5 Reasons You Should Take Logic Your First Year in College
Imagine a single course in college that could help you in almost every other class, and improve your quality of life in general! Sounds overpromising? No, it’s just Logic.
Associate Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science
Houston Baptist University
It’s only logical. You want to succeed in college, then graduate to a successful career and a happy and productive life. You’re smart, so you know you’re not entitled to success simply because you’re you. You have to prove yourself if you want the right doors to open. College admissions gave you a ticket to ride, but success is up to you. You need to plan your work so you can work your plan.
What’s your best play?
You need a tool that will help you do well in every course you take, help you clarify and organize your thoughts about anything and everything, help you see the weaknesses in the ideas and opinions you encounter, help you persuade others of what’s right and true, and help you find your place in the world so you can make your mark.
That tool is logic.
Courses in English composition and speech communication are wise selections, but a course in informal logic and critical thinking is a must in the first semester of your first year.
As Sherlock Holmes would say, “It’s elementary, my dear Watson!”
Why? Well, what is logic, after all? Stated simply, logic is the art and science of thinking clearly and reasoning correctly. That’s it. It’s easy to state and a bit harder to do, but it’s a skill that can be learned and applied to everything in your life.
1. Minding Your Major: Logic is Foundational
Ask yourself, whatever your interests and whatever your major: what does my success require? Hard work, that’s for sure. But you want to “work smart,” not just hard, and you want to really thrive, not just get by. What do you need? You need to grasp the central concepts and methods in your chosen field of study, right? Then use them to understand how questions are addressed, how reasoning proceeds, and how problems are solved in your field. You have to master this material and learn how to adapt and apply it to new situations. But if your foundation isn’t solid, you can’t build on it, let alone have a career in it. So what will help you achieve the kind of mastery that makes for a solid foundation?
Mastery of a subject requires the ability to analyze its concepts, structure, and methods. Logic teaches you to do this by focusing on concepts, judgments, and arguments. The central concepts in any field are given by terms that have definitions. The central claims in that field are judgments about what is true. These judgments are declarative sentences in subject-predicate form and they describe conceptual relationships. The justification of these judgments—the defense of them as true—is achieved through reasoning and evidence expressed in arguments. But keep in mind that an argument, at least in logic, is not a shouting match between angry people! It’s a structured series of reasons (called premises) offered in support of the argument’s conclusion.
Studying logic will help you understand the structure of any discipline you choose to study. It will teach you how to recognize and construct clear definitions. It will teach you how considerations of evidence and argument bear on evaluating truth claims. It will teach you how to recognize whether a deductive argument is valid or invalid by determining whether its conclusion could be false when the reasons given for it (the premises) are true. It will teach you how to judge whether inductive arguments, drawing general conclusions from repeated observations, are weak or strong.
And if you want to ace the LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, or GRE to ensure your admission to law school, business school, medical school, or graduate school, then one tool stands above every other: la-la-la-LOGIC, baby!
Logic is an indispensable tool. Make sure it’s part of your foundation.
2. Making Your Mind: Logic is Organizational
A well-ordered mind is an expression of sanity, a means to empowerment, and the hinge upon which competence swings. Competence, let alone excellence, cannot be attained without reason and the ability to apply it. In an unhinged and incoherent age, having a well-trained mind will set you apart and open doors for you.
Logic helps you comprehend and evaluate everything you read and hear, assimilate information, and bring order and coherence to your beliefs. It trains you to seek conceptual precision and notice when it’s absent. It leads you to ask the right questions to clarify your understanding.
Information comes at you in college like water out of a fire hose. Logic helps you establish appropriate categories of thought that work like a file system in your mind to bring order and connection among the things you need to remember. Having categories and seeing these connections enables you to recognize ideas that belong together, ideas that can be combined, and ideas that can’t go together—what a student of logic would respectively call entailment, consistency, and contradiction.
Finally, let’s not forget that endless list of writing assignments that college brings your way! English composition will help you with mechanics, but the structure and flow of your essays—if they have any—is a product of logical thought. Clear, well-organized writing requires clear thinking. Logic helps your thinking to be clear, organized, and effective, which in turn makes you a compelling writer. If you want what you write to make sense and be taken seriously—and earn a good grade too—your thoughts need logical organization and expression. So what do you need to temper, train, and organize your mind? One thing above all else.
3. Seeing What’s Wrong: Logic is Critical
We live in a relativistic age. I’m not talking about Einstein’s theories here. Einstein’s theories are grounded not only in things that have been observed but also in mathematical descriptions that have been tested against reality. Evaluation of their truth has an objective basis. No, what I’m talking about is the all-too-common belief that truth itself is in the eye of the beholder, that it’s subjective, and that what’s true for me need not be true for you.
Among those who think this way, this doesn’t just apply to genuinely subjective judgments. They don’t think it applies just to considerations of favorite ethnic cuisines, or whether classical music is better than jazz. No, they think that all truth is subjective. So whether absolute moral principles exist, or whether any religion is true, or even whether any logical principles are correct, are all personal judgments in which what is true for one person may be false for another.
This mindset is expressed in a phrase we hear a lot these days. It’s become popular to say that you need to “speak your truth.” Now, if all this means is “tell me how you feel, how you really, really feel,” then talk of “speaking your truth” is just a poor choice of words. But if, as seems more likely, these words assume truth itself is always subjective, so that someone who is “speaking their truth” could never be wrong, then there’s a problem.
Thankfully, there’s a quick way to deal with this problem: ask whether it’s always true that all truth is subjective. If the respondent says yes, then what he says is false, because if it’s always true, there’s no room to disagree, so it’s not a subjective matter. But then not all truths are subjective. On the other hand, if someone tries to be consistent about his belief that all truth is subjective, then his belief is not true for everyone. He’d have to say it’s false for some people. And since these people don’t believe that truth is subjective but he does, they can say he’s wrong, but he can’t say they’re wrong. In fact, he can’t say anybody is wrong about anything they believe, which is absurd. Neither reason nor reality will let anyone get this far astray.
So if you think that all truth is subjective, you’re demonstrably wrong. And what has enabled us to see this?
The structure of valid arguments and the principles on which they are based are not subjective. They are universal truths that do not change. They do not vary by time or place or culture. Of course, the world around us does change, so the application of logic will change, but its principles themselves never have and never will. And because of this, logic enables us to see that some beliefs have to be wrong and it reveals how other beliefs may be criticized. Logic is critical in this dual sense: it is essential for seeing what is wrong and it is a tool for criticizing what is wrong.
Logic helps you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the claims you encounter because it gives you tools to evaluate whether those claims are well-supported or not. Evaluating ideas to judge what’s true seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t approach life this way. There’s no method to their madness. They get blown about by every wind of opinion and all the latest fads because they wouldn’t recognize deficient evidence or a logical fallacy if it bit them. You don’t need to be that person. Not being that person gives you an advantage in life. And what enables you not to be that person?
4. Changing Minds: Logic is Persuasional
We often find ourselves wanting to convince others that a certain course of action is best, or that an issue is best looked at in a certain way. Being an effective persuader is important in your studies, but even more important in life. How do we get other people to see the things that seem so obvious to us, or even more substantially, to change their minds if they see things differently?
The ancient philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) talked about three methods of persuasion: ethos (ethical), pathos (emotional), and logos (logical). Our time in history seems especially dedicated to persuasion through emotional appeals aimed at generating moral outrage. As Aristotle pointed out, though, the logical approach has a distinct advantage over visceral approaches: it relies on truth and is focused on what is distinctive about human beings, namely, our capacity to reason. It’s a research tool for seeing through all the hype and the haze of public discourse in the twenty-first century. And what is the tool for persuasion based on evidence and reason?
A simple logical approach to case-making, especially when there is disagreement, involves three stages: clarification, evaluation, and comparison.
The clarification stage focuses on the issue being examined and the positions taken in response to it. It involves asking a variety of clarifying questions. Clarifying questions are definitional and informational in character.
For example, take the issue of global warming in the context of the science of climate change. Some clarifying questions might be: What factors are known to contribute to the global climate? How is climate data collected and organized? What do those who assert global warming claim and what issues are involved? What positions are taken by the disputants on these issues? Who are the disputants and who do they represent? What do they think is at stake? Are there mediative positions that see truth on more than one side and seek compromise?
Logical skills help you ask good definitional and informational questions.
The evaluation stage focuses on the different views defended and the background for the positions adopted. It involves asking questions and making judgments about evidence, argumentation, and motivation. Evaluative questions are critical in character.
Continuing with our global warming example, we seek evidence, argument, and motivation in order to evaluate. We ask such things as: How much global warming is bad? Would any global warming be good? Why? How is climate data collected and how reliable is it? How are climate models constructed on the basis of the data? How accurate have climate models that employ track records been? For substantially untested models, what is the case for their plausibility? How much have human carbon emissions contributed to global warming? How do we know? Has the global climate historically ever been warmer than current climate models predict it’s going to be? If so, was this bad? What impact would reducing or not reducing human carbon emissions have on the Earth’s climate? On human quality of life in different parts of the world? How do we know? Cui bono, that is, who benefits from the different positions and policy approaches on global warming? What issues of money, power, and reputation are motivationally involved on the different sides? Is indoctrination, propaganda, or fear-mongering playing a role in the dispute? If so, how? Do any of the arguments in the dispute involve logical fallacies? And so on.
Logical skills help you ask good critical questions.
The comparative stage looks at the alternative positions and compares them with respect to the evaluative criteria and standards. It involves asking questions and making judgments about which position has the best case. Comparative questions are decisional in character.
The comparative stage is all about deciding which viewpoint is, on the whole, best supported by evidence and argumentation, even when potentially truth-distorting motivations of money, power, and reputation are taken into account. It’s a question of which position has the best cumulative case for it, that is, the best case after all known relevant factors are weighed and considered. With respect to the global warming issue, the best position will be the one you decide offers the best and most defensible answers to the most important of the evaluative questions.
Logical skills help you make the best decision you can.
Sometimes you wind up changing your own mind in the process of preparing a case to change the minds of others. That’s good. The goal of logical argumentation should be truth, not merely winning the argument. You should follow the evidence where it leads.
But once you’ve made the best decision you can as the result of weighing answers to critical evaluative questions based on a clear understanding of the possible positions, you are logically equipped to persuade others to see things the way that you do on the basis of reason and evidence. And what indispensably illuminates this process for you and for others?
5. Changing the World: Logic is Transformational
All of us want to leave our world a better place than we found it, at least insofar as it is up to us, and our world is changed one mind at a time. Of course, in the modern world especially, it’s possible to reach a large number of minds simultaneously. And if we can do so with logical force, we can do so persuasively on a grand scale. Logic can be transformative.
Chances are you’ve heard of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)—American Founding Father, third President of the United States, picture on the American nickel. You know the guy. He had this to say about the role of logic in a free society:
“In a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of the first importance.”
In other words, the capacity to reason is essential to the maintenance of a free society. For public discourse to make sense, and for the electorate to evaluate political, social, economic, scientific, and humanitarian claims, then adjudicate among the legislative priorities and governmental policies variously advocated by different parties and politicians, everyone who has a vote should have not only the capacity, but the intention, to evaluate evidence and arguments in a logical manner.
We are a rather long way from this ideal in contemporary society. But we do not have to stay this way. There is hope. Our societies could be transformed and our passions informed if we would but apply ourselves to the discipline of logic.
You can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Study logic and persuade others to do so. Make logic one of the first courses you take at college. Then apply its principles to the rest of your courses and for the rest of your life. You can be this person. Being this person gives you an advantage in life and makes you an asset to society. And what enables you to be this person?
After all, it’s only logical.