Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 3, rationality and judgment

IMG_8136We come now to the third installment of our discussion of Julian Baggini’s book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (ch. 1 here; ch. 2 here). Thus far, Julian has been arguing that reason by itself is insufficient to objectively adjudicate between arguments. Reasoners, as he puts it, have to exercise their own judgment, implying therefore that judgment is both distinct from, and to be deployed in augmentation of, reason. The latter, by itself, is not an algorithm for making decisions on our behalf.

Baggini defines judgment as: “a cognitive faculty required to reach conclusions or form theories, the truth or falsity of which cannot be determined by an appeal to facts and/or logic alone.”

And he maintains that the distinction between reason and judgment is what accounts for philosophy’s (and, I’d argue, science’s) “dirty secret”: that a lot of very clever philosophers (and scientists) have a brilliant career of “intellectual pyrotechnics,” and yet utterly fail to make a permanent mark on the profession. Those who do aren’t merely clever manipulators of reason, they have good judgment about what is important to pursue and how to best go about it.

How is this possible? Because “when a valid argument has a strongly counter-intuitive conclusion we always have two choices. We can say that the argument reveals common sense or received opinion to be very wrong; or we can say that the argument shows there must be something wrong with the premises that lead us to this conclusion.”

This is also Baggini’s clever way to explain why philosophy doesn’t seem to make progress (see my book about that topic): because philosophical arguments — typically being about logical possibilities, not physical reality — lead naturally to sophisticated disagreements, not to established conclusions. (The difference with science is that scientists are interested in the one world as it actually is, so their disagreements have to be settled by empirical input, at some point or another.)

Julian quotes analytic philosopher Michael Martin, who famously said that of course philosophers have to present clear and logically compelling arguments, “but for that to be illuminating, you’ve got to get the right assumptions, ones which seem intuitively appealing, or correctly represent how we take the world to be in some aspect, and that is where the real work goes and that’s where it gets hard. I can’t describe for you a Turing machine which enables you to sort the good pieces of philosophy from the bad ones.”

Or consider Ray Monk: “Who reads Nietzsche, who reads Wittgenstein, who reads Kierkegaard, laying it out as if it were a piece of propositional calculus and says this argument goes through or it doesn’t? It would be impossibly boring and would miss the point. A problem with training students in the way that we do is that we encourage them to be concerned with whether an argument is valid or not, and we don’t encourage them very much to consider the question of whether the argument is interesting or not.”

The problem is that it is relatively easy to schematize what makes for a valid argument, says Baggini, but it is awfully hard to come up with a satisfying account of good judgment: “There is therefore a premium on the analytic, logical side of philosophy because this gets results faster, even if the results are uninteresting.”

Julian, however, goes further, suggesting that judgment isn’t just an add-on to good reasoning, but rather an inherent part of the process of reasoning. This is because most of our reasoning isn’t deductive, and only deductive reasoning can even try to make a case for being described entirely in a formal fashion, thus minimizing the role of judgment.

Logicians, for instance, have described all 24 valid forms of syllogisms, and that’s great. But the resulting structure is far closer to mathematics than to the natural language actually used by human beings to argue about issues that matter to us.

There are a number of reasons why it is simply not possible to eliminate judgment and turn reason into a purely formal endeavor. To begin with, we need to decide which assumptions or axioms are or are not acceptable. But when one pushes the analysis of assumptions or axioms far enough one has to admit that we pick certain starting points either because we can “see” that they are reasonable, or because they lead to interesting results. Both of those are judgments, not outputs from a piece of deductive logical reasoning.

Moreover, as pointed out above, logical languages are very different from natural ones, and Baggini reminds us that people identified the flaws in, for instance, Descartes’ reasoning, well before modern logics allowed them to be expressed formally. As he puts it, “to know whether an argument is sound you can never rely on what the logical structure of the argument shows by itself: you always have to make a judgement about the truth of the premises.”

The next section of the chapter makes an interesting, and often underappreciated point. Many people assume that Western and Eastern logics work differently, for instance because Western logic accepts the principle of non-contradiction while Eastern logic — allegedly — is characterized by a “both / and” approach.

But in fact, “in Eastern philosophies, when contradictions are embraced it is almost always in order to show the limitations of the contradictory concepts, not to show a genuine coexistence of real contraries. In a deep sense then, both traditions uphold the law of excluded middle, in that it takes the existence of a genuine, rather than apparent, contradiction to be evidence that something is not right. The difference is that Western philosophers try to dissolve the contradictions by refining their use of language whereas Eastern philosophers often dissolve them by appealing to a reality beyond language where such contradictions do not exist.”

Still, Julian continues, this doesn’t mean that something like the principle of non-contradiction has necessarily to be accepted. It is possible that one day a new discovery in science will be at odds with it (or any other currently accepted principle of logic). Should that happen, we will have three options:

“Denial, the position that this cannot possibly be true, since it entails a breach of the logical principle of bivalence … Revision, the position that this may be true and that the principle of bivalence is true, because logic is a self-contained system and the world itself may or may not conform to logical principles. … [Or] Rejection, the more radical position that the finding destroys the very basis of logic.”

And here comes the punch line: “in such a situation we would be able to sensibly ask which response is more rational. The very fact that such a question makes sense shows that our conception of rationality does not seem to be necessarily constrained by or coextensive with our conception of logic. … Logic [is] one tool rationality uses, not the essence of rationality itself.”

Indeed, Baggini points out that deduction — the quintessential formalizable type of reasoning — isn’t really very useful in most everyday situations, or in science. Instead, we do inference to the best explanation, sometimes referred to by the awkward term of “abduction.” The problem is that “we don’t know how the human brain makes such inferences and nor do we have clear rules or algorithms to tell us when we’re making them correctly.”

Julian observes that every modern philosopher pays homage to Hume, and yet attempts to behave like a bad version of Descartes, so to speak: “Hume did not use an argument to rebut the Cartesian idea that we all have an indivisible self [which was not in turn the result of a formal argument]. Rather, he simply invited us to attend more carefully to what is going on when we think. ‘For my part,’ he wrote, ‘when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure, colour or sound, etc. I never catch my self, distinct from some such perception.'”

Another example is Robert Nozick’s famous “experience machine” thought experiment which, again, is not really an argument, but a creatively clever way to make us notice the fact that we don’t prefer pleasure for pleasure’s sake. “As Wittgenstein put it, the best way to respond to a skeptic who says, ‘I don’t know if there is a hand here’ is to say, ‘look closer,'” not to come up with an elaborate, and ultimately futile, logical argument to defeat skepticism.

By the end of the chapter, Baggini claims: “A proper appreciation of the indispensable role of judgement in reasoning helps us to understand how there can be radical disagreement in philosophy without it being possible to definitively pinpoint an error which shows one side is wrong. … It is precisely because rational argument ultimately depends on judgements rather than logical algorithms that the existence of such disagreements is not only comprehensible but probably inevitable. … [But] accepting the role of judgement is not the same as saying anything goes and that no reasoned arguments can have any force in a debate.”

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160 replies

  1. And Collins was Plantinga’s graduate student FWIW. ID as “metascience” because?

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  2. And interestingly their stated position is that they don’t support intelligent design.

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  3. I note that at the time they denied funding intelligent design they claimed that they did not know Dembski was going to use their money to write a book about intelligent design because the grant was for another book.

    At the time the grant was awarded Dembski was a member of the Discovery Institute, stipulated the grant be paid to the Discovery Institute and had just completed a book with Michael Behe called “Intelligent Design”. The precis he submitted for the grant was that he was going to show how the problem of how complex specified information could arise in nature, could be solved by positing an intelligent being.

    If only they had even the slightest hint that he was going to use the money to write a book on intelligent design.

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  4. I know this is indeed off topic and thus I apologize Massimo, but here is what I posted about Plantinga’s award at Daily Nous:

    “FWIW John Hick was much more deserving for such an award in my estimation. He duly considered the hard problems of the PR, pushed forward solutions that, while largely consistent with Plantinga’s on the problem of evil, also acknowledged possible flaws with that result with due epistemic humility. He also accepted the truth of evolution and the general epistemic stability of well-established scientific claims, and attempted to reconcile religious faith with them. While I am a non-theist–converted from conservative Protestant theism and thus not uninformed about all this–I would tout someone like Hick philosophically far above the more ideologically placed Plantinga. I also add that I respect Plantinga’s work in language and modal logic–though not enough to place him as a due recipient of this prize.”

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  5. Well put, Alan. In the past, most (I won’t say all) Templeton Prize recipients seem to be “bigger tent” people than Plantinga.

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  6. I care as little about who wins the Templeton Prize as I do about who wins the Richard Dawkins Award.

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  7. I think Templeton funding would be a worry even if it wasn’t religious. Having a single monolithic organisation provide so much funding to so many disciplines is always going to be suspect of introducing some level of bias. What’s needed is a transparent governance structure. Ideally with a board of well respected scholars serving finite terms and with a membership capable of voting. I wonder if something like that can be set up as a kind of firewall between academics and funding organisations such as Templeton. Of course it would have to be set up by the academics themselves, which I suspect would be an exercise in herding cats.

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  8. Two further comments on Templeton. There is an in depth account here (not sure if this is paywalled).

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  9. And, in a separate comment to avoid link moderation, on the subject of Robert Wright and his “Meaning of Life TV”, here is Templeton’s current funding of him.

    “Outputs from the project would include public lectures, interviews, and debates; a seminar taught at UTS; diverse video products on MeaningofLife.tv; and a proposal for creating a Center for Science and Spirituality at UTS to advance the vision developed during this planning phase. Anticipated outcomes include heightened awareness of the compatibility of science and spirituality and public engagement with a new spiritual worldview.”

    You can judge for yourself whether that amounts to giving grants in a neutral and disinterested way to philosophers “… of every conceivable orientation and persuasion”.

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  10. What would a world be like that didn’t have a Templeton? How much effort and money goes to artificial intelligence? As the topic of this thread, understanding reason and judgement, goes into, how much do we even understand intelligence?

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