The Middle Way and Logic


My thesis is that, contrary to the experiments in logic in the Buddhist tradition, the Middle Way does not require any different logic from the Aristotelian type we commonly use. Instead, we need to use our existing logic better.


The implications of a pragmatic account of meaning might at first sight seem to lead to the questioning of Aristotelian logic, because an Aristotelian logical deduction depends on the relationship between represented states of affairs that are taken to imply one another. However, this means that we need to bear in mind the limits of shared meaning when reasoning, not seek a different logic or give up reasoning. For example, in "Fido is a dog; dogs are loyal; therefore Fido is loyal", the ideas of "dog" and "loyal" are approximate ones which will have slightly different functions, both representative and expressive, for every language user. However, this limitation is not improved upon by giving up Aristotelian logic: it just means that, like the language used when logic is applied to reasoning in experience, the results of Aristotelian logic are approximate rather than precise. Those who attempt to use logic to derive absolutes are mistaken, because they ignore this approximate relationship between logic and meaning.


Aristotelian logic is distinguished by its law of the excluded middle, stating that any given quantity is either a or not a: it cannot be any third option, such as both a and not a or neither a nor not a. For example, either cats are animals or they are not animals. They cannot be both animals and not animals, or neither animals nor not animals. Nor can they be in any further fifth mysterious category beyond these alternatives.


The Middle Way is an epistemological principle, not a principle of logic, and it need offer no challenge to the excluded middle. Indeed, it is quite important that it should not. This is because of the principle of incrementality. The ego needs to develop increasing objectivity through the gradual extension of its identifications. This means that any improved way of understanding the objects of our experience needs to be continuous with what went before. We cannot suddenly leap from the logical dualism of the excluded middle to a world in which objects have no clear distinction from one another. Even if it is true in some sense that all things are ultimately interconnected, and that some alternative logic could more adequately reflect this, this is of no relevance to our experience and how we deal with it. We cannot make use of a logic which is discontinuous from our experience.


The normative value of incremental objectivity instead demands that we refine our current use of logic so as to reduce our delusive oversimplification of the world we experience. For example, we might crudely think of some people as kind and other people as cruel. In order to get beyond the delusions imposed by that dichotomy, we need to incrementalise by thinking of some people as relatively kinder than others. This does not involve giving up the logical principle that some people are “kind” (in whatever way we define “kind”) and others are “not kind” if they are outside the former category. The same would apply to any point along the spectrum of kindness and cruelty. If a given person is “50% kind & 50% cruel” halfway along the line, anyone else not in that category will be “not (50% kind and 50% cruel)”. It is an epistemological and moral advance, not a logical one, to recognise that a spectrum provides a model that more closely reflects reality (in the sense of moving beyond our previous limitations), and to use a spectrum of kindness rather than a dichotomy of kind vs cruel as the basis of judgement. Aristotelian logic accommodates shades of grey between black and white, whilst acknowledging that all those shades are either black or not black and either white or not white.


Aristotelian logic is also essential to any kind of moral outlook, because moral judgements involve a mental snapshot of our environment that is assumed to be accurate at the time we take it. We can try to make that snapshot as accurate as we can, but we cannot endlessly defer judgement so as to get it perfect. In that snapshot, some things must be assumed to be the case and others not. This cannot be done without the excluded middle. We cannot make a judgement which is the basis of action on any other kind of logic, otherwise we would have no idea who or what it is we are acting upon and what effects our action would have. Those who have advocated alternative logics have only done so by completely ignoring ethics, because they are unable to explain how such alternative logic could improve our ethics.   


Thus logical dualism needs to be accepted, though epistemological and moral dualism does not. Both Western and Buddhist philosophies have often made the mistake of assuming that the two are indissolubly connected, just as they have assumed that the self is the ego. Hume influentially thought that the rules of logic support the fact-value distinction, and that it is a logical mistake to derive an “ought” from an “is”. But the fact-value distinction is founded on epistemological errors about the respective ways that facts and values can be justified, assuming that facts can be justified in a way that values cannot, and ignoring the relationship of each to our experience, where each depends upon the other. There is nothing invalid about Hume’s logic: it is just based on false premises. Buddhist philosophy has also often gone in for the construction of new logics, on the false assumption that the use of such a logic is essential for moral or spiritual objectivity: but this involves a metaphysical appeal to an absolute enlightened perspective where such logic would actually work, and the abandonment of the kind of gradual rational work we can actually engage in.


We do not gain objectivity by abandoning reason in any sense, but rather by extending it, and stretching the psychological identifications it works on, to avoid the probability of reasoning based on over-narrow premises. Any logic is only as good as the premises it starts with, and those premises depend, not on the system of logic we use, but on the levels of habitual objectivity we use when making judgements about the world around us.


Links to related pages


The Middle Way and dialectic


Thesis on the dualism/non-dualism distinction (scroll down to ii)


Thesis on continuity and discontinuity (scroll down to  a.iii & iv)


On incrementality (article written for Buddhist audience)


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