Boundless Ocean of Unlimited Possibilities

Sometimes (e.g.) on the internet we angst about the kind of person who likes to DESTROY his enemies with FACTS AND LOGIC AND REASON. Ben Shapiro has become the iconic figurehead of this sort, and not without cause - but that is at least somewhat misleading. Shapiro is prominently a fairly traditional conservative in his politics, but that is not an essential property of the sort. It is not tied to any particular political position so much as a self-characterisation and an aesthetic. The self-characterisation is that of an unbiased objective person who calmly follows (to the best of their abilities, accepting human frailty etc) good principles of rationality to reach conclusions. The aesthetic is that of being very impressed by displays of logical acumen, and very persuaded that one's ideological opponents (whoever they may be) can be set aside with relative ease once the tools of reason are brought to bear against them. This post is my contribution to that genre.

Now, I am a fan of fairly orthodox notions of logical argumentation. I do in fact think it is a good thing to offer arguments which are perspicuously such that there is no way for their premises to be true while their conclusion is false. All the better if you begin from true premises! Just on this blog I have tried to clarify clarity all the better to achieve it, and put a name to an under-recognised fallacy. I have even tried to engage in some ideology-critique-via-argumentative-critique. In short, I think I speak as someone who at least has something in common with the internet logic fans; I am not just a hostile outsider to this phenomenon. In fact one way this sympathy is going to manifest itself in this post is that  I am going to take them seriously that logic is their concern. I think it is plausible that it is genuinely logical ideals they are striving after and which they think bolsters their position. Finally, just a warning, I am going to say less than one might like about the possibility that really what people are implicitly trying to do is offer inductive or abductive arguments rather than deductive ones. Trust me when I say that once one gets to the end one will see it is actually a pleasing act of self-coherence that I leave argumentative possibilities unexplored!

So, after all that set up, and for all my sympathy and similarity to this group, what spurs this post is that I typically find myself totally opposed to the logic fans in aesthetic and self-presentation. Why should this be?

My guess is it comes from a very different idea of what it is that a general improvement in logical acumen would achieve. The internet logic fan imagines that it would often lead to us agreeing on what is true - by contrast, I imagine it would lead to us agreeing on how much we don't know. They imagine it would knock out possibilities, I imagine it would open them up. The rest of this post is just a quick explanation of what I mean here and why I think that.

Logic is, among other things, the study of truth preservation. It gives us tools for discerning when it is that some premises being jointly accepted a conclusion cannot be consistently denied. When an argument has this property of its premises ensuring the truth of its conclusion we say it is valid. One, but certainly not the only (!), thing that is taught in critical thinking classes, and many intro logic classes, is how to analyse "real life" arguments to see if they are valid. For this we often teach students fairly standard means of translating natural language claims into a neat formal language and how to analyse the arguments thus translated. Sometimes we set them loose on arguments drawn from politicians speeches or newspaper articles or what not to see how good they are at this. I think the root of the logic fans' vision for logic DESTROYING their enemies is that with it they shall be making arguments that are valid in this sense. In fact there is usually two sides to this. First, their opponents are shown to be not in the business of arguing at all - what "arguments" they offer are little more than emotive pleas (on that contrast see here). And after that these people are sharply contrasted with the airtight reasoning of a scientifically informed and logically precise debater. They thus envision securing agreement by brushing aside their opponents own perspective, then trapping their enemies in the iron grip of a valid argument, and squeezing conclusions out of them whether they like it or not.

But validity is only the beginning of wisdom, not its end. For evidently mere validity by itself is not very interesting - we should like to know not just this relationship between the premises and the conclusion, but also whether or not the premises are in fact true. (An argument which is valid and has true premises is known as a sound argument - by their nature, sound arguments must have true conclusions.) In fact, even that is not enough - for logic to really be dialectically effective in this sort of way, it must offer us not just sound arguments, but sound arguments with premises that are known or sufficiently well established to be true that one's opponents cannot very well reasonably deny them. And here is where I think the rub lies - I think it is extremely difficult, vanishingly rare in fact, to have arguments which are (i) interesting, (ii) valid, and (iii) possessing premises that are true and established to be so. By (i) I just mean - on the sort of topics that actually concern us in political and social discussion, coming to contentious conclusions about how we should live or arrange our institutions etc. And by (iii) I mean - having premises that are not only true (hard and rare enough in itself in many cases), but are sufficiently well evidenced such that disputants cannot just as reasonably doubt this premise as accept the conclusion.

So to me the more salient tool in the logician's kit is the counter-model. This is the imaginative skill (also taught in intro logic) of coming up with ways the world could be that would satisfy all of the premises while rendering the conclusion false. This shows us possibilities left open by what is established in our premises, sometimes these are ways the world might be that we may not have been inclined to think about were we not set the task of generating a counter-model. When I envision the world wherein logic is better respected, it is a world wherein this skill is more often deployed. For an extended example of such counter-model construction in my work see here. In the present case I think that if we work only from those premises that have been reasonably well established we shall only be left with invalid arguments linking what we know to conclusions that we are interested in. (Further, in point of fact the very great majority of actual arguments offered are invalid.) Logic would thus not operate like a vice holding us and our opponents in place. It would serve more as a constant invitation to use one's imagination, forever reminding us to seek out new possibilities that our all too hasty and prejudicial habits of mind might be inclined to pass over.

The title of this post is drawn from Carnap's Logical Syntax of Language. In the opening to this he gives some metaphilosophical remarks about the sort of thing that logic is. His vision of logic allows for much free play of the intellect. He thus says that having come to appreciate the full range of possibility left open to the logician we are brought to see that "before us lies the boundless ocean of unlimited possibilities". Sail on...

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