2013-06-26

Fuzzy Logic Produces Fuzzy Thoughts

Good reasoning is clear, concise, and consistent. Mediocre reasoning wants for clarity, brevity, consistence, or some combination thereof. Poor reasoning wants for all three.

Having a clear, concise, and consistent point of view is important because, in its absence, all you really have is a poorly reasoned justification for feeling a particular way. The only difference between this and the way a child feels is the quantity of words used to explain it.

The difference between a philosopher and an average joe is the fact that the philosopher actually takes his reasoning seriously. At a certain point, we must all start to take our own thoughts seriously, or content ourselves with essential vapidity.

Paradoxes Are Shallow
You  may have heard the old question, "Is god so powerful that he can create a boulder so heavy that he himself cannot lift it?" It seems like a ridiculous question, but at the heart of it is the notion of what it means to be omnipotent. The question is really more about omnipotence than it is about god. If god has limits either in terms of what he can create or what he can lift, then (by definition) he is not omnipotent.

Really, that question is a logical paradox. The confusion comes from conceptual ambiguity. Being omnipotent means being capable of anything. The paradox arises when you define any act to be impossible. It might be the creation of a stone too heavy to lift, or it might be a pancake too large too eat, or it might be a universe too vast to be understood. At any rate, the rhetorical trick employed here amounts to the same thing: Is god powerful enough to do that which is by definition impossible. As I have written before, paradoxes always come down to either linguistic ambiguity or outright contradiction.

But if you are simply unaware of the fact that a paradox is really just a contradiction in terms, then you will find yourself doing as Aristotle wrote: "Men wish to prove paradoxes that they me be counted clever[.]" That is to say, there are a great many entertaining blog posts to be written about apparent contradictions, which are little more than contradictions in terms. An omnipotent god that cannot lift a stone is exactly as meaningful as a pair of gloves that are meant to be worn by a man with no arms. There is no profundity to be had. It is a bad parlor trick, consisting only of providing a definition that contradicts itself and then decorating it with invalid logic that merely appears valid to those inattentive enough to identify the contradiction.

Shotgun Theories Are Shallow
I have written before about shotgun theories. This is another shallow parlor trick. The way it works is that one posits a theory with sufficient ambiguity to feel truthful at first glance. Upon greater scrutiny, however, the statement is revealed to be false.

A common shotgun theory I can cite for example is Kahlil Gibran's famous quote: "It is when you give of yourself that you truly give." Superficially, everyone is ready to agree with this statement immediately. But upon close scrutiny, how is one to know when one is giving "of oneself"? The phrase is too ambiguous to take seriously.

Similarly, the coward "John Doe" offers a shotgun theory against immigration: immigrants who do not pay taxes are like roommates who do not pay the rent. There are many problems with this hypothesis, but the main one is that if John Doe pays his takes while Pablo Inmigrante does not, only Pablo faces extradition; John will be just fine. Whereas, when I pay my share of the rent and my roommate does not pay his share, we both get evicted. Of course, this is only one of many ways in which immigration is nothing like being someone's roommate. I tried to make this point to John Doe, but he would rather cling to his shotgun theory than take his own propositions seriously enough that he subject them to heavy scrutiny. Of course, I would expect nothing less of a man who cannot even sign his own name to his own opinions. One can only expect so much of a person who is reluctant to go public with his own beliefs.

Rhetorical questions are a subtler form of shotgun theory. Rather than saying "It is when you give of yourself that you truly give," I can express the same sentiment in the form of a question. "Isn't it truly giving when you give of yourself?" The expression is slightly different, but the sentiment is the same.

Thus, if John Doe is spouting shotgun theories by declaring that immigrants are roommates who don't pay the rent, then Sonic Charmer's spin on this same notion is to ask rhetorically (although he won't admit that it's a rhetorical question because he wants to argue about it), "How can this be? Why would it be? [...] Do you believe it?" Sure, it's an invitation to answer his questions, but his opinion is firmly couched in his positing the questions in the first place.

Of course, the answer to Sonic Charmer's questions are obvious. On the one hand, we can merely look to the facts to determine whether illegal immigrants cost more than they contribute. For all his criticism of CBO numbers, he has not produced a single speck of evidence for the notion that illegal immigrants cost us all money. Instead, he asks rhetorical questions.

But on the other hand, the answer might simply be that illegal immigrants are more interested in an honest day's work than in receiving social services. That would make them more or less the same as any member of the "working poor." This explanation is so obvious that the mind fairly reels as to why Sonic Charmer didn't consider it himself. Really, this is not a rhetorical question: Why didn't Sonic Charmer think of this explanation himself? I do not not want to believe that it is racism, but what are the other possibilities?

At any rate, whether we are talking about shotgun theories expressed through rhetorical questions or by actual declarations, the result is the same: Things sound much more appealing when they are vague. It's difficult to prove a logical proposition with real intellectual rigor, but the alternative is laziness. That simply won't do.

Conclusion
Well, it is simply very difficult to prove a logical proposition conclusively. In the field of philosophy, very few people managed to prove any important ideas between the time of Aristotle and the time of Foucault. The few who did were nothing short of geniuses. Logic requires a rigor that few can live up to. I myself might be incapable of it. To suggest that some people have fallen far short is not to suggest that I myself am capable of more.

But philosophy is a pursuit of truth, and falsehood cannot be tolerated, even among those who are not completely capable of proving the truth conclusively themselves. Similarly, we are all required to adhere to Newton's Laws regardless of whether or not we can prove them. Believing only what is true is a much lower standard than proving a totally new truth.

We do not sidestep this issue by ignoring the rigor demanded of us when we stake a bold position. Although it is easier to ignore the difficult steps in the process, it does not get us off the hook. We cannot simply proffer contradictory definitions, shotgun theories, or rhetorical questions as a substitute for intellectual rigor. It might feel good to blow off some steam, but it doesn't put you on the right side of an issue.

In short, fuzzy logic produces fuzzy thoughts. When people call those thoughts into question, they are doing so because those thoughts are fuzzy, not because they are irksome people. At the end of the day, truth is more important than expedience.