The Inclusive Or

Being a computer engineer, when I see a question that asks “this or that?” I know the questioner means to ask “only this or only that?” but cannot help but think of it as an inclusive or. See, in logic and mathematics, “or” means “this or that or both?”. That is the default. To say “only this or only that?” you must be specific and write your question as an exclusive or. So naturally, when I see a choice between two options, my default decision is “both!”

I bring this up as a topic because I see more in this quirky, nerdy observation than merely a difference in syntax or word-choice; it is philosophical as well. How? Well, let’s inspect the mental state of someone who understands “or” to mean an exclusive or. When posed with the question “this or that?” the understanding is that they must choose one or the other. Their mind begins to immediately consider the differences between the two, as to determine which is more desirable. They start to consider, “How can I tell them apart? In what ways are they less alike? In which ways are they the least in common?” Notice the observations are largely negative in comparison. This then produces a presumption in the mind of this person to the effect of, “Since I am considering the differences between these two choices, the natural state of their relation is largely opposition.” Or in short, “It’s either one or the other. I cannot see them together.”

So, let us consider the mental state of someone who understands “or” to mean an inclusive or. When posed with the same question “this or that?” the understanding is that they can choose “this”, “that”, or both. Their mind considers this in a completely different way than the previous person. They immediately consider the ways in which they are similar. Because they have the third option of choosing both, they will consider if the two are agreeable in nature, if they have a mutual relationship. When viewing the question in a positive way such as this, they may begin the even consider that the idea of having to choose between the two options as faulty and misleading.

After inspecting the mental state and progression of a person who considers choices as an exclusive or and that of a person who considers as an inclusive or, it becomes apparent that the inclusive or provides a more constructive, appropriate, and justified approach. Often, to this person, a quandary is simply not a quandary at all, but a gift of options. Often, this person finds themselves saying, “I’ll do both!” So the next time you are presented with a choice, please consider the inclusive or.