Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 29th Aug, 2011

The a-logical

On the drive back from CodeCave 2011 many moons ago, Rusty and I (amongst many other things) talked about the problem we see in modern society where some people use logic as a kind of optional extra. When it suits them - usually when attacking other people's ideas - they can use logic like a scalpel: dissecting arguments, finding flaws or exposing the problems in your examples and analogies. Yet when it comes to their own beliefs, logic not only doesn't apply, it isn't even in the same suburb.

You see these people in every role from the people that knock on my door and try to tell me to believe what they believe, through lobbyists and radio "entertainers" who wilfully exclude certain things from their arguments but are only too happy to criticise their opponents, to the run of the mill ordinary people who are outraged that people could be against gambling, drinking to excess, speeding, or whatever it is that they want to do. It's particularly pernicious in people we're dealing with personally, but aggravating when it's someone on the TV or in public life spouting their fallacious arguments and ignoring their own contradictions when we can't say a thing against it.

The fundamental contradiction is that they're ready to prove you wrong but won't accept the same in return. They use every trick in the book to avoid this - wilful misunderstanding of your arguments, using fallacies and specious logic, criticising your method of arguing, constantly turning arguments back on you, sidestepping or mis-answering your questions, and so forth - the catalogue is is too vast even for a Wikipedia page. You can't disprove them with logic. You can't be illogical or they point out the logical fallacies in your argument. You can't declare their beliefs invalid because that's too arbitrary. You can't reason with them, and yet if you don't you're portrayed as being unreasonable. You can't make up things like Pastafarianism without being, in some small part, the kind of thing you hate - and they don't see the relevance of your ridicule or see the parallels anyway.

Rusty and I debated a term for these people. When a person consistently does things that sane people wouldn't do, we call that person's behaviour insane. Yet to use the term "illogical" for who shuns logic consistently is more of a once-off offence descriptive of individual incidents rather than ongoing behaviour, and something that can almost be excused - like not sticking exactly to the speed limit. I thought that "alogical" would be a better coining - a deliberate absence and eschewing of logic. But sometimes these people can sound perfectly reasonable, and use very precise logic in disproving things they don't believe in.

Where is the balance? How do we deal with these people? Because I do believe that they are as much a danger to the social health of a community as office psychopaths are to workplaces. When these people can tell armies to go to war, make multi-billion dollar spending decisions based on pure fictions, and dictate how people are allowed to live and behave, their decisions cannot be based simply on whatever they believe and no argument will be entered into. As a society we need to see that there are rational, reasonable foundations for the principles governing our lives.

At the base of it I don't want to get into an epistemological debate - endlessly answering the questions 'why do you believe that' and 'what basis do you have for that'. Yes, at some point we have to have certain fundamental beliefs that may not be justifiable, or may even have a justification but be completely arbitrary, personal decisons (like my preference for blue over cyan, for example). How do we separate the preference of someone who says "I think someone who kills someone else is wrong and should be punished" from those that say "my magic book says that only men and women can get married" for example?

The only hope I have in this is that rationality and sense is gradually prevailing. We might rail against people who deny that climate change is man-made or who believe that the rapture will take them up to heaven according to the evidence in some pseudo-mathematical formula, but these are already far progressed from the kind of crank beliefs of centuries ago. No-one believes in spontaneous generation - that maggots are literally created from nothing in the presence of rotting meat. The belief that the earth is flat is rare to the point of extinction. Even school dropouts don't believe that the only elements in existence are fire, water, earth and air. These were all serious propositions debated by intelligent, reputable people - today we know them to be bunkum.

Likewise, in everyday life people tend to use rational thinking rather than magical. Everyday people no longer throw spilled salt over their shoulder to ward off the devil. Normal adults do not attribute stomach pains to demonic influences or yellow bile. People no longer use leeches to cure anything that isn't treated with cod-liver oil or tincture of sulphur. People do not say "bless you" when someone sneezes in order to ward off the devil stealing your soul from your nose. People walk under ladders with due care. Most superstitions are amusingly enjoyed rather than carefully observed.

While we obviously still have some distance to go, I think we are seeing reason and sense triumph over bigotry and alogical thought.

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