Tag: Logic

Francis Bacon and the Four Idols of the Mind

Francis Bacon the Four Idols of the Mind


Among the Enlightenment founders, his spirit is the one that most endures.
It informs us across four centuries that we
must understand nature
both around us and within ourselves, in order to set humanity
on the course of self-improvement. 

-E.O. Wilson on Francis Bacon

***

The English statesman and scholar Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the earliest thinkers to truly understand the nature of the mind and how humanity truly progresses in collective knowledge.

Bacon's first great contribution was to lessen the focus on traditional scholarship: the constant mining of the old Greek and Roman philosophers and the old religious texts, the idea that most of our knowledge had already been “found” and needed to be rediscovered.

To Bacon, this was an unstable artifice on which to build our understanding of the world. Better that we start reasoning from first principles, building up our knowledge of the world through inductive reasoning. E.O. Wilson summarizes Bacon's contribution in a chapter on the Enlightenment in his excellent book Consilience.

By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, he concluded that the best among them is induction, which is the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions. Bacon proclaimed a pyramid of disciplines, with natural history forming the base, physics above and subsuming it, and metaphysics at the peak, explaining everything below–though perhaps in powers and forms beyond the grasp of man.

In this way, Wilson crowns Bacon as the Father of Induction — the first to truly grasp the power of careful inductive reasoning to generate insights. Bacon broke down the old, rigid ways of classifying knowledge in favor of building a new understanding from the ground up, using experiments to prove or disprove a theory.

In this way, he realized much of what was being taught in his time, including metaphysics, alchemy, magic, astrology, and other disciplines, would eventually crumble under scrutiny. (A feeling we share about our current age.)

Insights of the Mind

Most importantly, hundreds of years before the advent of modern psychology, Bacon understood clearly that the human mind doesn't always reason correctly, and that any approach to scientific knowledge must start with that understanding. Over 400 years before there was a Charlie Munger or a Daniel Kahneman, Bacon clearly understood the first-conclusion bias and the confirmation bias.

In his Novum Organum, Bacon described these errors in the same manner we understand them today:

The mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things, from whence all the rest proceed, errors must forever prevail, and remain uncorrected.

[…]

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

He called the wide variety of errors in mental processing the Idols of the Mind. There were four idols: Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace, and Idols of the Theater.

Idols of the Tribe

The Idols of the Tribe made the false assumption that our most natural and basic sense of thing was the correct one. He called our natural impressions a “false mirror” which distorted the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

Idols of the Cave

The Idols of the Cave were the problems of individuals, their passions and enthusiasms, their devotions and ideologies, all of which led to misunderstandings of the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

Idols of the Marketplace

You might call the Idols of the Marketplace a problem of political discourse: The use of words to mislead. (Nearly a half a century later, Garrett Hardin would argue similarly that good thinkers need a literary filter to suss out sense from nonsense.)

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

Idols of the Theater

The final idol, of the Theater, is how Bacon referred to long-received wisdom, the ancient systems of philosophy, the arbitrary divisions of knowledge and classification systems held onto like dogma. Without emptying one's mind of the old ways, no new progress could be made. This would be an important lasting value of the Baconian view of science. Truth must be reasoned from first principles.

Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.

The Lasting Importance of Narrative

Even with his rationalistic view of the world, a rigorous devotion to truth, Bacon realized that unless you used creative storytelling and engaged a learner's mind, it would be impossible to communicate real truths about the world. He knew the power narrative had to instruct. E.O. Wilson writes in Consilience:

Reality still had to be embraced directly and reported without flinching. But it is also best delivered the same way it was discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions. Nature and her secrets must be as stimulating to the imagination as are poetry and fables. To that end, Bacon advised us to use aphorisms, illustrations, stories, fables, analogies–anything that conveys truth from the discoverer to his readers as clearly as a picture. The mind, he argued, is not like a wax tablet. On a tablet you cannot write the new till you rub out the old, on the mind you cannot rub out the old except by writing in the new.”

 

The Boundaries Between Science and Religion: Alan Lightman on Different Kinds of Knowledge

“The physical universe is subject to rational analysis and the methods of science. The spiritual universe is not. All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis. Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.”

***

Alan Lightman, whose beautiful meditation on our yearning for permanence in a universe that offers none, looks at the tension between science and religion in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

In the essay, “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to reconcile his personal struggle between religion and science. In so doing he sets out the necessary criteria for science to be compatible with religion:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

Our knowledge of scientific laws is provisional. We do not know all the laws but we believe in a complete set of them. We further believe, in principle anyway, that humans will uncover these laws. An example of a scientific law is the conservation of energy.

The total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant. The energy in an isolated container may change form, as when the chemical energy latent in a fresh match changes into the heat and light energy of a burning flame— but, according to the law of the conservation of energy, the total amount of energy does not change.

Even scientific laws that we already know about are updated and refined over time. Lightman offers the replacement of Newton's law of gravity (1687) by Einstein's deeper and more accurate law of gravity (1915). These revisions are part of the very fabric of science.

Next, Lightman provides a working definition of God.

I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Lightman then offers a continuum of religious beliefs based on the degree to which God acts in the world. At one end is atheism — or denying the existence of god. Moving along the spectrum, we find deism, which was a prominent view in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that God created the universe but has not acted since this spark.

Voltaire was a deist. As God's role expands we find immanentism, which holds that God created the universe and its scientific laws. Under this view, God continues to act through the repeated application of those laws. We can probably put Einstein in the immanentism camp. (Philosophically both deism and immanentism are similar because God does not perform miracles.)

Opposite atheism lies interventionism. Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism subscribe to this view, which is that God created the universe and its laws and occasionally violates the laws to create unpredictable results.

Lightman argues that all of these views, except interventionism, agree with science.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science.

Lightman cites Francis Collins, who offers some thoughtful advice on reconciling a belief in an interventionist God and science, or at least, deciding which to turn to for answers to the right kinds of questions. They are often very different.

“I’ve not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 … if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions.

Under this reconciliation, miracles cannot be analyzed by the methods of science. This is an echo of Richard Feynman, who put it most clearly in one of his letters, saying that science only tells us if we do something then what will happen? Cause and effect. It doesn't give us any guidance on the question of should we do it?

Lightman, himself, falls in the atheist camp.

I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with (Other Scientists) that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

And yet we must believe in things we cannot (yet) prove. Lightman himself believes in the central doctrine which cannot be proven. At most we can only say there is no evidence to contradict it. This is what Karl Popper called real science – a process by which we hypothesize and then attack our hypotheses. A scientific “fact” is one that has stood up to extraordinary scrutiny.

With much of life, and much meaning in the world, there are often things outside of the scientific realm. These are worth considering.

I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

Lightman recalls his time as a grad student in physics and the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question with “enough clarity and precision that it is guaranteed an answer.” Put another way, scientists are trained not to “waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.” And yet questions without clear and definite answers are sometimes just as important. Just because we can't apply the scientific method to them doesn't mean we shouldn't consider them.

[A]rtists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. That is why we can never fully understand why the highly sensitive Raskolnikov brutally murdered the old pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment, whether Plato’s ideal form of government could ever be realized in human society, whether we would be happier if we lived to be a thousand years old. For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

The question is more important than the answer — just as the journey is more important than the destination and the process is more important than outcome.

As the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it a century ago:  “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

“As human beings,” Lightman argues, “don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?”

The God Delusion, a widely read book by Richard Dawkins, uses modern tools to attack two common arguments for the existence of God: Intelligent Design (only an intelligent and powerful being could have designed the universe) and that only the action and will of God explains our morality and desire to help others. Dawkins convincingly shows that Earth could have arisen from the laws of nature and random processes, without the intervention of a supernatural and intelligent Designer. Our sense of morality and altruism could be a logical derivative of natural selection.

However, as Lightman reminds us, refuting or falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not necessarily falsify the proposition itself.

Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

Lightman is troubled by Dawkins' wholesale dismissal of religion.

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Indeed, William & Ariel Durant have argued that we need religion; it is part of our fabric of understanding and living in the world.

***

With that, Lightman brings the essay to a beautiful conclusion.

The physical and spiritual universes each have their own domains and their own limitations. The question of the age of planet Earth, for example, falls squarely in the domain of science, since there are reliable tests we can perform, such as using the rate of disintegration of radioactive rocks, to determine a definitive answer. Such questions as “What is the nature of love?” or “Is it moral to kill another person in time of war?” or “Does God exist?” lie outside the bounds of science but fall well within the realm of religion. I am impatient with people who, like Richard Dawkins, try to disprove the existence of God with scientific arguments. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. I am equally impatient with people who make statements about the physical universe that violate physical evidence and the known laws of nature. Within the domain of the physical universe, science cannot hold sway on some days but not on others. Knowingly or not, we all depend on the consistent operation of the laws of nature in the physical universe day after day— for example, when we board an airplane, allow ourselves to be lofted thousands of feet in the air, and hope to land safely at the other end. Or when we stand in line to receive a vaccination against the next season’s influenza.

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

The Accidental Universe is a mind-bending read on the known and unknowable, offering a window into our universe and some of the profound questions of our time.

The Difference Between Truth and Honesty: What Law School Teaches us About Insight, Logic, and Thinking

“We don't see things as they are, but as we are.”
— Anaïs Nin

***

Matthew Frederick‘s series of 101 things I learned in {Business School, Law School, Architecture School, Engineering School} attempts to distill the key learnings from these disciplines and offer them in a bite-sized package.

In 101 Things I Learned in Law School he teams up with California-based attorney Vibeke Norgaard Martin. Together they deliver a noteworthy book for the armchair lawyer in all of us. Despite the title, readers will find the selection of insights below connect to a lot of the ideas on this site.

Consider this bit on the difference between truth and honesty.

Lawyers must be honest, but they don't have to be truthful. Honesty and truthfulness are not the same thing. Being honest means not telling lies. Being truthful means actively making known all the full truth of a matter. Lawyers must be honest, but they do not have to be truthful. A criminal defence lawyer, for example, in zealously defending a client, has no obligation to actively present the truth. Counsel may not deliberately mislead the court, but has no obligation to tell the defendant's whole story.

Insight doesn't arrive head on — echoing William Deresiewicz they write:

Be suspicious of the person who sizes up a new situation very quickly, claims understanding, and stakes out an ironclad position. Insight usually requires long periods of discussion, research, analysis, rationalization, and counter-argument, and it rarely arrives while attacking a matter directly or on a first pass. If one occasionally is able to quickly understand a complex matter, he or she is far more likely to misunderstand it.

Thinking means ragging at problems long enough to understand them — something less and less common in our fast-paced world. Most people won't or can't do the work to understand the problem. Our first thoughts are most often the thoughts of someone else and represent conventional wisdom.

Writing is thinking on the page.

A well-constructed argument rarely, if ever, resembles what one started with. Writing effectively isn't recording the argument one wishes to make; it is a process of discovering what one's argument needs to be. Through writing, thinking, researching, rewriting, rethinking, and rewriting again, an argument is discovered and clarified.

You don't have to be right. You just have to be better than the alternative.

It is always possible to make at least some arguments for or against a legal position. An argument requires logic, but legal argument is not a purely logical form of argument that promises a universal, absolute conclusion. Rather, it is a practical form of argument that aims to establish one claim as more probable or reasonable than another.

Make a logical argument. There are two types of logic: deductive and inductive.

Deductive logic: usually works from broadly accepted truths toward demonstrating a truth in a specific situation, although more properly it is any argument in which the premises guarantee that their logical outcome is a truth.

Inductive logic: tends to work from specific examples of truth toward demonstration of a larger truth, but can be any argument whose conclusion, while not guaranteed, is a likely or higher probability outcome of the premises. Successful inductive reasoning requires a convincingly large sample size.

Large sample sizes are not only important in inductive reasoning but they also offer a guide for how to spend our time reading and learning. Peter Kaufman offers some insight on the three largest sample sizes.

Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It's all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant.

Arguments, however, are about more than rationality and sample sizes. We are human after all. Passion comes into play.

Rationality is cool; passion is warm. Rationality provides logical justification for a position, while passion provides a human connection to it. Both are needed to advance an argument; an abundance of one will not compensate for a dearth of the other. An argument may be extraordinarily rational, but its correctness alone is unlikely to compel others to care enough to right the wrongs behind. it. An extremely passionate argument may initially attract sympathy, but unmitigated displays of emotion at the expense of rationality will wear thin and eventually prompt others to tune out your message. Rationality makes an argument worthy. Passion makes it worthwhile.

Show me a company governed by rules and I will show you a dying company — the extent to which rules govern culture offers an indication of how fast. Despite our attempts to reduce everything to an efficient systems of rules there are always exceptions. The wise know the exceptions to the rules. One could argue that you don't know the rule until you know its exceptions.

A presumption of all court testimony is that the opposing side may cross-examine its source. If a witness quotes someone who is not available for cross examination, the statement, if objected to by the opposing attorney,  might be ruled hearsay and be forbidden. The rule against hearsay testimony has about thirty exceptions. In order to get a statement made outside court into court when its originator is unavailable to testify, one has to determine how to fit it into at least one of the exceptions. In practice, the exceptions to the rule are the rule.

Echoing the Kantian Fairness Tendency, the integrity of a system is more important than the fairness in one case.

A trial's search for truth is invariably imperfect because it cannot be conducted in a way that introduces unfairness into the legal system. If a piece of evidence was improperly acquired or mishandled by the prosecution, it may be excluded from trial even if it provides an incontrovertible link between the defendant and the crime, because evidence in future cases could be similarly abused. If this allows a guilty person to go free, it is not because the court is not interested in the truth of the case; it is because it accepts that the truth must take some small lumps in the short run so the court gets better at finding the truth in the long run.

101 Things I Learned in Law School goes on to discuss how to explain your argument, language, why an hour can have 116 minutes and more.

The Ten Golden Rules of Argument

​​You don't have to attend every argument you're invited to.” — Anonymous

Arguments are tricky. We spend a lot of our time trying to persuade others. We think that if we show them the facts that we have they will, logically, reach the same conclusions we did. Unfortunately that's not how it works. When is the last time someone changed your mind this way?

Sometimes we don’t want to argue. We’d rather avoid. This doesn’t make the problem go away. In fact the suppressed resentment that builds up can poison a relationship.

In his book, How to Argue, Jonathan Herring outlines positive ways of understanding and looking at arguments.

They needn’t be about shouting or imposing your will on someone. A good argument shouldn’t involve screaming, squabbling or fistfights, even though too often it does. Shouting matches are rarely beneficial to anyone.

We should treat the ability to argue as a skill that needs to be practiced and developed.

Karl Popper

Arguments, and for that matter discussions, should be about seeing things through the other person’s eyes. They should lead to a better understanding of another person’s view.

With that in mind, here are what Herring presents the ten golden rules of argument.

Ten Golden Rules of Argument

1. Be prepared

Make sure you know the essential points you want to make. Research the facts you need to convince your opponent.

Also, Herring advises: “Before starting an argument think carefully about what it is you are arguing about and what it is you want. This may sound obvious. But it’s critically important. What do you really want from this argument? Do you want the other person to just understand your point of view? Or are you seeking a tangible result? If it’s a tangible result, you must ask yourself whether this result you have in mind is realistic and whether it’s obtainable. If it’s not realistic or obtainable, then a verbal battle might damage a valuable relationship.”

2. When to argue, when to walk away
I’m sure you've had an argument before and later felt that it was the wrong time and place. “Knowing when to enter into an argument and when not to is a vital skill.”

Think carefully before you start to argue: is this the time; is this the place?

3. What you say and how you say it

Spend time thinking about how to present your argument. Body language, choice of words and manner of speaking all affect how your argument will come across.

One clever thing to do here, that shows you've done the work, is to address the arguments against your position before they arise.

4. Listen and listen again

Listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Watch their body language, listen for the meaning behind their words.

As a general rule, Herring writes, “you should spend more time listening than talking. Aim for listening for 75 percent of the conversation and giving your own arguments 25 percent.” And listening doesn't mean that you're thinking about what you're going to say next.

This is often where a lot of arguments, and discussions for that matter, veer off course. If you're not listening to the other person and addressing their statements, you'll just keep making your same points over and over. The other person won't agree with those and the argument quickly becomes frustrating.

5. Excel at responding to arguments

Think carefully about what arguments the other person will listen to. What are their preconceptions? Which kinds of arguments do they find convincing.

There are three main ways to respond to an argument: 1) challenge the facts the other person is using; 2) challenge the conclusions they draw from those facts; and 3) accept the point, but argue the weighting of that point (i.e., other points should be considered above this one.)

6. Watch out for crafty tricks

Arguments are not always as good as they first appear. Be wary of your opponent’s use of statistics. Keep alert for distraction techniques such as personal attacks and red herrings. Look out for concealed questions and false choices.

7. Develop the skills of arguing in public

Keep it simple and clear. Be brief and don’t rush.

8. Be able to argue in writing

Always choose clarity over pomposity. Be short, sharp, and to the point, using language that is easily understood.

9. Be great at resolving deadlock

Be creative in finding ways out of an argument that’s going nowhere. Is it time to look at the issue from another angle? Are there ways of putting pressure on so that the other person has to agree with you? Is a compromise possible?

10. Maintain relationships

This is absolutely key. What do you want from this argument? Humiliating, embarrassing or aggravating your opponent might make you feel good at the time, but you might have many lonely days to rue your mistake. Find a result that works for both of you. You need to move forward. Then you will be able to argue another day.

Another approach to end arguments is to simply ask the other person to explain their thinking.

***

How to Argue goes on to explore putting the rules into practice in particular situations where arguments arise.

Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Journalists, and Others

Jamie Whyte

A lot of our day is spent trying to convince people of something. To do this we often make arguments as to why our product or service is better, or, more commonly why our own opinion is right and yours is wrong. But few of us understand the art of argumentation.

Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders, a book by Jamie Whyte, “aims to help fill the gap left by the education system,” in the ways that our reasoning can go wrong. “The logic equivalent of one of those troubleshooting guides in your car or computer manual.”

Errors in logic are not visible.

When a car breaks down, anyone can see that it has even if he knows nothing about how cars work. Reasoning is different. Unless you know how reasoning can go wrong, you can’t see that it has. The talking doesn’t stop, no steam emerges from the ears, the eyes don’t flash red.

Until Google invents a device that exposes our errors in reasoning we need to rely on ourselves. And most of us don't know a lot about the ways that reasoning can go wrong. Whyte argues that we've become a nation of suckers.

Schools and universities pack their minds with invaluable pieces of information— about the nitrogen cycle, the causes of World War II, iambic pentameter, and trigonometry— but leave them incapable of identifying even basic errors of logic. Which makes for a nation of suckers, unable to resist the bogus reasoning of those who want something from them, such as votes or money or devotion.

Often, when we can't tell good logic from bad we turn to cynicism, “discounting everything said by anyone in a position of power or influence.”

But cynicism is a poor defense, because it doesn’t help to tell good reasoning from bad. Believing nothing is just as silly as believing everything. Cynicism, like gullibility, is a symptom of underdeveloped critical faculties.

The Irrelevant Right

Jack has offered some opinion— that President Bush invaded Iraq to steal its oil, let’s say—with which his friend Jill disagrees. Jill offers some reasons why Jack’s opinion is wrong and after a few unsuccessful attempts at answering them, Jack petulantly retorts that he is entitled to his opinion.

The fallacy lies in Jack’s assumption that this retort is somehow a satisfactory reply to Jill’s objections, while, in fact, it is completely irrelevant.

Jack is just changing the subject to one of rights, not addressing the issue. Here is a simple way of putting it.

The fallacy lies in Jack’s assumption that this retort is somehow a satisfactory reply to Jill’s objections, while, in fact, it is completely irrelevant.

We consider our opinions to be sacred.

Many people seem to feel that their opinions are somehow sacred, so that everyone else is obliged to handle them with great care. When confronted with counterarguments, they do not pause and wonder if they might be wrong after all. They take offense.

So the next time someone says you have a right to your own opinion, mentally go back and see if they are addressing your argument or just changing the subject. If you really want to have fun, you can ask them what duties do rights impose on others?

Motives

When my sister was fifteen, she thought she had fat thighs. Occasionally, she would demand to know, “My thighs are fat, aren’t they?”

“No darling,” my parents would reply, “you have nice thighs; you’re a beautiful girl.”

Well, that confirmed it. “You’re just saying that!” was the constant refrain as my sister took our parents’ protestations to the contrary to confirm all her worst fears.

My sister was committing the Motive Fallacy. She thought that by exposing our parents’ motives for expressing an opinion— to make her feel better and shut her up— she had shown the opinion to be false. But she hadn’t. It is perfectly possible to have some interest in holding or expressing an opinion and for that opinion to be true. A man may stand to gain a great deal of peace and quiet from telling his wife that he loves her. But he may really love her nevertheless. It suits most to believe they are of better than average looks, and at least 44 percent of the 90 percent who believe this actually are. My sister’s legs were not fat. In other words, you don’t show someone’s opinion false just by showing that he has a motive for holding it.

This happens when billions of dollars are at risk too.

The motive fallacy is another way that we end a debate. You don't actually refute the positions of the other person, you simply change the subject.

First, you are discussing some issue, such as whether my sister has fat thighs, and then, after the fallacy is committed, you find yourself talking about the motives of those involved in the discussion. Perhaps this is why the fallacy is so popular. It turns all discussions— be they about economic policy, religion, or thighs— into discussions about our alleged motives and inner drives.

Authority

The fallacy lies in confusing two quite different kinds of authority. There is the kind of authority your parents, football referees, and parking attendants have: the power to decide certain matters. For example, your parents have the power to decide when you will go to bed. Hence, in answer to the question “Why is 8:00 P.M. my bedtime?” the answer “Because I say so” is quite right; your parents are, quite literally, the authors of your bedtime. But it is not up to them whether or not Jesus was conceived without the help of sexual intercourse. Mary’s being a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth is beyond the will of your parents, or indeed anybody else’s (with the possible exception of Jesus’s parents). So your father’s answer “Because I say so” is quite wrong when the question is “Why should I believe in the virgin birth?” The matter exceeds the scope of his parental authority.

Yet, there is another metaphorical sense of “authority” on which the answer “Because I say so” is sometimes reasonable, even when literal authority is absent, namely, the expert kind of authority. If someone is an expert on some subject (or an authority on the topic, as it is often put) then his opinion is likely to be true— or, at least, more likely to be true than the opinion of a non-expert. So, appealing to the opinion of such an authority— i.e., an expert— in support of your view is perfectly OK. It is indirect evidence for your opinion.

We can’t all be experts on everything. When laypeople sit around debating evolutionary biology, quantum physics, developmental economics, and the like, as the government’s reckless education policies mean they increasingly do, one of the best pieces of evidence likely to be put forward is simply “Because Nobel laureate Joe Bloggs says so.” …

The Authority Fallacy should now be clear. It occurs when the first literal type of authority, whereby someone has the power to make certain decisions, is confounded with the second metaphorical type, whereby someone is an expert and so likely to be right about some matter of fact.

Relating this to government and democracy, Whyte points out the power of the people also comes with the ability to make the wrong choices.

All democratic politicians agree that ultimate political authority lies with The People. On other matters they may disagree. One may think private schools an abomination, the other that the state should have no role in education. Each tries to convince the public that her view is right, knowing that popular opinion will decide the matter. But, “decide the matter” does not mean determine who is right. The People cannot do that; no one can by mere decision make a state monopoly on education superior to a private system, or vice versa. Public opinion decides the matter only insofar as it chooses which policy will be adopted. And the public is perfectly capable of choosing the inferior policy. If it were not, if popular opinion were invariably correct, then politicians would have no serious leadership role to play; government could be conducted by a combination of opinion pollsters and bureaucrats.

Spotting this fallacy is easy, simply ask yourself if the source offered up as an authority is indeed an expert on the matter in question. If not, ask them to explicitly walk you though the argument.

Crimes Against Logic goes on to introduce you to other logical fallacies that you and others use every day. If you're interested in improving your own arguments and spotting errors in the arguments of others, this is a good starting place.

Not All Good Arguments Are Logically Sound

Some interesting thoughts from James Gray on whether all good arguments are logically sound. Understanding why helps us appreciate good arguments.

Proof that not all arguments are logically sound
An argument against the belief that all good arguments are logically sound is the following:

  1. At least some good scientific theories were proven to be false.
  2. If at least some good scientific theories could proven to be false, then not all good arguments are logically sound.
  3. Therefore, not all good argument are logically sound.

Premise 1 – Is it true that “at least some good scientific theories were proven to be false?” Yes. For example, I think Newton’s theory of physics is a good example. It was believed that Newton’s theory of physics was complete and could predict any physical motion, but it failed to predict the motion of Mercury. However, Einstein’s theory of physics was able to predict the motion of Mercury and is now considered to be a better (and more complete) theory of physics.

Premise 2 – Is it true that “if at least some good scientific theories could proven to be false, then not all good arguments are logically sound?” Yes. Scientists give good arguments in favor of good scientific theories. If all good scientific theories are proven to be true by sound arguments, then they can’t be proven to be false. Sound arguments would guarantee the theories are true because the premises would be true and the arguments for the theories would be valid—valid arguments can’t have true premises and false conclusions at the same time.

Given these two premises, the conclusion must be true (that not all good arguments are logically sound). Why? Because this argument uses a valid logical form. The logical form is “a. If a, then b. Therefore, b.” This valid logical form is well-known to be valid and is called “modus ponens.”

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