Logic and semantics in Woody Allen’s “The UFO Menace”

We read in Woody Allen’s “The UFO Menace” (*) that:

“Professor Leon Speciman postulates a civilization in outer space that is more advanced than ours by approximately fifteen minutes. This, he feels gives them a great advantage over us, since they needn’t rush to get to appointments.”

With due respect to the Nobel Prize laureate I would like to inform him that, had he been familiar with the work of the Mohist logicians (4th and 3rd Centuries B.C.) and with the Mo-tzu in particular, he wouldn’t have come up with such flawed reasoning. Indeed, that a civilization in outer space is more advanced than ours by approximately fifteen minutes does not entail that every one of the representatives of that civilization will himself or herself be advanced by fifteen minutes and will, for instance, avoid such embarrassment as running late at the dentist.

The Hsiao Ch’ü provides numerous examples of valid and invalid inferences that could have served as templates to Professor Speciman:

“If you inhabit somewhere in a state, you are deemed to inhabit the state; if you own one house in the state, you are not deemed to own the state. If this horse’s eyes are blind, we deem this horse blind; if this horse’s eyes are big, we do not say that this horse is big. If these oxen’s hairs are yellow, we say that these oxen are yellow; if these oxen’s hairs are many, we do not say that these oxen are many” (Hansen 1983: 136-137).

“Why is it”, do the Mohists ask, “that if I say ‘This oxen is yellow’, I can infer from that that all his hair is yellow but not that every one of his eyes is yellow?” The answer is of course that the “yellowness” of an oxen derives from the collectively attained color of its individual hair but not from the color of his eyes. The same reasoning is easily transposed to the case of an outer space civilization: its being more advanced than ours by fifteen minutes does not derive from the collective outcome of each of its members being individually more advanced by fifteen minutes in everyday pursuits but by another of its features, e.g. in the present case, its technology being more advanced by fifteen minutes.

That such inferences need to be solved on a case by case basis underlines that their application does not derive from logic which can be formalized in a symbolic language, but from semantics. The incontrovertible presence of regularities in pattern turn out here to be deceptive. Attempts at formalizing these have been made for the last fifty years by Professor Noam Chomsky and explain why he has devoted recently an increasing portion of his time to questions of a political nature rather than linguistic.

A final point on Professor Speciman’s argument: is it worth paying much attention to a civilization more advanced than ours by a mere fifteen minutes? Professor Speciman’s research is no doubt supported by taxpayers’ money; isn’t it any taxpayer’s duty to remind him that the minimum advancement between an outer space civilization and ours worth retaining attention should be a couple of years at the least?

(*) Woody Allen, The Insanity Defense, The Complete Prose, New York: Random House, 2007: 230-237

(**) Chad Hansen, Language and Logic in Ancient China, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983

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