Teach Everyone Logic?


[William] Clifford argued that we are morally responsible not merely for what we do and say, but also for what we believe… When we show ourselves to be uncritical and careless with own our beliefs, we implicitly invite others to do the same. And, perhaps more obviously, we invite others to fool us. We encourage dishonesty and deception. Each time we believe something that we lack the right to believe, in other words, we spread an intellectual and moral disease: an epistemic shamelessness that threatens the very possibility of meaningful, rational discourse…

Among the most pernicious and perilous immoralities of our own age is our apparent surrender to the lowest standards of belief and communication…  But it will take tens of thousands of us to really make a difference and drag our civil discourse back from the brink. Should all freshmen across the land be required to study critical thinking and symbolic logic? It is a thought.

It’s a thought of Michael Ventimiglia, associate professor of philosophy at Sacred Heart University, who directs what sounds like a terrific program at the school that introduces every first-year student to critical thinking and introductory formal logic, in an essay at Times Higher Education. He is understandably disappointed and frustrated with the level of public discourse, as well as its political results, and he thinks that teaching every student logic could make a difference.

I want to believe this. So I should be suspicious of it.

(Note: being on the lookout for motivated reasoning is not something typically covered in logic or philosopher-taught critical thinking courses.)

Professor Ventimiglia’s case is an explicitly moral one based on the value of “meaningful, rational discourse.” Whether such discourse is valuable in itself, or for the realization of other goods, or both, we can leave aside. Let’s also leave aside the many interesting questions about the extent and degree to which we can plausibly be held responsible for our beliefs. Grant all that. Questions remain. For example:

  1. Do people’s improved skills in critical thinking and symbolic logic lead to better, more meaningful, rational discourse among them?
  2. Does taking a course in critical thinking and symbolic logic lead to improved skills in critical thinking and symbolic logic?
  3. Do enough people attend college such that their taking a course in critical thinking and symbolic logic will make a difference to the level of meaningful, rational discourse in their society?
  4. Is there a better way to achieve more meaningful, rational discourse than through trying to improve their critical thinking and logic skills?

I’m not sure that there’s conclusive evidence on any of these matters.

Regarding (1), it’s at least sometimes true that a little logic training is worse than none at all. It doesn’t appear that the term “Petty Philosopher” is in usage, but it is a good name for a person who often uses his or her skill for identifying logical fallacies, unstated premises, and counterexamples in ways that impede rather than further mutual understanding. (“Petty” is a pun on “petit”, get it? Sorry for both the pun and for overexplaining it.)  Do we want more petty philosophers?

Logic training might also inhibit participation in discourse by making people aware of a greater number of ways in which what they’re saying could be mistaken.

Public opinion research shows that despite increases in education and access to information, voters remain woefully ignorant of political matters, and so public discourse about them is pretty bad. What’s lacking, it is sometimes suggested (a la Schumpeter) is not access to information, but motivation to learn and use it. If that’s right, increasing critical thinking skills may have no net effects on the quality of discourse: they take effort to use, effort which people may not be sufficiently motivated to expend.

Readers, are there empirical studies on any of this?

On (2), the evidence is iffy (here, too). Teaching students logic seems to improve their reasoning skills only after a significant prior exposure to logic, and it isn’t clear that philosophy courses on the subject are better than, say, ones in mathematics. Maybe more than one course is needed.

Regarding (3), in the US, about a third of the population graduates from college. Is that enough to make a difference?

Lastly, on (4), the question is what would be most effective? While courses vary, cognitive biases and debiasing strategies don’t tend to get a lot of play in philosophy-oriented critical thinking and logic courses. Nor does statistical reasoning. Perhaps they should be added in. Or perhaps a college course is not the answer? What alternatives should we consider?

Professor Ventimiglia raises the idea of teaching all students logic in the form of a question. It seems like a question worth being able to answer, in which case we will need more evidence. Perhaps a large scale experiment to collect some is in order?

(via Carol Hay)

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Amanda
Amanda
4 years ago

I don’t think teaching only college kids logic will make enough of a difference. 1/3rd of the population would then be responsible for converting or making up for the 2/3rds that simply are ignorant. I think if logic is to be taught it’ll have up be mass marketed as a trend like other social movements like “real women have curves” and other catchy phrases “he for she ” … If one exists already I haven’t heard of it. Whatever is mass marketed needs to be simple like the idea that your conclusion should follow your premises… Not sure how to pretty that up off the top of my head.Report

LogicIsProbablyNotTheAnswer
LogicIsProbablyNotTheAnswer
4 years ago

Do online discussions by professional philosophers contain fewer of the vices Ventimiglia decries?Report

Steve
Steve
4 years ago

Professor Ventimiglia assumes the dogmatic position in philosophy (and in general) that logic improves ours thinking skills, in the sense of rational, public discourse. I don’t doubt that logic is an important branch of philosophy, but one thing is the argumentation and rational discourse, and other thing is its role in philosophy and maths (this is the reason, I suppose, to consider logic as part of every undergraduate philosophy program). I think logic improves ours thinking skill, in the sense of mathematical reasoning.

This dogma is a dangerous one. Indeed, it’s very important to approach this issue from the empirical point of view.Report

Miles Rind
Miles Rind
4 years ago

The idea that teaching logic improves people’s thinking or provides them with the means to combat bad thinking seems to me very fanciful. When was the last time that you encountered a badly reasoned piece of political discourse or advertising or pseudoscience in which the main defect was a case of denying the antecedent or an undistributed middle term? The study of *informal* logic is potentially of wider practical application, but not in the way in which it is presented in most logic textbooks, where fallacy concepts are illustrated with made-up examples that nobody would ever seriously offer as arguments, so that students are made to think that evaluating reasoning is just a matter of calling out pat examples of logical foul play. But even informal logic is largely beside the point. To make people think critically, you have to get them to examine judgments and opinions that they have formed either without arguments or by motivated reasoning (i.e., non-rational determinants of belief manifesting themselves in reasoning). It exasperates me to see courses in philosophy departments labeled as “Critical Thinking” that offer nothing but techniques for the analysis and evaluation of arguments.Report

Kristofer Rhodes
Kristofer Rhodes
Reply to  Miles Rind
4 years ago

I agree with basically all of what you’ve written here, Miles, but I like to put in a good word for at least some basic training in formal logic, as follows: Having a good sense for formal validity helps us reconstruct unstated assumptions in other arguments (because those unstated assumptions are often the ones that make their arguments formally valid) and it’s often by bringing those unstated assumptions out (our own or others) that helps us spot motivated reasoning, misinformation, and so on.Report

Jacob Archambault
4 years ago

A good idea in theory, but much harder in practice. Classical regimentations of natural language arguments often model those arguments very imperfectly, and the sheer number of formal systems makes the task of determining what to teach more difficult than it might otherwise be. The disconnect between formal logic and natural language reasoning may be a large part of why teaching logic does not have the positive effects on critical thinking we expect it to have.

“I challenge anybody here to show me a serious piece of argumentation in natural languages that has been successfully evaluated as to its validity with the help of formal logic. I regard this fact as one of the greatest scandals of human existence. Why has this happened? How did it come to be that logic, which, at least in the views of some people 2300 years ago, was supposed to deal with evaluation of argumentation in natural languages, has done a lot of extremely interesting and important things, but not this?”
— Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (1969). “Formal Logic and natural languages: a symposium”, Foundations of Language 5, 256-284.Report

Alan White
4 years ago

The value of formal logic–particularly the propositional calculus–is to promote self-awareness in students of the logical skeleton that holds up the semantic body of their natural language–that self awareness I’d argue is the only way that teaching such stuff is socially relevant. It’s not even primarily to make them aware of argumentative structures of validity and invalidity as it’s usually presented–and emphasis on proofs I’d also argue actually diminishes that core value of formal logic. The real value is to give students more nuanced appreciation of how language matters in presenting clear ideas in more rigorous logical forms of statement which then of course can be assembled into providing reasons to accept conclusions via validity. But, for example, when students really get the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions of conditional dependency, one can often see that for many a new world of logical insight lights up that they only dimly perceived before.

And of course holding up your iPhone and saying that it only works by code that follows the same propositional rules they’re learning is instructive–especially as they grasp that the patterns of 2 to-the-nth of binary 1/0 code plays out not just in truth-tables, but memory units of their 16 and 32 and 64 and 128 GB phones.Report

James Goetsch
James Goetsch
4 years ago

I have found–after twenty years of teaching intro logic–that if I focus on having them learn a very few things very well that student’s appreciation of logic increases. The course I took as an undergraduate covered traditional logic (syllogisms, etc.), basic symbolic through proofs, AND scientific method (basically most of Copi). Instead I teach an Intro I (traditional logic with fallacies) and Intro II (symbolic with beginnings of predicate). Most students just take the first one, and I find that having them thoroughly master taking everyday arguments and putting them into syllogistic form seems to really open students up to the possibilities of thinking clearly. Note I said the possibility of it–it’s sort of a teaser, which they can follow up on if they wish, and if nothing else shows them the beginnings of a broader world of reason.Report

Kristofer Rhodes
Kristofer Rhodes
Reply to  James Goetsch
4 years ago

Yes, I think that while introducing the concept of formal validity has some value, I find a lot of the value in teaching logic comes from getting students to be able to think about _what someone (or themselves) is really trying to say_ in a more effective way than they might have otherwise.

I wonder if it could be effective to teach logical _languages_ without worrying about introducing validity at all. Just teach students ways to translate natural English into appropriate logical languages (propositional, categorical, depending).Report

James Goetsch
James Goetsch
4 years ago

Isn’t the cultivation of the awareness of the formal structures underlying our everyday discourse a kind of wonderful thing that can be cultivated for its own sake? It’s like getting a glimpse of one of the essential mysteries of life (and not to be missed by anyone who calls themselves “educated”). Of course, you have to build a little philosophy into the course to help students reflect on this. I had a student tell me once that they felt like they had discovered a part of life they didn’t even know existed (and this being a “math-phobic” student who was taking logic instead of math for the quantitative requirement).Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I’ve taught a lot of introductory logic courses and a lot of Critical Thinking courses. In my experience, a semester of training in informal reasoning is a lot more useful to the students than a semester of formal logic. They see much more easily how to apply the informal material to the real world. I would like to see courses in informal reasoning required for every college student.Report

Michael Barkasi
Michael Barkasi
4 years ago

1. Many (if not most) students fail to perform at tasks which would evince they grasp the idea of one claim providing evidential support of another. For example, when asked to give premises supporting a conclusion what they produce is often gibberish; or when explicitly asked to critique an argument by rejecting a premise or attacking an inference they nonetheless fails to do either.
2. They also fail at tasks which would show they understand what makes an evidential connection stronger or weaker. For example, they struggle to produce, pick out, or even describe counterexamples.

These hold for students at the start of the semester, but still mostly hold even after a sustained attempt to teach the skills. Perhaps my sample is off or I’m just not good at teaching these things (both honest suggestions), but still, talk of teaching methods for evaluating arguments (e.g., lists of informal fallacies, formal logic, statistical reasoning, etc) seems to miss that many, if not most, students seem to not understand what arguments or their validity/inferential strength even are in the first place.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

Informal logic is obviously useful and important, but regarding symbolic logic, what percent of practicing philosophers (much less anyone else) takes an argument and writes out the logical schematic version of it? Is there any evidence that learning symbolic logic allows you to internalize argument forms and thus are better able to analyze and critique arguments? My guess is that learning informal logic and then lots and lots (and lots) of practice analyzing and critiquing arguments would be a much better use of class time than learning truth tables and proofs.Report

Michael
Michael
4 years ago

I’m all for teaching everyone logic. I think it should be required even in high school. And I agree with the value of encouraging critical thinking and assessing our beliefs. However, I do have to object to the idea that logic is the only rationally warranted way to arrive at belief. That’s some old, repeatedly refuted thinking. We arrive at plenty of warranted beliefs in other ways (memory, personal experience, etc).

Still, I think an education in logic would benefit everyone and it should be required learning.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

A distinction needs to be made between teaching every *person* logic, and teaching every *student* logic. In the first case, this is nonsense. It would be like insisting that because eventually everyone will need to make an inductive judgement in their life, they need to be taught a generic variety of the scientific method with which to make that judgement ‘correctly’.

On the other hand, if I’m an incoming freshman at a university, and I am in a science degree program, then I ought to be taught the basics of the methodology underpinning the whole program.

Likewise with liberal arts and philosophy students. The method of good reasoning is the basic tool of all liberal arts. *Not* teaching them this “tool of the trade”, is dereliction of duty, in my view. It would be like entering carpentry school, and never being taught how to use a saw.

However, trying to promote some broad “educate the people” is going to be nothing but an exercise in futility. Those of us not in academia, yet motivated to learn this stuff, will find a way to do so of our own accord. We don’t need professors like William Clifford to chase us down. We’ll find him. Those of us who are not interested in logic and “critical thinking” will simply grin-and-bear whatever we must while in school (or whatever state remedy is imposed upon us in adulthood), and promptly forget it as soon as we can.Report

Kenny Easwaran
4 years ago

Although logic courses taught in math departments may be just as useful (or not useful) as courses taught in philosophy departments, it’s relevant to note that although nearly every philosophy department teaches logic courses, the fraction of math departments that teach logic is probably closer to half or less.Report