Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng


 The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Nonfiction: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Before I get into The Art of Logic in an Illogical Worlditself, I have to admit I am a fan of Eugenia Cheng. I do not know the first thing about the “School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” beyond its title and a quick visit to its website. It is a higher educational institution that emphasizes studies in the arts: visual and creative arts, teaching, writing, architecture, and many others. It does not offer degrees (that I can see) in mathematics, biology, physics, or other STEM types of programs. Yet, Dr. Cheng is the “Scientist in Residence” at this school. First, good for the school! And second, just how cool do you have to be to get a gig like that? Don’t misunderstand me: Eugenia Cheng is very good at what she does. Writer, concert pianist, Cambridge educated mathematician, she is elite in multiple fields. Part of her life mission is to combat math phobia. My guess is that teaching in a school of art allows her access to the front lines of math phobia, and the opportunity to influence the world with her infectious passion for her subject in very new and different ways. Which brings us back to her latest book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World.


Her first popular math book, How to Bake Pi, used cooking as both metaphor and analog for teaching math principles. This book is a little different. Here, she applies mathematical principles to logic. The two are actually quite intertwined. Logic and mathematics share common goals, they often use similar vocabularies, and although they appear to have differing applications, both actually seek to make the world more understandable and to give people a common frame of reference.


I enjoyed How to Bake Pi. I loved The Art of Logic. Cheng is a very good writer. She uses humor, clever analogies, real-life examples, and not too much complex math to help people (hopefully) become more logical. She points out how logical failures can lead to human conflict, and she devotes chapters to dealing with specific failures in logic. She forced me to reexamine some aspects of my own thinking, pointing out areas where I allowed myself to build a straw man or failed to see false analogies. (Fortunately there were not a lot of these, which may either mean I am relatively logical or that I am quite blind to my own flaws. I do rather hope it is the former!)


Cheng also offers some worthwhile cautions in the bid to be logical. One I will reword to say that logic does not necessarily empower one to win a Twitter war. Logic is not always compatible with brevity. One example she spends time on is the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Nice, brief, and sadly easy to manipulate negatively. Some argue that “All Lives Matter” is in some way a negation of the idea, or perhaps an improvement on it. Cheng points out that “Black Lives Matter” is really multiple ideas: 1) Black lives matter AS MUCH AS all other lives, 2) Black lives are not treated by society (in a variety of ways) as though they matter as much as all other lives, particularly the lives of those who are white, and 3) This second fact is a bad thing and we should do something to fix it. When understood in this fullness, “Black Lives Matter” is really trying to express the truth that “All Lives Matter.” They are not in opposition, or at least they should not be. If ALL lives matter, then BLACK lives matter, and in a world where too often black lives are ended prematurely, that matters. But the above paragraph, which condenses her much lengthier treatment of the topic, cannot fit into a social media posting. Logic does not necessarily fit into a tweet.


Which is a shame, because after reading The Art of Logic in an Illogical World I have some really great logical arguments for some annoying twitterers. Unfortunately, they just won’t fit!


Another caution she gives is to avoid separating logic from emotion. They may be different, but they are not incompatible. When it comes to persuasion, the two are both legs on the same stool. Few people are persuaded by only logic or only emotion (or only evidence, which is a third leg of that stool). Most of us require some combination before we are willing to change our minds. If I wish to convince someone that immigration is good for society, I will probably have to use a mixture of evidence (statistics show that immigrants add to the economy and commit fewer crimes), logic (current US birthrates are not sufficient to power the economy in the future), and some emotional appeal that connects to the person I am arguing with.


Of course, it may not matter. All of us have certain axioms, accepted truths, that form a bedrock for our decisions and opinions. If our axioms are in conflict, we may never be able to agree. But understanding that they are different is itself a step toward understanding each other. We may never agree on certain things, but sometimes knowing why we will never agree has its own value.


The Art of Logic in an Illogical World should be required reading for anyone who values thinking. (That is an opinion, but I would argue it is a logical one!) It is well written and thought out, and in a world where logic is in woefully short supply it is a delightful attempt to balance the scales.

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

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