Monday, March 11, 2013

THINKING THINGS THROUGH---LOGICALLY

This post is dedicated
to those former stellar students of mine
who could---and still can---think things through … logically


‘The horror! The horror!’ (Forgive me, Joseph Conrad.)

Yes, the bloody horror of it all!

In my almost 20 years of teaching law at a university in Sydney, Australia---I had more than 9,000 students in that period (and, lest there be any confusion, I truly enjoyed teaching for the most part)---I became increasingly concerned that far too many students were afflicted with a ‘disease’ which they had caught in their secondary education, or perhaps even earlier. Generation Xers were afflicted with the illness, but Generation Yers even more so. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory and self-conceited, baby boomers---of whom I am one---appeared to be largely immune to this disease. Perhaps we were inoculated against it along with our triple antigen. I don’t know.

No, I do know. The disease was transmitted in and by the education system---by faddish teachers who couldn’t teach (many of whom were failed students themselves in their day)---as well as culturally and politically … in other words, by people who had a socio-political (and largely leftist) ‘agenda’ of sorts. It’s a terrible sickness---and often terminal. Not even heavy, regular doses of Aristotelian logic assist once the disease has taken hold in the patient’s mind and body.

The disease, which has no name that is universally accepted, manifests itself in a style of thinking, speaking and writing that is characterised by, among other things, an extreme subjectivism and relativism---as well as an inability to engage in critical thinking.

I am so grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunities for a creative childhood. I am also most grateful to my teachers who gave me a good, classical, liberal arts education of the old-fashioned, non-faddish kind, for its emphasis on the humaniities and the arts---in which I excelled---gave me the disciplines of logical reasoning, argument and, above all, independent thought as well as the ability to engage in critical thinking.

Now, I want to set things straight, assuming anyone will listen. I am a philosophical realist---an Andersonian one to be exact. I know this much---and I will defend all of this as being true to my dying day:

FACT 1. Whatever exists---facts---is real. Yes, reality is---what is. That's almost axiomatic.
FACT 2. Truth is a factually correct description or statement of what is, and logic---that is, traditional propositional logic---is about real things in the real world, and how those things are related. (Good, logical thinking means relating---that is, putting together or distinguishing---different pieces of information about facts or alleged facts.)
FACT 3. Whatever exists are complex occurrences or situations in complex relationship to other situations.
FACT 4. Further, whatever exists is a situation located in context (that is, a thing is, under certain conditions, a situation), with the latter affecting that situation.
FACT 5. All such situations exist in the one space-time, and belong to the one order of being.
FACT 6. All things exist in situations which are complex, each such situation involving numerous differences and relations, being ‘a multum in parvo plurally related’ (to use the words of William James [pictured above left]), for each situation consists of ‘things’ (‘terms’) having both connections (‘relations’) and distinctions with other ‘things’ as well as internal differentiation.
FACT 7. There are literally countless, indeed, an infinite number of infinitely complex and interacting pluralities exhausting the whole of reality, and subsisting in one space-time, such that there is nothing but such facts, but not as ‘one vast instantaneous co-implicated completeness’ (to again quote William James).
FACT 8. Everything---yes, everything---is continuously changing and infinitely complex, causation being essentially non-linear interaction at all points in a ‘causal field’, that is, a complex relation where an event (‘situation’) acts upon a ‘field’ or context to produce a certain ‘effect’ (that is, a change in the field); in addition, all situations are caused and in turn bring about other situations.
FACT 9. Nothing---absolutely nothing---is constituted by or is dependent upon, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relations it has to other things; things (‘terms’) and the relations between them are distinct. For example, the knower, the known, as well as the act of knowing, are separate, distinct and independent.
FACT 10. Facts are propositional in structure---that is, there is a logical, direct and coterminous relationship between any proposition that something is the case and the way things actually are.
FACT 11. We can and do have direct knowledge of actual (‘objective’) things---or, more correctly, situations (i.e. ‘facts’)---with each such situation being both complex and on the same level of reality as any other situation that occurs (there being only one level of reality).
FACT 12. It is only in propositions that we know---and can know---things at all, for it is the case that any situation is propositionally structured (i.e., something is predicated of some subject term).
FACT 13. Anything that can be true (or ‘real’) is ‘propositional’ in that something is stated to be the case. Further, every proposition is contingently (that is, not necessarily) true or false---‘logically there can be no alternative to ‘being’ and ‘not being’’ (to quote John Anderson [pictured above right, and below left]). That’s right. You see, no proposition is transparently true, because a statement that something is the case can be justified only by a statement that something else is not the case.

In short, there is a single way, mode or order of being---that of occurrence---namely, that which is conveyed when we say that a proposition is true. This one way of being---the so-called ‘propositional nature of reality’---consists of ordinary things, that is, ‘occurrences in space and time’ (also known as ‘states of affairs’ and ‘situations’). This one way of being (the ‘conditions of existence’) is that of the ‘situation,’ or fact---that is, something being the case in one space-time.

Are there philosophical objections to the above? Yes, of course. There are many different views, but I will tell you this. To date, I have not read any objection to any of the essential tenets of realism that has caused me to doubt the objective truth of the propositions I’ve set out above (albeit in a very summary, even crude, form)---and that is not because I am stubborn and close-minded. At the risk of sounding immodest, I say this---anyone who knows me well knows that is not the case.

Now, it necessarily follows from the above that every question---that is, every assertion that takes something to be the case in reality---is a straightforward (but not necessarily simple in the sense of easy-to-resolve) issue of truth or falsity, there being no different degrees or kinds of truth. 

Far too many students---and law students at that---would say to me, ‘There is no such thing as absolute truth,’ to which I would say, ‘Really, You have just shown there is, that there is at least one supposed absolute truth---the one you just espoused.’ You see, if there is no such thing as absolute truth, you cannot make a statement such as, ‘There is no such thing as absolute truth.’ Really.

I am not an absolutist, but because I refuse to be swayed by fads I am old-fashioned enough to affirm that there is such a thing as objective truth, namely, what is. I reject subjectivism and relativism. Not only do they result in epistemological anarchy---of which there is a helluva lot today---these systems of 'thought' are also otherwise contrary to the very logic of things. Truth is not relative to persons. Truth is what is. Ignorance and mistaken beliefs do nothing to make truth relative. When any proposition is taken to its logical conclusion, a question of fact---truth or falsity---is always reached. One always can get back to the objective distinction between something being the case and not being the case. For example, if I say, quite subjectively, 'The sky is for me blue', you may think quite differently. However, once I ask, 'Is the sky blue for you?', an objective issue is immediately raised. The question is whether it is true that the sky is blue for you, not whether it is true for you that the sky is blue for you.

Subjectivism and relativism assert that they sky may be blue for Wally, but may be green for Susan---and both can be right. My response to that? If a person believes or thinks the sky is, say, blue, then it is implicit in what they’re saying---and presumably in their belief or thinking---that there is something called the sky, and that there is also something called blue (or green, or whatever), and thus that there is something called the sky which may or may not be blue (or green, or whatever). Get the picture? In all cases---yes, all cases---we always get back to the objective distinction between something being the case and not being the case.

Sydney---and a BLUE sky. Yes, really!


I used the word ‘belief,’ because people---especially subjectivists and relativists---love to say, ‘Well, I believe the sky is blue, but it is open to you or anyone else to believe that it is green or red or whatever colour you believe.’ Yes, in the words of W S Gilbert, this disease means this--- ‘And I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!’ We are all right, none of us is wrong, we are all equally precious, and we are all winners. Winners in what, I ask? A contest to determine who is the most stupid? ‘Oh, Ellis-Jones, you mustn’t say that. They’re all equally precious---and equally right. Look what you've done---you have made a student cry!’ Damn it, I will say it! In any event, what the hell has ‘belief’ got to do with any of this? I can still hear the voice of my old philosophy lecturer: ‘The sky is blue. The sky does not become any bluer because you believe it to be blue. Further, the proposition---the sky is blue---does not become any truer because you believe it to be true.’

One more thing. Here’s another problem with subjectivism and relativism. If things are as one believes or thinks them to be, then that implies---yes, implies---that each person, or (in the case of cultural relativism), each culture, is infallible in their judgments and opinions---that is, cannot err---and that also means that there can never be any real difference. Thus, if I think the sky is blue, and you think the sky is red, there is no disagreement or real contradiction. It is simply a case that ‘The sky is for me blue,’ and ‘The Sky is not for you blue.’ Those two propositions are not in contradiction to each other. Isn’t that wonderful? After all, we don’t want conflict or disagreement, do we? Rubbish, I say! Bring it on! I'm ready!

You may think I am a little dogmatic about all this, but am I? Who is the one who asserts infallibility---that people cannot err in their judgments and opinions? Not the objectivist or the realist, but the subjectivist and the relativist, of which there are too damn many these days. If only they would---think things through … logically!

To quote the immortal W S Gilbert again …

        I've got a little list---I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
         And who never would be missed---who never would be missed!

I kid you not. I never do. Never!


P.S. I still teach---but these days my students are medical practitioners, psychiatrists, and other mental health workers for the most part. Very few of them are afflicted with the disease referred to above. They tend to think things through. Interesting, that. IEJ.



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