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Philosophy

September 30, 2020

Philosophy conjures up images of the metaphysical, the examination of the meaning of life, love and all things about who we are. Some of the most famous philosophers — Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hegel and Marx — ring familiar. Philosophy has other elements though, including ethics, epistemology and logic.

 

Logic holds a place in our education too. Simply put if A=B and B=C then it follows logically that A=C. Simple, straightforward, easy to understand.

 

Life isn’t like that. Life has complexities, variables and a swamp of uncertainties. We need techniques to help understand the choices before us and give us a path to follow.

 

One of those techniques is inductive reasoning, taking the specific and creating a general rule. For instance suppose while sitting on your porch a crow floats to the rail. You look at it and think “that is a bird,” “that bird is black,” then conclude that all birds are black. Inductive reasoning has lead you to this obviously false conclusion.

 

More recently we have experienced vivid examples of inductive reasoning. “That is a cop,” then “that is a bad cop” becomes “therefore all cops are bad.”

 

You, dear reader, would immediately conclude both the crow and cop inductive reasoning are false because the size of the sample is too small. But suppose a murder of crows lands on the porch. The conclusion would be the same but still false for the same reason, the sample is too small — very tricky stuff, inductive reasoning, but we do use it frequently, in all kinds of situations, to better understand our domain.

 

Deduction is another form of reasoning. Back to the birds:  In deductive reasoning one would observe many, many birds during a period and note that their tints are variable, covering the entire color spectrum. The reasoning goes like this — birds are dressed in many colors, so knowing something is a bird does not permit us to predict what color it is. Deductive reasoning is stronger than inductive reason and for that reason it is the basis of the scientific method. If the premise is factual then the conclusion must be too. This leads to making certain the premise is a fact.

Subsidies encourage activity. Our government decided that dairy farmers were not producing enough cheese so Washington decided to subsidize cheese. The result — a surplus of 1.4 billion pounds of cheese, enough for every American to consume 45 pounds a year!

 

Conversely, the government(s) decided that cigarettes created expensive health problems. To counter smoking, governments heaped taxes on each pack. Cigarette usage fell from 42.6 percent in 1965 to 13.7 percent in 2018.

 

The conclusion, therefore, is subsidies create more and taxing something creates less. Years ago, a well-known radio commentator suggested:  If the government subsidized rich people, we would get more of them and if we taxed poor people, we would get fewer of them. It follows, does it not? (Notably, it was announced on April 1.)

 

Polls depend on getting the details, the premises, right. Polling too few people leads to false results and if the pollster does not insure that those polled are representative of the population, then the results despite sufficient number will not reflect the variance in the larger population. Polls then have to be targeted to assure that all the relevant factors are represented in proportion to their number in the population. Pollsters have to assure they get birds of every feather, not just the cardinals or the blue jays.

 

Today we have a swamp of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. We are told that once one survives a Covid-19 illness you are immune from another infection. We then learn that someone who had it once, got it again and another reports says four months after recovering, people had a strong presence of antibodies in their system. One could conclude inductively that the former meant that antibodies would not protect you or, deductively, that many people four months after recovering were protected. Which is it?      

 

Our pandemic has few valid scientific premises from which to make a deduction on how to act. Open up or lock down, three feet, six or eight to distance, this mask works or not, vaccine or cure, groups of 5, 10 or 50, immune or not, the young don’t get it or they do, schools open or remote. All these “premises” floating around leaves us with unbounded uncertainty. We are left with only our personal philosophy to guide us.

 

Accepting the Brits mantra during the Blitz might serve us well — “Keep Calm, Carry On.”

 

Frank Leister grew up in Charlotte, attended Georgia Tech, and worked 34 years for IBM. He advised school districts on technology implementation until moving to Charleston, where he is a docent for the Edmonston-Alston House and active in the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

 

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