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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought

Chapter 21. Reason and spirituality

In Judaism, the rabbis consciously practice non-contradiction (and the other laws of thought) in most of their discourse; but in some cases, they desert this virtue.

For example, it often happens that equally authoritative commentators have divergent interpretations of the same text; nevertheless, both their positions are upheld as traditional and true so as to avoid any suggestion that any important rabbi might ever be wrong. In such cases, the rationale given is that the different, even conflicting, perspectives together deepen and enrich the overall understanding of that text. In non-legal contexts (haggadah), there is no pressing need to decide one way or the other, anyway; while in legal contexts (halakhah), a decision is often made by majority[1].

Also, as I have shown in my Judaic Logic, some of the hermeneutic principles used in the Talmud are not in conformity with syllogistic logic; some yield a non sequitur in conclusion, and some even a contradiction. In such cases, the absurdity occurs on a formal level, within a single line of reasoning (rather than in relation to conflicting approaches); yet the conclusion is often accepted as law anyway, because the (erroneous) form of reasoning is considered traditional and Divinely given.

However, it is interesting to note in this regard that there is a Talmudic law[2] about two people who find a prayer shawl and bring it together to the rabbinical court, both claiming it as their property (on a finders-keepers basis); these people are not permitted to both swear they found it first, since these oaths would be in contradiction and that would make one of them at least a vain use of God’s name (a grave sin).

This Judaic law shows that the rabbis are ultimately forced to admit the logical law of non-contradiction as binding, i.e. as indicative of objective reality.

Similarly, in Buddhism, there are many teachers who insist on the importance of keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground even while one’s head is up in the heavens. They teach that karmic law should not be ignored or denied[3] – meaning that one should not act as if there are no laws of nature in this world and anything goes. To act irresponsibly is foolish and at times criminal. I would include under this heading adherence to the laws of thought; for without the awareness, harmony and clarity that they enjoin, healthy respect for causality would not be possible.

It is important, at this juncture in the history of philosophy, that people understand the danger of denial of all, or any, of the laws of thought. Due to the current influx of Oriental philosophies, and in particular of Buddhism, some would-be philosophers and logicians are tempted (perhaps due to superficial readings) to take up such provocative positions, to appear fashionable and cutting-edge. But while predicting that Western philosophy will be greatly enriched by this influx, I would warn against abject surrender of our rationality, which can only have destructive consequences for mankind.

Logic is one of man’s great dignities, an evolutionary achievement. But it is true: logic alone, without meditation, morality and other human values, cannot bring out the best in man. Taken alone like that, it can and sometimes does apparently lead people to narrow-minded and sterile views, and dried-up personalities. But in the last analysis, people of that sort are simply poor in spirit – their condition is not the fault of logic as such. In fact, they misunderstand logic; they have a faulty view of it – usually an overly deductive, insufficiently inductive view of it.

The current ills of our society are not due to a surfeit of logic. Rather, our society is increasingly characterized by illogic. Many media, politicians and educators twist truth at will, and people let themselves to be misled because they lack the logical capacity or training required to see through the lies and manipulations. Rationality does not mean being square-minded, rigid or closed, as its opponents pretend – it means, on the contrary, making an effort to attain or maintain spiritual health. To give up reason is to invite mental illness and social disintegration. Taken to extremes, unreason would be a sure formula for insanity and social chaos.

Aristotle’s answer to irrationality was effectively to train and improve our reason. I do not think this is “the” single, complete solution to the human condition – but it is for sure part of the compound solution. Logic is only a tool, which like any tool can be unused, underused, misused or abused. Logic can only produce opinion, but as I said before it helps produce the best possible opinion in the context of knowledge available at any given time and place. It is not magic – only hard work, requiring much study.

Rationalism is sometimes wrongly confused with ‘scientism’, the rigid state of mind and narrow belief system that is leading mankind into the spiritual impasse of materialism and amorality. On this false assumption, some people would like to do away with rationalism; they imagine it to be an obstacle to spiritual growth. On the contrary, rationality is mental health and equilibrium. It is the refusal to be fooled by sensual pursuits—or spiritual fantasies. It is remaining lucid and open at all times.

The ‘scientific’ attitude, in the best sense of the term, should here be emphasized. For a start, one should not claim as raw data more than what one has oneself experienced in fact. To have intellectually understood claims of enlightenment by the Buddha or other persons is not equivalent to having oneself experienced this alleged event; such hearsay data should always be admitted with a healthy ‘grain of salt’. Faith should not be confused with science; many beliefs may consistently with science indeed be taken on faith, but they must be admitted to be articles of faith.

Note well that this does not mean that we must forever cling to surface appearances as the only and final truth. There may well be a ‘noumenal’ level of reality beyond our ordinary experience and the rational conclusions we commonly draw from such experience. Nevertheless, we are logically duty bound to take our current experience and reasoning seriously, until and unless we personally come in contact with what allegedly lies beyond. Those of us who have not attained the noumenal may well be basically “ignorant” (as Buddhism says), but we would be foolish to deny our present experience and logic before such personal attainment.

Wisdom is an ongoing humble quest. An error many philosophers and mystics make is to crave for an immediate and incontrovertible answer to all possible questions. They cannot accept human fallibility and the necessity to make do with it, by approximating over time towards truth. I suggest that even in the final realization we are obligated to evaluate our experience and decide what it is.

The phenomenological approach and inductive logic are thus a modest, unassuming method. The important thing is to remain lucid at all times, and not to get carried away by appearances, or worse still by fantasies. Even if one has had certain impressive meditation experiences, one should not lose touch with the rest of one’s experience, but in due course carefully evaluate one’s insights in a broader context. Logic is not an obstacle to truth, but the best way we have to ensure we do not foolishly stray away from reality. Rationality is wise.

[1] Although in some cases, centuries later, scattered groups of Jews may follow different interpretations of the same decision.

[2] I unfortunately cannot find the exact Mishna reference at this time, but I heard it discussed by two Rabbis.

[3] I give you for example Dogen, who quoting Baizhang (“don’t ignore cause and effect”), Nagarjuna ([do not] “deny cause and effect in this worldly realm… in the realm of practice”), Yongjia (“superficial understanding of emptiness ignores causes and effect”) and others, decries “those who deny cause and effect” (pp. 263-9).

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