John Henry Newman On Why We Need Logic

John Henry Newman was talking about his own era, but his thoughts are relevant today:

It were well if none remained boys all their lives; but what is more common than the sight of grown men, talking on political or moral or religious subjects, in that offhand, idle way, which we signify by the word unreal? “That they simply do not know what they are talking about” is the spontaneous silent remark of any man of sense who hears them. Hence such persons have no difficulty in contradicting themselves in successive sentences, without being conscious of it. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1873), xvii.

Learning basic logic is crucial for training in moral, academic, and practical formation. For example, being able to infer what somebody else would find offensive or pleasant takes logic. Similarly, determining contradictions between behavior and ideals takes logic. This is why some of the Pharisees hated Jesus. He applied logic to them in order to point out their hypocrisy. Logic and simply processes of elimination are very important in various service industries and home repairs that very few people my age can do that I remember all adults being able to do when I was younger (case in point: I totally missed a very simple fact when working on my car, the radiator reservoir had water…but the radiator didn’t, but I didn’t check the radiator, I jumped straight to replacing the thermostat, thankfully my uncle solved the problem).

Yet, despite its advantages, logic is not typically a part of the curriculum in most fields. It was not a part of my training in seminary nor was it a part of my undergraduate degree. Logic is not a requirement for my engineering degree either (though you have to learn it intuitively in computer programming, circuits, and mathematics). I learned logic in high school from a rogue English teacher who was not following the curricular guidelines and it has been a study of mine since then. I talked to a logic professor just last year after watching a debate he moderated. We discussed how amazing it is that essentially the same syllogistic rules work for inference in all fields and apparently in all physical space. He said, “That is troubling for me as an atheist. But have you read about Graham Priest’s paraconsistent logic?” This is precisely the trouble. Instead of teaching the thing that works and is supremely useful, we find logic replaced by theoretical substitutes apparently for the rhetorical purpose of making the universe seem less orderly.

I would guess that the inability of many people to follow a basic syllogism, find the hidden premise in an enthymeme, or discover contradictions, fallacies, and necessary truths leaves them in a state of confusion. Being able to determine what merely may or is likely to be true and what must be true is so crucial in our world of data overload.

I suppose the solution is to learn logic yourself (by a textbook or two) and start applying it to your life. Also, teach it to your children. Have classes at church. It’s more important than we realize, which is exactly the problem. We do not even realize we’re flying blind without logic precisely because we no longer use it.

One thought on “John Henry Newman On Why We Need Logic

  1. I don’t want to clog up your comment feed with links, but in view of the fiasco over the last 48 hours at ChristianityToday regarding Margaret Sanger’s views and contraception – thanks for your post on the importance of logic.

    In a source link from the article at CT, a commenter at Red State suggested Sanger’s racism and eugenics had NOTHING (!!!) to do with Planned Parenthood’s current practice. Again, logic is important.

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