Letting go of logic

2014 was the year that I came to distrust anyone who talks a lot about logic, especially on the internet. From Richard Dawkins’s repeated use of the concept to demand the silence of feminists, to that horde of  endlessly outraged gamers demanding the silence of everyone but themselves, 2014 was the year that a lot of angry dudes decided logic was their new favorite truncheon. Logic had the worst year that a concept has had since 2003, when the Neocons in the American government decided that “freedom” meant bombing other countries into a state of anarchy, then rounding up anyone who opposed the bombing and torturing them to death.

2014 made logic into a liar. In 2015, let’s listen to emotions, which lately have seemed much more honest.

Logic (have I made you as tired of that word as I am? I hope so!) is a subject I know a little bit about. I have a masters degree in Philosophy, and in the second year of my graduate program, I taught a freshman logic course at my university. I feel, therefore, that I’m  minimally qualified to make a couple of criticisms of the subject.

The first is that logic is a garbage in, garbage out system. There are two terms that the angry dudes who shout about logic on the internet either ignore or never knew in the first place. One is “valid”, which describes an argument that uses correct logical form. The other is “sound”, which describes an argument that is both valid and has true premises. These mostly apply to the more formal deductive logic, rather than inductive, which is what the angry guys, who know what “strawman” and “ad hominem” mean, generally favor. But they’re still useful terms to keep in mind.

The problem with using logic as your one and only weapon is that being able to arrange your thoughts in syllogistic form, or to identify inductive fallacies, doesn’t prove that anything you say is true. By the same token, arranging your thoughts in a completely irrational (i.e. logically flawed) manner doesn’t make them false. For example, here’s a valid argument:

  • If Barack Obama was president in 2014, then the moon is made of ice cream.
  • Barack Obama was president in 2014.
  • Therefore, the moon is made of ice cream.

I’m fairly certain even Alex Jones wouldn’t go for that conspiracy theory, despite the validity of the argument. You can do the same thing with logical fallacies:

Nice strawman, Cameron. If anyone was actually acting like validity and soundness were the same thing, you might have a point.

This is a bit harrier, because it would be true if, for example, Richard Dawkins hadn’t spent half the year telling feminists that his arguments’ validity rendered them unassailable.

The second problem with logic for angry dudes is that in actual philosophical argument, logic is generally used as an opening salvo, not as a coup de grace. Showing that your argument is valid gets your foot in the door, but the real work is convincing people that it’s sound. That requires convincing them that your premises are true, to which logic in and of itself isn’t particularly well suited.

Here’s a handy real life example. My graduate thesis grew out of my response to an argument from the philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau, for moral realism, the idea that moral claims, like scientific or mathematical claims, have real, non-hypothetical truth values. On this theory, if “murder is wrong” is true at all, it’s true in the same way that 2 + 2=4 is true, or “All bachelors are unmarried men” is true. That struck me as a statement that required a revolutionary degree of proof. How does one demonstrate, so that even a sociopath would be forced to admit it, that moral claims are true regardless of the prevailing conditions in the world (such as the values of the person making the claims)? I still don’t know, because I felt that Shafer-Landau’s argument hinged on his claim that some moral statements are self-evidently true, and that only insufficient reflection or “mental impoverishment” could convince one otherwise–a stance that I still feel amounts to an ad hominem attack on anyone who disagrees with him.

I do disagree with Shafer-Landau, not because I’m mentally impoverished (a sadist, sociopath, etc.) and, though he would probably disagree, not because I haven’t sufficiently reflected on the matter. I disagree with him because I don’t believe that ethics is a subject whose statements have objective truth values. I think that ethics requires one to have a fairly well-developed level of empathy, which means that at some level moral claims are statements of preference rather than statements of objective fact. More controversially, I think moral claims can have different truth values in different situations, based on what empathy requires. Even though I do think that Shafer-Landau commits an ad hominem in his argument for moral realism, my real problem is that I just don’t think his premise that some moral principles are self-evidently true is, itself, true. Changing that wouldn’t require a valid argument. It would require evidence, a moral statement which I believe is self-evidently true, and true independently of the values of sufficiently empathetic rational agents.

This detour does have a point: logic is not all important. It doesn’t trump truth. And 2014 showed me, over and over, every day, every hour, that truths that disregard empathy aren’t worth much. So in 2015, let’s kindly tell logic to go lie down for a bit. Instead of being rational, let’s be reasonable. Let’s be concerned with empathy first and foremost, and see if that doesn’t make the world better for everyone.


About Cameron

Podcaster, amateur pop culture pundit, TurboGrafx fanboy and lover of fine kusoge.
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