An Inquiry into What Can Be Deemed the Proper Use of Logic
by Timothy Horgan
Human beings will spend their days consumed in pursuit of rationalisation. They will take in, moment by moment, the stimulus of their external environment, and they will process it against their own inner knowledge to determine the best course of action.
All the while, they will look to subvert against their ambition for logic with the hope of self-expression. Here a human can be thought of as a bird of paradise flaunting its plumes. On one hand there is the hard logic. On the other, the expression, the pointless celebration, the affirmation of life for affirmation’s sake.
Humans find themselves within a material mode of existence: they must gratify their material needs to fulfil their biological purposes. As a part of nature, they must apply hard logic to overcome their environment. Their feet are connected to the ground: they are an animal of the Earth. Their every atom is part of a greater vortex of swirling entropy, and their ultimate purpose is to maintain themselves within this whirlwind of brute force.
All the while, they will yearn for something more. The human being is an animal that has gotten too smart for its own good. People try to extend their view beyond their material reality. They want to overcome the fact that they are animate masses of matter forced to live within an impersonal, mechanical, and amoral Universe. They feel disturbed that their only real purposes are biological: one, to pass on their genes; and two, to maintain their existence on a day-to-day basis.
So it is, people like to make a stand against the banality of material existence: they employ the use of a symbolic self. The symbolic self is man’s protest against his own condition. It is his identity, his faith, his culture, his customs, his boundless imagination. It is his means of making tolerable those cold realities of life. It is his way to make the banal sacred. With its use, he can come to appreciate himself as a child of the pool of life, whose greatest duty is to express his inner feelings of infinitude.
This is the condition of the human being, the Homo Sapien, a being that is not only just a product of nature, but also an expression of the infinite. The condition is fixed, from one environment to the next, and from one time to another.
This being the case, the essay will aim to explore the ways in which a human’s environment will influence its appreciation of its material and symbolic selves. In the spirit of the writing that has come before it, it will inquire into how the struggle for survival may affect a man’s appreciation of his condition.
Indeed, would hunter-gatherer tribesmen and Neolithic peasants appreciate their symbolic states differently from us? We are but folk of the developed world, sheltered from that whirlwind of brute force, from the wrath of nature. We still possess an ultimate material condition, but can nature maintain our awareness of it, at least like how it maintains a peasant’s awareness? And leading on from this, if we come to find ourselves removed from the up close and personal realities of maintaining our existence, will we then have any cause to rebel against the cold nature of the Universe? How can our material life, our working life, the way in which we interact with our environment, how can this influence our symbolic life?
Today in the developed world, many people struggle to find purpose in their work. They equate the action of their forty-hour working week to the rolling of a rock up a hill. They feel as if each successive week comes as that same rock, a rock that had been pushed to the summit as recently as the week prior, but which had been allowed to fall to the bottom upon its closure. They feel grim for the fact that they have to suffer through this apparently meaningless task, in endless week-in week-out repetition for four decades straight. They feel damned like the character of Sisyphus, that hero of ancient Greek myth forced by the Gods to perform the same thing eternally.
Now a peasant of the wild will come to question why he bothers working, and in contrast to the character of Sisyphus, the peasant understands he is rolling his own rock for a very decent reason. Unlike Sisyphus, the peasant is chained to it. If he stops pushing, it will roll backwards and take him down. In this sense, his life is on the line. He is engaged in an authentic narrative of conflict, for he is obliged to work to overcome nature, lest he should want nature to overcome him. The chain on that rock, it forces him to participate in the material mode of existence.
His actions agree with Charles Darwin’s view of life, the idea that life is one big struggle for survival. Of course, when you see a troupe of gorillas in the wild or a flock of seagulls out at sea, you understand that they live and act with a certain gusto, with a real element of purpose. Likewise, if you venture deep into the high steppes of Bolivia, you’ll find a peasantry who aren’t living in a so-called ‘post-modern’ bubble.
An approaching storm will bring genuine trouble for the peasant, and he will be forced by the will of nature to herd his animals to safety, lest he should want them to perish in an onslaught of wind and lightning. Likewise, his hopes for the security of his crops are legitimate: natural disasters spell catastrophe. He knows when he must harvest them too, for if he harvests too early, the yield may not be enough, and if he harvests too late, the quality of his produce may be compromised. Then there is the issue of the seasons, the fact that his efforts toward self-subsistence will only work if they are synchronised with the coming of the rains and the coming of the warmth.
Of course, through all the toil of a life set upon the fringes of existence, the peasant knows that his processes of rationalisation achieve a meaningful end. Such processes get him through his material narrative: at first a problem incubates, a problem that legitimises the narrative because it is based upon terror of death; next the peasant engages with the pains of his environment, and he uses his logic to succeed in his conflict with nature; finally, resolution comes as the peasant fulfils his task. He has rolled his rock to the top of the hill; he can let out a breath of relief. He can gratify the feeling that his work has succeeded to maintain his existence.
Going back to the developed world, it can be seen that a man may spend the entirety of his days trying to justify his action. He knows that he must work to maintain a comfortable position in society, but what follows is that he must think hard about why this is so. Let’s say he is an engineer, spending his working life designing pipes and analysing structures. This is what he thinks about; this is what he does. But these actions and processes of rationalisation link in no way whatsoever to the actions that maintain his life. Instead he supports a machine that in turn supports him.
All the food he gets on the table, the healthcare, the house he lives in, the shirt on his back, the accessories and necessities of domestic life, all those things which actually act to maintain his survival, he cannot hold himself personally responsible for providing them. In most cases, he won’t even know the people that gift him survival at all. He lives in a society of millions, a colony of ants that work for the greater good and feed off the greater good in the process.
There are no material narratives in his life. He is not motivated to work by the wrath of nature, and as such his processes of rationalisation stem from no concrete base of reality. He can’t properly gratify the feeling that his work has succeeded to maintain his existence.
Meanwhile, the peasant lives in an enclosed society of maybe a few hundred, a community that personally gift one another the necessities of survival. He knows exactly who gives what, and he knows why these things are important, for he can see how they help him to get his rock to the top of the hill.
In machine societies, the means of trade are so complex and so far-flung, people put total faith in strange plastic notes, just so they can keep the system working. All that abstract numerology, ‘money’ as people say, that is the only thing connecting a man’s apparently irrelevant workload to the reality of his survival. He pushes a rock up a hill for a machine, and that would probably make sense to him if he was an ant. But the point is that he is not an ant: human beings are supposed to be in close touch with the material realities of nature.
And so this is where the inquiry into logic gains traction. In looking at things from a Darwinian perspective, and in putting the idea of procreation aside, the following question may be posed: ‘If man’s ultimate material purpose is the pursuit of his own survival, can an action be seen as logical only when it is seen to have directly aided this?’
The peasant knows exactly how his action aids him: he sees the logic in pushing his rock. He understands transparently that he works to survive, and he is emotionally connected to his environment. His mind is clear, for the logic behind the maintenance of his material self adds up. Thus he has the confidence to work to maintain his symbolic self on top. Of course, the application of hard logic is both dry and boring. The peasant may know why he pushes his rock, but still he appreciates the fact that it is just work. As such, his impulse for celebrating life comes to be of utmost importance. Life is something he is fighting for, day-in day-out, and as such it is something he wants to live for too. The entertainment of his inner psyche, his own world of myth and lore, this becomes necessary to make life tolerable.
The peasant has an incredibly strong grip on material reality: his narratives of overcoming the terror of death act to gratify the feeling that his work succeeds to maintain his existence. Thus he puts his all into a bid for the symbolic. He feels very strongly about his cultural and religious identities. He puts his faith into the narratives of his religion and he never really questions them. This is because he can appreciate the essential innocence of doing this, the fact that such gropes for irrationality can’t harm his material condition. Thus he knows the narratives that necessitate logic; and he knows the narratives that don’t. Through use of logic, he works hard to maintain his material self; through use of illogic, he works hard to maintain his symbolic self.
And illogic here is the best word. There is no rational reason why, for example, his society has set traditions of dance, or why they have set rules for calligraphy, or why they value some buildings as highly sacred spaces. It’s as though the very use of illogic is what’s important. It is a protest against the banal realities of the material condition, the fact that human processes of rationalisation only achieve two ultimately meaningful things: one, the passing of one’s genes; and two, the maintenance of one’s existence on a day-to-day basis.
Once I witnessed a clear example of the symbolic self at work. It was in Morocco, among a people that were very close in tune with the rhythms of survival. I was in a room, packed out to capacity with hundreds of locals. Their eyes were fixed on a single television set, on a soccer match between the local team and a rival competitor. The way in which they were transfixed by every play of the game, every movement of the ball, it was such a high level of conviction, it unsettled me. And then when their team scored, my God, I can’t even describe the reaction. That was probably the best example of faith I’ve seen. It was truly bizarre. It was just a ball being kicked around a field, but to them, it was more.
Of course, the Moroccans only had the capacity for this because they had the confidence, such was their hard grip on reality. To expect a man of the developed world to push his imagination that far, such an expectation is impossible. His handle on reality is comparatively weak, simply because he has no strong material narratives. He has no idea of how his logic connects him to the material, and as such he is unable to draw a line between what is logically important for survival and what isn’t.
So he is forced to stretch the application of hard logic to a much further extent. He can’t submit to illogical practice because he is uncertain about whether it might harm his material condition. He thinks to himself, ‘To have that much conviction in what is simply a game of soccer, is that not conducive to madness?’ His mind is clouded.
He asks himself, ‘Why do I apply logic? Why do I push the rock up a hill? How does it ultimately benefit me? I can’t say. But then can I not just stop doing this? Well, no. If I do that, I’ll lose my job, and I’ll probably lose my wife and family. If I stop applying logic altogether, I’ll lose my grip on reality. I suppose I can draw the line outside of work hours, and outside of anything else that seems to sensibly maintain my existence within society, but then can I draw it clearly, and will I be able to keep my use of logic within such limits in future situations?’
I myself have questioned whether this is possible. Many examples have raised doubt in my mind, and one in particular concerns the overly tight grip people in machine societies have with money. Of course in such environments, money is the only thing connecting people to the reality of their survival, the singular link between a man’s apparently irrelevant action and the physical necessities that maintain his existence.
So, once when I was living with the Hare Krishna in Ecuador, I had a prime opportunity to contrast a group of peasantry against a group living in the machine. Every week, the Hare Krishna and I would go to the market in the big city and ask its stallholders to donate some produce. We’d systematically go up the rows, banging our bongos and clapping our cymbals, until we had enough food to sustain the twelve of us for the week. What struck me as interesting was the fact that the small-scale stallholders gave significantly more than the larger ones. From the rural peasantry I could bet on an armful or at least a generous handful, and from the richer folk I’d get a carrot or two apples or nothing at all. It seemed bizarre considering that the peasant’s stock constituted a few wheelbarrow loads, and that the richer man’s stock more approximated a truckload. Of course, I wasn’t about to conclude with the idea that the peasants were purer souls. No, it seemed to be the case that the peasants were smart enough to appreciate the triviality of their gestures within the context of their own survival, and that they had deeper beliefs and better pursuits in their life anyway.
It seems that today, developed world man only has the capacity to rationalise, to put his all into the pursuit of hard logic. He lives exclusively for the attainment of superficial, rational benefit. Like some sort of lesser species, he lives only to gratify his material needs.
If he puts more personal time into work, he’ll have more of those funny plastic notes, and if he has more of those funny plastic notes, he’ll have more things. If he imposes safety-focused regulation on his environment, he’ll decrease the chances of bad things happening. If he can impose design codes for the maximum height of play slides, safety warnings for basic thoroughfares at historic tourist sites, bans on rubbish clean-up days on the grounds that rubbish is dangerous, codes and wardens and procedures and drills to protect a building’s occupants from the prospect of fire or terrorism or extra-terrestrials, or even strict protocols to dispose of bakery goods that can’t be sold at the day’s end, he will have made his environment rationally better.
He will go to the effort of physically drilling holes into concrete pavement, so he can insert brass plates to indicate the exact points at which café tables may be placed. He’ll put his all into working out at the gym, and he’ll optimise his diet for protein intake, and as such he will have bigger muscles. He’ll attack any sort of institution that aims to offer tough love, he will aim to make things politically correct, he will minimise the effects of discrimination, and as such he will make his society rationally nicer.
He will optimise his life for the pursuit of pleasure and the evasion of pain, and he will look to fill his days with the maximum amount of stimulation and novelty as possible. He will move his processes of hard logic into those institutions which had been created to celebrate life in the first place, and, for example, he will change around his approach to the training of his soccer players, so that he can destroy their individual styles and eccentricities in pursuit of a suitable mechanisation that will optimise their performance and get them closer to their one ultimate logical goal.
Of course this sort of philosophy doesn’t really exist in places like Morocco, where still the Muslim call to prayer will be heard five times each day, and where still much faith is put into the celebration of life. In Morocco, man’s sense of self is barely evidenced as a result of an over-application of logic for superficial, rational benefit. There the benefit of a certain application of illogic, a faith in wild things; there such benefit resonates in much more profound ways.
And so yes, we Australians may have bigger muscles, and yes we may think that we like to treat one another nicely in terms of political correctness, and yes indeed our environment may be very safe, but really it is the Moroccan who knows how to apply himself in pursuit of something more.
It is the Moroccan who knows how to celebrate his existence, away from the hard logic that maintains his survival on a day-to-day basis. This is the pursuit of the symbolic self, and it encompasses all those things of which cannot offer superficial, rational benefit:
Tango dancers; Buddhist monks deep in meditation; Hindu gurus walking coals; the musician and the poet and the painter; skateboarders who have perfected their art; priests exploring morality in a mass service; Aboriginals doing a corroboree; Krishna devotees digging deep into the complexities of life; shaman evoking spirits; the chefs at your favourite restaurant in town; passionate sports fans; boxers training for the big fight; Chinamen writing calligraphy; bonsai growers who take their art as religion; those who see God and higher intelligence in everything.
This is what it means to become something more. This is what comes as the result of a life that is being lived for, primarily because it is also being fought for. These are the sorts of things carried out by a people that live with purpose. This is what you call an uncompromising faith. …………