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G J Boris Allan
All men are mortal;
but Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal. ∴
A syllogism is a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is derived from two premises,1 and the mortality syllogism is perhaps the most famous snippet of logical thinking we have. The statements “All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man” are the premises and the statement “Socrates is mortal” is the conclusion.
In the syllogism there is a reference to an individual (Socrates) and two ideas (the class of Men, and the mortality of members of that class). The syllogism is noteworthy not only because of its seeming simplicity but also because it alludes to our own finite life on Earth. Indeed, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas and his readers obviously knew the syllogism well, because Aquinas used the statement “Socrates is a man” to illustrate many points, and elsewhere Aquinas was very concerned to show the difference between the mortal being and the immortal soul.
“Man” is either a male human or (generically) a human, a member of the class of “Men” (all instances of Man, living or dead), and there are many ideas associated with “Man”, one of which is mortality. So what about the word “Socrates”? The word Socrates names a certain individual thing, and, associated with this individual, there is the idea that he is a member a the class of things known as Men (that is, “Socrates is a man”). In comments on Question 86, Aquinas  distinguished between the intellect (abstract knowledge, such as (1) there is a class of individuals we call human, and (2) humans are mortal) and the sense (concrete knowledge, such as this individual is Socrates); and he argued that “our intellect knows directly the universal only”.
But who is this Socrates? Socrates cannot denote the reknowned Greek philosopher of antiquity (c470-399 BCE) because philosopher Socrates was a man (he was born human), and we know that he was mortal (he died). If Socrates denoted the philosopher, the reasoning then seems trivial because we know that Socrates the philospher was mortal (he died):
All humans are mortal;
but Socrates the philosopher was born human.
Therefore Socrates the philosopher was mortal. ∴
Does being a man imply mortality? A problem with the universal statement “All humans are mortal” – as John Stuart Mill  noted – is that “... if it be still doubtful whether Socrates, or any other individual you choose to name, be mortal or not, the same degree of uncertainty must hang over the assertion, All men are mortal.” If it is true that (1) Socrates was a man and (2) Socrates was mortal (he died), then it seems that these two truths should be our premises: with the status of the mortality of men our conclusion:
Socrates the philosopher was born human;
but Socrates the philosopher was mortal.
Therefore Some humans are mortal. ∴
Logically, we can only deduce that “Some men are mortal” from our knowledge of Socrates – and Socrates did not die of old age, he was poisoned. If we take another pair of similar premises about another Socrates (the name given to a newly-born child):
Socrates the baby was born human;
but Socrates the baby is alive.
Therefore Some humans are alive. ∴
It seems rather prosaic to say “Some humans are alive and some humans are dead”, all very unexceptional. When, in the classic syllogism, we make our truth-statement “All men are mortal” we do this based on experience: our sense creates concrete knowledge that throughout history individuals we class as human have died, and we do not know of any person alive now who is more than 200 years old (all are much younger), so our intellect creates abstract knowledge that all humans alive now will die at some point in the future – that all humans are mortal is an induction, not a deduction (we surmise/guess/imply/induce). Even though some turtles are very old, we still induce that all animals are mortal (and Adwaita the Kolkata turtle died when about 255 years old). However, we cannot be certain. When Mill published his A System of Logic in 1843, the Duke of Wellington was very much alive, so:
... Assuming that the proposition, The Duke of Wellington is mortal, is immediately an inference from the proposition, All men are mortal; whence do we derive our knowledge of that general truth ? No supernatural aid being supposed, the answer must be, by observation. Now, all which man can observe are individual cases. From these all general truths must be drawn, and into these they may be again resolved: for a general truth is but an aggregate of particular truths; a comprehensive expression, by which an indefinite number of individual facts are affirmed or denied at once. — J S Mill, A System of Logic [My emphasis]
The duke died in 1852, and so was shown to be mortal a few years after the appearance of A System of Logic. Because the conclusion was proved to be correct by empirical observation (a rather large funeral, for example), can we conclude that the syllogistic argument was sound or was its conclusion an accident of fate? The argument can only be sound if both premises are true, even though the conclusion is true. For example, here is an unsound argument with a true conclusion :
All aliens are men;
but Socrates is an alien.
Therefore Socrates is a man. ∴
A sound argument involving the duke would be:
Some humans are mortal;
but The Duke of Wellington was born human.
Therefore The Duke of Wellington could be mortal. ∴
In 1843, the argument would be sound, but the conclusion would be unfalsifiable – there would be no way we could test the conclusion. In 1852, we would know the duke was dead.
Practically, the assertion “All humans are mortal” is not falsifiable (that is, capable of being tested by experiment or observation) – as Mill  noted in the extract earlier: “No supernatural aid being supposed, the answer must be, by observation.” – we could not prove it wrong because we would have to observe a human living forever to prove it wrong. However, the assertion “All humans are immortal” is falsifiable because one dead human proves the statement wrong. Unfortunately, for those who hanker after a dispassionate certainty in logic, not everybody can agree either on who is human, or on what is death. That is, of ideas implied in the syllogism, there may be some disagreement on (1) who are the members of the class of Men, and (2) the mortality of members of that class.
This lack of agreement can be passionate, because the ideas deal with the dominant human group’s place in the natural world – leading to abstract questions such as “Do humans have an immortal soul? Who is human? Do all other living things have no soul?”2 Though the concrete assertion that all humans are immortal is falsifiable (can be tested), the abstract assertion “All souls are immortal” is not falsifiable because we cannot observe a soul (souls are definitely abstract and certainly not concete). The figurative meanings of what we term a soul include “All souls are immortal”, but our knowledge of the soul’s immortality comes from metaphysical or religious beliefs (Mill’s supernatural aid) and not from physical observations – depending upon the nature of the beliefs, the nature of the soul’s immortality varies.
Identifying “Caucasians” with being human (man), and the “Negro, the Malay, the Indian, the Mongolian” as not being human, creationist Charles Carroll  believed that “The School of Creation teaches that the heaven and the earth, with all the phenomena which characterize each, is the product of divine creation.” and was certain that God’s three creations – matter, mind, and spiritual life (or soul) – were combined in humans, and humans alone, because only humans had a soul: quoting from Genesis ii, 7, “‘The breath of life’ which God ‘breathed into’ man’s ‘nostrils’ was spiritual, immortal life; life which, like God’s life, never dies; ‘and man became a living soul.”’ In addition, Carroll is at pains to note that:
The belief is widely disseminated that mind is peculiar to man. Hence, man alone possesses the faculty of reason; and that the lower animals possess mere instinct. The fallacy of this belief has long since been demonstrated.
Though animals (and Negroes) may possess a moral faculty, Carroll argues that a moral faculty (like reason) is an attribute of mind and does not indicate a spiritual life or soul: “All scientific investigation of the subject proves the Negro to be an ape; and that he simply stands at the head of the ape family, as the lion stands at the head of the cat family.” Furthermore:
This is shown by the highest authorities of the age that the pure-blooded white alone possesses the great mental qualities which are essential in the creature whom God designed should develop the resources of the earth, and have dominion over fish and fowl and beast; and it is significant that these exalted characteristics find their opposites in the Negro.
Repeating the biblical “giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh” in many places, Carroll says that intercourse between humans and beasts is damned in Christian scriptures, and that the Negro is merely a beast (having no soul, being only matter and mind). Carroll argues against those Christians of a less dogmatic persuation:
“But,” says the enlightened Christian, “If a man is married to a negress, will not their offspring have a soul?” No; it is simply the product resulting from God’s violated law, and inherits none of the Divine nature of the man, but, like its parent, the ape, it is merely a combination of matter and mind.
It was this type of reasoning that appeared much earlier when some white fathers of children born to violated female slaves felt no bond of paternity, because the children were beasts born of a beast (the slave mother).
Despite his appeal to his interpretation of the Bible, and similar pretenses, Carroll’s true bigotry is obvious in statements such as:
“The temperament of the Negro is more sluggish than that of the White man.” In Africa, the Negroes are extremely indolent, and use little exertion for their well-being. Every person who has resided in the midst of a Negro population in our Southern States has been compelled to remark their incapability of intense effort, and their constitutional sleepiness and slowness. … The person of the White exhales an order which is scarcely perceptible, and not especially offensive. In striking contrast to this, the Negro is characterized by a very strong offensive odor. Topinard says, “The characteristic effluvium from the hold of a slave-ship can never he got rid of.”
In another example of the smugness of the dominant elite, a similar bigotry was evidenced at an early time by Thomas Jefferson and his self-serving statement about racial aesthetics, in which (ignoring which group had power) he said Negroes favoured the beauty of whites – and there is Jefferson’s justifiably infamous “Oranootan” assertion:
The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. — Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia 
The dominance of whites in the the USA continued for a long time, and it took research by non-white psychologists to show that “It is clear that the Negro child, by the age of five is aware of the fact that to be colored in contemporary American society is a mark of inferior status” (Kenneth B Clark and Mamie P Clark in the Journal of Negro Education).3
Like Carroll, Thomas Jefferson classed slaves with beasts, though I suspect more out of sense of convenient superiority than a religious conviction. In his Notes there is a chapter on “Productions, mineral, vegetable, and animal” and near the end of this chapter Jefferson writes:
To this catalogue of our indigenous animals, I will add a short account of an anomaly of nature, taking place sometimes in the race of negroes brought from Africa, who, though black themselves, have in rare instances, white children, called Albinos. — Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia .
So, in the early days of the US republic, Jefferson (and others) thought Negroes were so different from whites that slaves were of a different and inferior race, partly because it was convenient to think so. This convenient impulse existed long before other white men (from eugenicist to creationist) tried to establish the Caucasian race as inherently superior to the Negro race – and do only white people have souls?
1. A premise is a statement that is assumed to be true.
2. Or, do they enjoy (Hobbes) a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”?
3. The Clarks’ research was an important component of the 1950s fight against segregation in schools.
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