Tiruvalluvar on Reasoning

Why It's Difficult to Reason with Unreasonable People

It can be very difficult to reason with people who are themselves unfamiliar to reason well - or even what sound reasoning really looks like. Critical thinking and reasoning skills aren’t taught explicitly in most schools, so most people are unfamiliar with things like logic and fallacies. So how does one reason with people who don’t understand how to reason?

Reasoning with a drunkard is like
Going under water with a torch to seek for a drowning man.

- Tiruvalluvar, The Sacred Kural.

The imagery in Tiruvalluvar’s quotation is very vivid — but what is he getting at? It is possible that Tiruvalluvar’s point was solely about reasoning with “drunkards” or, perhaps more broadly, about reasoning with people who under the influence of mind-altering substances and/or who are unable to establish enough control over their lives to stay clean and sober.

I think, however, that there is an even larger and more important point that can be taken from this quotation: that brining the light of reason to a person who simply doesn’t understand reason is about as useful as taking a torch to a man being consumed by water. In both cases, the light will be quickly extinguished: either by the forces of blind ignorance or the forces of the water.

It’s an unfortunate truth that a great many people aren’t all that skilled at careful reasoning. What is especially problematic, though, is the fact that when one is unskilled a careful reasoning, they also necessarily lack the skills needed to realize that they are unskilled at careful reasoning.

Thus, as a result, they typically think that they are quite good at the task — even to the point of criticizing the skills of those who actually do know what they are doing.

The problem here is analogous to someone who doesn’t know a great deal about grammar. Because they lack the knowledge of grammar, they simply don’t understand when they are making mistakes.

Moreover, they are quite likely to imagine that their faulty constructions are, in fact, just fine. You can’t simply tell them that they are wrong because they won’t believe you. Instead, you have to educate them about the basics — then, and only then, will they come to realize the difference between proper and improper sentence constructions.

The same goes for logic and critical thinking. People tend to think that they are above average at such tasks, even when they know nothing at all. You probably won’t get very far by simply telling them that they are getting it all wrong, but you might accomplish something if you can manage to educate them about some of the basics. When they begin to realize that they don’t know nearly as much as they thought they did, they will come to understand that their own efforts have fallen far short of their original goals. In a sense, the beginning of understanding and wisdom starts with the acknowledgement of ignorance.

You can’t take a torch to a drowning man under the water — the light will be extinguished before you get there. You must, instead, bring the man out of the water of ignorance and help him realize that he was drowning in the first place.

Then, with some luck, he’ll want to take the torch on his own.

Just take care not to miss the times when you’re the one sinking under the waves.