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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Logic and Waste
by David Evans
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It is hard to think of two concepts less obviously connected than these two. My first response, when invited by the editor to write some words on this topic, was to ask if he was serious. Perhaps he was testing the widely held, even if deeply erroneous, view that professors enjoy a life of well remunerated idleness during the summer months.
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But no, he did indeed want some reflections on Logic and Waste and of course a philosopher will undertake to say something challenging, perhaps even true, on any topic presented. So here are two lines of thought which connect these themes.
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Logic is the rigorous analysis of the elements in our thought. We should use it to see how concepts and arguments can yield truth. It is most definitely a good thing, even if it is frequently held in awe and suspicion! Logic runs your computer, car and washing machine; and it should run your life.
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First, then, consider, the concept of Waste. What sort of things or activities does it cover? Certain answers come to mind immediately: cars left for scrap, plastic cartons by the roadside, glossy brochures containing corporate plans and reports. But also, on further reflection: old refrigerators, uneaten food on a plate or in a container, newspapers or paperbacks that have been read and then cast aside. Two things become clear from these examples. First, waste is not a natural or even a definite kind of thing; what it incorporates is far too various to be brought within systematic classification. Secondly, it is a value concept; waste is bad. Indeed it is this feature, rather than any descriptive similarity between the various wasteful items, that collects them together into the same basket.
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Compare the notion of a weed. Weeds include dandelions, stinging-nettles, vetch, sorrel and much else. There is no natural kind into which all these things fall; and to suppose that it is descriptive affinities that fix the range of the concept weed is to pursue the wrong track. Some people might cultivate some weeds; others find others beautiful. The nature of the concept is best captured by the idea that a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place. The concept picks out various things, but at its core is a piece of human valuation.
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That's how it is with waste too. We have some idea of what sort of thing it is; but we are clearer and firmer with the view that it's bad. The virtue of logic is that it enables us to unscramble these elements and avoid errors that might arise from ignoring such analysis.
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Secondly, consider the use of logic in argument. Logical systems aim above all to preserve truth as we move from premises to conclusion. Arguments which achieve this aim are deemed valid. So here is a valid argument: snow is white, therefore snow is white and snow is white. The argument is valid because it is impossible that the premise should be true and yet the conclusion false. It is impeccably truth-preserving and would be so whatever we are talking about, whether the colour of snow or grass or diamonds, or anything else. We could go further and argue from this conclusion, using it now as a premise to the further conclusion snow is white and snow is white and snow is white.
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All of this is good logic; the arguments are valid and sound. But in a very obvious way it is wasteful. We have a situation that replicates one of the more familiar phenomena of bureaucratic waste. Documents, and the ideas contained within them, are multiplied beyond what is needed. These processes are loved and defended by some and deplored by others. Logic provides a rational model for both these attitudes. For the form of argument about Snow is valid; and so it can provide comfort to the wasteful reproducer of office paper. But the argument is also weak because it does nothing to advance our understanding. Like the multiple copies, such arguments pile up truths already known and available in more economical form. It's good to have confirmation from logic that our instincts about such arguments are well based.
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The upshot? From the standpoint of logic there is plenty to say about waste. What we can say is (I hope) enlightening and provocative, but it conveys no cut-and dried assessment of its topic. That's how it is and ought to be with philosophy: stimulating argument but no easy answers.
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