Clear and Present Thinking ~ Sample #2

The following is a short, perhaps superficial sample of “World Views, Questions, and Other Basics” from “Clear and Present Thinking”, the logic text that I’ve been working on all summer. I call this “Sample 2” because the “Diversity Quotient” exercise was really the first sample, although even I didn’t know it at the time. 🙂 Please note that this is still a first draft, and I haven’t shown it to an editor or a peer-reviewer yet. So it is liable to have a few spelling errors, and may well be open to improvement. But since three or four project contributors have asked to see sample chapters as the work progresses, I thought I’d start with this little tidbit. I recognise that project contributors want to be sure that I have not been sitting on my hands. But I don’t want to “give away” too much before it’s really ready to be shown to the public. So, more will follow, in the weeks and months to come. And the complete first draft should be available in December, if all goes according to plan.

1. What is Thinking?

What is thinking? It may seem strange to begin a logic textbook with this question. ‘Thinking’ is perhaps the most intimate and personal thing that people do. Yet the more you ‘think’ about thinking, the more mysterious it can appear. It is the sort of thing that one intuitively or naturally understands, and yet cannot describe to others without great difficulty. Many people believe that logic is very abstract, dispassionate, complicated, and even cold. But in fact the study of logic is nothing more intimidating or obscure than this: the study of good thinking.

Before asking what good thinking is, we might want to ask a few questions about thinking as such. Let’s say that thinking is the activity of the mind. It includes activities like reasoning, perceiving, explaining, inventing, problem-solving, learning, teaching, contemplating, knowing, and even dreaming. We think about everything, all the time. We think about ordinary practical matters like what to have for dinner tonight, all the way to the most abstract and serious matters, like the meaning of life. You are thinking, right now, as you read this sentence.

Some may wish to draw a distinction between thinking and feeling, including sense-perception, emotional experience, or even religious faith. Some might want to argue that computers, or animals, are capable of thinking, even if their way of thinking is somehow different from the way human beings think. And some might say that the question is an absurd one: everyone knows what thinking is, because everyone ‘thinks’, all the time, and everyone can ‘feel’ themselves thinking. We are somehow ‘aware’ of thoughts in the mind, aware of information and knowledge, aware of memories, and aware of likely future probabilities, and so on. Thinking is a first-order phenomenological insight: it’s a bit like knowing what the colour ‘red’ looks like, or knowing the taste of an orange. You know what it is, but you probably have an awfully hard time describing or defining it.

Thinking, in this way of ‘thinking’ about thinking, is an event. it is something done, something that takes place, something that happens.

You might hear people say that they are no good at math, or at computer programming, or at some other kind of activity that requires a lot of concentration. When I was in high school, I used to believe that I was very bad at math. I resented going to math classes, and so I didn’t study, and (therefore!) scored poorly on tests and exams. But one day I found myself making my own video games on my Commodore 128 computer, all on my own, with no other help besides the dictionary of commands. Then a few years later I was coding HTML scripts by hand, which I learned to do by reading the source codes of other people’s web sites. I eventually realised that I was actually rather good at math, or rather that I could be really good at it if I really wanted to be.

Thinking rationally and critically is much the same. It’s actually fairly easy, once you get into the habit of doing it. Most people are born with an ability to perform complex computational tasks built right into their brains. It’s true that we often make mistakes when we try to calculate big numbers just in our heads, or when we try to calculate probabilities without much information to start with. Nonetheless, the ability to think deliberately, precisely, and analytically is a large part of what it is to be human. Indeed every human language, all 8,000 or so of them, have complex computational operators built right into the grammar and syntax, which we use to speak and be understood about anything we may want to talk about. When we study logic, we study (among other things) those very operators as they work themselves out, not only in our thinking, but also in our speaking to each other, and in many of the ways we relate to each other and the world. Logic examines not what people ought to think, but it examines how we actually do think – when we are thinking clearly!

2. Why is good thinking important?

A lot of people think of philosophy as something rather vague, wishy-washy, or simplistic. You’ll hear people quote a line from a popular song or movie, and then they’ll say “That’s my philosophy.” But there’s a lot more to it than that; and a person who merely repeats a popular saying and calls it philosophy has not been doing enough work. Philosophical questions are often very difficult questions, and they demand a lot of effort and consideration and time.

Good and bad thinking are very different from each other. Yet some people might feel personally threatened by this distinction. Your thoughts are probably the most intimate and the most precious of all your possessions. Your mind, indeed, is the only part of you that is truly ‘yours’, and cannot be taken away from you. Thus if someone tells you that your thinking is muddled, confused, unclear, or just plain mistaken, then you might feel very hurt, very offended. [Sidebar: Note how this paragraph builds an argument…]

But your thinking certainly can be muddled or confused. Normally, bad quality thinking happens when your mind has been ‘possessed’, so to speak, by other people, and made to serve their purposes instead of your own. Here’s how that can happen. In your life so far, you have gathered a lot of beliefs about a lot of different topics. You believe things about who you are, what the world is like, where you belong in the world, and what to do with your life. You have beliefs about what is good music and bad music, what kind of movies are funny and what kind are boring, whether it’s right or wrong to park your car in the wheelchair spot, whether it’s right or wrong to get a tattoo. You have beliefs about more social or political issues too, such as:

– Is wind power preferable to nuclear power?
– Who should you vote for? (Or should you protest your vote, and not vote at all?)
– Should you get married and have children some day?
– Can the police be trusted?
– Is there a god?

These beliefs came from somewhere. Most of you probably gathered these beliefs during your childhood. You learned them from your family, especially your parents, your teachers at school, your piano instructor or your karate instructor, your scout group or guide group leader, your priest, your medical doctor, your friends, and just about anybody who had any kind of influence in your life. There is nothing wrong with learning things from other people this way; indeed, we probably couldn’t get much of a start in life without this kind of influence. But if you have accepted your beliefs from these sources, and not done your own thinking about them, then they are not your beliefs, and you are not truly thinking your own thoughts. They are, instead, someone else’s thoughts and beliefs, occupying your mind. If you believe something only because someone else taught it to you, and not because you examined those beliefs on your own, then in an important sense, you are not having your own thoughts. And if you are not having your own thoughts, then you are not living your own life, and you are not truly free.

Some people might resist studying logic for other reasons. They may prefer to trust their intuition or their “gut feelings” as a source of knowledge. I’m always very curious about such people. Do they think that logic is dispassionate and unemotional, and that logical people end up cold-hearted and emotionless, like certain Star Trek characters such as Spock, or The Borg? Do they find their intuitive beliefs so gratifying that they cannot allow anything to interfere with them? Do they worry that they may have to re-evaluate their beliefs and their lives, and perhaps change their lives as a result of that re-evaluation? That may be true for some people, if not for all of them. But let me say that when your beliefs are grounded in reason, the quality of your inner life will be far, far better, in ways like these:

– You will be in greater conscious control of your own mind and thoughts.
– It will be harder for advertising, political propaganda, peer pressure, or other forms of psychological manipulation to affect you.
– You will be able to understand difficult, complex, and challenging things a lot easier, and with a lot less anxiety.
– You will be able to understand things in a more comprehensive and complete way.
– You will be better able to identify the source of problems, whether practical or personal, and better able to handle or solve those problems.
– You will feel much less frustrated or upset when you come across something that you do not understand.
– You will be better able to plan for the future, compete for better paying or more prestigious jobs, and to gather political power.
– Tragedies, bad fortune, stress, and other problems in life will be much easier to deal with.
– You will find it easier to understand other people’s feelings and other people’s points of view, and you will be better able to help prevent those differences from becoming conflicts.
– You will get much more pleasure and enjoyment from the arts, music, poetry, science, and culture.
– You may even enjoy life more than you otherwise would.

Let me add that the use of reason doesn’t shut out one’s feelings, or the benefit of the arts or of human relationships, or any of the things that make life enjoyable and fun. Indeed in classical and mediaeval philosophy Reason was said to be the very presence of God within the human soul. It is by means of reason that a human being could get inside the mind of God, and obtain an experience of eternity. Reason can be a spiritual thing. But, alas, I’ll have to discuss that prospect in more detail another time.

3. Is logic difficult?

Here’s a very short exercise which may help to show you that you already have within your mind everything you need to understand logic and critical reasoning. Consider the following two sentences:

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

As almost anyone can see, these two sentences have a relationship to each other. For one thing, there’s a topic of discussion which appears in both of them: ‘men’. Both sentences also follow the same grammatical structure: they name an object and they name at least one property that belongs to, or can be attributed to, that object. But they also have another, more subtle relation to each other. That subtle relation tells you what should follow next. Here are three possibilities:

a. Therefore, we’re having Greek tonight!
b. Therefore, Socrates is a nerd.
c. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

To most people, the answer is so obvious that I don’t need to state which one it is. That’s because logical and rational thinking, as already mentioned, is something we all naturally do, all the time.

That example, it may interest you to know, was used by the philosopher Aristotle more than two thousand years ago, and it is still a favourite among philosophy teachers today: it’s our way of tipping the hat to our predecessors.

Let’s look at two more examples, which might show a little more of how that subtle relation works.

1. All the houses built in that neighbourhood are post-war bungalows.
2. My house is in that neighbourhood.
3. Therefore –
a. My house is a rotting, decrepit shack.
b. My house is a grand chateau.
c. Long John Silver was a rotten businessmen.
d. My house is a post-war bungalow.

1. Every morning, if it is going to be a sunny day, the rooster in the yard crows.
2. Tomorrow is probably going to be a sunny day, just like the last few days.
3. Therefore –
a. That rooster is more reliable as the TV weather man.
b. One of these days, I’m going to kill that horrible creature!
c. My old clock on the wall is a family heirloom.
d. Tomorrow morning, that rooster will probably crow again.

1. If the surprise birthday present is a Harry Potter book, it will be a great gift.
2. The surprise birthday present is a Harry Potter book.
3. Therefore –
a. I’m going to hide in my bedroom for a few hours.
b. I really owe the person who gave it to me a big thank-you!
c. I have to fix the leaky roof over the kitchen today.
d. It’s a great gift.

In each of these examples, the best answer is option D. So long as the first two statements are true, then the third one, option D, must be true. You also know that in both examples, option C doesn’t belong. It has nothing to do with the two statements that came before it. To claim that option C should come next is not logical. Perhaps option C would make sense if it was part of a joke, or a very complicated discussion of housing development plans for pirates, or inheritance laws involving clocks and farm animals, or how author J.K. Rowling doesn’t like leaky houses. But in these examples, we do not have that extra information. Going only with the information that we have been given, option C cannot be the correct answer. The best answer, in each case, is option D. Of all the four options offered here, option D has the strongest support from the statements that came before it.
But look again at options A and B, in all three examples. These options were not as silly as option C. They might follow correctly and logically from the statements that came before them, if only we had a little bit more information. Without your deliberate, conscious awareness, your mind probably filled in the blank space for you with statements like these ones:

1. All the postwar bungalows in this neighbourhood are rotting, decrepit shacks.
2. Maybe the rooster is really, really annoying!
3. The reason I’ll be hiding in my bedroom is because I will want to read the book without anybody disturbing me.
4. People who give great gifts deserve to be thanked.

None of these statements appeared among the initial premises of the argument. Nothing in the initial premises told you anything about these possibilities. They come from outside the argument as presented so far. But that subtle relation between statements allowed you to add something consistent and plausible to the argument in order to move the argument from the premises you had, to conclusions A or B. You might even fill the space with more than one sentence to make the move, as we did in the third possibility above.

Logic is the study of relations among ideas like these. If you could handle these three examples here with ease, then you can handle everything else in this textbook just as easily.

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6 Responses to Clear and Present Thinking ~ Sample #2

  1. Tammy Longe says:

    I like it so far. It really made me think, lol. I really look forward to reading the final/complete copy. So glad I donated. What you are doing for the students is simply wonderful. Keep up the great work Brendan! 🙂


    P.S. next time you are in Fergus and I’m back in town, we should get together again for coffee or a pint 🙂

  2. Colin Boswell says:

    Congratulations. I suspect you don’t have to be told that your work is excellent and readable. KBN8

  3. Idalia says:

    Thanks for the update, it’s nice to see how it is coming along. I’ll be at the festival in Kelowna next month and look forward to meeting you. 🙂

  4. Xander says:

    Thank you for this, I am really looking forward to the entire book. Good luck, and enjoy!

  5. Joyce M says:

    Very readable and well laid out so far. I found myself thinking about particular people that your book would help. ‘Regular people’ could read and benefit, not just logic students. It would have a wonderful effect if it became required reading for recovering addicts as well.

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