The Fallibility of Human Logic

Ever since a tiny number of ancient Greeks discovered and developed something called logic, there are many people who, greatly impressed by this discovery, have employed it in all or many situations and times, much like a person who becomes enamoured of an item of clothing and wears it all the time, including when one is sleeping, or a cook who becomes obsessed with a certain ingredient and puts it in everything one makes. These simple, credulous followers of Aristotle and his legion of philosophical imitators have believed that logic is an infallible guide to discovering the truth about the world we live in. However, this widespread belief is wrong.

It has been established by meticulous scientific experiments that light sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a particle. Similarly, subatomic particles like electrons also behave like particles or waves, depending on the situation. Such a dual mode of behaviour is not permissible according to the strict rules of Aristotelian logic, one of which rules categorically declares that a thing must be one thing or another, but it cannot partake of two fundamentally different natures. Another contradictory example is that, although the great majority of sexual creatures are either male or female, there exist a few creatures, called hermaphrodites, who possess both male and female sex organs. What these and other examples show is that, contrary to what logicians, philosophers, and many others believe, the complex and heterogeneous world we live in does not always behave in accordance with our human-constructed rules of logic. There exist many inconsistencies and exceptions in Nature, especially in the case of human societies and behaviour. Only in certain cases are so-called universal laws, rules, or principles in fact universally valid.

Of course, this does not mean that reason and logic are never valid or that they should never be applied to our study of the real world. What it does mean, however, is that the injudicious or indiscriminate application of our human system of logic to understanding the features of the real world can lead us, and often has led many of us, into error. In many cases, reason and logic have been used merely to justify or defend our beliefs, prejudices, passions, aversions, hatreds, convictions, infatuations, hopes, theories, delusions, and ideals. The logical conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that logic is most certainly not the objective and dispassionate method, system, standard, or guide that many of us have been taught it is. Like everything else that is human, logic is very intimately related to the particular way we view the world – as the finite, mortal, emotional, imitating, conforming, fallible, and occasionally delusional creatures that we are. In other words, the common belief that logic and mathematics reveal or reflect the structure of reality is not necessarily true.

Things only follow, in a logical sense, in our brains. This does not mean, however, that they also follow or exist in the real world. We need to free ourselves from the misleading Aristotelian habit of constantly deducing, drawing conclusions, and seeking logical consistency in the real world; for it is precisely when we engage in this pernicious philosophical habit that we are most likely to lead ourselves astray by believing our own logically-derived nonsense. Let us not forget that the two primary substances that are regularly produced by our bodies, urine and feces, are noisome and unhealthy substances which only a fool would mistake for nourishing and wholesome drink and food. In the proper context, they can be useful substances that help plants to grow, but for animals, feces in particular can also be a source of disease and pestilence. Similarly, many of the results of our reasoning are false or foolish, the more so if we stay too close to them in a metaphorical sense, such as when we become strongly attached to them emotionally, so that we are no longer able to distance ourselves from them in order to judge whether they are true or not.

The belief that, in discovering logic and mathematics, our species had discovered processes that are independent of human fallibility and our many limitations has led to ridiculous practices such as attributing to God the results of our human reasoning. A common example is that since God is believed to be perfect, He must also be omniscient and omnipotent because a perfect being would possess both of these attributes. Moreover, He must also be benevolent and know the future in all its extremely minute and complicated details. Hence, it follows from all these entirely human projections or attributions to our idea of God that God must care about each and every one of His human creatures, and therefore He will act so as to prevent any evil from befalling us. That this is not actually the case has led many people to deny God’s existence or to reject God as an uncaring or impotent being.

For in the presence of God there is less a problem of freedom than a problem of evil. You know the alternative: either we are not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful. All the scholastic subtleties have neither added anything to nor subtracted anything from the acuteness of this paradox.[1]

This sort of foolish reasoning assumes that God is confined by our very narrow, limited, and specific human way of looking at and evaluating the world. We would do well to remember that logic is a human invention, and therefore it almost certainly does not influence, confine, or determine the way that God acts and judges things. It is precisely this kind of overly simplistic reasoning that has led many people to become angry or perplexed at God’s inaction, or what they regard as God’s impotence to make our lives and the world we live in better, at least when viewed from a very narrow, and frequently selfish, human perspective.

Reason, logic, and mathematics are merely tools that can help us to understand the world we live in. But like all tools, they can be well or ill used. When they are used properly, they can aid us in our quest for understanding and acquiring knowledge about the world; but when they are used improperly, they lead to confusion, falsehood, dogma, delusion, propaganda, and lies. And contrary to what the very silly rationalist philosophers have declared, knowing how and when to use these intellectual tools is a skill that can only be acquired by experience, and not by reasoning dogmatically about these and other matters.

[1] “Absurd Freedom” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus. Translated by Justin O’Brien. Vintage International, New York, 1991.