Monthly Archives: August 2012

No true Scotsman

I absolutely loved my training in formal logic – I didn’t to begin with (it looked suspiciously like maths and equations, and I thought I’d left that behind) but when I got the hang of it, it felt like a beautiful and powerful tool to examine and dismantle sentences and arguments (in the sense of ‘making an argument for something’, not shouty disagreements). I feel like it ought to be taught at an early age in schools, but that’s a side issue.

Formal logic is basically a way of reducing potentially complex sentences to their fundamental logical parts. Once you do that, it’s much easier to examine the logical steps that take you from one to the next – or that fail to do so. So, for example, following all the rain this summer, I’ve decided to always take an umbrella with me if it’s raining. You can actually express this incredibly briefly in formal (or symbolic) logic using these tools!

P = it’s raining
Q = taking an umbrella
= if (something) then (something else)


Stands for ‘if it’s raining I will take an umbrella’.

We can now form a logical argument! Basically this is taking at least one premise and using it to reach a valid conclusion.

Premise 1: P Q (if it’s raining I’ll take an umbrella)
Premise 2: P (it’s raining)
Conclusion: Q (I’m taking an umbrella)

You can see that this is a really useful standard form and applies to anything you feed into it, like so:

Premise 1: P Q (if it’s Monday I have ballet class)
Premise 2: P (it’s Monday)
Conclusion: Q (I have ballet class)

Premise 1: P Q (if my partner is tall he will hit his head on the doorway)
Premise 2: P (my partner is tall)
Conclusion: Q (he hits his head on the doorway)

See? It’s so simple you’re wondering why I bothered to write you out three different examples. But you’ve just learned an actual proper logical form called Modus Ponens. GOLD STAR 🙂

Just like with maths, there are all sorts of useful rules for switching bits of this statement around so you don’t have to think it through every time. So just as 6 x 7 = 42 means that 42/7 = 6, ‘if P then Q’ also means that ‘if not-Q then not-P’.

Wait, what? Let’s put it back into ordinary language. Assuming I am totally consistent in my umbrella carrying habits, and I *always* carry an umbrella if it’s raining, the fact of me *not* carrying an umbrella (‘not-Q’) therefore means it can’t be raining (‘not-P’). Similarly, look back to those examples above – if I don’t have ballet class, then it’s not Monday; if my partner doesn’t hit his head on the doorway, he’s not tall.

Premise 1: P Q
Premise 2: not-Q
Conclusion: not-P

You’ve just learned a second logical form! This one is called Modus Tollens. Another gold star 🙂

So you can see there are standard forms for logical arguments, and they’re so standard they have names. These are watertight forms of reasoning, assuming what you put into them is valid (I could write out a logical argument including ‘if I quit my job I will become a famous lion tamer’, but that wouldn’t make it true!). This is known as being ‘truth-preserving’ – the way formal logic works, as long as the premises you put into it are true, then the conclusion will also be true, no matter what. There are also standard forms for logical fallacies – faults, whether intentional or otherwise, in reasoning from the premises to the conclusion.

Let’s keep looking at the umbrella example. We’ve established that ‘if P then Q, not-Q, therefore not-P’ works absolutely fine. Shouldn’t it work the other way round, too? ‘it’s not raining’ therefore ‘I won’t take an umbrella’? BZZZZT nope. There is absolutely nothing in any of those premises anywhere to suggest that I’m not some umbrella-carrying obsessive who always carries an umbrella when it’s raining, but also often carries one in blazing sunshine. That goes for the other examples, too – I might have ballet class on Monday AND Tuesday nights, my not-tall partner might be on stilts or a pogo stick or just bouncy and still hit his head.

These aren’t trick questions or ways to catch you out. This is exactly how formal logic is useful – you look only at what’s actually there, not your own personal inferences or assumptions about what’s ‘probably’ true.

Formal logic is great fun to use to take apart arguments, especially those put forward by politicians who at best use convincing rhetoric rather than logic. It’s not really very useful in your personal life, unless you’re surrounded by people who’d take kindly to being told that their feelings are illogical. Although if you do try that, film the reaction. And be ready to run.

What does this have to do with poly?

Er, yes, good point. Longest introduction ever.

What this is leading up to is an informal logical fallacy called the No True Scotsman fallacy, which comes up in all sorts of ways in discussions around poly relationships (whether it’s poly vs monogamous, or ‘my poly’ vs ‘your poly’). Yes, if you know the difference between formal and informal errors, you’ll already have realised that all that formal logic stuff i just wrote is only tangentially connected to this. So shoot me. Formal logic is my idea of fun 😛

Anyway! No True Scotsman is basically an attempt to cling on to an assertion or claim in the face of evidence against it. Logically, if you claim “all A are B” and then are presented with an example of A that is not B, you ought to accept that “all A are B” is not true, and at best “some A are B”. Instead, the No True Scotsman fallacy involves someone redefining A in direct response to the example, specifically to exclude the example.


Courtesy of philosopher Antony Flew via Wikipedia:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

Hamish redefined his original point specifically to exclude an example that would otherwise have proved him wrong. His original point relied on ‘Scotsman’ being what most people would understand it (someone born in Scotland or of Scottish parents). His second point redefined it as ‘born in Scotland/of Scottish parents AND not capable of committing brutal sex crimes’.

This may ring more true if I put it into a form most people who’ve come out as non-monogamous have encountered:

“No one in a loving relationship would be happy for their partner to have sex with other people.”
“I love my partner very much, she loves me, and I think her boyfriend is awesome and I’m happy they have a good sex life.”
“That’s not real love, you’re just deluding yourself. When you really fall in love with someone, you’ll understand.”

Again, this is redefining the original point – the original idea of ‘loving relationship’ relies on the commonly understood definition of love, without reference to monogamy or non-monogamy. The second idea redefines a loving relationship to ALSO include monogamy.

You also end up with a similar problem in the tedious ‘true polyamory’ debates. There’s always a moment when someone explains their particular relationship structure, and someone else pops up to say ‘ah, well that’s not true polyamory’. To be fair, being a relatively new word, polyamory doesn’t quite have a universally accepted definition, so sometimes it’s genuine confusion. But sometimes it’s just silly (‘my girlfriend is really spiteful and belittles me in front of my wife’ ‘that’s not really polyamory’ – yes it is, but it’s also a shitty polyamorous relationship. Those happen too.)

Want more? Wikipedia has a good discussion about the No True Scotsman fallacy.


Donne: To His Mistress Going To Bed

I was lucky enough to have a wonderful and incredibly inspiring English teacher at A-level – I’d love to credit her here, but that’s probably not appropriate… But her teaching is responsible for my love of Donne and the metaphysical poets, and this is one of my favourite poems. It was joyful and electrifying to read at 17, and still is.

Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy ;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Off with your hose and shoes ; then softly tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Revealed to men ; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet’s paradise ; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite ;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, my empery ;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee !
To enter in these bonds, is to be free ;
Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.
Full nakedness ! All joys are due to thee ;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s ball cast in men’s views ;
That, when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array’d.
Themselves are only mystic books, which we
—Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
Must see reveal’d. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to thy midwife show
Thyself ; cast all, yea, this white linen hence ;
There is no penance due to innocence :
To teach thee, I am naked first ; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Poly Means Many: non-lovers

For most people, ‘non-lovers’ means ‘everyone who isn’t my girlfriend/boyfriend’ – or at least the vast majority of people they know and care about. For people in open relationships of whatever shape, that’s not always the answer. Admittedly, the majority of people I know and care about are also non-lovers, but the edges are a little more… blurred.

You hear people talk about how one of the advantages of poly is that ‘relationships can find their own level’, and sometimes it’s true – I have some dear and beloved friends who I’ve occasionally gone to bed with in the past, and may do so again in the future, but that’s not particularly relevant to our usual relationship, that of friends. It’s lovely to know that it doesn’t really matter either way, and that sex is not a Big Deal. I think of them as friends, not lovers, even though the edges of the definitions are blurred.

On the other hand, I have many equally dear and beloved friends who I have absolutely NO interest in in that way, and vice versa, and even contemplating the idea in abstract makes me feel slightly uncomfortable – these are often old friends, from university or ex-housemates or old colleagues, though not always. These are the friends who are more like a sibling relationship, and I love the comfortableness of these friendships too. In particular, I really value the easy friendships I have with some of my straight male friends to whom I am effectively a boy.

I suppose my point, if I have one, is that people who are new to poly (and sometimes not so new…) can get a bit DATE ALL THE THINGS. After all, if this person is attractive and interesting and poly, why shouldn’t I date them? Aside from the calendar and scheduling issue, sometimes new friends are just awesome in themselves. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should – the friendship you can have with someone that you have never and will never have a sexual or romantic relationship with is different, and awesome. And if they’re poly too, that’s extra-awesome – you can talk about your lives without having to qualify or explain, or get their advice on relationship problems without worrying that you’re overstepping boundaries or putting them in an awkward position.

I thought about talking about metamours here, too, but I feel like that’s a subtly different subject from ‘just’ non-lovers – the wonder of the Poly Means Many project is that I’m sure one of the other bloggers has something different to say about the topic! Some of the people in my life that I most admire are metamours of mine, one way or another, and I am delighted to be connected to such an incredible network of fiercely intelligent, funny, kind, creative and loving people.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month seven bloggers – ALBJ, Delightfully Queer, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, Post Modern Sleaze, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.