Sunday, 13 January 2013

The enormous value of being logically wrong

One of the things that really bothers me about the modern world is that a lot of people seem not to know how to read or to think.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about the basic ability to read and understand words on a page, or to string two ideas together.
Rather, I mean the ability to read and think analytically. It is this which I believe is widely lacking and which I’d love to see addressed. If nothing else, I think this would go a long way to improving the nature of dialogue and discussion on the internet.
Unfortunately, since these subjects are not taught in our educational system (or at least weren’t when I was a participant), the average person has not learned them from an early age and is not going to pick them up casually. Furthermore, since the same average person doesn’t know what these things entail, they do not even realize that they are lacking in this area.
Take, for example, the concept of a ‘logical argument’.
Most people, I am sure, think that a logical argument is one that uses ‘logic’. As to what logic is, they imagine it is something like ‘facts’ or ‘common sense’, as opposed to ‘emotion’.
Indeed I would go as far to say that their concept of logic derives largely from Star Trek and the sayings of Mr Spock, where the opposite of ‘logic’ is ‘feelings’. Thus according to Spock, “Humans make illogical decisions”, by which he means ‘decisions based on feelings, not facts’.
It may therefore comes as a surprise — perhaps even a shock — to discover that a logical argument can lead to a false conclusion, not because there is something wrong with ‘logic’ but because logic is entirely about the structure of arguments not the content.
Take, for example, the following:
All hydrogen atoms contain one electron.
This is a hydrogen atom.
Therefore it contains one electron.
All Conservatives are stupid.
John is a Conservative.
Therefore he is stupid.
All cats have horns.
This is a cat.
Therefore it has horns.
What most peope won’t realize is that these are all logically valid arguments, despite the fact that the second is contentious and the third just plain daft.
Thus one can use a logical argument to reach an entirely unhelpful, but nevertheless logical, conclusion. It was realizing this, however, that first helped me understand the nature and the power of logic.
Understanding that ‘logical’ was not the opposite of ‘emotional’ was the first step on the road to understanding arguments that did and didn’t work.
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  1. That is an imporant distinction: structure and content.

    Logic is like a washing machine: if the water that flows out is dirty, you know the clothes were dirty. If the water flows clear, the clothes were clean. The washing machine itself neither knows nor cares whether the clothes were dirty or clean.

  2. Dorothy Sayers wrote a very pertinent piece on this-see

    Chris Bishop

  3. Chris, thanks for that - I hope people will read it.

  4. Dear John,
    Interesting observation. Interesting that you have considered the logic/emotion of Star Trek. Is this a favourite programme of your?
    Can you apply your theory to Scripture and the Gospel? To my way of thinking there is no logic to the ways of God excepting that his ways are different to our ways. There is no logical way to approaching evangelism and every circumstance has to be considered according to the how the Holy Spirit leads.

  5. But Mr I, I think you're rather missing my entire point about logic - which I'm afraid somewhat reflects my point about 'reading'.

    1. Oh dear,
      'according to Spock, “Humans make illogical decisions”
      'people get their concept of logic largely from Star Trek'.
      I don't watch Star Trek therefore I am not illogical!

  6. John,

    If our education system did what it said educate rather than enable children to pass exams, would we not be in a better shape. For example, I remember my Grand-Father who became an apprentice at 14, was not just taught to make furniture but also to make tools. So that he could make better furniture as his experience grew.
    No wonder there is a growth in home schooling (not just among a particular group of Christians but also those of no faith!)

    Richard Wood

  7. That's right Richard. People don't understand the world, but want education to lead to a job, or just get through it.

    I guess, the examples John's used are "internally" logical, but with the wrong (or illogical) starting point. It seems most arguments I come across, (think of almost anything a politician argues for), starts with the answer, then works the logic back, then can even use the opposite logic to argue for something else. People in Church manage to do that too.

    Darren Moore