The world is not a logical place

by Neil Rickert

Let’s start with some definitions:

  • logical: in accordance with the laws of logic;
  • illogical: contrary to the laws of logic;
  • alogical: the laws of logic are not applicable.

My title is suggesting the last of those — that the laws of logic are not applicable to the world.

Of course, we do use logic. But we have to do some preparatory work to make it possible to use logic.

A logical world is a world of immutable objects. I’ll refer to those as “logical objects”. When doing mathematics, the numbers are examples of logical objects. In logic, we use the idea of “identity”, where A and B are identical if those are really just different names for the same logical object. So 3+1 is identical to 2+2, because those are both ways of referring to the same number 4.

In the world we live in, there are no immutable objects — see my earlier post about change. And what we mean by “identity” and “identical” can sometimes be confusing. Those are because our world isn’t really a logical world.


How do we deal with this situation? We categorize. That is to say, we divide the world up into parts (i.e. categories), and treat those categories as if they were logical objects.

Some people think of categories as collections of individual objects. I prefer to think of categories as arising from carving up the world into parts. What we think of as individual objects are themselves categories. We think of a person as an individual. But a person changes. The atoms which constitute that person today will soon be gone, and replaced by different atoms. A person’s appearance changes due maturing and aging processes. But we see these variations as the same person, because when we carve the world up into categories we place the variations of that person into the same category.

This idea even works pretty well for “identity”. In ordinary life, we say that A and B are identical if we cannot easily distinguish between them. In effect, we say that they are identical if, for most or our ways of categorizing, they fall into the same category.

However, unlike logical objects, categories are not immutable. We can change our categories by changing how we categorize. There’s a tendency for people to think of categories as fixed (immutable) independent of us. But we know this to be a mistaken view. Quine’s “gavagai” argument illustrates this (LINK).


We categorize via perception. Categorization may well be the primary perceptual operation. But most of our categorization occurs at a level that does not involve our conscious decision making.

It is our advantage to use the same categories throughout a society. It seems likely that a child observes how others categorize, and the child then learns to use the same categories. We might say that our categories are a matter of social convention. I tend to think of that as a categorization conventions. But the exact details of how we categorize are not so clear. It is likely that they vary from person to person. Our perceptual systems are presumably using some kind of criteria, but those criteria are likely to depend on our individual biology. It seems likely that our meanings for category words depend on how we categorize, while our reference depends only on the categories themselves. This illustrates the point about the difference between meaning a reference, which I discussed in an earlier post.

This makes categorization central to cognition. Categorization is prior to any ability to use logic. Information is information about categories. Scientists, of course, make a lot of use of measurement. But measurement can be seen as a way of categorizing in terms of a property (such as length or mass). So scientific information fits with the idea that it is information about categories.

It seems appropriate to mention a paper (or book chapter) by Stevan Harnad with the title “Cognitioin is Categorization”. You should be able to easily find it with a web search.

4 Responses to “The world is not a logical place”

  1. This is my view, more or less. All categories are cluster concepts, and the clusters are convergent solutions to the problem of dividing up the world in ways that let one function reasonably efficiently. Categories with a simple set of necessary and sufficient conditions (like mathematical kinds) are degenerate cases, where for utility’s sake we’ve pruned away all the ambiguities. And now I *really* need to re-read Quine….

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  2. As I see it, the situation is worse than this. Not only is the cosmos alogical (in the sense you define it) but it is actually deeply harmful to act as though it is. In the sense, minimally, that it removes one from reality, more and more, over time.

    Disagree concerning the final paragraph — categorization, etc. First, perception does not categorize. Perception is simply raw sensory impressions, apprehended according to our various methods or organs. Quicker than noticed, normally, we attach a concept, a linking thought, to the new sensory perception, and this is the point at which the tendency towards categorization can and generally does intervene. But it need not be the case inexorably. We have the option of noticing this operation, holding it back, reviewing it, and training ourselves to not be so automatic about it. In this way, an inner exercise can develop. We sense the thinker operating within, and also we curate the character and qualities of our cognitive reality, keeping it gradually more alive (closer to its reality) than abstract ‘categorized’ representation schemes.

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    • Perception is simply raw sensory impressions, apprehended according to our various methods or organs.

      Categorization is required before there can be raw sensory impressions. A digital camera categorizes into an array of pixels before it can get any information at all.

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