Earnest Arguments With Dan

Okay, so the idea here is to do some instructional videos on fallacies, but to do them Joe Isuzu style.

Edna Maclean On Iñupiaq Counting

Introduction: The argument below can be found of page 831 of Edna Maclean’s Iñupiaq to English Dictionary.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: Edna Maclean, Iñupiatun Uqaluit Taniktun Sivuniŋit: Iñupiaq to English Dictionary, Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2014.

The decimal system is handy because the fingers can be used as counters. The Iñupiaq  base-20 system clearly extends this notion to the toes as well. The Iñupiat counted on one limb at a time, so there were 4 groups of 5, hence the sub-base 5 and the two-dimensional system. The human body may be considered the living model of the earliest abacus or counting board. Even the prototype of the Babylonian base-60 used points of the body to keep track of numbers. The majority of human counting systems are body-based. Some of the Iñupiaq number words clearly reflect their corporal origins. Tallimat, the word for five, for example, is related to the Iñupiaq word taliq, meaning ‘arm.’ The word for ten, qulit, means something like ‘top,’ suggesting that it refers to both of the arms  on the top half of the body. The word for eleven in most Inuit-speaking communities, including some Iñupiaq-speaking communities, means ‘it goes down,’ an indication that one is now counting on the toes. Further evidence is found in the word akimiaq, Iñupiaq for fifteen, which means something like ‘it goes across,’ implying that counting will now cross over an continue on the other foot.

The connection to the human body is most apparent in the Inuit words for twenty. Throughout the entire Inuit-speaking world, there is a clear human association. Most Inuit dialects use the same word for ‘person’ as for ‘twenty.’ The Iñupiaq word for twenty, iñuiññaq, is a word denoting a ‘complete person.’ Inuktitut dialects spoken in Eastern Canada use the word avatit, signifying ‘all the extremities’ of the body. Some have proposed that even the Iñupiaq word atausiq, for ‘one’ is probably also derived from a reference to the human body. Atusiq (or some close cognate variation, such as atauseq) is used almost universally where an Inuit dialect is spoken.

(Emphasis in original)

ANALYSIS

Comments: This is part of a larger discussion of numbers in Iñupiaq.

Statements: Okay, this is a long one (Sorry).

[1] The decimal system is handy because the fingers can be used as counters.

[2] The Iñupiaq  base-20 system clearly extends this notion to the toes as well.

[3] The Iñupiat counted on one limb at a time, so there were 4 groups of 5.

[4] [This pattern of counting on one limb at a time explains] the sub-base 5 and the two-dimensional system.

[5a] The human body may be considered the living model of the earliest abacus or counting board.

[6] Even the prototype of the Babylonian base-60 used points of the body to keep track of numbers.

[5b] The majority of human counting systems are body-based.

[7] Some of the Iñupiaq number words clearly reflect their corporal origins.

[8] Tallimat, the word for five, for example, is related to the Iñupiaq word taliq, meaning ‘arm.’

[9] The word for ten, qulit, means something like ‘top,’

(suggesting that)

[10] it refers to both of the arms  on the top half of the body.

[11] The word for eleven in most Inuit-speaking communities, including some Iñupiaq-speaking communities, means ‘it goes down,’

an indication that

[12] one is now counting on the toes.

(Further evidence is found in)

[13] The word akimiaq, Iñupiaq for fifteen, which means something like ‘it goes across,’

(implying)

[14] counting will now cross over an continue on the other foot.

[15] The connection to the human body is most apparent in the Inuit words for twenty.

[16] Throughout the entire Inuit-speaking world, there is a clear human association [in words for twenty].

[17] Most Inuit dialects use the same word for ‘person’ as for ‘twenty.’

[18] The Iñupiaq word for twenty, iñuiññaq, is a word denoting a ‘complete person.’

[19] Inuktitut dialects spoken in Eastern Canada use the word avatit, signifying ‘all the extremities’ of the body.

[20] Some have proposed that even the Iñupiaq word atausiq, for ‘one’ is probably also derived from a reference to the human body.

[21] Atusiq (or some close cognate variation, such as atauseq) is used almost universally where an Inuit dialect is spoken.

[22] The Inupiaq Counting system is based on body parts.

Discussion:

Explanation: The word ‘hence’ included in statement 4 is best interpreted as signaling an explanation rather than an inference. The authorisn’t really using statements 1-3 to prove statement 4 so mas as suggesting a systemic relationship between each of these elements. The wording of statement 4 has been altered to reflect this fact.

Missing Assertions: The final conclusion of this argument isn’t fully spelled out. It has been supplied as statement 22.

Redundant Assertions: These two statements do not exactly mean the same thing, but for purposes of the argument at hand, the differences do not appear significant. Hence, I have provided both with the same number [5].

[5a] “The human body may be considered the living model of the earliest abacus or counting board.”

[5b] “The majority of human counting systems are body-based.”

argargbigargyepDiagram: The diagram for this argument isn’t as difficult as it may seem. The author is presenting multiple pieces of information in favor of a general conclusion. Some of her points can be grouped into sub-themes with intermediate conclusions leading to the main point. She may be talking about the meaning of words, but Edna Maclean doesn’t make use of tricky semantics here. Her evidence is pretty straight forward.

One judgement call that I did make in preparing this diagram was spelling out a statement to represent the final conclusion of this argument. Although it does contain general statements about the role of the body in language in general, it does seem that Edna Maclean’s main point here is that the Iñupiaq counting system is body-based, as she might put it. Since there is no specific claim in the text that quite expresses that, I took the liberty to spell this out as a missing conclusion.

Although I am a little concerned about the semantics of the phrase ‘body-based,’ I thought it best to use her own vocabulary to express this main conclusion, not the least of reasons being that I wasn’t sure I could improve upon that language anyway.

I left two statements out the diagram, because I am not entirely sure how they fit in the overall argument. Statement 20 raises the prospect that the Iñupiaq  word for ‘one’ is derived from the human body and statement 21 says that all the Inuit languages seem to use a similar term. It seems that statement 21 could be used in conjunction with the general pattern which serves as the overall point of the argument to suggest that such consistent pattern must also be derived from body parts. This would suggest adding an argument that runs 21+[22] -> 20, but this would be a minor side point in relation to the arger argument ending at statement [22].  Since I’m not sure that I understood the point anyway, I think it best to leave these off to the side.

Evaluation: Most of these inferences are pretty straight forward. The author keeps providing empirical evidence in support of a range of observations about the role of the body in counting systems in general, within Inuit languages, and specifically in Iñupiaq. I think ‘moderate’ to ‘high’ ratings would be appropriate for most of these inferences, but I’m not going to break each of them down.

Final Thoughts: The basic question here is whether or not Edna Maclean has given us adequate reason to believe that Iñupiaq numbers exhibit a pattern touching on the practice of counting body parts. I believe she has done so.

 

A Hopi Comments on American Music

Introduction: This story appears in the book, Native American Testimony by Peter Nabokov. It is attributed to Fred Coyote of the Wailaki people. Wailaki and Hopi are two different Native American peoples. This is nevertheless a story about an exchange between a Hopi elder and an anthropologist.

Key Facts: Hopi dwell in a relatively dry region of northern Arizona. As with a lot of indigenous peoples, they have seen their share of anthropologists intent on learning about their ways. The story thus begins with a perfectly plausible exchange between an anthropologist and a Hopi elder about Hopi music and its relationship to the environment. A final twist in the story reveals a completely different point.

Text: Peter Nabokov, Ed., Native American Testimony, Revised Edition. 1978. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. It can be found on page 392-393. Note that the section quoted below begins after several paragraphs of narrative in which the anthropologist in question keeps asking a Hopi elder to explain various songs only to find each time that the song is about water.

And so it went all afternoon. And every time the old man would sing a song, the ‘anthro’ would say, ‘What’s that about?’ And the old man would explain it. It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.

And the anthropologist was getting a little short tempered. He said, ‘Is water all you people sing about down here?’

And this old man said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here. Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people, to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need.’ And he said, ‘I listen to a lot of American music. Seems like most American music is about love.’ He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?’

ANALYSIS

Comments: Anthropologists take a lot of grief, much of it deserved. Still, the reaction of anthropologist in this story seems counter-intuitive. Hell, I think lots of anthros would be happy to find such a clear and consistent pattern in their notes. Still, he makes a good stand-in for the many non-native voices that have had bad things to say about Native American practices.

Statements: For purposes of this analysis, I have omitted much of the narrative framing and focused on the arguments attributed to the Hopi elder. I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the first few sentences (and much of the larger text that was omitted here) in terms of one simple assertion (statement 1). I believe this is a fair estimation of the point behind these comments lead up to. I have also taken the liberty of rewriting the final question as a statement (number 7).

[1] Hopi songs are virtually all about water.

[2] For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here

[3] [The reason for the theme in question is] Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people.

[4] to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need

[5] I listen to a lot of American music

[6] Seems like most American music is about love.

[7] [Americans need love.]

Discussion:

Analogy: This is a good example of analogical reasoning The Hopi elder in this story begins with an explanation for the musical themes of his own people and then infers a similar explanation for the American public in general.

Explanation: The word ‘because’ in this argument could trip people up, particularly if they have recently been circling inference indicators in order to help them learn the difference between reasons and conclusions. In this instance, the ‘because’ isn’t really using the statement that follows to prove anything. It is suggesting that the rest of statement 3 is the cause of statement 1. Of course this text still presents us with an argument, but that argument involves a claim about the best explanation for the  central observations made by the anthropologist. Sorting the explanation from the rest of the argument is crucial to getting the argument right.

Redundant Assertions: Statement 1 is a very simplified version of the main point behind much of the text in the actual story.  The narrator, the anthropologist, and the Hopi elder all affirm the truth of the claim (though the anthropologist does so through a rhetorical question). Statement 1 thus expresses the point in each of the following claims:

{1a} “It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.”

[1b] “Is water all you people sing about down here?”

[1c] “Yes.”

Rhetorical Questions: The question: “He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?'” is rhetorical. It has been rewritten as statement 7.

Voicing: At face value, this isn’t even an argument. It’s a story. The argument is plot a development that unfolds within the story itself. The author nevertheless uses the story to voice an argument about mainstream American culture. In effect, the argument of the elder is the argument of the narrator.

Diagram: This is the diagram as I see it.

argI reckon statements 1 and 2 combine to prove 3, effectively telling us that a need for water is the reason for the prominent musical theme. Statement 3 is then used as an anecdote illustrating the truth of 4. Statement 4 is then used as the major premise, taken in conjunction with 6 (a new observation about Americans in general) to prove statement 7.

Ouch!

I figure statement 5 is an effort to provide evidence for statement 7.

This isn’t the cleanest argument structure you could find, but I’m pretty confident about most of it. The inference from 3 to 4 is the shakiest part of the diagram. It’s a big jump, and we could probably imagine a few different ways to look at the relationship between those statements. Still, people often derive a general principle from a single example. They may have unstated reasons for doing so, but this type of inference isn’t all that unusual.

Evaluation: I don’t see fallacies in this argument, and I don’t see deductive validity.  Most of the inferences here provide a little evidence for the conclusion, but they might be considered more suggestive than definitive. The result is a bunch of judgement calls.

1+2 -> 3. The notion that need for water is the best explanation for the musical theme emphasizing it is certainly plausible. We could explore other explanations, and knowing how to weigh them would raise questions not really covered in the argument. Is the argument enough? Hard to say, so I would consider this inference ‘moderate’.

3 -> 4. This is a Hell of a jump. The inference is ‘weak’ at best.

5 -> 6. This would be a kind of argument from authority. It’s a light version of authority, but the speaker is essentially using his personal experience to back the truth of his observation about American music. The strength of the inference thus rests on his authority to report that experience accurately.

Of course, listeners might find that statement 6 resonates with their own experience in listening to American music in which case they might not need an argument.

Either way, the inference is ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

4+6 -> 7. Once again the inference is reasonable, but we could probably find other explanations for the prominent theme in American music. What really accounts for the prominence of ‘love’ themes in American music is a tough question, though the Hopi elder certainly makes a plausible case. I would consider this inference ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

Final Thoughts: It does occur to me that this whole thing could seem rather petty to some readers. Why is the Hopi elder taking a dig at Americans in general? But of course explicit contrasts between the merits of mainstream American culture and that of Native Americans are very much a part of the history of Indian-white relations. That’s why it appears in Nabokov’s book. Whether or not this particular story is true, we can certainly find numerous instances in which non-natives have taken it upon themselves to comment on the short-comings of Native American culture, and unfortunately numerous cases in which such views informed actual policies with harmful effects.  The dig taken at mainstream American culture should probably be understood in this regard. It is as much an effort to counter-balance aggression from outsiders as it is a direct criticism of American culture.

 

William L. Iġġiaġruk Hensley’s Name

Introduction: In his autobiography, William Hensley provides the following account of his name. It comes in the midst of a number of observations on names and the changes that non-natives brought to his own people (Iñupiat).

Key Facts: William Hensley is a well respected figure within the Alaska Native community. Among other things, he played a significant role in the politics leading up to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Text: This excerpt is from William L. Iġġiaġruk Hensley, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People, New York: Picador, 2009. The quote can be found on page 12.

It was common for converts to keep their Iñupiaq names as well as their new English versions, and to pass both down through the generations.

Thus my birth mother – Clara, or Makpiiq – named me Iġġiaġruk after her father, and also gave me his English name William Hensley.

ANALYSIS

Comments: The key to understanding this piece is asking a very simple question; how likely is it that Mr. Hensley is actually trying to prove that his name is both Iġġiaġruk and William Hensley? (The answer is ‘not at all’.) Instead, he is trying to explain how his name came into being, and at the same time illustrate a little about the context of cultural changes reflected in his own name and that of many of the people he grew up with. Hensley’s audience is likely to assume that his name is exactly what he says it is. So, the point isn’t to prove that these really are his names; it is to help us understand what they mean and how he came to acquire them. The text is accordingly best treated as an example of an explanation instead of an argument.

Final Thoughts: Because this is not an argument, the analysis ends here.

David Silverman on Atheist Bilboards

Introduction: This is a tweet from David Silverman (President of American Atheists) defending the practice of placing billboards critical of religious views in public places.

Key Facts: David Silverman is the President of American Atheists which is a non-profit organization promoting the interests of nonbelievers in the United States. Under Silverman’s leadership, American Atheists have put up a number of public billboards promoting atheism and criticizing religion. These billboards have themselves drawn criticism from religious figures and in some non-believers as well. Some of the criticisms have been directed at specific themes and specific statements included in the billboards. Others have been directed against the general wisdom of putting such statements out into the public.

Text: This is the tweet in question.

DavidSilvermancropped

ANALYSIS

Comments: Two general points come to mind when considering this argument.

One is the possibility of a double standard in reference to billboards expressing a stance on religious topics. Christians in particular have been accustomed to producing such statements for as long as some of us can recall. The placement of anti-religious sentiments on a public billboard is however a relatively new practice, and it may draw more criticism due in part to the unusual nature of the messages. Simple confirmation Bias may be another factor insofar as the bulk of the public is unlikely to agree with an overtly atheistic message.

A second concern lies in the potential obfuscation of specific concerns about specific billboards. While this particular tweet addresses the issue in the abstract, some of the concerns raised about these billboards have been about very specific details about specific billboards put out by American Atheists, This is particularly true of those raised by unbelievers – whom Silverman presents as the party he intends to answer here.

Statements: The argument is set out as follows. Two missing statements [4] and [5] have been added. [4]  helps to seal the relevance of statements 2 and 3 to the rest of the argument and [5] is most likely the intended conclusion of the argument.

[1] Atheists who object to billboards attacking religion are ALSO victims of religious indoctrination.

[2] Lies deserve death.

[3] [Lies do not deserve] Protection.

[[4]] [Religious claims are lies.]

[[5]] [Atheists ought not to oppose billboards attacking religion.]

Discussion: Issues raised by this argument include the following; ad hominem, Interactional eclipse, micro-reasoning, missing statements, the principle of charity, provincialism, and thought policing.

Ad Hominem: The assertion that critics (atheist or otherwise) of billboards promoting atheism are victims of religious indoctrination is an ad hominem (circumstantial). If there is a non-fallacious way to interpret that suggestion it would be to treat it as a simple explanation to be taken at face value. In others words, it would be possible to simply think of this as an empirical question about the motivations of a select group of people. The second statement in the tweet, however, belies this interpretation as it makes it clear Silverman means to argue with his critics. This is not simply a diagnosis; it is an attempt to undermine the credibility of billboard critics.

Interactional Eclipse: To the degree that this argument constitutes a form of thought policing, it is explicitly an attempt to subvert efforts to engage in critical thinking about the value of anti-religious billboards through appeal to social dynamics. Whatever the value of the argument, any resulting debate is more likely to generate more heat than light.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most (if not all) tweets, the brevity of this argument is a problem, hence the need to supply nearly as many missing statements as those clearly expressed.

Missing Assertions: The intended conclusion of this argument is most likely some statement intended to discourage unbelievers from engaging in criticism of billboards promoting atheism. I have accordingly supplied statement 5 as an attempt to express this missing statement.

I would also suggest an additional Missing Assumption (statement [4] that religious views are lies). If this assumption is not true, then both statement 2 and 3 fail to produce anything of value in the argument.

Principle of Charity: It isn’t entirely clear whether Silverman means to suggest this argument applies to all instances in which atheists prove critical of billboards attacking religion or simply those who do so on principle (I.e. those who object categorically to the creation of such billboards instead of those with particular objections to specific billboards). His wording could facilitate either interpretation, and it is likely those who agree with him will include parties adopting each interpretation.

For purposes of keeping the discussion thoughtful it is probably best to treat this argument as applying only to those who object to such billboards in general. The alternative would in effect amount to a blank check to produce any content (no matter how foolish) critical of religion without fear of counter-criticism from other atheists. That would hardly be a reasonable position, so it’s not the most productive interpretation of the argument to pursue here.

Provincialism: Insofar as this argument seems to be encouraging atheists to be less like religious people, it could be viewed as an appeal to provincialism. Essentially, the appeal here is something along the lines of; ‘this is how WE act” or even “this is how WE should behave.” Well, WE (i.e. atheists) may or may not typically fall prey to religious indoctrination, but that appeal isn’t very cogent.

Thought Policing: One of the more compelling features of this argument lies in its implied comparison with believers. It is not merely that Silverman is suggesting that his atheist critics have been indoctrinated; he is reminding atheists that the conduct in question is unbecoming for unbelievers..This is classic thought policing., which goes a little beyond the normal ad hominem to invoke peer pressures and trigger loyalties associated with group membership. Just how significant such loyalties may be for atheists is an interesting question, but the argument still works this angle. The social dynamics at issue thus overshadow the rational significance of the argument itself.

Diagram: I take it that 2 and 3 are intended (with missing assumption [4] to prove statement 1, which is in turn intended to demonstrate the truth of the missing conclusion (statement 5).

2+3+[4] -> 1 -> [5].

 

Evaluation: Let’s consider both inferences:

2+3+[4]=>1. The truth of each of the assumptions in this inference would certainly be debatable. It isn’t clear that religious claims are all untrue (much less that they are lies), nor is it clear that lies deserve death (which is presumably a metaphor indicating the discrediting of such claims and a hope that they will eventually cease to circulate). If we assume by protection that Silverman means only protection from criticism (and not protection from coercive sanctions, then perhaps statement 3 fairs reasonably well in the truth evaluation, though a creative thinker could probably find a reason to protect at least some lies.

The inference itself fairs no better. It isn’t clear that objections to the billboards are offered in an attempt to ‘protect’ religion. Nor is it clear that the billboards play any constructive role in advancing the demise of religious beliefs.

If one doesn’t assume the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s intent, the problem becomes still sharper insofar as specific concerns about specific billboards may well address the effectiveness of those billboards in advancing a critique of religion.

4 -> 5: This is arguably an ad hominem (circumstantial) and/or an argument from Provincialism, as outlined above. In either event, the inference would be fallacious. Also, the argument side-steps the possibility that atheists might have reasons to oppose the billboard campaign other than latent sympathy for religious sentiment.

Also, if we do not adopt the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s position, it seems clear that atheists (even those who genuinely hope to confront religion whenever possible) may have a number of concerns about specific messages contained on specifi billboards.

I think the argument has to be considered unsound.

Final Thoughts: In the end, this argument does strike me as a simple effort to engage in thought policing. It effectively urges atheists to support their own camp regardless of any concerns they may have about the specific messages placed on these billboards or the general effectiveness of public billboards as a means of challenging religious views.

A Meme of Race

ctzeorzw8aqoujcIntroduction: This meme uses an observation about race to make an argument about the relative significance of race and personal decisions in determining success or failure in life.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “3 men in 3 different positions. In America, color doesn’t define your future. Your choices do.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I don’t know anything in particular about the history of this meme, or about the specific circumstances of those men pictured in it. It’s probably fair to think of this as one round in the culture wars. The absence of context is of course one of the characteristics of argumentation-by-meme. In effect, this lack of context serves to encourage readers to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about the issues in question.

Statements: The components of the argument are represented below. Two possible missing assumptions have been added (in blue).

[1] 3 men in 3 different positions.

[2] In America, color doesn’t define your future.

[3] Your choices do [define your future in America].

[4a][Success or failure is best explained in terms of a single cause.]

[4b][If race determined the success or failure in a person’s life, we would expect all three of the black men in this picture to occupy similar roles in life.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; false alternatives, micro-reasoning, missing assumptions.

False Alternatives: There are a few ways to model the reasoning in this argument, but it’s tough to get around the presentation of two (mutually exclusive) options as the totally universe of possible explanations for success or failure in life.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most memes, this argument reduces a complex issue to an extraordinarily small text.

Missing Assertions: It may be helpful to think of this argument as resting on a missing assumption. I have supplied two different variations of this missing assumption. When either assumption is added, the inference is perhaps a bit more cogent, but the truth value of the assumption is questionable at best. So, adding these assumptions doesn’t improve the soundness of the argument too much, though it may help to clarify the nature of the issues in question.

20161216_173528-copyDiagram: I can think of a several different ways to model the reasoning in this argument. I am presenting 3 of them here:

Option alpha: This approach leaves out the addition of a missing assumption. Statement 1 is thus taken to prove two separate claims, all on it’s own.

Option beta: In this example, missing assumption 4a is added to statement 1. The two together are taken to prove both statement 2 and statement 3. The additional assumption helps to explain why statement 1 might lead to statements 2 and 3, but as this assumption is of dubious truth value this simply transforms the problem from questions about the  cogency of the inference to one about the truth value of one of its premises.

Option boo: In this version, statement 1 is combined with missing assumption 4b (that the variety of life outcomes is consistent with the notion that race determines those outcomes). The two together are taken to prove the truth of statement 2 which is then taken to prove the truth of statement 3.

Note: The reason statements 2 and 3 are represented here in the form of a serial argument rather than separate conclusions in a divergent argument is that the missing assumption focuses attention on statement 2 without contributing directly to statement 3. The notion that statement 2 would then provide evidence for statement 3 seems the best way to proceed from there.

Evaluation: No version of this argument comes out sound, because the argument turns on false alternatives no matter how you look at it. In option alpha, the false alternatives leaves conclusion 2 and 3 unsupported by assumption 1. In option beta, the false alternatives have been expressed directly in terms of a missing assumption, but that assumption is likely false. In option boo, the missing assumption has been articulated in terms of a conditional statement, but that statement too is clearly false. No matter how we set this argument up, it turns on an unrealistically narrow set of possibilities.

Why does every version of this argument turn on false assumptions? Because it addresses the question of what makes the difference in the lives of these men as though a single causative factor will account for the difference rather than a combination of different factors. The notion, for example, that race might make some outcomes more or less likely than others without totally determining the outcome is simply not considered in the text of this meme. So, whether race is construed as a direct biological cause (as racists would have it) or a social construction (as those interested in social justice might suggest), the meme sets aside any efforts to consider how racial factors could interact with other issues such as class, religion, family background, or personal resilience to produce an account of these different life trajectories.

Final Thoughts: In addition to the sloppy argument, it’s tempting to suggest there is something prurient about this meme. It invites all of us to entertain questions about what makes the difference success and failure for black men. For most of us, that is a question about someone else, which is probably what the author of the meme has in mind.

Helpful Principles of Reasoning

Some of the ideas commonly cited as logical principles are probably better thought of as matters of argumentative ethics rather than the calculation of logical relations between different statements or propositions. They involve assumptions about how best to go about reasoning with others (which of course includes ideas about how to read and interpret the efforts of others to reason with us). The list of such ideas would certainly include: Burdens of Proof, Ockham’s Razor, and the Principle of Charity as well as some logical fallacies. Many assume that these principles are as much a part of any logical system as anything one might encounter in formal logic (say, the principle of double-negation). Others dismiss these ideas outright. I think it best, really, to regard them as practical decisions which help to facilitate a more productive approach to reasoning. One cannot give the same account of such principles that she might for concepts like double-negation, yet they can help us shape our arguments and our analysis of arguments into something more productive than it would be otherwise.

Burden of Proof: This is the notion that in any given debate, one side may bear more responsibility than the other for producing evidence in favor of its position. This principle is enshrined, for example, in the American legal system wherein we typically regard people as innocent until proven guilty (at least with respect to criminal charges). The notion has also generated a great deal of interest in the philosophy of religion wherein debates between atheists and believers often focus on questions about the responsibilities of each regarding the production of evidence for and against belief.

Much of the issue turns on questions about the (a)symmetry of affirmative and negative propositions. If we take any given proposition (p), the question arises as to whether or not its affirmation (p) is equivalent to its negation (not p). Given that P and Not P are contradictory propositions, this would seem to suggest that the two have equivalent value. If one is true, the other must be false. If it is false, then the other must be true. This would seem to suggest that any given proposition and its negation are equivalent for purposes of logical testing. That argument seems plausible, but it rests on a very formal approach to the subject. It doesn’t take into account some of the vagaries of semantics (questions of meaning) or the practical constraints that may skew the production of evidence and/or the significance that evidence would have in practical reasoning. This is where the case for asymmetry arises (i.e. the view that there are significant differences between the truth value of affirmative propositions and their negations).

One argument for asymmetry rests on the notion that negation (or at least some versions of negation) itself is inherently ambiguous. In some cases, such as predicate term negation, the conditions under which the truth of a negative claim could be established are fairly clear. If, for example someone were to say’ “Dan is in Barrow, Alaska,” I could say no, and I could do so on very definite grounds (i.e. that I am presently on vacation in Azusa, California). In this case, my rejection of the initial claim is based on a very clear condition in which the facts asserted in the claim are not consistent with the evidence at hand. If all negations were so simple, one could as easily accept the burden of proof for negative claims as one could for affirmations. But some negations are more complex than that. If I reject the claim that “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” I could no longer point to a specific fact that disproves the proposition. Rather, my argument would pertain to the nonsensical nature of the statement itself (which was of course precisely the point of Noam Chomsky’s original presentation of it). Instead of proving the point wrong in any fact-based argument, I would be challenging the meaning the statement, and (if that statement had a legitimate proponent) challenging her to produce something more meaningful before moving on to questions about the factual evidence that would confirm or deny it. For this, and several other reasons, it is sometimes suggested that negation is more problematic than affirmation. To affirm that a statement is true, one must accept as meaningful all of its terms and affirm the state of affairs they describe. In contrast, one may reject a proposition on the basis of other concerns.

On a more practical level, one can point to the difficulties that arise from specific contexts of contested claims. If I assert that one of my students (let’s call him ‘Bill’) cheated on a test, most people would regard it as unfair for me to suggest that it was Bill’s responsibility to prove me wrong. I would normally be expected to put mown reasons for saying this on the table. If I can produce evidence that he did cheat, then it might be fair to expect Bill to answer that evidence. So, for example, if I showed that his essay looked a lot like a Wikipedia entry, I would expect him to show that I was wrong or accept the consequences for cheating. What I could not do is expect Bill to prove that he had not cheated on the test himself without providing any reason to believe he had done so in the first place. (More important, I suspect that in such an example the Dean of Instruction at my college would expect me to produce an account of my reasons for thinking the student had cheated. Only then would she turn to the student for a response to the accusation.)

There is no Bill by the way, at least I’m not talking about one. If any past or future Bill’s read this, no I’m not talking about you. Really, I’m not.

This last example helps to illustrate something else that’s interesting about burdens of proof; it is only one component in a complex dialogue, one responsibility which may (or may not) fall to a particular party in a debate. Once an initial case for the affirmative side in a debate has been made, it is common to expect that a burden of moving the debate forward will pass to the other side. He or she cannot simply sit there and say ‘no, no, no’. At some point, she must address the claims made by others, either by producing a direct case of her own (i.e. proving the affirmative claim wrong, much as one might do in the case of predicate term negation) or by refuting some aspect of the case against her. Another consideration here lies in the way that possession of the burden of proof can also be tied to the privilege of shaping and defining the terms of debate. If I am attempting to prove that Bill cheated, then I am the one putting forward a specific case, applying a specific definition of what it means to cheat to the situation. Bill may take issue with any of these elements (including the definitions I apply to relevant terms), but in all likelihood, the terms of the debate will be set by my efforts to provide an initial case against him. So, the burden of proof is not a uniformly disadvantageous thing to carry into a discussion. It comes with benefits too.

The fact that burdens of proof are themselves subject to debate does provide one significant argument against invoking them. Their role in legal reasoning is set by established conventions, of course, but in less structured contexts such as the aforementioned debates between atheists and theists, questions about who does and who does not have the burden of proof are every bit as troublesome as those about whether or not God exists, who She is, or what sort of church She wants you to go to. So, instead of helping to shape a productive conversation, invoking this principle often serves to provide the sticking point which stops that debate from happening. This doesn’t make the concerns that lead people to argue for asymmetric burdens less valid, but it does serve to suggest that advancing them may not help you communicate effectively with any particular person.

Ockham’s Razor (alt. Occam’s Razor): This principle is attributed to the Franciscan Friar William of Ockham who formulation is usually translated as follows: “Plurality must never be posited without necessity.” Ockham wasn’t actually the first to articulate the principle, and he certainly wasn’t the last, but he was known to use this principle rather often. One of the more common reformulations of the rule reads; “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Perhaps the expression most in keeping with the rule itself is; “The simplest explanation is the best.” Perhaps , we could simply say; “keep it simple stupid.”

…okay, that’s probably too simple.

Anyway, the concept here is that given different alternative explanations for the same thing, we ought to choose the one that makes the fewest assumptions possible. This is sometimes described as the principle of Ontological Parsimony. Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that we should opt for explanations faulty explanations on the grounds that they are often simpler than accurate ones. The idea here is to shed unnecessary assumptions when they do not actually add accuracy to the explanation. It is a rule of thumb that applies when all other things are equal.

Oddly enough, this principle of simplicity raises all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of reasoning in general, and about the practice of scientific explanation in particular, but for our purposes here it is enough to think of it as a good rule of thumb when considering alternative explanations with roughly equal explanatory value. This rule of thumb is not strictly a function of truth-functional relations between propositions, or even about how to weigh evidence. It comes into play only after the evidence is judged to fall equally on two or more theories (assuming that ever really happens), so it is more a question about the practical choices one makes when reasoning than the logical relations between inferences. Hence, its inclusion in this list.

Principle of Charity: The principle of charity comes into play when to interpret another person’s reasoning. As it happens, we can often interpret what another person says in more than one way. If we are talking to them, or otherwise engaging in continuous dialogue (say by email or chat-room) we can sometimes clear this up by simply asking them what they mean, but if we are stuck with a written text and no clear way of soliciting clarification, then sometimes we have to choose between multiple plausible interpretations.

In such cases, the principle of charity would tell us to choose the interpretation that provides the most sound construction of the argument in question. As an extension of this, one ought to refrain from treating an ambiguous text as an argument if the only argument this then produces would then be obviously unsound.

This may seem like another way of telling people to play nice, but the principle of charity is also about ensuring that your own efforts to evaluate an argument are actually productive and useful. Given the opportunity to stick someone with an argument containing an accidental (unnecessary) flaw, will enable one to reject their reasoning, but if that flaw isn’t essential to their point, then the resulting evaluation will apply to a less intellectually useful version of their argument. By contrast, if you construe an ambiguous argument in the most charitable way possible, then should that argument prove unsound, your evaluation will be more decisive. By following the principle of charity, we choose not only to give those whose arguments we consider a better chance of approval, we also ensure that our own time and effort will be spent considering serious thoughts and substantive considerations.

I think the practical nature of this principle is self-evident. It is not strictly a function of logical relationships. One might add that there are clearly circumstances in which people may not wish to follow this rule of thumb. Certainly a Public Relations representative or a lawyer, perhaps even a politician, may gain some ground by exploiting ambiguities in the positions of their opponents. Whether or not that always helps them in the long run is an interesting question, but it seems fair to say that in at least some cases some people may accomplish their own goals better by violating this principle than by following it. In the realm of academic study, this is perhaps less likely than some of these other contexts. (Note that I do not say it never happens in academia, or even that it would never be sound practice to adopt an uncharitable interpretation of someone with an opposing view.) Suffice it to say that there are genuine benefits to following the principle of charity, and that such benefits have led many to recommend some version of it to those new to the subject.

Two additional considerations: Note that the principle of charity does not mean that one ought to improve upon the arguments of others before evaluating them. It sometimes happens that one will hear an argument and realize that you could improve upon it by changing some of its details. You can choose to do this or not as you see fit (perhaps after responding to the argument as it stands), but this isn’t really about the principle of charity. The principle of charity apples only insofar as one is considering plausible variations on the argument one has actually been presented.

Secondly, if a controversy generates sufficient interest in the public, it will produce a variety of different arguments in favor of different positions. When evaluating those positions, one may be confronted with a choice of different arguments with varying degrees of worth. One may even find that the less worthwhile arguments in favor of a position are significantly more popular than the more thoughtful variations. In such cases, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with commenting on the cheaper variations on a theme (it may even be helpful), providing that doing so does not become a substitute for responding to the better and more sound variants. One should also take care to avoid responding to the more thoughtful variations on a stance as though they were producing the cheaper (and more easily dismissed variants). Given sufficient time and space, it is often worthwhile to produce separate responses to the different variations of a position, dealing with each according to its own merits.

Fallacies: Some fallacies can be understood in terms of practical assumptions about the purpose and social context of reasoning.

Ad ignorantiam: These arguments explicitly turns on questions about the burdens of proof required of participants in reasoning. While it is possible to think of the ad ignorantiam fallacy as occurring whenever someone fails to provide a reason for a conclusion, the possibility that burdens of proof may be skewed by the nature of the propositions in question puts this fallacy on the table whenever people raise such questions.

Circular Argument: It’s one of the more interesting features of circular arguments that they actually pass some of the tests of deductive validity (if the premises of a circular argument are true, the conclusion must be true). That should make them valid arguments, right? Still, we don’t think of it that way, and the difference lies in the rhetorical purpose of making an argument in the first place. Simply put, a circular argument fails because it fails to provide a reason worthy of consideration. This is only a problem if we regard the purpose of the argument as one of providing a new reason to begin with. So, this fallacy brings us back to the practical significance of argumentation. It is less a problem of inference relations than a failure of persuasion.