The Art of Logic — Eugenia Cheng

Like you, I try to think carefully and express my points of view clearly, with meticulous steps of reasoning combining seamlessly to form watertight, irrefutable arguments. And yet people still argue with me and fail to be convinced. How can this be so? This book explains how logic works in theory, how it fails in the real world, and how to fix it.

The first part of the book focuses on the Logic in the art of logic. It lays out the basic rules of logic and logical inference, as you would expect from the title. This is the kind of logic that is OK in a textbook but doesn’t adequately apply to real life: try to use formal logical arguments and people will accuse you of being pedantic, even though you’re just trying to be precise. Cheng says that precision is good when it is illuminating; but sometimes it doesn’t add value, and that’s when it crosses the line into pedantry. That’s a great definition because it explains why one person’s precision is another person’s pedantry: it depends on how much precision they are seeking and how much ambiguity they can tolerate.

The rest of the book brings in the Art. It answers a burning question for many logically-minded people: if my logical arguments are so clearly correct, why do people still argue with me? Emotion and psychology are at least as important as logic when trying to communicate with other people and convince them. For me, this is the best part of the book as it really explains why so many issues remain controversial as people on both sides of the debate think their view is obviously right.

First, people often get into passionate arguments even when their positions are actually consistent with one another: in other words, they are in “violent agreement”. This can happen when they subconsciously view the argument as a zero-sum game: since I am right, then the other person must be wrong. But it many cases, both sides are right: they are simply arguing slightly different points. I see this literally every day, from big controversies reported in the media to small-scale family arguments.

But when people are in genuine disagreement, it is very helpful to analyse their positions and find out what the root of the disagreement is. At least that can clarify things. Taking abortion as a very controversial example, there are many standard arguments on both sides: sacredness of life versus women’s rights, for example. But I feel that this kind of talk is unhelpful because it convinces no-one. Of course it’s obvious that a fully-fledged human life should be protected, and it’s also obvious that people should have sovereignty over their own bodies. People harp on over those arguments, as if one of them could be decisive. But we can’t really evaluate those arguments before determining at what point the foetus stops being a part of the mother’s body and starts becoming an independent life. That’s a difficult grey area. Ignoring it with “life is sacred — end of story” or “women’s rights — it’s as simple as that” is just a waste of time.

Cheng points out that phrases like “it’s as simple as that” and “end of story” are often used to cover a lack of thought and analysis. The correct response is the panto classic: “Oh, no it isn’t”. If it really were as simple at that then there wouldn’t be so much disagreement about it!

So this is an excellent book in two parts: an introduction to the rules of logic and a description of how they apply to the real world. Both parts are good but for me, the second part is a gem. Arguing for the sake of it can be fun. But The Art of Logic can help you understand exactly where the disagreement comes from; then you can identify the things that you do agree on. From there, the argument could actually lead somewhere constructive.

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