Every now and then correspondence will arrive in the ‘inbox’, the purpose of that correspondence being to make an argument for a particular point of view. After stating his or her case, a sentence will sometimes follow something like: “If we follow this line of thought to the logical conclusion….” And sometimes the person is right. Sometimes in error. Yet logical thinking doesn’t automatically guarantee a ‘correct’ answer, even though the thought process follows ‘logical’ steps.
How can that be? Isn’t logic supposed to be infallible? Formal logic is as concrete as mathematics; indeed it follows basic mathematical principles. But every discussion begins with a premise that one point of view or another will accept as ‘true’. If that premise is in error, then the conclusion will also be in error even though the thought process followed a ‘logical’ course.
A critical part of logical thinking involves ‘if-then’ statements. I might say: If it is cloudy, it is raining.” This is a ‘logical’ statement in terms of construction. If we accept it as a true statement, then every time we see clouds it should be raining and we could construct an entire weather pattern based on what might ‘logically’ follow. However, despite the logical format, we know that every cloud does not produce rain. Turning the statement around: “If it is raining, then it is cloudy” makes more sense. The point is we can build a ‘logical’ argument from either statement if we accept them as true. Logic doesn’t make one or the other correct. The critical factor is making sure the premise we begin with is a provable fact based on physical evidence or at the very least agreed upon by all concerned, and not merely subjective opinions based on hearsay.
So when someone says: “If we follow this line of thought to the logical conclusion” they are assuming the premise is true. If it isn’t, their ‘logic’ may be textbook, but their conclusion will still be wrong.
Another common error in thinking is circular reasoning. It is where the premise and conclusion are essentially the same thing. “The news is fake because it’s all fake news.” Presumably the intent of this statement (conclusion) is to explain why news is fake but only repeats the premise with no rational explanation. Another example: “I know this sacred text is the work of the god Thor, because Thor says it is in the sacred text.” Another: “The smartest student in school is John, because John told me he is very smart.” Or: “Smoking basswood leaves should be illegal, because it’s against the law.” Generally speaking, the use of circular reasoning indicates the individual does not have a full understanding of what he or she is trying to convey, and so merely repeats the premise, and only changes the wording.
It is difficult for two people with opposing views to have a meaningful discussion because often they have not agreed on the initial premise. If they are each starting from a point of view that is in conflict, then even though their ‘logic’ may be accurate, they will each arrive at different conclusions. This is why discussions between strict rationalists and religious literalists often go nowhere. Or between different religions or diametrically opposed political opinions. They have found no common ground, no initial guiding premise that they can agree upon to begin a thoughtful discussion, and so these discussions usually devolve into each seeking refuge in their own ‘world’, and dissolve into personal attack, ‘mudslinging’, innuendo, intimidation; in other words politics as usual.
One may claim to be seeking the ‘truth’, but if in their ‘heart’ they already believe they have it, then discussion of differing views is a waste of breath for all parties concerned. If one bases his or her premise on testimony while the other finds testimony unreliable and requires tangible proof, then there is no point in continuing.
Yet our continued existence as a member of Earth’s living species requires that we find the common ground necessary to coexist. Who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ will be of little consequence if there is no one left. Perhaps a place to begin, an acceptable first premise for all concerned, would be to simply agree to get a better understanding of each other’s views, an appeal to rational thought, however unlikely that appears to be.
Email Terry Mejdrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.