Tuesday, September 06, 2005

knowledge and logic

About two or three years ago, I took a class on Nietzsche. Although I had heard plenty about Nietzsche I never could actually spell his name until I took that class. My philosophy professor did his dissertation on Nietzsche, which was called "A Buddhist Interpretation of Nietzsche." He said he had been reading Nietzsche since high school. Early on in the semester, I came to the realization that Nietzsche was an irrational nutcase, and I couldn't for the life of me understand why anybody took him seriously as a philosopher. My initial impression of Nietzsche was confirmed as the semester went on.

My professor opened up an email discussion for the class so that we could talk about whatever we wanted by emailing the whole class. Lots of interesting conversations and debates went on in there, and I found myself to be in the minority in most cases. I often criticized Nietzsche's sloppy arguments or lack of arguments, pointing out the many logical fallacies he committed, and I was constantly criticized for doing so. My philosophy professor seemed to think it was inappropriate to apply logic to Nietzsche, and he seemed to have the majority of the class convinced that logic was a matter of personal preference, and that I was merely arguing from a western biased point of view.

Since logic was so undervalued in that class, it was difficult to advance any sort of arguments. All of my arguments made use of logic. I often put them in formal form, such as disjunctive syllogisms, modus tollens, modus ponens, transitive, etc. My arguments were ineffective, not because anybody could find a flaw in my reasoning, or because anybody thought my arguments were unsound, but because they rejected the laws of logic they were based on. So all of these arguments always boiled down to the validity of logic.

Logic wasn't the only thing being attacked. My professor also attacked the correspondence theory of true, the notion that language can convey true information, and the whole notion of objective truth in general. It seemed the class was willing to accept this nonsense uncritically, and I often found myself just shaking my head.

In my frustration, I finally wrote a long email to the whole class defending logic. I said to them, "What I want to do is persuade you that logic applies to the real world, that it is necessary, that it is objective, that knowledge is possible, and that language is adequate to convey true information."

Since some of these issues have come up here in my discussions with Steve and Dale, I thought I'd reproduce a lot of that email here in the blog. Some of it probably needs to be rewritten, so I may edit parts along the way. That all depends on how lazy I am and how badly I think something needs to be rewritten. I don't know how much conversation this will generate since just about everybody who makes comments here seems to be reasonable people who basically already agree with me on these issues, but I think this email will give everybody a lot of insight into how my mind works. Dale once suggested I post something about my thought process. Although this may not really fulfill that suggestion, I think it will be a significant step in that direction.

Next: What is knowledge?


At 9/06/2005 4:31 AM , Blogger Steve said...

I lack your knowledge and insight, but I too have found Nietzsche to be an odd-duck.

To his credit, many of his ideas are very creative, even if they seem intuitively wrong (and based on your post, logically wrong too).

At 9/06/2005 5:15 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Nietzsche probably would've appealed to me in some ways when I was in high school. He seemed to just make things up as he went along, and often the only reason he accepted then is because they were different than the status quo. That was me all over--trying to make a name for myself, trying to be interesting, trying to impress people, trying to be deep, being intentionally vague to avoid criticism, and often spouting meaningless nonsense in hopes that whoever didn't understand what I was saying would assume it was over their heads and that I was just too brilliant for them. Nietzche is perfect for teenagers, but some people just never outgrow him.

At 9/06/2005 4:54 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

Oh, can't wait for this e-mail. :)

So when did you change that perspective you had as a teenager?

I think although being intentionally vague can (or attempt to) help someone get away from criticism, as most teachers who mark essays will know, if you really want to persuade someone or someone wants to persaude you, you usually need to be clear. Being vague and rhetorical to people who already agree with you is not the same as being vague and rhetorical to people who are inclined to disbelieve what you are about to say. Most times when you strongly disagree with someone, you and that person will have to be extra clear, easily understandable, and extra courteous, to have a chance of persuading one another differently, especially on hot topics like homosexuality or abortion which tend to polarize each side to extremes. Being vague and rhetorical will probably lead to easy misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of your arguments, since each person doesn't want to easily let go of their position if they've had it for a long time and are very passionate about it, and will be inclined to find any fault, real or imagined, with your arguments; also, if they don't easily understand something about what you're saying, they probably won't bother to read it twice and will just skip it, perhaps missing a valid point. In my experience, only two things can change people's minds when they are inclined to believe the opposite: a very poignant emotional argument/anecdote/first-hand experience, or being very clear, understandable and eloquent.

At 9/06/2005 11:00 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


My change of mind was a gradual process that began in my early 20's. I just went through this phrase where I decided I ought to start being honest with myself, swallow my pride, and admit there's a lot of stuff I don't know about. I also had to admit that just because I was clever enough to come up with something really cool-sounded didn't mean there was any reason to think it was actually true. And I decided it wasn't worth believing anything that wasn't true.

I agree with you about being vague. Of course the point of me being vague was really just to give the illusion that I had something really profound and deep to say that nobody else was able to understand.

At 9/11/2005 9:22 PM , Blogger Paul said...

If you say the most meaningless things with the right inflection or using poetic language you can fool most people. I've seen a lot of art (visual, performance) that passes for profound, which says nothing deeper than "life is meaningless."

About logic, I just mentioned your issue with the denigration of logic in your class to my daughter (who also experiences various lunacies in her classes), and she immediately thought of the point that these same people are usually quick to employ logic when they attempt to bring complaints against Christianity (the kid's been listening to dad after all it seems). They must surrender their tools for discounting any belief system if they reject logic. It's kind of like a moral relativist raising the "problem of evil" objection. It they don't believe in good and "evil," then what's to complain about?


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