Logic and Education

Written by Abdullah Mirza based on a conversation with LIFE founder, Shaykh Mustafa Styer.

What is education, and why is logic such an important component of a great education? Education is all about knowledge that can be taught, and all knowledge that can be taught must fall under a specific science or subject. For example, knowledge of God’s mercy belongs to the science of theology, knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem belongs to geometry, knowledge of the function of the perfect passive participle falls under grammar. Can you think of any kind of knowledge that isn’t part of any subject or science? You might say, well the things themselves, of course! A biologist might be able to tell me how a sheep’s heart is structured and what all the different parts do, but a biologist doesn’t teach me how to recognize a sheep or demonstrate to me what a sheep is. For that matter, how do I even recognize a sheep in the first place?

In fact, the act of recognizing objects and forming clear concepts about things in the world is the first step in the process of logical reasoning. However, for many, this first step isn’t as easy as it once was in the past. Part of the reason for this is due to the work of several influential Western philosophers who doubted our ability to understand things as they really are. This eventually led to a now-prevalent theory called “constructivism,” that is, that our thoughts about things in the world don’t really correspond to any realities, but our mind just “constructs” or makes up the ideas ourselves. In other words, just because I see a sheep doesn’t mean there really exists such a thing as a sheep, but I form the idea of a sheep (or anything else, for that matter) for myself in my own head.

Why would this be a problem, you might ask? Why is it important for the reality to exist in the object itself, not only as an object of my imagination? Even if you have a completely different idea of what a sheep is from me, I can accept you and you can accept me and we can all get along just fine. This way of thinking is called “relativism,” and is the idea that there is no objective truth or reality, but the truth is something that is unique to every individual. This may seem harmless when talking about trivial matters such as ice cream flavours or your favourite colour, but when it comes to more serious topics such as morality, relativism becomes a major problem. Ideas of relativism and constructivism are ubiquitous in today’s educational environments in the liberal West. When we Muslims, especially the youngest among us, venture out into secular environments, be they high schools or universities, it becomes difficult to navigate the murky waters of postmodern ideologies while remaining true to religious principles and beliefs which proclaim an objective and all-encompassing reality.

Unlike relativist or constructivist ideas about how knowledge works, classical logic is a “realist” system, that is, it tries to deals with things as they really are. The classical Shari’ah sciences are all built on logic. At the beginning of any manual on such a science are stated the starting principles wherein the intrinsic attributes of the topic are defined. In other words, traditional Islamic sciences always make the subject matter very clear at the beginning, so as not to delve into things that are only tangentially related and not linked in a deeper sense.

Logic, in contrast to any particular subject science, is foundational to all the sciences. When we study logic, we learn how to account for our own thoughts. First, we learn to form clear definitions or concepts of things. Next, we make propositions by combining two concepts. Finally, a proof arranges the propositions into a coherent demonstration of some actual knowledge. When it comes down to it, people do not debate the rules concerning the structure of a logical argument, but only the propositions upon which the argument fundamentally rests. This, needless to say, does not eliminate differences altogether, but it offers principled grounds for disagreements between those engaging in scholarly discourse.

In modern schools, grammar and logic are no longer taught as central elements of the basic curriculum. Without a system for classifying subjects clearly and unambiguously, modern schooling becomes an exercise in associations. When writing essays, students are expected to demonstrate critical thinking and provide a cohesive argument, one that doesn’t contradict itself, but we can hardly expect the modern essay to be cogent, or logically sound and convincing.

One might argue that a sound understanding of how logic works is necessary not only for those who want to write meaningful essays but also for those who want to understand how to evaluate any argument at all. For instance, take the infamous English philosopher David Hume. He argued against the idea of cause and effect and necessity, long considered indispensable elements of the system of Aristotelian logic. He nevertheless still structured his entire argument according to the principles of classical logic. Similarly, Immanuel Kant, who argued that we cannot truly know things in themselves, structured his argument in a thoroughly logical manner. First, he defined his terms and then carefully structured his propositions and arguments around his opening principles. Formal logical reasoning is so indispensable that even the opponents of realism and the logic of prior generations nevertheless used the very same tools of the past to formulate their impassioned arguments.

Some of these notions that philosophers raise regarding the reality of things are certainly worth pondering. How is it that we know the things we know? On what basis can we claim to understand reality? We have always asked these questions and human beings will continue to disagree on them as long as there are human beings. The real problems arise as soon as these questions leave the pages of the philosophy books and become the unintended basis of our entire educational philosophy. At the end of the day, logical reasoning is the only process by which we human beings can follow a clear roadmap, from start to finish, to the truth. In our day and age, almost a millennium and a half since the arrival of the last prophet, that may be something we have never needed more than now.