Critical Thinking Note 12: Logic Instruction at BC


Logic used to be a fairly popular course on this campus. We would routinely offer four or five sections every quarter. But since the recent changes to the reasoning requirement in the DTA, very few students are taking logic. Five years ago 174 BC students were enrolled in logic in Fall Quarter. This fall only 22 students are studying logic. That is a stunning 87% drop in the number of students studying logic at Bellevue College. As many of you know, philosophers across the state made a huge and ultimately successful effort to keep logic in the scope of the state’s reasoning requirement. Logic picked up a MATH 098 pre-requisite and we expected this to have an adverse effect on enrollment. But we really didn’t expect things to go this badly. This is a real travesty in an educational system where students rarely have an opportunity to cultivate deductive reasoning skills outside of math classes.

As things stand, students get over a decade of instruction in formal reasoning with numbers and they all too often fall short while they get practically no instruction in formal reasoning more generally. If we were to begin with fundamentals, every student would get dedicated instruction in logic beginning in middle school well before attempting to advance through algebra. If we did this, there would be a good deal more appreciation for the significance of deductive reasoning beyond the realm of math. But even given the sorry situation we are in, I still think we can do better at BC, with or without a state-imposed math pre-requisite. Part of our strategy in the philosophy department is to offer faculty across campus an opportunity to get acquainted or re-acquainted with the pleasures of a good proof.

Those who have studied logic can attest to its transformative power. For many people including myself and lots of former students, symbolic logic has been the course that made everything else makes sense. Students who have succeeded in logic no long seek knowledge and understanding from individual sentences and phrases, but instead appreciate the complex connections between ideas we can only relate over the course of paragraphs and pages. This is the sort of practical critical thinking ability employers want from college graduates. I hope there is some way we can figure out how to teach more of it at BC. For now, in the absence of full sections, we are eager to share with colleagues what we do in logic classes.

Russ Payne

September 29, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 11: Logic


Logic has taken a real hit at BC since the recent changes to the Direct Transfer Agreement. But we just might manage to run two sections of it this fall. We will need some more students though. There are plenty of seats in both the 9:30 and the 11:30 section. In case you know any students who might like to have a better idea what they’d be getting into in a logic class, please pass this note along:

Logic is the science of what follows from what. For instance, if Jose and Mary went to the movies, it follows that Jose went to the movies. Or, if all dogs are K9s and Fido is dog, then it follows that Fido is a K9. In both of these simple arguments, a conclusion is drawn that has to be true if the premises are true. That’s what it is for one thing to follow from another. Just about everybody easily recognizes a handful or so of relatively simple reasoning patterns where one thing follows from some others. But without some training, most of us quickly get lost when things get a bit more complicated. Consider this argument from Patrick Hurley’s logic text:

If quotas are imposed on textile imports only if jobs are not lost, then the domestic textile industry will modernize only if the domestic textile industry is not destroyed. If quotas are imposed on textile imports, the domestic textile industry will modernize. The domestic textile industry will modernize only if jobs are not lost. Therefore, if quotas are imposed on textile imports, the domestic textile industry will not be destroyed.

The last claim in this argument does follow from the prior claims, but without some training in logic, you might have a hard time seeing this. The goal of PHIL& 120 is to build on the foundation of simple reasoning patterns we already get and to learn a variety of techniques for better appreciating when one thing follows from others (or fails to) in more complicated or subtle lines of reasoning.

Logic is a powerful tool for making sense out of math, science, philosophy and much more. Its the class that makes everything else in college make sense. This, at any rate, is what logic instructors have heard from countless former logic students. The logical systems and techniques we now teach in PHIL& 120 are based on advances made just over a century ago in an effort to show that all of mathematics is just an extension of logic. Logic is the central kernel of mathematical reasoning and studying logic gives you a chance to focus on mastering the central kernel of deductive reasoning without the overwhelming barrage of special symbols, theorems and specific algebraic applications. You will encounter a few symbols, 8 to be exact. But these will be used to represent simple everyday notions like “and”, “or” and “all”.

PHIL&120, Introduction to Logic is offered every quarter at BC. BC’s primary logic instructor, Mark Storey, has authored an open source e-text that is available to students for free, so there is no textbook to purchase. PHIL&120 fulfills the Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning requirement for Direct Transfer degrees. It can also be used as a non-lab science course for the Associates in Arts and Sciences transfer degree. Your specific educational goals might have competing requirements, so be sure to consult with your BC academic adviser. But whatever your educational goals, you might find logic to be a valuable step towards these even if you take the course as an elective. Passing MATH 098 with a C or better is now a pre-requisite for PHIL& 120.

Russ Payne

September 16, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 10: Greg Damico on Moral Realism


This time we bring you a dialogue on moral realism authored by our newest philosopher Greg Damico (you might recall Greg as the BC philosopher who recently won the national Rockerfeller prize).

MANNY:  Perhaps today, Bert, I can convince you of my moral realism.

BERT:  I am quite convinced that you are a moral realist, Manny.  But I suppose that what you hope to convince me of is the truth of moral realism itself.

MANNY:  Yes, indeed.

BERT:  Remind me what you mean by the term.

MANNY:  I suppose really there are two things I mean by ‘moral realism’.  Just as with any kinds of statements, one might ask, first, what they mean, and, second, whether they are true.

BERT:  The answer to the second depending, I suppose, on the answer to the first.

MANNY:  Naturally.

BERT:  Fine.  So the realist gives a particular answer to these two questions.

MANNY:  Yes.  Our answer to the first question is that a statement like ‘Louis is good’ is much like ‘Louis is intelligent’.  When a speaker sincerely asserts ‘Louis is intelligent’, we take him to be attempting to express some objective fact about the world, viz. the fact of Louis’s intelligence.  In just the same way, moral realists hold that when a speaker sincerely asserts ‘Louis is good’, that speaker is attempting to express another objective fact about the world, viz. the fact of Louis’s goodness.

BERT:  I think I’m already getting off the bus.  But tell me the realist answer to the second question as well.

MANNY:  The answer to the second question is that many of our moral claims are in fact true.  That is, not only are we attempting to express these distinctively moral facts when we use the associated moral language, but in fact we are also succeeding in that attempt.

BERT:  I see.  That seems like a minimal step to take, given the realist’s answer to the first question.

MANNY:  How do you mean that?

BERT:  I just mean that it would be strange for someone to think that moral claims purport to express objective facts, but then to turn around and say that they’re all false!

MANNY:  Well, you’d just have to think—and this shouldn’t sound weird to you at all—that there aren’t, after all, any objective moral facts.  I find it in fact an interesting and worthy view.  My friend Mack has this view, and he’s had some followers.  I’m sure he would agree with you that his view is queer insofar as it proposes that we are all systematically in error about the moral claims we assert.

BERT:  But according to him, the error is not a matter of being confused about the meaning of what we’re saying.

MANNY:  That’s right.  We err only insofar as we think that the claims we make are true.  As I say, he would acknowledge, I think, some queerness in this feature of his view; but he thinks it’s far queerer to suppose that there really are moral facts that could ground the truth of those claims.

BERT:  Yes, well I suppose I’m on board with him there.

MANNY:  I’ve personally never felt any intellectual discomfort on this point.  Perhaps you could try to explain the source of your own discomfort?

BERT:  I’ve thought a bit about this.  It’s always better to have arguments for one’s views than to have only brute intuitions.

MANNY:  We can certainly agree on that.

BERT:  If nothing else!  I guess I think I have two reasons for my disbelief in moral facts.

MANNY:  I’m all ears.

BERT:  First of all, these alleged facts—or at least our relation to them—would have to be quite different from the more familiar sorts of facts, like scientific facts, for example, or even simple observational facts.

MANNY:  Can you say a bit more about that?

BERT:  Yes.  Well, let’s go back to your own example.  I’m happy to admit some objective fact of Louis’s intelligence largely because it admits of a very public and obvious verification.  Or take something even simpler like:  ‘Louis is wearing a brown and blue shirt.’  The truth of this, if and when it is true, just smacks us in the face.  All we have to do is to look and see whether Louis is indeed wearing a brown and blue shirt.  And, if he is, we could show anyone who denies it to be wrong simply by pointing to Louis’s shirt.  There would seem to be nothing at all analogous to this in the case of your alleged moral facts.  To what shall I point to prove Hitler’s evil or to prove the justice of an equal distribution of goods?

MANNY:  I think that is indeed a worthy challenge, and I shall try to respond to it in due course.  But what’s your second reason for skepticism about moral facts?

BERT:  The second one dovetails rather nicely with the first, or so it seems to me.  The fact that there are no obvious things to point to in order to prove moral facts makes possible a very large amount of disagreement about morality.  And the vast disagreement, I suggest, is good reason to think that there is no truth of the matter.  There is never any serious disagreement over the color of someone’s shirt.  But disagreement over the legitimacy of, say, the death penalty, is massive.  And anyway, I am very reluctant to judge other people or other cultures, located, as they are, in different places and in different times.

MANNY:  I’d like to respond to this second reason, first, if that’s okay.  I find it a little bit easier to address.

BERT:  Sure.

MANNY:  First of all, there is nothing wrong with being slow to judge other people.  But note that we may judge others’ actions without judging the others themselves.  Good people, do, after all, sometimes do bad things.

BERT:  That’s an interesting point.  So I could, for example, hold that it was wrong for American Southerners in the early 1800s to engage in slavery without judging all those slave-owners to be evil people.

MANNY:  Quite.

BERT:  That’s fair enough.  But I’m still not ready to give up on my skepticism.

MANNY:  Nor should you be.  You’ve given me some good challenges to think about.  But let’s see if I can make any farther progress in responding to your criticisms.

BERT:  By all means.

MANNY:  You bring up the fact of disagreement.  First of all, there may be less disagreement than you imagine.  There may well be disagreement over whether the death penalty, say, is immoral.  But all parties to the dispute presumably believe that citizens generally have a right to life and that the state generally has a right to punish those who transgress the law.  The dispute may come down to the question of whether the state has been administering the death penalty fairly, or whether those convicted of capital crimes count as citizens in the relevant sense.  And this last question, notice, isn’t a moral question at all!

BERT:  Perhaps, but I think there are other cases where the disagreement is clearly over moral questions.

MANNY:  That may be, but this brings me to the rest of my response.  And it’s this:  Disagreement on something does not entail that there’s no fact of the matter.  On the contrary:  If anything, genuine disagreement between you and me presupposes that there is something about which we disagree.  Note, further, that there is often disagreement over non-moral matters.

BERT:  Can you give me an example?

MANNY:  Sure.  There may once have been rather serious disagreement over the shape and size of the earth.  And today we might observe serious disagreement over, for example, which fundamental particles exist, or over who killed John Kennedy.  But no one doubts for a minute that there are indeed objective answers to these questions.  It’s clear that someone did in fact kill John Kennedy, despite our disagreeing over the identity of that someone.

BERT:  I suppose I have to concede that as well.  What about my first complaint, that moral facts don’t seem to be testable or discoverable?

MANNY:  Yes, that’s a bit tougher.  But let me begin by observing that, though some facts are easily verified, not all are.  The color of someone’s shirt is checked easily by our eyes, but there are other facts you would admit that are rather more distant from simple everyday observation.

BERT:  What do you have in mind?

MANNY:  Well, one might point to mathematical examples.  Take some famous unproved claim, like Goldbach’s Conjecture.  I don’t remember what it says.

BERT:  I do.  The conjecture is that every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

MANNY:  Oh good.  I’m glad someone remembers it anyway!

BERT:  So what was the point you wanted to make about the conjecture?

MANNY:  Just this:  No one doubts that it’s either true or false.  That is, either every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes or some even number cannot be so expressed.  And yet, it’s rather difficult to find out which is the case.  The conjecture has been around for quite some time, and it remains unsolved.

BERT:  I see, yes.

MANNY:  But in fact we needn’t appeal to mathematics to make the point.  There are scientific questions that are also difficult to answer.  There is, presumably, some fact of the matter about the origins of the universe or about the behavior of fundamental particles—and yet these facts are anything but easily ascertained.

BERT:  I take the point.  Still, questions of morality seem even further removed from observation than do those questions you mention just now—with the possible exception of Goldbach’s Conjecture.  I’ll have to think about that.

MANNY:  Yes, well I concede that all scientific questions would seem to have to have some sort of connection, however tenuous or indirect, to observation.

BERT:  What, then, of morality?  Surely moral questions don’t have any connection to observation.  You don’t deny that, do you?

MANNY:  Well, no, although I’ve heard of others denying it.  My friend Nick seems to have that view.  And I think the old philosopher Ben Tham had it as well.

BERT:  Weird.

MANNY:  Frankly, I agree with you, Bert.  But in any case, what I deny is simply that ethics is a science.  It doesn’t follow from ethics not being a science that ethics doesn’t concern objective fact.

BERT:  I don’t know about that!  If our five senses are irrelevant to ethics, then how could we ever have any knowledge of ethical facts?

MANNY:  Yes, well this is where things get a little mysterious, I have to admit.

BERT:  Perhaps untenably mysterious.

MANNY:  Perhaps, but bear with me.  One possibility is that moral facts are conceptual facts.

BERT:  And what does that mean, Manny?

MANNY:  It means that grasping the concepts involved in moral claims is sufficient to determine whether those claims are true or false.

BERT:  I don’t understand what you’re saying.

MANNY:  On this view, moral facts would be much the same as claims like:  “All green things are colored things” or “All bachelors are unmarried”.  If you understand what it is to be a green thing and what it is to be a colored thing, you can in effect deduce from that understanding the claim that all green things are colored things.  Similarly, if you understand what it is to be a bachelor and what it is to be married, you can in effect deduce from that understanding the claim that all bachelors are unmarried.  So the thought would be that, if we could just get a more complete grip on the relevant moral notions—like goodness and justice—we could deduce the true moral claims from that conceptual understanding.

BERT:  That sounds crazy!  The claim that all bachelors are unmarried is just about the simplest fact I can think of.  It’s just so obviously true.  But moral claims aren’t like that all!

MANNY:  I agree that the truth of moral claims is not obvious.  But that doesn’t mean that they’re not conceptual claims.  The concept of goodness is, presumably, much harder to pin down than is the concept of being a bachelor.

BERT:  I’m still unconvinced.  I don’t even know if I accept that there is some concept of goodness.  Where does this concept come from?  And how is it that we have access to it?

MANNY:  Yes, well this brings me to another point I wanted to make.

BERT:  And what point is that?

MANNY:  The following:  I quite agree that we do not measure moral claims up against our five senses, the way we do for scientific claims.  Nevertheless, I think I know, for example, that Hitler was evil, and that the killing of innocents is wrong.

BERT:  I know you think you know those things, my dear Manny!  But how in the world is such knowledge even possible?

MANNY:  I think I know these things not through any of my five senses but rather through intuition.

BERT:  So the moral claims you make turn out to be about your own feelings?

MANNY:  Not at all, though my good friend and mentor David, with whom I seem to disagree on almost every significant point of philosophy, has such a view.  This is often called the subjectivist view.  It seems clear to me, however, that, though I certainly experience feelings of approval when I think about the death penalty applied in certain cases, say, nevertheless the permissibility of the death penalty does not consist in those feelings, but is rather a cause of those feelings.  It’s difficult for the subjectivist to explain why we have certain feelings, or why certain feelings are appropriate.  We all agree, let us suppose, that we experience feelings of disapproval when we think about the killing of innocent people.  But what I can say that the subjectivist cannot is that I experience those feelings precisely because I perceive that such killing is wrong.

BERT:  So how exactly is your view different from the subjectivist’s?

MANNY:  I say that I know moral facts through intuition, not that moral facts are about my intuitions.

BERT:  So if moral facts are to have the objectivity you claim—or, at any rate, if they are to be discoverable, then we must all have the same intuitions.  Right?

MANNY:  Yes.

BERT:  But it seems that we do not!

MANNY:  Well, again, I think there’s not as much disagreement as there may at first blush seem.  I don’t know that I really think we all have the very same intuitions on all moral questions.  But I do think there is very substantial agreement, ultimately, on a very large number of the deeper moral questions.

BERT:  I am not unmoved by all your fine argumentation, Manny.  But I still find moral realism a difficult view.

MANNY:  Consider the following:  One of my moral beliefs is that the death penalty is permissible.  And I would not accept this thought to be paraphrased away in such a way that the claim comes out to be—quite surprisingly!—about me, or about my culture, or anything like that.  No.  When I say that the death penalty is permissible, I take this claim at face value.  That is, I take it to be about the death penalty and permissibility.  I think that what makes the death penalty permissible is not anyone’s laws or set of moral norms.  I think that there is something about the very nature of the death penalty that allows the concept of moral permissibility, at least in certain cases, to apply to it.

BERT:  I think I see your point.  When, for example, you encounter someone who thinks that the death penalty is not permissible, you’re not content to say that you’ve got your feelings and he’s got his.

MANNY:  That’s right.  I think the death penalty is permissible.  Period.  For all people at all times and places.  And I hardly deny the non-moral anthropological fact that some cultures have rejected the death penalty as morally impermissible.  But I think the death penalty is permissible for them as well.  I think they have simply misperceived the moral facts.

BERT:  I feel much clearer on the nature of moral realism now, Manny.  And I am more sympathetic to it than I was before.

MANNY:  I’m happy to hear that!

BERT:  But surely there would be more for realists to say.  There would be more to say, for example, about the nature of these moral facts they posit, or, relatedly, about how exactly the semantic analysis of moral claims is supposed to work.  Can you say anything further about these matters?

MANNY:  Well, these are rather large questions, and so perhaps they are for another time.  But I can say a few words.

BERT:  Please.

MANNY:  The most obvious way, probably, of being a moral realist is to think that there are genuine features or properties of goodness, justice and the rest that apply to particular things or to people, to actions or to states of affairs.  If one is antecedently inclined to suppose that something like this is what’s going on in non-moral cases, then this would be a natural extension of that sort of view.

BERT:  I’m not sure I understand.  What do you mean by the non-moral cases?

MANNY:  I just mean non-moral claims quite generally.  One might have thought that, say, what explains the fact that tomatoes are red is that there is some property of redness that applies to tomatoes.  And so in just the same way, one might hold that, say, what explains the fact that Gandhi is a good man is that there is some property of goodness that applies to Gandhi.

BERT:  And the facts that these properties hold of various things—goodness of Gandhi, and all the rest—would be discerned by something like intuition.

MANNY:  That’s probably the most natural thing to say.

BERT:  What other possibilities are there?

MANNY:  Well, personally I think that all moral facts can be discovered just by thinking long and hard about the nature of the human will and the nature of practical reason.  According to me, what grounds the truth of moral facts is human reason as such.

BERT:  So acting immorally is acting irrationally.

MANNY:  In a nutshell, yes.

BERT:  Interesting.  Any other realist views on the table?

MANNY:  My friend Stu, though a realist, has an unusual view.  He seems to think that the truth of moral facts is grounded in a certain empirical fact about what human beings desire.

BERT:  And what fact is that?

MANNY:  That we all desire happiness.

BERT:  So, according to him, the moral facts would be different if we didn’t all desire happiness?

MANNY:  Presumably, although I think he thinks that that’s a very big ‘if’.  Probably he thinks that human beings by their very nature desire happiness, though he rarely allows himself to talk that way.

BERT:  There certainly are a lot of possibilities!

MANNY:  Well, the questions of morality are very subtle and difficult.  But it seems to me that morality would be of rather limited interest unless there really were answers to those questions.

BERT:  Are you offering that as another argument in favor of moral realism?

MANNY:  I suppose I am.  Are you not yet convinced?

BERT:  I feel a bit overwhelmed, both because you’ve given me reason to doubt my relativism and because you’ve offered me so many alternative views to take!  I’ll need some time to sort out my thoughts on all this.

MANNY:  Then let’s continue our discussion another time.

BERT:  Yes, that’s what we ought to do.


March 19, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 9: Explanation


We often ask students to explain one thing or another. Judging from the single sentence or sentence fragment responses we often get, it seems to me that our students all too often don’t really understand what is being asked of them. The nature of scientific explanation has been a big topic in the philosophy of science for a century or so, and that inquiry could offer a couple of useful models. Here is an excerpt from my open source Introduction to Philosophy that addresses one helpful model of explanation:

According to the Deductive Nomological model of explanation developed by the Logical Positivist Carl Hempel, a scientific explanation has the form of a deductively valid argument. The difference between an argument and an explanation consists only their respective purposes. Formally they look just the same. But the purpose of an explanation is to shed light on something we accept as factual, while the purpose of an argument is to establish something as factual. Given this difference in purpose, we call the claim that occupies the place of the conclusion in an explanation the explanandum (it’s the fact to be explained), and the claims that occupy the place of the premises the explanans (these are the claims that, taken together, provide the explanation). In a scientific explanation, the explanans will consist of statements of laws and factual claims. The factual claims in conjunction with the laws will deductively entail the explanandum. For example, consider this explanation for why a rock falls to the earth:

  1. F = G*m1m2/r2 – Newton’s law of universal gravitation which tells us that massive bodies experience a force of mutual attraction that is proportionate to their mass and inversely proportionate to the distance between them.
  2. F=ma  – The force law, which tells us that force equals mass times acceleration.
  3. The rock has mass of 1 Kg.
  4. The earth has a mass of 5.97219 × 1024
  5. The rock was released within the gravitational field of the earth.
  6. No forces prevented the rock from falling to the earth.
  7. The rock fell to the earth.

Recall that according to the Logical Positivists, deductive logic is part of every theory, every explanatory framework. The first two claims in this explanation are statements of law from Newtonian physics. The remaining four are statements of fact. Taken together, these six claims deductively entail the explanadum, that the rock fell to the earth. This should illustrate how theories function as explanatory frameworks (as opposed to merely marking a whistle stop between educated guess and complete certainty).

One very useful thing Hempel’s account of explanation does is alert us to the argument-like structure of explanations. The basic idea here is that a complete explanation should include all of the facts involved in making the fact to be explained true. These will include both particular facts relevant to the specific circumstances of the case and general principles that belong to a broader framework for explanation, laws in the case of scientific explanations.

Hempel’s account of explanation faced a number of problems that have helped to refine our understanding of scientific explanation. We won’t address them here except to mention one because it’s amusing. Consider this explanation:

  1. Men who take birth control pills do not get pregnant.
  2. Bruce is a man and he takes birth control pills.
  3. Bruce is not pregnant.

This seems to meet all of the positivist’s criteria for being an explanation. But aside from being silly, it’s at least not a very good explanation for why Bruce isn’t pregnant.

There is a more general lesson I’d like you to take from the Logical Positivist’s account of explanation. For your entire career as a student you’ve been asked to explain things, but odds are nobody has ever really explained what it means to explain something. Personally, I don’t think I had ever given a thought to what an explanation was until I encountered the Deductive Nomological account in a Philosophy of Science class. But now you’ve been introduced to a developed model of explanation. You may not find it fully applicable to every academic situation you encounter. But if you try to make use of it by thinking of explanations as having a developed argument-like structure, you might expect your grades on future assignments in many of your classes to improve significantly.

Russ Payne

February 4, 2014

Critical Thinking Note 8: What Would Follow From That

Here’s a useful reasoning pattern: test a claim by seeing what follows from it deductively and considering whether there are good reasons for thinking those things are false. If you claim entails truths, that doesn’t tell you so much. But if you claim entails falsehoods, that tells you the claim must be false. The pattern of reasoning here can be represented as follows:

  1. If P is true, then Q must be true.
  2. But Q is not true.
  3. So, P is not true.

This pattern of argument is known to logicians as modus tollens. We employ this pattern of reasoning on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. I think that my keys are on the coffee table and infer that I’ll find them there when I look. I don’t find them on the coffee table and reject my original notion as false.  This pattern of argument is so straightforward that it is typically listed as a basic rule of inference in logic textbooks.

Karl Popper, the famous 20th century philosopher of science, took this pattern of reasoning to be central to the methods of science and dubbed it the method of conjecture and refutation. We make a conjecture, see what follows from it, and then look for evidence that refutes one or another of the logical consequences of our conjectures. Inquiry proceeds by rejecting mistaken conjectures. Often our “refutations” are less than decisive. Sometimes our inquiry reveals serious problems for our conjectures but leaves the question of whether those problems can be resolved unsettled. And sometimes we find that our conjectures entail things we can’t exactly refute but still find pretty implausible. Bet even in cases like this, deductively reasoning from our conjectures gives us a better view of the “price” of holding a view.

A good example of this method at work in philosophy classes is the standard treatment of moral relativism in ethics. Moral relativism is the view that what is right is right only relative to a specific group (a culture, say) and that what is right or wrong relative to a culture is just a matter of that culture’s standards, what is deemed right or wrong in that culture. It’s important to keep in mind that this is theory of what moral rightness is, not just a view about what people consider right or wrong. This view has a number of interesting and problematic entailments. Here are just a few

  • Moral relativism entails that every culture is infallible relative to itself. Moral relativism says that what is right relative to a culture is whatever is deemed right in that culture. So this view clearly entails that every culture is right relative to itself. People in other cultures might see the matter differently, but that’s just their perspective and moral relativism guarantees as a matter of principle that their perspective on some practice is no better than ours. Lots of people find this to be an attractive feature of moral relativism since it seems to speak against ethnocentrism. But there are better ways to counter ethnocentrism. This one means that Nazi culture was right relative to itself in gassing the Jews and our view that this practice was horrible is just about what’s right relative to us, which is no better in principle than the Nazi take on the matter.
  • If you happen to be a decent and respectful person to begin with, it might be tempting to think that a view about morality that denies your own culture an inside track will imply that we should be more tolerant of diversity. In fact many people who like moral relativism like it because they think it supports the cause of tolerance for diversity. But moral relativism does no such thing. It says nothing about tolerance specifically. Moral relativism does entail that tolerance will be a good thing relative to cultures that endorse tolerance. But it also entails that tolerance will be bad relative to intolerant cultures. But worse yet, moral relativism denies us any possibility of principled argument against cultures that embrace intolerance. If we think respect and tolerance for diversity is a good thing, the straightforward thing to do would be to take a principled stand on that. But moral relativism doesn’t help here. In fact, it hurts the cause of tolerance and respect for diversity.
  • We have special regard for those rare individuals that markedly improve the moral quality of their culture. A short list of notable moral reformers might include Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. But moral relativism affords no grounds for taking these people to be praiseworthy. To be a moral reformer is just to be someone who improves the moral quality of her culture. Moral relativism entails that it is conceptually impossible for a culture to change its moral standards for the better since any change for the better presupposes a standard of moral goodness that is independent of the cultures say so. But moral relativism says that good and bad is always relative to the conventionally accepted standards of a culture and so denies that there is any independent standard of goodness relative to which a culture could be said to improve. Moral relativism does allow that Ghandi and Nelson Mandela are significant agents of change. But it denies us grounds for deeming them any more praiseworthy than Vlad the Impaler or Hitler.

Moral relativism is currently an enormously popular view about the nature of morality. So much so that most philosophy instructor’s routinely find it necessary to draw attention to its rather deep pitfalls before expecting students to pay close attention to more plausible alternative accounts of morality. But as is often the case, we discover the flaws in misguided views by carefully and rigorously chasing down the logical consequences of the view.

Human beings are not very diligent deductive thinkers by nature. We are more social than rational beings and we often tend to follow the crowd without asking too many questions. But we can become more effective critical thinkers and a key developmental stage in this direction involves making a reflexive habit out of curiously asking “What would follow from that?”

December 9, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 7: Open-Mindedness


Everybody thinks it’s good to be open-minded. But we don’t often think critically about just what it means to be open-minded. We might think that being open-minded means allowing that others’ opinions might be true and that your own opinions might be false. Certainly open-mindedness involves a kind of intellectual humility, but I’m not sure this view gets it quite right. For this view has it that people who actually know what they are talking about aren’t open-minded. In fact, this view of open-mindedness is often invoked as a kind of fallacious objection to genuine expertise. For instance, evolutionary biologists are sometimes accused of not being very open-minded because they won’t grant much credence to creationism or intelligent design or because they are firmly opposed to these views being taught in science classes. More generally, the problem is this: suppose that on some matter the available evidence and good argument clearly and compellingly supports one view, and the arguments for opposing views are seriously flawed. According to our proposed view of open-mindedness, the people who have carefully thought through the available evidence and argument won’t be open-minded. They’ve reached a firm conclusion and rejected opposing views, and this is all it takes to have a closed mind on the account we gave above. But these are the experts, the people who most know what they are talking about. If they aren’t open-minded, then perhaps open-mindedness isn’t such a great thing. Or perhaps we’ve been considering a mistaken view of open-mindedness.

If open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue, a quality that directs us towards knowledge, then we need a way to understand what open-mindedness is that doesn’t make people who know close-minded. Here’s a suggestion. Open-mindedness isn’t really about beliefs; it’s about our reasons for holding them. The open-minded person is the person who is open to clarifying and evaluating arguments and evidence. When these clearly favor a particular view, then firm belief in that view is well justified. The open-minded person doesn’t shut the door to new argument on the matter. But firm belief is justified to the degree that it is supported by fair evaluation of the reasons and evidence and remains so unless there are good ground to reassess the reasons and arguments. The close-minded person is the person who won’t consider and fairly address opposing argument.

So the person who understands the strength of the scientific case for evolution by natural selection and who has also considered the arguments for creationism or intelligent design and found the flaws in these is justified in firmly holding evolution by natural selection to be true and in rejecting opposing theories as not credible. Doing so is not opposed to being open-minded. The difference between being open-minded and close-minded isn’t a question of how firmly belief is held or how decisively opposing views are rejected. It has to do with how belief is held. The open-minded person’s belief is supported through a commitment to critical thinking. The close-minded person’s belief is a matter of dogmatic conviction where reason only enters for the purpose of rationalizing foregone conclusions.

Thinking of open-mindedness in terms of being open to reason looks much better. There is a practical downside, I suppose. Being open-minded requires critical thinking. So, it might not be as easy as we’d like to think.

Russ Payne

November 4, 2013



Critical Thinking Note 6: A Broader View of Critical Thinking


Critical thinking is purposeful thinking. But just what is the purpose of critical thinking? Why think critically? As a branch of human inquiry, philosophy has a pretty clear view of the purpose of critical thinking. But once we get clear on the aims of critical thinking in inquiry, we might begin to worry that the resulting conception of critical thinking is too narrow. Or so I’ll suggest.

Scientists and philosophers want to know how things are. The purpose of our thinking is truth oriented. Of course, we often pursue the truth with the expectation that the best we can hope for is incremental progress in the form of clearly delineating the various ways things might be, perhaps ruling out the most problematic views and then sorting out the logical implications of the remaining contenders. This is hardly cause for despair. Not being fully attainable may even be typical of the standards most worth striving towards. Consider being fit, being good, shaping a just society or designing a better mouse trap. Woe be the carpenter who won’t let a cabinet leave his shop until it is absolutely and totally perfect. This is not a master craftsman but rather a poor wretch who will soon require anti-depressants. Purposeful activity often aims at standards of excellence that needn’t themselves be fully and perfectly attainable.

I often characterize philosophers as “one trick ponies.” We pretty much just formulate, clarify and evaluate arguments. That’s about all we’re good at, so we try to stick to that fairly specific and occasionally useful task. The characterization is not entirely fair, but it helps students get focused on the central tasks in doing philosophy without feeling entirely overwhelmed. When the purpose of critical thinking is to figure out how things are, this perhaps overly simple characterization of what philosophers do also gets cleanly at the main elements of critical thinking for the purpose of inquiry. Where our purpose is to know or at least better understand, critical thinking will largely be focused on formulating, clarifying and evaluating arguments. An argument is just a reason for taking its conclusion to be true. So if we can get at the best arguments and know that they are the best arguments, then we have attained or made good progress towards the purpose critical thinking in inquiry.

Given our orientation towards inquiry, perhaps it is no surprise that critical thinking textbooks, written and taught mainly by philosophers, tend to be heavily focused on formulating, clarifying and evaluating arguments. But this neglects any role critical thinking might have when we have other purposes in mind. Consider, for instance, good design, elegant problem solving or effective communication. It might turn out that critical thinking as it applies to inquiry requires only minor tweeks in order to suit these and other appropriate purposes. Or perhaps substantially different models are called for. But for now, a modest first step might be to try to formulate a broader conception of what critical thinking is, one that can accommodate a broader range of purposes than just inquiry.

Being a purposeful activity, thinking critically implies that we are oriented toward meaningful standards of success or excellence. That is, it will always make sense to ask if we have attained our purpose or at least made good progress in that direction. Any attempt to answer that question ushers us towards the “critical” part of critical thinking. Thinking critically requires that we evaluate our progress towards the standards implied by our purposes. Putting these few pieces together gives us a pretty broad but still substantive way to understand critical thinking. Critical thinking is purposeful thinking that is actively evaluated according to standards of success or excellence appropriate to its purposes. In the interest of thinking critically about critical thinking, this proposal should be taken as an invitation for critical evaluation. My suspicion is that this proposal is now too broad. But we try, evaluate the results, and try again.

Russ Payne

October 4, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 5: Critical Thinking Curriculum Development Series

The Philosophy Dept. (not just me, but most of us) will be running a Critical Thinking Curriculum Development workshop through the Faculty Commons this year and our first meeting is just two weeks from now. This workshop will meet on four Thursdays from 3:00 to 4:30 in D-104 on the following dates, Oct. 10, Nov. 7, Jan 16, and Feb. 13. In this workshop, Philosophy faculty will share a variety of open source curriculum materials and help participants develop Canvas critical thinking modules to suit their courses and students. Register right away.

You can register for our Critical Thinking Curriculum Development Series here:

Now for some content. Not everyone gets the Faculty Commons newsletter, so this time I’m re-issuing a contribution to the most recent edition. Please forgive the recycling. Some new notes are in the works.

In Russia there is a saying: “When the fight is over, stop swinging your arms.” The point is well taken. There is generally not much to be gained from bemoaning our assorted defeats once they are a done deal. Additionally it’s not very much fun. On the other hand, there are some fights, well struggles, which we are never really done with. And critical review of our recent shortfalls can be highly instructive as we continually aim to do better. How we understand our world, including others and ourselves, is one of these ongoing struggles. Here, critical review of past performance serves the genuinely useful aim of figuring out something new.

As useful as critical thinking can be in reviewing and revising our opinions and our reasons for holding them, it might also force us to recognize our own shortcomings, like having held false opinions or having reasoned poorly. So there is a risk of critical thinking giving us cause to bemoan our defeats and hence being not very much fun. A common practice in the face of this risk is to engage in creative and often self-deceptive strategies for avoiding critical thinking. A big part of our jobs as college level educators is to help our students outgrow self-satisfied intellectual complacency and embrace habits of critical thinking in spite of these risks. As humbling as it can be to find that you’ve believed a falsehood or reasoned poorly, there is new, more mature confidence to be found in cultivating skill at evaluating reasons, ferreting out false opinion and moving, at least incrementally, towards a better understanding of our world, others in it and ourselves. Additionally, this part is fun.

So, how are we helping our students face the challenge of critical thinking and how might we do better? This will be the focus of a new Critical Thinking Curriculum Development workshop at the Faculty Commons organized and facilitated by assorted members of BC’s philosophy department. There is a well-developed critical thinking curriculum in philosophy that supports an entire genre of textbooks and a diverse array of web resources. One of our own faculty members, Mark Storey, has recently written a complete critical thinking text intended for free distribution to and use by BC faculty and students. Our plan is to give workshop participants this fall and winter an exclusive first look at this new free resource. Of course we will be inviting critical feedback for further improvements and refinements. Participants will also get to make their own refinements and revisions. A primary goal for this workshop will be for participants to adapt, supplement and revise Mark’s text and other critical thinking notes and resources in developing a Critical Thinking module in Canvas that is custom tailored to meet the needs of their courses and students.


  1. Russ Payne

September 25, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 4: Mark Storey on Validity

So I’ve been talking all year about how Philosophy is going to write this free Critical Thinking Text for the BC community. Meanwhile Mark Storey has actually done so. A complete draft should be ready to share in Fall Quarter. We will also be running a Critical Thinking Curriculum Development Seminar using this material through the Faculty Commons in the fall. Here’s a short excerpt:

Valid vs. Invalid

Every argument in the universe needs to “pass” two tests; the arguments must be logically good and factually good. We are speaking loosely at this point, but all deductive and inductive arguments must meet the same basic pair of demands: it must be the case that (a) its premises give good reason to believe the conclusion, and (b) the premises are actually true. The first concern pertains to the relation the premises have to the conclusion, and the actual truth or falsity of the premises is often irrelevant. The second concern pertains to the facts of the matter and to whether the claims of the premises correspond accurately to the world. Figuring out if an argument is logically good or not often involves a hypothetical thought experiment in which you don’t really care if the premises are actually true or not. Figuring out if the argument is factually good forces you to step out of the hypothetical thought experiment and rely on your knowledge of the real world. We’ll begin by focusing our attention on the first concern.

As we have seen, a deductive argument is any argument claiming either explicitly or implicitly that if the premises all are true, then the conclusion must be true. Deductive arguments are evaluated as either “valid” or “invalid.” A deductive argument is valid when it is indeed the case that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true, and a deductive argument is invalid when it is not the case that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true.

To determine if a deductive argument is valid or invalid, ask yourself a question:  Is it logically impossible for the premises to be true and at the same time and from the same perspective for the conclusion to be false? If “Yes,” then the argument is valid. If “No,” then the argument is invalid.

The distinction between valid and invalid arguments will become clearer after you’ve examined some examples. The following deductive arguments are all valid. Notice that it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

  1. Every square has four sides. This figure is a square. Therefore this figure must have four sides.
  2. Tom is older than Bob and Bob is older than Ed. So Tom must be older than Ed.
  3. Some cats are pets. Thus, it must be that some pets are cats.
  4. Alfredo is Sue’s (biological) father. Therefore, Alfredo must be older than Sue, because fathers are always older than their biological children.


The following deductive arguments are invalid. Notice that it is possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

  1. Javon is older than Betty. Therefore, Javon must be taller than Betty.
  2. All members of the XYZ club are senior citizens. Thus it must be that all senior citizens are members of the XYZ club.
  3. All members of the Hells Angels live in California. Joe lives in California. Therefore, it is certain that Joe is a member of the Hells Angels.
  4. If the sun is out, then Vu is swimming. Vu is swimming. So it must be that the sun is out.

Each argument above is deductive because the claim in each case is that the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. However, some are valid deductive arguments and some are invalid, because some succeed in showing that their conclusions must be true if their premises are true, and some do not. That is, for the invalid arguments, it is logically possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false. The premises are thus not guaranteeing the conclusion.

Suppose you are looking at a deductive argument trying to decide whether it is valid or invalid. How do you decide? Again, ask yourself a hypothetical question: Is it logically impossible for the premises to be true and at the same time the conclusion be false?

If you answer “Yes”—in other words—if the conclusion must be true if the premises are true, then the argument is valid. However, if your answer is “No” because the conclusion might be false even if the premises are true, then the argument is invalid. For example, suppose the Smiths are a big family living in Lynnwood, Washington:

  1. All the Smiths are Catholics.
  2. All Catholics live in Italy.
  3. So, all the Smiths must live in Italy.

Is it impossible the premises could be true and the conclusion false? Yes! If the premises were true, the conclusion would certainly be true. This argument is therefore valid. It is logically good. The structure of the argument is such that if the premises were true (and they are not, but for now that’s irrelevant) the conclusion would be guaranteed to be true. We see this once we agree to do the thought experiment of asking about the possibility of the premises being true while the conclusion is false. Of course, given what we know about the Smiths (i.e., that they live in Lynnwood, Washington) the second premise is clearly false (and maybe the first premise, too), so the argument is factually bad, but we’ll get to that concern momentarily. For right now we are concerned only with the logical structure—or “bones”—of the argument. We’ll look at issues pertaining to the facts, or “truth value,” of the premises in shortly.

June 10, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 3: Earth Week Edition

Why Climate Skeptics are in Denial

The fossil fuel constituency has long exploited popular misunderstanding of the logic behind the science of climatology and I think this calls for a re-appraisal of how we teach the so called “scientific method.” As long as there is money in coal and oil, we should expect to hear from its constituency. But we needn’t fall for their obfuscations.

In high school science classes, students are typically taught that science discovers things about the world through inductive generalization. We find patterns in the evidence we observe and base our expectations of the future on those observed patterns. Certainly science does often employ this pattern of reasoning. But as an account of the methods of science, simple inductive generalization is a sadly impoverished model. And sadder yet, it is a model that leaves people very vulnerable to being easily mislead about the nature of the science at issue. For we all know that trends don’t always continue. Housing prices went up and up and then they went down. It is currently spring and we are experiencing a warming trend that we know full well will end in a few months. When people, in line with what they were taught as “the scientific method,” are reminded that trends don’t always continue and that induction only gives us reason to think that observed patterns are, to some degree or another, likely to continue, they are ready and primed to hear the climate denier as the voice of reason when he says “who’s to say current warming isn’t just a natural cycle?” or “why think changes in climate are caused by human activity?”

But alas, this is not the structure of the reasoning at the core of climate science.  In fact, scientists employ rich and subtle combinations of induction, deduction and inference to the best explanation in puzzling out how nature works. In the case of climate science, our original grounds for concern that humans may be changing the climate in dangerous ways do not appeal to observed warming trends at all. The warming we have observed only further confirms what we already had reason to worry about based on what we can deduce from what we know full well about the causal powers of various gases and our practices of freely releasing these into the atmosphere.

We know full well that CO2 traps heat. This is easy to demonstrate in the laboratory. Simply place a person on one side of a glass chamber and an infrared camera on the other. The infra-red camera will pick up the heat image of the person when the chamber is full of air. Increase the concentration of CO2 in the chamber and you can observe the heat image of the person on the other side steadily fade away. CO2 is transparent to visible light, but opaque, like a cloud of smoke, to infra-red light, the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation that disperses heat from the planet back into space. We have known this about CO2 for well over a century and our understanding of the green-house effect that keeps the biosphere of our planet temperate as based on the heat trapping properties of CO2 and other gases dates back about a century as well. Now we reason deductively. Given its heat trapping causal power, if we increase the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by releasing lots of it through fossil fuel combustion, then extra heat energy will get trapped in biosphere. Of course we know something about how much carbon we release burning fossil fuels. Next, the fundamental laws of physics tell us that matter/energy is never created or destroyed. It follows deductively from this that extra heat energy trapped in the biosphere must go somewhere and do some work. Now notice that our way of life, our economy, where we live, our water supply and our agriculture are all finely tuned to the relatively stable climate humans have enjoyed over our brief history on the planet. Given this, it should be clear that throwing lots of extra energy into our climate system is highly likely to make trouble for us. The conclusion is pretty clear before we’ve looked at a single thermometer. Be concerned about human induced climate change.

Call this the core argument for concern about anthropogenic climate change. Now go listen to the many climate deniers and let me know if you catch any of them addressing the core argument in any way. I’ve been listening for 25 years or so and I have yet to hear any climate denier offer any plausible objection the core argument. The logic of the argument is clear enough. So which premise of the argument would the climate denier have us reject? Would he deny that CO2 traps heat? That we release very large quantities of it? That the consequences are likely to be bad for us? In the absence of any plausible reply to the core argument, I’d suggest you doubt the climate denier’s intellectual integrity.

Critical thinking is not like basketball. It’s simply not a matter of who can score the most points. If your opponent has a good argument and you have no good objection to it, you lose. It doesn’t really matter what climate deniers find in stolen e-mails or how easy they find it to make fun of Al Gore. If they have no plausible reply to the core argument for concern about climate change, then they just aren’t taking the science seriously. And if skeptics aren’t taking the science seriously, then they don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Russ Payne

April 25, 2013