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Binary Blues: A Reply to Anne Salmond by Robert Nola

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(A shortened version of this appeared in The University of Auckland University News, July 2021.)

By Emeritus Professor Robert Nola, FRSNZ, Philosophy

I wish to make some comments on issues raised by Professor Dame Anne Salmond in a recent article ‘Iwi vs Kiwi: Beyond the binary’ in University News. They concern criticisms of a binary approach in thinking, the philosopher Descartes as an advocate of binaryism, mythical frameworks and a whakapapa explanation of the world.

Binary. This has become a buzz word with pejorative connotations. Classical logic is said to be binary in that it involves two truth values {true, false}. Ugh, horrors, some might say! Is thinking irrevocably binary?

 Exactly one hundred and one years ago the Polish logical Jan Łukasiewicz published a paper on a non-binary 3-valued logic (represented as {true, false, other} or {1, 0, ½}). Ten years later he and Alfred Tarski published on multi-valued logics for any finite number n. From this work has grown the large field of non-binary logics.

In the 1960s, the Azerbaijani-American mathematician, Lotfi Zadeh, developed a theory of fuzzy sets. In classical binary set theory either an item is a member of a set or is not; in contrast in fuzzy set theory there is a probability as to whether an item is, or is not, in a set. This gives rise to fuzzy logic, a multi-valued logic in which the truth values are associated with probabilities; so, there are an infinite number of values to envisage. This theory can even be used to give an account of degrees of truth!

One should not forget the Russian dissident, Alexander Zinoviev, who as well as writing the satire Yawning Heights on Soviet Society, also wrote on logic, particularly a monograph on multi-valued logics. In 1944 Hans Reichenbach showed that a three-valued logic can solve problems in quantum mechanics.

This international galaxy of non-binaryists contained some New Zealanders. Our most important logician you have never heard of, Arthur Prior, gave a radio talk in 1957 on multi-valued logics. If you did not tune in there is a voice only YouTube version. Prior did important work on how Aristotle, one of the dreaded early binaryists, stopped short of a three-valued logic to solve philosophical problems about future contingent existents; then Prior traced this non-binary view through the work of medieval logicians.

New Zealand’s second most important logician you have never heard of, the late Richard Routley (/Sylvan), told me many years ago that Buddhist logic could have employed a five-valued logic {true, false, both, neither, other}. It looks as if the history of non-binary logic is as old as binary logic itself!

Now that we have a better understanding of standard and non-standard systems of logic, we do not need last century’s binary-phobia. Both binary and non-binary modes of thought can co-exist.

Descartes. René Descartes (1596-1650) comes in for criticism for holding his own version of binaryism: ‘when the first Europeans stepped ashore in Aotearoa, they brought their own mythic framings with them. One of these was Cartesian dualism’. This is the view that there are two distinct substances in the universe, material and mental; human persons are a union between them.

I doubt any of the first Europeans who stepped ashore here had even heard of Descartes let alone his dualism. If they were dualists, it was due to Christianity which, like most religions, postulates a realm of earthly material existence in contrast to a separate realm of the spirit to be encountered after death (if not before as Buddhists and Hindus maintain). Even in the Europe of the time not everyone was a Cartesian; even some atheistic monists beginning to emerge!

Even though he argued for a version of dualism, Descartes did not always accept the Christian formulation and arguments for it. So, he provided his own (which we need not go into). As the commentator Bernard Williams points out, Descartes was constrained in his work by a fear of the kind of criticism that the Church gave of Galileo; but he also had a desire to have his works accepted as a manual of instruction.

The argument ‘Cogito ergo Sum’ was advanced by St Augustine about one thousand years before Descartes revived it.  And dualistic ontologies are even older, especially in religions. Also, Salmond talks of Cartesian logic. But this does not exist. Descartes was not an innovative logician and simply employed the forms of reasoning available in his day.

Mythical frameworks. It is good to have exposed the mythic frameworks we dearly cling to and live by. Salmond does an interesting job on some alleged myths such as binaryism, Cartesian dualism and the Great Chain of Being which allegedly enchains us (not discussed here). But is talk of mythic frameworks no more than a fancy way of making the binary claim that some of our beliefs are false?

What are the consequences of these myths for environmentalism? There is no contradiction between being a strict Cartesian dualist about mind and body while also espousing a quite radical environmentalism. Nor is there a contradiction between a strong environmentalism and atheism combined with a monistic materialism about ourselves and the world in which we live. In fact, atheistic materialists see themselves as simply one bit of the entire naturalistic cosmos. 

One may add in various doctrines which modify these positions. So, to Cartesian mind/body dualism, one might add in the Biblical myth that Salmond mentions, viz., God gave Adam dominion over the earth and all its creatures. Adding this gives Cartesian dualism a very different complexion. So much so that many Christian apologists attempt to explain away the myth and adopt other non-domination stances. Of course, one cannot add this doctrine to atheism!

What is a mythical framework? Are there any non-mythical frameworks? Or are they all mythical? Salmond lets one alleged myth off the hook.  

Whakapapa as an explanatory programme. Salmond appears to support what might be called a “cosmic whakapapa explanation”. It is not always clear what this involves. But a helpful account is given elsewhere by Charles Royal who thinks of it as a research programme:

By what process or processes is Mātauranga Māori created? What is the nature of that process? Our interim response to these questions is to posit whakapapa, or genealogy, as a research methodology. In the course of our research, we have discovered that whakapapa was used traditionally to generate explanations for many things in the phenomenal world. Hence, one can find in the 19th century manuscripts … a vast array of whakapapa for such things as flora and fauna, for water, for sunshine, for human beings and for a vast array of naturally occurring phenomena. The tantalising proposition is therefore posed. Can everything in the world be accounted for by whakapapa? Can whakapapa generate relevant, pertinent and useful explanations for all things?

Here whakapapa concerns not only the historical relations and genealogy of human beings but also a genealogical account of all naturally occurring phenomena – even the very process of the creation of Mātauranga Māori itself.

This would be a very ambitious explanatory programme if it were to attempt to explain everything. In doing this, the whakapapa theory would be a rival to other well-established theories. Take the suggested case of sunshine. Do we not already have an explanation of this, viz., what causes it, what it is (a stream of photons?) and how it plays various functional roles throughout the solar system (enabling us to see with our evolved eyes which detect photons, etc.)?

How does this programme comport with the theory of evolution? They would appear to be inconsistent. The relationships of descent for members of a species required by Darwinian evolution do not appear to be the same as the kin relations between humans. And this becomes more obviously so when one considers the alleged relations between humans and other items such as rivers or volcanoes (which can be regarded as ancestors). More broadly the relations of species and genera of Linnaean taxonomy are declared to be more of the unacceptable binaryism. A non-binary stance would be to adopt Zadeh’s fuzz set approach to taxonomy.

Just how whakapapa relations generate their explanations and can compete successfully with other kinds of explanations remains itself an unexplained matter. But Salmon tells us: ‘According to the whakapapa taught in the whare wānanga (schools of ancestral learning), a first burst of energy in the cosmos generated thought, memory and desire; followed by knowledge; and aeons of nothingness and darkness’.

Here thought, desire and knowledge are disembodied. Since no mention is made of any person who has these mental states then we can suppose they float freely in Cartesian mental stuff. We leave it to the extreme Cartesian dualist to explain how the “mind”, or “soul” or thinking thing” can contain such independent items. However, if they do exist there cannot be nothingness – unless of course these items go out of existence.  

Following this we are told: ‘When the winds of life and growth blew through the world, earth and sky emerged, then wind, sea and rivers, plants, animals and people.’ We can readily admit that the wind can emerge from the winds of life – but in a pleonastic manner. The whakapapa explanatory programme (if that is what it is) clearly needs a better account than has been given so far and a better account of how it compares with is rivals.

Finally, we can ask if appeal to non-human ancestors makes us better guardians of our environment. Perhaps some need such a mythical (or legal) crutch. But there is no inconsistency between monistic materialism and committed environmentalism. The fog created by opposition to binaryism and Cartesian dualism is not needed to espouse ecological causes.

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