On arguments and conclusions

The former is of greater import

On the social media one sees with amazing frequency, and always with a cringe, ‘proofs’ for the existence of God such as the word Allah ‘written’ in a cloud or on toasted bread; or a mosque left standing when everything around it perished in a natural disaster. In discussions with friends and acquaintances, I have often had an uncontrollable urge to tell the person I am interacting with that while I could not concur more with his conclusion, the argument that helps him reach that conclusion is appalling, and that I would not like to be found dead subscribing to it. Depending on the situation, with the very elderly for example, it takes a lot of tact to be able to convey the gist without appearing haughty and impolite.

When something gets said and a man knows better, it is vitally important for him to speak up. Especially on the important issues, it is incumbent on him to set the record straight, unless the other person is one of those who have rendered it absolutely beyond doubt that they are incapable of being reasonable. Such individuals are best left alone. As a rule, however; within the ambit of his influence and authority; and being as careful in his words and tone as humanly possible, it is a man’s duty to confront falsehood with truth, unreason with reason, and ignorance with wisdom.

A common pitfall that proves to be impossible to avoid for most mortals is that they are willing to accept substandard arguments as long as the conclusions suit them. They do not realize the harm of the weakness to call a spade a spade when momentarily it is convenient to stay silent. Apart from the obvious moral implications involved, the practical damage of this compromise is twofold.

One: the ‘victory’ is shallow, for a conclusion that is reached by a silly argument can as easily be dismissed by an equally silly argument.

Two: if one is not careful about the quality of one’s arguments, one cannot help ending up subscribing to a world view the various parts of which make a certain kind of sense (to him, if not to anybody else) but which do not fit together to form a coherent whole. Conclusions based on sound arguments fit facts like a wall-to-all carpet fits a room. Anything wrong with an argument regarding one sphere of life of necessity affects a man’s world view in totality the way of an incorrectly cut carpet made to fit one or two sides of the room, only to leave a gap on the other sides or a bulge somewhere.

It is easy to ‘solve’ isolated problems on a case-by-case basis, so that separately each conclusion may even sound reasonable. But as a philosophy the whole framework is bound to collapse sooner or later owing to its inherent contradictions, for the coherence that comes out of a sound logic and argument is just not there. Any world view worth its salt must, in the very least, be a coherent framework.

For these reasons, arguments are even more important than the conclusions they lead to. For it is entirely possible (in fact it is very common) for an individual to reach the correct outcome based on a faulty argument: by chance, owing to multiple errors cancelling each other out, or due to an incorrect premise. To be continually mindful of the quality of one’s arguments is crucial because this consciousness helps one to improve (or replace) one’s argument when one realizes its deficiency or error. A focus on conclusions on the other hand leaves little motivation to critically review one’s arguments, especially when those conclusions are convenient and/or psychologically soothing.

Chance and partial agreements with somebody do not amount to anything, if the overall frameworks are poles apart. Consider this: I am a monotheist (so are the Jews); I do not believe in the ‘return’ of Hazrat Isa AS (Sir Syed Ahmad Khan believes the same); I believe in the centrality of the Quran in Islam (Ghulam Ahmad Perwez claims the same); Heck, I am sure I agree with one or two things believed by Deepak Chopra too! But I could not be more distant from the Jews, Khan, Perwez or Chopra – no disrespect to any of them – when it comes to their world views, none of which I would touch with a barge pole.

There are two broad categories of men: those who are more focused on the quality of their arguments and those who are concerned more about the conclusions their arguments lead to. I find myself to be in much greater sympathy with the former even if I do not agree with their conclusions, for at least it is meaningful to have a conversation with them. As for the latter, it is no fun whatever to be in agreement with them on any given issue. Some of them, by their own admission, are great ones for the ‘heart’ as opposed to the mind, justifying their attitude on the premise that reasoning can be faulty, and therefore can lead one stray. Their solution to the problem: instead of reasoning, trust the feelings. They do not realize that while their premise (reasoning can be faulty) is correct, their argument leaves much to be desired. For how can one know if one’s reasoning has gone awry, except by more reasoning? When an argument is presented, it is reason that will settle the issue of its validity/invalidity. If, on the other hand, feelings are the basis of a philosophy, there is no way to settle the issue one way or the other except the judge’s mood and feelings. Could anything be more arbitrary than that!

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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