Thinking About Thinking – A Reflection on some of the Modern Pitfalls and Logical Fallacies that Hinder Us

A lot of breakdown in modern communication comes down to logical fallacies and cognitive distortions that have us talking past each other. Perhaps, as the new year draws near, we might spend a little time reflecting and “thinking about our thinking.”

All of us fall into these traps. I have spoken before on the blog of the problem of “all or nothing thinking” and also our tendency today to take everything personally, to be thin-skinned. Perhaps some of the following reflections on the nature of our knowledge and how we both argue and reason, may also be instructive, since, as a group, we tend today to be very polemical, ideological and not always well reasoned in our thinking. Indeed, careful reasoning is NOT an obvious gift that most in these times exhibit.

Neither do most of us properly understand the limits or range of argumentation and so we tend to live in times where many “absolutize” what they argue and/or demand unreasonable “proof” for what others say. Frankly, the kinds of absolute proof many demand today is not possible in most realms of knowledge, including the many aspects of even the physical sciences, as we shall see. But this does not means we therefore know nothing, but only that we know within a range of stronger and weaker certitude based on a number of factors.

What is set forth here and tomorrow,  is not intended to be exhaustive. Indeed, anyone who has ever studied the branch of philosophy known as “Logic” will know that some of the structures of logic, and especially of “formal logical fallacies” are mind bending in their complexity and often ask us to hold many things constant (a difficult thing to do) while we discuss in great minutia some specific syllogism or point. There are, frankly, dozens of logical fallacies that can be distinguished, but many are very arcane, sensible only to the very erudite (of whom I am not one). Hence I will spare reader here the deepest distinctions and only discuss a few more common problems.

A logical fallacy is, fundamentally, an error in reasoning. Some logical fallacies are more common than others.

Most broadly we can distinguish between formal and informal fallacies. This is because there are two types of argument: deductive and inductive.

Deductive arguments are supposed to be water-tight. For a deductive argument to be a valid, it must be impossible for both its premises to be true, and its conclusion to be false. The truth of the premises establishes the truth of the conclusion.

The classic example of deductive argumentation is:

1 All men are mortal.
2 Socrates is a man.
3 Socrates is mortal.

It is simply not possible that both 1 and 2 are true but 3 is false, so this argument is deductively valid.

Any deductive argument must meet this high standard or it commits a logical error, and so, technically, is fallacious.

Now to be sure, not all our arguments can meet this high standard of deductive reasoning since not every premise can be as firm as “all men are mortal.” This includes many arguments that we would usually accept as good arguments, arguments that make their conclusions highly probable, but, they are not absolutely certain. Thus an argument that claims the high standard of deductive reasoning, but cannot meet its high standards is said to commit a “formal fallacy”. This does not mean that the argument is without any merit, only that it claims too much for itself.

Why is this important? Because, in an age of skepticism we need to rediscover that our demand for pure deductive reasoning is often itself “unreasonable.” We often set an impossibly high standard, namely, that all things must be absolutely certain for me, every argument absolutely airtight, and purely deductive. But the problem with this is that it does not often pertain to us, mere mortals, to have such a command of facts in order to have such certainty. In demanding a certainty or evidence that is absolute, we are usually being unrealistic, for such absolute certainty is rare in our human condition.

Thus we moderns too easily tend to reject all evidence that is not what we consider absolute. Yet, though not absolute, it IS good evidence. And we also tend to invalidity anoint certain types of evidence (especially the physical sciences) with a certainty they do not actually have. For indeed, even the physical sciences make many assumptions and hold theories that are not 100% certain. And scientists DO hold metaphysical assumptions (e.g. that reality is intelligible) which are not unassailable.

Thus in our insistence for “absolute proof” and pure deductive reasoning, we often produce a cynicism in ourselves that closes a great deal of the world of experience off to us. For the fact is, most of what we see and experience admits of mystery and uncertainty.

On account of this attitude, many today reject faith which asks us to walk “by faith and not by sight.” The evidence of faith is supplied in trusting the authority of God who reveals. And yet, to be honest, most of what we know rests on what we learn from trustworthy sources and test in the laboratory of our life.

And so, if we are honest, pure certainty and the rarefied world of deductive reasoning is not the usual human condition. We do well to admit that faith is a valid strategy, as is moving forward without 100% certainty,  and that even “pure science” contains a lot of theories, hypotheses, hunches and even guesses, not to mention pure mysteries and a plethora of unknowns.

More on this issue here: Faith and Certitude by Fr. Thomas Dubay

And that leads us to inductive arguments which do not propose to be as rigorous as deductive argumentation. But note, they are STILL good arguments, and often the only argumentation available to us in many matters. A good inductive argument lends support to its conclusions and sets forth good reasons for them. But even when the premises of an inductive argument are solid and true, it does not necessarily mean with 100% certainty that its conclusions are true. That the argument is a good one and that its premises are true, only establishes that its conclusion is likely or probably true.

Again, let us be clear, inductive arguments, which involve most of the reasoning we must undertake, do not assert and cannot claim the 100% certainty of deductive arguments. This is because they often use premises or assert conclusions that are not self evident, but only likely and probable. Thus the terms most often used to distinguish good and bad inductive arguments are “strong” and “weak” rather than certain or “proved.”

An example of a strong inductive argument would be:

1 Every day until now the law of gravity has held.
2 The law of gravity will hold tomorrow.

Note that this argument is very strong but not absolutely certain. Nevertheless most of us would act with confidence on its premise and conclusion and even make plans of a significant nature based on it. And this is case with most knowledge we have, which is not usually pure deduction, but involves a lot of inductive reasoning and argumentation.

Now, that said, we are not thus cast into a world of absolute uncertainty. There ARE standards for inductive arguments that must be met. And arguments that fail to meet the standards required of inductive arguments are said to commit fallacies, technically termed “informal fallacies” (since we are not in the realm of deductive reasoning with its absolute standards).

It is these “informal fallacies” that I would like to turn our attention in tomorrow’s post. As stated above, there are many logical fallacies that exist and have been well described. Some are more common that others, and some are more clear and egregious than others, but all of them have impact on what we may term critical thinking.

For today let this suffice. But tomorrow we can turn our attention to some (not all) of the fallacies that more often occur. As we shall see, since arguments consist of premises, inferences, and conclusions, some arguments fall short since the premises don’t give adequate support for the conclusion drawn and thus are termed fallacious. The most common fallacies center on matters of relevance, ambiguity, or presumption:

  1. Fallacies regarding relevance rely on premises that aren’t relevant to the truth of the conclusion.
  2. Fallacies regarding ambiguity make use of equivocation, “straw man” arguments, or play around with the plain meaning of words in a way that is erroneous or misleads.
  3. Fallacies regarding presumption rely on false premises, and so fail to establish their conclusion. For example, arguments rooted in false dilemmas, false dichotomies or circular arguments.

Learning a little about the nature of argumentation and reasoning can help us to avoid some of the more common modern pitfalls that shut communication down. Further it can help us avoid the extremes of either insisting on too much certainty or of falling into the other extreme of relativism. Most human knowledge exists on a continuum with absolute and deductive certitude being relatively rare, as is total ignorance and absolute uncertainty at the other end. Most of our knowledge and argumentation may be said to fall in a middle range of things we know strongly or weakly, with great confidence or lesser confidence.

Accepting this middle ground can go a long way to open true discussion and mutual respect, wherein we neither demand unreasonable or absolute proof, but neither do we dismiss necessary standards in setting forth inductive and reasoned arguments.

More on this tomorrow (actually January Wed, 2nd yo be more precise).

Without proper balance a lot of modern argumentation looks and sounds a lot like this song: