Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Do You Think What You Think You Think?

Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom immediately seduced me with their second chapter (Who begins anything at the beginning, anymore?). “So you think you’re logical?” has four little puzzles or exercises, each one about two pages long but really pretty simple, logically. By the third one, I was getting a little antsy because the underlying logic was identical in each puzzle. The fourth repeated the pattern.

But the authors then astounded me by saying that only maybe one out of 4 or 5 people get the first and second puzzle right but the majority get the third and fourth one right. The differences are that the first and second present basically abstract situations involving cards, colors and shapes. However, the third and fourth puzzles involve situations more nearly parallel with real-word problems, such as beer drinking and surfing the Internet at work.

So the first thing that I got out of the chapter was a poignant reminder that, as someone who thinks logically and intelligently, I am in a small minority in the population. Its no wonder that so many people treat me as if I am different. I am.

I went back to the first chapter. It involved an exercise of agreeing or disagreeing with thirty “opinions” which most individuals in my culture in my day would be likely to have a clear prior judgment of agreement or disagreement. As it turns out, they are in pairs but shuffled, where one pair is a specific instance and the other a more general statement. Here’s an example:
14. “Judgments about works of art are purely a matter of individual taste."
25. "Michelangelo is one of history’s foremost artists."

Can you see how agreeing with both of those statements would be a near-contradiction? Out of fifteen so-called “tensions” I only selected one such contradiction and even there I was quibbling with the authors about how much leeway “more or less” gives to a truth sentence.

Once again, the authors found my consistency to be remarkable. Through extensive administering of the same little exercise to many different people in different circumstances, they have found that most peoples' opinions are terribly inconsistent, instead most people disagree with themselves most of the time!
Given the current state of affairs of my society, that's not hard to see.

From there, however, the book slogs into some pretty dense jungle. There is a chapter which attempts to help the reader pinpoint his definitions of God, what attributes and qualities God is supposed to have. But here the authors take a dramatic suspension of their quasi-logical approach to everything by the use of the pronoun “She” in reference to God. I fail to see a logical reason for using that pronoun and they never explain their use. Its only purpose seems to be for artistic or emotional effect and it seems completely contrary to everything I had read in the book up to that point.

I put the book down and reviewed again my remarkable recent discovery of the contributions and life of Kurt Godel (he was a 20th century mathematician who had as much impact on logic as his contemporary Einstein had on physics.) Ultimately what Godel contributed was a proof that any logical system had to be, by definition, incomplete and also capable of supporting statements which are internally inconsistent,
such as paradoxes. I got all the way through this book on logic and found the names of many famous logicians and philosophers cited as sources, but not Godels’ nor was there any hint that such “flaws” in the perfect world of logic as conceived by Hilbert and others, lay in wait for the unwary.

The next chapter was entitled “taboos”” Here again, I differ from a lot of people but I know that already. I practice “judge not lest ye be judged” far more than most people and I am less apt than most to hold universal moral judgments on particular behaviors taken out of context. Here, however, the authors went so far in their efforts to try to trip people up that they made a logic error of their own. In exercise three, part one mentions doing an “unnatural act” in complete secrecy and then part two, you learn about a society where members may perform such an act in equanimity. However, these two are not comparable in the way the authors try to represent, because doing something in complete secrecy is totally different from doing something for which you may be judged by your peers. The two cannot be compared or contrasted. I am quite, quite certain that there are all kinds of very strange goings on behind closed doors in my own culture among my own peers, that we don’t make moral statements about or judge each other about, because we simply do not know that they are happening. In fact, I have long supported the logical supposition that all of the people that I deal with on a frequent basis, as soon as they are out of my sight, earshot, and nose, turn into putrid green monsters traversing an environment totally askew to anything I have ever seen or imagined, only to return to their false front the next time they cross my path. And, that it makes no difference, either to me or to them, that this happens.

The most pronounced logical inconsistency of the authors' came up several times,
consisting of a cultural bias presumed by them to be a natural truth -- that
love will always act to eliminate or reduce suffering. In the universe where I find myself, suffering is a significant experience and it is a very necessary prelude
to changing behavior patterns and learning new ones. In my culture, in contemporary times, I see a mass insanity and one big contribution to it is this mistaken presumption, that eliminating or masking or hiding pain and suffering is always desirable, loving and morally correct. I see that nothing could be further from the truth. I see that the overwhelming reliance on addicting prescription pain medications is not beneficial to anyone. I find the insistence on "always being positive" by the management culture in my employment situation brings about incredibly absurd contortions on the part of nearly everyone which ultimately result in virtually no constructive work being accomplished by anyone. I further believe that the reduction or elimination or hiding of small pains and inconveniences throughout the culture will eventually result in the unleashing of massive suffering, perhaps on a scale as has never been seen before in history. And maybe that has already begun.

After getting that far I began to suspend my engagement with the book and devote some of my focus to critical reexamination. There are several more exercises. I came to stronger conclusions that the authors themselves are more trapped by their own cultures and idiosyncrasies than they have any idea about. One of my strongest objections came up in a section discussing belief in God. The authors' prose suggest that all beliefs in God are based either on evidence, on proof, or on “faith”. It never occurs to them that there are other possibilities. The generalization that “religion is the opium of the masses” should be well-known and understood. A lesser-known but powerful other alternative is that belief in God is functional; that is to say, it enables escape from arrogance without endangering dependence on other people or peoples. Such a purpose for belief in God is totally “outside the box” that the authors are in.

So, ultimately, I finished the book unsatisfied, thinking that the smug authors think more nearly like the illogical people that they seem to chide frequently, than they think like me.

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