Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Waxing Poetic about Logic. Really.

Last night I gave a lecture to my three Dowling College students (yes, three), about the importance of logic and critical thinking.

I am perhaps the only person I know who can get excited about this subject.

Perhaps I can capture some of that magic here.

Logic was one of those remarkable gifts given us by Aristotle, the great observer of nature, who found and captured patterns in everything, from the heavens, to state constitutions, to thought itself.

In stepping back, even from thinking itself, to observe its patterns, we are able to control thinking, and expand its power. (We also discover deep mysteries in it, and paradoxes. More on that below.)

If we observe the syllogism: "All mebops are ziggly. Zanthor is a mebop. Therefore, Zanthor is ziggly" we understand the power of logic. No, seriously.

Why? Because we recognize that logic illuminates aspects of thought that move beyond questions of truth.

First, this nonsense example shows that thought has a flow. From premises to conclusions. We feel impelled to draw a certain kind of conclusion, even in this example about something we have no experience of, because of that flow. From here Aristotle would catalog way in which thought flows properly and improperly. ("Validity")

Secondly, that flow is supported by our ability to say "if this were true." An awareness of this aspect of thinking is important because it is the basis of hypothetical or imaginative thinking. Once we recognize the flow of thought, and its roots in saying "if this were true" of the premises, we become self-consciously aware of our ability to turn on and off the truth of statements or claims about reality.

Combine that with the idea of the flow of thought, and we become aware of what might follow when we combine new thoughts or truths together. That ability to see the implications is powerful.

(I often use the example of Steve Jobs, whose own logical skills allowed him to consider what it would mean for the world if it were true that there were personal computers. Even as many others, such as the bankers who rejected him, could not consider the possibility, stuck as they were in the logic that supported only the current uses of the mainframe.)

Michael Gelb's books on genius, such as "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci" and "Discover Your Genius," opened my eyes to thinking of logic this way, as he argues that genius is not mere intuition, but a powerful combination of intuitive, imaginative thinking with deep analytical skills, uniting both sides of the brain. Geniuses had to be conscious of the assumptions of their current pursuits, so as to transcend them.

Hearkening back to the dialectic of his teacher, Plato, Aristotle's description of thought as moving from premises and conclusions also makes us aware of the need to examine the truth of our premises; themselves the conclusions of some rudimentary previous "arguments" in our minds. Hence, for example, how did we come to believe that "all mebops are ziggly"?

We begin to recognize that all thought is built on previous thought. Even as we also see that those previous thoughts disappear into the mysterious depths of our memory and our senses. Only a small portion of our thought "flow" or process is available to us at the conscious level. A riddle.

One can see here the groundwork for everything from Augustine's awe-inducing reflections "On Memory" in the Confessions, to Descartes' consideration of the Evil Genius, to Freud's theories of the Unconscious.

From these kinds of mysteries, people might be inclined to conclude that thought disintegrates into impenetrable irrationality. However, despite that mysterious disappearance of prior thought into the depths of the senses and unconscious, I still believe Aristotle's gift of logic remains inherently progressive.

Only by recognizing one's premises and those of others can one move toward any kind of consensus at all. (Or any act of forward-thinking genius, as I noted above.)

We continue even today to strive via the dialectic in psychology, art, and other disciplines to draw our experiences from the depths, into conscious awareness.

We learn to examine prior premises, even our own, for the larger purpose of understanding, expression, and yes, even reaching agreement.

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