The Rules of Right Reason

Barry Arrington and StephenB at Uncommon Descent have frequently invoked “the rules of right reason” in their arguments.

Today, Barry posts them thus:

The Rules of Thought.

The rules of thought are the first principles of right reason. Those rules are:

  • The Law of Identity: An object is the same as itself.
  • The Law of Non-contradiction: Contradictory statements cannot both at the same time be true.
  • The Law of the Excluded Middle: For any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true.

And claims:

Note that the three laws of thought cannot be proven. They are either accepted as self-evident axioms – or not. The fundamental principles of right reason must be accepted as axioms for the simple reason that they cannot be demonstrated. There is no way to “argue for argument” and it is foolish to try to do so. If one’s goal in arguing is to arrive at the truth of a matter, arguing with a person who rejects the law of idenity is counterproductive, because he has rejected the very concept of “truth” as a meaningful category.


This seems to me fallacious. (heh.)

They are indeed axiomatic – in other words, they are axioms on which a certain form of logic is based.  Now I’m no logician, but I am capable of seeing that if we assume those axioms are true, we can construct a logical language in which useful conclusions can be drawn, and useful computations performed.

But there are some propositions that simply are not possible in that language, because those axioms themselves are based on more fundamental assumption: that we know what an “object” is; that we know what “time” is – in other words, that we know what “is” is.

As one of your presidents once said.

And we often don’t.  Often the reality (the truth, if you like) that we want to uncover relates to those referents signified in those very assumptions: what is an object?  what is time?

And a classic (or perhaps non-classical) example, it seems to me (and I’m more at home here than with quantum physics) is: what is a person?  Am I an object?  Is it sensible to say that I am myself, if, by the time I have said it, I have become something different – an object with different properties – to the self I was when began to utter the sentence?

And if I am an object, what are the properties of that object?  Does it exist in both time and space, or just space at a given time?  Does it make any sense to say that a person exists at all in an instantaneous moment, or is being a person a process?

In other words, it seems to me that “The Rules of Right Reason” simply do not cover all the truths there are to investigate, and cannot cover them.  To assert this is not to reject, as Barry suggests, “the very concept of truth as a meaningful category”.  It is to assert that there are true statements that can be made that nonetheless cannot be made if we rigorously adhere to the rules of right reason, and “objects” that we cannot consider.

And that these include mind, person, consciousness, designer, intelligence, and, ironically, God.



164 thoughts on “The Rules of Right Reason”

  1. Toronto


    Toronto: Explain the position you have already reached.

    Maus: I just did and in precisely the manner you find necessary. Now that I’ve upheld your belated foot-stomping requirements I should think that good faith is in order on your behalf.

    You’re avoiding my question for the same reason a grade 9 boy avoids asking his current crush out, and that’s because of a fear of being shot down.

    Don’t be afraid, just take a deep breath and type.

    So, what empirical data from the evo side neutralized the ID improbability argument, (kairosfocus refers to it constantly), such that you have ended up with no preference for either position?

  2. Toronto


    keiths: Here’s ‘neutral’ Maus defending Barry Arrington’s claim that evolutionary theory predicts everything and its opposite.

    Thanks for the link!

  3. David vun Kannon

    One of my avatars on UD once tried to pin down what year StephenB was living in. It was definitely before Darwin, before the discovery of alternatives to Euclidean geometry. A time in which neat categories could easily be mapped to the entire universe. A time the rest of us grew out of.

    I will note in passing that StephenB was never able to write down his rules of right reason.

    I think focussing on the issue of “thingness”, or what is an object, is central here.The moon is pretty clearly a thing: a photon, not so much.But what about love, truth, justice, morality, etc. – or even “I”, the self.Are these clearcut “things” that we can plug into the Law of Identity and the other laws in any meaningful sense?

    Letting StephenB be our metaphorical representative for a whole bunch of people who believe, roughly, as he does, I think we can say that such people believe

    a.that the universe was created for us, humankind,

    b.that we have a special rational connection to ideas and ideals that both inform the world, and exist outside the world, in the mind of God.

    c.That these ideals are primary: In the beginning was the Word …”, as is often pointed out.

    d.That many categories have clearcut and immutable boundaries, and something can’t change into something else: man is not related to other animals, species can’t evolve into other species, life can’t come from non-life, existence can’t arise from non-existence, and so on.

    To such people, the primacy of the laws of logic seems self-evident, and anyone who doesn’t think so is irrational.To such people, the words we use to describe the things and the things themselves are ontologically linked.These metaphysical assumptions pervade the thought of people like Stephen.

  4. petrushka

    Ernst Mayr called this essentialism. I skipped over that chapter thinking it wasn’t a central part of the evolution debate.

    Now I see it pervasively. I see it in the debate over what a species is, what a planet is, what a particle is, what life is.

  5. Carl SachsCarl Sachs

    petrushka: Now I see it pervasively. I see it in the debate over what a species is, what a planet is, what a particle is, what life is.

    Yes, the anti-essentialism of Darwin’s insight — that species are only populations — is absolutely central to the entire debacle. Because if that’s so, then there aren’t “kinds” of the sort presupposed by the natural law theory of morality. And that’s what makes the debate about evolution and creationism one of the front-lines in the culture wars.


  6. Toronto

    Carl Sachs,

    Carl Sachs: “Yes, the anti-essentialism of Darwin’s insight — that species are only populations — is absolutely central to the entire debacle.”

    Good point.

  7. Pingback: Uncommon Descent | Q: Is Logic simply a matter of axioms at play in an abstract logical world unconnected to external reality? A: Nope

  8. aleta

    I know this thread has subsided, but I want to post here, and I don’t know where else to post this comment. At UD, Barry has made an OP that presents the “logical” argument for ID. It’s a prime example of trying to embed all one’s unstated and/or unestablished beliefs into one’s premises in order to appear as if one is deducing something. I posted over there, but I’m not going to reply over there, so I’d like to cross-post here. Any comments from you all are welcome, including pointing out if I’m wrong.

    As a so-far surviving member of the non-ID crowd here, let me point out that Barry’s argument is a prime example of embedding all sorts of assumptions into one’s premises in order to make something look like a “logical” argument. As we discussed in an earlier thread, there is a difference between a valid argument, in which the logic is correct, and a sound argument, for which the premises must be accurate reflections of reality. Leaving aside the issue of whether the premises are accurate reflections of reality, it looks to me like his argument isn’t logically valid.

    First, Barry’s argument is

    Statement 1. Designers often leave behind objectively discernible indicia of design in the things they design.

    Statement 2. Some aspects of living things exhibit these objectively discernible indicia of design.

    Logical conclusion. Therefore, the best explanation for the existence of the aspects of living things that exhibit these objectively discernible indicia of design is that they were in fact designed.

    Now consider this syllogism:

    All X are A
    Y is an A
    Therefore, Y is an X

    This syllogism is false.

    Barry’s argument takes this form, and is a false syllogism. Even though designers leave “objectively discernible indicia”, (and that itself is assuming a conclusion that is not “obviously true”), it is possible (the position of non-IDsts) that natural processes leave behind the same objectively discernible indicia (ODI). In this case, if designers leave behind ODI and natural processes also leave behind ODI, then the conclusion that life is designed because it has ODI is a false conclusion.

    In order to have a valid syllogism, Barry’s Statement 1 would have to say “designers, and only designers, leave behind …”. Otherwise, he has not precluded that other processes might leave behind the exact same “objectively discernible indicia” that designers do. This omission skips right over the very heart of the undecided issue: that there are ODI that truly distinguish designed from non-designed things, and more importantly, that there is an empirically reliable method of distinguishing things that must have been designed from those that arise through natural processes.

    So this “logical argument” is not very compelling: depending on how we read Statement 1, it is either logically invalid (if it just starts with “designers …”) or it begs the question (if it starts with “designers, and only designers …”), and it certainly skips over the very large empirical issues concerning the real-world validity of the concepts of specified complex information and irreducible complexity.

    I’m not here to argue the whole “specified complex information and irreducible complexity” thing. I’m just pointing out that putting it all in the form of a logical syllogism is an empty enterprise, burying all the conclusions and empirically undecided issues into the premises so that it all looks “logical”, as if that adds anything to the discussion of the real issues.

  9. aleta

    P.S. Upon thinking upon what I wrote, I see that if Barry meant by “objectively discernible indicia” not just ways to objectively (irrespective of whether one is an IDist or not) to measure the quantities of “specified complex information and irreducible complexity, whatever they are, but ways to objectively determine that a designer was involved, then he is not guilty of a false syllogism – he’s just guilty of begging the question, big-time.

  10. Flint


    I’m going to surmise that the syllogism was expressed backwards, which is what caused the logical fallacy you have identified. The original, but of course not articulated, syllogism was:
    1) All life was intelligently designed.
    2) We observe life.
    3) Therefore, it was intelligently designd.

    NOW, at this point the task is to somehow rearrange the shells in such a way that it SEEMS that the pea is still under one of them.

    Barry’s approach to this task is really quite subtle. We all design things, and we have a good idea what “designs” (that is, things we design) look like. The “objectively observable indicia” of human designs are well enough understood so that archaeologists looking at rocks rarely get false positives or negatives in distinguishing tools from similarly shaped unworked rocks.

    But they are able to do so only due to a very thorough understanding of the techniques and techologies of the artisans. And THAT is the part Barry slips in through the back door. He does not know either one about his Designer, can’t afford to admit it, and can’t construct his arguments so as to make that obvious. As ID people are fond of saying, the Designer’s methods are smuggled in.

    But in any case, your argument that the complex adaptive feedback processes biology uses ARE a design technique, is spot on. We all see the result of that design, and we know a very complex process was required to produce it. Sometimes I wonder if people are rejecting the sheer difficulty of understanding biological processes in favor of the sheer simplicity of magic. But most of the time, after a little reading, I see that we’re not dealing with intellectual cowardice, but with theological preconvictions. Hence the “real” statement 1) above.

  11. R0b

    Statement 1. Designers often leave behind objectively discernible indicia of design in the things they design.

    By “designers”, he presumably means “humans” (or possibly other primates, dolphins, or, according to Joe, termites). So we can apply Barry’s logic more specifically:

    Statement 1. Human designers often leave behind objectively discernible indicia of human design in the things they design.

    Statement 2. Some aspects of living things exhibit these objectively discernible indicia of human design.

    Logical conclusion. Therefore, the best explanation for the existence of the aspects of living things that exhibit these objectively discernible indicia of human design is that they were in fact designed by humans.

    Barry calls this a “logical deduction”, but the logic seems less than airtight.

  12. Pingback: It’s not You: It’s Your Ideas and Reasoning (or Lack Thereof) | The Rio Norte Line

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