On The Sound Uses Of Unsound Reasoning

In exploring the possibility of there being sound uses of unsound reasoning, or examples of unsound reasoning that are viewed as sound by those people who engage in them, I am deliberately seeking not to prejudge the question. It is a trivial matter to find unsound reasoning in our present world. People deduce great and ponderous conclusions from flawed premises. People either deny the possibility of inductive reasoning at all or use induction in such a poor fashion that they end up rejecting and transgressing the basic principles of reasoning altogether. In contemporary arguments about identity, one cannot help but find uncountable examples of reductio ad absurdum, in that the denial of stable reality leads necessarily to absurd and meaningless discourse. And one can hardly go online and observe political discussion without spurious correlation, bad use of sampling for statistical reasoning, or various forms of logical fallacies on a regular basis.

Although ignorance of logic is common, even rampant, we need not assume that all bad uses of logic are done in ignorance of what good logic is like. We can know, for example, that spurious correlations are common and still make them, because we find a purpose in doing so for our personal or political benefit. We can know, for example, that it is a logical fallacy to view a given conclusion as debunked simply because it can be connected to an unpopular worldview or person rather than addressing the argument itself. It is not hard to see how such grounds would exist for the intentional use of unsound reasoning, such as a desire not to waste one’s time dealing with the unsound arguments that others make, as well as a knowledge that far more people will be able to understand (and support) an accessible logical fallacy rather than the more difficult and complicated work that is required to address the actual flaws in the reasoning themselves. Are such uses of unsound reasoning themselves justifiable?

Engaging in sound reasoning is not an easy matter. We must ourselves be equipped with the tools of sound reasoning as well as an understanding of the first principles of reality in such fields as morals and ethics, theology, philosophy, social and natural sciences (ranging from history to economics to biology and far beyond). We must then sharpen our skills in reasoning from accurate knowledge (itself no trivial feat to attain) with other people who are engaged in the same task, and then communicate that reasoning and accurate knowledge to other people in order to inform and persuade them to support sound public policy and encourage proper personal behavior. Given the immense difficulty and obvious importance of such tasks, it is little surprise that people would seek to find shortcuts to seek good ends via bad means, or seek to hurry along the process by skipping a few of the steps along the way.

Is this sound? Are the victories won by sophistry enduring and beneficial to those who win by using unsound reasoning to sway unreasoning and angry mobs, or to the people themselves who remain ignorant of sound reasoning and are simply manipulated by others? Does using logical fallacies harm our own understanding or even our character by so doing? Are we made more coarse and unjust by having acquired the habit of demolishing straw men or engaging in regular ad hominem attacks rather than sharpening our logic by casting down bogus arguments that seek to resist the truth? To what extent does our example of engaging in reasoned discourse help to educate those who may be ignorant of the finer points of logic and rhetoric, and to what extent is this educational value of example sabotaged by our poor example in these matters? Are we in such a state of crisis that we lack the time to gain the slow victory of reason over folly, of restraint over license, of education over ignorance, of righteousness over evil, so that we must resort to gaining quick victories via deceptive and dishonest means? Are things so dire as they appear to be?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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