Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Force of Reasoning: Insight from Physics on the Nature of Reasoning

By G J Gillespie“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” -- Democritus (460 -- 370 BCE)

Aristotle, the most famous debate coach of the ancient world, wrote his textbook The Rhetoric to teach students the art of persuasion. Key to Aristotle’s philosophy was the importance of learning to reason carefully. Humans in his view are the “rational animal.” Unlike any other creature, human beings have an unique capacity to draw conclusions from the evidence. We are driven to make sense of a fragmented world. We look for patterns in what happens around us and hope to predict what will happen next. 

The fact that the universe is intelligible permits scientific discoveries. Scientists apply reasoning to discover physical laws that govern our universe -- such as  Isaac Newton’s inverse square law of gravity (the closer you get to a point, the stronger the force). Usually truths that advance culture are established only after a long period of debate among the experts who fight over various proposals and hypotheses until a majority acquiesce.  The ability to debate is an essential part of what it means to be human. We question accepted ways of doing things. We argue over ideas to shape the direction of our future.  We present interpretations of what is observed, until others offer better explanations.

The controversial theories of Newton were vigorously challenged by his opponents at first.  But, he was able to prove his contentions by scientific experiments -- which became strong evidence in support the new perspectives.  Newton’s reasoning eventually led to the discoveries such as the steam engine and electricity that made the industrial revolution possible. All social progress follows a period of reasoned debate by advocates who are able to convince the majority to take a shared position.

More recently physicists have debated the nature of fundamental particles, stellar objects and cosmic forces. The existence of black holes, (Overbye) the Higgs Boson – the theorized “God particle” (Weinberg) -- and mysterious dark matter and dark energy (Kahn) (thought to make up 95 percent of the universe) spurred heated debate among cosmologists – until recent scientific experiments confirmed that these properties actually do exist. Before the experimental evidence gave weight to the theories experts were all over the map, each taking a different stand. After the arguments were settled, most of these scientists moved to occupy a single spot on the landscape of knowledge. It may be that discoveries in quantum mechanics will lead to new technologies we might currently find hard to even imagine. contribution to the study of reason based on ancient Greek and Roman teachers and developed in the twentieth century is the movement metaphor. This is the belief that reasoned persuasion is best explained as movement from diverse points on a plane to a single spot. To persuade an audience is to move them closer to our position. We advance ideas to sway others. Reasoning is a force we use to convince others. So, the comparison between an argument and physical properties in space and time is natural.

In advanced mathematics and physics, the idea of an imaginary space is called a manifold. An object in a manifold has a velocity that propels it across a plane from A to B. An arrow represents the velocity. The distance between A and B is called the order of magnitude. 

We see that the geometrical concept of a manifold is very much like an argument. An argument has a line of reasoning that is like the arrow of velocity: A (support) - - > B (claim). Like gravity or the nuclear force inside atoms, reasoning in an argument is the force that binds support to the claim. Without the binding force of reasoning, the bits of supporting material float chaotically -- appearing as random data that make no sense.  When we add reasoning in the mix, the bits of data cohere to form a pattern that makes sense. Children playbooks ask the reader to connect dots to create a picture of a cat, horse or in this case, a goose. (Connect the Dots). Reasoning is connecting the dots, pulling together bits of information to form a bigger picture. After hearing a persuasive argument, the audience will have an “Ah-ha” moment. “Now I get it!” 

The principle of connection in reasoning is like the velocity of movement of physical objects in space. Reasoning channels the energy in the support to propel an argument forward. The amount of ground that is covered from A to B, that is, how firm the connection between the support and the claim is established is the magnitude of an argument. arguments have high magnitude – meaning that when we add up a variety of supporting evidence it leads us to accept the claim. Just as high magnitude stars shine bright in our physical universe, so once we hear a strong argument, it dominates our thinking. Opponents find strong arguments difficult to dismiss, refute or ignore. We may look to the bright ideas of a strong argument to guide our thinking, exactly as ship captains of the past looked to the stars for navigation.

On the other hand, weak arguments have low magnitude, or weak persuasive force. These are dim bulbs that fail to enlighten. The support does not lead decisively to the claim. Just as the connections between the bits of support along the line of reasoning in a strong argument are difficult to break, a weak case is easy to tear apart. An opponent can point out that the support is insufficient, flawed, or irrelevant. The reasoning in poorly constructed arguments may be so fuzzy that the argument fails to make a clear mental picture.  The idea falls flat. The audience is unmoved or maybe even confused.

Again, the simple model of an argument can be visualized as the connection between two points on a two-dimensional plane: Support - - > Claim.

We can add other more complex models of how arguments flow. The chain model is a continuation of the simple model in which once a claim has been proven, it functions as support for a larger claim one after another. Each point is logically connected and builds on the point before.

Support - - > Support - - > Claim

The cluster model is a collection of independent reasons that each lends support for the claim.  

      Support - - > Claim < - - Support 

If it is true that persuasion is like momentum in space and time perhaps we might apply other physical laws to rhetoric as well?  Let us take the movement metaphor deeper by comparing reasoning to physical forces. Reasoning as Force in Argument Space

A force in physics is said to be the strength or energy that causes an object to undergo a change in speed, direction, or shape.  There are four fundamental forces that govern the universe: gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear and strong nuclear.  These forces rule how planets, moons, stars and galaxies interact.

Similarly there are four fundamental forces that bind points together in argument space: reasoning by generalization, analogy, cause-effect and authority.  Like physical laws, each force of reasoning also has logical laws and rhetorical principles that we can use to predict the persuasiveness of an argument based on them.

Modern rhetorician Richard Weaver lists the four types in a hierarchy from the most ethical to the least ethical.

Argument from:

1. genus or generalization.

2. similitude or analogy.

3. circumstance or cause and effect.

4. testimony or authority. (Weaver)
Starting with the weakest and moving to the strongest form of reasoning, let us consider how each compares to the fundamental forces.

Gravity is like Authority

Gravity in the physical universe is a force that pulls matter together. It shrinks the distance between objects. The more mass of an object, the stronger the gravitational pull it exerts. The effects of gravity also depend on proximity since attraction increases the nearer you are to a massive object.  This is known as the inverse square law: the intensity is inversely proportional to the distance from the source. Even though the sun is one million, three hundred thousand times larger than the earth, we are held to the ground by the earth’s gravity because we are closer to the earth.

In the argument universe, reasoning also is a force that pulls debate matter together. The first example of the pull of reasoning between forms of supporting matter we will consider is reasoning by authority. These are arguments which rely on the strength of a trusted external source. 

We might say that the pull of authority in the rhetorical universe is like gravity in the cosmos.

Ideas that are shared by credible authorities possess persuasive weight for listeners. When an audience hears testimony from experts or eyewitnesses, or is given the conclusions of published scientific studies, their thinking will move closer to the position advocated.  Just as the inverse square rule of physics shows that proximity increases force, the closer an audience is to the position of an authority, the stronger the persuasive force. If the authority is perceived as a role model or is highly respected, an audience will find it difficult to dismiss.

Reasoning by authority draws upon collective wisdom of philosophers or sages in producing artifacts like sacred scripture or founding political documents such as the Constitution or Bill of Rights.  The sway of cultural authorities (religious leaders, artists, writers, sports or film stars) is especially powerful. The findings by scientists in published studies using the scientific method may be inescapable. Like the effects of gravitational fields spreading across the cosmos, reasoning by authority is a pervasive force across the argument universe.  If authorities are on your side, you will probably win the debate.

However, an advocate who simply cites an authority and is done with it -- who fails to provide other arguments to back up a claim -- will probably have a very weak persuasive impact. Because Weaver believed that "an argument based on authority is as good as the authority," he placed authority as the weakest argument type in his hierarchy. (Johannesen)

Similarly physicists say that gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces.  Out of the millions of celestial objects floating in space a smaller body must be close to a more massive object before the force of gravity is felt. In the same way, audience members must be close to the authority who is recognized to have persuasive weight. In other words, he or she must already be in the orbit or pull of that authority's influence.

While we are familiar with the force of gravity in our everyday lives, a second fundamental force is invisible to us. Yet it turns out to be essential for our very existence. Analogy is like Weak Nuclear Force

Second, let’s consider how weak nuclear force is similar to reasoning by analogy and the creation of original metaphors.

According to physicist Micahio Kaku, the weak nuclear force is

“responsible for radioactive decay. Because the weak force is not strong enough to hold the nucleus of the atom together, it allows the nucleus to break up or decay. Nuclear medicine in hospitals relies heavily on the nuclear force. The weak force also helps to heat up the center of the Earth via radioactive materials, which drive the immense power of volcanoes. The weak force, in turn, is based on the interactions of electrons and neutrinos (ghost-like particles that are nearly massless and can pass through trillions of miles of solid lead without interacting with anything). These electrons and neutrinos interact by exchanging other particles, called W and Z bosons.” (Kaku)

In addition to permitting subatomic particles to interact and release energy, Kaku says the weak nuclear force causes the fusion that fires the sun and stars. Just as the weak force causes light to shine making it possible to see around us, an apt analogy in an argument is enlightening. While light is actually part of the electromagnetic spectrum; it has its source in the weak force. When the landscape is dark, travelers can look to stars in the night skies as glimmering points of navigation. In the same way, analogies are points in the rhetorical skies that guide our thinking – especially when an audience is unsure.

Without the weak force human life on earth would be impossible. Likewise since "all language is metaphorical," without metaphor and analogy language would be impossible. When we consider how new metaphors are generated we see more similarities between reasoning by analogy and the weak force. weak force is said to permit “quantum tunneling”, the strange ability for particles to jump through otherwise impenetrable barriers. Electronics applies the principle in the working of transistors for radios and diodes in television screens. According to quantum mechanics, matter exists as both a wave and particle. This is the wave-particle duality. One interpretation of quantum tunneling is that particles are able to pass through barriers in the form of waves of energy. Once crossing over, the energy on the other side is the same, but the amplitude (power) is reduced.

Quantum tunneling is like an analogy or metaphor in that the persuasive energy in one body of matter “crosses over” to another unrelated body of matter. Normally an impenetrable barrier of logic separates the two material objects being compared since there is a literal difference. Like a person walking through a wall, or ghostly neutrinos shooting through miles of solid lead, original metaphors do the impossible. They spark never before heard of insight.

Reasoning by analogy permits the rhetorical energy (meaning) to jump the barrier of logic by relating the two objects figuratively. The persuasive energy now flowing in the second object follows the same recognizable pattern that exists in the first -- although the amplitude is reduced, making analogy a weak form of argument. No one is forced to accept it -- although they may be more willing to listen to our other arguments.

Some destinations are so distant from the position of the audience that we must inspire them to follow where our line of reasoning leads. It may take a creative analogy to make them receptive.  In this way, analogy in our argumentation may be a kind of “quantum tunneling” that transports our ideas through the thickest mental defensive walls. 

While the logical jump made by the analogy may generate a persuasive insight for the audience, they are not bound to accept it. Analogy lacks the binding force of a literal comparison in an example. The persuasive power of analogy and metaphor comes from generating what Kenneth Burke calls “perspective by incongruity”. (Burke) An apt metaphor gives new thought patterns that surpass everyday thinking and inspires emotional support for accepting an argument. 

Consider: “My love is a red, red rose.” There is a logical barrier between “a rose” and the “my love”. Reasoning by analogy bridges the barrier with emotional energy. The same wave pattern in a rose is transferred to the love, which is now understood differently by the viewer exposed to the analogy.

The tentative nature of analogy makes it the next weakest form of argument after relying on authority alone. It is always possible to point out false elements in any comparison or to offer competing analogies for opposite positions.  Logic does not force an audience to follow the direction that an analogy implies. They are free to reject it in favor of a competing analogy. Similarly, physicists say that the weak nuclear force has a field strength that has less magnitude compared to other fundamental forces. The weak force is said to be unable to produce “bound states” and lacks “binding energy” necessary to force objects together at the atomic level. 

Analogies at best are ways for catching attention and framing an issue, useful for winning over the heart of an audience. Subtlety may be exactly what is needed. Just as the weak nuclear force is responsible for earthquakes by heating up the molten core of the earth, so an inspirational analogy is able to shake up thinking. Cause and Effect is like Electromagnetism

Third, we can compare the fundamental force of electromagnetism to reasoning by cause and effect.  The essential characteristic of causation is the idea of movement between related materials.  Showing that something is caused by a related effect in a sequence produces the power of the argument.

We show that when one thing is observed, it is followed by another thing in such a way that the first caused the second. We can speak of a"chain of causation" to explain how complex events emerge. One thing leads to another and to another. Persuasive force is therefore generated by showing a relationship between cause and effect. In other words, the energy of our thinking moves from the cause to the effect to a conclusion that we are trying to prove.

An advocate is using cause – effect reasoning when he or she argues that because people exposed to secondhand smoke have higher rates of lung disease, secondhand smoke causes lung disease. Thus, smoking should be discouraged.  We can see a flow of rhetorical energy from the cause (breathing secondhand smoke) to the effect (lung disease) leads the audience to accept our claim that smoking should be curtailed.

This flow of mental energy is similar to the physical force of electromagnetism. Electricity can be explained as the flow of electrons or energy between groups of related matter.  We know that every atom has an electron cloud. The electrons sometimes break free and move to other atoms meaning that electricity is basically the movement of energy. Inventor Thomas Edison defined it as "a mode of motion" between charged particles. 

The force of cause and effect can in the same way “charge” the matter of our arguments, filling them with persuasive energy. Just as electricity is the movement of particles that possess either negative or positive charges, so in a debate our points will be positive or negative – positive matter seeks to attract the thinking of the audience to your position, while negative matter seeks to repel them from the position of your opponent.  Likewise, the atoms in the matter of magnetized objects are lined up, creating a magnetic field that can attract or repel. 

While other forms of reasoning besides cause and effect can also be used to create positive and negatively charged matter in a debate, when a debater wins causation arguments, he or she can be assured that the thinking of the adjudicators will be lined up with their own. Causation in this sense is a persuasive force that binds your arguments together to make them receptive to the minds of the audience.

Usually we speak of causal relationships as increases in probabilities rather than absolute links. Rarely do we know for certain that one event is caused directly by another. Instead, a debater is on firmer ground to say that the there is an increased probability of the relationship holding true. Smoking increases the probability of cancer. We say that rhetoric (or persuasion) is concerned with probabilities and logic is concern with certainty.

A type of logic called a syllogism can prove the certainty of a conclusion. If the premises are true, we can be certain of the conclusion. All men are mortal. Socrates was a man. Therefore, Socrates was mortal. If the premises (all men are mortal and Socrates was a man) are true, we are certain of the conclusion (Socrates was mortal). Again, the energy of the promises flow to the conclusion.

However, most controversies that are debated are unlike classical syllogisms. Most of the time we can only get the audience to agree that more than likely, or probably, we are giving them the best explanation or plan of action. We can not be certain, but we arrive at a level of probability good enough to take action.

The probabilistic nature of cause and effect reasoning is analogous to physics, since quantum mechanics – the study of how energy works on the subatomic level – is governed by what is called the “uncertainty principle”. The uncertainty principle says that we can never be certain the position of an electron. Physicists can make a good guess where the electrons will most likely be present, but they cannot say exactly.  Physicists have a choice: either they can measure where an electron is or how fast it is, but not both at the same time. We are inherently uncertain about the quantum realm of the subatomic world. In the same way, when it comes to predicting the future or measuring the relationship between what causes effects to occur, we are never certain. The best we can get when debating social policy is statistical probability. Again we find a parallel between the forces of reasoning and the forces of nature – which makes sense since our minds are part of nature. Generalization is like Strong Nuclear Force

Finally we turn to the fourth fundamental force, the strong nuclear, and compare it to reasoning by generalization. Strong nuclear force is what holds atoms together. It binds protons and neutrons to form the nucleus of an atom. On a smaller scale, the strong force also binds the subatomic particles (quarks and gluons) that make up protons and neutrons.  It is the strongest of all physical forces. When this atomic bond is broken it results in an explosion of massive energy -- utilized by nuclear power as well as weapons.

In terms of argument space, just as the strong force holds matter together in the physical universe, so generalization holds our arguments together. And according to Weaver, generalization -- or argument by what he calls genus -- is the strongest argument type.

There are two ways an advocate might reason by generalization: setting down key terms or philosophical principles, and by giving examples of a general class.  By referring to general principles or values favored by an audience, the advocate draws them to accept a specific case.  For example: a speaker might appeal to such values as "All men are created equal," or "Democratic forms of government are best".  Then he or she might say: We know that slavery is wrong because all men are created equal. Or: We oppose dictatorships because democratic systems are ideal.

Pointing out that a case supported by universal moral principles is a form of deductive reasoning. The debaters draws conclusions based on larger premises already accepted by the audience. Once the premise is accepted, the conclusion follows. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves." Debaters will likewise hitch their wagon to the star of great moral principles and let the force of those truths win the day. (Emerson)

Besides looking to lasting principles, the second way that a speaker makes a generalization is by citing typical examples that illustrate the general idea. Generalization by example works like this: say I have a sack of apples hidden from my view. If I reach into the sack and randomly select an apple to examine it and discover that the apple is rotten, I will generalize that all of the apples in the sack are rotten. Examples that illustrate a larger group are powerful.

The most effective speakers know that vivid examples and dramatic stories are at the heart of argument. Until it is clear to an audience that people are affected by some larger harm, it will be difficult to persuade them to accept a solution. For example, why should we curtail video games? Because it hurts the psychological development of children. While this point could be supported with a statistic or scientific study, examples of harmed children will add emotional weight to the argument. To make the point memorable, a speaker could tell the story of specific children harmed by video games. In this way stories embody a thesis.

In addition to individual examples to support a larger point, we can look to the structure of a story or drama to organize our analysis. Narrative structure follows a theme. A theme is a generally recognized course of action among humans that is similar to what happens in a drama or play. Themes form the basis for literary novels and films.

Usually a dramatic theme follows this pattern: A victim is being hurt. Good guys are trying to save the victim, but they must overcome the action of the bad guys. Besides good versus evil, another theme might be social progression – that society is gradually improving over time as old forms of thinking are worn out and new ideas take hold. Dramatic themes like these glue together all the supporting material forming an overarching narrative that makes sense of the data for the audience, binding together all of the particular elements of our persuasive matter – just as the strong nuclear force binds the subatomic particles of physical matter.

Communication scholar Walter Fisher proposed the narrative paradigm of argument, claiming that all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling. He contends that "since human beings comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends, arguments will also follow a narrative pattern. An argument is essentially a story." (Fisher), then, is the atomic bond that makes the composite information in our speech cohere.

Quest for the Dark Matter of Argument

Overall, the four types of reasoning compose the universe of ideas just as fundamental forces shape time, space, planets, and stars.  Still, mastering the techniques of argument making may never be enough to automatically pull an audience into our sphere. Persuasion is a mysterious art rather than a precise science. With the advent of quantum mechanics scientists are also learning that reality is more mysterious than once imagined.

Physicists recently have discovered that the cosmos contains more mass than is accounted for by visible matter that we see around us. Most cosmologists have come to believe that visible matter is only about 5 percent and that 95 percent of the mass of the universe is made of “dark matter and dark energy.”  Dark matter may be based on a new kind of physics we have never experienced.

We could apply the concept of dark matter to public debate when we realize that what is said -- the matter that is exchanged in the communication between speakers and listeners -- is only a small part of the force that influences how an audience comes to believe. Most of the pull on our thinking is from unconscious information and cultural values that an audience brings to the setting. A speaker trying to influence an audience will take into account the weight of the “dark matter” of unconscious presuppositions and cultural values by lining up his or her arguments with the unstated assumptions hovering in the room. Harnessing this dark matter may require setting aside analytical reasoning in favor of intuition, creativity and poetry.

In summary we see that expanding the movement metaphor to include a comparison between physical forces and types of reasoning gives insight into how persuasion works. Just as the discovery of the four fundamental forces led to practical technologies like the steam engine, the electric light, transistors, and x ray photography applying these analogies from physics to rhetoric will aide our persuasiveness.

                •Like falling into a gravitational field of a celestial body, taking the side of authorities near to the heart of the audience will make arguments difficult to resist.

                •Like quantum tunneling, apt analogies, creative metaphors and comparisons have the surprising ability to break through walls of resistance, permitting an audience to see the light of our perspective.

                •Like a jolt of electricity, revealing the chain of cause and effect that make up a controversy will charge our case with power.

                •And, like nuclear forces inside atoms, tying our case to universal principles -- justice, equality or freedom -- and by storytelling -- we will strengthen the binding force of ideas.

With the continued promise of new discoveries, there are countless more comparisons between physics and the human mind. As nuclear physicist Isidor Rabi predicted:

“I don’t think that physics will ever have an end. I think that the novelty of nature is such that it’s variety will be infinite – not just in changing forms but in the profundity of insight and the newness of ideas.”  (Rabi)

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Weinberg, Steven, "Why the Higgs Boson Matters", New York Times, July 13, 2012.  (Date accessed July 26, 2012. < >)

Kahn, Amina, "Dark Matter Filament Found, Scientists Say, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2012. (Date accessed: July 24, 2012. < > )

Connect the Dots: Free Printable Pages, Date accessed: 7 26, 2012. < >

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Kaku, Michio, Parallel Worlds, A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc, New York, 2005. 80.

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo, The Atlantic Monthly; April 1862; American Civilization - 1862.04; Volume IX, No. 54. 502-511

Fisher, Walter R. Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

Rabi, Isidor -- cited in Zukav, Gary, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Harper Collins, 1979.  345.

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