Sunday, February 19, 2006

Pressing on past the breakdowns

Blogging has been light for me the past couple of days. The reasons are work-related (some) and due to my attempting to read a new book. Since reading is one of my lifelong loves, that last statement is a bit of shocker for any who know me. That's going to require a bit of an explanation.

In 1997 I was attending college again. In the last set of classes before getting my degree I was required to take a course titled, "Logic." No real mystery, there: the degree I was seeking was for computer information systems. When I arrived at the class, however, I found that this particular class had nothing to do with programming, circuit design, or anything else attached to the information systems field. This was "Logic" - with a capital 'L' - of the type practiced and refined by the likes of Plato and Socrates. The application of reasoned, rational, and structured thought to a given proposal or argument. I recall very clearly the professor warning us of several items regarding this class.

First, it was going to be difficult. The vast majority of people, he said, make no use of real logic in the bulk of their lives. While they might have common sense and be able to smell a bad argument when they encounter it, actually refuting it with logic is beyond the ability of most people we would run into in our lives. That included the population of our class, he said. What he meant was that many of us in that class would turn out to be unwilling to expend the effort necessary to employ the lessons that would be taught. He made it very clear that he was expecting to lose a third of the class as the quarter progressed. (He was wrong, by the way. We lost slightly more than half by the end, the highest "student mortality rate" I've ever seen in a class I was attending.)

Second, he told us that those of us who finished would be astonished at the poor quality of argumentation that had been surrounding us our whole lives. Family disputes around the dinner table, friendly and not-so-friendly debates at the student union or coffeehouses, and anywhere any discussion of politics was held would illuminate this lack of rational thought process in so much of our conversations.

Finally, he told us that those who completed the class would be unable to actually sit and listen to policitians or political pundits any more without shaking our heads in amazement that anyone bothered to listen to these aforementioned clowns.

He was 100% correct on all counts. I aced that class and it wasn't easy. But it was likely the most valuable class I ever took in college. If I had anything to do with it, I'd make it a required course for every degree in higher education. The lessons learned are difficult to apply, however, in an environment where people are simply unwilling to be rational about the things being discussed. Now, being irrational about religion is to be expected. No one's going to simply prove God's existence - or lack thereof - by debating the issue in front of a whiteboard. You can't make rational assertions about which is better: vanilla or chocolate. That's a matter of taste and personal preference and there's very little logical thought involved in those topics. It almost goes without saying that the matter of love is definitely not in the sphere of logic. It's expected and perfectly OK to not be completely logical about these matters. But about politics and law? There's no wiggle room, there.

All arguments (and by this I mean a proposal submitted for discussion, not a screaming match) consist of premises and conclusions. The premises are statements of fact or previously proven conclusions and conclusions are the points being asserted. Premises are supposed to support their conclusions. The Prime Directive of argumentation and logic is this: If the premises are true and the argument's construction is valid and you intend to be rational, then you must accept the conclusion. That's a very high bar for acceptance, mind you, because if any of the premises used to prove the conclusion are not verifably true, then the argument being pressed is not conclusive and may, therefore, be dismissed. That's not to say what's being alleged is necessarily wrong or untrue, it's just that the argument to the contrary isn't compelling. The allegation is no more than opinion and conjecture. And you know what they say about opinions...

So last week I picked up a copy of the new James Carville / Paul Begala book "Take It Back." The book purports to be a roadmap for Democrats who want to take back the houses of Congress, the White House, the country, the future, and whatever else most of the leftist Democrats are complaining we Republicans have "stolen." I bought the book for the same reason I bought other books by Carville and various left-wing authors: I'm interested in what they have to say. Unlike most of the Democrats I personally know, I take the time and effort to actually listen to and consider the viewpoints of my opponents. Carville might be dead wrong on a lot of what he says - and I have come no where near forgiving his juvenille and ludicrous performance opposite John O'Neill of the Swift Boat Vets in the 2004 campaign - but he's not completely stupid. A lot of people on the left hang on his every word so it's important to know what he's saying. Call it "knowing your enemy" if that makes it easier.

What's not easy is trying to continue reading a book that builds on classically invalid and unproven conclusions beginning on paragraph 8. Without a shred of evidence, Carville and Begala launch right into the tired and useless diatribe of "Bush Lied" and "Bush Stole the 2000 Election." Both of these screeds have been shown to be the unsubstantiated hogwash they are time and time again and yet, right here in a book published in the last couple of months, they make the assertion as though it's graven-in-stone fact. These assertions are used as further premises in proposing further conclusions and calls for action.

Every conclusion or assertion that descends from either of these is equally invalid and equally useless in rational debate. That doesn't stop them. As I mentioned over a year ago, the crowd that buys into this crap knows full well that they have no proof of any of this but they don't care. They don't need proof because they've become so insulated from opposing thought that their echo chamber is all they hear. And when repeated baseless assertion is all they hear, it becomes unnecessary for them to even think about proof. Carville and Begala are just 2 of the higher-profile enablers that keeps the Democrats from engaging in rational thought and discussion. So long as that's true, rational thinkers may continue to dismiss any assertion they make and their reaction to that is what marginalizes them with the majority of voters. (Yes, the majority. Check out the results from the 2004 election.) Their continued reliance on what amounts to calls of "You're a liar! You're a creepy liar!" makes reading their book a real chore. I am attempting to press on, but they're making it a real fight.

I intend to blog on the actual content of the book when I finish it. Under normal circumstances, with a reasonably written book, this would be over in a couple of day. Slogging through this irrational quagmire of a book is going to take longer. Hang in there, folks. I'll make it as soon as I can.