Has there been any philosopher making an argument along the lines that logic is an obstacle to knowledge about the world?

The informal argument could go something like: logic is created by humans (evidence: humans can create different logics) ; humans cling to logic because it "makes sense" to them ; but Nature does not necessarily follow human logic ; therefore to understand Nature we should use inductive, empirical methods, no matter how "illogical" the results may seem ; furthermore, insisting on using logic is an impediment to gaining knowledge (because Nature is not guaranteed to follow any logic we have created anyway).

There may well be significant flaws with this informal argument, of course. There can be various nuances too, such as asserting that logic does not ever lead to true knowledge about the world, or the weaker position that logic alone does not lead to true knowledge about the world. But the gist would be that logic is the wrong (or an insufficient) tool to gain real knowledge about Nature, because Nature doesn't necessarily follow human logic. This position would also claim that only inductive, empirical methods yield actual knowledge about Nature.

Just curious if this position or a similar one has ever been defended in philosophy.

  • 2
    These are the arguments of Bacon's Novum Organum against Aristotle's Organon, but what they are against isn't called "logic" anymore, but rather methodology of science (natural philosophy back then). He promotes inductive/experimental methods from particular to general vs Aristotelian/scholastic armchair theorizing from "first principles" to the particular, and excoriates human biases ("idols", as he calls them) that impede and mislead reasoning about nature. Ironically, the "logic" Bacon criticizes is what we would call informal fallacy today.
    – Conifold
    Apr 1 at 15:35
  • @Conifold Why not make this comment an answer?
    – Frank
    Apr 1 at 15:56
  • See: 'Philosophers or philosophical traditions that reject symbolic reasoning' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/82360/…
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 1 at 16:22
  • I'd say people tend to get in a bit of a jumble about what logic is, & not infrequently put it on a Mathematical Platonist pedestal that obfuscates simply closely oberving what we do with logic, & what it does for us. This Feynman lecture is excellent, on logic as a kind of sorting for inference, but different to thinking like words are not thoughts, their use is: 'Hardware Software & Heuristics' (lecture from 1986) youtu.be/EKWGGDXe5MA
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 1 at 16:29
  • Mostly because I am short on time, but also because even the linked Wikipedia article covers it more comprehensively than I'd be able to do here.
    – Conifold
    Apr 2 at 4:17

4 Answers 4


It's clear logic has a monopoly on certain knowledge. Maybe it is an obstacle for some knowledge. It does seem like an obstacle in cases like Joel David Hamkins saying he is open to other logics, but they don't apply to the problems he is most interested in, so he doesn't make the move for that reason.

The main idea, that logic is an obstacle, seems trivially true if you restrict knowledge to certain domains. But if you take knowledge as a whole, then it seems trivially false logic is an obstacle because it produces knowledge no other activity does. Any philosophy saying logic does not produce knowledge is not worthwhile because there are cases where logic is the only route to certain knowledge.

Maybe reducing logic to something else like human's biological capacity for metaphor a la physicalism/psychologism like Lakoff will say that particular knowledge was actually produced not by logic, but something else. Therefore logic has no monopoly and can be an obstacle.

But as sure as mathematicians are without knowing the biology of the truth of their theorems, and that they are knowledge, logical truths probably are insulated from Lakoff's reduction. That is, logical activity regardless, produces knowledge.

So, that leaves logic as an obstacle to some pursuits/some knowledge. This obvious, and I'm not sure what you'd be getting out of doing a literature search so general. Clearly logic is not always the right tool for the job. I'm sure countless disciplines and thinkers have written why something other than logic is the best tool for the particular job. But I have to wonder if those particular descriptions add much to the general point, which seems plainly sociological and obvious without digging. I mean my whole answer is so generally informed -- witnessing logic not be the best tool for the job in many cases, but also witnessing where logic goes no other subject has/can. Einstein's science is best as an "unscrupulous opportunist" and my paraphrasing of Hamkin's are all one needs to see this general picture pervades. Pick the right tool for the job. A spade isn't an obstacle to gardening but is to writing a sonnet.

The failure of quantum logic compared to classical logical as a whole might be another example. Applying quantum logic outside its narrow domain is an obstacle to progressing those outside domains. But it is not on obstacle to knowledge per se.

But these cases only work when knowledge is compartmentalized. If it is, it seems trivial to demonstrate the many cases logic is an obstacle to certain areas. And if it isn't, it again seems trivially no.


Absolutely if one goes beyond the Western canon. In Taoism and Zen Buddhism, language and logic are attacked ruthlessly by practice and doctrine; language describing the philosophies are often laden with dialetheia. Heed the Tao Te Ching:

“Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know. Close your mouth, block off your senses, blunt your sharpness, untie your knots, soften your glare, settle your dust. This is the primal identity. Be like the Tao. It can’t be approached or withdrawn from, benefited or harmed, honored or brought into disgrace. It gives itself up continually. That is why it endures.”

Logic inheres to speech, so avoiding speech is avoiding logic. D.T. Suzuki describes enlightenment as hovering just a few inches above ground. In Zen, koans are exercises in speech and action where speech is turned on its head and meaning is gleaned from action. Students who use logic are often hit, bit, and kicked by teachers to make points (at least in the literature).

From SEP's article on Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy:

Logically speaking, Zen explains that “two” things arise because the everyday standpoint stipulates the above-mention epistemological paradigm as the standard for cognizing the whole, however the whole may be construed (Nagatomo, 2000, 213–44). This logic thinks it reasonable to divide the whole into two parts when knowing or understanding reality. That is, when this logic is applied to the whole, it compels the user of this logic to choose, reasonably in the mind of the user, one part, while disregarding the other part(s) as irrelevant or meaningless. It prioritizes one part at the expense of the other part(s), while celebrating the exclusion. In so doing, it looks to the explicit while becoming oblivious to the fact that the implicit equally exists as a supporting ground for the explicit, where the explicit is something “obvious” to the senses and the rational mind. It champions one-sidedness in cognition and judgment as the supreme form of knowing and understanding reality. However, Zen thinks that this prioritization, this exclusion, violates a cardinal principle of knowing, for knowledge of anything demands an understanding of the whole. Either-or logic fails on this account. Moreover, it contends that when this logic attempts to understand the whole, it theoretically reduces the other to the one that is judged to be true and/or real.

Here merelogical logic is suspect since wholeness and having parts is fundamentally problematic.

  • 1
    "The victorious ones have said That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. For whomever emptiness is a view, That one has accomplished nothing" -Nagarjuna.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 1 at 16:21
  • What do you make of Conifold's answer mentioning Bacon's Novum Organum - surely that is not outside the "Western canon"?
    – Frank
    Apr 1 at 17:22
  • @CriglCragl Correct me if I'm wrong, but Conifold's statement "These are the arguments of Bacon's Novum Organum against Aristotle's Organon, but what they are against isn't called "logic" anymore, but rather methodology of science" asserts that Bacon's Novum Organum contains arguments by which we can infer that Bacon was uttering logic to affirm something? If one utters logic to persuade, then one certainly can't muster much sympathy to the claim "Logic is an impediment of knowledge", right? Is that reasonable?
    – J D
    Apr 1 at 17:50
  • I would say, Frank, that Bacon is attacking Aristotelian logic and attempting to substitute a logic of his own. And thus is the history of Western philosophy up until Brouwer and beyond, who basically say what is obvious in retrospect: absolutist classic logic must yield to a pluralism of logics, especially the non-classical logics based on the notion of the Wittgensteinian Sprachspiel. Every use of logic encapsulates normativity, and the game called "Objectivity" is simply a political system of ruling in and out thinking based on the collective norms.
    – J D
    Apr 1 at 17:54
  • What makes the Eastern philosophies I mentioned different is that they refuse to play Objectivity by words, and insist on quieting the tounge to focus on what reality means without the use of language entirely, which unlike Husserl's phenomenology, generally eschews making more arguments about arguments.
    – J D
    Apr 1 at 17:56

Nature doesn't necessarily follow human logic.

Human logic isn't about knowledge.

It is a fact that we don't know of any law of nature such that nature would necessarily be consistent with human logic.

Indeed, nature often turns out to be inconsistent with our pet theory about nature, and this even though this pet theory is perfectly logical. Not only does this happen but, when it does, then human logic allows us to learn from our mistake and to change our theory accordingly. Thus, logic is like a weather pane. It allows us to point in the direction of the natural wind. So, nature does not necessarily follow human logic, but human logic follows nature.

therefore to understand Nature we should use inductive, empirical methods, no matter how "illogical" the results may seem

This is precisely what good science does. The observed positions of Mercury in the sky were inconsistent with the logical consequences of Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation. Astronomers tried this and that, for a long time refusing to ditch Newton's theory as a model of what nature does, but in the end they ditched it, switching instead to Einstein's General Relativity. The pane had moved.

But humans can resist this possibility. This is the dogmatic attitude. To be dogmatic is to resist changing your theory in the face of its inconsistency with the real world. It seems to be natural for humans to somewhat dogmatic, but different people adopt different strategies in this respect. It is also a fact that dogmatic people make up a good chunk of the human population.

logic is the wrong (or an insufficient) tool to gain real knowledge about Nature

Human logic isn't about knowledge, not even a little bit. It just allows humans to predict what the real world should be given what they already believe about it. People are then free to change or not their belief when nature contradicts their predictions.

Nature may not be consistent with human logic, but humans have survived in the natural world for at least 300,000 years by being essentially logical. Whether nature remains consistent with human logic in the future is of course uncertain, but so far so remarkably good. And I still don't see many humans jumping from the third floor to go out for a walk.


Pretty much any philosopher will tell you that logic alone is not enough to gain any knowledge, whether of nature or any other subject except possibly arithmetic. A minority of philosophers claim that logic alone is sufficient for discovering arithmetic (but not geometry).

The reason that logic is inadequate on its own is because logic is the process of reasoning from known facts to unknown facts, it is not (for the most part) a process of inventing new facts. The claimed exception for arithmetic is based on the fact that higher-order logic has the power of set theory.

There are two broad branches of what is called logic: deduction and induction. Induction is hard to pin down or formalize and there is no agreement on what the rules are or whether it is even a legitimate means to arrive at truth. Deduction is well-established, and pretty much everyone agrees that it is true of everything, including nature, by necessity.

One subtlety here is that there are two different things that people can mean by "deductive logic". They can either mean the process of reasoning deductively, following from premises to conclusions that are necessarily true if the premises are true, or they can mean some formal system of reasoning. There is significant controversy over which formal system is right, and even whether there is a single, uniquely "right" formal system, but there is very little dissent from the opinion that reasoning deductively produces true conclusions from true premises.

On arguable exception is the tiny minority that denies the Law of Noncontradiction (LNC). This view can be construed as denying logic, but even these philosophers appeal to logic for their arguments.

As to whether deduction actually applies to nature, of course it does. If nature didn't follow deductive logic, it would be an utterly chaotic thing, not only unpredictable but fundamentally inaccessible to the rational mind.

To illustrate why, here is an example of deductive logic:

(1) All polar bears are predators.
(2) All predators kill other animals.
(3) Therefore, all polar bears kill other animals.

There is no rational denial of this deductive argument other than by attacking (1) or (2), the premises. If you accept the premises it makes no sense to reject the conclusion. There is no observation of nature that could lead to the conclusion that (1) and (2) are true but (3) is false.

  • I'm not downvoting, but Professional logicians today are pluralists and accept that whether or not LEM, LNC, usw. the Principle of Bivalence, non-montonic logic, is not whether there is an "objective fact about right reasoning" which there clearly isn't since facts are socially constructed starting with the adoption of public language to the use of argumentation that is publicly known, but instead accept they are axioms in systems of reasoning applicable under different circumstances. And also abduction is often considered a third, important distinct branch of logic.
    – J D
    Apr 1 at 18:02
  • @JD JD is probably a speaker of German.
    – Frank
    Apr 1 at 18:21
  • @Frank Interesting claim. If Frank writes, a, b, c, etc. should I infer he is a speaker of Latin? :D Aber hab ich Hochdeustch, Deustsche Philosophen, und das deutsche Volk gern, ja, naturlich!.
    – J D
    Apr 1 at 18:54
  • @JD I would reply: usw., z.B.
    – Frank
    Apr 1 at 18:57
  • @JD, logical pluralism is what I had in mind when I said, "There is significant controversy over which formal system is right, and even whether there is a single, uniquely "right" formal system". Apr 1 at 19:01

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