Logic: What’s Missing from Public Discourse

What often passes for public discourse in contemporary society is really just a simulacrum, an imitation, of real “discourse” in the sense of a “reasoned exchange of ideas.”  One realizes before long how much we are suffering from the current lack of that key ingredient within all older forms of liberal arts education: namely, logic.

Some people think of logic as the sort of things computers do—cold, calculating, and unemotional—and reject it for that reason.  But computers in and of themselves aren’t “logical” at all any more than a train switching station is “logical” in and of itself.  Computers (when they’re at their best) do what they’re told to do, no more, no less.  Someone has to build whatever “logic” they have into them.  Usually the sort of thing you can get into a computer is essentially mathematical—which is to say, if you can’t reduce the thing in question to some sort of mathematical equation, you can’t get it into the computer at all—and math, as we all know, is cold and calculating.  Printed circuits are not “cold,” but they can under the right circumstances “calculate,” and they are absolutely unemotional.

Logic, on the other hand, is the glue that holds human discourse together.  Logic is what keeps us “on track” in a conversation and helps us to keep checking back to make sure both of us are talking about the same thing in the same respect.

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So, for example, when two people are arguing about whether something is “fair” or “unfair,” and by “fair” one person means “getting to keep what I earn” and the other person means “everyone getting the same,” these two people aren’t really arguing at all; they’re simply talking past one another. The one might as well be speaking Chinese and the other German.

We all know that if one man is chattering away in Chinese and the other in German, and neither understands the other, it may look from a distance as though they’re having a very intense discussion, but they’re not really.  Theirs is merely a simulacrum of a discussion.  And so with two people who are using the same word but in two different senses: they’re “equivocating,” and equivocal use of a key term is one of the best ways of fooling yourself into thinking a discussion is taking place when in fact none is.

Logic also bids us to respect one another by establishing certain “rules of etiquette” or “rules of conversation” that help us to know when one of us has seemingly “scored a point” (in debaters terms) but has done so improperly, “against the rules,” so to speak.  You’ve sneaked up to the goal and kicked the ball in during the time out; or you’ve picked up the ball with your hands and thrown it in, which just isn’t what you agreed to when you and your friends chose to play soccer.

We’ve all seen games of soccer or basketball break up when one person or another decides to dispense with “the rules” and foul indiscriminately, carry the ball without dribbling, or throw the ball in the soccer net.  To the uninitiated, it may look as though the game had been going on as usual, when inexplicably a fight broke out, and everyone went home.  But the problem started before the fight, when what seemed like “the game as usual” was going on, but in fact, was not.  Fights break out precisely when “the game” has broken down.  And “the game” breaks down when one side or the other decides that achieving what they want is so important and will be so much easier if they simply dispense with all the bothersome “rules.”  What in fact was going on before the fight broke out wasn’t really basketball or soccer, it was only a simulacrum of basketball or soccer—just as a man who picks up his golf ball and drops it in the cup isn’t really playing “golf.”  He may be amusing himself, but no one who understands golf would call what he was doing “golfing.”

So too, to people who are aware of what real arguments should be like—people like Fr. James Schall who have spent their lives reading the dialogues of Plato, the logical works of Aristotle, and the disputed questions of Aquinas—they look upon what most of the rest of us call “arguments” and say: They’re fighting, not arguing.  Or else: That person may be amusing himself, but you could hardly call what he is doing “arguing.”

It’s not just politicians who have lost the ability to argue, rather than just fight (I’m surprised there aren’t fist-fights on the floor of the Congress every day, given how they talk to one another); it’s a general malaise of the country’s intellect and spirit.  A quick glance at the “comments” section of any on-line site will quickly reveal the severity of the problem.  Most people just don’t know how to make arguments.  They seem to think that merely disagreeing (and sounding disagreeable) is the same as arguing, but it’s not, any more than throwing a soccer ball at someone’s head is the same as playing soccer.

Let’s say that I write an article (which I did) suggesting that, given how many annulment cases are filed in the United States every year and how long it often takes to adjudicate them, and given that recent popes back to the beginning of the twentieth century have insisted that such decisions should be carried out “swiftly and fairly,” therefore we need more people trained in canon law to be tribunal judges and more staff for the diocesan tribunals in this country.

Now the first thing to say about this position is that it’s certainly open to critique in any number of ways.  But many people seem to suffer from the mistaken belief that mere counter assertion—saying bluntly “You’re wrong,” or “No we don’t”—is sufficient.  It’s not, any more than two children shouting “Yes it is,” “No, it isn’t,” “Yes, it is” at each other is a meaningful discussion.

Nor is it entirely fair to shift the ground of argument, such as when a person replies: “There are too many annulments in this country.”  There might be too many annulments (but one would have to prove that by specifying what “too many” means), but that’s not exactly an argument against my position.  If we have too many fights in un-officiated soccer games, that isn’t usually taken as a sign that we need fewer soccer referees.

Then again, there’s the ubiquitous:  “The Church has gone off the rails since Vatican II.”  Perhaps it has—in certain ways—perhaps not. But again, the claim doesn’t speak directly to the question of whether we need more tribunal officials.  The answer to every question is not: “The Church has gone off the rails since Vatican II.”  In fact, I would suggest that that particular comment is the answer to exactly nothing.

Citing one or two examples of bad behavior since Vatican II would also not suffice to “prove” that “The Church has gone off the rails since Vatican II” any more than one or two examples of bad behavior among Wall Street financiers would suffice to “prove” that “Americans have all become too greedy.”

Indeed, it is very risky to make universal claims one way or the other—“all Americans are greedy” or “no woman would lie about rape” or “husbands never do their fair share of housework”—because all it takes to disprove a universal claim is one, lone counter-example.  By the same token, when a speaker has made a general, but not a universal claim (“many college students drink too much”), it is not sufficient (although many people seem to think it is) to cite one or two counter-examples.

So, for example, if a person argues that “it has taken way too long for too many people to sign up for government health insurance,” it’s not really a sufficient reply to say: “I have a friend who signed up, and he didn’t have any trouble at all.”  Sadly, that last comment is likely in our current cultural climate to produce another reply along the lines of: “You’re lying.  I knew somebody who tried, and it took months.”  But there’s really no point in charging a person with lying.  He or she may be telling the God’s honest truth.  It just isn’t a reply to the argument, since one or two or even ten people might have signed up without trouble. The argument is about the general case.  But since people untrained in logic think that by the reply the person has scored a debater’s “point,” the only response they have is to claim “cheating.”

There are many sorts of logical fallacies, and we’d all benefit from remembering them when we read or listen to the news.  There is the famous fallacy known as “affirming the consequent,” for example, for which a good illustration can be found in an episode of The Simpsons. A bear wanders into Springfield, something which has never happened before, but the townspeople are frightened, so they cry out for a “bear patrol” to “protect the children” from any future bears. And so Springfield gets a regular “bear patrol.”  “Ah,” says Homer to his daughter Lisa soon after, “the bear patrol is working.  There are no bears.”  To which his daughter replies: “Dad, that’s a logical fallacy.  I could say that this rock keeps away tigers.  You don’t see any tigers, do you?  So the rock must be working.”  At which point Homer offers to buy the rock.

We say: “If it is raining, the ground will get wet.”  Now someone points out: “the ground is wet.”  Does it follow that it must be raining?  No, of course not.  Many things might be responsible for getting the ground wet.  I might be watering my lawn.  So too, in politics:  If the Affordable Care Act is working, it is claimed, then many people will sign up for plans on the government exchange.  People have signed up for plans on the government exchange.  Therefore, the plan worked?  That simply doesn’t follow, especially if those people were required by law to sign up or if those people lost their previous insurance due to the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.  The Affordable Care Act may in fact be working.  But you can’t argue that it is when you’re simply affirming the consequent.  Arguments of that form are never real arguments; they’re just propositions masquerading as an argument.

These are technical logical fallacies, of which there are many.  But there are other sorts of errors one can commit as well.  One common one is to mistake wit for argument, and then to mistake snarkiness for wit.  So, for example, when a friend writes: “The United Nations Committee on Climate Change predicts that the deserts will soon be expanding rapidly; the good news is that at least climate change deniers will have sand to bury their heads in,” I hope he realizes that’s not an argument. So too, when an atheist puts on his tombstone: “All dressed up with no place to go,” and when C. S. Lewis walks by and says: “I bet he wishes that were true,” neither of those comments constitute arguments.  The problem in all three cases is that, to be in on “the joke,” you have to presuppose the conclusion.  In the first case, you have to accept that man-made global climate change is an unquestionable fact; in the second, that there is no heaven or hell; and in the third, that there is a heaven and hell and that people who deny it may experience some, let us say, difficulty later on.  Proper arguments don’t begin with the conclusion they seek to establish.  To begin with the conclusion is called “circular reasoning.”

One of the problems in America today is that everyone thinks he’s a wit, and that wittiness is a fit substitute for logic.  It’s not.  If you doubt it, try watching John Stewart or Stephen Colbert for a week.  What these two men repeatedly prove is that any and every thoughtful person in America can be made to look stupid by a person who sets out to make him or her look stupid.  The post-modern conceit is that they’re “just pretending” and that none of what they do is “serious,” when we all know that they’re not pretending at all, and that they’re trying to convince young people of certain positions, not by logic, but just by making other people look “uncool.”  It’s high school all over again, only this time with more at stake than who gets to sit at what lunch table.

And of course the quality of public discourse in this country would change radically—and I mean radically—if we could just convince people that ad hominem attacks are not really arguments at all.  I may be a greedy, heartless “conservative” or a godless heathen “liberal,” but the problem is, I might still be right on this particular point.  When a self-confessed liar tells you that “two plus two is four,” his being a liar doesn’t mean that two plus two isn’t four. To prove a liar is lying, you need to show that his statement is false, not merely call him a liar.  Bad people sometimes make perfectly valid arguments, just as bad people sometimes get their sums right.  I may be a greedy, self-involved jerk, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong about taxes being too high or highways being unsafe or the need for more investment in infrastructure.  I might be wrong in each case, but you can’t tell that merely from hearing someone call me a greedy, self-involved jerk.  So let’s get past all the mud-slinging, which tells us exactly nothing, and get to the real substance of the argument.

Moral integrity is important because it means you can depend upon a person’s actions, no matter what the circumstances.  So too logical integrity and consistency are important because it means you can depend upon a person’s statements no matter what the circumstances.  “Special pleading” is when a position is always wrong when the other guys are for it, but never wrong when one of our guys is for it.

The increasingly virulent sort of partisanship we’re experiencing in America has a lot to do with members of both sides thinking that dispensing with the rules of the game is the best way to play.  It should be no surprise, then, that both sides are increasingly unwilling to play; fights break out all the time; and everyone is tired and cynical at the prospect of going into the stadium again for what everyone is fairly sure will be another ugly, mostly boring match.

Editor’s note: The image above is a scene from “The Naked Time” episode of the original Star Trek television series. Here depicted is the ever-logical Mr. Spock who encounters a crew member infected by a virus that causes irrationality and eventual death.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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