The Limitations and Misuse of Logic

Logical conclusions must be predicated on true premises. If the premises are unexamined, inaccurate, or false, then the logic is empty. This is one reason why using “logic” to argue for or against matters of politics and policy is frequently misguided; the person invoking “logic” is all too often using faulty premises.

Misuse of logic is rampant in all fields, even academic ones. It is often used as a crutch to justify prejudices and as a club to smite those who hold opposing views. There are people who are thoroughly Aristotelian in their thinking, and do, indeed, believe in the profundity of empty logical arguments. Others, such as politicians and evangelists use logic cynically as an instrument for persuasion of those who don’t realize that “There’s a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons, and reasons that sound good.” (Burton Hillis).

Just what is an ‘empty’ argument about the ‘real world’ of our experience?

  • One kind is the argument that may have faultless logic but is based on premises that have not, or cannot, be experimentally verified. Another kind is based on premises that are not part of any well-established and accepted scientific theory.
  • Some arguments are empty of content because they use words with no clear and unambiguous meaning, or words that cannot be related to anything real (experimentally unverifiable).
  • The most seductive empty arguments build upon premises that are so emotionally appealing that we don’t ask for verification, or which have appealing conclusions that blind us to the emptiness of the premises.

Via Uses and Misuses of Logic..

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1 thought on “The Limitations and Misuse of Logic”

  1. “There are people who are thoroughly Aristotelian in their thinking, and do, indeed, believe in the profundity of empty logical arguments”

    I have a hard time believing that anyone who has read and reflected on much Aristotle could make a snarky comment like that and really mean it. Simanek’s claim that “Nearly every argument and conclusion [Aristotle] made about physical science was wrong and misguided” suggests to me that his understanding of Aristotle is pretty shallow. Or maybe he’s just prone to hyperbole, but it always pains me when people take the requisite pot shots at Aristotle without demonstrating any kind of serious engagement with his (masterly) thought.

    Again: “Aristotle thought that the mind contains (from birth) some innate and absolutely true knowledge that can be used as premises for logical arguments.” I wish he had provided a citation or two for that. It sounds to me more like a description of Descartes, the anti-Aristotle, than of Aristotle.

    Descartes is the definition of the abstracted philosopher who thought he could just think out the truth about the universe if he sat in a quiet room for long enough. It’s no accident that he was an outstanding mathematician. It’s also odd that Simanek highlights a snarky comment from Descartes about philosophy in a pull-quote.

    Finally: “Another error was to assume that the conclusions from a logical argument represent new truths.” Sure, but I’m not sure that Aristotle ever made that error. In fact, a great deal of what Aristotle said about logic could be summed up in Simanek’s next sentence: “the deduced conclusions are just restatements and repackaging of the content contained in the premises”.

    Anyway I suppose that’s tangential to your main point. I agree entirely that ‘using “logic” to argue for or against matters of politics and policy is frequently misguided’. Mainly because the premises of political arguments, like most premises about the real world, are usually uncertain to one degree or another. And even if you’re pretty certain about your premises (for example, that certain kinds of liberty are fundamental human rights that precede government), it’s not at all clear how to apply those principles in practical situations.

    But back to Simanek: “The models and theories of science are approximations to nature—never perfect. But in most cases we know rather well how good they are”. I love the first sentence but I kind of wonder whether the second is every actually true “in the moment”; as in, while a particularly theory holds sway.

    Maybe the very best and most honest scientists keep always present in their minds a vague sense that something major may be going unnoticed, but I don’t see how you could possibly know “how good” a particular theory or model is until after it is displaced.

    And mediocre scientists — as well as the politicians and pundits who abuse science — may never even think of these things at all.

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