And the Oscar Goes To … Why Symbolic Logic is a Good Popcorn Flick but Not Oscar Worthy

By Adam Tucker

I must admit, I am a sucker for big-budget, special-effects-filled, larger-than-life popcorn-flicks on the big screen. The amazing surround sound, the giant presentation, and the photo-realistic effects are enough to take you to another world for a couple of hours where you are 12 years old again pretending to battle the supervillain and save the day. If we are honest, however, very few of these films try to be much more sophisticated than a 12-year-old. They are heavy on glitz and glamour but light on plot and character development. They have plenty of wiz-bang explosions but fall flat when it comes to substance.

Contrast the summer popcorn flick with the great classics of cinematic history. Granted, some have dramatic special effects, but what they all share in common is the ability to tap into something real, something that grabs the audience in a way mere flamboyance cannot. These films focus on substance and depth. As philosopher Peter Kreeft observes, the contrast between the shallow summer blockbuster and the endearing Oscar contender serves to illustrate the difference between modern philosophers’ infatuation with the newer symbolic logic versus the classic Aristotelian logic of old.¹

Kreeft says, “The old logic was like the old classic movies: strong on substance rather than on sophistication. The new logic is like the typically modern movies: strong on ‘special effects’ but weak on substance, on theme, character, plot, and language; strong on ‘bells and whistles’ but weak on the engine; strong on the technological side, weak on the human side.”²

What exactly is the difference between symbolic logic and classical Aristotelian logic? Rather than working with complete sentences as argument premises and conclusions, symbolic logic reduces these sentences to symbols that can then be combined and manipulated in ways to determine an argument’s validity or a conclusion’s truth value. As philosopher Virginia Klenk says, “…symbolic logic is largely an invention of the twentieth century. The advantages of using symbols in logic are the same as in mathematics; symbols are easier to manipulate, they provide an economical shorthand, and they allow us to see at a glance the overall structure of a sentence. By using symbols we are able to deal with much more complicated arguments…”³

Aristotelian logic, on the other hand, begins with the evident fact that man is capable of knowing something real and true about sensible reality. That is, in the first act of the mind, man is able to, via simple apprehension, know the universal essence of some thing he is sensing, an apple say. In the second act of the mind man forms a judgement about the sensed thing, that it exists or is red or is half-eaten, etc. Then in the third act of the mind, man is able to combine his judgements into arguments and reason to a conclusion, resulting in new knowledge.⁴ In other words, Aristotelian logic begins with real knowledge of real things, meaning man abstracts the essence of a thing so that the form of the thing known exists both in the thing and in the knower resulting in actual knowledge.

This is starkly different from the starting point of symbolic logic where things in the real world are mere afterthoughts. Kreeft notes,

Symbolic logic is also called “propositional logic” because it begins with propositions, not with terms. For terms like “man” and “apple” and “mortal” express universals, or essences, or natures; and to admit that these are real would be to admit the reality of universals (metaphysical realism), and that we can know them as they are (epistemological realism).…Symbolic logic has no way of knowing, and prevents us from saying, what anything is! But that was the essential Socratic question about everything. Symbolic logic would make Socrates impossible…The very nature of reason itself is understood differently by symbolic logic than it was by Aristotelian logic. (emphasis in original).⁵

To be sure, symbolic logic (given its mathematical nature) has some usefulness, but there are dangers to concluding that one can, or should, rely on symbolic logic alone. As has been noted, symbolic logic has no inherent tie to reality. Kreeft puts it thusly, “Mathematics is a wonderful invention for saving time and empowering science, but it is not very useful in ordinary or philosophical conversations.…It is the only totally clear, totally unambiguous language in the world, but it cannot say anything very interesting about anything very important.”⁶

There is within symbolic logic an implicit assumption of nominalism (the rejection that things have essences/natures) that carries with it certain metaphysical baggage. Kreeft observes, “Our society no longer thinks about the fundamental metaphysical question, the question of what something is…Instead, we think about how we feel about things, how we can use them, how they work, how we can change them, how we see them behave, and how we can predict and control their behavior by technology (emphasis in original).”⁷ Such a view of reality has tremendous implications along moral and ideological lines that are beyond the scope of this brief essay.

Moreover, an over-reliance on symbolic logic leaves the task of the Christian apologist impotent at best and impossible at worst. For instance, as philosopher Richard Howe says, “I submit that, for complex philosophical arguments, it would be humanly impossible to sufficiently schematize the argument such that all the metaphysics is captured.”⁸ Certainly arguments for the existence of God, defenses against the so-called “problem of evil,” and the like require specific metaphysical categories and understanding. These nuances simply cannot be adequately symbolized. Howe notes, “As Veatch argues in his Two Logics, the very nature of (what appears to be) a ‘neutral’ accounting that [symbolic] logic thinks it affords, can be fraught with metaphysical assumptions that invariably affect what seems to follow from the schematizations (as Kant’s analytic/synthetic distinction, while logically exhaustive, masks important and real metaphysical distinctions).”⁹ When the whole of idea of reality, or being, is lost or ignored real substantive arguments and dialogs about the things of God become almost meaningless and hopeless, and a real knowledge of God’s existence becomes impossible. As philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen says, “A man does not have to be a metaphysician. But he does have to be a man: everything he knows is being…Outside of being he knows nothing, because beyond being… there is nothing to know.”¹⁰

In conclusion, while symbolic logic may win the day in regards to flash and a shiny new slick presentation, it loses the day in regards to substance about what is real. In one sense, I suppose the Oscar could go to symbolic logic for superbly acting such a part as to fool so many into overstating its importance and enslaving man to such a shallow system of thought. But since we are interested in reality here, the Oscar goes to that classic pillar of thought that brings substantive organization to our thoughts about reality. Aristotelian logic, while lacking the glitz and glamour, gives the people what they really want even when they do not yet realize they want it. It gives them clear and reliable ways to accurately think about reality and pursue truth. In other words, like a movie classic, it gives man the human side of things, something real and substantive. As Kreeft concludes, “…logic should be a human instrument. Logic was made for man, not
man for logic.”¹¹

  1. Peter Kreeft. “Clashing Symbols: The Loss of Aristotelian Logic & the Social, Moral & Sexual Conse 1 – quences” Touchstone, Nov/Dec (2012):
  2. Ibid.
  3. Virginia Klenk, Understanding Symbolic Logic: Second Edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 3 Inc., 1989), 12.
  4. Kreeft, Touchstone.
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Richard Howe, “Metaphysics and Formal Logic,” Quodlibetal Blog: Musings from Anywhere by Dr. Richard G. Howe, entry posted Nov. 10, 2015, (accessed May 2, 2016).
  9. Ibid
  10. Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality: An Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1956), 45.
  11. Kreeft, Touchstone.


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