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The Chimera of Logical Necessity


René Descartes

René Descartes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Logic has often been supposed capable of more than it really is, and airtight logical validity is often considered the ultimate standard for good reasoning.

The Medieval church even thought it able to demonstrate by its proofs alone something as important as the existence of God, thinking partly resting on the infallibility of Aristotle the authority. It was thought by such as Rene Descartes to have ultimate metaphysical grounding with God Himself as its guarantor.

I think that this was and is mistaken.

Don’t get me wrong, logic’s crucially important. It’s indispensable for formulating predictions for scientific hypotheses, it’s used in computers, and more generally throughout mathematics and philosophy.

Modern logic has moved on from the old Aristotelian model since developments in the 19th century, and many new systems of logic have arisen since then. Even inductive reasoning became widely used with the beginning of the scientific revolution in the early Modern period, and formal rules for it were developed by none other than John Stewart Mill in the 19th century, rules we still use in scientific inquiry because they work — they reliably though not infallibly get us where we need to go in gaining new knowledge.

But what’s so bad about deduction? Nothing if we use it for what it’s designed to do — a fallible system designed by fallible human beings with a tragically fallible grasp of logic. The trouble begins if we give it more credit than it’s due, or apply it outside of its domain of use.

Logic —  and I mean pure deduction here — is dependent entirely for it’s usefulness on the rules we stipulate for the system, and these depend on what you intend to do with it. Different modern logics use different rules and are used for things that some older systems are inadequate for.

There are the close descendants of Aristotelian logic — sentential and predicate logics. There are fuzzy logic, three-valued logic, and quantum logic, and the list gets longer with each new development by modern logicians.

We recognize the limits of logic, the need for different but internally consistent ways of working it, and that logic rests, not on some ultimate bedrock of metaphysical certitude, but upon what rules we formulate to reliably derive our output. As long as we apply those rules consistently within a system, and as long as the output and the logic itself withstand the tests we apply, all is well.

But the rules of every system we use depend entirely on human-discovered conventions, arbitrary but useful rules that are hardly set in stone, chosen as required for purposes we try to carry out using that system whatever it may be.

It seems to me that even airtight logical validity rests on what is both assumed and reliable in the right domain of knowledge, but we cannot use reasoning of any form without making those assumptions, even when the assumptions, the rules, don’t really obey any necessary first principles.

Airtight logical validity depends on truth-preservation, and that prevents it from telling us anything we don’t already start with, imply, or assume. Hence inductive reasoning, hence science. The best we may hope for is to use any system of reasoning for what it’s built to do, consistently using those conventions we discover and test by experience and experiment.

Logicians discover the rules of patterns of reasoning that show themselves reliable, but the rules of logic, as with those of science — and this is a paraphrasing of Professor Emeritus James Hall of the University of Richmond — ‘…don’t have to obey themselves.’

But I’m of the sense that nothing we can say we truly know has ever rested on any sort of unshakeable foundation independent of human discovery and convention. I’m of the sense that that is a chimera, and requiring that for any area of knowledge is fatuous and apt to lead more to great error than great truth.

We humans have a sense of reason, and with training and experience we may learn to do it well. But we cannot do it perfectly, nor do we know how, and we may as well just deal with the fact that everything we can know about the world and ourselves is open to correction at some future point.

Mistaken knowledge with absolute conviction behind it is to me much, much more dangerous than simple ignorance, no matter how sure are we of what we may think we know.

“I think that asking ‘what can we know for certain’ frames the quest for knowledge the wrong way. It presupposes that we can know contingent matters of fact with certainty. It presupposes that we must know things with certainty to know anything at all. Neither presupposition has actually been demonstrated in fact.

More useful to me is that given the inherent limits of a finite data set, is to think in probabilities instead of seeking final(and I think premature)closure. More useful to me is to ask ‘What can we confidently say we know at the moment, even when we may well be shown wrong with better data and more cogent arguments in the future.'” ~ Aloysius Hawthorne McGrath, fictional paleontologist and Lovecraftian ecologist.

Project Logicality: The Reductio Ad Absurdum – Invalid & Valid


Let’s suppose that there are two men engaged in an argument, we’ll call them Mr. A and Mr. B.

They’re engaged in a rather spirited discussion on psi-phenomena, and Mr. A argues that psi is unlikely to exist because truly compelling evidence, in the form of successful replications of psi, regardless of the beliefs or level of enthusiasm of those attempting the replication of the initial studies, does not currently exist.

Note that he is not saying he doesn’t think it’s real because he hasn’t personally experienced it nor seen concrete, direct evidence of its existence, but that despite the immense volume of evidence in the literature, it just isn’t very convincing by reasonable scientific standards, and so one should remain skeptical for the time being.

Nor is he arguing that it’s impossible, only unlikely to exist until convincing evidence under reasonable conditions by reasonably objective research workers indicates otherwise.

In his rebuttal, Mr. B argues that Mr. A, in thinking that psi probably isn’t real, must also believe that dark energy and dark matter must not exist, because Mr. A hasn’t seen them either, and that he must therefore believe that 90% of the universe must not exist.

But wait…

Mr. A said nothing about needing to see psi himself, only that convincing evidence obtained under adequate conditions by non-believers in psi is not there, not yet, saying nothing at all about the evidence needed to establish dark matter or dark energy, both of which have different evidential requirements than psi does, for which almost the entire body of data consists of statistical quirks, convincing or not.

Mr. A’s argument has, as can be seen, been misrepresented, and in such a way as to carry it to an absurd conclusion, the claim that by his own reasoning, most of the universe doesn’t exist.

That last was an example of a fallacious Reductio ad absurdum, and of course there was probably much more said than simply the above. But Mr. B’s argument was fallacious because it led to an absurd conclusion without using the actual chain of reasoning of Mr. A’s argument, by misrepresenting that argument as a straw person.

Later, Mr. A and Mr. B get into a discussion of the nature of reality, in which Mr. B, not liking the direction of the argument, responds to what he feels are the overly absolutist statements of his opponent, in exasperation saying in a rather postmodern fashion, “Reality is nothing!”

There are several ways that this can be interpreted, but in this case, a clarification is not offered, and Mr. A cannot read minds nor thinks at the time to ask for a clarification, so the most likely interpretation, that B is claiming reality doesn’t exist, will have to do.

What does this mean? Can we carry this claim to it’s ultimate conclusion without merely misrepresenting it?

Let’s see…

What is reality? And I don’t mean what is its ultimate nature in fact, but what is the meaning of the word? How is it used?

Reality, by definition, is that which can truly be said to exist, no matter it’s nature or other properties:

a=a: reality is real.

To be real, this quality of existing is essential, whether the thing existing is directly observable or not. If something doesn’t exist, then it’s not part of reality, and if it’s not even imagined, it’s not fantasy either.

What is everything that is real?

We call it the Universe, or the Cosmos, take your pick, though myself, I’m partial to the latter, though for this discussion I’ll use “universe” for the totality of existence.

To say that reality is nothing, in this context implies that the universe doesn’t exist, 100% of it, not just 90% in the straw person argument above, since the universe is everything, with or without any supplementation to it by anything allegedly supernatural.

But if the universe is everything that exists, and everything currently within and originating within the universe, by definition existing as part of its totality, and therefore part of all reality…

Hmmm… I smell something funny about this, don’t you?..

If the ‘reality does not exist’ interpretation holds and the claim were true, then the claim could never be made, since neither of the two persons would even exist themselves in order to have their argument.

But if Mr. B exists to make his argument to Mr. A, and Mr. A exists to hear the argument, then the claim, assuming this interpretation, is simply, obviously, and demonstrably false.

Clearly this is an unacceptable conclusion, at least until such time as Mr. B offers a clarification of his statement that requires a different interpretation of what he said, we must assume what we did know and thus consider this a valid Reductio ad absurdum.

But personal debates among argumentative friends are often messy, impromptu, with little if any ‘rehearsal’ or ‘practice’ beforehand, and unless both are skilled arguers, it is unlikely that normative standards or ideals will reasonably be met without time and practice.

This is just one of the hazards of personal arguments, but it’s something that can be improved if done systematically and with time, skillfully and instinctively, but the rewards of rich and confident testing of our knowledge by argumentation far outstrip any annoyance that may result in the beginning.

Project Logicality: Argumentation’s Basic Assumptions


An argument is a connected series of statement...

An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. (Photo credit: harold.lloyd)

This is the second re-release in my Project Logicality series, and it was posted in its original form in April of 2011. I’ve corrected and re-written this and reposted it here, hopefully clearer and to the point. May all your arguments be rational and all your disputes be resolved. ~ Troythulu

We persuade others through our arguments, to get them to accept the statements and claims we make as likely true of their own free choice, justified on the basis of the reasons we give rather than prove them absolutely. Argumentation contributes to healthy discussion and debate, to let those so arguing find common ground, and to make easier a willingness to compromise.

People argue daily, though seldom with skill, and in my view, argumentation as a well-honed tool of a functional democratic republic is needed more than ever with the increasing decay of social discourse, political polarization and interpersonal conflicts that ever more are seen as irreconcilable.

In this post, I’ll describe the basic assumptions and basic conditions that go into any attempt at constructive argument, and before I do, I’ll note as before that good argument is intellectual in force, not coercive or deceptive. It is an ethical means of influencing others, limiting their freedom of action without imposing on their freedom of will.

First, argument is carried out under conditions of uncertainty: We generally don’t argue about things we think certain, though that doesn’t prevent us from talking about them.

We argue about things because we think it important enough to convince others of them, and things may well turn out to be otherwise. If things were absolutely self-evident, they would be so to all, and there would be no need to convince anyone of them.

These differences may be implied and apparent to an analyst, concealed in the context of an argument, or explicit, obvious to an audience. Bear in mind that even the concept of certainty can depend on the audience addressed and the assumptions they bring to the table as to what it means.

Second, Argumentation must consider the needs of an audience. people argue about things that matter to them, attempting to resolve what they think are conflicting positions that cannot simply be settled by any non-argumentative means; appealing to common knowledge, or widely-shared empirical methods; things they consider to be non-trivial, matters important enough to need resolution.

This is not to pander to their biases, or to say that one claim is just as good as any other, it’s just that in being ethical, we must consider what is likely to persuade a given audience as if they were exercising their critical judgment on the merits of the arguments we give, and the soundness of the justifications we offer for our claims.

The audience is the final judge of whether an argument is strong or weak, justified or not, assenting to it if it is strong or justified, rejecting it if not.

Third, argumentation is both adversarial and cooperative. we make choices in arguments, choices in what arguments to select, and how to arrange and present them, based upon the audience we are addressing.

The adversarial components of argumentation help the rigor of the discussion; they help us avoid hasty generalizations; they reduce omission of important details. Skilled arguers seek first to find common ground which is itself the bedrock upon which they can meaningfully discuss their disagreement. Ultimately, these enhance our confidence of the outcome, a confidence pending better arguments to be made in future.

Fourth, argumentation involves restrained partisanship. It requires a cooperative effort between arguer and audience, despite the contentiousness often associated with everyday argument.

Arguers must share a common system of terms, assumptions, and meanings. This allows resolution of the dispute, and is needed to permit any meaningful argument at all.

Fifth, and finally, argument involves elements of risk. This is the risk of losing the argument, the risk of being shown wrong, the risk of having to alter one’s views and position, and in either case the emotional disruption of wounding one’s self-esteem or losing face with others.

But the cooperative aspect of argument means that in willingly accepting these risks, each arguer is respecting the rights and personhood of the other, and in so doing, claiming that same privilege of respect from the other for him or herself.

I think that these are good situational benchmarks, and are the optimal conditions, I would argue even necessary conditions, under which can be made any serious attempt to argue constructively, for the purpose of reaching the best possible conclusions given the means at hand.

 

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Why I get my science from scientists and not #FauxNews…


I feel up to blogging for this morning, and during this day and the next I’ll be reading up on SF approaches to zero-point energy production for a friend of mine, which should be fun.

*waves at @Ravenpenny*

Especially important in looking into zero-point energy is avoiding any use of blatant pseudoscience from so called “free energy” machine sellers…

Rubber science is acceptable within the context of fiction, implausible technological quackery is NOT!

So far, I’ve got two reference pages out of five candidates in separate browser tags. The other three candidate pages are all crank sites, with obvious red flags. I won’t sully my reputation, such as that is as a relative no-name in the skeptical community, by using those last as sources.

This raises a question…

Out of the arguments of both proponents and critics of any claim, how do I decide which claimant is more credible?

There are a set of steps I use that make for a useful start of any inquiry, and I’ll put these into three groups of related questions:

  • First: Which side in a given controversy, genuine or manufactroversy, commits the fewest logical fallacies? Which side has the most valid or cogent arguments and makes the fewest errors in reasoning? Once these are compared and an answer obtained, I then choose the side with the best arguments and go to step two. Remember though, to take care to see fallacious arguments that are actually there, and not the result of wishful seeing. And so…
  • Secondly: Which side has the better factual support for their claims. Do their respective claims add up under adequate fact-checking using reliable sources? Do credible sources support or reject the claims made? Which sources have the better track-record and reputation as a valid and reliable? Next…
  • Thirdly: Related to the second, but worth it’s own step: Which factual statements, when checked, even if and when true, are actually relevant to the claims and counterclaims made? Does the alleged factual support of a given claim actually have anything to do with it?

These three points are a basic rundown of the steps I use.

Answering these questions on science and science-relevant news are one reason I tend to support climate scientists over so-called climate sceptics, and professional biologists over the various species of creationists found online and in religion and politics.

They are the reason that I tend to give more credence to the statements of astronomers than I do astrologers, Physicists and psychologists more than psychic claimants, chemists over alchemists, and neuroscientists over phrenologists.

These questions are the reasons I don’t get my science from clergymen, religious apologists, allegedly fair and balanced media outlets, politicians or radio talk-show propagandists.

Those are not what I would call credible sources.

I get my science from scientists, and science-writers with a real background in the field, thank you, not preachers, partisan bloggers, or people who loudly decry government and taxation while also running for public office so they can get paid a rather handsome salary, with kickbacks and bribes paid by lobbyists, otherwise funded by my taxes.

Course Review: Argumentation – the Study of Effective Reasoning


This course from the Teaching Company, taught by Northwestern University professor David Zarefsky, has long been one of my favorites where home study is concerned and life situation, tuition, textbook, and travel expenses make de facto college study cost-prohibitive.

This set of twenty-four thirty-minute lectures, in a set of four DVDs, is a good introduction to both the fundamentals and finer points of argumentation, the use of reason to gain the willing adherence of an audience to whatever case you wish to argue.

Of course, the point made in the very first lecture is that far from being mere bickering and quarreling, far better than a verbal fight, argumentation is not about these things, but the noble art of negotiation and deliberation by the process of offering reasons, acceptable and sound ones, for the claims we make.

This course, as Zarefsky tells you from the start, is not about winning more arguments with your spouse, convincing an atheist that God exists, nor about convincing a theist that there is no god.

There’s a selection of suggested textbooks for the course, though I’ve found the lectures will do perfectly fine on their own with the study guide booklet that is included. For my own purposes, I’ve gotten some of the textbooks because of the usefulness of delving deeper into the subject matter, and I have taken written drafts of study notes from each lecture on the most important points of the lessons.

Some criticisms, otherwise I’m a poor critic, but I’ll keep it constructive:

Zarefsky uses many examples and illustrations of the main points of each lecture, and most of these are helpful, though some are a bit overused and a couple of times I had to improvise once I got his point by coming up with my own.

In one lecture, (#13, Reasoning from Parts to Whole) he uses hypothetical emails from Teaching Company customers to clarify a discussion of arguing from general to specific and from specific to general and how either can be inductive or deductive. Once was sure I got it, I translated it into a discussion of generalizing and classifying about sand-worn stones found on a beach, used in an old post of mine (Here).

All in all though, Professor Zarefsky’s a top-notch instructor, and I would be very pleased to study under him as a classroom environment teacher now that I’m used to his style.

The course as a whole is extremely information-dense, and that’s a good thing, though it’s spaced out nicely in the format of the twenty-four lessons it’s recorded in. I recommend having a pen and note book or the digital equivalent handy while watching or listening to these — there’s a lot to take in, even as spaced out as they are, and you may want to get the more subtle but vital points of each lesson as well as the well-illustrated ones.

I recommend this course for anyone interested in developing their skill in rational deliberation and decision-making in a world where we are all too often divided and polarized in our positions, a world in which the climate of debate is poisoned by the forces of unreason and dogmatic bullheadedness.

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