Sherlock Holmes, Vulcans, and how logic isn’t everything.


Sherlock Holmes, Vulcans, and how logic isn’t everything.


Con­tent note: tan­gen­tial men­tion of pedophil­ia and rape apol­o­gy.

Last month, Richard Dawkins said some­thing shit­ty, as he is wont to do. I don’t want to get into his argu­ment here, because it is per­son­al­ly painful for me to do so and I don’t think it’s nec­es­sary for the crux of this post. But it is relat­ed, and so I men­tion it.

I men­tion it because one of the defens­es of his insen­si­tiv­i­ty (to put it mild­ly) was that his argu­ment was log­i­cal­ly sound. And that’s a point that gets brought up an awful lot in dis­cus­sions of social jus­tice and in gen­er­al when some­one is called out for doing some­thing harm­ful. It’s espe­cial­ly a point brought up from men against women, usu­al­ly as a way of gas-light­ing us and say­ing, “You’re too emo­tion­al to get this, let me log­ic at you in a man­ly fash­ion.” It’s sex­ist, it’s dis­mis­sive, and it focus­es on one aspect of a sit­u­a­tion to the exclu­sion of all else.

As I said on Twit­ter in my orig­i­nal thoughts about Dawkins’ ass­hat­tery:

This is the kind of argu­ment I see quite a lot from those who tend to hold a lot of priv­i­lege & expe­ri­en­tial igno­rance of the top­ic at hand. Honestly…it makes me think of that scene in the RDJ/Jude Law Sher­lock Holmes. Holmes is hold­ing some­thing in his hand, the end of which is mere inch­es from Watson’s face. Wat­son: “Get that thing out of my face.” Holmes replies, “It’s not in your face, it’s in my hand.” That’s what these log­i­cal men are like. That’s their argu­ment. TECHNICALLY, they’re right. But the prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion & obser­va­tion of the sit­u­a­tion shows that one can be cor­rect but still wrong. In this sit­u­a­tion, the argu­ment can (& has been, repeat­ed­ly) made that Dawkins wasn’t min­i­miz­ing when he was mak­ing the com­par­i­son. TECHNICALLY, he wasn’t. But func­tion­al­ly, he was. Just like the thing TECHNICALLY was in Holmes’ hand but FUNCTIONALLY was in Watson’s face.

I’m rather proud of that anal­o­gy, and I think it quite holds up in gen­er­al in dis­cus­sions of social aware­ness.

Fast for­ward to tonight. It’s been a long day fight­ing anx­i­ety and just being wea­ried in gen­er­al with peo­ple I respect mak­ing the clas­sic blun­der of say­ing “but I’m an ally!!” when faced with cri­tique of their ally­ship. We put on an episode of Voy­ager to have some back­ground noise while we ate din­ner.

The crew of Voy­ager, Cap­tain Janeway in par­tic­u­lar is in a moral dilem­ma. They are strand­ed mul­ti­ple hun­dreds of thou­sands of light-years from their home, and stum­ble upon a civ­i­liza­tion that has tech­nol­o­gy that could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly get them halfway home. The prob­lem is that it’s against the laws of this civ­i­liza­tion to share that tech­nol­o­gy with any­one. Janeway ago­nizes over how to han­dle this news, rec­og­niz­ing that it would be uneth­i­cal to take the tech­nol­o­gy by force, but fear­ing that she is mak­ing her entire crew suf­fer for her ideals. Tuvok, chief secu­ri­ty offi­cer and a Vul­can, serves as Janeway’s moral com­pass and log­i­cal con­sult through­out the episode, and assures her that she is mak­ing the right deci­sion. Then, in a sur­pris­ing turn of events, Tuvok seals a deal to exchange the ship’s library for the tech­nol­o­gy, against the rules of the cul­ture and against Janeway’s express orders. This back­fires spec­tac­u­lar­ly (turns out the tech­nol­o­gy nev­er would have worked with Star Fleet tech), and Janeway learns of her crew’s betray­al.

Tuvok, in his detached and log­i­cal fash­ion, explains that he made his deci­sion out of a desire to spare Janeway pain. His rea­son­ing is that that if he made the trade, it would solve their prob­lem of need­ing to get home with­out impli­cat­ing the cap­tain or caus­ing her to vio­late her prin­ci­ples.

I’ll be hon­est, for most of the episode, I hard­ly paid atten­tion. But sud­den­ly I couldn’t stop watch­ing. This was a sto­ry I rec­og­nized, and I won­dered what direc­tion it would take.

Janeway is stunned and angry. She tells Tuvok how impor­tant his rela­tion­ship is to her, and how that close­ness they share has made his actions all the more unac­cept­able. “You can use log­ic to jus­ti­fy almost any­thing. That’s its pow­er — and its flaw.”

I sat with bat­ed breath to see what would hap­pen. This was the part of the con­ver­sa­tion when nor­mal­ly some­one like Tuvok would retort, “You’re too emo­tion­al about this. I only did the log­i­cal thing. You just can’t see it clear­ly.”

Instead, he replies, “My log­ic was not in error…but I was.”

My log­ic was not in error, but I was.

My logic was not in error, but I was.

It’s so suc­cinct. It’s so on point.

And it is exact­ly the sort of thing a decent human being ought to say when called on the car­pet for harm­ful behav­ior.

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