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The Logic of Alice

February 8th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Logic of Alice: Clear Thinking in Wonderland, by Bernard M. Patten (Prometheus 2009)

A man who doesn’t believe in Robinson Crusoe . . . is a man with a loose screw in his understanding. or a man lost in the mist of his own self-conceit! Argument is thrown away upon him; and pity is better reserved for some person with a livelier faith.

The Moonstone

Besides being near contemporaries, what does Betteredge in the Moonstone have in common with Alice and her adventures in Wonderland (Why is raven like a writing desk?)?  All in good time.

I grew up not with the book by Lewis Carroll, but the Disney cartoon.  I suppose my youngest child will grow up on the live action version.  Still even then, I knew many episodes quite well and was easily convinced as an undergraduate that Alice’s adventures, far from being examples of nonsense were indeed filled with logical arguments and fallacies. (at this point I should hasten to add that I did eventually read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for myself, and yes it is a logician’s paradise).  So then, imagine my delight at coming across a book that was reputed to outline all subtlety of reasoned argument in the mist of utter confusion.

Now imagine my utter disappointment.  The Logic of Alice is a sprawling work that says more about its author than about clear thinking itself.  We get his opinions of religion, politics,  science, sex, child-rearing, ethics and a host of other topics.  Yes logic and sound reasoning pervade, but often Alice’s encounters seem to be more of a launch-pad for what Patten deems to be clear thinking than the problems that actually confront Alice.

Here Patten is very much like Betteredge.  In the Moonstone, Betteredge has an incredible knack for pulling random passages from Robinson Crusoe to shed light on murder, human nature, and the vicissitudes of life.  While hardly random (Patten treats each chapter of Alice’s Adventure in turn and in proper order) one receives the distinct impression that he could invoke Carroll’s book to illustrate any opinion he would which to hold forth on.

This does make for some problems from the very beginning.  Before Alice has her adventures, she is sitting bored and tired.  Glancing briefly at her sister’s book she wonders of what use it might be since it contains neither pictures nor conversations.  Patten accuses Alice of over generalizing–and then proceeds to discuss at length the dangers of such practices.  But has Alice really over-generalized?  Language is, as Patten often notes, a flexible and somewhat inaccurate device at times.  At best one can argue that Alice does understand what people see in books without conversations or illustrations, not that Alice believes they are of no utility whatsoever.  One could hardly go off on such a limited conclusion, however.

Worse, Patton makes errors in logic.

For instance, to illustrate the fallacy of the four-term syllogism, Patten presents the following:

  1. All men are rational
  2. Women are not men
  3. Therefore, women are not rational

Now, while it is obvious that the argument equivocates in its use of “men,” and so is invalid, the middle terms are not properly distributed for this particular form of syllogism (for those who have taken logic, you may recognize this as AEE, rather AII, which is the mood Patton seems to be assuming).  To see this, look a the following, which is in the same mood and does not equivocate with the middle term.

  1. All women are mammals
  2. Men are not women
  3. Therefore men are not mammals

Maybe that is not the best example, but one does get the idea. At times Patton seems to miss the thrust of the arguments that Carroll’s characters are making.  For instance, Patton argues that the Cheshire Cat is using circular reasoning.  The argument would go something like this:

  1. Everyone is mad here.  I’m mad, you (Alice) are mad . . .
  2. But I’m not mad (says Alice)
  3. But you (Alice) must be, since you are here.

However, one could easily read the Cheshire Cat as arguing,

  1. Everyone I’ve met here, whether they are mad or not are in fact mad
  2. You (Alice) are here
  3. Therefore you (Alice) are [probably] mad.

If one looks about, it is not too hard to find more such short comings.  Even so, The Logic of Alice is not without its interesting bits.  When he gets to actually examining Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Patten can be quite illuminating.  For starters, he eschews some of the more fantastical interpretations (he has great fun with the pool of tears somehow being amniotic fluid).  There are also some interesting and fairly straight-foreword interpretation of some of the characters.  For instance, according to Patten, Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) stuttered and was known as Dodo, and so perhaps Carroll inserted himself into his own story.

These nuggets, however, are simply too few.  And mores the pity, because Patten obviously had much more to say about Alice if he had gone down his own particular rabbit hole.