Sunday, March 1, 2015

Spock, Star Trek, and Philosophy

Recently, Leonard Nimoy, an actor who was known primarily for playing Spock on Star Trek, died at 83. Usually I don't blog about popular culture, but inspired by Ethan Mills' post on the connections between Spock, Buddhism, and Stoicism, I thought I'd say a few words about Spock.


Like many philosophers, I found science fiction fascinating as a kid. Old enough to have been ecstatic when Star Trek came back to television as Star Trek: The Next Generation, I'm too young to have watched the original series in anything but reruns. Regardless, I was hooked after seeing my first episode. And Spock was the focal point of the show for me. I strongly identified with him. I even owned a set of Vulcan ears made for the first film, which I'd put on in make-believe scenarios with my nerdy friends who also loved the show...and spin-off novels and movies and action figures. Initially, I was captivated by the idea that, through embracing reasoning and rejecting the distractions of human emotion, Spock was able to understand more than his fellow crew-members. He was sort of an alien Sherlock Holmes (in fact, he quotes Holmes in The Undiscovered Country, saying one of his ancestors had said, "If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth").

However, despite being known for his use of "logic" (a term which gets employed pretty loosely, I have to say), Spock is not coldly rational. As I've grown up, I've come to appreciate the complex interplay between reasoning and emotion, and to question the distinctness of these two categories--and I think such questioning is found in the Star Trek universe itself. Throughout the show it is intimated that, in contrast to Vulcans being without feelings, it is because they feel so deeply that they rely on reasoning and self-control. Further, he is curious, and it is his inquisitive nature which was frequently responsible for saving the crew. In "The Devil in the Dark," Spock ascertains that a creature who is killing miners is really protecting its young. He does this through a Vulcan mind-meld, in which he is able to communicate with the Horta--who, as it turns out, is "highly logical" itself. There are plenty of other examples of this trait (think of Spock swimming with the whales in The Voyage Home!)

The theme of protecting living beings and attempting to live in a way that benefits the most sentient beings possible is one that, as Ethan and others have pointed out, has analogs in the Stoics and Buddhists. Spock, as a sci-fi role model, is more attainable in this universe (one without the Force, warp speed, or Cylons) than many other sci-fi characters, as this article notes, a bit tongue-in-cheek. Although mind-melding isn't possible, Spock's other skills are primarily attainable by training. We know that he meditates, although we see more of that practice in Voyager, through Tuvok. We know that he is well-educated, having been accepted to the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy and turning it down to be a science officer in Star Fleet. Although he has super-human strength as a Vulcan, it is his self-control, not domination over others, that usually helps him in difficult situations.

Philosophically speaking, while his famous "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one" may be criticized as simple-minded act utilitarianism, from the rest of the Star Trek canon, we know that he is not simply doing calculus of pleasure and pain ("The Devil in the Dark" is an example of this). Further, he utters this line in a moment of self-sacrifice, not to justify the death of someone else. It's hard to pinpoint Spock's ethical views precisely, but we know that Vulcans as a society valued truth highly and avoided lying at nearly all costs, emphasized early childhood emotional and mental training, emphasized diversity ("Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations") and believed in a consciousness/soul (katra) which would persist after death, which is why they did not fear it. Spock was also a vegetarian (so was Leonard Nimoy, incidentally).

Finally, the Spock-Kirk relationship, now celebrated in "slash fiction," is one that illustrates how the reflective life flourishes through friendship. On the one hand, the homoeroticism that many fans have found in their relationship would be an echo of the ancient Greeks (although the Stoics were adamantly against such pairings) and I think Star Trek has in general suffered from heteronormativity, something that's changed in its recent iterations. However, I think that the show did something right in celebrating the depth of a male friendship which was not romantic in the sense we associate with sexual relationships. In fact, calling it a "bromance" is to denigrate it, in my opinion (that term has always seemed too nervous about male friendship to me, like a guy who says "no homo"). It is through his relationship with Kirk that Spock comes to be more comfortable with his humanity.

In short, while Spock is not a philosopher in the academic sense, I think that his life was a philosophical one. The words of Kirk at Spock's funeral are apt, "Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most....human."




4 comments:

  1. I'm humbled that I partly inspired this post. Thank you for the post!

    Obviously Spock uses "logic" far too loosely, since he may use logic, but the premises he starts with are not strictly speaking dictated by logic.

    I really appreciate the point about the Vulcans' approach to emotions coming out of the fact that they feel too much. This is one of the most fascinating things about the Vulcans to me. Amusing anecdote: when I played baseball as a kid I wasn't very good and got really upset when I struck out. But one day I decided I wanted to stop getting so upset, and tried to change my attitude so that I could accept and even laugh at my failures. Granted, this is short of the murderous rage the Vulcans are said to have had before the founding of their main philosophy, but I think this is where my Vulcan/Buddhist/Stoic tendencies began.

    On Spock's ethical views, it might be worth considering the apparent repudiation of simplistic utilitarianism in Star Trek III and IV where Spock and Kirk change the slogan to "the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."

    And good point on the Spock-Kirk relationship.

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  2. I should have mentioned the reformulation of the slogan in STIII and IV, you're right--that makes it clear that it isn't being used as a basic moral principle like in Utilitarianism.

    Glad you enjoyed the post. I was glad to have a chance to write it--trying to distill my thoughts made me realize just how much I owe to Star Trek, and Spock in particular.

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  3. Firstly, I wouldn't call act, or indeed the superior preference version, or utilitarianism, simple-minded. In my view, preference utilitarianism has the strongest base of any moral theory, given that all beings aim to maximise their preference-satisfaction or, in Spock's terminology, satisfy their needs. There's no logical justification for valuing one's own preferences above those of others', meaning that, if one aims to maximise one's own preference-satisfaction, as every sentient being in the universe has to (it's impossible not to), then one has to maximise others' preference satisfaction, essentially meaning that the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few.

    As for the repudiation of the maxim, I'm sure it was Kirk, not Spock, who stated that the "needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many"? Correct me if I'm wrong.

    Also, Spock didn't just express these views in a moment of self-sacrifice. For example, in the "Star Trek: The Original Series" episode "The Galileo Seven", Spock states that "it is more rational to sacrifice one life than six".

    Thus, I would argue that Spock would support killing one person to save more people. Indeed, this is further corroborated by T'Pol in "Star Trek: Enterprise", in the episode "The Council" - when one of the away team officers is killed, she justifies the away mission and the death by stating "There's a Vulcan axiom: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Corporal Hawkins [the officer killed] understood that".

    And, of course, in "Star Trek: Into Darkness", there's an even more blatant allusion to utilitarianism, when Spock states: "A sentient being's optimal chance at maximizing their utility is a long and prosperous life."

    This sounds like something Peter Singer, perhaps the world's most influential philosopher, would say. He's also, as you probably know, a utilitarian and the father of the animal liberation movement, and a strong proponent of vegetarianism which, as you note, Spock (and Vulcans in general) adhered to.

    I agree that Spock isn't an act utilitarian - maximising pleasure, in particular, would be redundant in Vulcan society. Nonetheless, preference utilitarianism, in my view, seems to fit the evidence.

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  4. viddy9, thanks for the thoughts. I am not sure if I want to include the ST:ID as part of the canon :) though it is a counterfactual Spock to take into account.

    Most importantly, though, to clarify, when I said "simple-minded utilitarianism" I was meaning not that Utilitarianism is itself simple-minded, but that it seemed that the kind the writers had in mind with that slogan was.

    I thought that in STIV Spock used the Kirk-originated reversed slogan (one>many) but perhaps I'm misremembering. Yes, Kirk did say it first, but I thought (perhaps wrongly) that Spock took it up?

    There's a fun discussion thread on this very issue at Philosophers Anonymous with some folks making interesting distinctions: http://philosophersanon.blogspot.com/2015/03/was-spock-utilitarian.html

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