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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

You are the great champion of reason, so I hope you can help me with my puzzle. I try to emulate you by living a life of rationality – thinking things through (including in discussion), reaching logical conclusions, then acting on them with conviction. Yet so often my conclusions turn out to be mistaken, my actions wrong. How can this be?

Bien à vous,

Cher Blaise,

Believe me, I know what you are talking about. Let me say right away that I have never meant to defend reason as infallible. Yet it can fool us into thinking it is. Since this is a point on which people easily become confused, let me explain where I think reason, or speaking more precisely, reasoners, go wrong.

Recall what reasoning involves. There is a claim or belief (a ‘proposition’), and then a reason is given in support of it. My ‘grandstudent’ Aristotle ingeniously implemented a hunch of mine that the essential idea of reason is formal; that is, you can substitute symbols for sentences in any argument, and this will reveal if the argument is logical or not. For example, the intuitively logical inference from ‘All humans are animals’ and ‘All animals are mortal’ to ‘All humans are mortal’ is demonstrated to be logically valid by the following formulation: ‘All A are B, and all B are C; therefore all A are C’.

What could be more certain than that? The imprimatur of formal logic lends an aura of indubitability to argumentation. But here, I think, is precisely where the reasoner will be tempted to overreach, for he or she may transfer the certainty of logic itself to the particular argument at hand. This would itself be a logical error. In the language of the logician, it conflates validity with soundness. In order to be a sound, or simply put, a good argument, an inference must not only be logical, but also have true premises.

Suppose, then, that I constructed another argument on the same formal basis as my first example. Thus: All trees have wings, and all wings are orange, so all trees are orange. That argument is perfectly valid or logical; but of course to accept it as sound on that account ignores the fact that its premises are false. Therefore to allow one’s assurance as regards the argument’s logical validity to seep into one’s opinion about the argument’s conclusion would be a psychological, and indeed logical, mistake.

I remember one occasion – this was 2,400 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was peeling carrots into the washbasin when my wife Xanthippe rebuked me for not peeling them directly into the midden. Her reasoning was impeccable: one step is always easier than three steps, so shaving the skin into the basin, which I then had to empty into the midden and then clean, made no sense. But her first premise was incorrect: it overlooked that my bad back made it much easier in fact for me to scrape off the skins while standing over the basin than while bending over the midden. The moral of this story is that the truly rational person has to be concerned with more than just logic. But this does not at all support the conclusion that reason or even logic is somehow lacking. It only means that the proper meaning and function of logic must be understood within the larger context of reasoning. In practical terms, it means that we must be sure not only of the validity of our logic but also of the value, that is, the truth, of our premises.

Meanwhile, do not neglect attention to logic itself, since of course the full explanation of the seeming paradox you relate is that truth and logic must always work hand in hand. Thus, suppose you were in love with E, but E did not reciprocate. You might be able to tick off all the reasons why E ought to love you: you are attractive, intelligent, kind etc. All of those things could be true about you; so the ‘premises’ of your ‘argument,’ as it were, would be true. But here logic re-enters, for it tells us that your argument must contain the additional premise: ‘If a person has qualities a, b, c, and d, then any person whom s/he loves ought to (not to mention, will) love her/him in return.’ Once revealed, we must now ask: is that premise true? And this time the answer is: surely not! Whatever love is, it is not something that is generated by an algorithm, but arises instead from some (pardon my Gallic) je-ne-sais-quoi combination of physical and behavioral subtleties that can drive your synapses wild. And even if love were algorithmic, all of the relevant terms would surely not conform to some abstract ideal of love, but more likely contain such features as, ‘likes the curve of your buttocks’, and hence be too private or embarrassing for a lover ever to acknowledge, or maybe too outré for her or him even to be aware of.

So, my dear Blaise, the heart may have its reasons that reason knoweth not, but this does not reflect poorly on reason – it just means that sometimes the heart ain’t talking! If a person were fully cognizant of the truth of all relevant premises of a logically valid argument, then the conclusion could be absolutely relied upon, both in opinion-formation and in action. But because we are sunk in a vat of unknowing and uncertainty about the facts (premises) – including analyses (or ‘meta-facts’) about which facts are relevant – it would be irrational indeed to be fully confident in the conclusions of our reasoning. Nevertheless, I know of no better way to live than rationally. I’d be willing to wager that you don’t either.

As ever,


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