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Preparing the Mind for Logic
Being logical presupposes our having a sensitivity to language and a knack for its effective use, for logic and language are inseparable. It also presupposes our having a healthy respect for the firm factualness of the world in which we live, for logic is about reality. Finally, being logical presupposes a lively awareness of how the facts that are our ideas relate to the facts that are the objects in the world, for logic is about truth. In this first part of the book I will discuss those attitudes, points of view, and practical procedures whose adoption prepares the mind for a successful engagement with logic.
1. Be Attentive
Many mistakes in reasoning are explained by the fact that we are not paying sufficient attention to the situation in which we find ourselves. This is especially true in familiar situations. That very familiarity causes us to make careless judgments about facts right before our eyes. We misread a situation because we are skimming it, when what we should be doing is perusing it. Often, we assume that a familiar situation will be but a repeat performance of a similar situation we’ve experienced before. But, in the strictest sense, there are no repeat performances. Every situation is unique, and we must be alert to its uniqueness.
The phrase “to pay attention” is telling. It reminds us that attention costs something. Attention demands an active, energetic response to every situation, to the persons, places, and things that make up the situation. It is impossible to be truly attentive and passive at the same time. Don’t just look, see. Don’t just hear, listen. Train yourself to focus on details. The little things are not to be ignored, for it is just the little things that lead us to the big things.
2. Get the Facts Straight
A fact is something made or done. It has clear objective status. It is something we respond to as having an independent status all its own. It is naggingly persistent, demands recognition, and can be nasty if ignored.
There are two basic types of objective facts, things and events. A “thing” is an actually existing entity, animal, vegetable, or mineral. The White House is an example of the first type of fact, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln of the second. The first type is more basic than the second because events are made up of things or of the actions of things. A state dinner is to be held at the White House. Such an event could not take place were it not for the existence, first and foremost, of the fact that is the White House, and countless other facts as well. In order to establish the factualness of an event, any number of concrete things need to be appealed to.
To determine the reality of a fact that is a thing, all you need do is pay it a visit. If it actually exists it must be somewhere, and, assuming its place to be accessible to you,
you can verify its factualness by direct observation. Take the case of the White House. To ascertain its being a fact, rather than purely imaginary, you can travel to Washington, D.C., and there see the White House with your own eyes. That is the most direct and reliable way to establish its factualness. But you could also rely on indirect evidence: For example, by taking the word of a trustworthy eyewitness that the White House is indeed in Washington, D.C. Or you could decide that photographic evidence is sufficient to establish factualness.
But what about an event like Lincoln’s assassination? We say that is a fact. What is the justification for that claim? It is an event that is over and done with, and there are no living witnesses to the event whom we might consult. Obviously, we did not ourselves witness the event, so direct evidence is out of the question. In this case our approach will be to acquaint ourselves with a variety of things that serve as indirect evidence of the event. For example, we would consult official documents (police reports, the death certificate, etc.), newspaper accounts, photographs, memoirs, diaries, and items in the Congressional Record, all of which are facts in their own right and whose only reasonable explanation is the factualness of Lincoln’s assassination. On the basis of the factualness of these things, we establish the factualness of the event. And we thus establish a historical fact.
Facts can also be thought of as objective or subjective. Both things and events are objective facts. They exist in the public domain and are in principle accessible to all. A subjective fact is one that is limited to the subject experiencing it. A headache would be an example of a subjective fact. If I am the one experiencing the headache, then I have direct evidence of its factualness. But if it is you experiencing the headache, I can establish its factualness only indirectly. I must take your word that you have a headache. Establishing the reality of subjective facts depends entirely on the trustworthiness of those who claim to be experiencing them.
To sum up how we get the facts straight: If a given fact is an actually existing thing to which we have access, then the surest way to establish its factualness is to put ourselves in its presence. We then have direct evidence of it. If we cannot establish factualness by direct evidence, we must rigorously test the authenticity and reliability of whatever indirect evidence we rely upon so that, on the basis of that evidence, we can confidently establish the factualness of the thing.
There are only a very limited number of significant public events which we can experience directly. This means that, in almost every case, we must rely on indirect evidence. In establishing the factualness of events by indirect evidence, we must exercise the same kind of care we do in establishing the factualness of “things” by indirect evidence. It all comes down to the authenticity and reliability of our sources.
A subjective fact, to the subject experiencing it, is self-evident under normal circumstance. However, through such mechanisms as self-delusion or rationalization, a person could fail to get straight a fact even about himself.
Because the establishment of the factualness of a subjective fact pertaining to another person depends entirely on the trustworthiness of that person, you must first, insofar as it is possible, establish the trustworthiness of the person in question.
3. Ideas and the Objects of Ideas
Every idea in the mind is ultimately traceable to a thing, or things, actually existing in a world that is independent of and apart from the mind. An idea is the subjective evocation of an objective fact. Clear ideas, then, are ideas that faithfully reflect the objective order from which they derive. Unclear ideas, conversely, are those that give us a distorted representation of the objective world.
Though the control we have over our ideas is not absolute, it is real. This means that we are not helpless in the face of unclear ideas. To ensure that our ideas are clear, we must vigilantly attend to the relationship between any given idea and its object. If it is a strained relationship, if the connection between the idea and its object is tenuous, then we are dealing with an unclear idea.
It is wrong to suppose that because we know things in the world only through our ideas, it is only our ideas which we really know. Our ideas are the means, not the ends, of our knowledge. They link us to the world. If they are clear ideas, the links are strong. The most efficient way to clarify our ideas is to look through them to the objects they represent.
4. Be Mindful of the Origins of Ideas
We all tend to favor our own ideas, which is natural enough. They are, after all, in a sense our very own babies, the conceptions of our minds. But conception is possible in the thinking subject only because of the subject’s encounter with the world. Our ideas owe their existence, ultimately, to things outside and independent of the mind, to which they refer: objective facts.
Our ideas are clear, and our understanding of them is clear, only to the extent that we keep constant tabs on the things to which they refer. The focus must always be on the originating sources of our ideas in the objective world. We do not really understand our own ideas if we suppose them to be self-generating, that is, not owing their existence to extramental realities.
The more we focus on our ideas in a way that systematically ignores their objective origins, the more unreliable those ideas become. The healthy bonds that bind together the subjective and objective orders are put under great strain, and if we push the process too far, the bonds may break. Then we have effectively divorced ourselves from the objective world. Instead of seeing the world as it is, we see a projected world, one that is not presented to our minds but which is the product of our minds.
When we speak of “establishing a fact,” we do not refer to establishing the existence of an idea in the mind. The idea in the mind, as we have seen, is a subjective fact, but the kind of fact we are concerned with establishing is an objective fact. To do so, we must look beyond our ideas to their sources in the objective world. I establish a fact if I successfully ascertain that there is, for a particular idea I have in mind, a corresponding reality external to my mind. For instance, I have a particular idea in my mind, which I label “cat.” Corresponding to that idea are actually existing things in the extramental world called “cats.” But I could have another idea in my mind, which I label “centaur” but for which no corresponding fact can be found in the extramental world. For all that, the idea of “centaur” is a subjective fact, since it really exists as an idea in my mind.