The Limits of Logic

by | Nov 14, 2014

A disembodied mush

Encased in bone….

Rather an ironic post for me, don’t you think, dear reader? And yet your eyes do not deceive you and it is indeed I who is writing this. I have a rather annoying habit of always asking people for the reasons behind their choices, decisions, positions, likes and dislikes. What can I say? I find the human animal interesting beyond measure and endlessly seek to understand it better. But I am often frustrated by answers like this – “I just feel like it”, “No particular reason”, etc. This post is dedicated to those reasons – sort of my assurance to all my unfortunate guinea pigs that I do understand (kinda 😛 ).

Let me preface this first by pointing out that I have no intention of stopping, so if that is your hope, then I please allow me to relish in the sadistic pleasure of disappointing you (really! Just send me a pic of your disappointment… 😉 ). I won’t stop because I don’t believe I’m wrong in my basic assumption that we do have reasons for the things we do. Both psychological and neurological research backs this up. As an interesting aside, the neurologists are even starting to be able to analyze the sub-conscious thought processes that precede a decision, so much so that they’re currently able to predict the outcome of simple random decisions by test subjects – before the subjects themselves are even conscious of making the choice! I’ll leave you to ponder on that one… Another field that has figured out that people do have reasons even if they themselves don’t fully comprehend them is market research – they’ve had to think up all sorts of ingenious indirect clues to understand their consumers, who often sound stupid if you just go out and ask them directly.

I raise my doubts both for my own explorations of the human psyche and to get people to think. It is my ideological position that ‘thought’ is pretty much always better than ‘no thought’ and hence you’re always better off understanding yourself better than being ignorant of your ways – the psychologists are a bit more divided on this one, I must admit. Logic is my tool of choice in this endeavor, for it lends itself well to the analysis. Logic may seem contradictory to a study of the human mind, but it’s actually pretty useful as it helps you navigate the complicated web of influences that result in a conscious choice. Simply put, if the reason given doesn’t make logical sense – such as, for instance, relying on a future effect of that choice that couldn’t have been known beforehand – then there must be something else that’s going on.

The limits of logic in a purely computational sense have already been established nearly a century ago by one of the greatest mathematicians of all time – Kurt Godel (See his Incompleteness Theorem… then go bang your head against a wall). However, I would venture to point out a more fundamental limit to logic which isn’t talked about much – its purpose.

A mistake that’s easy to make is to think that logic will tell you what you should do – or at least what the most ‘sensible’ course of action would be. But that misses what logic is – it is a method, not an ideology. Logic is positive, not normative i.e. it helps you study a choice, not tells you which one to make. This may seem wrong-headed at first, but that’s because we’re conditioned by our school economics lessons to think that ‘logical’ is the same as ‘rational’ – they aren’t. The ‘rational human’ of economics lore (and yes, I mean lore. There is no such person, as economists seem to have taken forever to realize) is a construct bent on one thing – being the richest selfish bastard around. He is totally materialistic and his life’s goal is to live in palace attended by a different Playboy ‘bunny’ every night – possibly still a virgin ‘bunny’, depending on how religious he is (given that I doubt any of them are virgins, I suppose the ‘religious rational human’ – if there can possibly be such a thing – is condemned to perpetual dissatisfaction. Good! Serves the bastard right.)

Another way to look at this is to say that logic doesn’t tell you what you should want, but merely what route is the best one to take to get there. You have to set the criteria, logic merely operates under it. Logic does impose certain rules of its own – such as non-contradiction, for instance – but if you choose to live in violation of those, then best of luck getting anywhere.

So why do we want the things we want, if not for logical reasons? Beats me. That’s what I keep trying to figure out. A lot of the things we want do make sense, however. You just have to think hard sometimes to figure that sense out. As for the rest… well, let me finish up with this pile first before I get to that.

In conclusion, allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite videos. I have what I like to think is a prodigious collection of documentaries and reading material on serious topics and yet one my personal favorites (and, in 2008, it was the personal favorite of much of the rest of the world too – it was the most-watched Youtube video of that year) is this one, for it is perhaps the purest reflection of what it means to be fully human. In it, you see a man doing a silly dance all over the world – just because he felt like it! Indeed, all art – whether deep or playful – is done for reasons that would baffle a computer. But that is what sets us apart. It isn’t all light fun, either – this video, for instance, required a fair bit of organizing and a substantial bit of fund-raising to make. That’s the serious side that makes us humans great – the purpose for which it was done, however, is a reflection of the passionate side that makes us folk wonderful.


Stay in the loop…

Latest stories and insights from India Fellow delivered in your inbox.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: