Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reason: The Laws of Thought

When we speak about Reason in philosophy we are talking about the laws of thought. The laws of thought have classically been identified as the laws of identity (a is a), non-contradiction (not both a and non-a), and excluded middle (either a or non-a).  These are the basis for any thought, communication, or discussion.  Here I will distinguish Reason from similar terms that might confuse the discussion (which is why I am using a capital R). Then we can discuss how Reason in itself has been identified, how Reason is used, and in what manner we find Reason in us as part of our humanity. Finally we will look at some philosophers who believed they were criticizing Reason and consider if they were successful. 

In order to define “reason” we need to distinguish it from similar terms:

Reasoning: this refers to the process of thinking.  In this sense different people might reason differently, however any given reasoning process can be tested for its validity and soundness.

Reasons: like “reasoning,” this refers to the premises given to support a conclusion in a given thinking process.  Again, differing people can give competing reasons to support their conclusions, but reasons can also be tested for coherence.

Rationalizing: this often refers to self-justification, or the reasons a person gives to justify what they want.  As in the above two cases, this can be examined for coherence.

None of these should be taken to be the same as Reason.  We can define Reason in itself, in how we use it, and in what manner Reason is in us as humans.

I don't believe I have ever permitted a student to use Wikipedia as a source. This is because, as Michael Scott from "The Office" ironically stated it "I love Wikipedia because anyone from anywhere in the world can put up whatever they want so you know you're getting the best information."  However, when I contrasted Wikipedia's entry on the laws of thought with the Encyclopedia Britannica I found Wikipedia to have a superior entry. It can be read here. I'll quote some of it below. 

"The laws of thought are fundamental axiomatic rules upon which rational discourse itself is based. The rules have a long tradition in the history of philosophy and logic. They are laws that guide and underlie everyone's thinking, thoughts, expressions, discussions, etc.

That everything be 'the same with itself and different from another' (law of identity) is the self-evident first principle upon which all symbolic communication systems (languages) are founded, for it governs the use of those symbols (names, words, pictograms, etc.) which denote the various individual concepts within a language, so as to eliminate ambiguity in the conveyance of those concepts between the users of the language. . . .If, for example, the symbol “+” were allowed to denote both the function of addition and some other mathematical function, then we would be unable to evaluate the truth value of a proposition such as, “2+2=4”, for the truth of such a proposition would be contingent upon which of the possible functions the symbol “+” was intended to denote. The same is true of symbols such as '2' and '4', for if these symbols did not denote conventionally prescribed quantities, then one could not attribute proper meaning to them, and the proposition would be rendered unintelligible. . . 

What's more, since we cannot think without that we make use of some form of language (symbolic communication), for thinking entails the manipulation and amalgamation of simpler concepts in order to form more complex ones, and therefore, we must have a means of distinguishing these different concepts. It follows then that the first principle of language (law of identity) is also rightfully called the first principle of thought, and by extension, the first principle reason (rational thought)."

This entry helps us define Reason itself as the three laws of thought. It also begins to help us think about how we use Reason. First, we use Reason to form concepts, judgements, and arguments.  When we think, and put our thoughts into language, we are using one of these forms. Consequently we can call this the formative use of Reason. Second is the critical use of Reason.  We use Reason critically as a test for meaning.  If an apparent judgment violates a law of thought then it has no meaning, and where there is meaning Reason is being used.  Third, the interpretive use of Reason. We use Reason to interpret our experiences. No experiences are meaningful without interpretation, but not every interpretation is coherent. The coherence of an interpretation can be tested by Reason. Finally, the constructive use of Reason. We use Reason to build a coherent world and life view. When a worldview fails the test of Reason it is failing to provide meaning. 

We can also think about Reason as we find it in us. Reason is natural in that it is not cultural or conventional. It is not a product of a given culture or time period. Nor is it required that young humans be formally taught about Reason before they are able to use it. Rather, humans naturally begin developing and using Reason to think and communicate. Reason is also ontological, meaning that it applies to being as well as thought. When we find a contradiction, it indicates an impossibility not only for thought but also for what exists. If a square-circle is a contradiction, then none exist. Next, Reason is transcendental. This means that it is the final authority. It cannot be questioned because it makes questioning possible. To formulate any question or criticism requires using Reason. This kind do criticism is called self-referentially absurd meaning it contradicts itself and is therefore meaningless. Finally, Reason is fundamental. It is basic to other aspects of the human personality like emotions and the will. We use Reason to form our thoughts and beliefs, and these affect what we love/hate and what we do. To focus on either emotion or will to the exclusion of Reason ends in meaninglessness. Reason is the source of our greatest happiness, and its denial is the source of our greatest misery-meaninglessness.  

Having defined Reason in three ways and considered these in some detail we can now turn to potential criticisms. Again, some of these are taken from the Wikipedia entry, others from Encyclopedia Britannica or from the history of philosophy. 

One way of criticing Reason is to say that these laws are insufficient as the laws of thought. We find this criticism in those that add to them. Now, there are laws that govern many areas of life.  However, I'm claiming here that the laws of thought are the most basic. An example is the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz.  He added the principle of sufficient reason and the identity of indiscernibles.  The first says that every effect must have a sufficient cause.  The second says that two things which have identical properties are identical to each other.  However, both of these assume the laws of thought and are therefore not justifiably added to the list as additional laws of thought.  This has nothing to do with whether or not these two principles are true, it is just to say that they are not laws of thought because they presuppose the laws of thought.

Arthur Schopenhauer also added a principle about the need for sufficient reason or grounding to say that a judgement is true.  As in the earlier examples, this principle assumes the laws of thought, like identity, and so while it might be true it is not at the same level as the laws of thought.

Significant confusion about the laws of thought and Reason has been proliferated in the recent history of philosophy due to the attempt to reduce thinking to truth values.  The idea is that language can be reduced to logical form, and logical form aims at telling us if a judgment is either true or false.  However, Reason is first aimed at meaning not truth.  To know if a judgment is true or false we must first know what it means.  By reducing the laws of thought to a test for truth the laws of thought have been understood as saying "either a judgment is true or false."  However, it has been argued that there are other options, such as unknown or meaningless, and then the laws of thought (particularly excluded middle) have been dismissed as insufficient.  Systems of logic have been developed that do not rely on excluded middle or non-contradiction.  Yet by noting that the mistake lies in the false claim "either true or false" we can avoid these misunderstandings.  Furthermore, all systems of logic must presuppose the law of identity in the sense that each term is what it is it, and from the law of identity we get the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle.  That is, if we jettison one we lose all of them and we lose meaning.

George Boole's 1854 book on logic introduced what has come to be called boolean logic and the claim that there are two and only two truth values.  This has become standard in symbolic logic.  Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead attempted to reduce natural language to a logical language in their Principia Mathematica while having this same assumption.  The attempt to deal with language and judgments as primarily true/false, rather than as primarily meaningful/meaningless, has shaped all of the subsequent history.  It would be valuable, but beyond the scope of this post, to look at how this assumption has shaped set theory, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, modal logic, and the incompleteness theorem 

Some systems have rejected the law of excluded middle based on the fact that judgments about the future are not yet known and cannot be assigned a truth value.  Others, like the dialetheists argue that the law of non-contradiction can be rejected in paraconsistent logic.  However, in such cases it must be made clear that actual contradictions are not being identified, and instead the focus is on contraries, subalterns, or judgments that are contradictory but not in the same respect and at the same time.  We must also make a distinction between our knowing the truth of a judgment and the judgment actually being true or false.

What is often happening in the case of logical systems is that formal rules are being stipulated that restrict what kinds of conclusions can be drawn from the available premises.  This is not the same as having shown the laws of thought to be invalid, and it is painfully clear that the rules of such a system assume the laws of thought in that each rule "is what it is".  This kind of maneuvering has reduced logic to "game making" and in so doing can needlessly multiply confusion and give the entire enterprise a bad reputation.

Based on these considerations we can continue to refer to Reason as the laws of thought (Reason in itself), and to distinguish its use (formative, critical, interpretive, constructive) and how it is in us (natural, ontological, transcendental, fundamental).  Philosophy as an academic area is particularly concerned with giving rational justification for beliefs in order to distinguish what we know from mere opinion.