People Aren’t Stupid. They Just Don’t Understand Logic.

Don’t call people stupid. It’s mean, so neither of us should do it. There is only one situation where “stupid” is justified, and I’ll reveal that at the end of this article. (This is a long post, but a good one!)

The Thinker

Understanding logic is understanding how to think.

Some (perhaps many) people don’t know how to think. That’s different than “stupid.” Good, smart people fail at thinking, and so they appear stupid.

All the while, thinking is as simple as basic math. Literally, it is as simple as

1 + 2 = 3

Easy to understand. It flows. You can convert widgets, ideas, algebraic symbols – all sorts of things – in the logical syllogism.

A + B = C

• + •• = •••

This is logic, and it is the basic building block to thinking. Breaking down how to think into a simple equation like this is called the “logical syllogism,” and it is easy to swap the symbols with statements. Just replace the symbols with an opinion or agreed-upon fact – a proposition – and you have the syllogism. The formula is exactly the same:

Major Premise + Minor Premise = Conclusion

Those who discover the simplicity of the logical syllogism are people whose opinions, beliefs, worldview, and even desires bloom. They become better people. Let’s get into some specifics and learn how to think logically. 

Plug In Specifics

First: some simple syllogisms. They’re pretty easy. The major premise should make a factual claim, the minor premise brings in a variable that relates to the claim, and the conclusion should follow nicely. Real simple:

  • Major: Dogs are mammals.
  • Minor: Mammals have hair.
  • Conclusion: Dogs have hair.

There are several ways to mess this up. You’d appear stupid if you do. For the sake of displaying stupidity, allow me to:

  1. Claim that dogs are reptiles. Not true.
  2. Claim mammals have leathery skin. Also not true.
  3. Disassociate the minor from the major. Following “Dogs are mammals” with something like “snakes are reptiles.” The two don’t connect.
  4. Concluding without thinking through the premises. “Dogs have hair” is just as logical as “dogs are reptiles” when you don’t consider the premises.
  5. Clinging to a conclusion that does not follow. “I don’t want dogs to have hair” means nothing logically.

Messing up the syllogism is messing up the logic, and this is not the way to think through anything. This example is pretty tame. Not many people will disagree with either of the premises or the conclusion. But people think illogically all the time. 

Where People Trip Up and Appear Stupid

I honestly don’t think that there are not many truly “stupid” people. Most people can follow logically, if they give it some thought. When they get tripped up, stupidity becomes pretty obvious. Three of the main ways are listed below.

1. They cling to premises that aren’t true.

Like claiming dogs are reptiles, or mammals have leathery skin. We’d just look at them funny and think they’re uneducated. Or ignorant.

Here’s where people get tripped up all the time. I’ve been in political, moral and personal conversations where people don’t think logically. And they feel stupid when they’re corrected. (“You think you’re so smart, dontchya? What ya think I am, stupid or something?” Well, er…) I’ve heard these premises of late:

  • Political Premise: The recession was your political party’s fault. (Being an election year, we will hear this over and over again – from both sides!)
  • Moral Premise: God does not exist.
  • Personal Premise: I need a Mac.

These are stated early in a persuasive argument as if they are fact. I often jump into the middle of the conversation and say, “Whoa, hold on there. How do you know that to be true?”

If you are the one making any of these claims, I suppose you’d be frustrated with me. You shouldn’t get angry, though. I am challenging your thinking, but only because you are challenging mine. Each of the premises above were claimed by you, and I happen to not agree with them. I’m merely asking you to explain yourself, and I’d appreciate (just as you would) that you gave me a logical explanation. If you don’t, you and I may come to a faulty conclusion:

  • Political Conclusion: My political party will fix the recession.
  • Moral Conclusion: There is no moral right or wrong.
  • Personal Conclusion: You should buy me a Mac, Dad.

But, you know, people want to believe in those premises. They want to believe a certain political party is at fault, they want to believe God doesn’t exist, and my son wants to believe he needs a Mac. They may be right, but they are not convincing when they don’t strive hard to keep their premises clear and truthful. They definitely won’t convince me of the conclusion they want.

Solution: This is how you should think: humbly. You may or may not be right, and for the sake of the conversation, assume that you may not be. Even when the stakes are high, which – arguably – all three of these are. Entertain the idea that perhaps you’ve assumed (and that you’re actually wrong). There’s no shame in being wrong. Same with the questioner. Perhaps my political party did cause the recession, that God doesn’t exist , or my son does need a Mac. At least come to the conversation with this humble spirit, no matter how sure of one side you are. Entertaining these ideas can lead to wholesome discussions and fun debates.

2. They reconstruct the syllogism in the middle of the discussion.

Arguments can be fun, but they sometimes become angry and bitter when people don’t think logically. Reconstructing the syllogism is one of the biggest fallacies that lead to frustration and bad thinking. It’s, you know, stupid.

Consider yourself a challenger of each of the premises above. Challenges are good, and two people who know how to think logically can have a robust and lively conversation, but not if one attempts to change the logic of it all.

You: Wait, how do you know the recession was my political party’s fault?
Friend: Capitalism has failed, just admit it.

You: Wait, are you sure God doesn’t exist?
Friend: Christians are hypocrites, that’s all.

You: Son, are you sure you need a Mac?
Son: Macs are awesome! I really, really want one!

Notice that these responses aren’t really responses. They change the game and they’re unfair. There’s no concession or admission, nor is there a defense to the challenge. As a result, there is no real discussion. They are just speaking points, and they could very easily lead to a shouting match.

Solution: Stick with the logical syllogism that the two of you started with. Solve that first by considering the question – together. Both the questioner and the answerer should do this.

3. They make claims without thinking through the premises.

Let’s go all the way back to the political, moral and personal conclusions. Once again:

  • Political Conclusion: My political party will fix the recession.
  • Moral Conclusion: There is no moral right or wrong.
  • Personal Conclusion: You should buy me a Mac, Dad.

These claims are actually conclusions. They aren’t true unless the premises are true. Believing in these conclusions without thinking through the premises appears (you guessed it) stupid.

Just as stupid is responding to a conclusion with a counter conclusion. “Your party will not fix the recession,” “There is a moral right and wrong,” “Get a job, son.” These kinds of responses don’t engage logically. These are immature and irrational responses, just as unfair as the question, and they don’t encourage thinking at all.

Solution: Instead, the disagreement should lead to a fruitful conversation with a simple question: “How did you come to that conclusion?” Then come up with premises that either support the conclusion or reveal the fault in the conclusion.

Real Stupidity

Not many people are really stupid. But this is stupid: continuing to cling to premises that aren’t true, reconstructing the logic in the middle of arguments, and making conclusions that aren’t thought through when you know what a logical syllogism is. You’re refusing to follow the truth, and that’s stupid. Or evil.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jeremy

    Chris, this is an excellent post. Conversations about the things that matter are becoming a bigger part of my life with every new day. I am certain that I have been guilty of this on occasion. It is easy to go into a discussion without truly preparing and not realize it until you’ve just sunk your own battleship.

    I have been making a point of it lately to reduce discussions to the actual premises and conclusions being made. This helps force all parties involved to get on the same page and then provide real evidence that has brought them to their current opinion or understanding.

    • And this is an excellent comment, Jeremy. Come to think of it, writing out the syllogism on paper or a whiteboard is a great way to lead everyone in the conversation.

  • Guest

    This is an excellent post.

  • reb

    Hi! So does, “You should buy me things I need” follow “I need a Mac” ( Question posed to my students) TY!

  • BhatMahn

    “I honestly don’t think that there are not many truly “stupid” people.” I too think that there are many truely “stupid” people! 😉 I think that was an unintended double negative?

  • Daryl K. Sauerwald

    I don’t think people are stupid. I think the are born with logical capabilities but they are basic and un honed capabilities. One could add all kinds of things to my comments,this is just what I see a basic problem.

  • Paul Reach

    Hey Chris, what about the logic of God’s existence? I think there are more illogical arguments for the existence of God than there are illogical arguments for the non-existence of God.