A Conversation Overheard At the Lusty Logician Cafe
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW MAY NOT HURT YOU, BUT WHAT YOU DON'T HEAR JUST MIGHT...
Preface: This post is dedicated to Lada 🏡 Prkic, Milos Djukic, Claire 🐝 Cardwell, and Claire 🐝 Cardwell ― in order, two engineers, an architect, and a scientist ― because they have shown in various ways they value intellectual engagement.
Lada is a kind soul, and so it's not surprising she recently posted a bee-meme that says, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." To which she added (in grammatically correct English) her own words, " If you can’t say anything pleasant or constructive, say nothing at all."
I am personally not at all sure that these two statements mean the same thing. Consequently, I've constructed an alternative which is "If you can't express disagreement politely, keep it to yourself."
Beyond that, I've also wondered at times if the intended meaning of statements such as those quoted above isn't really, "If you can't agree, remain quiet." Consequently, of late, I've adopted a policy of not making critical comments on the posts of others, unless I'm confident they welcome robust intellectual exchange. Instead, I limit my critical consideration of topics to my own posts, which people are free to read or not. It is in that spirit which I present this post.
I recently had occasion to visit an old hang-out of mine, the Lusty Logician Cafe.
The cafe is the paradigm of a university hangout. Located in the townie environs, just outside the periphery of the campus. It's a place where "serious" students and profs gather to drink coffee and Irish ale ― although not generally mixed in the same glass ― and consider among themselves the weightier issues of literature, philosophy, politics, and finding a soul mate, permanent or transient.
It could be on Foster Street in Evanston, IL, nearly adjacent to the Northwestern University Campus; or on Lindell Blvd. in St. Louis, MO, close to Washington University; or on Buffalo Street in Ithaca, NY, abutting Cornell University. Indeed, it could be anywhere, Paris, London, Dublin, Warsaw, Prague, or Zagreb. If you've ever been a student or a university teacher or an artist or a writer, you know the place. Even if it has a different name.
The Lusty Logician is where, at one time, I used to go regularly, to recharge, relax, people-watch and even write. It remains today as it was forty years ago, the decor eclectic and mostly darker woods, the patrons ranging from scruffy to shabby-chic. Except, perhaps, these days there are more tattoos and, of course, the ubiquitous laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
As I enter and grab a small table next to an electrical outlet, all sorts of pleasant memories dump endorphins into my bloodstream. The cafe is comfortable territory for me, even though probably not one of its habitues knows a forestays'l from foreplay.
Sitting at the next table over from me, are three "younger" people, one man and two women. All appear to be of graduate-student age.
The man catches my eye first because he is wearing what appears to be an Australian Outback style hat. At once, I mentally dub him "Dundee". One of the women is wearing some sort of running outfit that looks well used. I immediately think of her as "Sweats". And the other woman is wearing a long granny-length smock kind of shift that looks like a redux of something from the 70s. And although she looks nothing like a granny, it moves me to call her "Mother Earth".
They all glance at me and smile approvingly, as I set up the current love of my business-travel life, my relatively new MS Surface (full Windows 10 machine) with its Logitech Bluetooth full-size keyboard and mouse (all of which fit into a slim zippered portfolio I carry).
I settle in to drink my coffee and eat my "brunch" croissant, and to do some writing, as they return to their conversation. Then, I cannot help but overhear ...
Mother Earth: That's circular! Completely invalid.
Sweats: What do you mean "circular"? He's just stating the facts, isn't he?
Dundee: Yea, circular schmircular, I'm telling you like it is. The only reason you're disagreeing with me is that you're in one of your judgmental fits.
I'm instantaneously hooked ... as I haven't heard this kind of exchange ― earnest and engaged ― for ever so long.
Mother Earth: It's circular because the truth of your premises relies on your conclusion, while the truth of your conclusion obviously relies on the truth of your premises.
Dundee: Really, really? Well, thank you for that Ms. Descartes. But that doesn't change the fact I know what I'm talking about. Let me explain it to ...
Sweats: Wait! First explain in plain language, for the benefit of this ignorant refugee from the School of Business, what this "circular reasoning" schtick is all about.
Mother Earth: Okay. Think about it this way. You're an Excel power-user, right?
Sweats: Correct, I am.
Mother Earth: Okay, then you know what a "circular reference" error is, right? When your spreadsheet contains a cell, say A32, whose value depends at least in part on the value of another cell, say D15. But suppose, as well, that you've slipped up in building the structure of your spreadsheet, and it turns out that the value of D15 itself depends on the value of A32. In such a case, the automatic error checking in Excel will return a "circular reference" error.
That kind of circularity also occurs in reasoning and argument ― except the "cells" are premises and conclusions. It's like trying to lift yourself off the ground by hauling on your own boot straps. Which is why it is an error in Excel and a "fallacy" in logic. Does that make sense?
Of course, at this point, I'm really starting to enjoy eavesdropping on this logical menage a trois ...
Sweats: Well, sure it does. After all, it isn't brain surgery.
Dundee: Okay, maybe that makes sense. But it doesn't address your marked propensity to be argumentative and judgmental.
Mother Earth: Argumentative, I think I understand. And I admit to wanting to discuss and examine ideas and opinions and actions and positions in a deliberate way. I think that, to a large extent, that is what intellectual exchange is all about.
But what do you mean by "judgmental"? We're all judgmental almost all of the time. We judge what's best for us to buy and wear and eat. We judge what make of automobile we want to drive, which movies are good and which are crap, what is fact and what is fiction.
Dundee: I mean by "judge" to form a firm opinion or draw a substantive conclusion solely within the context of your own subjectivity. By "being judgmental", I mean exhibiting the tendency to dismiss and disparage the ideas and opinions of others.
Mother Earth: Hmmm, do you realize how riddled with logical holes these two statements of yours are?
First, to question someone's expressed ideas, opinions or claims is not per se to be subjective. Otherwise, all science is inherently and incorrigibly subjective.
Second, even if I accept your definition of being "judgmental", it does not follow that I am judgmental simply because I disagree with you. Disagreeing with an idea, opinion, or claim is not the same as dismissing or disparaging it
By now I am saying to myself, "You go, girl!"
Dundee: See, you just proved my point by being judgmental and disparaging my "logic". And that ― in case you don't know any brain physiology ― generates hostility which, by activating the amygdala, suppresses the pre-frontal cortex (where reasoning is centered) and interferes with a reasonable exchange.
Sweats: Hey, didn't you just disparage what she is saying by your crack about knowing brain physiology? And aren't you potentially generating hostility by cracking wise like that? I may not be a logician or a brain surgeon, but it seems to me that what your saying about the amygdala might be just a tad autobiographical.
Mother Earth: She's right. Let's suppose for the sake of discussion ― or, if you prefer, dialogue ― that your description of what happens physiologically in the presence of hostility is dead on for some cases. How do you know that is what is presently transpiring in my brain?
Dundee: I can tell by the way you're behaving.
Mother Earth: And how is that?
Dundee: You're disagreeing and arguing with me, rather than joining in a non-judgmental dialogue. It's what you always do, you question and disagree.
"Uh-oh, don't fall for that sophist's gambit, girl", I think to myself. And she doesn't.
Mother Earth: Now we're getting to the heart of the matter, Graham. You say I am being judgmental (read not agreeing with you) because my brain is reacting in certain ways. And you claim my brain is reacting in certain ways based on your observation that I am not agreeing with you. Yet, you have no independent evidence either that my brain is in a certain state or that my reactions are tied to that brain state. Which makes your argument circular ... and fallacious.
Moreover, that circularity is not changed by any accumulated evidence concerning a connection between the action of the amygdala and the suppression of reasoning in any number of brains previously studied.
What if my disagreement is just that, disagreement and not hostility or the result of being "judgmental"? What if that disagreement is just, plain and simple, a judgment? Much as in the case when you might say your shirt is black and I might say (judge), "No, it is Flag Blue."
Why are you so quick to use the term "judgmental", with the pejorative connotations you want to attach to it? From my perspective, you define "judgmental" a priori in terms of behavior you don't like ― which I observe to be disagreement, per se, with your opinions. Could your aversion to disagreement and your propensity to call the opinions of others judgmental be the runaway reaction of your own amygdala, triggered by a lack of agreement with your views?
At which point, I could no longer discretely contain myself and began to clap slowly.
Dundee shot me a killer glare, while Mother Earth smiled and Sweats just laughed.
Dundee stood, took Sweats' hand, and said, "Well, that's all I'm going to say about this; we're outta here."
Sweats in turn shrugged, stood up, and said to Mother Earth, "He can be a bit petulant at times, especially when you disagree with him. I'll call you later in the week, and the two of us can meet for coffee or a drink."
As Mother Earth rose to leave, she smiled at me and I said, "Sorry to have intruded, I used to teach logic, and I thought you really did a great job in dealing with the concepts involved."
She replied, "Thank you, that's kind of you to say. And don't worry about the rest; Graham can be such a wanker at times anyway."
I asked, "Can I buy you a 'philosophical' coffee or an ale, perhaps?"
She said, "Thank you, but no. I don't usually with strangers."
I said, "You know, I'm really harmless, probably old enough to be your grandfather."
She smiled again and quipped, "Well, you don't look so harmless to me."
Which naturally, I took as a rather charming compliment and said, "Well, thank you for that, and for the entertaining discourse on logic and reasoning. Cheers!"
And as she left, I ordered another drink ... this time, an Irish ale.
― Phil Friedman
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn different hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I'm also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.
In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.
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