Do FACTS and LOGIC Really DESTROY Anything?
The battle between rational arguments and lived experience
Post (1) of a four-post essay.
The full essay makes up Part 4 of a broader series about language. It stands alone if that’s what you want out of your reading life, but for best results read the previous installments in the series — this, this and this — first.
I saw an interesting thing recently. A tweet from someone I don’t follow came up in my timeline, arguing that logic wasn’t ‘helpful to the complexity of lived experience’.
I think that’s true often enough to make it a worthwhile observation. But the mysterious tweeter went further and claimed that logic is essentially flawed. They set out to show this by using apparently strict logic to justify a bad conclusion:
Reason tells you that (1) it’s better not to suffer than to suffer, (2) the living suffer more than the dead, ergo (3) it’s better to be dead than alive.
The point seems to be that FACTS and LOGIC aren’t the right tools for evaluating the worth and functionality of a life.
I think logic isn’t the right tool for deciding whether life’s worth living or not, or for making basically any other important life decision, but not because it’s flawed. The problem with logic is that it’s flawless, and everyday life isn’t.
The chain of reasoning above is flawed not because logic’s flawed, but because the chain isn’t properly logical. Logic is just a tool for taking incoming data and using it to spit out more data. The tool is perfect in itself — once you’ve agreed on how many “2” is and how many “4” is you can’t argue with the statement that 2+2=4. But when you’re dealing with anything less abstract than mathematics the quality of your conclusions depends on the quality of your data. The input affects the output.
So if you went up to Carl, the Friendly Logical Robot, and said ‘Suffering is bad, the dead don’t suffer and living people never experience anything but meaningless, overwhelmingly agonising suffering — is it better to be alive or dead?’, then he might give you something like the chain of reasoning above. His conclusion would be wrong, but only because you gave him the wrong data. You left out all the beauty, meaning and happiness we can feel, aspire to and inspire in others, often without especially setting out to.
But say you said ‘Suffering is bad, living things suffer, dead ones don’t, but there’s more to life than suffering — now, is it better to be alive or dead?’
Here’s how Carl might respond:
(1) It’s better not to suffer than to suffer,
(2) The living suffer more than the dead,
(3) Therefore the dead have one advantage over the living,
(3) But there’s more to life than suffering,
(4) I haven’t been told whether any of this “more” stuff is good enough to outweigh the painful stuff,
(5) Therefore I can’t say whether death or life is better because my information is incomplete.
This is why no-one likes Carl.
Do we know whether any of the “more to life” stuff is good enough to make up for life’s suffering? Everyone has their own answer to this question, but the answer isn’t based on logic. It’s based on emotion, motivation, purpose, meaning, a million things that can’t be rationally argued for because they express a deeper part ourselves than rationality. By their nature, emotions and motivations are messy and vary from person to person, meaning that the world of reason is just too perfect to be of any use in sorting them out.
Some people argue that it’s more reasonable to live than not to, if only to keep the species going. But you may not value life enough to consider it worth maintaining, whether on a personal or a species level. Then there are the people like me who don’t want children — we’re clearly not keeping ourselves alive for the sake of the species. Then there are the people who value life itself but not the human variety of it. If you fundamentally don’t value life or humanity, there isn’t any strictly rational argument that can force you to.
People who struggle to find reasons to keep living are guided towards the light through action, direct experience, love. Things like meaning, purpose, connection and inner peace provide you with reasons to live, making you feel it’s more reasonable to live than not to, but neither of these senses of “reason” have anything to do with 2 and 2 equalling 4.
So if FACTS and LOGIC don’t express our lived experience very well, or give anyone but mathematicians and philosophers a reason to get out of bed in the morning, are they good for anything besides 2+2=4?
Personally, I think of cold logic as a language game. It works very well in some life situations and very badly in others. If you try to dribble a football along a skating rink you won’t get very far. But if you and ten other people pass it around to each other on a football pitch you can have a good time.
The philosopher Wittgenstein coined the term “language game” to get across the sense that there are multiple ways in which we use language. Words’ meanings change depending on the contexts in which they’re used, the actions they’re embedded in, the intention of the speaker, the shared reference points between the speaker and the listener, and so on and so on. Words aren’t static concepts that exist in a universe of their own, they’re actions that slot into webs of activity, forms of life. They command, entreat, denote, instruct, demarcate, warn, prohibit, enlarge, open up possibilities. They’re communal. They imply worldviews.
For most of our history the language games we’ve used to describe reality have been strangely indirect. Go back thousands and thousands of years, and you find people saying not ‘There’s a tree’ or ‘Here’s some food, let’s eat it’ but ‘There’s the home of the tree spirit’ and ‘Let’s offer this food to the gods so they’ll protect us against storms’. A deep instinct pushed our ancestors not to simply describe things as they found them but to give them mystical roles, enliven them, populate them with ghosts, tell stories about them, explain what cosmic events caused them to come about, ascribe all kinds of communal significance to them.
Not very FACTS and LOGIC friendly, those people.
Philosophers call language games that are full of significance, colour and resonance “thick”. A thick worldview or ethical code is full of shades of meaning and feeling that go beyond mere logic, mere functionality, the bare moral minimum. There are lots of cultural specifics in there. You’re not just told ‘Thou shalt not kill’, you’re also told ‘Don’t sleep outside under a full moon, it’s bad luck’. It’s not just ‘Do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone’, it’s ‘Better to be courageous, gracious and open-minded than not’. Not just rules but virtue, not just facts but story.
Maybe indirect is the wrong word for thick language games — how about full? For ye olden people, everything in the world was “more-than”. They apprehended reality with more than their five senses, their isolated individual perspectives. They didn’t feel the need to limit themselves.
A GENEALOGY OF REASON
The major linguistic innovations during the Renaissance-Reformation-Enlightenment-Industrial Revolution sequence were directness, simplicity and isolation. Suddenly people looked at things and simply described what they saw, which weakened both the mystical and the communal elements of language: never mind what the religious community says this thing in front of me is, that’s not what I see.
Da Vinci: ‘Here’s what the Church says about the physical world — what do I see there?’ Descartes: ‘Here’s what the Church says about my mind — what do I say about it?’ Luther: ‘Here’s what the Church says the Bible says — what do I read in it?’ Galileo: ‘Here’s what the Church teaches about the universe — what do I see there?’ Darwin: ‘Here’s what the Church says about our past — what can I discover in it?’ Marx: ‘Here’s what the Church says about our future — what do I say about it?’ Freud: ‘Here’s what the Church says about the nature of religious belief — what do I say about it?’
The Enlightenment thinkers declared that sense experience was the only proper means of gathering data, and reason was the only proper language to discuss the data with. Rather than faith, community, tradition, authority, myth and story being the lenses through which people viewed reality and formed beliefs about it, FACTS and LOGIC were the new kings. Where St. Paul once told believers to give reasons for what they believed and Aquinas promoted a “faith seeking understanding”, philosophers now declared that reason came before belief and understanding before faith. God was now in the dock, and if He couldn’t defend His existence then it wouldn’t be accepted.
What was it that Enlightenment thinkers valued so much about reason? Two things: (1) you can test its claims using methods that everyone has access to in principle, and (2) if the claims hold up they hold up for everyone, everywhere, all the time. Emotions are personal to you. Traditions are arbitrary because different cultures have different ones. Authority confuses having power with being right. Religious beliefs are based on extra-sensory criteria and cause unending and often violent disagreements. Only reason can claim universal authority, which means only reason can unlock the fundamental truths of existence.
And here’s where the Enlightenment thinkers’ isolation turned to connection. By isolating themselves from their own traditions, these innovators invented a language that could speak to people from any tradition. Yes, the language of science and reason is cold. It’s thin. Its vocabulary isn’t very rich, very large or very motivating. But everyone speaks it. Any two people in the world can debate a logical proposition. Any nation with the resources and knowhow can make a car or design a robot. And in theory, any group of religious or cultural traditions can peacefully coexist as long as they agree to a few ground rules.
HERE’S THE THING ABOUT “IN THEORY” THOUGH…
The Enlightenment’s love for science and democracy has survived, but it didn’t take people too long to knock some holes in its rosy view of rationality. Hume said as early as 1740 that ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. (Emphasis mine: people sometimes leave the middle bit of the sentence out.) Freud later backed this up by emphasising just how much seemingly rational justifications for our beliefs and actions often obscure our real motivations.
Meanwhile, Europeans’ ongoing discovery of other parts of the world showed them that cultures vary profoundly, causing some to question whether even logic could guide everyone towards the same “self-evident truths”. And when the theory of evolution came along it challenged religious certainties, but it also threatened the deist view that reason dropped out of the sky and landed fully formed in the human brain, giving us some sort of infallible Key to the Universe.
For well over a hundred years now, mainstream philosophy hasn’t been friendly towards religion but a lot of it hasn’t been especially friendly towards Facts and Logic either (the analytic tradition being the major exception to the rule). Popper argued that you can’t ever prove a scientific proposition, only disprove it. Nietzsche, Marx and Schopenhauer were more interested in action and willpower than in rationality, and existentialists and phenomenologists were more interested in subjective experience. Some of the Continentals got so bored with rigorous analysis they’d occasionally ditch it for the novel format.
From the ’60s on postmodernists took Nietzsche’s “no facts, only interpretations” ball and ran with it, declaring the Death of Naïve Rationalism just like their ancestor once proclaimed the “death of God”. Drawing on Marx as heavily as Nietzsche, these philosophers preferred not to ask ‘Is this claim true?’ but ‘Who’s making the claim and why? What purpose does it serve? Who does it protect? What context gave rise to it? What historical and traditional baggage does it carry around? Who is it true for?’ So where the medieval theologian would say ‘God wrote the Bible’ and the Enlightenment philosopher would say ‘No, people did’, the postmodernist says ‘Why did those people write the Bible? What power structures were they propping up?’
Today we’re living in an uneasy equilibrium between the Doctrine of Universal Reason, which keeps science, maths, universal human rights and the secular nation-state going, and the Doctrine of Lived Experience, which argues that your truths are your own and you can’t understand someone else’s way of life by reasoning about it. You have to experience it from the inside, speak its language game as your native tongue, experience the full “thickness” of it.
Reason is the ultimate SHALOL, reducing everything to the lowest common denominator so that everyone can discuss it precisely and reasonably. And lived experience represents all the thick layers of language that some people would rather weren’t hacked away.
The problem — if cold logic is too perfect to describe the specific messiness of reality, then talking about an infinity of lived experiences makes our analysis too specific to bind everyone together. A world with only FACTS and LOGIC erases the complexity of different people’s problems and reduces them to statistics. But a world with only lived experience (that is, the slices of it that people choose to emphasise) walls us all off into little pockets — whether individual-sized (solipsism) or group-sized (tribalism) — that can’t understand each other on any level.
I have two problems with this: (a) I believe members of different groups can understand each other on the levels that matter most, because we share a species before we share the identities. Beliefs vary widely, but patterns of reasoning, emoting and speaking vary less than some people think. And (b) members of shared identity groups do frequently share certain experiences in common, but not all members of a group experience the same things, and those who do process them slightly differently to one another.
So if FACTS and LOGIC don’t cut it and neither does lived experience, where does that leave us?
Read on for my compromise candidate.