September 28, 2005

Everything looks like a nail

Razib writes a nice post in support of logic and reason, pointing out its precarious hold on the human mind, which by its nature is not especially logical or reasonable. Logic and reason have to be defended anew with every generation, and this generation has produced the intellectual adversary of post-modernism.

I don't expect it to even come close to winning, as long as the economic system remains more-or-less intact. Logic and reason enable us to make things that people value, like bridges that don't fall down, and medicine that really cures people. As long as there are people who will reward the activities that produce them, there will be people who engage in them, and who, of necessity, will make use of logic and reason, because it works.

Having said that, there are plenty of economically-rewarded activities in which logic and reason play little or no role, particularly in the realms of arts and leisure. I expect them to continue too. The intellectual debates which go on in the philosophy departments of universities, and between religious scholars, are largely irrelevant to these economic forces. Which is a good thing, to my mind, since I am a big fan of logic and reason.

Some of you might be surprised to hear that from me, since I have been seemingly critical of logic and reason in the past. But my problem is not with them per se, but with the common notion that anything non-logical is by definition illogical. In fact, it is illogical and unreasonable to apply logic and reason to many aspects of our human experience. Here are some of my problems:

1. Logic and reason are inherently post-facto modes of thinking, they cannot encompass innovation (except, of course, by testing its truth value, post-facto).

2. We use the non-logical part of our mind to solve most real-world problems (e.g. speaking, walking, image recognition) with remarkable speed and accuracy.

3. Our ultimate goals are, by definition, non-logical. Everybody has non-logical goals which are very important to them. When people don't recognize their non-logical goals, they are left unexamined.

What these three points have in common is the observation that the human mind is not primarily logical: that logic is not the most powerful tool in the tool-chest of the human mind, and that the fundamental experience of being human has little to do with logic.While I expect that the vast majority of humanity wouldn't argue with me on any of these points (not least because they uninterested in logically examining the subject), I happen to spend a great deal of time among a small minority of humanity that over-applies logic, and as a result enjoys life less than they otherwise would.

It reminds me of the joke about a man who has loses his keys at night, and is looking for them under a lamppost:

Passer-by: Where did you lose your keys?

Man: Over there, in the dark.

Passer-by: Then why are you looking for them over here, under this lamppost?

Man: This is where the light is.

People who are over-dependent on logic tend to dismiss as unimportant those parts of the world, and of themselves, that are non-logical. And as a result they are less happy than they could be. Is that logical? Of course not. Why would logical people do such a thing? It is because they, like all of us, have a secret wish to see the light, to posses the tool which enables them to understand all things. Since this non-logical goal is left unexamined, they never figure out that logic isn't it. As it is said: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Here are three overlapping, non-logical goals to which logic can be applied:

1. To manipulate the environment (e.g. build useful things)

2. To be happy

3. To be evolutionarily successful (i.e. survive and reproduce)

Logic and reason have been very successful in promoting goal #1, but not particularly successful (so far) in promoting goal #2. And if you have the non-logical goal of promoting goals #1 and #2 beyond your own life, you should make sure that your strategies don't impair goal #3, otherwise they will die out.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 28, 2005 04:15 PM | TrackBacks
Comments & Trackbacks

David Boxenhorn has a very nice post on the limits of strict logic....   ... more

Trackback by: Solomonia (The Limits of Logic) at October 1, 2005 08:36 PM Permalink

Pace First Officer Spock, logic doesn't exist in isolation.

When you say that appreciation of art is not logical, I say: 'not logical with respect to *which* aesthetic theory?'

When you say that that goals cannot be logical, I say: 'well, I try to make my actions consistent with my goals, and my goals consistent with my values, in both cases applying my best theories of how the world works'.

How could one hope to construct a logical argument which exhorts people to reject logic?

It's perfectly OK to apply reason to every aspect of our lives, provided we respect tradition and remember that we are fallible creatures.

Posted by: Thomas Robinson at September 29, 2005 03:19 AM Permalink

It doesn't seem to me that David was arguing that one should not *apply* reason to every aspect of our lives, merely that there are aspects of our lives which are simply not logical. Applying reason to those would seem to me to make a lot of sense.

Respecting tradition and bearing in mind fallibility are both behaviours as well as theoretically desirable beliefs. But bearing in mind that tradition is frequently not logical, how do rational people respect it in practice? Picking and choosing the parts that seem to oneself rational is not respecting, it is exploiting. Likewise, how does one apply one's sense of fallibility, if not by approaching life with the knowledge that there are huge significant parts of it that are beyond logic, and acting accordingly?

Posted by: Alice (Texas) at September 29, 2005 05:17 PM Permalink

Well, fantastic post. But...
probably you are speaking about religion, and the fact is that Revealed religions hold some facts as true. Facts are the place where logic works.

When Christians say that Jesus was the son of a virgin, or Jews hold that God opened the Red Sea for Moses, they are making factual statemets.

I would be very interested in understanding why Jews belive in The Red Sea miracle, but they don´t belive in Maria´s virginitiy, or Mohammed´s trip to the Moon. These things are a matter of fact, so a field for logic and reason.

The point is that reason is not against the idea of God, but it works not very well with revelation

The classical arguments from the Enlightment are based on factual skepticism, and they are directed against Revelation, not against the idea of God.

I agree in the fact that logic is VERY limited, but what do we have apart from it?

Posted by: Kantor at September 29, 2005 11:48 PM Permalink

Logic is not a tool for manipualte the world, but for understand it. Otherwise, useful lies would be logical.

It gives us the truth, which sometimes doesn´t make us very happy.

A final remark: True, hedonists don´t enjoy life very much...

Posted by: Kantor at September 29, 2005 11:52 PM Permalink

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