Both/and thinking

When considering whether something is true, we almost always follow the rule of either/or. Either this is true or that is true, but both can’t be true at the same time. It is not possible that A and ~A coexist. Law of non-contradiction.

However, while this Law can hold true for our reasoning mind, it comes with some limitations. For one, it can lead to a kind of black-and-white thinking in which, if one point of view is true, then there is no truth whatsoever in the alternative. And yet as Ken Wilber likes to point out, “no one can be wrong all the time.” So even if the competing point of view turns out to be false by most measures, even then there is some way to explain how it came about as a point of view in the first place.

For example, if someone believes in the conspiracy theory that Americans didn’t land on the moon in 1969, even if that specific claim turns out to be false, there may be some valid judgments hiding explaining their position: that other conspiracy theories are true or have a degree of truth, that propaganda is real and manipulative, that there were nationalistic motives to land on the moon by the end of the 60’s (in the context of the Cold War), et cetera.

Another limitation of Law of non-contradiction is that it doesn’t necessarily hold true when claims are being made with respect to “trans-rational” states of consciousness. So this would apply to spiritual discourse in particular. The reasoning mind always works within the realm of duality. To define one thing is to enter the mind of duality, because that one thing has been separated from everything else at a conceptual level. Yet “non-duality” is so named because it has to do with non-conceptual awareness. No distinctions!—no duality!

In entering the consciousness of non-dual mind and beyond, we have to allow that the normal constraints on our reasoning mind may not apply in the same way or even apply at all. At this level, contradictions can exist. Things that cannot be conceptualized exist and unfold. What Buddhists call “emptiness”—the underlying reality of everything—cannot be conceived or imagined. But it can be experienced.

Oddly, intellectual discernment can be used to our advantage on a spiritual path, but at the same time it is not directly related to evolving consciousness beyond perceptions of the ego-mind and duality-mind. Ego doesn’t go beyond ego; reason doesn’t transcend reason; duality doesn’t collapse duality.

Which brings us to the takeaway point: when considering points of view, may we open our minds to “both/and” thinking rather than the either/or we are used to. Sometimes, it is both this and that simultaneously! With respect to normal discussions, this helps us to avoid black-and-white thinking in favor of more considerate, wider points of view that see truth (be it hidden or self-evident) on both sides. With respect to spiritual discourse, we allow our minds to open to the infinite possibilities of the Universe by not attaching to the preconceived idea that “reality must conform to the rules of our reason.” It doesn’t, it won’t, and by keeping that attachment, we are the ones who have a less pleasant and less profound experience of life; it’s our choice.

May you see Truth in infinite things, from infinite angles. And in that spirit: “To infinity and beyond!”


10 thoughts on “Both/and thinking

  1. PeterJ

    Hi Paul. This is a hobby-horse for me. I believe that if you examine Aristotle’s laws carefully they are perfectly consistent with nonduality. He was no slouch and covered the possibility that dualism (in any instance) may be false. It;s just that folks don’t read hm carefully.

    I would want to stifle at birth the idea that the nondual doctrine breaks the laws of ordinary logic or ‘laws of thought’. This is not the case, and it can be demonstrated quite easily.

    What it contradicts is the way we usually apply these laws, for in philosophy we do not usually do so rigorously. . According to Aristotle if for Existence/non-Existence there is a third option then there is no contradiction and no need to modify the rules. The rules only apply where we already know as a matter of logic or empiricism there is no third option.

    In fact nondualism is the only metaphysical view that does not break the laws of thought, as Nagarjuna shows.

    To non-contradiction and beyond….


  2. Hi Peter, as always I appreciate your comments and you have given me something to contemplate. I see your proof for how non-dualism does not defy the “rules of reason” and would accept it on rational grounds. At the same time I would want to say that the *experience* of non-duality is non-conceptual; thus the concept is comprehensible by reason but the experience is “trans-rational” or non-conceptual in nature.

    I want to say more but am going to mull this over… Wondering if mind is “looping” in a certain “scope of judgment.”

    Glad to have hit on your hobby-horse 🙂


    1. PeterJ

      I’m good with ‘trans-rational’, and ‘meta-logical’. These suggest transcending the intellect as opposed to ‘irrational’, ‘illogical’.etc. Enjoying your posts by the way.


      1. Ok, so here’s what I want to ask, Peter. In your view of things, is there any possible experience which could invalidate the law of non-contradiction?–or do you think that for any experience, however radical and counterintuitive it may be, that it could fall under the heading of “third option,” “fourth option,” “fifth option,” but to which options the law could still apply?

        And here’s an example we could discuss… There are many possible experiences outside the bounds of our normal “rational consciousness,” as William James called it, but some will be more radical “breaks” with our normal consciousness than others. Adyashanti’s description of the Absolute would be one such case. The description is that, within the experience of the peaceful voidness, there’s a feeling that actually nothing we are accustomed to call the real world is happening at all, and indeed, *never* happened. “Nothing ever happens.”


        What do you make of this?


      2. PeterJ

        That all seems good to me. Nagarjuna proves that nothing really exists and nothing ever happens and he does this using Aristotle’s logic. If this logic is faulty then his proof fails.

        No possible experience could transgress the LNC. If it would seem to transgress it then clearly the LNC does not apply. Aristotle very carefully laid out his rules so no possible situation could contradict them or render them invalid.

        The crucial issue would be his definition for a true contradictory pair. This is defined so that where there is a third option there is no contradiction (which is obvious in a way). It took me five years of wondering before I could see how nonduality can be consistent with logic, and in the end it is dead simple. It all fell into place when I read CWA Whittaker’s book ‘Aristotle’s De Interpretatione’ which is brilliant. Aristotle covered all the bases.

        But many philosophers make a mistake when applying his rules and forget the definition for a contradictory pair. This mistake makes nonduality look like a rejection of logic and keeps many thinkers stuck in dualism. This must be one of the most simple issues in all of philosophy and yet it cause utter havoc. It causes havoc even within mysticism.

        If you want to pursue it I highly recommend Whittaker, and (ahem) you might like to check out an essay by me here (Please don’t feel obliged).


  3. PeterJ

    PS. Checked the link – Adyashanti is good stuff! I haven’t listened to much of this video or heard him speak before but it’s obvious when someone knows their onions (as they say around here). If he sticks to the party line then he will be saying that the Absolute is beyond experience because experience requires an experience and an experiencer which is two things. A very subtle topic! The Upanishads are clear about this one, experience does not go all the way but Being and Identity do.

    Btw. Nagarjuna denies not just this or that but also both and neither. All four relationships are denied along with the related things. But my view is the same as yours, it’s a big improvement to think both/neither than assume it must be always be true/false. Here Nagarjuna’s ‘Two Truths’ method comes into its own, but that’s another big topic. . .



    1. Ah, this is very interesting. In the past my brain has been racked thinking about the LNC, perhaps because it’s so fundamental to the operations of Reason. Now when you say “No possible experience can transgress the LNC,” I see how that can be the case, because of the way the rules of reasoning have been established and defined by the mind. And yet could we not ask “why is this?” and consider at least two possibilities:
      (1) It is the nature of all experience that the LNC cannot be transgressed
      (2) It is the way that Reason “sees” such that the LNC cannot be transgressed, such that when we are “seeing” through the “eyes of Reason” it always appears that it cannot be transgressed

      The way you are talking about it suggests to me that you would get on board with explanation (2). It’s as if when we look through the Reason we are putting on a pair of glasses–blue-tinted glasses, say–and now through these blue-tinted glasses everything appears blue. Everything appears as reflecting back to us the validity of the LNC. Of course it will appear that way when we look “as” Reason, especially if we define things such that no possible experience can transgress the LNC.

      Let me add for clarification that, when I exist just as awareness (standing before the reasoning mind), I know nothing–and nothing of the LNC and nothing of reasoning.

      My attitude at this point towards this subject matter is, since we are also the One, let’s go ahead and allow ourselves to experience these higher states of consciousness. But this impulse comes not from my reason; it’s deeper…

      Excuse me if I am bringing up points that you address in your essay. I’ll read it soon.


  4. PeterJ

    I think the issue may be a more simple than it looks. The reason that the LNC cannot be broken is that Aristotle defines it so that where it’s not applicable it doesn’t apply.

    He tells us that if A and not-A are a true contradictory pair, (such that one is true is one false), then the LNC and LEM apply. Otherwise all bets are off. So, if there is an alternative to two statements such as ‘We have freewill’ and ‘We do not have freewill’ then his rules do not apply. They are not broken because there was no contradiction in the first place and we are not forced to choose between them.

    This is entire secret of metaphysics, I believe, that what we see as dilemmas are in fact two false views. But we assume that these two false views form a contradictory pair such that one must be true, and nothing but chaos ensues. Once we do this your view and mine looks as if it breaks the rules of logic. In fact it;s the person who makes this assumption who is breaking the rules.

    It turns out that you view is the only one that does not contradict the rules, and it is therefore the only one that is rational. Thus Nagarjuna can show how metaphysics is solved while in the West we are still in confusion.

    Well, I did say it’s a hobby-horse.


    1. Ok, what I wasn’t seeing was that there’s a time for the suspension of the rules (LNC, LEM) in the case of the absence of a “true contradictory pair.” Interesting!

      Well, we could very well keep going with this into all sorts of applications–which I would guess you’ve thought about already? haha–but that feels like a nice place to settle down.

      Thanks, Peter. It’s funny, to me, how our dialogue turned out to be much richer than the blog post above. How’s it go? “Two mind are better than one!”


  5. PeterJ

    Two mind – very good.

    Really it’s just basic stuff. The rules of the EU apply only to EU citizens. The LNC applies only to true contradictory pairs. Aristotle is clear. By forgetting this we create endless metaphysical dilemmas. But somehow this basic point is missed by most philosophers, and it leads them into dualism and away from nonduality. I’d rewrite your options to take account of Aristotle’s small-print. .

    (1) It is in the nature of logic that the LNC cannot be transgressed.

    (2) It is the way that Reason uses logic that ensures that the LNC cannot be transgressed,

    Very few people seem to spot that nonduality obeys Aristotle’s rules while the only person I’ve spotted who sees the mistake we make by regularly misreading them is John Corcoran, who is brilliant on logic and worth a look but who doesn’t seem to know our view.

    Nice discussion Paul. Thanks. A bientot. .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s