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Everyday People: Hammond resident is a major figure in logic

J. Karel Lambert invented ‘free logic’ in the ’60s

Published on April 4, 2016 7:40AM

Last changed on April 4, 2016 3:54PM

J. Karel Lambert, a professor emeritus of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Salzburg, Austria, broke new ground in the field of logic.

Erick Bengel/The Daily Astorian

J. Karel Lambert, a professor emeritus of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Salzburg, Austria, broke new ground in the field of logic.

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In Hammond lives a man listed in the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers as one of the great logicians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In the early 1960s, Joseph Karel Lambert figured out how to mathematically express an old theory of learning in psychology and ended up developing “free logic” (a term he coined).

Unlike classical logic, free logic allows for singular terms that don’t denote real things; it is “free from the assumption that what you’re talking about has to exist,” Lambert said.

This was a huge innovation. Even Lambert had no idea how huge.

“I was pretty ignorant, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I didn’t know much about logic. I was a psychologist, and I was trying to adapt something, trying to find a tool so I could make this theory precise.”

In finding his tool, Lambert made major contributions to the fields of logic, philosophy, psychology, mathematics, physics and computer science.

A discovery

“I really didn’t know I was doing anything extraordinary; it was only later, when people who knew a lot more about these things told me it was. And then I received praise and much condemnation, too,” he said. “There was a discovery, and then I had to show the discovery actually wasn’t crazy.”

Other logicians had attempted to revise classical logic for different reasons, but without success. At first, critics thought Lambert’s free logic was trivial and difficult, a needless departure from a tradition that could address the same shortcomings in some other way.

“But, over a period of about 40 years, it began to get a considerable amount of credibility,” he said. “This little thing that I helped to invent just simplified everything.”

Nowadays, free logic is a standard part of logic books — as is “Lambert’s Law,” a basic principle that deals with the analysis of definite descriptions.

Thinking abstractly

Born in 1928 in a Chicago suburb, Lambert grew up wanting to be an athlete. He attended the University of New Mexico and Willamette University on a football scholarship, but had to face the fact that he wasn’t built for the big leagues.

“It became very clear to me, soon, that I was never going to be a professional football player,” he said.

Fortunately, he had an aptitude for abstract reasoning — a trait that may have been hereditary. His father, for example, was a sailor who taught himself calculus.

As a child, Lambert read his mother’s encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, for pleasure.

“I don’t say I understood everything, but I went through all 20 volumes, because I liked it. I found that stuff fascinating,” he said.

He admits, however, that his mechanical aptitude is somewhat lacking.

“And those skills have lasted all my life: the ability to think abstract things, and to be utterly frustrated by the actual world,” he said, laughing. “So, as probably happens with most people, you go where things are most comfortable. And intellectual things were very comfortable to me.”

Solving the problem

After earning a master’s degree in experimental psychology at the University of Oregon, he pursued a doctorate degree in philosophy and psychology at Michigan State University, where he began to see the gaps in classical logic while doing research for his dissertation.

It was while he was teaching at the University of Alberta in Canada that Lambert invented free logic as a way to represent a person’s belief in things — from ether to the planet Vulcan — that may not exist.

“I knew what I had to do, right? And I went ahead and did it,” he said. “And I was stupid enough so that I didn’t know it shouldn’t or couldn’t be done.”

David Weber, a senior instructor of philosophy at Portland State University, wrote in a message, “We talk all the time about things that don’t exist. Classical logic, which assumes that names refer to existing things, has a hard time capturing the logic of some of that kind of talk.

“Lambert’s free logic — logic free of existence assumptions — is a way of getting around that problem,” Weber said.

‘Tickled pink’

The author or co-author of more than a dozen books, Lambert might never have led a scholarly life without one game-changing gift: the GI Bill, which he called “the absolutely greatest thing to happen to me and lots of other people.”

“Without the GI Bill, I’m not sure I could’ve gone to college,” said Lambert, who served in the U.S. Navy Air Corps near the end of World War II.

Lambert — a professor emeritus of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Salzburg in Austria — is a passionate advocate for higher education. In 2014, he penned a guest column for The Daily Astorian about the need to increase funding for Oregon’s colleges and universities.

A self-described “physical fitness nut,” he enjoys hiking, playing golf and following politics.

Though he considers himself an independent, “there’s no doubt about it, I have liberal leanings,” he said. “I’d love to see Bernie Sanders get nominated, and I’d love to be able to vote for him.”

Lambert has three children with his wife, Carol, a descendant of Astoria’s famous Carruthers family.

“I kind of married into a part of — although I didn’t know it at the time — a part of Astoria’s history, and I loved it from the very beginning,” he said. “I’m tickled pink to be here.”

— Erick Bengel


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