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The Laws of Thought

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

13. Active Reason


1.     Special Status of the Laws


The three Laws of Thought must not be construed as some prejudice of Aristotle’s, which some scientific discovery – like the particle-wave duality or the relativity of space-time measurements – could conceivably raise doubt about or displace. These laws of thought are intended as perfectly neutral; they make no direct, specific ontological or epistemological claim, but rationally sort out the very act and concept of such claims – whence their name.

These laws express the ways we assimilate complex experiences, and resolve difficulties in the course of thought (concepts, propositions and arguments). Only by such logic can we ‘make sense’ of the world around us and in us. By making these truths explicit, Aristotle made it possible for humans to henceforth consciously practice the logic they were already unconsciously tending to.

These laws exclude, ab initio, the notion that something could both have and lack some property, or neither have nor lack it – at the same place and time and in the same respects. The latter specification, which Aristotle clearly and repeatedly stressed, is often ignored by those who consider these laws expendable.

That, say, a stone is blue on one side and red on the other, is not a contradiction, since the different colors are in different parts of it. That over time the colors may change is not an antinomy either: the concept of time is intended to ensure that. That you and I view the same object from different angles, and see different aspects of it, is no surprise. That my view of the world and yours are not quite identical, is quite understandable in view of the different context of experience and thought we each have.

The laws of thought do not evade or deny the appearance of contradictions or unsolved problems; they just tell us that such appearances are illusions, not realities. They are designed precisely to help us take such apparent discrepancies into consideration and resolve them in some way. We continue to need the same laws of thought in the more complex cases uncovered by modern physics.

The theory of relativity is precisely an attempt to rationalize the surprising empirical constancy in the velocity of light, whichever direction we measure it from. The theory is not a statement that there are no absolute truths, but a statement that such and such a way of looking at the surprising events discovered makes them rationally comprehensible. The theory affirms that this way is probably (i.e. inductively) the best explanation, and effectively denies those who contradict it (unless they come up with an inductively better explanation, more in line with the empirical findings). It does not deny the laws of thought, but is an application of them.

Similarly, the discovery that the same things may behave occasionally as particles and occasionally as waves does not constitute an argument against the laws of thought. Whether we interpret this duality epistemologically or ontologically, as due to different circumstances of observation or different material circumstances, it is affirmed to be a mysterious finding that must be faced. This realist attitude is precisely what the laws of thought demand. Any attempt to interpret the finding, one way or the other, is again an attempt to make the finding rationally comprehensible, so that we do not feel them logically impossible.

Under no circumstances may scientists or philosophers seriously claim the laws of thought to be abrogated. Such a claim is self-contradictory – because then its opposite is equally acceptable. It is therefore as if nothing has been said. It is the denial of reason, the institution of madness. The three laws of thought thus together constitute the most incontrovertible and universal frame of reference of rational thought.

Note also, the emphasis the laws of thought lay on existence. A common error of deniers of these laws is to regard ‘non-existence’ as just some other sort of existence, a parallel world or a location beyond space and time from which new existents come and to which finished existents go! These people are misled by linguistic habit into a reification of the word ‘non-existence’.

Whatever positively appears, exists to that extent. Existence becomes open to doubt to the extent that we add assumptions to appearance – i.e. we adductively guess what might lie beyond them. At this stage, the reality vs. illusion dichotomy arises. At this stage, too, the rational act of negation comes into play – when we say: this is apparent, but (since it gives rise to some antinomy) it is not real, it is illusory.

The ‘concept’ of non-existence thus has no direct empirical basis of its own. It is based on a rational act relative to experiences of existence. It is just a figment of the imagination, a mental dumping place for ideas that have failed the test of existential basis.


2.     Motors of Rational Thought


It is important to realize that the laws of thought are the motors of rational thought. They generate questions and the pursuit of answers; they feed curiosity and fuel research. If we are satisfied with the way things seem, however contradictory or incomplete they seem, thought is arrested. We lose perspective and become ignorant. We lose intelligence and become stupid. We lose touch with reality and become insane.

Consider the irrelevancy to science of a hypothetical denial of the laws of thought. For instance, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, nothing can travel faster than light, yet it has been found that particles may affect each other instantaneously even though they are far apart. If in the face of such an apparent contradiction we just said: “oh, well, I guess the law of contradiction must be wrong!” and left it at that – would we be consoled? Clearly, not – this would not honestly solve the problem for us, but merely sweep it under the carpet. Our minds would not rest till some deeper, more convincing explanation was found.

Accepting contradiction is just simplistic and evasive. Similarly, with breaches of the law of the excluded middle: if you ask me a question, and inquire is X the answer or not X? and I reply, it is neither, but some third thing: will you be satisfied with such reply? Your knowledge of the issue at hand is not made complete by such reply; a gap remains, which can only be filled by either X or nonX. The law of the excluded middle is just a recognition of the inadequacy of such neither-nor replies.


3.     Cogito, Ergo Sum


Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum[1] is composed of two self-evident propositions: “I think” (in the sense, I am conscious) and “I am” (I exist). For the contradictory of each of these propositions is self-contradictory, i.e. involves a stolen concept and gives rise to a paradox. Thus, “I am not conscious” could not be thought or said (or for that matter heard or understood) without being conscious. Similarly, “I am not” could not be expressed (or observed) without existing. Thus, Descartes was quite right in regarding these propositions as axioms; i.e. as first principles, which do not depend on prior principles.

Note moreover that these two clauses are axiomatically true independently of each other – So what about the ergo, which suggests that the sum follows from the cogito? Is the “therefore” perhaps meant to imply an order of knowledge, rather than an inference? One could formally deduce existence from consciousness, in the sense that a conscious being is a fortiori an existent being; but one would never in practice resort to such inference.

In practice, in my opinion, we are conscious of other things before we become conscious that we are conscious of them – so it would not be correct to place the “I think” before the “I am”. It could be argued that a baby may first experience inner states, but I would reply that such states are results of prior sensations. We may however support Descartes’ order, by considering it a logical one, in the sense that if the Subject did not have the power of consciousness, he or she would not be aware of existence. That is, it perhaps means: “I can think, therefore I can know that I am”.

But I think the correct interpretation is the following: when we are aware of something, any thing, this provides an occasion to become aware of oneself, i.e. that there is a Subject who is being conscious of that thing, whatever it is. Thus, the first clause of the sentence is not strictly: “I think”, but: “consciousness of things is taking place” (or “thought is occurring”). Whence the second clause is truly inductively inferred, i.e. we may well hypothesize that “there is something being conscious of things”, i.e. “thought has a Subject as well as an Object”, i.e. “there is an I” (or “I exist”).

It is the self that is inferred from the appearance of objects – reason argues: they must appear before someone. This is what distinguishes appearance from mere existence: it occurs through ‘cognition’ by ‘someone’. Thus, Descartes is justifying our habitual assumption of a cognizing Subject from the fact of cognition. It is not mere grammatical convention, he tells us, but “think” implies “I”.


4.     Concerning Identity[2].


Where does a material object begin or end, in view of the constant flow of particles and energy in and out of it, even (over a long enough time) in the case of apparent solids? We have to use the apparent limits of things as their space-time definition. Or more precisely, in acknowledgment of the above difficulties, their illusory limits. Thus, knowledge of matter is built on arbitrary, knowingly inaccurate, delimitations of “things”.

We can similarly argue concerning mental objects (i.e. images, sounds, etc.). At first thought, their limits seem obvious; but upon reflection, they become doubtful – imprecise and insecure. And this being the case, we cannot convincingly argue that the limits of material bodies are mental projections. If the limits of mental lines are unsure, then the limits of whatever they are intended to delimit are still unsure.

Ultimately, then, since we cannot even mentally delimit mental or material things, all delimitations are merely verbal artifices, i.e. claims we cannot substantiate. This remark concerns not only ‘borderline’ cases, but all material or mental objects.

These are very radical queries, productive of grave skepticism. They are principles of vagueness and doubt much more unsettling than the Uncertainty Principle, since they more basically question the validity of any geometry (and therefore, more broadly, of mathematics and physics).

When some Greek or Indian philosophers expressed skepticism at the possibility of human knowledge, this is perhaps what they were referring to. If one cannot delimit things, how can one produce precise concepts and propositions? And without precision, how can we judge them true or false?

Whereas denial of knowledge as such is self-contradictory, denial of accurate knowledge is not so. It is possible to observe the general vagueness of experience without denying the law of identity. If cloudiness is the identity of things, or we are simply incapable of sufficiently focusing our senses to get past such cloudiness, we simply remain stuck at that level of experience, like it or not.

The best counterargument I can muster is that phenomenological knowledge is still knowledge of sorts, and this can be used as a springboard to arrive at deeper knowledge, by means of adduction. That is, we can still formulate ontological hypotheses, capable of ongoing confirmation or rejection with reference to reason and experience, even if the epistemological status of the latter is at the outset merely phenomenological.

This does not directly overcome the difficulty of measurement, but it gives us some hope that we might succeed indirectly. I leave the issue open, and move on.


Drawn from Ruminations (2005), Chapter 1 (sections 7-10).


[1]           See Hamlyn, p. 137. The comments made here are not intended as an exhaustive analysis of the cogito statement, needless to say.

[2]           I have already discussed this ontological issue in chapter 10, section 2 (above).

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