The Positives and Negatives of Human Thought
Human thought, and thus the human world, is dominated by pairs of opposites. It is often useful to think of these opposites in terms of positive and negative. Good is positive, while bad is negative. Happy is positive, while sad is negative. Being is positive, while non-being is negative. Full is positive, while empty is negative.
Notice that “positive” does not always mean happy or good and “negative” does not always mean sad or bad. When we say “order” and “chaos”, closure (stability) sounds good and openness (instability) sounds bad. However, when we say “freedom” and “restraint”, openness (unconstrained) sounds good and closure (constrained) sounds bad. When we want stability or order, openness is bad (“chaos”). When we want to be free and unconstrained, openness is good (“freedom”). A person, place or thing can be positive in some ways and negative in others. It depends on context, position and location. In many ways, places and times, happiness and solidity are good and in others they are bad.
No particular thing is perfectly good or completely solid. We judge a table to be simply solid and the space around it to be simply empty, but no table is immortal or unbreakable, and no space is a perfect vacuum. Even outer space is full of dust, light and everything else in the universe. In the same way, particular things that are good or make us happy do not always make us happy and do not make everyone happy. Often, things that make one person happy continue to make another unhappy because they make the first person happy.
Human belief/judgment has its own special pairs of opposites. The most basic is belief (positive) and doubt (negative). Belief is an answer or answering, and doubt is a question or questioning. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming the institution (often looking to the stability and consistency of the past) while progressives lean towards doubting and questioning the institution (often looking to the openness and change of the future). In systems of thought, dogmatists lean towards answers and affirming the truths of the system (“There are certain facts, morals and truths.”) while skeptics lean towards questions and doubting the truths of the system (“Are there certain facts, morals and truths?”). According to Hegel, one of my favorite philosophers, human thought is an endless battle between dogmatism and skepticism. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both sides.
When we look at the history of human thought, from its origins in shamanism to its evolution and specialization with religion, philosophy, art and science, we can see that both dogmatism and skepticism play necessary roles. Without a base that is assumed and unquestioned, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances. The great thinkers in human thought, across all systems, incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have to question the very system that they stand for. In the earliest cultures, and then in ancient India, Greece and China, dogmatic logicians tried to demonstrate how to argue rationally for absolutely certain truths while more skeptical thinkers tried to demonstrate that no truth is unquestionable or absolute.
Many unfortunately believe that philosophy was born in ancient Greece, when in fact wisdom is universal to human kind even though it is difficult to achieve. The wise, though rarer than we would like, have been celebrated in all cultures, and their wisdom has similarity across all cultures even though their beliefs can differ widely. While the word ‘philosophy’ is an ancient Greek word, great thinkers and questioners can be called philosophers and sages in any culture.
Consider the following passage from Euclid in the Rainforest (first published in 2006) by Mazur, a professor of Logic and Mathematics. I like much about this work, which examines how logic and math require not only deductive rule following but individual leaps of intuition and interpretation. Keep in mind that “Western” is a recent word that has replaced “European race” only within the last century:
Sometime early in the sixth century B.C., two things happened to dramatically alter the way Western civilization explained the world. The first was the use of cause and effect, as opposed to the supernatural in explaining natural phenomena; we might say that nature was first discovered then. The second was the practice of rational criticism and debate. These fresh developments occurred after a time of great political upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean, which led to profound changes in the political structures of Greek cities. Democracy in Athens meant that citizens could participate in government and law, freely debating and questioning political ideas. Before the establishment of the Greek city state, a change in rule usually meant merely a change from one tyrant to another.
This is the sort of view that is orthodox in academics today, and one I love to hate. Many claim that the Greeks invented or discovered nature, explaining things through material cause and effect, rational criticism and debate, Democracy, and questioning political ideas. This is odd, considering the democratic assembly of Athens, put Socrates to death for encouraging the youth to question truth, tradition and politics.
Let us carefully work through this, point by point. First, cause and effect are basic to human explanation, whether that explanation could be called supernatural or natural. The spirits and gods were thought to cause things, they were considered part of the natural world and made of fire as was the individual soul or mind, and most ancient Greek thinkers, including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all believed in polytheistic gods even as they pushed towards a more monotheistic/monistic cosmos beyond the many gods which is why Plato and Aristotle were, even though polytheists, revered and brought to us by the Islamic and Christian traditions. Doing Logic was largely doing Aristotle to many of the Islamic and Christian logicians we will study in this class, though others questioned Aristotle.
Second, rational criticism and debate are basic to human cultures. Athens was the only temporary democracy in ancient Greece, so it was not a profound change to the structure of the Greek city state nor was it established with the Greek city state, as there were several. During most of ancient Greek history, change in rule was merely a change from one tyrant to another. As far as democracy being invented in Athens, in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh we can see that king Gilgamesh wants a war, so he goes to the higher senate, composed of the rich elites like Athenian democracy, and they reject his proposal, so he then appeals to the lower house composed of lesser but a greater number of elites, who accept and help him to override the consensus of the senate. In African villages, we can see everyone sitting down and men and women standing one at a time and airing their grievances, and then the chief makes a decision based on the debate. The brief period of Athenian democracy was not categorically free debate, nor was previous politics categorical tyranny. Individual and group decision making are found in complex arrangements in all cultures, including the earliest and most primitive, ancient Athens, and our America today.
It should also be mentioned that philosophers were not welcome in ancient Greece as they questioned the ways of things (traditional polytheism) and as such Socrates was put to death for “inciting the youth to riot”, Aristotle was chased out of Athens after the death of his student Alexander (a foreign Macedonian who conquered Athens by the sword, Aristotle being an unwelcome foreigner from Strageira in Athens himself), and Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher, complains that his city state Ephesus exiled their best thinker for questioning things and it would be best if all Ephesians went and hanged themselves to leave the city in the abler hands of children.
In ancient India, Greece and China, logic was studied as a method of debate to win arguments and determine truth. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) in Greece and Akshapada Gotama (second century BCE) in India trained students to use strong forms of argument and recognize common fallacies, showing them the strengths and weaknesses of human reasoning. Ancient Chinese logicians such as Hui Shi (380 – 305 BCE) and Gongsun Long (325 – 250 BCE) had similar relevant insights. While all of these ancient teachings are still useful for us today, they were not yet developed into the formal mathematical system which is taught as modern logic. During the golden age of Islamic philosophy (750 – 1250 CE), mathematicians and logicians brought together systems from ancient Egypt, Persia, India and Greece to create algebra. Then in modern Western Europe, logicians such as George Boole (1815 – 1864 CE), Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970 CE) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951 CE) systematized the basics of modern formal logic as an algebraic mathematical system.
Reason in the Earliest Human Cultures
Let us look at Rational Mastery by Man of his Surroundings by Malinowski, who lived with and studied the tribes of Papua New Guinea as an anthropologist. Unfortunately, he uses the word “savages” throughout the article, as it was written in the 1940s when a primitive and savage tribe known as Americans were just rising to dominance. Thankfully, Malinowski asks if we should continue to assume that primitive tribes are irrational and illogical, and he argues that they are, contrary to popular and academic orthodox opinion, rational and logical. This would mean that they argue systematically amongst themselves, just like the ancient Greeks and ourselves. Malinowski argues this based on three observations.
First, all cultures, including the basic cultures of New Guinea tribes, have words for whole and part (being/existence and substance/attribute/quality), cause and effect, and if and then. These are the terms and concepts of ancient Greek Logic (Aristotle) and modern European Logic (Wittgenstein). This suggests that logic and reason are basic to the human mind, language and culture. While it is often asserted that the ancient Greeks turned toward material causation and hypothesis, these are also basic to humanity. If a bush rustles, one may suspect that there is, hypothetically, an all-too-material tiger lurking behind it. One may investigate, and hopefully one will discover that, contrary to the previous hypothetical theory, it is merely one’s all-too-material fellow tribes-member and friend Bob. If however, hypothetically, one finds a tiger in material fact, aforementioned tiger may cause the effect of one’s death. Whether or not spirits or gods are involved or what materials compose them seems irrelevant to the material matter.
Second, there is a basic difference between the everyday, safe and known practices and the special, dangerous and unknown practices of the tribes people. This can be described as the difference between the practical and the theoretical. Malinowski uses the example of shallow and deep sea fishing. When fishing in shallow seas, or glancing behind bushes for tigers, no theory, ritual or magic is required, but when fishing in deep water the tribe gets theoretical and brings in a system of thought involving rituals and “magic” to influence their outcomes. When one is building a fishhook, one does not call on the gods or spirits. When one is asking for fertile crops for the year, one calls on gods and spirits with ritualized activity. In a similar way, one does not need philosophy, logic or science when one is opening a door. However, if one is designing a door no one has invented before, one needs to bring theoretical systems for understanding the unknown. “Science” literally means “seeing” or “cutting into many” in Latin (Sciencia), a culture of thought and theory that looks into the unknown from the base of the practical. Likewise, “Logic” literally means “speaking” in ancient Greek (Logia), as Logic was the art of debate, speaking and arguing well about the unknown.
If you ask what would happen if one did not use the theory and rituals, no one could tell you because they have never tried it. However, if you suggested that ritual and magic alone will grow crops without farming and practical work the tribes people would laugh at you. Thus, the theoretical is an extension of the practical into the unknown and the two are always building on each other. Tribes people do not believe in magic such that rationality is excluded. Rather, theoretical systems like magic and science are extensions of rationality and logic into the realms of the unknown that concern this life on earth.
Third, tribes people do not all share the same views and beliefs within the cultural system, but rather humans display individual as well as collective thought, just as ancient Greeks shared traditional views but debated amongst themselves rationally. Most think that we are the individualistic and earlier civilizations did not question their systems. This is true to a degree due to technology and new complexes of culture, but tribes people disagree with one another within a cultural system. One good example is a person thinks their failure means they are cursed by an evil spirit, while their neighbor argues with them and says they are just stupid and clumsy. Another is when you bring the elders of a tribe into the same place and ask the meaning of a shared legend, they often get into a debate about it. Thus, a theoretical system allows for debate and progressive understandings, including early “magical” systems and later “scientific” systems.
If all this is true and humans have always been logical and rational, why is science so successful and powerful? What makes science different from earlier systems? In early and ancient cultures, religion, physics and psychology were all one theoretical system (often referred to today as cosmology). Particularly as Islamic and European civilizations rose, technology and education meant many specialized equipment and areas of study. While the theoretical systems have always observed the natural world and this life we live, observation was increasingly supplemented and supported by experimentation. Today, we have many cultures of experimentation that are powerful at expanding and overturning our views. However, as already noted, humans have always been experimenting, changing and evolving.
Gmelch, the author of the article Baseball Superstition, says he is taking Malinowski’s distinction of shallow fishing and deep sea fishing and applying it to superstitions of modern day baseball players. Baseball players are modern day human beings who are raised in a “scientific” culture, but they show the same differences in behavior as the tribes people when it comes to theorizing and the unknown.
In baseball, there is a great difference between fielding and hitting/pitching. Fielding is successful 9 times out of 10, and so it is not dangerous or risky. Hitting and pitching, however, are quite risky. There is far less chance of success, and success does not guarantee winning the game overall. What do we observe? Baseball players come up with superstitious practices that follow basic cause-effect reasoning regarding their pre-game behaviors and their performance in hitting and pitching but not in fielding. A pitcher or slugger will, for instance, eat two chili dogs the night before every big game to pitch or hit well, but fielders do not. While we may not consider these superstitions “scientific”, we can see that theory grows in the gap of the unknown and it follows the basic mechanisms of logic (hypothetical reasoning of cause to effect). Again, it seems that reason and logic are basic to human culture and language, and they extend from the observable and practical into the unknown and theoretical.
Final Question: Is following a cultural system more rational or logical than questioning or changing it? Both are in fact reasonable and logical. Belief and doubt, positivism and skepticism, are in constant tension in all societies. If human beings are always rational and logical because this is the way that thinking works naturally, then humans are rational and logical when they conform to their systems and when they question their systems.
The great Dada art movement’s manifesto writer Tzara said that we must have the courage to stand for and against thought. If one loves ancient culture but hates modern culture or loves modern culture and hates ancient culture, one is standing for and against human thinking and logic in either case.