Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Reason and Logic

with 6 comments

Well, I walked right into it, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

First, let me  note that the idea that adhering to reason and logic must mean rejecting the supernatural is a very new one.  It first crops up in the 18th century, and it only becomes automatic in the last sixty or seventy years.

And it still isn’t monolithically automatic even in the West.

When I say the Rig Veda–as far as I’ve read it–rejects reason and logic even as an assumption, I don’t mean it has supernatural elements. 

I mean that it will first relate the creation story as something that comes out of the waters and out of which the gods themselves came.  Then it will relate it as a birth out of one of the gods it just said didn’t exist before the creation at all.  Then there will be a few more, with elements that contradict these two–and all of them wll be presented as “what actually  happened.”

But all of them could not have actually happened.  If one of them  happened, then the rest are by definition untrue, because each of them has elements that cannot be true AT THE SAME TIME as elements in the other stories.

As far as I can tell by the notes and introductions, no attempt was ever made to rationalize these contradictions until Western scholars came in and tried to “make sense” of it, because “making sense” is what we do.

Note the difference here between this and Genesis.  There are two creation accounts in Genesis, one detailed (Adam, Ever, etc) and o ne general (“created them male and female”).  But except for the most tendentious eye, there’s nothing contradictory here.  One is the detailed story, the other is just a note of the event.  In the first case we get the play by play.  In the second we’re just told, well, God created everything, and he created human beings, and they were both male and female.

Or take the case of the set of  hymns I was just reading, the ones  to the God Viruna. 

Viruna is a god closer in nature to gods as we have understood them in the West.  He is a sky god who looks down on men and women and punishes them for their misdeeds–although the misdeeds seem to be things like not doing the ritual right, and the notes point out that prayers asking to be “free of sin” are asking only to be free of the punishment for sin, not to be made righteous or somehow cleansed, as in the Christian tradition.

And all of that would be fine except for this:  sometime between the writing of these hymns and the coming of the British to India, Vicuna pretty much ceased to exist.  His powers and duties were transferred to Siva and Vishnu.  People just stopped praying to him.

As far as I can tell, no explanation for this was ever offered anywhere in the Hindu religious tradition–and, to this day, no explanation is felt to be needed. 

I can’t imagine a Western religious tradition that would put up with something like this–or a Western religious congregation that would, either.  We would demand to know what happened to the god, why he wasn’t operating any more, where these other gods who took his place came from and why they took his place–and on and on and on in the cascade of rational questions that come from the assumption that it is an absolute necessity that even our religions “make sense.”

And, if our religions don’t make sense–if we find that they are contradictory and irrational on the level of internal logic–we assume that that is proof that they must be untrue.  That is why some secularist organizations spend so much time trying to find and prove contradictions in the Bible.

Western fiction has this same quality, even when it references God or the gods, or supernatural events, or nonexistent space colonies or Hobbit and Elf societies somewhere on earth.

Conventionally real or wholly imaginary, we insist that the elements of our fictional worlds make sense.  The internal logic must cohere.  If  your hero is an orphan found abandoned on a mountaintop on page 6 and the middle of seven brothers growing up happily in a large extended family on page 247, you’d better have a solid, rational and plausible explanation for that before the book is over. 

Western readers aren’t going to put up with “both of those things are equally true at the same time and if you don’t get it,  well, that’s why they’re called mysteries.”

In fact, I think the closest we ever got to that kind of non-explanation was in the Catholic explanation of how the Eucharist could be both bread and wine and the real body and blood of Jesus Christ at the same time. 

The explanation required the use of a set of ideas about the nature of the material world that started with Aristotle and depended on him.  Maybe it’s not entirely a coincidence that what came right before the Reformation was the discarding of just those assumptions by Renaissance scientists with new ideas about the nature of the physical world.

To this day, Catholic explanations about how the Eucharist can be botn bread and wine and body and blood are solidly Aristotelian, through Thomas Aquinas.  They have to be.  Without those categories and assumptions,  it is impossible to make the doctrine make sense.

As to music and art–I don’t know enough about either in any technical sense to address this directly.

But I will note something that I think is more important to my argument than whether Jackson Pollock’s paintings use reason or logic, or whether a Bach sonata does.

No matter how patently illogical or even objectively irrational a work of art may be, it will be accompanied by reams of prose–reviews, explications, textbook sections–that determinedly and sometimes incessantly try to make it make sense. 

These efforts are sometimes good and sometimes bad.  They’re successful and unsuccessful.

They all speak to the Western need to impose logic and order on everything,

It doesn’t matter, either, that sometimes when we try to impose logic and reason we end up imposing bad logic and worse reason.

It’s the imperative–make it logical!  make it rational!–that matters, because not every culture has it.

I think that may be why my first attempt to explain this didn’t entirely succeed.

We’re use to the “must fit logic and reason” imperative that we are to it the way a fish is said to be about water–

It is so much a given, we don’t even know it’s there.

Oh, and as an afternote?

I’m with Mique.  I love Pollock.

Written by janeh

June 5th, 2013 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Reason and Logic'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Reason and Logic'.

  1. I love Pollock too. Once I had a friend who painted houses for a living, so I had him paint my bathroom with an off-white base coat, and then take about 8 quarts of various colors and “go all Pollock in there.” The landlord, when he saw it, Was Not Amused. But I loved it.

    Word of advice, though. Don’t let your painter start with the red, and if he does, don’t look at it at that stage. Looked like he’d been slaughtering small animals in there. What I love about Pollock is the energy and the expression of the artist’s intention and movement that has to be detected from the spots & streaks that result. Kind of a forensic art. ;)

    As to the fish in water thing, I was once told that when Santa visited my son’s daycare, when he was about three, he had sat on Santa’s lap and questioned him very closely about exactly HOW Santa got down those chimneys. Three, and he’s trying to make sense of absolute nonsense, so yes, it pervades our culture.

    I think the last time we had any amount of popular culture that wasn’t required to make sense, there was a lot of LSD use going on. Unless you’re in an altered state (or your audience is) illogic is going to lose you your target market.


    5 Jun 13 at 11:33 am

  2. OK, in literature, about all the Western material excluded would be political tracts, and the transcripts of the odd Presidential press conference. (Maybe some recent novels, but they feel like political tracts anyway.)

    On Pollock, I’m going to cry foul. We were not discussing the aesthetics, but the Canon, reason and logic as applied to visual art. I can admire driftwood, a sunset or Monument Valley, but they are not products of reason. If the “reason and logic” requirement doesn’t exclude art created by elephants, monkeys and splatter machines, what does it exclude?

    I notice no one is explaining the music.


    5 Jun 13 at 4:32 pm

  3. I thought Jane was saying westerners tend to apply reason and logic to all experiences, not that they can only create using reason and logic. So it doesn’t matter whether piece of music is created from an outpouring of emotion or a more analytical process – if it’s at all popular, sooner or later someone is going to try to explain its popularity in a more less logical way – perhaps there’s a theory that humans have an innate tendency to respond to particular sounds that might explain it, or even some theory about the reason the psychosexual development of females makes a certain type of boy band very appealing to females of a certain age.

    What most people don’t do is think ‘this is music and some people like it’ and stop there. They try to figure out reasons why people like this particular piece or type of music – or sometimes they come up with more or less rational reasons why it’s not really music at all, but just noise, based on a theory of just what constitutes music.

    Not everyone does this sort of thing, and not everyone who does it comes up with a really well-thought-out theory. But a lot of us want to figure out the ‘why’ of something. I’m not sure if this is entirely absent in non-western cultures, but the drive to find reasons for things, including the pieces of a plot in a story and the parts of a picture and the msuical notes, is very strong in our culture.


    5 Jun 13 at 6:22 pm

  4. I was struck by Jane’s comments about the God Varuna and that there was no explanation of why he disappeared.

    The mainstream Protestant churches seem to be doing something similar. All of the sudden, marriage is no longer between men and women and same sex marriages are allowed. I’m not religious but that complete turn around in a few years leaves me completely confused. At least the Roman Catholic church is sticking to logic and custom!


    5 Jun 13 at 7:21 pm

  5. jd, I AM religious–and mainstream Protestant–and you’re spot on. This is what happens when the “leadership” spends its time chasing culturally fashionable trends at the expense of scripture and tradition. And observe the consequent falling-off of membership and attendance. If the real source of authority is the New York Times or the Washington Post, why bother with the Council of Bishops? If some of these churches were cars, the bumper stickers would read “Don’t follow me: I’m lost too.”

    Pollock. I note the clarification that it’s the commentary on the art and music which must reflect logic and reason. I don’t know what to do with that. Beyond just gushing, what other sort of commentary would there be?


    5 Jun 13 at 9:00 pm

  6. “Beyond just gushing, what other sort of commentary would there be?”

    Who knows? Much gushing has been done about Blue Poles over the years and I’m still none the wiser.

    Picture the scene. A large hall with an entire wall dedicated to one enormous colourful canvas. Whatever else it might be for other observers, for me it is something that just draws me in. I can sit for a very long time seeing everything yet seeing nothing, lost in whatever thought comes to mind or to no thought at all. Some days I just look for the cigarette butt(s) and other detritus supposedly included. Other days, I look for nothing. But the effect is the same no matter how I come at the thing. I simply disappear into it.

    I can explain it no better than that.


    5 Jun 13 at 11:23 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 181 access attempts in the last 7 days.