language and reality part 2: aristotle’s shadow

Aristotle casts a long shadow over Western thought.

Much of our thought processes, logic and language structure are directly influenced by Aristotle’s “Law’s of Thought”. These involved three basic premises:

1. A is A

This is known as the “Premise of Identity”. For example an apple is an apple, it is not a pear or a banana.

2. anything is either A or not A

This is the “Premise of the Excluded Middle”. An apple is either an apple or not an apple.

3. something cannot be both A and not A

The “Premise of None Contradiction”. An apple cannot be an apple and not an apple.

This seems to make sense, doesn’t it? It may work OK when we are talking about  simple objects, such as apples, but once we get to something more complex, like value judgements, ideas and concepts it can start to limit our thinking and flexibility.

Using Aristotle’s “Laws of Thought”, things are either good or bad, right or wrong, your fault or not your fault. There is no “maybe” or more complex possibilities.

To demonstrate the limitations of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought, do these two thought experiments:

1. five alternative explanations

Next time you hear a “fact” quickly think of five counter theories about how it could work (it doesn’t matter if they seem silly, it is getting into the habit of challenging your habitual thinking!).

2. empty your pockets

Take everything you have in your pockets right now, five or so things would be useful and split them into the following categories:

  • Shiny and not shiny
  • Blue and not blue
  • Hard and soft

Notice how you make the decision to place an item in one group or the other. Notice how the process of deciding what object fits into each group is largely arbitrary and the decision is based on some prejudice or or process that has very little evidence to support it. How much of something needs to be shiny for it to go in the shiny pile? 51% of it? How do you know it is more shiny than not shiny?

About Matt Caulfield