Truth and Logic in East and West
The claim that logic and the like are just Western inventions is quite amiss:
Before I became a Christian I spent a fair amount of time looking into Eastern philosophy and theology. I read many of the key works, and tried to get my head around Eastern thought. But then I became a Christian and I very quickly gave up on that worldview and way of thinking.
But of course I still have encounters with folks who embrace Eastern thought – be they Westerners like me who have looked into it, or those from the East itself. When it comes to discussing Christianity with them, it often boils down to a debate between how Westerners and Easterners think.
The common claim is that the West is rationalistic and logical while the East does not embrace this way of thought. Logic, we are told, is simply a Western concept, and things like the law of non-contradiction are fine in the West, but have no application for those in the East.
But is this actually the case? Are there two radically different ways of thinking and viewing the world, and never the twain shall meet? No, is my short answer. And to tease this out further, let me mention a comment that came in to a social media post I had done. I had been discussing a common debate found in Christian theology. And with my morning Bible reading spurring me on, I had said this:
Hundreds of biblical passages speak to the fact that God is fully sovereign and in control. Hundreds of biblical passages speak to the fact that people are responsible for the choices that they make. How these two truths cohere will remain a mystery this side of heaven. But a number of times both truths are fully affirmed in a single verse, such as Mark 14:21: “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
Since this can be such a hot potato topic with so many getting all hot and bothered theologically, I added a comment saying that those who want to start WWIII over this are advised to take it elsewhere. After all, with entire libraries devoted to these issues, we will just not get very far arguing in tiny Facebook comment boxes.
Well, things were going pretty good with folks seeming to respect my wishes. But then someone came along from unexpected quarters. I had expected an ornery Calvinist or a grumpy Arminian to write in, but it did not occur to me that I would get into a debate with an Easterner – in this case an Asian Christian friend. She sent in this comment:
“It’s a problem because western intellectual history is based on Aristotle’s non-contradiction theory. The Eastern mind has no problems accepting contradictions. In fact that ability is a sign of intelligence. However, in the west, it’s considered illogical. BTW the Bible is essentially an Eastern book.”
I thanked her and gave her a brief response, but assured her that a much longer piece would be needed to give this topic due justice. So what follows is an expanded version of what I had said to her. It was not entirely clear if she was saying that this is how Eastern folks tend to think (which is certainly the case), or whether she was saying that she as a Christian believed this as well. This then is my response.
God is a God of truth. And truth implies that there can be the absence or antithesis of truth – that is, falsehood. Lies and truth are not two sides of the same coin, of yin and yang. They are in fact polar opposites. God does not lie nor can he lie. And falsehood and truth can never cohere or live together in some sort of peaceful harmony.
Moreover, the laws of logic, including the law of non-contradiction, are NOT theories invented by Aristotle. He, along with others, may have helped to ‘discover’ and codify these laws (for which we can all be grateful), but he did not create them. In the same way Isaac Newton did not create the law of gravity; he simply discovered it.
The laws of logic have to do with the nature of truth, and our God is a perfectly true God, so he too is logical, and he does not contradict or repudiate himself. So these basic truths of thought and rationality are rooted in the very nature of God. They exist in God and he has revealed these truths to us. That God cannot lie or contradict himself is consistent with who he is. He is a God of truth, and we too are created to live this way – to live in truth and to confront falsehood.
As to the law of non-contradiction, it simply says this: something cannot be true and not true in the same sense and at the same time. You can not have A and non-A existing at the same time and in the same relationship. And we all live as if this is true. If I am typing this article now in my home in Melbourne, then I am NOT surfing the waves in California right now.
As Doug Groothuis put it in his 2000 volume Truth Decay:
This law states, “Nothing can both be and not be at the same time in the same respect.” Nothing can possess incompatible properties; that is, nothing can be what it is not. For example, Jesus cannot be both sinless and sinful. Put another way, if one statement is true, its opposite cannot also be true in the same respect at the same time. If there is exactly one God, there cannot be more than one God. This logical principle is not the unique possession of Christianity, it is a truth of all creation. It is how God ordained us to think. Despite what some benighted theologians have claimed, Christian faith does not require that we somehow transcend this law of logic. Although God’s ways are above our ways (Is. 55:8–9), God is consistent and cannot lie (Tit. 1:2). God cannot deny himself or assert what is false; nor can he make something both true and false in the same way at the same time.
All people live this way. It does not matter if you live in Singapore, Shanghai, Manhattan or Melbourne: we all live in a real world – the world as God made it to be. Some folks might claim things like the law of non-contradiction does not apply to them, but when push comes to shove this notion quickly evaporates. Let me give you an example.
Anyone standing on the train tracks hearing an approaching train will either do A or non-A: he will either jump off the tracks and save himself, or he will stay on the tracks and get run over. So in that sense everyone believes in the law of non-contradiction, including all Easterners. The law of non-contradiction is true of all people at all times in all places. The absolute nature of truth entails and demands this.
And this is not just true on a practical and experiential level, but on an intellectual and philosophical level. When someone comes to you and says he rejects either-or thinking, but instead embraces both-and thinking, you simply need to ask him this question: ‘Was that an either-or statement you just made?’ If he has half a working brain, he will realise he just contradicted himself big time.
He just defeated his own worldview. He believes his view is true and the opposite is false! He affirms what he denies. So the law of non-contradiction is not just some Western convention. It is not a convention at all but part of the fabric of the world we live in as created by God.
But if the Eastern thinker STILL dismisses this as mere ‘Western thinking’ then simply refer him again to my practical example above. No one can live in a world of relativity where there are no absolutes. No one, even a devout Hindu or Buddhist, can live in a world where there are no absolutes and their antitheses. Those who think they can simply transcend all this should just keep standing on the train tracks.
As I mentioned, I had been involved in Eastern philosophy and religion prior to becoming a Christian, and so I know something about it. While not claiming to be an authority on Eastern thought, I do know something about Scripture and basic Christian truth claims. So I can rather confidently assert that Eastern thought has next to nothing in common with biblical Christianity.
As for the Bible, it is both a Hebrew and Greek book, not an ‘Eastern’ book as such. That ancient Jewish thought differs from much modern Western thought is one thing. But it certainly has nothing to do with the kind of thought found in such classic Eastern religious texts as The Upanishads or The Bhagavad Gita or Tao Te Ching (which I read in my pagan days).
Getting back to my original social media post about the issue of simultaneously affirming both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, it is NOT a logical impossibility. Both claims are true but to our finite minds they can be hard to reconcile. They are not contradictory but they are paradoxical. So what I said above has nothing to do with Eastern thought. My friend’s notion that if we simply jettisoned Western thought (something none of us can actually do anyway), this conundrum will somehow be solved is off the mark.
Many have discussed this particular matter. J. I. Packer for example teases this out in his helpful 1961 book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. He says we need to speak about these seemingly conflicting truths as an antinomy – that is, as an appearance of contradiction:
For the whole point of an antinomy — in theology, at any rate — is that it is not a real contradiction, though it looks like one. It is an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable. There are cogent reasons for believing each of them; each rests on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other. You see that each must be true on its own, but you do not see how they can both be true together. Let me give an example. Modern physics faces an antinomy, in this sense, in its study of light. There is cogent evidence to show that light consists of waves, and equally cogent evidence to show that it consists of particles. It is not apparent how light can be both waves and particles; but the evidence is there, and so neither view can be ruled out in favor of the other. Neither, however, can be reduced to the other or explained in terms of the other; the two seemingly incompatible positions must be held together, and both must be treated as true. Such a necessity scandalizes our tidy minds, no doubt, but there is no help for it if we are to be loyal to the facts.
So the truths of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are NOT logical contradictions. They can and do fully cohere and coexist. That fallen and finite minds cannot fully grasp how the two can stand side by side is another matter. In the next life it may well all become clear.
In sum, biblical Christians cannot embrace Eastern philosophy and religion and still be true to the biblical witness. While there might be some helpful teachings here and there, the overall scheme of things is in direct contrast to what Christianity teaches, including the belief that there is absolute truth, and there are falsehoods that stand against these truths.
There are real spiritual and theological and moral opposites, not just two sides of the same coin.
9 Replies to “Truth and Logic in East and West”
A very clear article that helps de-fog so much contemporary thinking.
Curious: Groothuis took the book title from the musician T-Bone Burnett’s album from 1980 – “Truth Decay” I bought the record back in 1980. The record is incredibly interesting as “apologetics” inspiration
Rolf Ö – Sweden
Thanks for that Rolf.
Could explain why the computer was a Western invention. It would do no good to confuse those 0s and 1s.
Quite so Michael.
Good article, and I mostly agree. Truth and falsehood are not two sides of a coin, but they’re not quite polar opposites either, A lie must incorporate truth, or it would fool no one. The serpent’s lie to Eve is the prime example. I like to think of it as a truth that’s been twisted in some way, and it’s not always easy to see where.
Jesus claims to be the truth and Paul adds that all wisdom and knowledge are hidden in him. That being the case, individual truths are part of an overall system of knowledge of which some is revealed, and some is not. For that we must wait. Loved your example of light.
Thanks Steve. But a semantic matter may need to be discussed here, as you seem to be confusing a lie with something else, such as deception. A lie by definition is that which is false. As one online dictionary puts it, a lie is ‘a false statement; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.’ Deception however, as in the cults, DOES involve mixing truth with error. That is how cults thrive – they DO twist the truth. In this sense, truth and falsehood (or lies) are indeed polar opposites. A lie does not incorporate truth, but negates truth. Deception however is the twisting and distortion of truth. But thanks for your thoughts.
Fabulous to read someone else has a T-Bone Burnett album!
But on to the East. Cleary the all sovereign God has predetermined that the Eastern mindset would come about. Nothing we can do about it.
But I’d like to see the Eastern way of accepting contradiction reflected in an aircraft operation manual…’the flaps for take off can be either at 30 degrees, or 0 degrees’. How would that go?