Beyond Good and Evil
By Friedrich Nietzsche
Many months ago, I was walking past the lunch room at work and happened to overhear a discussion between two of my employees (at the time) about who had the more logical position on the topic of God’s existence. The one who happened to be an atheist was suggesting that his was the more logical position, and the one who happened to be a member of a Baptist congregation was explaining why his position was equally logical. Normally, I discourage anyone at work from discussing their religious beliefs or lack thereof in the workplace. Most of the people at my place of employment aren’t very well-read in the area of theistic or non-theistic belief systems and still insist on holding wildly uninformed opinions on topics related to them, so you can imagine how well such discussions usually go. The raised voices and sputtering are good signs that you have that sort of discussion starting.
Something in me decided to join the discussion that day. As some people know, I don’t like to take sides. I like to go in swinging at both parties if at all possible. And so I did. And I made a statement that even I didn’t expect to come out of my mouth. Normally, I like to use the Socratic method to get at definitions first. And I could have done that. I could have asked them what they meant by “logical”? After all, are they talking about being logical in the sense of utilizing a bivalent logic, a multivalent logic, or even fuzzy logic? Are we using a modal or multi-modal logic? Perhaps a hybrid logic or an epistemic logic? Is it classical logic, intuitionistic logic, or a linear logic? Suffice it to say that going that route with the discussion would have lead to a great deal of confusion on both their parts and frustration on my part. I probably would have ended up telling them to actually learn what it means to be logical before bandying the term about like a passel of ninnies. Ok, so I probably wouldn’t have used the passel of ninnies phrase anyway. Who would?
Thankfully, I instinctively made a point that was probably more relevant to their discussion and more likely to get them thinking productively. I suggested that before they started worrying about who was more logical, they might want to consider whether or not being logical is a moral imperative. They were taken back, and understandably so. But the discussion went in a different direction, and so did I. I needed to buy my lunch, and they needed to finish theirs with a discussion somewhat less likely to cause indigestion. It worked out well all the way around.
I’m glad that I didn’t start them on the path of considering the various logics that exist and their properties, because I doubt they’re ready for it. Without the right background, such considerations can quickly lead to an unhealthy skepticism that is described beautifully by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil.
“Thus a skeptic consoles himself; and it is true that he stands in some need of consolation. For skepticism is the most spiritual expression of a certain complex physiological condition that in ordinary language is called nervous exhaustion and sickliness; it always develops when races or classes that have long been separated are crossed suddenly and decisively. … This disease enjoys the most beautiful pomp- and lie-costumes; and most of what today displays itself in the showcases, for example, as “objectivity,” “being scientific,” “l’art pour l’art,” “pure knowledge, free of will,” is merely dressed-up skepticism and paralysis of the will: for this diagnosis of the European sickness I vouch.”
But let’s get back to the central issue. Why do so many people in our culture want to be logical? What’s the value of being logical? Is it a virtue to be logical, like being honest or charitable is virtuous?
On a personal level, I see a great deal of practical value in the use of logics. There are many wonderful applications of it in the field of computing, for example. It can also help people filter out some unhealthy thought processes in which they are engaging, or aid critical thinking by eliminating some kinds of fallacies. I don’t think using any logic leads to true conclusions about our world, which seems to be the assumption of many people these days. In fact, I think the nature of logic precludes its use for such a purpose. I see logic as an intellectual tool that can be used for good or evil, depending on our axioms. I don’t see its use as intrinsically virtuous at all, just as I would not see the use of a hammer as intrinsically virtuous. But enough about what I think.
Do you think that being logical is worthwhile? If so, what does “logical” mean to you? And…are you logical?