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Logic 101

I have recently realised what’s wrong with many people and why their skills at establishing the truth and debating are so poor. It’s the lack of knowledge of the laws of logic. I don’t mean the technical laws covering formal logic and Boolean algebra. It’s more the informal logical fallacies people should be aware of – so that they can recognise them in other people’s arguments, and more importantly avoid using them themselves.

I have no formal training in this area. As a computer programmer I understand the more technical part of logic, like how to evaluate equations involving logical operators such as conjunction and negation, but I have only picked up the informal stuff through my more recent interest in skepticism.

So let’s go through some of the more common logical fallacies people use in their arguments and, just to make it all very clear, I’ll provide some real examples from recent discussions I have been involved with.

The first is “begging the question” and closely related errors such as “circular reasoning” and “special pleading”. When people argue this way they seek to prove an argument by assuming that it’s already self-evidently true, or by using a particular point to re-establish that same point, or to insist that certain subjects deserve special treatment (maybe a lower standard of proof) than others. So here’s an example…

God must exist because he is the first cause of everything in the universe and because the universe exists it proves there must have been a creator: god. He cannot be studied by science because he is beyond the ability of science to explain.

How many questions are begged in that little argument then? Well first there is the assertion that everything must be created. We are asked to accept that without further proof even though there is good reason to believe that certain phenomena actually do happen without a cause. Then there is the idea that god is beyond the ability of science to explain. Is he? How do we know this? How would we know the difference between a god which we cannot study and explain and one that doesn’t exist at all?

Claiming god cannot be explained by science is also a form of special pleading. If a scientist wanted the world to accept a new theory of gravitation he would have to provide scientific evidence and experimental proof of that theory. But the argument above claims that we don’t need to do that for god because he is beyond science. Effectively we resort to a faith based approach meaning the standard of proof is not only less than that needed for other phenomena, it is effectively zero!

How do we know which subjects require a high standard of proof and which can be given the special privilege of not requiring such a standard? Are unicorns and fairies also beyond science’s ability to explain? I guess they must be since science has failed to find any evidence of their existence!

Finally there is a circular argument there. How do we know god created everything? Because he is the ultimate creator. How do we know that? Just look around and you will see his creation everywhere. So god is the creator because of his creation and his creation exists because he’s the creator. A magnificently fatuous argument, isn’t it?

When people become trapped inside a belief system they do tend to take things for granted which means that begging the question is easy. They make certain assumptions but they never really question why and they cannot understand when other people don’t accept the same assumptions as they do. But what’s the best way to stop ourselves from using the same logical errors? It’s actually quite easy…

To tell whether your belief system makes sense and whether you have unfortunately succumbed to the (all too easy) error of indulging in one of the fallacies I mentioned above just substitute a similar subject into the statement and make sure it’s something you don’t have a particular attachment to.

For example, if you use the fallacies mentioned above to support a belief in god then try something like the following: the Flying Spaghetti Monster must exist because his followers believe he is the first cause of everything and if he didn’t exist then nothing would exist. Because he is supernatural and exists in a different dimension to ours the FSM is beyond what science can prove.

None of what I have said is internally inconsistent but it relies on the same logical fallacies that I used in the original argument. I don’t think many people would take the argument about the FSM very seriously yet they take a basically identical argument about more traditional gods seriously. They shouldn’t. If it’s necessary to indulge in arguments which have been rejected for several thousand years by the best philosophers and logicians then there’s clearly something wrong. Effectively these people are saying “we believe this just because we want to”. But if that’s the truth then why can’t they just be honest enough to admit it?

  1. Richard
    January 4, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    “How would we know the difference between a god which we cannot study and explain and one that doesn’t exist at all?”

    you don’t! :D

    “How do we know which subjects require a high standard of proof and which can be given the special privilege of not requiring such a standard?”

    I think you’re confusing two things: faith and science. For the believer the two cannot meet or interfere, by definition.

    Science works within the universe/within the bounds of everything that exists/within creation (whatever you might like to call it). ‘Logic’, ‘existence’, ‘proof’ live withing those bounds and can only live there. (even if those bounds would happen to be infinite, becasue that too is created)

    ‘God’ is not part of creation, not subject to logic, existence or proof. That means two things: 1. there is no proof in the scientific sense of His existence and 2. there is no way you can sensibly talk about God in a scientific way (actually: there is no sensible way, period)

    The following might not be the majority view among believers, but it is the ultimate consequence of the above: The universe might very well be self-explanatory, I wouldn’t expect anything else from a professional God. Only an amateur God would create a universe that needed Him to be satisfactorily explained.

  2. ojb42
    January 4, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    So we have a phenomenon which is identical in every way to the situation where that phenomenon doesn’t exist! Why would we even begin to entertain the notion that the phenomenon is real? By all the rules of logic and common sense it isn’t!

    I’m not confusing faith and science. I’m asking where to use science (very rigorous, questioning, high standard of proof) and faith (lazy, unthinking, meaningless)? If we start using faith too much we would believe all sorts of crazy stuff. Why use it at all?

    Science works on stuff that actually exists in the real world. Faith works on stuff that only exists in the believer’s imagination!

    Anyone looking at your argument above who wasn’t aware of the way believers have argued for years could come to only one conclusion: you’re self-deluded. Why believe in a god who has no existence, no purpose, and no relevance to the real world?

  3. Richard
    January 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    no, no, and no. It’s not a phenomenon, it’s not identical (to anything) and it doesn’t ‘exist’. All three terms refer to something in the universe/creation/real world (whichever you prefer). The term ‘God’ doesn’t.

    You should always use science when you’re studying the real world/the universe/creation. ‘Faith’ should only be used when you’re talking about the things you know you really cannot talk about.

    “Why believe in a god who has no existence, no purpose, and no relevance to the real world?”

    I wasn’t aware we were discussing purpose and relevance too, but now that you’re asking: I think it’ll be hard to find a believer who thinks God has a purpose, most will deny that.

    As for relevance: a rather overwhelming majority of people find the notion of God quite relevant to their lives. I’m curious how you’re going to convince them they’re all ‘self-deluded’, especially since the nature of this ‘delusion’ is rather hazy.

  4. ojb42
    January 5, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    You say god is not a phenomena, is different from everything else, and doesn’t exist. Well we agree on that. The question is then: is god anything more than something that exists in your imagination? And if he/she/it is more then how do you know?

    How do you know the things you use faith to talk about (even though you can’t talk about them) have any validity? I could use faith to believe anything.

    If god is relevant then he must have some effect yet you say he has no effect on the world. If god has no interaction with the real world at all then he effectively doesn’t exist. Do you accept that god is just an abstract notion people use for various subjective purposes? In other words man created god in is own image.

  5. André Richard
    January 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    There’s an inevitable truth in that. Pianos are not hard-wired to produce trumpet music and neither are we hard-wired to understand God. So the concept will always be ‘in our own image’. (On the other hand: most religions are pretty weary about man creating God in his own image)

    Everything is the product of our imagination and nothing is ‘more’ than that, ultimately. The concept of God is no exception, and the whole (‘real’?) world is -in that sense- created by ourselves ‘in our own image’.

    Im not happy with the use of the word ‘effect’. That’s something that is only a usefull concept when refering to the universe/real world/creation and God is not part of that.

    Using words like ‘effect’, ‘phenonenon’, ‘exist’, ‘real’, ‘logic’, ‘know’, ‘validity’ and the like seem to me like holding a hammer (a very useful tool), thinking every problem is a nail, while really facing a bolt.

    “How do you know the things you use faith to talk about have any validity?”

    By interacting with other people. And it’s not ‘knowing’ exaclty btw, but I’ll settle for it for lack of a better word…

  6. ojb42
    January 7, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Your whole philosophy seems to based on post-modernism, relativism, and other really “new age” stuff! I accept that ultimately we can’t prove anything is real or true but if you are going to believe that then you really have to believe nothing. If anything goes and it’s all our imagination anyway why believe in a god, instead of the flying spaghetti monster, or fairies at the bottom of the garden?

    In my opinion it’s just a cop out. Your preferred worldview doesn’t fit the facts so not only do you reject the facts but you reject the actual idea of facts even existing!

    Can you tell me something about the particular god you believe in? Is this god similar to any of those other people imagine exists? Are you a member of any particular religion or church?

  7. André Richard
    January 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    I can live with ‘relativism’ and ‘post-modernism’, but New Age? I really thought that was something quite different.

    Yes, believing nothing would be, and is quite often, the best option. I think most religions are about that ultimately (the monotheistic ones at least, Christians were thrown to the lions for being atheists after all. Oh, and Buddhism of course!). However: believing absolutely nothing doesn’t buy the bacon, especially when it comes to day-to-day ‘facts’.

    It’s not that I reject facts, it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’ve noticed that mathematicians, chemists and physicists tend to have a pretty clear cut idea of what a ‘fact’ is. I was trained as a historian however, and I’ve never met a group of people for whom the word ‘fact’ is such a problem.

    This is especially difficult when you’re talking religion. As far as I understand religious people, they’re talking about something you can have a talk about, provided you use the right language, but that is not part of ‘the real world’.
    That makes criticising it from a viewpoint that uses words like ‘fact’ in an unproblematic and unquestioning way like trying to twist a bolt with a hammer. It’s not even disagreement, it’s misunderstanding.

    “If anything goes and it’s all our imagination anyway why believe in a god, instead of the flying spaghetti monster, or fairies at the bottom of the garden?”

    Because (reason no 1) a monster that flies and is made of spaghetti is clearly the product of our imagination and therefore quite likely to be as nonsensical as it is harmless. It still deals with ‘facts’, albeit of the non-real kind.
    I would take a religion that believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster more seriously if it would teach us that it is not made of spaghetti, does not fly and is not a monster either. In other words: if it would show to possess some sense of religion.
    Because (reason no 2) faeries have never delivered anyone from Egypt.

    Oh boy, me myself? The best that has ever been said about that is: ‘Nobody knows if Richard is religious, not even Richard.’

  8. ojb42
    January 18, 2011 at 11:56 am

    OK, so you reject the “new age” tag. Fair enough. But relativism is bad enough. I have always thought it was a rather intellectually dishonest philosophy. If all truths have validity depending on the person’s individual subjective beliefs then it’s as bad as giving up the search for truth all together.

    You say believing nothing is often the best option but no one can live that way. I would say we should believe what is best supported by the current evidence but be prepared to change that belief if the evidence changes.

    I accept that historical facts are hard to find but the same thing does apply in other fields. Again the interim acceptance of what is closest to a fact is the best approach. I see that happen in physics, and history, but not with religion. That’s the difference.

    So religion doesn’t deal with the real world. That’s fine. I can accept the use of god as a metaphor, a bit like Einstein famously did. But I don’t think that’s the way most believers approach the subject!

    The FSM is a parody of religion. I’m sure you realise this! The point is to point out that if you abandon logic and a reasonable standard of proof you can believe any crazy thing. I could just have easily chosen the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Or maybe a “discredited” god who previously had a substantial following, like Zeus, would be a better example.

    So you don’t know if you are religious or not? I guess that means you reject all the traditional gods, like the Christian one, but still want to leave room for the possibility of some sort of “spiritual force”? Sounds very “new age” to me! :)

  9. André Richard
    January 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    That’s a cop out alright, but it ain’t relativism! As I see it, relativism takes into account that between us and the facts there is always language. Language, being a hideously complex thing, may cause us to state/understand apparent opposites/contradictions, while really meaning the same thing. And ok yes: our own experiences do play a role in how we see the world so there are constraints to the exchangeability of ‘facts’. But those are constraints, not impossibilities.

    As long as you’re talking about ‘evidence’ you’re talking ‘knowledge’, not ‘faith’. Faith operates where there is no evidence, just experience (at best).

    My point about FSM was that in my view it is not a parody of religion; it’s a parody of a superstition. There is a difference. Maybe I should quote a Dutch theologist here who once coined the phrase: ‘When people stop thinking about religion, they’ll believe anything.’

    Maybe -but this is just a hunch I’m getting while writing this comment- it’s exactly about differing views on “if you abandon logic and a reasonable standard of proof you can believe any crazy thing”. Some -like you- are convinced that once the scientific constraint is gone, all hell will break loose. Others -religious people?- believe there is a world beyond scientific constraints that still divides into ‘reasonable’ and ‘too far out’. Put another way: are there more constraints than the purely scientific ones?

    Hm, me, no. A ‘spiritual force’ makes me itch. I prefer the Christian God then…

  10. ojb42
    January 24, 2011 at 6:41 am

    I don’t see relativism as being specifically related to language. The way I see it, it claims that what we know about the world is gained through our senses interpreted by our brain. Therefore we have no way of knowing what is true and therefore any worldview is as good as any other. I agree with it all apart from the last part!

    The FSM is clearly a parody of religion. Some people would claim religion is just one particular type of superstition any way. The Dutch theologist had an interesting point. There’s no harm in thinking about religion. But you should think realistically and skeptically. In that case you might reach a conclusion somewhat different than what the theologian expected!

    Religious people think there is a world beyond what science can examine. Why do they think that? Because they were raised with a religion, or were converted to one, or are ignorant about reality, or don’t want to know the truth. None of these are good reasons to think there really is that “world beyond” scientific reality.

    Have you ever really thought about why you prefer the Christian God? If you were born 2000 years ago you might prefer Zeus, before that some Sun god, or if you were born today in India the Hindu gods. Again, it’s all totally arbitrary and there’s just no good reason to believe that god really exists.

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