There is a hierarchy of relational structures involved in any rational inquiry. No step or stage of this hierarchy may be legitimately skipped, although in various contexts certain of them may be relatively invisible. As might be guessed by the title of this entry, that hierarchy is the one that runs between logic, principles, evidence and facts. In essence, this is a “meta-relation” between that which is universal – logic, that which is general (in the sense of genera) – principles, that which is specific (in the sense of species) – evidence, and that which is particular – facts. Now, anyone familiar with the works of Peirce and Dewey (see for example, HERE, HERE and HERE) will not find what I have to say in this post especially surprising. Nevertheless, the basic ideas presented seem like ones that deserve a broader audience than just and only scholars in American Pragmatism. And I have long found this litany – logic, principles, evidence, facts – to be a useful one, such that I am inclined to repeat it often enough that having a citable explanation will be of value.
Before proceeding, it seems worthwhile to cast a thought at the potential redundancy of the phrase “rational inquiry.” In what respect does an activity that is not rational deserve the praise-worthy term of “inquiry”? For example, does prayer, or a casting of runes, or sacrificing of a goat, qualify as a kind of inquiry? Does the mere fact that such activity can be accompanied by a string of words (whether merely thought to one’s self or spoken out loud) that stand in a grammatical form somewhat akin to that of an interrogative, suffice to make the activity an inquiry? I know that a great many people would aggressively insist that, “No! It is not enough!” and thus fall decisively on the side that says the phrase “rational inquiry” is a gratuitous redundancy. (Rather like “gratuitous redundancy” itself is gratuitously redundant; but I’m fond of the emphasis.) I actually tend toward that view myself. However, I also find that many of the people in that camp also tend to be intransigently dogmatic, a behavior that is vastly more annoying to me than is is the simplistic credulity of people who think their horoscope reveals the future, or the television series Medium was a documentary. So I will live with the potential redundancy, and focus my interests here (and, generally, throughout this blog) upon rational inquiry.
Now, I’ve referred to the list “ logic, principles evidence and facts” as a hierarchy, primarily so that I might grab the readers’ attention with a deliberate error that might then be fruitfully highlighted and corrected. “Hierarchy” suggests something is on top, something else is on bottom, and most likely we can all guess which one is which. Contrary to such assumptions, while there is certainly an order to the list, it is not one that runs from the most important to the least, which is what the term “hierarchy” tends to suggest. Logic is not somehow more important than facts, despite being universal to the “merely” particular aspect of factuality. Many forms of psychosis are rigorously logical; it is the abandonment of the rest of the list that makes the person insane. On the other hand, conspiracy theory twaddle thrives on cherry-picked facts by the bushel, as though this were somehow adequate to the task of justifying the conspiracy theorists’ infantilism in the absence of logic, principles and evidence.
So let us now gloss the list:
Logic = Universal. Most academic philosophers today have a tendency to classify “logic” as just and only formal logic. This is a catastrophic error (especially given the form that the academics have gratuitously forced upon the subject). The position I would suggest has its immediate roots in Peirce and Dewey (as per the links above) but can be traced at least as far back as Aristotle. Under this approach, logic is the “theory of inquiry.” As the theory OF inquiry, it is the universal component in any inquiry. (In this instance, the “rational” is being presupposed.) In this respect, formal logic is that aspect of the more general theory of inquiry that studies formal relations between terms, statements, operators, etc. that all play a roll in the ordering and arrangement of questions to be pursued, and hypotheses to be rejected, as part of any rational inquiry. Being a part of any rational inquiry makes logic universal. (I might add that formal logic, on this account, show its greatest strength in sorting out information so as to most quickly and readily identify those ideas that cannot be true, that are not worth pursuing. Formal logic holds the critically vital position of being radically eliminative in nature.) Various arguments about logic can arise, in no small part because being universal does not mean we already know everything there is to know about it. However, anyone who would presume to dispute a point of logic had better know at least as much about the subject as those with whom said person might presume to dispute the point.
Principles = General. Not to poison the well too much on this one, but another word for this is “metaphysics.” A great many people – many of them academic philosophers or working scientists – find that term totally anathema. This is quite the pity, because metaphysical principles are inescapable in any activity whatever, to say nothing of rational inquiry. The only real question is whether one engages such principles directly, or just abandons the very pretense of rational inquiry in the name of dogma and ideology. Alfred North Whitehead was especially good at teasing such principles out of the practice of contemporary science (see, for instance, HERE, HERE and HERE.) But this is not a discussion that has remained unique to Whitehead. Other, more recent works, have noted various problems with naturalism, without being so absurd as to appeal to religion or supernaturalism (e.g., HERE and HERE.) Principles are subject to argument, and often times those arguments will appeal to other than strictly logical “principles” such as aesthetic relations. But note that such appeals are not really “extra-logical,” they are rather appeals with logic that are in addition to logic.
Evidence = Species. Evidence is a systematically ordered and related constellation of facts; the systematicity in question is that of logic and principles. Evidence (and facts) do not simply present themselves in their naked “here-ness” to be passively observed by the astute mind. They exist as facts, as evidence, because they are sorted and connected in relevant structures that allow particular facts to be sorted into systematically meaningful constellations of evidence. Thus, for example, my 18 year-old cat’s kidney disease is not relevant to my 20 year-old car’s timing chain problem, nor the latter’s effect on the engine’s valves. Both of these items are facts, but they are only part of the evidence in more narrowly constrained – and more or less entirely disjoint – situations. Principles play a sharply delimiting roll with evidence, a point that I will be exploring later when I engage topic of “Model Centrism” on this blog.
Facts = Particulars. Facts are the stuff of Trivial Pursuit. A person can be very good at Trivial Pursuit yet effectively know nothing at all. On the other hand, no one can be said to have a meaningful grasp of any subject – to have any real knowledge at all – who does not maintain a facile comprehension of the significant and substantive facts related to the area of declared knowledge. Facts are the foundational detail in which the devil resides, but only because God was there first and the devil is the jealous type.
A final note:
The direction between the universal and the particular – between logic and facts – is not really one between the abstract and the concrete. The statement in mathematics that, “The number pi cannot be rendered with an algebraic equation,” is an abstract fact. On the other hand, the logic of repairing an internal combustion engine or digging a ditch is as concrete as a head gasket or soil composition, as anyone can attest who has ever engaged in either activity. An abstraction is the list I have given above, a concrete fact with which I will be content to leave you now.