Why not logic?
or, "Collie, you're just so intimidating!"
by Collie Collier
As those who know me are aware, I love a good argument. By "argument," of course, I don't mean screaming and verbal fisticuffs. I mean a thoughtful, mentally challenging discussion where two or more folks can hash out interesting philosophical beliefs. A good argument isn't about winning -- it's about clarity. What's critical in discussions like these is we all hopefully learn something interesting, we all remain polite, and we all gain from hearing each other out.
Discussions like this, however, work only when someone is capable of laying out the reasoning which led to their conclusion and (perhaps most critically) is capable of following that reasoning through to a logical conclusion.
I mention this because in a good argument all the participants must be able to explain themselves coherently, even if they're thinking through the process right then and there. In a good argument, thinking things through is encouraged -- it's the whole point of the discussion, after all. People should be given the time and help they need to do so during the argument, or it's not a good and fair discussion.
Equally important: good argument participants should be capable of changing their minds. If we work through the logic and my conclusion doesn't fit the facts, then either my conclusion is erroneous, or we don't yet have all the facts. It's also possible to have two (or more) correct conclusions after going through all the facts, so a good arguer must keep in mind there is always the possibility of more than just one "truth," or right answer.
For a simple example, if the fact you have is "the street is wet," you could deduce it must have rained recently. You might also assume a streetsweeper has just gone through and dampened down the street. Both statements are potentially correct, based on the data to hand. Further data would reveal one or both statements are either correct or incorrect.
Logic doesn't necessarily directly equate to "Truth-with-a-capital-T," of course. All it means is your conclusion fits the facts you have to hand -- and facts change. The data available to us used to support the conclusion the world was flat, but as we gained more knowledge about the world, we realized our initial "facts" were incorrect.
An erroneous conclusion, however, has absolutely nothing to do with self worth! All it means is there was a belief which wasn't correct. It's a shame today's society seems to have decided incorrect equals bad, or even "evil" in some cases. Attitudes like this unnecessarily polarize issues into simplistic binaryisms. No one wants to admit to being incorrect, if incorrect equates to stupid or bad.
Was it something I said?!
Why do I make these obvious statements? Mostly because in my past I've repeatedly had trouble with this entire issue, to the extent I've been several times informed I'm too intimidating to argue with. It took several intelligent and thoughtful friends whose opinions I respected (and who all really love a good argument with me) to help me realize this was not necessarily a bad thing.
My friends pointed out to me the people telling me I was intimidating were almost invariably people who didn't have well-reasoned beliefs in the first place. In such a situation I can see how being asked to logically defend illogic would indeed be intimidating.
Still, despite the assurances of friends, this is an issue I've been struggling with for a while: am I really intimidating people -- forcing them to either agree with me or be silenced? I hope not. I know I don't want to browbeat people I'm trying to have interesting discussions with. I don't think anyone rational really wants to be an asshole.
After all, how can you think creatively and expressively if you're being constantly stifled -- or stifling? That's why I try to be polite (if also intense, I've been told ;-) when in discussions like these. That's also why I make an effort to be helpful when folks are trying to work out their reasoning, and I'm just as happy to be quiet while they think things through, if they ask me to do so.
On the other hand, I've no desire to be so "touchy-feely" that I allow obviously illogical conclusions to be foisted off on me as truth. Just because someone somewhere believes something does not make it true! As a simple example, you may insist the Easter bunny is physically real until you're blue in the face. However, until a big rabbit with a basket of colored eggs comes hopping in, I'm not going to agree with you.
Why is logic so terrifying to some people? Why won't people calmly and logically examine their basic underlying beliefs? For that matter, why do some folks cling so desperately to their emotional illogic, when faced with logic?
I'm happy to agree to disagree with (generalized) you, but please don't ask me to capitulate to what is blatantly, provably illogical nonsense... and please don't get angry with me if you've asked me to argue logically with you, and then I'm able to clearly demonstrate a logical fault in your reasoning.
"This above all: to thine ownself be true"
Here's another odd thing: I've more than once given a "code phrase" to folks who don't want to argue with me. It was, in essence, a polite way to ask me to not enter into a good argument with them, which I'm usually way too eager to do.
The phrase was a simple one: "That's a very interesting conclusion, Collie. However, while I don't agree with it, I'd prefer not to discuss it right now." What puzzled me was that on several occasions when it would have been appropriate to use, the people in question never used it -- they just got increasingly more quiet and unhappy.
Indeed, I had to read their body language, figure out they didn't wish to discuss the issue just then, and ask them politely if they'd like to end that line of conversation. Doesn't sound like a big deal, until you realize many of those conversations were on-line, where we can't truly see each other's body language -- I had to extrapolate hastily off the subtle, perhaps unrealized changes in their writing. While I've done this with some success, it's not easy to be courteous to someone when you can't see what result your words are having.
In effect, as a friend pointed out, they expected me to manage the conversation for them, so they didn't have to take responsibility for their fear of confrontation -- which was how they saw a good argument. Curiously, they often then stomped angrily off to yell at someone else about how they were right and I was unkind and illogical, or attacked them unfairly, or was just an intellectual snob who refused to listen.
How can they do this, and claim in the same breath I'm intimidating them? For that matter, let's lay out some questions which have been bothering me for a while:
The above are seriously puzzling questions to me. I've not yet found answers which satisfy me. I guess I'll keep looking, as the following shows, although sometimes it's just painful to watch.
I've read several studies about the general populace and how they come to conclusions, and talked to many, many very intelligent people, in an effort to figure this out. I'm not sure I've really got a grasp on it yet, but it's been my experience if I can clearly explain a concept I will better understand it, so here goes.
First, the hardest conclusion for me to grasp and the one I most wanted to have proven false: most people are not logical at all -- they are, quite simply, driven by their emotions. In effect, they have a very different frame of reference than logical thinkers. They may be emotively rational, but they didn't use logic to get there, and they see no reason to ever do so.
Secondly, as mentioned above, most people are emotively rational, as in they usually come to conclusions on the basis of emotional grounds. The reasoning seems to be: by feeling/doing [X] I got what I wanted last time, therefore it will work that way again this time, because I want it to.
Thirdly, the less competent they are, the surer they are of their competence. Since they believe in their own competence, those conclusions they reached via emotion often become part of their personally reassuring belief system, because they most certainly are correct. Therefore, questioning one of their beliefs appears to them as questioning them -- as a personal attack.
Why are we in this condition? I'm not sure, but it would certainly seem we're being heavily trained by our mass media and advertising industries to simply react, not reason. The general tenet they seem to be pushing is if you feel good you are good -- and you'll feel great with this product!
For a more logical review of this sorry situation, let's try some scientific studies. In one study I read, the authors concluded only the competent had the intellectual tools to evaluate competence. The competent also assume they must be about average in ability (even when studies show they're in the upper 90 percentiles), because they can tell they're not the best, and they assume everyone has the same intellectual tools they have.
The incompetent, however, have no such intellectual tools to work with, and can see the competent worrying about their success rate. Their ensuing reasoning apparently goes something like this: If all those seemingly competent people are so full of doubt regarding their success, and I am not doubtful at all concerning my success, then I must be more successful than they.
I've also heard postulations regarding emotive reasoning being an evolutionarily beneficial trait which is now a detriment in this modern age. Using pattern matching behaviors and being confident in one's success (i.e. this worked before, therefore it will work again) would seem a reasonable way for a pre- or even post-sapient hominid (including modern children) to learn quickly, remember well, and end up with a useful repertory of formerly successful behaviors to try in new situations.
To sum up: if you (generalized you) have not thought through why you believe something, it may well be difficult (although not impossible) for you to explain your reasoning -- especially if the belief is not based on logic. Also, if you hold conclusions based only on emotion, you will most likely find it extremely difficult to change your mind should you be confronted with facts which contradict the personally stabilizing beliefs you hold.
So to perhaps answer my own question above, the incompetent logician cannot use the "code phrase" I've offered them for one sad, simple reason: they are not competent logicians, but believe they are. Therefore someone insisting they really think logically, rather than simply emoting -- or else withdraw from the discussion -- is attacking their sense of self-worth. After all, "backing down" in any fashion indicates they might possibly be wrong and, therefore, bad people.
So how to reflect this emotionalistic extreme to clarify the logician extreme? That's rather easy, since we have an example in the media: the Vulcan from Star Trek. Just as a lack of logic can create self-damaging emotional excess, so can a lack of emotion create self-damaging intellectual excess.
An example of this is using the tools of logical argument (such as a familiarity with the logical fallacies) without regard for how others feel. Sneering at someone for what you think is an illogical belief, and flatly refusing to consider you might have invested your own self-worth in an almost religious conviction of your own eternal rightness, is not healthy either, after all.
Yes, I've seen this, and it is always rather sad. The individuals in question had no idea why they had to go find a new group of people to hang out with every two years or so -- or even why everyone in their old group was so "inconsiderate" as to not want to talk to them any more. After all, they themselves were right! The other people were, quite simply, always wrong, and inconsiderately refused to acknowledge this when the 'truth' was scornfully pointed out to them.
I have to thank those excessively logic-oriented individuals for one important lesson they taught me: never stop caring about how the other person feels while we argue, even if I do not understand -- especially if I do not understand! Using the tools of logic to belittle is no better than using emotional manipulation.
After arguing with a lot of weird and interesting people over the years, it's become my personal belief an intellectually healthy, flexible, and emotionally strong person requires a balance of emotion and logic -- and not an excess, or stunting of, one or the other.
I've been asked why I worry about this so much. Some people find intellectual debate unpleasantly confrontational, so why don't I quit indulging in quite so much reflection and attempting to work out the reasoning behind my beliefs?
To me this is much like asking why I don't just stop thinking entirely, since it might bother some people. Why on earth would I want to lose the joy of intellectual stimulation, in an effort to appease the lowest common denominator?
It would be wonderful, I think, if people spent a bit more time on self-reflection and logic. I can see how that would be a bad thing for the entire political and advertising industries, but I admit to not being exactly heartbroken at the possibility of their demise.
For that matter, why on earth would I want to encourage people to not think, when I know what a help in living well it is? Wouldn't that be greedy and self-centered of me, to not share something which gives me such pleasure?
Calmness in the face of the unexpected, understanding of one's inner self, easy recognition of irrationality, self-confidence in a variety of environments, ethical steadiness when challenged, mental grace and agility -- I believe all these spring naturally from having rationally and logically worked out one's internal beliefs. It's not immediately easy, but don't most good things in life require a little initial effort? With some applied consistency and determination, I think it can really make a difference.
07.18.04: George P.'s thoughts
(and my replies)
Many statements of proof are really not related to logic, but to standards of evidence. Thus, for example, in the recent war on Iraq there were a range of standards of evidence relating to the existence of Saddam Hussein's stocks of chemical weapons, biological weapons, atomic bombs, flying saucers, and Martian War Machines. However, these are not logical issues in the normal sense, because they are statements of belief as to the facts.
It is hard, sometimes, to clarify that. As an example, I've seen the same set of data used by opposing camps to trumpet their own "rightness," and the wrong-headedness of the other side. That's just... weird to watch. ;-p
Many of the issues of logic were turned on their head by the early 20th century work of Goedel, who showed that all logical systems other than totally trivial ones are incomplete, in the sense that they have large numbers of statements that are true or false but cannot be shown to be true or false from logic and a finite or iirc countably infinite set of axioms.
For this reason, I answer many of my political party's Ayn Rand followers, who say they are going to discuss matters 'logically' by deducing morals from first principles, by telling them that I do not subscribe to their religion. My party's 'constitutionalists' get the same response, particularly the people who claim that if the flag has gold fringies on it that the court is using admiralty law.
Not being a fan of Ayn Rand, I won't comment on that. Can you explain further, though, re Goedel's assertion on the unprovable nature of most logical statements?
Goedel is a pure mathematics proof, showing that mathematical logic predicts bounds on its ability to prove things, namely there're an infinitude of true statements that cannot be proven via logic.
07.20.04: Lou's thoughts
(and my replies)
Here's some comments on the article... first, as I read through it...
"or, 'You're just intimidating, Collie!'"
I didn't see the comma, and thought, "Intimidating Collie? Gosh, that'd be hard. You'd need a flamethrower or something."
LOL! Okay, I switched it around so it's a little clearer. Thanks for pointing that out. ;)
"An erroneous conclusion, however, has absolutely nothing to do with self worth!"
I think that's something that few see, and that our society doesn't train people to believe. Incorrect has been equated to wrong, and people take that personally, even if you don't want or expect them to.
"Why do I make these obvious statements?"
I don't think they are obvious. Your definition of "argument" has to be clearly defined this way because it is NOT what many people use. They're not discussing, they're convincing, and they've got a whole bunch of themselves tied up in the discussion. If you don't believe them, they're a failure at spreading their ideas. Worse, if you try and convince them otherwise, they'll think you're attacking them. You, in effect, are attacking their beliefs.
re: code phrase.
Of course they didn't use the code phrase. Your conditions were clear, but not something they were aware of. They didn't notice that they'd gotten to the point they should use it. They were unhappy, and uncomfortable, but not thinking, "This discussion is not going how I want" or making that connection. They weren't analyzing their feelings well enough to realize where the discomfort spread from.
Okay, I'll try working on that section a little more. I admit, I'm still trying to figure out myself why they'd behave that way -- it's simply not in their best interests. Perhaps they can't see that?
Again, the reaction of the discomfitted was that of someone who is not (perhaps can not) analyze their feelings on something. They were uncomfortable and unhappy. They don't want to admit they might be wrong -- that'd be degrading -- so they vent, and since it was you who made them unhappy and uncomfortable, it must be your fault. In addition, that unhappy and uncomfortable, wary feeling is associated with you, even if you're just around, doing nothing terribly confrontational.
Note that I use the word confrontational carefully. I am sure you do not think that you are being that way, but to the (to be blunt) shallow and thoughtless you certainly are. You're demanding they THINK! and that hurts. When you don't accept their limp-wristed denial, they see you as confrontational.
re: why people behave this way.
I think it's not just effective for pre- or newly post-sapient peoples to behave. It's probably a quick way for a child to learn and get started dealing with the world around them; it is an obvious and clear conclusion that they can reach even before they're able to speak and act clearly.
Oh, good point re children -- I'll add that in, thank you.
(Of course, you could call that a post-sapient hominid, but I think many people would be horrified to hear you refer to their kids that way.)
It seems to me that the real problem is that our society no longer encourages the mental leap from childhood to adulthood. It seems to want to keep people in that childish, thoughtless state for as long as possible. There is no real benefit to "growing up" and, in fact, you lose things. You have to understand that you're responsible for yourself, and that you've got to think about what you do and what you say.
In your conclusion, you say that you think it would be a shame not to share this with other people, because you see how it helps them live well. How does it help them live well? They don't see it, and I'm not entirely sure I do. It isn't obvious from this article, certainly.
Huh... seemed a bit self-evident to me, but no worries -- I'll work on that section more as well. Thanks!
Also... I almost didn't say something, but I will. I see the credits on the top, "To Bob, Dave & Lou, who aren't intimidated... or so they say. ;)" I don't know if I deserve such accolades. I'm going to fess up - sometimes you can be quite intense and demanding.
I try not to let it bother me, but that doesn't always work. Sometimes I clam up. At least once I've managed to say exactly the wrong thing and upset you, which is certainly not the goal. Even when armed with the "I don't wan't to discuss this right now" escape, it is still difficult. That's a difficult exit to use, and has not always seemed to work.
*wry grin* Why do you think I added the "or so they say," Lou? Your body language is quite clear sometimes. ;)
02.20.05: David's thoughts
(and my replies)
Here's a little blurb I saw today on Drudge. It's from the Guardian UK so it's probably total bullshit, but it addresses the point in your Why Not Logic? column:
"The art of conversation is dead but the artistry of chatter is thriving, with Britons overwhelmingly admitting they rarely talk about anything more serious than traffic and television. According to a survey of more than 2,000 adults, almost two-thirds of us admit to indulging in shallow chit-chat at the expense of weighty dialogue -- even though we secretly long for more meaningful exchanges."
Holy crap, I hate cocktail chatter! I'm so very bad at it -- I have absolutely no patience for it. Still, this explains why I dislike cocktail parties so much.
Large grain of salt needed here, because there's no mention made of the study itself, its accuracy/ validity etc. But it addresses the point you made, people don't seem to converse well even on-line. A casual glance at Slashdot proves that assertion, 80+% of the comments on any subject are total crap, 98% crap on political subjects.
Actually, I think on-line conversations exacerbate this issue -- firstly because not everyone types well or thinks clearly before writing, and secondly because face-to-face communication is a much easier means to understanding the emotional tone of a conversation.
Case in point, a discussion of the HIV virus on Slashdot. Got into an extended "discussion" with some guy who flatly stated HIV does not cause AIDS, and that the HIV virus had never been isolated. Now, I've know people who work in the AIDS research field, and I've stood in their lab while they fiddled about with pure cultures of the HIV virus, so I know this guy's a loon.
No matter what evidence I brought to the table this guy refused to believe it, on the grounds that there was a huge conspiracy. I even told him where to go to see the damn thing being isolated from raw blood right before his eyes. Frankly, I was merciless.
This is my surprised face, she murmured dryly... ;)
At the end of the exchange all I got for my trouble was the satisfaction of forcing this guy to admit that there was in principle no evidence that would convince him he was wrong, and that he would not believe me no matter what I said. He had no grasp of the scientific issues he was debating and wasn't about to develop any, he had a belief system and that was that. Love me love my dogma.
This was a problem for me, because it turns out there's a whole friggin' cult of these dicks out there, and they are making life difficult for people in research. They've even managed to export their little fantasy to Africa, where government officials are often heard spouting this nonsense -- which is clearly getting people killed down there. Stupidity has consequences.
However... this does not seem to be a problem for him. Most people appear to get along just fine with their insane beliefs, because they compartmentalise the insanity. This schmuck I was conversing with is most likely quite successful in the world, has friends, an apartment or house, a job (which is more than I've got!), a computer, and etc.
His pronounced lack of ability to examine ideas logically has no downside for him. He just goes along thinking up twelve impossible things before breakfast and then goes to work. No problem, right?
I wonder if a lack of personal consequence is behind most sloppy thinking? There's an interesting thought worth exploring...
I see this all the time. I correspond with a wide range of people, some on the way-out New Age end, some on the Black Helicopter end of things. I find it easier to converse with the Black Helicopter fringe because they at least have some respect for hard evidence. You develop an argument proving that Kennedy could not have been shot from the Grassy Knoll with an 8mm Mannlicher Carcano because the ballistics are wrong, and you'll get a reasoned response. The New Age bunch though, you can't argue with them. There is no response to "You've got your reality and I've got mine."
Doesn't mean I don't talk to them, because on certain subjects your New Ager can be quite well informed and articulate. History of Witch Craft for example, or Tai Chi, or the care and feeding of an herb garden. Or 10,000 uses for dope! ~:D Just don't try to tell them crystal power is crapola, or that those little magnetic bracelets don't work. You'll get nowhere.
They can be 100% practical on the herb garden, pure scientific method at work. But they won't allow that practicality to cross over into their belief system, and often they will disguise the scientific approach to the garden with all manner of mumbo jumbo about etheric waves and White Light and etc.
So yes, you're right. On the other hand, so what?
For the most part this lack of logic is an advantage; it lets people skate through all kinds of things that stop me dead in my tracks. My career is littered with situations where my insistence on being right and/or doing the right thing has gotten my ass fired, where the "dumb" people have continued on quite happily. I'm a clever lad; I can see reality when I'm hit in the face with it often enough. Being factually, logically correct is worth jack in our culture, and most likely this has always been the case. What's important is being "on the team."
Wow, I sure hope you're wrong re the supposed life advantages of sloppy and illogical thinking, although I fear you may well be right. Still, is it worth it to sacrifice one's personal integrity and intelligence, in order to get along well with morons?
Here's an example I read the other day. The good people at Google have given more money to the Democratic Party than any other single company. Here's an ostensibly logical, rigorously scientific bunch. They'd have to be, they are the biggest thing in computers right now and computers are nothing if not logical.
How far do you think a guy is going to get in that company if he doesn't regurgitate the Dem party line du jour on demand? No matter how obviously stupid, like the snake oil they're trying to sell on Social Security this week, any Google employee with a grain of sense is going to quote Harry Reed all day, even when it contradicts simple arithmetic and what Reed said in 1999.
Now if I were employed by that company I'd be completely incapable of ignoring the illogical, emotion based crap being peddled by the Democrats. I'd get in an argument with some suit, destroy his position with a couple of irrefutable facts (like 1+1 is 2 and 5 is larger than 3) and I'd be fired out on my ass the next day. That's because I'm an idiot. I'm too dumb to get on the team with the other kids.
I admit, I'm still working on "stealth mental independence" myself as well. ;)
Why is Google so hot on the Dems? There's probably a buck in it for them, or they think there is.
Here's another example. Ward Churchill. How long are Ward Churchill's writings going to stand up to the blowtorch of fact checking and logic? About ten seconds. Yet, this guy is a tenured professor. How about Michael Bellesilles? His book Arming America was amazingly well received, and the Ivory Tower blessed him with all manner of awards. Yet, his book was totally fabricated. Here's two men who have succeeded brilliantly in the academic world, whose "scholarship" is total crap. Invented! Not even internally consistent!
I'm going to betray my ignorance here, and admit I don't know who Ward Churchill is. Also, didn't reality finally catch up with Bellesiles' little fantasy world -- even though he himself refuses to face it?
Question, how long is someone like you going to last in Ward Churchill's undergrad class on Social Justice? Less than the ten seconds it will take her to blow him out of the water; he'll do a pre-emptive strike as soon as he hears the first line of a logical argument. The rest of the class will applaud; Wardie is their hero. Collie's not on the team, let's throw our shoes at her!
Been there, actually, and wrote a paper on it. I was fortunate enough to have an extremely intelligent support group of friends outside the stupid class, who didn't let me get browbeaten. That meant I was able to withdraw gracefully and with minimal damage, and planned ahead to forestall potential future sabotage. Still sucked, though.
This then is the answer to your question Numero Uno: "Why do people attempt to accomplish their goals with emotion or manipulation instead of logic, then seem surprised when they consequently harm themselves?"
Because it's easier than thinking, and it pays better. People get upset when you challenge their assertions because you are screwing up their scam -- simple as that. You demonstrate the flaws in a Ecowarrior's argument; you are taking money out of his pocket and he's not going to be your friend for that.
Yuck. This may be reality, but I don't have to like it, or not fight back against it. ;-p
The other two answers follow logically enough. You burst somebody's bubble -- they won't like you, and since they didn't ask you to do that for them they blame you for the fallout. Also, most likely they aren't as clever as you are and that pisses them off too. Scratch a Howeard Dean supporter, find an idiot or a shark. Possibly both.
Bottom line, logic is just a tool for finding Truth, and Truth is not a valued commodity in certain segments of our society these days. Particularly in the academic world, sadly enough. What is valued seems to be short term political expedience and a quick buck.
And yet... society bumbles along. For all the apparent doofi who live here, North America is the most advanced, best place to live on Earth. We, collectively did that and we keep it going. No matter how we bewail and bemoan the blindness of our fellow citizens, the collective result of our labour is... civilization! Not bad for an disorganized bunch of goofs, eh?
So I try not to get bent out of shape with the HIV deniers and the Howeard Dean supporters and etc. It could be worse.
Mmm, you do have an excellent point there, re civilization in spite of ourselves. I'll try not to be too cranky.
I have it on good authority that Truth seekers are very irritating people to be around. They know the Truth, they don't accept excuses and they won't let you slide just because you get mad at them. Albert Einstein was by all accounts a very nice guy but a huge pain to be around if you were a physicist -- the son of a bitch was never wrong. Fifty years later and he's still not wrong. It's going to take a major breakthrough in experimental physics to obsolete his ideas. They are Truth, and he knew it at the time.
Well, as can be noted in other comments above... ;) I have been told I'm really irritating/ intimidating to be around when having an argument. Admittedly, I'm not trying to be -- I just don't want to accept sloppy untruths as reality, you know? So I guess in the end I resemble that comment. ;-j
So's this guy Benoit Mandelbrot. He's been dead right with every crazy ass idea he's come out with, from the Mandelbrot Set onward, and megabuck fortunes have been made off his work. He's been fired out of or left every company he's ever worked for because he's not a team player. But he finds the Truth like a bloodhound.
Amazing man; I should read up more on him, I think. Is he still alive?
For myself, I can only say that even a blind pig finds the odd acorn now and again. But I'd sooner be like Albert than Ward friggin' Churchill. Damn the torpedoes!
Net fortune cookie I rather liked: A mighty oak tree is just an acorn that stood its ground.