Volume 13, Issue 6: Incarnatus 1
Knowing isn't Syllogistic
I have this deepening suspicion that future Christians will pity us for our naive approach to traditional logic. I picture them reading about our otherwise forgettable era, grinning and wagging their heads, wondering how we could not have seen the deep tension between traditional logic and biblical reality.
In this column's previous attempts to show how the Incarnation might shape questions about
knowledge, I've argued that knowing is primarily a kind of doing, an active involvement with the created, unveiled, concrete order, images which we extend to understand other parts. In short, we know the world around us by incarnating it.
But in extending images of concrete things to all areas of life, we immediately encounter questions about reason and rationality. What is a good extension of an image? What standard or reason directs our extensions of knowledge? Do we merely abandon the Incarnation and turn to Aristotle and Bertrand Russell for answers? That's the most common answer, but, here too, I think the Incarnation points us down a better path.
The first step in rethinking traditional logic is to stand far back and ask some basic questions.
What is the grand purpose of a system of logic, ancient or contemporary? Why does rearranging words to fit special little patterns make a good reason? Why do these patterns have moral authority? How can ideas or concepts or sentences really be linkable like chains? What is the stuff that binds them made of? And why does the Bible give us constant imperatives about wisdom but never a smoke-puff about anything resembling a quasi-mathematical system of logic?
The original motive for logic was that pagans had no objective, transcendent standard to divide good and bad reasons. They thought everything was in flux, and they needed a firm handle on reality: thus logic. In short, if you don't have the Christian God or divine revelation, you need a substitute standard for rationality.
What, then, was the character of this divine substitute? In its simplest picture, the laws of logic or the patterns of syllogisms were like eternal, glassy machines into which you put cleaned-up language, and out of which popped "authorized" conclusions. Later, some assumed these things were made of something like very dense plastic-like ideas, and even later, some shrugged and said that they're made out of grammar rules. But most logic textbooks still assume they
are eternal machines hanging around waiting for input.
The crucial counterpart to syllogisms is always some sort of artificial language. Not just any sentence can fit into these machines. They have to be specially stripped down. In fact, logic is a deeply grounded complaint against ordinary language, the language with which we cause plenty to happen daily, from petitioning to teaching, from ordering to confessing. Nothing that can't be captured by literalistic sentences can broach the mouths of syllogistic machines. And as the prior column in this series argued, that precludes all the most important parts of reality.
How, though, do these alleged machines fit into a biblical cosmology? We don't find them suspended from clouds in the creation account. And the Bible doesn't speak of logical necessity as that which binds reality together; that bond is Christ, a person. Scripture knows nothing of conceptual necessity in which ideas by themselves push against other
ideas or of one idea hinging out of another. That sort of conceptual talk is utterly alien to biblical ontology. The only necessity Scripture knows is divine; there is no impersonal necessity sticking about.
Many well-intentioned medievals inserted these logical machines into God's mind. But why does that help? Why would we need an automatic necessity inside God's personal necessity? Why would God reveal Himself with all the poetry and imagery in Scripture, but then expect us to wait for Aristotle before we could create the sort of sentences that really satisfy His head? God would be divided against Himself. On the one hand He speaks in music, stories, and metaphor, but, in another part of His head, His in-built syllogisms would only count as important to the thinnest mathematical propositions.
Perhaps even more pitiful is the fact that, though syllogisms appear to do so much for rationality, they can really only tell us about the relations of ideas and propositions. They don't tell us how to connect bricks and zebras and people, only ideas about those things, only shadows of reality: "We are asking about a relation between two lots of propositions: on the one hand the premises, on the other hand the conclusion." In order to make these machines say anything about reality, you have to assume some radically rationalistic assumption from Parmenides, Spinoza, or Hegel, like "the real is the rational." But then the game is up, and logic doesn't look so neutral or Christian anymore.
Does this mean we shouldn't study traditional logic or teach it in our schools? Not at all. We have to wear it well before we can produce something better, but when we teach it, we should teach it the way we teach the Iliadheld a little away from our chestsnot the way we teach the Gospels.