Reasoning – Reasoning refers to the process by which people generate and evaluate arguments and beliefs. Philosophers have long distinguished between two kinds of reasoning: inductive and deductive. We examine each separately here, and will then explore one of the most powerful mechanisms people use to make inferences, particularly about novel situations: reasoning by analogy.
Inductive reasoning is reasoning from specific observations to more general propositions. An inductive conclusion is not necessarily true because its underlying premises are only probable, not certain. For example, say you asked a friend who appeared to be quite upset if they were feeling ok, and they replied ‘yes I’m fine’, inductive reasoning could lead you to the conclusion ‘if my friend says she is fine, then she must be fine’. It is simply reasoning made by observation. Another example of inductive reasoning would be a child who believes that ‘if Santa can climb down the chimney, so can the boogey man!’ Nevertheless, inductive reasoning forms a large chunk of our day to day reasoning. If someone raises their voice we reason that they must be angry, if someone looks sad, we reason that something must be wrong, if everything appears the same as it did yesterday, we reason that everything is the same as yesterday.
Deductive reasoning is logical reasoning that draws a conclusion from a set of assumptions, or premises. In contrast to inductive reasoning, it starts off with an idea rather than an observation. In some ways, deduction is the flipside of induction: whereas induction starts with specifics and draws general conclusions, deduction starts with general principles and makes inferences about specific instances. For example, if you understand the general premise that all dogs have fur and you know that your next door neighbour just bought a dog, then you can deduce that your neighbour’s dog has fur, even though you haven’t seen it yet.
This kind of deductive argument is referred to as a syllogism. A syllogism consists of two premises that lead to a logical conclusion. If it is true that:
A) All dogs have fur and
B) The neighbour’s new pet is a dog.
Then there is no choice but to accept the conclusion that:
C) The neighbour’s new dog has fur.
Unlike inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning can lead to certain rather than simply probable conclusions, as long as the premises are correct and the reasoning is logical.
Deductive reasoning seems as though it would follow similar principles everywhere. However, recent research suggests that Eastern and Western cultures may follow somewhat different rules of logic – or at least have different levels of tolerance for certain kinds of inconsistency. The tradition of logic in the West, extending from Ancient Greece to the present, places an enormous emphasis on the law of non-contradiction: two statements that contradict each other cannot both be true. This rule is central to solving syllogisms. Contrastingly however, in the East, people view contradictions with much more acceptance, and often believe them to contain great wisdom. Take for example Zen Koans (statements or questions) that offer no rational solutions, and are often paradoxical in nature, such as: if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does the tree make a sound?’ Western thought aims to try and resolve contradiction by using logic, while people in the East focus instead on the truth that each statement provides – relishing, rather than resolving paradox.
A humorous example of this difference can be found in an episode of South Park, where Stan and Kyle are trying to locate and destroy ‘the heart of Wal-Mart’ so it will lose it’s power over South Park’s inhabitants. In this exchange of dialogue, Stan and Kyle represent Western rational thought, while the embodiement of Wal-Mart represents Eastern paradoxical thought:
STAN: We don’t want your store in our town; we’ve come to destroy you!
KYLE: Where’s the heart?
WAL-MART: To find the heart of Wall-Mart, one must first ask oneself, “Who is it that asked the question?”
STAN: Me. I’m asking the question.
WAL-MART: Ah, yes, but who are you?
STAN: Stan Marsh. Now where is the heart?
WAL-MART: Ah, you know the answer, but not the question!
KYLE: The question is: ‘Where is the heart?’
In this exchange of dialogue you can see that Stan/Kyle, the Western rational thinkers, have a low tolerance for all of Wal-Mart’s philosophical questions and are answering them with straight forward logic, even though these are the not the answers that Wal-Mart (Eastern thought) seek. To Eastern thought, the question is generally more important than the answer, just as the journey is viewed as being more important than the destination.
Reasoning by Analogy – Analogy is one of the single most powerful reasoning devices we have, and we use it a lot in everyday conversation to explain new situations. Analogical reasoning is the process by which people understand a novel situation in terms of a familiar one. For example, someone who has never done heroin might ask someone who has what the sensation is like; considering the person asking the question has never tried it, the heroin user would have to use analogy to create a comparison. He might say, it is like sinking into a hot bath on a freezing cold day. Since the person who asked the question can relate to the analogy (let’s assume they both live in a very cold country), through analogical reasoning he can deduce what it must feel like to be on heroin. Similarly, someone with schizophrenia could use analogical reasoning to suggest that having schizophrenia is like living in a nightmare, and not being able to wake up.
A key aspect of analogies of this sort is that the familiar situation and the novel situation must each contain a system of elements that can be mapped onto one another. For an analogy to take hold, the two situations need not literally resemble each other, however, the elements of the two situations must relate to one another in a way that explains how the elements of the novel situation are similar to that of the unfamiliar situation.