Monday, July 21, 2014

Thinking in Shades of Gray

How many times have I heard it?  “I’m not like you (guys).  You think in terms of black and white.  I think in terms of shades of gray.”  I can safely assume that my interlocutor thinks of himself as more sophisticated than I.  He can appreciate subtleties and nuances that my dogmatic and inflexible mind misses.  Yet it is just a shallow pretension that is evidence that the facts are actually the other way around.

The truth is that some matters require thinking in terms of black and white, and some require thinking in terms of shades of gray.  In logic, the first kind of thinking is called ‘deductive’ reasoning, and the second is called ‘inductive’ reasoning.

A deductive argument could be this:  Mike owns a Sportster.  All Sportsters are Harleys.  Therefore, Mike owns a Harley.  This argument has perfect form, so we call it ‘valid.’  Validity is like pregnancy—it’s there, or it isn’t.  There is no sliding scale.

An inductive argument could be this:  No shark of which I am aware from every source of knowledge in my life has ever been able to fly.  Therefore, no sharks can fly.  These arguments can be strong or weak, and there is a sliding scale of strength, hence shades of grey.

I have noticed two tendencies among people who claim to think in terms of only shades of gray.  The first is a blatant hypocrisy—it is inevitable that this gray-thinking interlocutor has starkly black-and-white thinking on a wide variety of issues, and sees everyone on the other sides of those issues as evil/stupid/mistaken/dangerous/etc.  It’s just that on the issue under discussion at the moment, it is convenient to assert the gray-thought admonition.  The second is obscurantist thinking—it creates a fuzzy target to deflect intellectual criticism of one’s position.  I conclude that thinking in only these gray terms is both unethical and anti-intellectual.

This is the correct advice:  Think in terms of shades of grey at the appropriate times, and think in terms of black and white at the appropriate times.  That is the real wisdom for the accomplished mind.  Now sign up for my fall semester logic class!

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