modern neurobiology tells us that both the Platonic and the Humean programs are doomed to failure. As Antonio Damasio put it in a series of three highly philosophically informed books on the science of consciousness (check this one, for instance), a healthy human mind is one that constantly negotiates between the excesses of reason and those of passion. Too much leaning on one side, and one becomes incapable of empathy, possibly embarking on the destructive route to psychopathology. Too much on the other side, and we join the long history of destructive irrationality against which the Enlightenment was a valiant, if flawed, reaction.

While it’s nice to have modern science validating with facts the idea that a sensible human being ought to try to steer a middle course between the Scylla of too much reason and the Charybdis of too much emotion, it was yet another philosopher who had arrived at that conclusion 24 centuries ago: Aristotle. His virtue ethics is based on the insight that we improve our happiness (in the holistic sense of the ancient Greek eudaimonia) by a combination of reflecting about what we do and why, and practicing virtue so that it becomes second nature. Not reason against emotion struggling for primacy inside us, then, but rather a continuous flow aiming at a dynamic balance between the two. (Before anybody even thinks of making the analogy, let me assure you that I do not have any eastern mysticism or new agey crap in mind.)

I think my own struggles are always between, to be colloquial, the head and the heart. Too much head knowledge and I turn into a raging misanthropist. Too much heart reaction and I turn into a blithering empathetic idiot waxing on about “noble savage-ism” and the wonderful-ness of human beings. Bleck. I dislike both. I’m a big fan of the Aristotelian “mean.”Of course, this philosophy assumes a particular form of binary opposition that I don’t necessarily subscribe to, but if we are dealing in simplistic terms, it’ll do.

I think that what bothers me most about those on the extreme edges of either is an inability to admit there can be a balance. Religious fundamentalism says “Do not listen to your intuition. Listen only to our interpretation of scripture.” They dismiss all forms of inner knowledge and experience (except their own) and their measuring stick is an ancient text. Scientific fundamentalism says, “Do not listen to your heart. Listen only to those facts that can be proved” and their measuring stick is a laboratory. If it hasn’t been verified by two or more people it cannot be real or true. For me the path of true wisdom, or Truth, lies somewhere in between. Intuition, heart, metaphysics, the supernatural …. these  are all terms for those things that cannot be quantified or measured or experimented upon.  A healthy dose of head and heart makes a healthy human being. They don’t have to be in opposition.


One thought on “Between Spock and McCoy

  1. So, not so much a struggle between emotion and reason as an attempt to use them both to get to where one wants to be.
    “we improve our happiness (in the holistic sense of the ancient Greek eudaimonia
    ) by a combination of reflecting about what we do and why, and practicing
    virtue so that it becomes second nature.”

    I think of “virtue” here as right action, and I look for the confluence of these two parts of my nature as confirmation that I have something right. As my concrete example, I would cite my wish to marry the woman I love, rather than simply live with her. This speaks of putting down a marker, proclaiming, as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s, the fact that some things deserve one’s best shot at “virtue”, rather than some vague “let’s just see what happens”. Things that are worthwhile have to be striven for. I need Spock on my side if McCoy loses heart. One’s chosen kind of virtue must be practiced, like Pigliucci’s eating regime. Our feelings can show us the joy in those we love when the world seems like an arid desert composed of hard facts. But our transient feelings can destroy our happiness if there’s no Spock around to remind us that what we said we thought yesterday is really what we think. I need all of it, and if I can claim Aristotle as an ally, that’s pretty good company.

Comments are closed.