Friday, June 17, 2011

The lost discipline of logic

Over on The Impractical Catholic, I related my theory that very few people now really have a firm grasp of what the words moral and morality mean. From all I can gather, they generally believe morality has only to do with sexual and reproductive choices, and that its only basis is the “Thou shalt not’s” of the Ten Commandments.

I also have a theory that people no longer have a firm grasp of what logic means and what a logical argument is. Many people, thanks to Gene Roddenberry and Mr. Spock, think it has something to do with being emotionless. But for everyone else, a logical argument is one that makes sense to them … even if it makes sense to no one else. After all, as Gloria Steinem so famously (and fatuously) declared, “Logic is in the eye of the logician.”

This is the only way I can reconcile an atheist’s claim to be logical when he says, “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence,” as if that weren’t a classic example of an ad ignorantiam (appeal to ignorance) fallacy. The ad ignorantiam fallacy argues that if you can’t prove x true then x must be false, or vice versa. This is an incorrect inference, since what hasn’t been proven true may yet be true for reasons still undiscovered; if evidence is absent now, it doesn’t follow that evidence will never come.

Here’s another example of what I mean: I ask Joe Schmuckatelli the skeptic, “How do you know miracles aren’t possible?”

“Well,” Joe responds, taking his cue from David Hume, “because the weight of human experience is that miracles don’t occur.”

“The weight of human experience is irrelevant,” I rebut, “because that doesn’t falsify the testimony of people who have witnessed miracles.”

“They can be discounted,” Joe shoots back, “as people who were either unbalanced, or liars, or simpletons who didn’t understand what they saw.”

“But how can you possibly prove that?” I wonder in disbelief.

“Simple,” Joe smirks. “They claimed to have seen miracles.”

I’ll grant that I’ve simplified the atheist’s argument; nevertheless, that’s what it boils down to: the fallacy of petitio principii, also known as “begging the question” or “vicious circle”. Appealing to the regular behavior of the universe begs the question because a miracle is by definition irregular; we know the universe didn’t produce result x because the universe doesn’t produce such results when left to its own devices. We can’t know from the regular behavior of the universe whether irregularities have ever happened, just as we can’t tell from a properly-running engine if it has ever had a defective carburetor.

Moving away from atheists: Queer theorists sometimes argue to the social construction of gender roles from the sexual behavior of clownfish. When the primary female of a clownfish school dies, the alpha male literally changes into a female and becomes the primary breeder for the school.

No doubt transsexuals and transvestites find this comparison intriguing and conclusive. However, it’s a question-begging analogy: The clownfish’s change from male to female is not an emotional desire or a matter of psychology but a true physical change, taking on the full reproductive organs and role of the female. There’s simply no genetic or archaeological evidence that such a reproductive role change was ever necessary in the evolution of hominids. Human sexual bifurcation is rooted in our own reproductive reality. Or, to put it another way: We are not clownfish.

There really is such a discipline as logic, with rules of inference and a taxonomy of invalid arguments. Nor does that discipline necessarily rule out the expression of emotion in argument, although there are fallacies that speak to emotional manipulation. Moreover, many of these rules have been around for a long time, even as far back as the Greeks. So why aren’t more people — especially those who populate the blogosphere — aware or educated in them?

Logic is primarily taught at the collegiate level … in the philosophy department, usually as an elective. And this speaks to the degree to which complexity and specialization — as well as the public’s estimation — have combined to diminish the importance of what astrophysicist Anthony Rizzi calls “the science before science”, in that even an intro course to philosophy is rarely required, except at certain theological seminaries and Catholic colleges.

In the Catholic blogosphere, we talk incessantly about the problems of moral relativism, reductionism, subjectivism and so forth; we throw up our hands in disgust when undeniably brilliant men such as Stephen Hawking utter patent nonsense that isn’t defensible even from a purely scientific view, or consider the idea of an uncaused Cause or Necessary Being an exercise in special pleading.

But the problem isn’t merely that their philosophies are defective. Rather, it’s that they were never taught any kind of philosophy to begin with. Like the word logic, philosophy, when it’s not sneered at, is simply a synonym for “belief”, not the study of general and fundamental problems. So far as they have a cosmology, an epistemology, a metaphysics or even a political philosophy, they’re usually vague, even amorphous, and picked up through the osmosis of socialization.

The politicization of the schools promises only that the situation will get worse before it gets better. More and more of the curricula of our education systems, from kindergarten up to graduate programs, are being subverted in the interests of teaching children what to think instead of how to think. Despite the rhetoric of “transgressing boundaries”, students are being taught to think inside boxes provided by interest groups, boxes whose boundaries can be transgressed only on peril of ostracism.

As Catholics, we’re inheritors of a rich philosophical tradition, one with a sure footing in the real, absolute and true, one that allows us to enjoy the benefits of science and technology without losing the truths of our faith. But we need to start educating our children in that tradition earlier, as a foundation for other knowledge, rather than waiting for them to (hopefully) learn it in college.

Next post: Lost art of common sense? We’ll see.