Modus Ponens

I mention several facts:

1. Christians believe that the Bible is the undistorted word of God, and therefore absolutely true. The Bible says that women who wear men’s clothing should be killed. Christians do not kill women who wear men’s clothing.

2. Some people believe that “all is one.” If all is one, then a chair is a table. People eat off of tables. Yet, people who believe that all is one do not eat off of chairs.

3. I met a man last night who believed in the validity of the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative states that one should always treat another not merely as a means, but as an end in themselves. This is inconsistent with, for instance, buying fast food, because buying fast food implies treating the people working at the fast food place as a means rather than as an end. He himself pointed this out, and admitted that it was impractical, but he still believed in the categorical imperative.

4. Thomas Jefferson believed that “all men are created equal.” Yet, he did not believe that he was equal to the slaves that he owned.

5. Buddhists believe that “all of life is suffering.” Yet, when in the midst of a happy and joyous occasion, if you asked them if they were suffering or not, they would say that they were not.

So it seems like people don’t follow out the logical implications of their beliefs. Our minds don’t consistently implement modus ponens. We believe “all men are created equal,” and “if all men are created equal, then I am equal to my slaves,” and yet we don’t believe, “I am equal to my slaves.”

One might interpret Jefferson’s beliefs by saying that the word “men,” as Thomas Jefferson intended it, did not include black men. However, I suggest that is trying too hard to make sense out of Jefferson’s beliefs. It seems to me more likely that Jefferson:

1. believed that all men are created equal;
2. believed that his male slaves were men;
3. believed that he was not equal to his slaves;
4. believed that equal things could not also be not equal;
5. and simply never connected these facts together in his mind.

The internally consistent version of Jefferson’s belief is, “all land-owning white males are created equal.” Yet, this might not have sounded quite right to Jefferson when written down in the Declaration of Independence. I suggest that it is not that “land-owning white male” was a synonym for “man” for Jefferson. For instance, if Jefferson was shown a man in debtor’s prison, and asked, “is that a man?”, we can expect that he would have said “yes.” And if we asked Jefferson “are all men created equal?”, we can expect that he would have said “yes.” I suggest that the best interpretation of these facts is that Jefferson simply hadn’t thought things through perfectly.

There are probably many cases where we would be quite surprised if we followed out all of the “if-then” statements that we could make from our beliefs. There are probably, for each of us, a few cases where we have built up a whole complex of thought and effort around a failure to follow through with some uncomfortable “if-then” statement. It’s actually very easy to avoid noticing obvious things.

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  1. #1 by Eric on July 4, 2011 - 5:13 pm

    My only critique here is that I believe it is possible for Jefferson to have had a great deal of cognitive dissonance regarding his belief that all men are created equal and the fact that he owned slaves. It could be that he did believe that his slaves were equal to him by nature and that he was simply burdened by the social norm of slave-owning. This contradiction in Jefferson’s philosophies and actions could just be an issue of merging theory and practice. Then again, I am no Jeffersonian scholar and maybe his thoughts were logically inconsistent. I do however see that the potential errors in this specific example in no way invalidates the overall message of your blog post which is quite valuable.

  2. #2 by antitheology on July 4, 2011 - 5:19 pm

    True, that’s a good point. He may very well have seen the inconsistency and been troubled by it. I can relate to this in that I had a lot of cognitive dissonance surrounding the proposition “all is one,” in attempting to reconcile this belief with everything else that I believed. I agree with your point that we don’t really know what was going on in Jefferson’s head.

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