Limitations and Promises of Rational Discourse on Hot-Button Issues

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Against a grey background, we see the red flame that represents the Logos (the spirit of reason that animates the Universe). In front of that, we see a badly-drawn representation of a human brain - on which there is a lightbulb that is lit, representing thought. Some of the rays from the lightbulb's glow gradually blend into the flame, representing how our reasoning faculty is part of the Logos. This image is for articles in this blog dealing with logic and critical thought.
While rationally discussing the hot-button issues facing our society is not a guarantee that all parties will come out in agreement – it still offers great benefits that make it a far superior alternative to heated, emotional discussion of those issues.

Discussing key issues of our times through the lens of logic and reason rather than under the strain of heated emotionalism is a very worthwhile thing to do. It can give us a level of clarity on important issues facing us, especially controversial issues, that we can not gain otherwise. However, to get as much as we can out of such rational discussion, we must not approach logic as a magical panacea that will solve everything. Rather, we must approach it with a sober understanding of what it’s capabilities are, as well as it’s limitations.To start with, we must start out by clarifying what logic means to us. Academic logicians these days tend to define logic as a means of getting from one set of premises to the set of conclusions that follow from those premises. It takes no responsibility whatsoever for the accuracy of the premises. As such, it takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the conclusions in our reality – merely for their accuracy in the hypothetical scenario in which the premises are all true.

While this definition of logic is understandable, it is more congruent with rationalism as understood in the Continental Rationalist school of thought, which held that reason alone is the source of all secure human knowledge – distrusting any knowledge that depended on our sensory input. However, the English Rationalist school of thought (from which Plurationalism is an outgrowth) is more a synnergy between Continental Rationalism and it’s rival school, Empiricism.

As such, I propose an expansion of our understanding of what logic is that includes the study of how to get from a set of premises to a set of conclusions (which I refer to as “hypothetical logic”) but also includes a study on how to verify that premises are acquired in a sound manner – an area of study that I would refer to as “premise theory” or “theory of premises”. Collectively, these two areas of logic I would refer to as “practical logic”. Defining logic as encompassing both of those areas is far more in line with English Rationalism and it’s derivatives than the definition that sees hypothetical logic as the entirety of logic.

Of course, the inclusion of premise theory in one’s understanding of what “logic” means doesn’t guarantee the accuracy of the premises, and as such doesn’t guarantee the accuracy of the conclusions. However, sound practice of premise theory increases the odds that the premises of an argument are accurate – and therefore it’s inclusion is a marked improvement over the understanding of logic that is limited to hypothetical logic.

This understanding of logic clarified, I can now discuss the capabilities and limitations of logic in dealing with the key issues of our time.

For starers – as a general rule, logic does not guarantee one definitively correct conclusion that everyone with proper respect for logic ought to agree with. There may be some cases in which logic does indeed deliver this, but never is this guaranteed an advance – and in any situation, one should be very cautious about declaring that it has delivered such a thing in that situation.

For starters, there is the fore-mentioned limitation to premise theory. Proper development and subsequent proper use of premise theory can increase the odds of the premises being correct. It can even provide a reasonable assessment of how much confidence is warranted in any of the duly acquired premises. But it is not an absolute guarantee of premises being accurate.

But in addition that – even from a set of premises that are agreed upon, two people who both have due respect for logic might come to differing conclusions due to one or both of them making a mistake in their hypothetical logic. Proper training can over time decrease the risk of such mistakes, but can not eliminate it entirely. As we train, we progress toward perfection of our faculty of reason – but this progress is toward an asymptotic goal, not an attainable one. We get closer and closer to perfection, but never attain it.

When at least one from among two persons has committed an error in their hypothetical logic, determining which one has done so can be tricky. Some errors are blatant ones that any experienced practitioner ought to be able to detect with ease – but others can be far more subtle. Nuanced areas into which such subtle errors might creep can not always be avoided unless we limit our study of logic to strictly symbolic logic – a limitation that would make it not merely difficult, but altogether impossible to use logic to discuss any issues of our time at all.

Another limiting factor is the fact that many of the social and political issues facing our society are ones with regards to which any conclusion one could draw would rely on premises that are from within areas of aesthetics, such as ethics. Aesthetic premises, unlike ontological ones, can not be confirmed by evidence or examined by science. This does not mean that premise theory can not be developed to provide some help where aesthetic premises are concerned – but it does mean that premise theory is bound to be a lot trickier where aesthetic premises are concerned than it is where ontological premises are concerned.

Logic can not prove any specific ethical value-system to be correct. Likewise, logic can not prove that any specific ethical system is incorrect unless it can expose some way in which said system contradicts itself. Furthermore, even if I can prove your ethical system to have such an inconsistency and thereby compel you to reformulate your ethical system, that does not guarantee that your new, reformulated ethical system will be closer to my own ethical system than your previous ethical system was.

Furthermore, it is very possible for you and I to have two ethical systems that in many ways contradict one another without either ethical system in any way contradicting itself. In such situations, there is no way that logic can prove either of our ethical systems to be incorrect.

Thus far it may seem as though discussing a matter that involves aesthetic premises in a rational manner is just as futile as discussing them in a heated, emotional manner. That, however is not so. Much can be achieved if these matters are discussed rationally.

When two people enter discussion disagreeing on such an issue, rational discussion might not always be able to prove one side of the argument to be correct and the other side of the argument incorrect. But even if it can’t do this, it can give all sides greater clarity as to what ethical premises are necessary to support their views, as well as other ramifications of their views. When people understand their views and the views of others on any of our society’s hot-button issues with such depth, it can equip people to make much more informed decisions which view they prefer to embrace.

If this level of awareness becomes the norm in society, it increases the odds that when society resolves that hot-button issue, it does so in the best manner possible. It might even allow the issue to be resolved satisfactorily with much less strife and destruction than otherwise would be necessary.

In short – discussing society’s hot-button issues with logic and reason rather than with heated emotionalism might not solve everything, but it will still solve a lot.

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