Saturday, January 26, 2008

Argument Analysis: Principle of Charity and Formal Logic

Regrettably, on occasion individuals conversant with the methods of formal logic and philosophy venture into new subject areas immediately applying their analytical skills before seeking understanding of the concepts, precepts, or beliefs being adduced. Instead, the tacit and provisional application of the principle of charity should be implicit in every new intellectual and cultural endeavor.

As an example, I'd like to recount the analysis of a passage from a computer science programming book brought to me by a former student of beginning logic. The passage is ...
Your computer, on the other hand, can understand only machine language, a compact series of computer-readable instructions that make no sense to people. They make sense to some advanced computer gurus, but my general assertion stands that they don't make sense to people. (Greg Perry, Beginning Programming (Indianapolis, Indiana: Sams, 2002), 14.)
The analysis and reconstruction skillfully provided by the student of this third-order enthymematic argument was as follows:
No (people) are (individuals who understand machine language).
Some (advanced computer gurus) are (individual who understand machine language).
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[Some (advanced computer gurus) are not (people).]
and the form of the argument, EIO-2, of course, tests valid:
No P is M.
Some S is M.
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Some S is not P.
Since the conclusion is obviously false, the implication is by reductio ad absurdum, that at least one of the premises is false, namely the general assertion that computer-readable instructions make no sense to people.

The heart of the analysis depends on the logical or precising interpretation of the notion of "generalization" as something all inclusive and applying to each and every individual distributively.

Certainly a charitable interpretation of the passage would indicate the author Greg Perry intended his "general assertions" to mean something like "Universally; with respect to all or nearly all ... As in A fact now g[enerally] received 1820." (William Little, et al. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles 3rd. ed. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), 783.)

Of course, the student assumes that passage implies the author is asserting that computer-readable instructions make no sense to each and every individual person, whereas the common-sense interpretation of the passage implies the author is asserting that computer-readable instructions make no sense to most people.

It's certainly arguable that the student's logical analysis results from not so much the lack of tolerance or charity as it is a case of the fallacy of straw man, since the sense of the word "generally" to mean "almost all" is perhaps more common in everyday discourse than is the meaning "including each and every one without exception."

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