Aristotle and logical systems

The world we live in is a fundamentally illogical place. Things happen all the time, and no explanations are ever given. Dogs, cats, and all the other animals seem to be mostly okay with this state of affairs. However, we humans insist on imposing a logical structure on the world. We need to know why things happened and what caused what. Or, more specifically, we need an answer for why things happened which satisfies us, even if that answer might not be the correct answer.

In our relentless search for answers to life’s unanswerable questions, we are following in the tradition of Aristotle. Aristotle was a student of Plato, who was a student of Socrates, who I’ve talked about. Aristotle took Socrates’s system of questioning about the world, formalized it in the world’s first (mostly) complete logical system, and applied it to everything.

Just as Socrates had his tool in the Socratic method, Aristotle had his tool in the “syllogism”. The syllogism is a way of expressing a logical relation. You start off with a proposition, like “all dogs are animals”. Then you add another proposition, adding new information to what you introduced in the first proposition: “all animals have four legs”. Then you conclude “all dogs have four legs”. If the two propositions are true, the conclusion has to be true, and you’ve successfully formed a syllogism.

Notice, however, that these propositions aren’t necessarily true. The second proposition stated all animals have four legs, but kangaroos don’t. They don’t even have to make sense. Instead of “dogs”, I could have used the word “pancakes”, and I’d end up concluding “all pancakes have four legs”. It’d still be a valid syllogism, but complete nonsense in terms of the real world.

Aristotle knew this, but he was too excited by his new tool to be overly concerned. As long as he could come up with propositions, he could categorize the world and make it make sense to him. He categorized the elements of the earth, the animals, the plants, the stars, and basically everything else he could see. Everything in a category was defined and bounded by its syllogisms, and it was all perfectly logical. Unfortunately, it didn’t always actually apply to what was in the real world, or even what was obvious, like when Aristotle claimed that men have more teeth than women.

Nevertheless, this was a powerful new tool to be used. The human desire for things to make sense was satisfied. In fact, syllogisms were so powerful, and categories so useful, that Western science itself proceeded solely under the Aristotelian umbrella until about 2000 years after Aristotle’s death. Even during Shakespeare’s time, men were still confidently citing Aristotle as the utmost authority on all matters science.

Now we have better methods and better ideas about what science should be, which I’ll cover in later essays. But for now I want to talk about this powerful idea from Aristotle, which is the creation of logical categories. Aristotle knew that with his method, he could divide up the world. For instance, he could divide the world into living and non-living, then living into animals and plants, then animals into large animals and insects, and large animals into birds, lizards, and mammals. Then, he could make sweeping inferences, and back them up logically. For instance, if he could conclude that all living things die, then he knew that any animal or insect he came across would also eventually die, even if he knew nothing else about the animal or insect.

This also meant that he could assume causes about the world. For instance, he made the universal rule that everything has a natural place that it will always return to. Then, when it came to the specific question of why birds fly and turtles don’t, he could say that the natural place of a bird is in the sky, and the natural place of a turtle is on the ground or in the water. This isn’t a scientific or “true” explanation of flight, but it makes sense, which is more than his contemporaries could say.

Today, we use these logical categories for all sorts of things. For instance, if we carefully come up with the scientific observation that all bees sting, then, when we come across a new bee, we know it stings. If it doesn’t sting, then it’s not in the category of “bee”, and the other assumptions that come with the category (e.g. flight) do not apply. Or, in poetry, we might say that all Shakespeare’s poetry falls into the meter category of “iambic”. Therefore, given that all “iambic” poetry is easy to remember, we can say that all of Shakespeare’s poetry was written to be easy to remember.

There’s one particularly interesting example of how we are following in Aristotle’s footsteps that I want to explore in depth. It’s in what you’re looking at right now, and what I’m typing on. Your computer is an object completely within Aristotle’s paradigm, even though it was created about 2300 years after Aristotle’s death.

You may be wondering how this is. Well, have you ever thought how amazing it is that computers are so easy to use? You click on icons to open them, then click on buttons on your screen to get your computer to perform functions. Sometimes, if the computer’s not sure what you want to happen, it’ll give you a range of buttons to choose from after you click the first one. This is all logical, and it makes a well-designed program, and your computer as a whole, easy to use.

But it’s all completely artificial. Your computer is an incredibly complex mix of silicon, metal, and rare earths. In order for your computer to perform an action, it has to translate whatever you want into language that it can understand, and then uses that language to set minuscule and sometimes microscopic machinery whirring away at top speeds. In order for this to be a pleasant experience for you, the end user, the computer has to make sure that it almost always interprets your desires in the right way, and that it almost always performs its tasks reliably and efficiently.

In short, the version of the computer that you and I see and interact with, and that we think of as the “computer”, is just a very logical structure built on top of a beautifully engineered mess. Even if you’ve never used a program or a certain computer before, it still makes sense to you, because it was designed to make sense to you. Different buttons and functions fit into the categories of what you already know, so, for example, “copy and paste” works the same in Facebook, Google Docs, and Microsoft Word, even though these are different programs, made by different companies, which have to perform very very different operations to translate that into language the computer can understand.

Syllogisms, categories, and a world that makes sense to us, the human. This is the legacy which Aristotle left us. He didn’t leave us a way to actually understand the world, but he left us a way to make it make sense to us. We’d need others to show us how to gain true knowledge about the world, and I’ll talk about that subject in my next essay.

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