Yes or No?

The options in the title of this post seem to exhaust the spectrum of the Western logic. As we view it a statement is either true or false, an object either exists or does not. While we may know or not know the answer to a particular question these two alternatives (knowing and not knowing) are also within the two-valued logic. So far so good but are there any logical states outside this neat convention? While the issue has been puzzling me for a long time this post was prompted by the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” recommended to me by my dear friend Nick.

“Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”. This question, if asked of most reasonable males, does not have an adequate answer. Saying “no” would effectively admit to uncivilised behaviour in the past so someone who had never beaten one’s wife is out of options within the confines of a two-state logic. One way of handling a situation like this is to answer that the question is based on the wrong premise although this may sound like a cop out and is neither definitive nor logically satisfying. Interesting, but are there examples of a similar ambiguity outside the field of idle legal rhetoric?

Technology does not get more precise and structured than computers. The binary world consists of only two states – 0 and 1. In the guts of computer hardware zero (equivalent to No) is represented by no current/charge. A flow of current or presence of a charge is 1 – meaning Yes. There does not appear to be any room for a third logical state within the parameters of the problem. But the author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert M. Pirsig, gives an example of just that. A computer which is switched off does not contain in its circuits information which can be interpreted as either zeros or ones. It is outside the realm of validity of the question. The Yes/No logical alternatives are not useful in describing a switched off computer. A computer with unstable circuitry and oscillating currents will also fall in this category. Japanese language apparently even has a word for the “third” logical state – Mu. It means no such thing, impossible, cannot be answered.

But the number of possible logic values is not limited to three. The ancient Indian philosophy allowed for four such states: Yes, No, both Yes and No, neither Yes nor No. An example of a statement which is both true and false is “This statement is true”. If we assume it is true then it is indeed true. If, on the other hand, we assume it is false then it turns out to be false. So, in effect, it is both true and false! One statement illustrating the fourth logical state is “It will rain next Friday”. The future is indeterminate so any claims made about it are neither true nor false.

Are you confused about this? Yes or No?



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