Stephen Hawking’s publisher is said to have told the astrophysicist not to put any equations in A Brief History of Time. Each mathematical symbol will cost you half your readers. Or as my younger daughter puts it, “nobody likes the math thing.”

If e = mc^2-–an engaging relationship between energy, mass, and the speed of light—turns people off, I shudder to consider what symbolic logic will do. But I am willing to take a chance on offending readers because:

  1. “Knowledge is Good.” (Faber College, “Animal House.”)
  2. Here it is Tuesday morning once again and this blog has to go out at 10:00 whether or not I have anything especially scintillating to impart. 

Symbolic logic isn’t math and it isn’t philosophy but symbolic logic is right down the hall from those two disciplines. In symbolic logic, sentences are represented by letters. Boolean symbols for "and," "or," "not," and "if then" connect sentences. If a is “you go down to the woods today” and b is “you get a big surprise,” then “IF you go down to the woods today, THEN you get a big surprise” can be symbolized by a -->b, pronounced "if a then b."

"If a then b" is logically equivalent to "if not b then not a." In this case, "If you did not get a big surprise then you did not go down to the woods." There are all kinds of neat rules with great names for working with sentences. "Modus ponens" is my favorite. Modus ponens just sounds important. True premises and these tried and true rules lead to true conclusions. As any undergraduate who has avoided the difficult math requirement by taking symbolic logic can tell you, it's pretty great.

What the logic course also teaches is that false premises lead anywhere. Starting with a false premise--"a and not a" for example--takes us to absurdity. Contradictions allow you to prove anything, even that which is false, especially that which is harmful. Here is an example of a dreadful destination: Parents working assiduously to sabotage the college applications of their children's peers.

George Boole

No, that is not a typo. Parents are tattling on kids. It's not enough that parents are lying and cheating to advantage their kids at "top" colleges. That was yesterday's dark headline. Parents are now informing on classmates. Here, as best this poor author can determine, is the series of logical steps that brought us to this ill-fated development.

Where my kid goes is more important than who my kid is. The college my kid attends is more important than my relationship with my community. Therefore, I will do anything to increase my child's likelihood of being admitted to a highly selective college. Colleges typically admit fewer rather than more students from one high school. Ratting out another child amplifies the admission chances for my child. So, having already pontificated to the counselor how unprecedentedly phenomenal my kid is, I'll now articulate how unspeakably grisly somebody else's kid is.

Indeed, my column from 2012, seems prescient. Not to break my arm patting myself on the back, but I predicted this perfidy forever ago. The next number is the sequence 2, 4, 6, 8 is no harder to envision than the step from cheating in favor of your precious child to harming the child or your neighbor.

What's next? Easy. At this point the stool pigeons are only vocalizing the truth as they know it: Timmy cheated on a test; Susie drank a beer. Soon enough, parents will be fabricating out of the ether. Timmy robbed a bank; Susie had a child out of wedlock. Parents lied and cheated about their own kids: Lindsey in on the lacrosse team. Percy nuked a gay whale for Christ. Why not lie and cheat about their neighbor's kids? Timmy is evil; Susie bites the heads off of live chickens.

School counselors now have a policy: no anonymous phone calls accepted. My colleagues have had it. They don't want to hear from Mrs. Smith that the son of Mr. Jones is wanted in the Hague.

False premise. Ugly conclusion.

As always, the right course is the easy one. After your child has done the best she can learning chapter 14 of her logic text, take her for a hike. Walk along a rocky slope up to a view of the valley. Watch the sun hurl pinks and purples across the heavens; eat the sandwiches; drink the lemon aid. Let the silence caress you and your healthy child. Put sweaters on as the cool starts to descend from the night sky. I promise you can find something else to talk about rather than which kid was admitted to which "top" college or which parent is degrading herself talking smack about other children.

Neither logic nor perfidy can stand up to the unmitigated wonder of hanging out with your kid. The trees, the stars, and your memories of those walks at dusk will still be there long after the liars and the cheaters have melted on the castle steps.

One thought on “Logic

  1. James McGhee II

    A GREAT essay once again, David!

    Parents will never regret teaching Good Manners, Sportsmanship, and the Golden Rule.

    Another guide to decision making I offer is, “Is it TRUE? Is it HELPFUL? Is it KIND?”

    Thank you for your insights and leadership!


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