The Boundaries of Logic

While we’re on the topic of reason, there’s something I’ve had on my mind lately.

It’s often said that a human being has dual channels that his understanding of the world comes through: the head and the heart. Some areas of life fall cleanly in the domain of one or the other, while other areas are warred over — sometimes causing unbearable inner turmoil. We’re told that we need to gradually learn which side of us should make which decisions and eventually a steady truce will form.

I think everyone would agree that this model is just an easy way of talking about something extremely complex, and the simplification comes at the cost of lost information, so we can’t take it too seriously.

There are eastern and esoteric belief systems which take the model a few steps further. They posit separate bodies that together compose a human being, such as the mental, emotional, and causal bodies beyond the physical. Good health in one of these bodies and bad health in another can cause a person to become unbalanced and skew his perceptions. For example an experience might be stripped of its true emotional or spiritual value because the mental body is too dominant and it muscles the experience into its own domain. This is something I’ve been accused of more than once.

I haven’t personally found the body model to be convincing at all. To me the model reeks of ancient people trying admirably to explain the oddities of human consciousness, but falling far short without the understanding of neurology that we’ve achieved in the last century. If you do some reading in ancient western philosophy you find similar theories that have become obsolete. The mind and the soul were for a time the exact same thing because the mind was too intangible to be anything but supernatural. Now the physical roots of the mind that neuroscience shows us are so hard to deny that most people would say the mind must be distinct from the soul, if they believe the soul exists at all.

In any case, I’ve found that logic is applied very easily in domains that people have tried to convince me logic has no place in, and I’ve found that you can often point out that people are indeed using logic on occasions when they’re convinced that they aren’t. I just wasn’t hitting this insurmountable boundary they spoke of.

I think part of the confusion comes from the fact that some forms of basic logic (pattern-recognition, association, categorization, etc.) are done preemptively — and often sloppily — by the brain without our conscious awareness. Those hidden processes inject an element of mystery that definitely arouses magical suspicions. I’ve spent years succumbing to them.

Further confusion, sadly, comes from many people defining logic as “stuff that sounds think-y.”

I didn’t want to dismiss the idea that there are other faculties, however, because I’d had many experiences in meditation where I felt detached from logic completely. I’m very aware of the problems that arise with using logic to justify the reliability of logic (or to justify the unreliability of logic), so if there were times where an alternative was more appropriate I sincerely wanted to know about it.

So I asked myself exactly where the boundaries of logic were drawn. I figured if I kept asking, “Can I use logic to assess this?” and ventured further and further with every affirmative, I’d finally push logic to its limit and discover what was on the other side.

Philosophers have already done this extensively and written volumes on it. But I was curious if I could find a boundary simple enough that anyone could understand it as easily as the head/heart model, unrigorous as it might be.

A few months ago it popped into my head. It was simple algebra.

We’ll represent any given experience as:


X is difficult to talk about because it’s pre-verbal. X is the experience in its direct, isolated, self-contained form. It’s the quale of it. When you stand facing a blank white wall, X is the whiteness you experience. When you hear the wind blow, X is the perception of the sound. When you touch a hot stove, X is the raw sensation.

Abstraction is, in my opinion, where logic enters the picture:

X = Y

Once we apply equivalence to any given experience, logic is at work. The experience of the white wall itself (X) is absolutely free of logic. It’s that place I visited during meditation. It’s a state of pure unabstracted being. But once I conclude from that experience that I’m currently facing a surface, and that surface is reflecting every wavelength of visible light, and I have eyes and a brain to receive and interpret that light, I’ve made a judgment about the experience (X = Y). When I conclude that the sound is made by moving air, along with making conclusions about what air is and what movement is and what I am in relation to it all, I’m using logic. Even when I label the burn from the hot stove as a bad feeling, I could argue that a degree of logic is at work. This is one of those cases where the brain is doing most of the work for me unconsciously; it’s piggybacking the unpleasant flavor of the experience onto the sensation before it reaches consciousness, because reasoning about it consciously would be way too slow to prevent damage to my hand.

So, in a simplistic way I think we’ve uncovered the boundary. It’s the appearance of the equal sign — the cognitive addition of information not actually embedded within a sensation itself. But the place beyond the boundary is a place we spend only an instant in for each experience we have.

This is clearly a very different picture than the one painted for me earlier where long, involved stretches of our lives are lived in logic-proof places — like being in love and communing with the divine. Of course I’d never advocate reducing these experiences down to nothing but cold logic, but to believe that logic isn’t even present in them is something you do at your own peril.

About this entry