Thursday, August 25, 2005

A cry for logic

We all have beliefs. Unforunately, most of us couldn't state logically why we have them. Maybe it's a shortcoming of our education, maybe it's because we're too lazy to question ourselves, I don't know.

I've noticed it quite a bit lately when trying to follow some lively debates that I've either heard, been part of, or witnessed in the blogosphere and day to day life. There seems to be a lot of invalid arguments and not a lot of sound arguments or even valid arguments.

So, what is a sound argument? Well, a sound argument is a set of premises that lead by way of inferences to a conclusion that is true. The only way for a sound argument to exist is for the premises to be true, the inferences to be valid and the conclusion true.

Slightly less appealing, but at least understandable is a valid argument.

A valid argument is one where the inferences are considered to be valid. The starting premises can be wrong, or the conclusion can be wrong, but everything in the middle makes logical sense.

Here's an example taken from The Philosophy Pages:

If I believe that whales are mammals and that all mammals are fish, then it would also make sense for me to believe that whales are fish. Even someone who (rightly!) disagreed with my understanding of biological taxonomy could appreciate the consistent, reasonable way in which I used my mistaken beliefs as the foundation upon which to establish a new one.

On the other hand, if I decide to believe that Hamlet was Danish because I believe that Hamlet was a character in a play by Shaw and that some Danes are Shavian characters, then even someone who shares my belief in the result could point out that I haven't actually provided good reasons for accepting its truth.

It seems that we've become so proud of the strength of our convictions that we seldom stop to examine the validity of our convictions. Instead of stating a logical case that supports our convictions, we tend to slip into a ''re just a poopoo head' mentality when our convictions are questioned. And while the 'my Dad is bigger than your Dad and he'll beat you up' argument might be the trump hand on the playground, it's not a very impressive one in adult debate.

Politics and religion tend to be the two big battlegrounds of debate. That's been the case for centuries. But in America today it seems that our political debate generally runs something like this:
D: People need access to health care.
R: We're not going to let you raise taxes.
D: You don't care about regular people like we do, you just want to help the rich.
R: Fuckin' Liberals are trying to ruin this country.

R: People should have adequate health care.
D: Oh sure, you want to make the rich richer.
R: People need a hand up, not a hand out.
D: Fuckin' Conservatives are trying to ruin this country.

A friend of mine is a sports editor at a paper in California. On the sidelines of a football game he was asked by a local booster why he wasn't cheering for the home team. His answer was that wasn't cheering for either team, he was cheering for the game.

Maybe if more people were willing to take that attitude, then more people would find themselves able to question their own convictions and allow others to question them as well.

That's really all logic is about. Exploring how we come up with our convictions and beliefs and determining whether or not they are really valid. But that takes work and the results don't generally fit onto a bumper sticker so most of us tend to just fall back on our 'you're a poopoo head' mentality never stopping to think that in so doing it's us that become the 'poopoo heads.'


tshsmom said...


Josh said...

A great post, of course, sir.

Guess who would say the lack of logic in our discourse is the result of a shift from a visual, print mentality (where ideas follow sequentially from one other) to an acoustic, electric mentality (where ideas bump into each other discontinously, from all directions)? And that if we explored our technologies better, instead of just worrying about the "moral" qualities of their contents, we could get this figured out? Guess who'd say that?

I love that guy.

The Zombieslayer said...

Well written Shawn. That's one thing I really admire about you. You'll have your opinion, and whether I agree or disagree with it, you'll at least have valid reasons for believing what you do.

What drives me nuts is when someone would immediately attack my character instead of my belief. The fact that I'm whatever I am has nothing to do with the argument. They just don't know how to stick to the argument.

Miranda said...

This is one of those posts that makes me leave hanging my head.

Oh well! I'm off to the kitchen
to drink day old chai in penance!

Laura said...

I think you hit the nail on the head: Most people do not take the time to examine the "why" of their beliefs, just the "whats".

We all have our erroneous beliefs, some more than others.

It takes courage and a certain level of maturity, first and foremost, to take a step back and examine your beliefs critically. You may find that you've been wrong about something - or believed something for the wrong reasons, and depending on the issue, that is very hard for some people to face. I wish more people would do do it though.

I respect someone's opinions more if they have critically examined WHY they hold them (beyond "I was raised that way" or "because I'm a democrat/republican") and can back them up, regardless of whether or not we agree.

Laura said...

Miranda, I have to ask: why "ick"?

Miranda said...

It seemed the appropriate expression. I can't really think of a deep, meaningful explanation for the word, but if you elaborate on why it baffles you, I'll be happy to try to clear things up.

Laura said...

I meant as in "ick" to which part, the state of 'bumpersticker' debate in our country or examining one's own beliefs?

thephoenixnyc said...

I like to write down my beliefs and convictions and then deconstruct them. Tear them apart, look at them from 8 angles and ask others opinions.

Sometimes I see where I ws wrong, sometimes I see where I was right.

My personel oprion on the subject of discourse in America is that where once there were slight differentials between left and right, there is now a flat out war for the heart and soul of the country and both sides are dug in.

The conservatives have all the advantages now, house, senate, white house, judiciary, media.

Most people who are in the middle or left leabing have been made to feel like they are un american, on the fringe and out of touch because of their reliance on facts, truth, rational discourse and moderation. Dark times indeed.

Miranda said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Miranda said...

Oh, neither one. Shawn mentioned falling back on a "You're a poopoo head" mentality. And I know there have been times I've done that. Not always vocally, but it's difficult for me sometimes to separate the argument from the arguer.

I like Phoenix's idea.

Laura said...

I kinda think that on many issues, the majority of people can find a common ground - excepting maybe the "wedge issues". I think the differences between the sides are overblown by media pundits. If we dig beyond surface affiliations (political, religious, whatever) I think we'd find we agree on a great many things. If we could just get the wingnuts on both sides to shut up for a few minutes.

Slade said...

If we did follow logic in the way that you are describing, we'd have to get rid of categories (such as democrats and republicans) and sadly no one wants to do that. The reason I say this is because there are very few people who actually believe everything associated with these categories.

This makes more sense in my head...sorry

tshsmom said...

jw, that really explains WHY a lot of people think like they do.

Laura, you're proof of your own point. You find a LOT of common ground with people you don't agree with politically and spiritually. You're open-minded and I respect that!!

Slade, you're in the same category with ZS and I. We don't compartmentalize well. But we DO play well with others ;)

Shawn said...

Phoenix - That's a pretty Buddhist idea of analyzing beliefs. I should do more of it myself.

M - Don't feel icky... You put a lot of effort into learning and I totally respect that. I love to 'argue' with you because you put effort into your thoughts.

Laura - I agree that many disagreements come from the simple fact that we're disagreeing about something other than what we're arguing about. (For example it you argue that orange sunflowers are best and I argue that yellow are best only to find that we meant the same thing, but were using different terms for them.

Slade - That's very true. There's even a term in logic that describes the kind of opposition to an argument based on the listener's opinion of the person making it.

(Okay...I thought it was so cool that I looked it up...I'm a dork like that. It's called the ad hominem argument.) the ad hominem argument, in which we are encouraged to reject a proposition because it is the stated opinion of someone regarded as disreputable in some way. This can happen in several different ways, but all involve the claim that the proposition must be false because of who believes it to be true:

* Harold maintains that the legal age for drinking beer should be 18 instead of 21.
* But we all know that Harold...
o ...dresses funny and smells bad. or
o 19 years old and would like to drink legally or
o ...believes that the legal age for voting should be 21, not 18 or
o ...doesn't understand the law any better than the rest of us.
* Therefore, the legal age for drinking beer should be 21 instead of 18.

Anyway, personality (or a label such as Democrat or Republican) is irrelevant to truth - even moreso when the labels are emotionally charged.

Josh said...

I would suggest that our times are not as dark as they might at first appear. I think a consequence of life in the global village is a tendency to overdramatize. Sure, there is a dearth of rational thought today. But really, that's been true of pretty much all of history, except for a few bright spots.

We talk about this epic clash of beliefs—the left thinks the right is violating basic human rights; the right thinks the left is violating basic human decency. But the truth is, the vast majority of us get up every day and do our thing, and our basic rights aren't violated and we're pretty decent to each other. Pat reminded me the other day that upon being asked, "What happened when the Roman Empire fell?", Mr. Christianson, our sixth-grade social studies teacher, replied: "Well, the next day, everyone woke up, put their shoes on, ate breakfast, and went to work."

That's not to say we shouldn't be concerned about the issues at hand. But if we're going to deal with them effectively, we have to approach them rationally.

Josh said...

A few more comments:

I realized that it might seem like my earlier post and my last one contradicted each other—i.e., first I'm saying that there was more logical discourse because of our visual mindset and later I'm saying that there's never been much logical discourse. There is no contradiction, though, once you remember what a steep rise in literacy we've seen over the past couple of centuries. Literacy used to go hand in hand with logical thought, in part because for centuries, literate people read the same materials—most were familiar with at least the rudiments of Greek thought and philosophy.

So there was still a lot of irrationality, but the people in power tended to respect a power structure that allowed for separation of an argument from the arguer. Now there's a lot more literacy, but (1) readers don't get the same training, and (2) TV and the rest of the electronic media tend to overwhelm the less pervasive print technology. (Which is not to say TV is bad—it's just how it works.)

And Slade makes a great point. A consequence of print-based technology is that we want to get everything to fit under neat little headings. I think a look at 20th-century science will show that in most of the fields, scientists started seeing that their findings didn't always fit into their previously established categories. It's surely the problem with our schools, where we value a certain kind of thinking (visual thought, or the Three R's) and insist on measuring intelligence and success by those standards, in spite of what reality tells us, which is that some kids are fucking brilliant—they're just not good at writing.

And the same thing goes for political labels. A big question these days is who represents people who want to, say, help the environment but are also anti-abortion? We insist in trying to make reality fit our previously established forms. But reality doesn't budge that easily.

I think you're wrong, though, Slade, when you say "no one wants to do that." I think a lot of people want to see a change. I'm not suggesting we throw out our party system. I'm just saying our parties would work better if we understood them more.

Shawn said...

You're certainly right about that J-Man. (Your first previous comment that is...since you slid in two before I could even limber up my typing you're good.)

I mean, seriously, as much as we might complain about how hard it is to do this or that, or how little time we have, or how things are falling apart...the reality is that we're all pretty blessed to be living now and in the West.

We certainly have as many = or more - opportunities than ever before in history. And with those opportunities come the responsibility to use them wisely...something we all could work on. You would agree Monsieur, non?

Josh said...

If by "using them wisely" you mean, "finding a way to do two chicks at once," then oui, of course I agree, Peter.

Laura said...

tshsmom: I don't know. According to Stephen A, someone who's been harrassing the Great White Bear, I'm just a little Liberal wingnut girl that needs to go shoe shopping and butt out of politics.

Shawn said...

Is it your Puritanical upbringing that limits your mind to thinking of only two? Surely three would be even beter...

Shawn said...

Holy crap...I bought a pair of shoes the other day!

Josh said...

Dog, I'm just tryin to live simply, you know?

Miranda said...

Thank you. You have my respect for the same reasons (that and your
incredible writing and ability to withstand dippin' dots).

Compromise! Shop for shoes AND engage in politics.

Laura said...

Actually I hate shopping, but how about chocolate bon-bons in place of shoes ;-)