Sunday, August 3, 2014

Not Mechanistic

A diagrammatic approach to thinking, at first glance, might seem overly mechanistic.  The diagram of a machine is certainly as mechanical as the machine itself.  And many diagrams attempt this kind of rigorous consistency.  Using them is an instrumental matter of making calculations.  Formal logic, holding itself aloof from its applications, is like this.  But while all diagrams, and hence diagrammatic thinking in general, relies on consistency, not all diagrams display the rigor of a mechanical device or formal logic.

In fact, most diagrams just aren't that rigorous.  They employ rules or generalizations with qualifications and exceptions, and they are judged by their functionality, not the mechanistic precision of the diagram itself.  Even the rigorous consistency of formal logic has to be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to actually using it.  Any general assertion we make about experience, scientific laws included, is going to have qualifications and exceptions.

More important, though, applying any kind of diagram, rigorous or less so, is not a mechanical process either.  Take for instance a moral question like pulling the plug:

Illustration and example from Richard Arthur 
The question is not the result given by any one of these diagrams — although that can be a question in its own right.  The question is which particular diagram — utilitarian principles, Torah, human compassion, professional ethics, financial concerns, case precedents, Christian scripture, Canon Law , or other unlisted diagram should be applied or take precedence.  Even if each of these diagrams are as rigorous in their inferences as formal logic, the decision as to which one should be applied is hardly a mechanical process.

Diagrammatic thinking mediates thought with consistency, but it is not limited to a mechanistic approach because of that.