sherlock holmes

Logic is overrated

I was having a discussion with a person of faith who was trying out the latest intellectual arguments for demonstrating that Christianity is the world's one true religion and I was trying to explain to him (shockingly) that logic is overrated. As a brief bit of catch-up for those who don't keep up with this sort of thing, the current trend is to use pseudo-logical arguments. They're decades past the point of trying to use empirical evidence to make their case. They've quietly admitted there is none and moved on. God doesn't interact in the world in any measurable way. No studies have ever produced any evidence that intercessory prayer has any benefit above and beyond placebo effects. And the wrath of god we're all supposed to be afraid of doesn't exist. Natural disasters and diseases deploy in an entirely materialistic way. If god were using tsunamis and earthquakes to wipe out sinners, his aim is terrible and he winds up obliterating innocent children in locations geographically unrelated to this sin in question. And no one has ever been able to provide the slightest hint as to what souls are made of, where they go after death (is heaven in outer space; a very spacious hotel on the far side of the moon?)

The new trend is to talk about vague ill defined philosophical concepts. In particular this conversation revolved around how "atheists can account for things like morality, value, purpose and the laws of logic without a God?" [The Christian] can provide reasons for why it's wrong to kill people

After a period of interacting with these arguments, it becomes clear that these aren't here to convince anyone. These "arguments" exist to provide busy work for your interlocutor to make it more difficult to get out their own arguments so a believer can sit back and believe in peace. What really gives this away is the part about the laws of logic. The argument, expressed in its most blunt and cheeky form is I don't have to consider any of your arguments until you can explain to me how logic works from first principles. 

There are two problems with this question. A little bit of science will show that humans have existed as a species for something on the order of a hundred thousand years. Plus a few million years before we shared a common ancestor with modern day apes. Depending on how you want to pin down "logic", what we currently use as the laws of formal logic are between 300 and 3000 years old. So at the most conservative (3k to 100k) it took 97% of human history to work our way up to something called logic. Asking someone you just met to explain it to you quickly and for free is slightly rude. It's sort of like having someone pour you a cup of tea, quietly pouring your tea back into the teapot then demanding indignantly to know when tea will be served.

The other immediate problem is that humans clearly accumulated a great deal of knowledge in those 97+ thousand years. Where is this knowledge coming from if these "people" aren't thinking logically? The answer to that question goes a huge way to answering these "unanswerable" questions posed by the religious. A large part of it is the privileged position given to "logic" in explaining how we know what we know. If it turns out

There are a few philosophical background items to deal with before going further. Patience grasshopper!

Abandoning Platonism

Platonism is the belief that abstract concepts "exist" in some metaphysically necessary way. If you ask a normal person whether it's possible to touch "the number eight" in the same way it's possible to touch "an apple", most will misinterpret the question and assume you're talking about a piece of paper with the number eight written on it or a pile of eight grapes you can hold in the palm of your hand. If you ask a Platonist, they will say yes. Although most philosophers to day will agree they are wrong. There doesn't appear to be a literal sense in which "the number eight" or "perfect circles" or "objective moral values" exist in that sense where they have a material composition and act causally in the universe. "Two" is a useful word to have in the sense that it's the trait in common shared by a pair of rocks and a pair of velociraptors but it does't have existence in the literal sense.

Platonism sneaks in in subtle ways into religious arguments. The presumptions that "moral values" or "objective purposes" exist in a Platonic sense which would imply that someone has to have created them. But if you reject their Platonic existence, which seems reasonable, then you lose the need for them to be "created".

Most religious people are Platonists without realizing it. You can tell by the way they use language and construct arguments. Abstract concepts are constantly being treated in logical terms as though they were magical energy fields - the kind of bright glowing goo from a fantasy films that leeks out of the magical crystal and slips in through the eyes creating demon possessed villain. Good and evil are often spoken of as entities or forces with anthropomorphic properties, or physical objects that you could eliminate. It were was though evil were something you could physically extract and shoot into the sun the way you filter bacteria out of your drinking water.

Abandoning Essentialism

Essentialism is the compulsive sorting of things in the universe into non-overlapping classes. Intuitively we want to think of a person as a "good person" or a "bad person". Ellen is a "good person" and Hitler was a "bad person". But when someone forces you to step back and accept a particular individual as a complex collection of attributes some of which are "good", "bad" or "neutral" and you realize that your definition of "good person" is really just an arbitrary cutoff of for having "enough" good characteristics and our ability to get over the "bad ones" and we'd have a really hard time trying to defend our choices rationally. We usually recoil and say "you're just quibbling over semantics" and we try to push the conversation forward on our ill defined terms so we can go back to the comfortable black hat/ white hat universe we started in.

Most people, myself included, find this kind of thinking emotionally unsettling. Deep down we have a strong desire for everything to be fit-able into a clearly labeled box. We want to know "that's a conservative", "he's pro-choice", "she's a determinist". People who are difficult to classify tend to irritate us. Adam Rubin recently posted a long-form interview with a gay conservative. Our essentialist instincts demand that such a is a contradiction in terms like a married bachelor. But he's there and his opinions are real and that instinct, while it might be generally useful, isn't guaranteed to be true.

Richard Dawkins provided his reasons for why essentialism is a pernicious bias in his answer to one of the 2014 Edge Questions. You can read his full article for free here.

Unnecessary visual aide.

Not being comfortable with this kind of thinking leads to both edges of the "slipper slope" sword. The first of which says that if we have one opinion about a situation on one point of the slope, we will be incapable of having a different opinion about another point somewhere else on the slope. The other side of which is simply to deny that a slope exists and to claim, a priori, that the world exists as a set of discrete flat plateaus like a Mario platform level.

To be able to reason about the world, we need to become comfortable with this reasoning on a sliding scale. Glenn Gould was a pianist. If ever there were a definition of pianist, Glenn Gould would have to be in there. (I chose this example because I recently performed at an event at the Glenn Gould Studio in Downtown Toronto where every single room backstage contained at least one piano.) But is a high school student taking piano lessons sitting at a keyboard also a pianist? Clearly being a pianist is a definition on a sliding scale. But is Glenn Gould more pianist than the high school student or are they equally pianist-ic but of different kinds? What about a cat who steps on to the keys of a piano? Clearly not a pianist because there's no intent of making music. But on a continuous slope you can find a point between any two points, so what about a toddler who wanders by a piano and strikes some keys to experience the novel sounds? He's creating music, albeit very unskilfully, so can we call him a pianist? You're not going to be able to decide based on the quality of the music produced because art is subjective.

Our inability to demarcate the exact line where pianist-ness ends doesn't force us to say that any life form that happens to be in the same room as a piano is a pianist.

When you combine this non-essential thinking with our freedom from platonism, you can see that logic and reason aren't metaphysical entities that can be delivered through revelation (say by listing a set of logical axioms on a stone tablet delivered on a mountaintop). The logic and reason being discussed when we are asked to justify logic and reason are words that aren't pointing to anything real in our universe. They're like philosophical unicorns, things we can picture in our minds but aren't really there.

Abandoning Teleology

Teleology is about planning or end goals. The unstated premise is that things can only work if they were constructed deliberately by a conscious agent with forethought. Minds order the world around them that would otherwise be complete chaos. Interesting things can only be the result of thoughtful planning. Nothing good (and good can have any manner of wishy washy definition here) can happen by chance.

This almost sounds reasonable but it's the result of a rather simple fallacy. The arrow of inference is simply pointed in the wrong direction. It's true that if you engage in thoughtful planning, you can construct some pretty impressive stuff (stuff and construct could be building ships, writing books, painting paintings). If you invert the arrow (which is something our minds do quite readily because we don't readily differentiate between correlation and causation) then the argument appears to be, if something appears impressive (think watchmaker analogy) then it was the product of design and planning. And if you take the baby step of mushing the two together, you get the unwarranted stronger statement impressive things can only come to be as the result of design. It's the can only part which allows you to make the leap that there must exist a designer. Otherwise you only get the much wimpier there could be a designer out there maybe.

But saying design works as method for creating complex system is a far cry from establishing it as the only way. If a meal is tasty does it matter whether or not it came from a chef with decades of experience in a high end restaurant, or a ten year old who threw a bunch of ingredients into a pot and got lucky? We can say things about which process is more likely to produce tasty food. We don't get to claim that tasty food can only come from high end chefs.

But that's precisely the argument I encounter constantly. It's a prior assumption of difficult questions require complex top down magical answers. The only way to have purpose is for someone from up above to sprinkle magical purpose powder and in the absence of such powder we are forced to declare life empty and purposeless. It's actually an overlap of platonistic purpose and teleological thinking. But it forms a strange circular argument where it insists anything short of a divine-miracle-level answer to the question will be rejected because it's been established as a question which requires a divine-miracle-level answer.

In the Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins referred to this as the argument from insufficient imagination. We now know that all sorts of interesting and complex systems can arise by combining simple systems. It requires a strange inversion of reasoning, the most popular kind of which is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

Learn what "Chance" really means

Humans are notoriously bad at understanding probability. I just finished reading Statistics Done Wrong: A woefully complete guide which outlines how frequently scientific papers published in peer reviewed journals get statistics wrong in significant ways. If they're the ones who are supposed to have received formal training in the subject, what chance are the rest of us supposed to have.

But most people confuse three things:

  1. Mindless natural processes
  2. Complex systems whose future behaviour is difficult to predict
  3. Non-deterministic systems whose future behaviour is impossible to predict (being unpredictable is almost being non deterministic by definition, but I went with the clunky definition for clarity.)

If you think of that as a single class of phenomena, it's easy to see why people view large parts of the world as magical intractable mysteries. But taken separately, it's more manageable.

The first class can easily be understood in terms of the experiments you likely saw in science class. You put a ball at the top of a hill, it rolls to the bottom. There is no choice on the part of the ball or the hill. The combination of ball, hill and gravity just produce the result of the ball winding up at the bottom. You wouldn't try and say that the ball's purpose is to reach the bottom of hills or that the hill's purpose is to escort balls to its bottom (my gosh that sounded dirty!).

The third class, non deterministic systems simply do not exist. For everything we know about the universe is deterministic down to the last particle. There is one set of physical laws from which there is no escape and those laws guarantee that you can always predict the future accurately and the only limits are your present ignorance and uncertainty about the present situation. Think of a gunman whose hand is shaking. Your inability to predict where the bullet will land does not arise from the bullet defying the laws of physics.

The first class then would seem to describe the entire universe. If everything in the universe is made up of particles that must follow a uniform set of unchanging physical laws at all times, then everything in the universe is simply determined by the interactions of the particles according to the physical laws. There is no magical mind element to the universe that enters in at any point. So a super intelligent creature with enough computational power who knew enough about the current state of the universe you would be able to predict the future perfectly with no uncertainty.

For historical reasons, this creature is usually called a Laplacian Demon. The objection "Hey wait, but quantum mechanics is indeterministic" is irrelevant. There is a fundamental unpredictability in the predictions of individual interactions, which is washed out by the absolute predictability about the amalgamation of large numbers of predictions. (You can't tell where the electron will strike the screen, but you can describe the distribution of the behaviour of billions of electrons with mind boggling accuracy.) And in large terms the amount of quantum uncertainty is dwarfed effortlessly by regular measurement error. That's why it took until the 20th century for anyone to notice quantum phenomena were even a thing.

The second category is where the problems come in. You can't predict the future, but you can make guesses about the future and you can quantify how right you think you're going to be. This is the familiar phenomenon of a weather forecaster saying there is a 50% chance of rain tomorrow. People get freaked out by uncertainty and often overestimate its importance. He's saying it might rain and it might not. Equal chances of rain/not rain can seem like the weatherman doesn't know anything at all. Saying there is a 50% chance of rain is actually conveying a massive amount of certainty about the world. Knowing there won't be a hurricane, knowing that it will rain water droplets instead of marshmallows or donkeys.

So when the religious use the phrase "just random chance" pejoratively as though it's a no-holds-barred anything can happen situation, they're seeing only the uncertainty and ignoring all of the certainty we do possess. When you roll a die, you're saying you're certain the result will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 (and that it won't turn into a Pokemon or a black hole). When you actually consider what the words mean, random chance is actually a source of very little uncertainty.

This makes phenomena like Darwinian natural selection very easy to appreciate because they're not "random" in the anything-can-happen sense. They're just unpredictable in the sense of not knowing whether your coin will land heads or tails.

Learn Logic

Formal logic is a highly artificial system constructed for organizing our thoughts. It's a wonderful way for groups of people to get together (or get together metaphorically by putting their work on paper for others to read) and express their thoughts and review them in a methodical way to weed out as many errors and false beliefs as possible. But it's not the way most people think and it's not the way most people generate new knowledge.

Logic works as a set of rules of inference. It has three working parts (plus some accessories)

  1. A
  2. B
  3. If A is true then B must also be true

Now any of the three may be true or false for any given choice of statements. It's easy to see how to make individual statements which are true and false but it's also possible for if/then statements. So you could make the if/then statement "If an animal is a bird, then it lays eggs to reproduce." Which is true. You could also have one which is "If an animal is a whale, then Justin Bieber is the president of the United States" which is false.

Logic helps us to organize our thoughts So that if we agree that if A then B and that A is true, we also agree that B is true. In this example if both parties agree that if an animal is a bird then it lays eggs to reproduce and that the animal we're discussing is a bird, we both that it's not possible to have a a bird who reproduces without laying eggs.

There is a very subtle distinction here which gets missed. This doesn't imply that it's impossible to have a bird that reproduces without laying eggs. New evidence could convince us that a species of bird exists that can do just that, and that our belief of if A then B is false. Our agreement that A implies B is not a guarantee that A actually implies B in real life. Logic can't produce any new knowledge about the world. The best it can do is alert you when new knowledge conflicts with knowledge you already had.

You can only use logic as a persuasive tool if you start from mutually agreed premises. However, there's a macho thing which happens in philosophy which is people try and reduce these relationships (the As, the Bs and the if/thens) to the minimum number possible without loosing any information. It has marginal utility because logic operates like computer programs, garbage in - garbage out, so by reducing the number of starting assumptions you reduce the number of things people could possibly agree over. Ultimately, whether or not we accept premises comes down to observations of the real world.

Several times I've had people attempt to repudiate this point. Eventually, I discovered that they actually agreed with me, but that they had taken "every day experience" and mislabeled it as assumptions or presuppositions. So for example, they claim that statements like "everything which begins to exist has a cause" (a premise which is demonstrably false, but that's a discussion for another post) are things they "just know", but are actually generalizations from a very large number of empirical observations throughout their lives. Douglas Adams famously satirized this point with his ultimate computer Deep Thought who was able to start from the premise "I think therefore I am" and use that to deduce the existence of rice pudding and Income tax. Logical arguments can't be persuasive unless the premises have strong empirical support.

Why this is so painful?

These conversations are difficult to the point of being painful because they are often (necessarily) had with people who lack the formal training to know that don't understand the topic they're speaking of.

When most people use the phrase "let's think about this logically" what they actually mean is "let's make a series of educated guesses until we arrive at a conclusion which is compatible with our intuitions and then claim success." What they think logic is and what logic actually is are most often very different.

The image we have of logic is usually a caricature in the form of Sherlock Homles or Mr. Spock. These are portrayed as hyper rational robot like humans who also have the benefit of a huge storehouse of background knowledge and impeccable powers of observation. Most people, when they observe an actor in the role of Holmes are honest enough to recognize that their brains don't operate like that. And often the representation is misleading. Most people think that Sherlock Holmes solves cases through deduction, which he doesn't. Deduction is one of those words that means something different from what most people think it does.

Our use of logic

Think about as objective an empirical fact as you're about to find. The earth is round. Do you discover that information through logical thinking. The answer that few people are prepared to admit to is absolutely not. You believe the world is round because when you were young, someone pointed to a picture or a globe and said "this is where we live" and you accepted it as true. You likely have never flown around the world, never been to space to see for yourself and you never asked the person who told you to cite their peer-reviewed academic source to support the assertion that the planet we live on looks more or less like that globe.

Of course, I'm not trying to deny the earth is round and I'm not trying to deny the value of relying on information provided to you by others. There are good reasons to infer all the people telling you the earth is round are not lying. But when you learned the fact, you were essentially taking the information on faith. But because the fact happens to be true, we go back and re-write the narrative and thing that we believe the earth is round because of all the reasons (sails of ships over the horizon, photos from NASA, etc). You're altering history and imagine yourself as being more logical and rational than you actually were at the age when your parents first told you that miscellaneous fact about the globe.

But like the teleological problem above, yes it's possible to be right by working out your beliefs through pure Spock-like reason. But it's also possible to guess the answer and happen to be right. And once you have the correct belief, you get all the benefits from the belief regardless of what mechanism generated it. It's the evolution argument in an intellectual form. You don't need someone to sit down and design an eye to wind up with a working eye.

The "guess and check" method of reasoning we explored when we were younger actually accounts for a large part of human knowledge. Now most of that hard-won knowledge has been accumulated under the term "presupposition" by people who forgot how we came to know it in the first place.

Most of us feel it's important to be thought of as reasonable and rational people. So the admission that we are fundamentally irrational creatures seems unutterable. It's also deeply disturbing to people to realize that we, as a species, seem to be doing rather well considering our collective inability to reason properly.

Four thousand words later and this is barely a dent in the surface of an area which I know people dedicate their lives to studying. The point isn't to show that concepts like logic aren't mystical monolithic metaphysical entities handed down on stone tablets from on high and this so called "failure to account for such and such philosophical concept under materialism" is an imaginary problem invented to require a magical solution.

These aren't genuine criticisms of "atheism", they're arguments clad i the guise of philosophy unleashed with the hope that people will go away and not come back.