"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 27, 2018

Get To The Point–The Dismal Disappearance Of Logic

“Get to the point”, said Herman, irritably.  Ordinarily he had patience,  always willing to assist others to build an argument, justify it, and defend it.  That was his job, but increasingly his efforts failed.  There seemed to be a loosening of intellectual rigor among young people in his profession, a persistent difficulty in making sense, and even a denial of logic and organized thinking; but perhaps he was the one out of synch with a world that preferred to wander through the reeds, knowing they would come out somewhere but not caring exactly where.  ‘Life’s a journey’, they said, ‘not a destination’, but it was always he who felt he had to defend Aristotle, Aquinas, Tertullian, and Bolzano.

One of his colleagues  in the company for which he worked was particularly ‘impressionistic’, a young woman who floated more than most, drifting in and out with whatever current eddied around her.  She preferred to start in media res and work her way out of an issue rather than start at either top or bottom and reach the core – the central point, the essential nature of the point to be proven.

Herman listened attentively at first, hoping that things would be different; that she would see the light, follow it, and shape it into something recognizable, meaningful, and concrete; but each and every time, she began with her reflections on meaning – not the meaning of the point but meaning in general – then described the flora and fauna in the forest, the small animals along the path, and the light filtering through the trees without even suggesting a sense of direction and purpose.

Writing competitive proposals was not exactly Biblical exegesis or literary criticism, but still required organization, clarity, and procedure.  Herman was surprised that it could be so challenging. For each new iteration, however, the young woman was as meandering and purposeless as before.  Although she tried to follow Herman’s suggestions nothing seemed to take.  Each draft was as muddled and indefinite as the one before.  The only difference between the first and the second was that the muddle had been disaggregated.  Instead of being one big jumble, it was now five sections even harder to decipher, even more subjective, vague beyond comprehension, and impossibly prolix.  She had simply multiplied her confusion, added 500 words, and ended up far worse than she had begun.

Her proposal was a grab-bag of references, inferences, and suppositions. It referred to Africa but only indirectly, subjectively, and imprecisely.   In principle, Herman averred,  there is nothing wrong with mounting an a priori subjective argument devised to compel attention with conviction; but another thing altogether to wander through the reeds feeling the pull of the current in one direction, blocked by overgrown vegetation in another, choosing by instinct and hoping for the best.  Especially in his matter-of-fact, practical, simple profession.

At one point the young woman  started from her conclusion and started to work backward towards first principles.  Of course In this manner she could never prove a point but only justify a priori her conclusions; but frustrated and increasingly impatient, Herman let his guard down and considered that she was making progress.  Reverse logic is logic after all. Starting an argument from a well-defined conclusion and following it backward, identifying constraints, ignoring irrelevant intervening variables and justifying those that could not be disregarded, and coming up with a logically concluded position, might be a way of beginning.  It shouldn’t be hard to reverse direction.  Yet the young woman could not keep on course, even one of her own choosing.  Her draft demonstrated neither forward nor reverse logic, and seemed to have no intellectual discipline.  There was no point.   

She was not unintelligent by any means.  She could hold a reasonable conversation about literature, but had always had trouble with allegory, metaphor, and simile and therefore failed her course on the Romantic poets   She had scored well, however, in a seminar on The Black Literary Experience – Maya Angelou, Slave Journals, And Hyperion.  In fact in all her university courses on post-modernism, she had done exceptionally well.  She was at home with the inventiveness of the language, the ironic metaphors, and challenging premises.

 “Isn’t it great”, she said to a fellow student, “You don’t have to make sense, only your own sense”; and that, reflected Herman, was the beginning of the end.  After such an indoctrination into a highly subjective academic discipline which denied meaning and refused to acknowledge insight (‘All texts are equal’), there was little hope for logical exegesis. College had failed her completely.  She graduated with as little intellectual rigor, discipline, and ability as when she matriculated.

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Most students who graduate from Brown or Duke, the epicenters of post-modern deconstructionism, manage to get over it.  It was fun while it lasted, making up words, giving outrageous interpretations to works and judged only by references to race, gender, and ethnicity, but the presumptuousness of dismissing logic in one fell swoop was more than a mature adult could stomach.  Many others, however, like the young woman in question here, product of that limited and politically circumscribed education, simply could not make the elision from academic playgrounds to the nuts-and-bolts of the workplace. 

Herman, for whom the experience of the young woman was neither the first or the last, wondered what other factors could be at play.  Why should so many young people and adults have such difficulty in getting to the point? He considered the influence of social media, the culture of image, the Internet and fake news. It was hard in a media-saturated environment to maintain intellectual rigor, cross-check and verify, and come to logical conclusions.  The environment was not conducive to rational inquiry and in fact corrosive of it.

Primary education was more essential and more of a culprit.  What with teacher performance linked to success in encouraging a more ethical, respectful, and inclusive environment – an emphasis bound to cut into the Three R’s – there was precious little time for the discussion of logical method.  Worse was the presumption of ‘multiple intelligences’, a theory which suggested that coloring well was the intellectual equivalent of mastering number theory.  This too did not satisfy, for there was room even in the worst schools for the particularly gifted to make it to a creditable secondary level and beyond.  This intellectual laziness had to begin at home.  Yet his advisee was not from a dysfunctional inner city family for whom neither education let alone disciplined logic was on their minds.

Hard as it was for him to consider destiny, the poor girl might have been dealt a bad genetic hand or lost the intellectual lottery.  Might it be that her brain synapses were firing, but sparking and arcing without making the right connections?  If this were even partially true, it was a frightening conclusion since so many suffered from the ailment.

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There are those who say that in an age of artificial intelligence, real intelligence has become supernumerary.  Let machines do the heavy intellectual lifting, leaving the rest of us to happily pursue our personal, subjective lives.  There are others who say that the only real purpose of life is spiritual enlightenment, and that establishing a personal relationship with God is the best if not the only way to fulfill that promise.  The rigorous intellectualism and discipline of the Early Church is irrelevant. No one needs to read Aquinas’ proofs of the existence of God since any fool knows He exists.  The disaggregation of ‘divinity’ by the Church Fathers – the Trinity, the human and/or divine nature of Christ, the theological principles of salvation and redemption – are unnecessary in a world of emotive, individual belief.  

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All recent Popes, especially John Paul II have decried this emotionalism and facile belief.  Understanding the nature of God and the nature of belief require both logic and faith.  Fundamentalist cultism is a wayward, false, blind alley to God.  Logic is at the very core of belief.

Of course logic still rules society but in increasingly fewer enclaves.  The development of smart algorithms takes incredible logic and intellectual discipline.  Advances in medicine, genetics, biology, and physics takes the same if not more brainpower and fierce intellectual application than ever before.  Yet, logic remains cottage-bound.  Outside the confines of Silicon Valley and the tech corridors of Boston and Washington, the rest of the country continues to drift among the reeds.

Once persuaded that logic was indeed an internal matter – some people simply were more equipped to reason than others thanks to their genetic configuration – Herman was bound by a moral challenge.  What to do with those, like the young woman, who had no particular intellectual abilities? If there was no way to enable her to think logically or at least to enable her to begin the process of exegesis, was he consigning her to a lesser fate?

He of course, had inadvertently hit upon the essential moral, social, and ethical conundrum of the times.  There was and always will be a human intellectual order – an obvious and fundamental given.  Societies have always been divided not between the haves and the have-nots but the intelligent and the less so. Henry VIII, Shah Jahan, Qin Shi Huang, or Cyrus the Great did not rule vast empires by chance, heredity, or luck; but by intelligence and insight.  Social hierarchies are common in the animal kingdom and no more pronounced than in the human.

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Herman retained his compassion and concern, always felt sorry for those whose hands always seemed to be twos and threes, who would never even imagine a flush.  God never intended equality, but He certainly intended at least a rational belief in his divinity.  Non-believers rely on logic even more than believers for meaning and purpose.  Unassisted by divine guidance, they alone are masters of their fate.  In either case if we bumble about, neither here nor there, we can never hope to make sense out of a complicated existence.

The woman finally got the point and Herman had to admit that nurture, while never trumping nature, could not be dismissed.  His tutelage had indeed helped her sort through her jumble and get to the point; but others would not be so lucky.  They would be consigned to image, form, color, and light at best; and wobbly, wooly thinking at worst.  In their world there would be no point to get, let alone no equipment to discover it.  A drifting, indistinct world, cloudy one day, bright the next.  Without an intellectual compass, there could be no mapping of the terrain, no charting of territory, no longitude.

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