Welcome back to Philosophy week! As I said before, here we’ll be learning new ideas and thought patterns to help with the pervasive negative thoughts in our minds. But before we dive into esoteric and mundane thought, there’s an important tool you need to incorporate into your life: Logic.
Logic is understood as the system of valid inference, and is actually a specific set of techniques designed to ensure you have correct assumptions and conclusions. However, this is a skill that isn’t taught these days, at least in a daily context. (Math classes try to teach us but it often goes over your head until college.) So we have to develop our own sense of logic and often it ends up faulty and leads to distorted thinking. Psychologists have identified what they call cognitive distortions. Everyone uses them to some extent throughout their days, but those with depression and anxiety have the use of cognitive distortions down to an art form. (There was some pop psychology nonsense going around at one point saying that depressed people see the world more accurately and that’s just wrong, yo. Depressed people see the world in a negatively skewed way. ) Cognitive distortions are different from cognitive bias, though bias can lead to distorted thinking. I’ve come to understand CD as the unconscious use of logical fallacies to convince yourself of a lie. It’s a personal theory of mine. The why and the how of why a person would do such a thing is a bit complex, and you need to dive deep to get it, but let’s move ahead to understanding some ways to fix it. The simple answer is to challenge the distortions as they arise, after learning how to identify them. Sounds easy, right? Eeeeh. No. You can’t challenge a distorted thought using the same style of thinking that got you to that distorted thought in the first place.
People create their worlds with the tools they have directly at hand. Faulty tools produce faulty results. Repeated use of the same faulty tools produces the same faulty results
-Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos
The study of Formal, or Symbolic Logic is a bit too complicated to break down into just one blog post, but I’ve spent some time rounding up lecture series and videos that can introduce you to them. Many of them are video lectures on youtube, so you can go at your own pace and pause and rewind as needed. Some of the concepts they present can be mindblowing at first! (But that’s the exciting part!)
The videos aren’t in a tightly specific order, but I’ve tried to order them in a way I think might be most helpful in viewing from start to finish to build your knowledge. But don’t feel stressed about following the list to the letter. There are also different options that might play better to your level of understanding and how you absorb information. Play around with all the lists to see which one you prefer, and go with that first, and then move on to the other ones. While most of them offer the same course, they will have varying information in them, so I believe that getting through all of them (eventually) will leave you more well rounded.
Jordan Peterson- The Best Way to Learn Critical Thinking (single video- 4 min)
A Brief History Of Logic (single video 42 min)
Khan Academy’s Course on Critical Thinking (website, not youtube.)
Steven Pinker- Linguistics As A Window To Understanding the Brain (single video 50 min)
Jack Sanders Course on Symbolic Logic (playlist)
Some of them may take some time to get through, but they are well worth it. I particularly found Professor Sadler’s course helpful with his videos that focus on Rhetoric and Logical Fallacies. I think they apply greatly to the subject at hand.
In Logic, there are a few terms that were difficult for me to wrap my head around, or I think are pretty important to distinguish in your toolkit for identifying and remedying distortions, so here’s my list of those:
The form of Argument in Logic:
In this short intro, Joshua May outlines the form of a valid, and sound argument, and what isn’t. Arguments in Formal Logic are different from an argument you’d have with, say, your partner over something like finances or the time you spend together.
An argument in Formal Logic consists of premises and conclusions. They cannot be switched around or really negotiated with. The premises will always lead to the conclusion. In Deductive reasoning, the premises merely add up to the conclusion (like in Maths) and prove the conclusion. Nothing but the conclusion can be drawn from the premises. (No alternative facts here, folks. And here’s for the lols) In Inductive reasoning, the premises do add up to a conclusion, but something more seems to be added. Your premises are merely support for your conclusion but do not prove anything. Many forms of thinking we commonly use are in line with Inductive, rather than Deductive, reasoning.
In a deductive argument, an argument can be both valid, or sound. A valid argument is only when your formula is correct. Your premises do not need to be correct for an argument to be valid. An argument can only be sound if your argument is both valid, and your premises are correct. (The link above goes in depth)
So, how do we ensure our premises are sound? By testing them. You cannot simply take an argument at face value, even if it is your own.
A way to do this is to plot out your argument. Writing out the steps is a good way to make sure your information is straight. First, you’ll want to write out the whole thought process, define the parts of your argument into the premises and conclusions (you may find some conclusions get mixed in with your premises. This is a product of messy thinking.) and then, define your terms.
Let’s look at a simple, popular example of what I’m talking about:
All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
All men are mortal and Socrates is a man are your premises. Socrates is mortal is your conclusion. This is both a valid and sound argument, so this is an easy one. But how do we know that it is sound?
We analyze the premises. This is where in particularly complicated questions it can become a rabbit hole.
Do we know men are mortal? Well, let’s define what it means to be mortal. (we are born, we inevitably die.) Okay. Socrates is a man. Well dang. Back up. What’s a man? Now you hammer out what you believe to be a man. And you’ll find that part of your definition of man might just be that he is mortal. This is what is known as a Necessary Condition. Just defining what you believe to be a “man” might take you some time. It may involve ironing out some rough hypotheticals. But back to the conditionals. There are Necessary and Sufficient Conditions. Khan Academy has a really simple to understand video on this, as they can be a bit confusing!
Anyways, we have our definitions. Once we match the truth to the proposal, we find out that Socrates, if he is a man, by necessity, must be mortal.
Sometimes, in the process of defining our terms, we find that the premises are false, or that we drew a conclusion based on a definition that didn’t fit our own! It sounds impossible, but it happens. Either one of these problems makes our argument unsound, and poor.
So how can we apply this to Cognitive Distortions?
PsychCentral has a list of common distortions, let’s use an example of a Control Fallacy from it: “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” (Brace for that rabbit hole I mentioned. And I’m trying to keep it simple for reading sake.)
First, by turning it into a valid argument form: My boss has demanded that I work overtime on a project. Having to work extra will always affect me negatively. Being affected negatively will impact my work. (hidden premises: I am powerless over how I respond to stress.) Therefore, the work will be poor, and I cannot help it.
Sounds quite reasonable, yes? But is it sound? Now we look at if the premises are true. And if they are Necessary, or Sufficient for the conclusion.
My Boss has demanded that I work overtime on a project. It would be best here to recall exactly how your boss put in the overtime “demand”, as well as define what it means to “demand”, both linguistically, and what you associate with the word “demand.” Did they tell you that you had to work overtime or else? (Write up, firing, etc…) Did they simply say, “Hey, this project isn’t being done fast enough. The team is going to stay later now to make up for it.” Or, did they ask you, “Hey, the project isn’t going to be done by deadline. Can you stay later the next week to get it done on time?” There can even be a gap between our thoughts and our reaction if what we defined as a “demand” doesn’t match up with what our Boss actually did, that we labeled as a demand. Here already we can begin to see warped thinking and possibly some defensiveness of our own actions if your boss put in a request and not a demand. If our Boss’ actions align with our definition, and we are not being merely defensive or having warped thoughts, the first premise is true. (This is also a sufficient condition.)
Having to work extra will always affect me negatively. I added “always” to this premise because when we make control based distortions, we have the background assumption that these things are always that way. You are always going to have this problem, no matter what situation. But is it true? Can you think of any times where you either chose or had to put in extra work to accomplish something? Can you think of a few? Alright. Did every single time affect you in a negative way? And let’s look both short and long-term. Because sometimes, yes. You can have a short-term negative effect and a long-term positive effect. Then examine your priorities. Would you rather have the short-term pleasure (which often results in long-term not-pleasure), or short-term discomfort, for a long-term reward? In this example, perhaps yes, the short-term aka, that week, will be extra tiring and have elevated levels of stress, but, you stick it out, and your boss is impressed and perhaps you get a raise! And that positive effect outweighs the negative effect, therefore, are you really negatively affected? (Because our lives, while rooted in the present, usually last much longer than whatever period of time we are suffering for.)
Being negatively affected will impact my work (I am powerless to how I respond to stress). Many of us fail to realize what we do, and don’t have control over. When we make a premise like this, we take it as a necessary condition that our environment will always determine our internal responses. This has the hidden premise that we are utterly powerless. In the example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.”, this hidden premise is not easily seen. It is once we begin to lay out our though in argument form, that we can pick up on the nuances. The reality is that it is only a sufficient condition. Yes, your environment does have an influence on you. But, as is the main tenant of Stoicism, even if we cannot control our environmental input, we can always control our personal output. Being negatively affected can impact your work, but it doesn’t have to. They are not intrinsically tied. When we realize that we are diverting our power and responsibility to our environment, instead of accepting it in ourselves, we can realize this is a distorted and false premise.
Now that we’ve briefly ironed out our premises, we’ve found some of them to be false. So while the argument is valid, it is not sound. You can begin to see that sometimes, reactionary thinking is untrue, and might not even resonate with us, it could even produce Cognitive Dissonance. With some (or even all) of our premises being false, we realize our conclusion cannot possibly be true. Working through it this way helps us more easily dispose of these false beliefs and distortions.
With time, you can take this process more quickly, one day even in real time, instead of working it out on paper.
“But, Nana,” you cry, “however am I to know when to do this!?” The simple answer is to notice your feelings as a signpost to check your reality. (This itself may be a paradigm that needs changing.) Feelings, especially negative ones of anger, fear, or sadness, are no more than an alert that you need to examine what you are thinking. So, if you find yourself feeling angry or anxious, practice taking time to step back, and examine the thoughts you had while feeling that way, and seeing if they are sound arguments.
It takes time, and practice, but like any good thing: It’s worth the effort. You get out what you put in. So put some good logic into your thinking and your thoughts will get better!
Peter did not feel very brave, indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do.
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe