The Red Herring and the Power of Logic - extract from chapter one
Very few people today would be able to give an accurate description of what a logical person is, and an even smaller number of people would be able to say what the benefits of logical thinking are.
Many, if they have watched the popular 1960s science fiction series, Star Trek, would conjure a picture of Mr Spock, the Vulcan with the funny shaped ears. He could provide cold and dispassionate answers to Captain Kirk's questions that seemed to contain profound insights that mere humans had overlooked. Insights, that transcended those of the other crewmembers.
Others may imagine the logician as the sort of person who buys a book of logic problems before embarking upon a summer vacation. They then proceed to bury their heads within, whilst everyone else is swimming in the sea or playing beach volleyball. This stereotyped person in their professional life would probably be a computer expert, who spends hours at the screen. When required they could, diagnose exactly why it is that your computer has crashed. Furthermore, they could even supply you with a floppy disk that they have written themselves. Unknown to us, this is written in a mathematical logic, and when inserted in the slot puts everything on the computer back in order again.
For our purpose, however, neither of these possible images will suit. The type of informal logic this book deals with has little to do with the emotionless Mr Spock or the computer mathematical whiz kid.
What is logical thinking?
To answer this question clearly, it may be best to say what logical thinking is not concerned with. There are many misconceptions, as illustrated earlier, that need dispelling.
Logic is not about choice or how to make choices. It cannot tell you which coat to buy, which wine to drink or which foods are best to eat. Moreover, logic has nothing to say about which friends you should choose or which school or college to attend, or even which career to pursue (if any).
Logic is not about moral or ethical choices or guidance. Being logical will not tell us what we ought or ought not to do. It won't tell us what is 'good' behaviour and what is 'bad' behaviour, or whether we have certain 'rights' and 'duties'. This is for the moral philosopher to answer, or at least to try.
Logic is not about being emotionless or without sense of humour. Despite the portrayal of our Vulcan friend, people can enjoy a joke, have fun, display human emotions and still be logical. There is nothing illogical about having a good cry if there is something upsetting that neither triggers such a response, nor is there anything illogical about laughing at a good joke. To try or to pretend otherwise could be to deny our nature.
Logic is not gender specific. It is something of a myth to think that 'men are more logical that women'. Either sex has the potential to develop and improve their logical techniques. There is no gender bias. If anyone should doubt this, it should be pointed out that several of the leading authorities on logic as an academic study during the last half-century have been female.
At this point one is quite entitled to be asking oneself 'what exactly is this logic and is it of any value?'. In some ways 'logic' can be viewed in the same way that education has been viewed in the past. Those that didn't have the benefit of an 'education' were unable to see the benefits of it.
Similarly with logic, once you have become familiar with the reasoning techniques it is unlikely that you will not find them useful, or that you would wish to discard your newly developed mental abilities. I say 'developed' because most of us are inherently logical but to varying degrees. To some it comes easily and they will feel that they have such capacities and that they are already employed but without a formal recognition. To others, logical reasoning will be seen as more difficult to comprehend and employ. As we read through the book we will learn to identify assumptions that are the result of fallacious arguments. In society today we often come across people who accept these unsupported conclusions as 'normal' or 'natural.' As we unravel these we will begin to appreciate a greater sense of the mind's independence. For arriving at one's own independent opinions, freed from badly reasoned techniques, and arriving in as unbiased a manner as is humanly possible, is something special. This should not be underestimated and yet is difficult to describe as an experience.
So far, I have not said what this logic or logical reasoning actually is. We have merely been skirting around the subject, hopefully with curiosity aroused, but without answers. Following on from the previous paragraph one could define logic as 'the study of correct reasoning and sound argument.' It is not the psychological study of how people actually reason or argue, it is how they ought to argue.
The best way to describe this intangible subject is with the use of analogy. Let us imagine that we are travellers who wish to reach an unfamiliar destination - Place X. We have no guide, map or compass to instruct us. To conclude our journey successfully in the shortest, most direct route, we are forced to seek the help of others.
But how can we be sure that the advice we receive is reliable? If the journey is a critical one, then acting on bad advice could prove fatal. If the journey is less critical, then acting on bad advice could still be very inconvenient. So what tools do we have at our disposal to evaluate whether the advice we receive is good?
This is where logic comes in. Logic has nothing to say about whether you ought to go to Place X, but it can be used as a tool to examine whether the advice you receive is reasoned correctly. Further, whether the advice will help you reach your chosen destination. Continuing with our analogy, on the journey we will meet several people who are willing to direct us but their directions may sound a little suspect.
For example, one person asserts that we need to travel due north and is quite certain about this, but the person then points in a direction that is due south! We reason that this must be wrong because of the position of the sun. They have given us contrary advice.
Another person offers advice that sends us round in circles and we get no further. Another boasts that we should listen to him as he is a travel writer, but then we discover that he has never been to our destination. Others try to deliberately trick us and prevent us from concluding our journey, and some others, although very kind and considerate, innocently send us in the wrong direction because they themselves have little idea.
The purpose of logic in this book is to identify those arguments that
may lead us astray. These arguments that are reasoned incorrectly are
commonly known as 'fallacies'. The people we encounter on our journey
through life will at some stage offer advice and arguments to support
their advice. Logical thinking will help us determine which advice is
reasoned well and whether we reach the correct conclusions.
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