Being Logical – A guide to good thinking

Sorry for the infrequent updates.

On goodreads I gave the book a 2 – corresponding to ‘it was ok’. It wasn’t a bad book, and it was closer to 3 (‘liked it’) than 1 (‘did not like it’). Do recall this as you read the post. The average rating on goodreads is 3.59, and the average amazon rating is 4.3, so a lot of people seem to have liked the book better than I did. Perhaps it has to do with the horrid quality of the alternatives out there? It may also have to do with the format of the book:

“I do […] place a good deal of stress on the obvious in this book, and that is quite deliberate. In logic, as in life, it is the obvious that most often bears emphasizing, because it so easily escapes our notice. […] This is neither a treatise in logical theory nor a textbook in logic […] My governing purpose was to write a practical guidebook, presenting the basic principles of logic in a way that is accessible to those who are encountering the subject for the first time. Being Logical seeks to produce practitioners, not theoreticians — people for whom knowing the principles of logic is in the service of being logical.”

Much of the stuff covered I’d seen before in other contexts, but there was some new stuff and some stuff I’d long forgotten; it wasn’t my first book on logic, but it was the first semi-decent book on the subject I’ve read in a while. I got somewhat annoyed along the line by the fact that many of the (evolutionary, biological, etc.) reasons why we behave illogically are not addressed in the book at all – he mentions once or twice in passing that being logical has a cost associated with it because it takes effort, but that’s it. A little bit about that stuff seems very important to me to include in a book like this, because otherwise the advice given can easily become disconnected from peoples’ experiences; telling someone not to be emotional when making arguments is fine, but when are you likely to be emotional, how can you tell, and how can you increase the costs associated with behaving emotionally and disregard logic in situations where it is particularly important to not do that? No stuff like that is included in the book. On the other hand this is probably just the format taking its toll; he intended it to be short and readable and he succeeded, although the format has some limitations. I immediately jumped to ‘what about quantum mechanics? – should the state of QM theory not make us reject that principle ‘on principle’?’ when reading about the law of excluded middle – and although it later turned out I’m not the only one thinking that way, this is probably not an important counterpoint to include in a book with a scope like this one. But on the other hand when the author includes stuff like this, you get annoyed if you’re me:

“Another trait of first principles—it follows from their being self-evident—is that they cannot be proven. This means that they are not conclusions that follow from premises; they are not truths dependent upon antecedent truths. This is because first principles represent truths that are absolutely fundamental. They are “first” in the strongest sense of the word.”

If we know that the world has some randomness in it that we can’t get rid of, if truth is in some fundamental sense best thought of as (irreducibly) probabilistic to some extent, then what does that tell you about the previously mentioned supposedly ‘absolutely fundamental first principle’? Metaphysicians are always one step ahead, but ‘materialists’ (or whatever you want to call them) tend to be right behind them and sometimes they will catch up with them. Language like this will make some people tend to think of the author as an ignorant and arrogant/self-important philosopher with a fundamentally simplistic worldview that doesn’t correctly map how the world works. ‘Something is either true or false’ was an ‘established fact’ before QM – but science marched on. There are other, more decision-relevant contexts where a (to me) similar implicit rejection of probabilistic reasoning takes place, and this is by far the biggest problem I have with this book. I’ll discuss these aspects in more details in a few of the comments below.

Anyway, some more quotes and comments:

“Being logical presupposes our having a sensitivity to language and a knack for its effective use, for logic and language are inseparable. It also presupposes our having a healthy respect for the firm factualness of the world in which we live, for logic is about reality. Finally, being logical presupposes a lively awareness of how the facts that are our ideas relate to the facts that are the objects in the world, for logic is about truth. […]

Our ideas are clear, and our understanding of them is clear, only to the extent that we keep constant tabs on the things to which they refer. The focus must always be on the originating sources of our ideas in the objective world. […] The more we focus on our ideas in a way that systematically ignores their objective origins, the more unreliable those ideas become. […] Bad ideas can be informative, not about the objective world—for they have ceased faithfully to reflect that world—but about the subjective state of the persons who nourish those ideas. Bad ideas do not just happen. We are responsible for them. They result from carelessness on our part, when we cease to pay sufficient attention to the relational quality of ideas, or, worse, are a product of the willful rejection of objective facts.” […]

“To be in a state of uncertainty concerning the truth is neither a pleasant nor a desirable state to be in, and we should always be striving to get out of such states as soon as possible.” (Note added in the margin: “Here I violently disagree. Probabilistic reasoning is much more useful than ‘categorical’ reasoning in terms of estimating the true state of the world – categorical reasoning is limited in a way probabilistic reasoning is not, and the added flexibility needn’t be a cost and will often prove beneficial. Admitting to uncertainties about the true state of the world should be considered a virtue. Adding probabilities to estimates increases accuracy and decreases (implicit) measurement error. Applied probabilistic reasoning also makes us more likely to update our beliefs over time.”)

“The principle of sufficient reason tells us that things don’t just happen. They are caused to happen. We do not know the causes of everything, but we know that everything has a cause. A good part of our energies as rational creatures is devoted to the search for causes. We want to know why things happen. The knowledge of causes, simply from a theoretical point of view, can be very satisfying, since to know the causes of things is to have a truly profound understanding of them.” (As has been noted elsewhere (the book was bad, but that point stands) applying causal models is not without costs – but the costs are not addressed in this book, only the benefits. As I bluntly put it in the margin: “The hunt for causes isn’t always a good thing; we tend to apply causal thinking to areas where they do us no good. Often the causes we come up with are wrong – often ‘shit happens’ is a truer statement than ‘X caused Y’. We should be aware of this.”)

“Everything I have said thus far has been said with argument in mind. Argument is the activity of logic, and any particular argument is a concrete manifestation of the reasoning process. The next step in the process will be to look more closely at the statement, more specifically, at the “categorical statement.” The most effective argument is one whose conclusion is a categorical statement. A categorical statement tells us that something definitely is the case. […] A categorical argument (one made up of categorical statements) is the most effective of arguments, then, because it provides us with certain knowledge.” (Note in the margin: “No it doesn’t. It just gives us the illusion of certain knowledge. Which is bad. Arguments involving categorical statements may be the “most effective” – but they are not necessarily the most true. Often statements involving likelihoods have much higher truth-correspondence. The application of categorical statements will often lead to faulty reasoning because uncertainty (which contains valuable information) is neglected.”)

“[The agnostic] claims ignorance as to the truth of a certain matter. Just as there is a place for skepticism in sound reasoning, so is there also a place for an honest agnosticism. We are being honestly agnostic when we simply admit to an ignorance that is really ours, here and now. If our knowledge of a particular thing is so limited that it does not allow us to take a confident position regarding it, we should refrain from committing ourselves. To do otherwise would be intellectually irresponsible. Evasive agnosticism is the attitude that attempts to pass off vincible ignorance as if it were invincible. It is one thing to say “I don’t know” after long and assiduous research into a subject. It is quite another to say “I don’t know” when you haven’t even bothered to look into the matter. The person who succumbs to evasive agnosticism uses ignorance as an excuse rather than a reason. Such ignorance is the result of indifference or laziness.” (Margin note: “But again it is necessary to ‘pick your battles’ because logical thinking is hard work – we can’t apply it all the time because it is costly. And we can’t do research on everything. Agnosticism will often, at least for utility function specifications implicitly argued for here where people care mainly about the truth of statements, be much preferable to a poorly reasoned position.)

“The more intense our emotional state, the more difficult it is to think clearly and behave temperately. […] we need to be constantly aware of the fact that if emotion gains the ascendancy in any situation, clear thinking is going to suffer. […] There is a simple rule of thumb to be followed here: Never appeal directly to people’s emotions.”

“In the ideal debate, the primary purpose of the debaters is not to triumph over each other, but rather by their combined efforts to ferret out the truth as it pertains to the issues being debated.” (not new, but nice that stuff like this is included in the book.)

This one was fun, as it was from the last part of the last chapter: “If we are tempted to call black white, or white black, it is because the complexities of life sometimes overwhelm us. But it is not a rational response to a complex reality to simplify it in such a way that grossly distorts it. The result of simplistic reasoning is always distortion.” (…fun considering how he feels about categorical reasoning. Categorical reasoning is just a simplified version of the more general form of probabilistic reasoning, admitting only a binary probability variable that will often grossly distort the truth by adding measurement errors to our estimates.)

April 27, 2013 - Posted by | Books, Philosophy

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