Category Archives: logic

The Hidden Structure of Tibetan Syllogistic Logic

The next section of Rinpoche’s book is the heart of why the book is so useful. Rinpoche gives us a logic sequence that we can use as a template to read any logic book:

Consider sound (dra, sgra),
It is changing (mi-tak-pa, mi rtag pa),
Because it is produced (che-pa, byas pa).

So a couple of important things here: first, I am going to translate the Tibetan word mi-tak-pa (mi rtag pa) as “changing,” rather than “impermanent” (as it is in the book), because, to be honest, impermanent is not an accurate translation. The definition of mi-tak-pa is momentary, changing from moment to moment; this is not the same as impermanent, which means here now and gone later, because, for example, there are unchanging things (tak-pa, rtag pa) that come and go, because changing things (you, smoke, a pot) can have unchanging characteristics (smoke is black, a pot has no quality of being a pot from its own side) that are not true when the object that possesses them is destroyed (when the smoke dissipates it is no longer black, when the pot is destroyed it doesn’t exist, so it no longer can have the quality of not possessing its own identity). Okay, some of that may sound tricky, and I’ll come back to it, but for now, just understand that changing and impermanent are not synonyms (don-chik, don gcig).

More importantly, we should discuss why we should learn this. As we said previously, logic is the magic key that opens our understanding of reality, because it is how we verify the truth of things that we cannot see directly. But to understand Tibetan logic, we have to know how to form and test syllogisms.

Syllogisms in Tibetan logic have three parts: a subject, an assertion, and a reason. The definition of reason in Tibetan logic is “anything put forth as a reason.” So I could say:

Consider sound,
It is changing,
Because I like monkeys.

“I like monkeys” is the reason, because I put it in the spot where a reason goes in a syllogism. So obviously “I like monkeys” is not a good reason for believing sound is changing. So how do we determine if a reason is true or false? We have to run the three tests.

Tibetan logic argues that if a syllogism passes the three tests (we’ll discuss it later), then it must be true. So let’s run the three tests:

Test #1 (1 & 3): is there a connection between the subject and the reason? So here: (1) “Consider sound, (2) it’s changing, (3) because it’s made.” Is there a relationship between (1) sound and (3) being made? In other words, is sound something that’s made? Yes.

Test #2 (if 3 is true, 2 must be true): if the (3) reason is true, then the (2) assertion must always be true. In our example above, if something is made must it be changing? Yes.

Test #3 (if not 2, not 3): if the (2) assertion is negated, does that also negate the (3) reason? For example, if something is not changing (unchanging), must it also not be made? (For example space, which cannot be made.) Yes.

So because it passes all three tests, this syllogism is true. Again, for more information please see my book, but this is the core of what you need to understand to practice Tibetan logic. If you understand how to form a syllogism and how to run the three tests, you can read and understand any (translated) Tibetan logic problem.

So let’s do another one. In Daniel Perdue’s book, Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, he describes one of the first debates Tibetan monks learn in the monastery (102). It’s ostensibly a debate about color (really its not), but it goes:

Consider a white religious object,
It is red,
Because it is a color.

It sounds silly, but it is true? I don’t know, we have to run the tests and check:

Test #1 (1 & 3): is there a connection between the subject and the reason? So here, is there a relationship between (1) a white religious object and (3) it being a color? In other words, does something white have color? Yes, because white is a color.

Test #2 (if 3 is true, 2 must be true): if the (3) reason is true, then the (2) assertion must always be true. In our example above, if something is a color must it be red? No, of course not.

Test #3 (if not 2, not 3): if the (2) assertion is negated, does that also negate the (3) reason? Therefore, if something is not red, must it also not be a color? No, for example, it could be blue, or green, or any other color than red.

So this syllogism fails tests #2 and #3, and is therefore false.

I’ll explain later why these debates are more important than they seem on the surface, but for now, just understand how to run the three tests, because this system of testing syllogisms holds true for any Tibetan syllogism you will find! Therefore, again, understanding this simple structure is the key to reading any Tibetan logic book.


Pointing the Way to Reasoning

So I have recently been reading the transcription of Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tarchin Rinpoche’s logic course in Pointing the Way to Reasoning (Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press, 2005), and I thought I might write some blog posts on it. Two questions immediately present themselves: “Why logic?” and “Why this book?” I will address the second question here, and return again to the first throughout the posts I will publish on the book.

There are several Tibetan logic books I could have chosen, and they all have plusses and minuses (including mine). However, I think Rinpoche’s book (Rinpoche literally means “precious one,” but in Tibetan is term used to address a Lama who has deliberately reincarnated in order to teach) is one of the most important, because it provides a template for reading any/all logic books. There are five main subjects that are taught to Tibetan monks in the monasteries, and logic (rik-pa, rigs pa), according to Rinpoche, is the most difficult (13). I taught a second-year writing course last term and one of the books I used was Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (2014). The reason this book is useful is that the authors make an argument for and provide templates that can be used to quickly get beginning students understanding and making complex arguments in their writing. Rinpoche’s book is similar in that—right at the beginning with Dialogue One—he gives a template for understanding how to read “collected topics” (du-ra, bsdus grva) textbooks, the introductory logic books that monks study in the monastery. Although there are several, they are all written in this same format, so once you understand how logical arguments are structured in these collections of texts you can read any of them. In order to resist the privileging of the teacher over the student (vis-à-vie Jacques Rancière and his arguments in The Emancipated Spectator) and empower the student’s own learning, I will deliver a heuristic that will enable anyone to read logic texts (at least in translation) for themselves.

This is my way of interpreting the title of Rinpoche’s source text, which is explained in the first pages of his book. I spent two summers studying at Sera Mey monastery in South India in the early 2000s, and they were no longer studying Purbuchok Rinpoche’s text when I was there, but for many years this was the introductory textbook for monks on “collected topics” (meaning an introduction to several beginning Buddhist concepts via logical analysis as a pedagogical tool). Purbuchok Jampa Rinpoche, as the text explains, was a logic tutor to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (the one previous to the Nobel-prize-winning present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso) and wrote a text referred to as the Yongdzin dura. Or, simply, a tutor’s text on introductory subjects, the full title of which is given as the “Magic Key to the Path of Reasoning: A Presentation of the Compendium of Debates, [Types of] Mind, and [Analysis of] Reasons that Discloses the Meaning of the Great Scriptures on Valid Cognition.”

Okay, so that’s a mouthful, but we can break it into more easily understood components. It is often helpful to approach Tibetan translation backwards, because the verb grammatically appears at the end of a Tibetan sentence. Here, it’s not a verb, but the most important word in this title is “valid cognition” (tse-ma, tsad ma) which actually appears first in the Tibetan (although it is translated at the end of the English). Tse-ma is the root of Tibetan epistemology: it means valid cognition or perception and is the basis for what we know exists, because in Tibetan philosophy the definition of an existing thing (chu, chos) is “that which is established by a valid perception” (tse-may drup-pa, tsad ma’i sgrub pa). So if something is real, if it exists, someone must have had a valid perception of it, and conversely, if something cannot be established by a valid perception, it does not exist.

So the stakes are high for this subject: as Rinpoche alludes to in his introduction, if you do not have a valid perception of yourself as possessing some part of you that is unchanging (tak-pa, rtag pa), then you have to face the reality that you are going to get old, get sick, and die, because that is a quality of impermanent, changing things. This is at the heart of what it means to be Buddhist, because birth, old age, sickness, and death are the four sufferings that led the Buddha to leave his life as a prince and seek another path. He had this realization: we are born to die, and the clock is already ticking.

You might say you know that already and don’t need logic to tell you that. But as Rinpoche elaborates (10-12), we don’t know it; that is, we haven’t really thought about this fact and what it means. If we did we would have the realization that life is short, and there is no time to waste. What Rinpoche is outlining in these pages is called death meditation, which relies on three main points:

  • death is certain (we are getting older instant by instead, slowly creeping towards our death)
  • death is uncertain (we don’t know when we will die, it could be today, it could be tomorrow, it could be one-hundred thirty years from now: we just don’t know)
  • Nothing but the Dharma can help

So the point of proving these truths to yourself if not to feel depressed, or morbid, or experience directly what Freud calls the death drive—the point is that if we understand that our time is limited, and we do not know when it will end, we will be more focused on what we really want to do with our time. The Buddhist answer then to this question is to focus on what can really help us, which is the Dharma: the teachings of Buddhism.

So how do we establish that the teachings of Buddhism are true or that they can help us? To do this we need logic, because logic is how we establish the reality of things that we cannot see with our eyes. If the definition of existing is “established by valid perception,” then how can we prove the existence of phenomena or concepts that we cannot see directly with our eyes? According to Buddhist logic, there are two kinds of valid perception: direct and indirect. Direct we can see with our eyes; we say in English, “seeing is believing.” Indirect valid perception however is synonymous with deduction, or logic. If something we cannot see exists, it must be provable through deductive logic. Can we see that we will die? No, that moment exists in a future beyond my present sight. So how do we know that we will die? The truth is, we all think that we will not. We think that doctors will cure us, or that there is medicine that we can buy that will save us. And there might be—for a while. But when will all the doctors and medicine not be enough? It is hard for us to acknowledge this fact. So we have to use logic to help us.

Once we have proven to ourselves that we will die, again, instead of making us feel depressed, what it should do is motivate us to study the Dharma, because the teachings of Buddhism claim to have a solution to the problem of death. This is revealed in what is often translated as the “Four Noble Truths,” a somewhat misleading translation, since “noble” here in English implies aristocratic, but there is no privileging of social birth in Buddhism: being born rich or with high social status does not give access to an easier path. How does having access to money or power help you understand logic? Rinpoche begins his book with a famous quote from an important Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Sakya Pandita [his name means scholar (pandit) of the Sakyas, a famous family of Tibetan Buddhist teachers]: “Those who wish to take it easy and stay comfortably without working / Cannot become scholars at all” (9). Being wealthy or belonging to a privileged class won’t help you: studying logic is hard work.

But there are, as the title of Rinpoche’s source text points towards, “magic keys” (trul-ki de-mik, ‘phrul gi lde mig). What is a “magic key”? Magic key here refers to several things, most importantly how logic is a tool to understanding and unlocking the most important concepts within Buddhist teaching. Again, it explains how to prove to yourself what exists: are the teachings of Buddhism true? If they are not—as you know from your death meditation—you do not have time to waste. There’s no point in studying the teachings of Buddhism if they are not true. So we have to discern for ourselves whether they are true or not, and—because we cannot see the truth of them with our eyes—we must use deductive logic to establish their validity, that these truths exist. And the fastest way to get proficient in the practice of logic is to use the “magic key” given in Rinpoche’s book: the template to understanding the structure of any logic text, which I will explain in my next post.

Proof of Cause and Effect Part One

I get asked often how to logically prove the concept of cause and effect, so I thought I would write some about it.

The basic outline is this: there are three possibilities. Either things are random, God makes everything happen, or results have causes. Often, if we investigate our own minds, what we find is that we are using all three: if something good happens to me it’s cause and effect (I deserve it), if something bad happens things are random (bad luck), and if I really need something I ask a higher power for it.

But these are contradictory, so if you want to be logical, you have to pick one. But the first thing to do is to analyze the situation and see for yourself if you agree with these three categories, to make sure there are not others. To be fair, there are, but if you think about it you’ll be able to fit them into one of these three. For example, the law of attraction is an attempt to describe a kind of cause and effect. Science is either deterministic and therefore another attempt to describe cause and effect or where it gives up (singularities or describing why you got cancer and not someone else) is equivalent to arguing for randomness. But you have to explore this for yourself.

Once you’re okay with the three basic categories, then we start to explore them. The basic framework will be to prove that randomness and “God makes it happen” are illogical, leaving cause and effect as the only reasonable alternative. At that point, then we have to logic out what cause and effect really is.

Okay, so why are things random? Because if they were, you wouldn’t be able to make anything happen. You go to work, raise children, and build relationships with family and friends, because you believe that something will happen as a result of that effort. I tend to use a silly example, but let’s run the tests and see if it’s true or not:

Consider the idea that things are random,

It’s not true,
Because if things were random it could start raining monkeys right now.

True or false? Run the tests: is there a relationship between #1 the subject (randomness) and #3 the reason (if that idea were true it could start raining monkeys). Yes, if things were truly random then at any time it could start raining monkeys. (That would be pretty random, wouldn’t it? Yet fun; I almost wish it was true.) What about test #2: is it true that it must be the case that (#3) because it’s could not start raining monkeys right now, the world is not random? I think so, unless you really believe that it could start raining monkeys. Test #3: if things were random, would that mean that it could start raining monkeys? Yes, if there were no cause and effect, if things were truly random, then at any moment it could start raining monkeys. Or you could turn into a monkey, a monkey could turn into you, or the moon could turn into a monkey, or any number of wonderful, yet impossible, monkey scenarios could happen.

If you don’t think that’s possible, then you don’t really believe things are random, or as we say colloquially, “sh!t happens.” Sh!t does not just happen; if sh!t happens it’s because there is a cause for it.

And if you don’t believe that, I have a monkey umbrella I can sell you.

Dream pens

I was discussing with a friend today the problem of dream pens. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are generally recognized four Indian schools of Buddhist thought: Vaibhāṣika (Detailist), Sautrāntika (Sutrist), Cittamātra (Mind-Only), and Madhyamaka (Middle-way, which has two sub-schools, Consequence and Independent). Madhyamaka Prasangika view is that all phenomena are dependently-arising and thus empty of inherent existence.

Sure, that sounds fine, say the Detailists. But you have a problem: what, in your philosophy, is the difference between a real pen and the dream of a pen? If, for example, I dream that I write a letter with my pen and leave it on my desk, when I get up will there be a letter there?

No, of course not. So then there must be something real (inherently existing) about the real pen, because I can write a letter with that pen. So:

Consider a dream pen,
I can’t write with it,
Because when I wake up it doesn’t work.

True or false?

So, the only way to know is to run the three tests. Test #1: Is there a relationship between #1 (the subject) and #3 (the reason)? Well, it looks like it: when I wake up, it’s true that the dream pen will not have written anything.

But think carefully, is that what a dream pen is supposed to do? In other words, is the function of a dream pen to write real letters?

Put that way, of course not. The function of a dream pen is only to write letters in a dream. So then is it true that the dream pen didn’t work? No, of course not–it worked exactly as expected: the dream pen wrote a dream letter (which is gone, as I would expect, upon waking).

So the answer is rtags ma grub (tak ma drup): your reason is not established, and this syllogism is not true.

Because the functioning of anything is also (in part) a construct of the mind, dependent on our seeing and thinking of it as we do. Functioning itself has no more inherently existent than any other thing that we can think of.

Myths, Shakespeare, and Circular “logic”

I’m reading a book on Shakespeare called 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare by Oxford scholars Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith. There are a lot of things I could talk about here, and I was going to write a post for my Shakespeare blog, but this one ended up crossing over. The book is an attempt to dispel popular rumors about Shakespeare; for instance, that Shakespeare hated his wife (we actually have no idea) or that he was the most popular dramatist of his day (he was among them, but there were others at the time thought of just as highly).

“Myth” 20 is “The Tempest was Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.” This is a popular idea among Bardolatrists; that as The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play and that as he was writing himself as Prospero. When Prospero gives up magic and breaks his staff, this is Shakespeare symbolically giving up stagecraft. The only problem is, The Tempest wasn’t Shakespeare’s last play (Henry VIII, and perhaps The Winter’s Tale were later) and it’s always dangerous to equate Shakespeare with his characters (there are several myths exposed here).

Great, but why is this post on the logic blog? Because in Myth 20, Great Myths gives us a syllogism. It quotes Edward Dowden, who wrote:

It is rather because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will, his sensitiveness to wrong, his unfaltering justice, and, with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in his latest plays.

Despite the logical fallacy of Dowden’s argument… (30 Great Myths about Shakespeare, Laurie E. Maguire and Emma Smith, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

In response to this, we get:

Dowden’s argument is beautifully circular, even syllogistic. Prospero reminds us of Shakespeare because his character constructs our idea of what Shakespeare must have been like: 1. Prospero is a good guy. 2. Shakespeare is a good guy. 3. Therefore Prospero is Shakespeare. (Or perhaps it is 1, 3, 2; or even 3, 2, 1).

So let’s look at this. First off, I have to quibble: are we equating circular arguments with syllogisms? I don’t think so, but the book is not clear. Let’s assume they are not (I might have written “beautifully syllogistic although circular”). So then let’s look at our syllogism. Is it true? No, just because Shakespeare is a good guy and Prospero is a good guy, that does not necessary make them the same person. That’s ridiculous. So the syllogism is false. Let’s write it out in the Tibetan logical format:

Consider Prospero,
He is Shakespeare,
Because they are both good guys.

True or false? Run the tests… it will fail tests #2 and #3. Just because Prospero is good doesn’t mean he and Shakespeare are the same. An example would be Gandhi; he is good, but he is not Prospero nor Shakespeare.

So let’s look at the circular part, which is more interesting. As a Shakespeare scholar, this is what we have to be on guard against. We assume Shakespeare was a good person; how could he write all that beautiful poetry otherwise? But of course literature gives us many examples of people who wrote important, great works who were not nice people. Supply your own example.

The idea that Prospero is “good” has also been called into question (if you want to say our syllogism fails test #1); he manipulates everyone and is very controlling of his young, vulnerable daughter. Scholars have also pointed out how he treats Caliban is in many ways indicative of colonialism (take up the white man’s burden); post-feminism and post-colonial, how should we interpret him? In modern productions he is often portrayed as a despot.

But assuming Shakespeare was good and Prospero can be interpreted as good, we still have the circular problem. We expect Shakespeare to be good, so we look for a “good” character to equate him to. If Shakespeare is Prospero, is he also Hamlet? Freud might say yes, but then what other characters is he also? And is he not his “bad” characters, even though he wrote them as well?

But the beauty of this circular argument is attractive; we want Shakespeare to be good, so we assume he is good, and then equate him with good characters in his plays. Essentially the syllogism is:

Consider Shakespeare,
I want him to be good,
So he must be representing himself in his good characters.

True or false? Which test would you say this syllogism fails?


A friend of mine recently posted to Facebook what I interpreted as a slightly new-agey version of the serenity prayer: “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change.” As I wrote in that post, I’m not a big fan of that kind of sentiment, because it could be construed as a way of avoiding responsibility. Of course I don’t have to worry about the botched execution in Oklahoma, because there’s nothing I can do about it. What does it matter that two girls were raped and hung from a tree in India? What was I supposed to do about it? I’m a yogi; I sit in my meditation posture practicing contentment every day.

Those are extreme examples of course; you can insert more reasonable ones for yourself. “I don’t need to help my brother; he’s always getting in trouble. I’ve tried to help him before; it doesn’t work. I’m content to watch him suffer.” So I posited this as an addendum to our new-agey slogan to make it more palatable; if we add a time element it becomes, “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change in the present moment.” This I’m okay with, because making substantive change takes time. We can’t end poverty today; racism and persecution are unlikely to end tomorrow. But we can end them. The Buddha said there is an end to old age, sickness, and death. The logic of it is simple: if you accept cause and effect, then there are causes for suffering. Remove the cause, you must remove the result. What can we change? Everything, given time.

Consider suffering,
It can end,
Because it has causes.

True or false? Run the tests. Does suffering have a cause? If suffering has a cause, can it end? If something cannot end, must it not have a cause (is it unchanging)?

And this is not an exclusively Buddhist concept. If you’re Christian, or Muslim, or of any belief system that accepts the existence of heaven, then in principle you accept the possibility of living in a world without suffering. So the question then is, how do we create such a world?

My dictionary defines contentment as “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.” I want lots of things; I want suffering to end, for example. This is a common debate, “Does a Buddha want anything?” Yes, they want an end to suffering. But how they “want” things is different from how we want things. If I want something, I would fight you for it. If a Buddha wants something, they figure out how to give it to others.

Of course, contentment (santosha) as an aspect of the eight limbs of yoga, has a part to play in this discussion. What’s important is to understand where and how it fits in. To start with, not as a way of avoiding responsibility. The brief Wikipedia article on santosha gives two definitions from different sources of discussions on the Yoga Sutra: “not requiring more than you have” and “renunciation of the need to acquire, and thereby [the] elimination of want as an obstacle to moksha [liberation].” So let’s take a look at these.

Consider contentment,
It is an obstacle to enlightenment,
Because enlightenment is something I don’t have.

True or false? Run the tests. Is there a relationship between contentment and things I don’t have? Yes, that’s part of the definition Wikipedia gave me. If enlightenment is something I don’t have, must not wanting it be an obstacle? Maybe it’s some kind of Zen koan, but I would argue overcoming the lack of desire to get enlightened or to get to heaven is the goal of any spiritual practice. Otherwise it’s what you see everyone around you doing; go to work, get old, get sick, die. This is exactly what the Buddha was trying to discover the way out of.

So how do we fix it? Contentment is not “not requiring more than you have” or the “elimination of want.” As we discussed above, Buddhas want things (for you to also get enlightened). Instead, we could define contentment as “not wanting more than what I have created the causes for.” Do I want to get enlightened? Yes, but I haven’t created the causes yet, so I don’t get upset that I’m not there yet. Does that mean I’m not working towards it? No, of course I am. Am I happy that this world is full of poverty and violence? No. But have I created the causes for it to end? No, so I am content. Does that mean I’m not working towards creating those causes? No, I better be doing that, or nothing will change. But I am also content, that creating those causes, I will see that result.

Consider a perfect world,
I will eventually see such a place,
Because I have created the causes for it.

True or false. Run the tests. Then I am content.

“To infinity… and beyond!”

I was teaching a logic class yesterday and the subject of infinity came up. It’s a problem, whenever this happens, because I still don’t have a good definition for infinity. And this is a problem because you can’t debate something if you can’t define it. If we’re debating how many pieces of fruit are on a plate, and you don’t think tomatoes are a fruit, but I do, who is right? Well, we’re both wrong until we agree on a definition for “fruit” (whether to use the scientific or culinary one).

In the same way then, to discuss infinite logically, we have to agree on a definition. Sometimes infinity is just thought to mean a really big number–like a googolplex, but bigger. Mathematically, it is handled as an abstraction (not representative of a real number) and can be divided in different ways. For example, infinity can be either countable or uncountable. Infinity is uncountable if its cardinal number is larger than that of the set of all natural numbers (if it includes negative integers, for example).

This is a useful concept, because in Tibetan Buddhism infinity seems to have different meanings. It is said for example, that living beings are infinite. But living peoples are things, and things can be counted, which would mean that we are talking about a real number (just very big). However, time is also infinite, but can be thought of in discrete (moments) or indiscrete (a non-broken line made up of infinitesimally small points) terms. Time can also be thought of in non-natural terms (the past as negative moments in time going backwards). So what are we to make of the seven step cause and effect method, which tells us that everyone has been our mother, because we have all been reborn over and over through infinite time? Because theoretically, if there are an infinite number of beings, and in each life you have one mother, then infinity minus one still equals infinity. No amount of infinite time will allow you to have been born of an infinite number of beings; in each life into which you have been born there will still be an infinity of beings who have not been your mother.

Mathematics doesn’t give us much help here, the solution to infinity (beings) minus infinity (time) is indeterminate: it could be infinity, zero, or negative infinity (here’s an equation proving the answer is -2), because infinity is defined as a concept and not a number. (I found a nice analogy: what is the value of an apple divided by a cat?)

This is also a problem with regard to getting out of sansara (suffering life). We’re told that everyone gets out of sansara eventually, given infinite time. But logically, this doesn’t make sense: there are an infinite number of sansaric results (rebirth as a hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human, or in a god realm) so again and infinite number of possible results means you could keep spinning in sansara infinitely (one possible result of infinity minus infinity is still infinity).

So let’s look at the first problem as a syllogism:

Consider every living being,
They have been my mother,
Because I have had infinite lives in the past.

True or false? Run the tests. Test #1: is it true that I have had infinite lives in the past in which to experience every living being? Buddhism would say yes. Test #2: if I have had infinite past lives, does that mean that I must have been everyone’s mother?

So I would argue no here, for the reasons above. An infinite amount of past lives would still leave an infinite amount of living beings who have not been your mother. Unless “infinite” here just means a really big number, in which case infinite time could be an infinitely larger number than the infinite number of living beings. In which case all living beings have been your mother an infinite number of times. But the converse could also be true: if there are infinitely more living beings than the infinite amount of your past lives then there will always be an infinite number of people who have not been your mother.

So I’m going to say this syllogism is false. What do you think?

The Logic of “The Ballad of Cliven Bundy”

So I thought, in honor of Stephen Colbert’s promotion, to go over the logic of “The Ballad Cliven Bundy.” Per Stephen Colbert’s report, in a clip Cliven Bundy asserted:

I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.

Colbert formalized this, bless him, into a logical statement:

You can’t pay a government if it doesn’t exist. Especially not with the money that it issued.

Nice. So let’s write it out as a formal syllogism:

1. Consider my grazing fees,
2. I don’t have to pay them,
3. Because the United States government doesn’t exist.

Not bad. Let’s look at it. Does it pass test #1? Okay, if the United States government does not exist, then it wouldn’t make any sense to pay them grazing fees. Right? Of course, you would object: the United States government does exist. Really? Are you sure? Have you seen it lately?

What about test #2? If the United States government does not exist, must it be true that you do not have to pay them? I think that one’s okay too.

So we’re got the makings of a pretty good syllogism here; all we have to do is prove the United States government does not exist.


I imagine Mr. Bundy actually isn’t really saying the government does not exist (although that might be a more interesting debate); I’m expecting he’s saying that said government does not have the right to act as the United States government (I’m guessing he didn’t vote for Obama). So let’s try that. Say you disagree with syllogism #1, because it fails test #1 (the US government, for you, does exist). So you would say to Mr. Bundy, rtags ma grub–your reason is not established (meaning, your syllogism fails test #1).

Okay, so what does Cliven have to do next? The structure of debate is, if the defender (you) says “reason not established,” then the attacker (Cliven) makes a new syllogism: #1 (the subject) stays the same, #3 (the reason) becomes the new #2 (assertion), and then they give a new #3 (reason). So:

1. Consider my grazing fees,
2. It is so true the United States government doesn’t exist,
3. Because I don’t recognize the US government as legitimate.

Okay, what about this one? Test #1: did the government you don’t recognize as legitimate issue you grazing fees? Okay here. Test #2: Is it true that because you don’t recognize something as legitimate, it must not exist? Not bad. If you think that’s not true, what’s your example? Let’s try test #3: If the US government doesn’t not exist, does that mean you must recognize it as legitimate? Okay, well here, I think Cliven is his own example.

But you go Cliven! Beat them with logic.

Poor is ethical?

So my friend Jim asked me to look at this article, 5 Ways the Poor Are More Ethical Than the Rich. So, here goes.

Obviously, this is a loaded subject. The “vanishing” middle class, the percentage of wealth owned by the percentage of wealthy people, the cost of education, crime and punishment, at the cornerstone of all these debates is financial inequity. According to Sociology Professor G. William Domhoff at University of California at Santa Cruz:

In terms of types of financial wealth, the top one percent of households have 35% of all privately held stock, 64.4% of financial securities, and62.4% of business equity. The top ten percent have 81% to 94% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and almost 80% of non-home real estate.

So can we approach these contentious subjects using logic? Of course.

But of course, where you start and how you look at it is going to determine, to a large extent, where we end up. Because, usually, logically, both sides of any contentious issue are going to be wrong.

So let’s look at one side of it. Is it true that, as “many wealthy Americans believe,” “dysfunctional behavior causes poverty”? Well, first, we have to define what “dysfunctional behavior” is. If dysfunctional behavior is defined as borrowing money that you can’t pay back, then many wealthy Americans would be right. Because borrowing money that you can’t pay back is stealing. And stealing is the cause of not having what you need.

If, however, we define dysfunctional behavior as lacking “good character and a strict work ethic” then you’d be half right. As I discuss in my book, hard work is not the cause for financial success. But what do we mean by “good character”? If that means not stealing, then as above. If that means not lying, then maybe here you have a debate. Because, technically speaking, there is no connection between lying and making money.

Consider money,
I will make it,
Because I lie/tell the truth.

Are either of these two syllogisms true? No, both will fail. Why? Because you know people who have told the truth and made money, and you also know people who have lied and made money. So either syllogism will fail tests #2 and #3.

Which is I guess what bothers me about this whole article. I love the conclusion (more on that later), but people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. If you don’t want to see poor people homogenized and stereotyped, then what would be your correct response? Don’t homogenize or stereotype wealthy people. The article starts off with “many wealthy Americans” and then gives their views as if they were all the same. Really? Warren Buffet believes that all poor people lack character and a strict work ethic? Bill Gates thinks the poor don’t care about each other? But I can tell you where stereotyping those you don’t like will get you; you will just see more people stereotyping you.

Consider stereotyping those I don’t like,
I will see more of them,
Because the third result of a mental seed is I will see that thing in my environment.

So how do we fix the wealth inequity in this country? By bashing rich people? Did you honestly think that would ever work? I just wrote about motivating others recently; changing attitudes is not a successful strategy for change. What is? Changing ourselves.

I’m also interested in how the article starts off berating the wealthy and idolizing the poor, but then point #5 is about the “vanishing” middle class and students burdened by college debt. What were we talking about here?

Then we get this whammy: “Lower-income Americans serve our food, care for our sick, and clean up after us, with minimal benefits and few complaints.” My brother is a nurse; he beat my income last year by triple digits. Talk about myths; the average garbage collector, if they work overtime, can make $60k a year. I’m in the wrong business. And few complaints? Hahahahaha. Maybe some of them, but all of them? Does this author even know any poor people?

I’m not saying the sentiment here isn’t correct; of course I agree that we should not judge people in poverty, but should instead look for ways to help them–like, for example, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. But I don’t see how gross generalization, either way, is going to help anything. If I want to approach the subject logically, I should stop trying to blame others and look for a solution myself.

Consider poverty,
I will eradicate it,
Because the third result of giving is that I will see a change in my world.

Myths of Behavior Change

So I was watching (another) Tedx video, this one on the myths of behavior change.

I was watching this and I thought, “maybe I need to become a social scientist.” Why? They’re speaking my language:

You will be the least successful if you let common sense guide you.

Jeni Cross is a sociology professor at Colorado State University and gives us three myths about behavior change that any social scientist knows, but evidently not every advertiser:

1. Education is not a primary motivator to behavior change
2. Changing attitudes is not generally a successful strategy, because attitudes follow behavior (not the other way around)
3. People don’t know what motivates them (asking people what motivates them is generally unsuccessful)

So watch the video for more information and examples, but I want to talk about the first quote, because I wrote about this in my book. What we think of as “common sense” is often false. Of course working hard means that you’ll be more successful. Or here, let’s use Dr. Cross’s example. Of course educating people motivates them to change behavior! If you tell them that 40% of energy consumption occurs in the home, of course they’ll seal their windows to reduce energy consumption.

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),

Because why? One criticism I often hear about logic is that it will eventually fail, because it depends on assumptions. From my perspective, here is a good refutation of that idea. What we’ve done, by writing out what some people would assume is common sense, is identified an assumption. We assume education someone will change their behavior. But why? Why would you think that educating someone would necessarily motivate a change in their behavior? I can guess some of some reasons people might use: “Because education is good,” “Because education is empowering,” or, perhaps being somewhat circular, “Because education motivates behavior.” But does it? Would any of those syllogisms be true?

I think the biggest assumption, and the reason I would use if I were being honest, is “Because people act in their own best interest.” Is that true? Let’s try this one:

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),
Because people act in their own best self-interest.

True or false? Run the tests. Test #1: Is there a connection between education and the best self-interests of people? Well, although it could help people to know about how they are wasting energy, do people really act in their own best self-interests?

If that was true, then we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems we have now, alcoholism and cigarette-smoking being the first two to pop into my mind. Just last night, I ate a Dairy Queen blizzard with cookie dough and Reese’s cups. Was that really in my own best self-interests?

Okay, so if this one fails test #1, how can we fix it? Well, sometimes people act in their own best self-interest:

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),
Because people sometimes act in their own best self-interest.

Okay, so now we pass test #1. But what’s going to happen when we run test #2? Must it be the case, that if sometimes people act in their own best self-interest, it will motivate new behavior? In avoiding failing the first test, we’ve just set ourselves up to fail the second (and third).

So what’s the point? Uncover your assumptions, don’t believe “common sense” arguments are sufficient, and if you want to change your behavior, figure out what the real cause and effect relationship is.