Saturday, April 21, 2018

Logical Trail To Untruth

When I was a high school senior a few eons ago, I needed to select a science course for my schedule. Biology and physiology were never my thing (then or now); dissecting a frog held minimal attraction for furthering my education. However, I did enjoy chemistry, and was good with math. So I opted for pre-engineering physics, taught by retired athletic coach John Thompson.

Our pre-engineering physics course was built upon posing a problem statement which was then to be “solved” by applying applicable laws of physics combined with deductive (“logical”) reasoning. Work through the step-by-step path, one statement at a time, and it will necessarily lead you to the right answer. For each such problem I was given, I would dutifully walk through the logic trail, confident in my disciplined thinking, and thereby ultimately arrived at the answer. Except that as often or not, it would not be the “right” answer – i.e. Coach Thompson’s answer. Even though my steps were impeccably logical on their face, I would nevertheless often wind up on my own island of reasoning, waving to my classmates faintly visible on Coach Thompson’s distant shores.

What happened to my navigational compass? I finally determined that my “errors” were not in my application of logical thinking, a process that orderly connects one thought to the next in a controlled and disciplined manner. Rather, the problem would inevitably be in the scope of my inputs. I would fail to include the consideration of some causal or relevant factor, or would not include all of the physics laws that were applicable to the problem. Yet working with what was within my scope of view, my conclusion – my answer – was in/of itself perfectly “correct.”

In the immediacy of that high school moment, my primary focus became doing what I needed to do to pass the course. Thanks to the good graces of Coach Thompson, I did manage to get enough right answers a sufficient number of times to get a “B” grade. Unsurprisingly, I did not grow up to be a physicist or an engineer.

It was only years later that I realized the larger significance – and lesson – of this experience. In the comfort of logical conclusion, our personal fear is reduced; our desired surety of the future is similarly assured. Yet there truly is something called “false logic,” which on its face sounds like a contradiction of terms. If we choose to, and especially if we (knowingly or unknowingly) actually have a pre-determined conclusion of where we wish to arrive, we can most certainly create a sensible, logical, beautiful, seemingly inarguable, and elegantly constructed rationale to get us there. We can control that journey simply by limiting the scope of the input factors we select to consider in plotting our journey of thinking. They may be inputs we are aware of but simply deprioritize or turn a blind eye to. Or we may limit our inputs to our existing personal experiences and accumulated beliefs; we make no genuine effort to challenge those beliefs or to gain wider experiences and new information about the subject matter. But by such limiting, we leave ourselves open to arriving at the very false truth we were seeking to avoid in the first place.

By instinct we are prone to be “lazy thinkers,” content in remaining in our own truths and continually utilizing our skills to reaffirm what we already believe. “Logical thinking” is highly prized in Western culture, both for our own decision-making and for judging the decisions of others. But it will only lead us safely through the thickets of the mind if we do our proper homework, do the advance reconnoitering of the breadth of the territory we intend to pass through. It demands that we first search out and accumulate broad and varying information before we map out our step-by-step path to conclusion. And then to hold that conclusion very lightly and skeptically, understanding all too well the potential shortcomings and fallacies that often underlie our supposedly logical reasoning.

Then there are those delicious times when we choose to rest our mind and put it temporarily on the shelf. We discard the logical path altogether because we sense it is not the best path for us after all. The call to the illogical path may not feel the safest and surest, but it can oftentimes be the most interesting, most creative, most instructive one to follow. Those are the times that intuition, our inner voice, and our wisdom sense of “just knowing” jumps us over the logic trail altogether, and forcibly pushes us into that place we simply need to be.

“Don’t believe everything you think.”
-Pema Chödrön, Tibetan Buddhist teacher

©   2018   Randy Bell