Hard Thinking: The Reintroduction of Logic to Everyday Life

by John Mullen


"I need new thoughts.” —James L. Brooks in As Good as It Gets



Intelligence, writes John Mullen, should not be confused with reasoning ability. Many intelligent thinkers produce terrible reasoning, which Mullen calls soft thinking.


In addition, many, if not most, individuals do not know how to reason well and they do not know they do not know how to reason well. They listen unquestioningly as specious experts tell them how to entertain themselves, run the planet or improve their health. Hard thinking, by contrast, requires training, practice and will power


Mullen argues that all areas of human thought and activity are open to reasoned judgments. We should not trust important opinions, attitudes and feelings that cannot be supported with good reasoning. Letting others make decisions for us is a disgrace, an enemy of personal freedom. Hard thinking matters for flourishing individuals. The absence of good reasoning, he claims, poses the greatest threat to vibrant democracy and civilization itself.


Mullen calls naive pragmatism--believing what one wants to believe regardless of the evidence--a threat to reasoning. Naive pragmatists fit into at least two categories: Conscious and unconscious. Conscious naive pragmatists (for example, the Nixon administration) are aware of their lies, but do not care because the truth would hurt feelings or damage causes they care about. Unconscious naive pragmatists (members of ascetic cults) obliviously believe things that make them feel good.


Depending on the individual, anxiety (cognitive dissonance) arises when evidence contradicts a belief. We choose to face the facts or we believe claims at odds with the facts. The more we make a habit of ignoring or mis-weighing evidence, the less likely or severe cognitive dissonance becomes. The pleasures of soft thinking then grow, but at the cost of the truth. We should make a habit of being consciously aware of cognitive dissonance.


Hard Thinking should have made greater mention of the role of social pressure in anxiety and the many ways humans respond to anxiety. Many times we think we are facing facts when in reality we are responding to unconscious or barely conscious social pressures. We can deal with cognitive dissonance by: (1) Changing beliefs, actions, or both for the better; (2) changing beliefs, actions, or both for the worse; (3) deciding that the issues and contradictions involved are trivial (trivialization); (4) engaging in other practices to boost self-esteem; (5) pursuing distractions; (6) creating a semi self-lobotomy so contradictions are hardly noticed or not noticed. Note: Anxiety can also arise when no real contradiction in a particular case exists. (Our intuitive contradiction sensor is often mistaken.) For example, if someone says pro-life and pro-death penalty or pro-choice and anti-death penalty beliefs are contradictory (and perhaps calls you a hypocrite), you may feel anxiety, but you can relieve the anxiety by recognizing that no contradiction exists (unless one believes that the right to life is an absolute rule for all humans and fetuses). Abortion and the death penalty are separate issues. Likewise, if someone calls you a hypocrite for supporting bridge building in city X but not city Y, there is no contradiction if cost-benefit analysis suggests bridges in city X will be beneficial but harmful in city Y.


Distinguishing facts from truths: Mullen defines a fact as a claim having the support of a well-reasoned argument. In Mullen's correspondence theory of truth, a true claim adequately describes the world. The truth about a specific situation does not change, but facts can be proved false by stronger arguments. The death of Robert Kennedy is currently a fact. But if he were to turn up tommorrow, it would no longer be a fact. No matter how well-reasoned our argument, we can never be 100 percent sure a fact in an inductive argument is indeed the truth, but we can often support a conclusion with high enough probability to act with confidence. (Unfortunately, humans often exaggerate the amount of uncertainty in things we do not want to do or believe and underestimate the amount of uncertainty in things we want to do or believe. Moral nihilists, for example, believe there is little or no such thing as moral knowledge--a moral belief about moral beliefs they remain surprisingly certain about.)


Whether we prove a conclusion, does not depend on who creates the argument. It does not depend popularity. Nor does not depend on how persuasive the argument is. Logic is the only path facts finding facts and the truth. Improving the accuracy of our worldviews is a constant process. Ideally, the things that matter most should be magnified in our minds with searing importance. Claims that lack the support of good arguments are, Mullen notes, opinions.


The metaphor that compares beliefs to buildings with foundations is mistaken. A belief system, writes Mullen, is akin to a circular rope made up of many strands. Some beliefs can be removed easily. Others in the core are tightly held. Uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity are often uncomfortable. Humans psychologically prefer highly certain beliefs and beliefs provided by “privileged, foundational sources.”


Believing claims simply because they reside in a foundational source is wrong, however, because the claims contradict other claims within the source and contradict other foundational sources. The claims are often too vague and many contradict well-supported facts. A belief “based on faith” is fanatically held and fanatical beliefs create horrific consequences. We must require adequate evidence before believing anything important.


Likewise, we should not believe a claim merely because some scientist said it. No claim should be given extra weight merely because someone calls it “scientific.” When it comes to reasoning, there are no authorities, only experts whose arguments should be weighed carefully. (Someone once said: To space aliens, human submission to misguided authority would look little different from animal submission.)


Nevertheless, reason remains unpopular. Perhaps because:

·        Reasoning takes effort. Reading is most fun when you flow with the author's words. Reasoning introduces stoppages, second thoughts and the need to think up additional reasons, better reasons, and counterarguments.

·        Powerful individuals are anti-reason. Good reasoning contradicts their causes.

·        Reason is not a major part of curriculums. The less we expose individuals to something, the less likely it will be popular.

·        Reasoning causes anxiety.

All of the above, however, are terrible reasons for not reasoning.


The fact-value distinction, writes Mullen, does not exist. Claims should be divided into value claims and empirical claims. Value claims state which things are “good, bad, better, worse” and so on. Empirical claims state how things are, were, will be, and so on. Both value claims and empirical claims can be proven, unproven, factual, unfactual, true or false. Anyone who says a value claim can never be a fact is wrong. The value claim that individuals should not drink a gallons of used motor oil is an easy to prove fact while the empirical claim that a planet in the Andromeda galaxy contains aardvarks performing tunes from The Sound of Music is an unproven opinion. Mullen proves value judgments are often not matters of tastes, feelings or cultures. Cynicism about ethics because evil individuals use moral language does not make moral language suspect any more than the new-age guru use of physics language makes physics suspect. Mullen also points out that scientists constantly make value judgments. Because we do not know all the moral answers does not mean we can not know some moral answers. No one says to the physical scientist, "You do not know the mass of every star in the universe. Therefore, you can not know the mass of any stars." It is time people stopped pretending good values cannot exist. Or, conversely, that good values are easy, automatic or self-evident.


All moral beings should be open to well-reasoned criticism. “What the heck right does she have to tell me that? Screw her,” is not the response of a hard thinker. If we are overly concerned with criticism and hurt feelings, avoiding well-reasoned advice, we will reach atrocious conclusions. Well-reason criticism treats individuals as full humans. Evasion of important matters or dishonest praise harms and condescends. Reasoning, however, should also not be used merely to point out flaws in other's arguments, but to find and build up the best aguments.


Hard Thinking clearly and concisely summarizes logical fallacies, the use of definitions, the flaws of relativism and misplaced tolerance. Tolerance has its limits. By itself, tolerance does not make us good. Corpses are tolerant. How much good do corpses do? The organization and choice of fallacy categories in Mullen’s work is concise, nonredundant, and easy to understand--better than other logic textbooks. Considerable space is put to good use explaining errors in probabilistic and causal reasoning. The coverage of the philosophy of language is outstanding. This is the sort of clarity and expert work that develops from years teaching a subject. Careful thought went into almost all sentences. It is rare to see a book relentlessly nailing the subject.


This work should have more examples and nonexamples. Hard Thinking claims that whether socialism or capitalism is fairer has not been resolved. I think it has been resolved.


Mullen mentions the Hawthorne effect: Bad ideas sometimes cause improvements because of the interest and attention offered. There might also be a negative Hawthorne effect: Good ideas often fail because those who implement them have no interest in them or are opposed to them.


Those serious about thinking should read this book. Hard Thinking is a better alternative to vacuous and verbose “critical thinking” books. Critical thinking often serves merely as a catch phrase that does not challenge stinkin’ thinkin’. Hard thinking is a subject that can be rigorously studied. For a couple dozen bucks, this is a better education than many get after eight years of college and a hundred thousand dollars in direct costs, and thousands more in opportunity losses. Those looking for paper television should look somewhere else. Highly recommended. Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 10, 2009.


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