07 May 2008

Ham Sandwiches and Eternal Happiness

A friend of mine related the following syllogism, which he saw in the Boston Globe Magazine:

   Nothing is better than eternal happiness.

   A ham sandwich is better than nothing.

   Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

This struck me as very funny, but of course there is a sober side to it as well.  It demonstrates the importance of not applying logic “in a vacuum,” so to speak, but to constantly check its correspondence to reality.  

The syllogism above deftly plays upon the use of the word “nothing” as a stand-in for an entity.  The major and minor premises stand alone as coherent propositions, but when the formal logic of a syllogism is applied, it produces a nonsensical conclusion.  The result is an intellectual sleight of hand that is amusing if one has the proper epistemological framework, just as a magician’s trick can be appreciated by one who is firmly grounded in reality.  However, it’s not funny at all if such tricks are used to attack logic itself.

As Ayn Rand advised: check your premises.

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