Thinking About Thinking - 2017


By Balaji Prasad

“Logic and mathematics are nothing but
specialized linguistic structures."
? Jean Piaget

“Logic" is beautiful. It is like a lump of clay that can be kneaded and twisted into different shapes until you find one that suits your purpose. The legal system runs on the power of this kind of logic. And, so does religion. And, so do many, many other things. Sometimes the logic works with other people too, but sometimes it doesn't. Democrats find the words and logical constructs that seem to make sense not only to themselves, but also to like-minded Democrats. And, so do their Republican counterparts, with one another.

Could it be that what we call logic is actually anything but? Could it be that our power of “logic" allows us to make logic itself whatever we wish it to be, rather than what it supposedly is? Could we be so political that we make our political behavior look apolitical? Maybe we do.

The roots of logic

There is a kind of logic that is less pliable. There is something about these constructs that resist our attempts to contort them. Mathematical logic, for instance. One plus one must be two, right? Why is it that math is so stubborn, and doesn't let us mold it as easily to our whims? The answer could lie in the language of mathematics. It could lie, not so much in what that language allows us to say, but in the things that it does not allow us to say. When you are forced to restrict your expressions, it does a couple of things. It forces you to eliminate many other things that could be said, making it easier to inspect what you said. Second, the repeated exercise of similar templates and patterns leads to a familiarity with these patterns, preventing errors that would occur were the language more expressive, and therefore less repetitive. Third, a certain set of practices have been embedded into the meta-patterns of the language of math – e.g. the emphasis on proofs, and the associated necessity of progression from thought to thought over little bridges of logic that are clear for all to see. These math practices make it likelier that things that are expressed get some degree of proofing before they are asserted.

The “logic" that we use in our day-to-day life is a cousin of the logic of math. A poor cousin. A cousin that is not as bounded by rules and norms.

The logical foundation of life

Whether we give expression to it or not, there is a certain logic to life that lies buried, and ever so slightly out of our grasp. We grapple with these unknowns to make them known, to the extent that we can, so that we might understand the logic of life. Through these engagements with mysteries, many laws of physics, chemistry and biology have been teased out. Such theories help us frame, and sometimes even help us understand the way thing work in our universe. We often go beyond simple understanding, and as nature's creative child, we too expand the universe by introducing things that operate in line with the laws that we discover. We have cars that run, planes that fly and explosives that explode, all fueled by our understanding of the underlying logic of the universe. We would probably not have survived in the relentlessly uncaring world that we have been part of, without this facility with logic. Not that our other animal friends do not have a good sense of logic as well. They do. And, it is worth observing that their practice of the logic that they learn is sometimes stronger than our own. But where we human beings shine is in our ability to take that logic to its second- and third-order forms, to express it, to extend it and to preserve its continuity over time using tools that only human beings have had the ability and insight to create.

The “logical" foundation of life

As logic gets expressed, extended and stretched in different directions, things get complicated though. We spew out hundreds of thousands of terms, which we cast into symbolic systems that we manipulate to build term upon term, abstraction upon abstraction, and, sometimes, nonsense upon nonsense. At a certain point in this evolution, the sheer volume of these constructs exceeds our ability to control them, and keep them in line with the things that matter, with the things that exist. The language of logic attains escape velocity, and unchains itself from any pretensions of the need to reflect the reality of life. Our logic may sometimes end up mirroring life, but, all too often, “logic" is something other than logic. We move from parsimonious expressions that seek to understand, moving instead toward expansive abstractions that can unintentionally obfuscate and mislead. Sometimes, however, there is no accident; the language of logic is deliberately subverted to serve those who are inclined to serve themselves.

So, while logic allows us to live, “logic" may enable us to thrive – to thrive in a world where we compete for resources with other beings.

To lie or not to lie

The world is a complex place. There is a lot that we don't understand, and a lot that we can never hope to understand. But there is a part of the world that we do understand, and even exploit. Some of this understanding has come through the struggle of trial and error, deep thinking and wild theorizing. We discover more only if we imagine beyond what we know, allowing what we know to eventually stretch beyond its current “box". We are therefore, not just tolerant of wild theory and imagination, but are arguably dependent on it for our very survival. So, the romantic expansiveness of “logic" is an integral part of our toolkit of life, along with the terse neutrality of true logic. Lie we must, for in our lies lie the seeds that may grow into the truths that enhance our existence. The only thing is that the lying causes some collateral damage. There are costs.

Truth is the return on our lies

When we make our language flexible and pliant, it helps us express more than what exists or can even exist. As I suggested, the creativity this enables may help us improve our collective lot in life. But it can also enable us to be political. We may use language, not simply as a tool that cuts through the unknown, but also as an artifice that helps us gain at the expense of other. We have survived this way for eons. Man will live and die by logic... and “logic".