Tag Archives: Reason

Where Fallacies Live

FallaciesAn argument consists of premises and a conclusion.  Argumentation can consist of chained, supportive arguments.  Argumentation contains three places wherein mistakes, tricks or fallacies live.  The diagram to the right show the first two:

  1. Within a premises: these are called “informal fallacies”
  2. In the logic which connects the premises to the conclusion: these are called “formal fallacies”.

For a fantastic hyperlinked diagram of formal and informal fallacies, see “The Fallacy Files“.

Even if an argument does not have any informal or formal fallacies, a listener could rightfully demand “proof” (or an argument) for any of the premises which they feel is unsupported.  This is fine and good, but unless eventually the arguer and the listener come to some agreed premises, the argument chain could go on forever. This dilemma is called “The Skeptical Regress”.  See the diagram below.

Skeptical_Regress_simple

Like formal and informal fallacies, the Skeptical Regress and it’s fallacies have been known from antiquity. The first false solution to the dilemma (a fallacy) is to just accept the infinite regress.  The second Regress Fallacy is called a circular argument. See below:

Circular_Argument

The circular argument turns the infinite chain upon itself — like an Ourobus. This method brings back premises to be wrongly dependent upon the original argument’s conclusion.

Double_OuroborosIn summary, here is my classification of argument fallacies:

  1. Informal Fallacies
  2. Formal Fallacies
  3. Regress Fallacies
    1. Infinite Regress
    2. Circular Argument

Question to Readers:  Any corrections or suggestions?

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Laying out an Argument

In my “How to Reason and Argue” course (week 2 of 12 — still time to join), Walter (our professor) is setting out by defining terms. And indeed, agreed definitions are crucial for effective communication.

“The beginning of wisdom, is the definition of terms.”
Socrates (quoted in my sidebar)

Contrary to a common illusion, words do not have “fixed” definitions — see my “Myth of Definitions“.  Instead, words have many varied uses and depend not only on context but also on the idiolect of the speaker.  Thus, “definitions” are merely a temporary, unwritten, and often unrecognized, explicit ‘contract’ between speakers. So, if the words used in a conversation aren’t working, then to make progress the two speakers are wise to acknowledge the unfixed nature of definitions and temporarily agree on some shared use of the words in their conversation and Walter is pre-empting this issue.

Levels of LanguageWalter wants us to agree on the word “argument“.  He wants us to understand, first, what sort of word it is and so starts the course describing different “Levels of Language” where “arguments” lie in that scheme (to the right).

Briefly, here are short definitions of the terms in his chart (no need to discuss them further, though):

  • Linguistic Act: a meaningful utterance
  • Speech Act: a linguistic act intended to bring about an effect
  • Conversation Act: a speech act that actually has a desired effect
  • Arguments: a certain type of conversation act.  See below.

Arguments have many uses. Our professor, building his definition of “argument” tells us that the main uses of arguments are to persuade, justify and explain — with any argument possibly fulfilling more than one of these at a time.  In another post, I will discuss this, but for now, those are fine. Remember, “argument” is used many ways in English and Walter is prescribing how he demands it is used in his course.  And for the most part, its seems, for his specific purposes, his definition is largely uncontroversial.

Arguments occur in everyday conversation, in newspapers, journal and blogs. But most arguments are not always obvious or  laid out clearly. To remedy this, Walter gives us the basic form that all arguments should take and I link it to his definition below:

Argument_definition

On blogs it is often helpful to pause and agree on definitions. Further, taking time to dissect an argument and lay it out formally can prove to be the next important step. When dissected and formalized, the problems with an argument become much more clear. If our goal is mere persuasion, then such an exercise may actually be counter-productive, for that Machiavellian goal, hiding our weaknesses can be much more effective. But for the purpose of building understanding and growing knowledge, outlining an argument’s form is helpful.

So, let’s try to formalize my argument in the last paragraph:

(1) Arguments are a type of conversation
(2) Arguments are often not explicit
(3) You can make an argument explicit using the form above
(4) Once explicit, an argument’s vulnerabilities are more clear
(5) Making vulnerabilities more clear aids in the growth of knowledge though it may harm if one’s sole intent is to persuade.
______________

 Spelling out an argument’s form aids growing knowledge

So if you disagree with my last paragraph, hopefully after formalizing it, you can now more easily engage in discussing your disagreement.

Exercise for readers: Write a short paragraph making some claim, then rewrite it using the form above (“formalize it”).

Note: to use the ∴ symbol, you may need to put it in a text file and then copy into WordPress or Blogger.  For more on the symbol, see here.  However, since that takes a lot of effort, I will be using two colons (::) to make my mark and then follow it by a “therefore” type word.

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Thought-Action Fusion

After a terrible flight over China, I had horrible flying phobia for years. To calm myself on flights, I felt that if I were to forcibly visualize (imagine) the future scene of me de-boarding at the airport to which we planned on arriving, then such visualizations would drastically improve, if not guarantee, the chance of my safe arrival.  It was almost like I felt that I wouldn’t be able to imagine my arrival it if it weren’t going to actually happen.  Additionally, I felt that I had the magic power to make it happen by the brute force of imagining it. Part of me knew this was ridiculous nonsense but another part of me fully believed it. So of course I did it.  What did I have to loose?  In fact, I still kind of do it on flights to this day.  And look, to-date I have always arrived safely. 🙂

Tom Reese at Epiphenoma describes a study that explores what sort of people, like me, actually believe that their thoughts can make an event happen.   In cognitive science this is called “Thought-Action Fusion”.   The studies compares Protestants with Atheist/Agnostics and shows that Protestants are much more prone to this cognitive bias.

Tom concludes his fine article by saying, “I suspect that the reason I am an atheist is that this way of thinking about the world just seems downright alien to me.”

But I am an Atheist and I have this strong cognitive bias.  In fact, I have a whole bunch of posts describing my superstitious tendencies.  But though I do agree with Tom that such a bias can be a risk factor to becoming a believer, it may only be a risk factor toward being a certain type of believer.  When I was a believer, I noticed many believers had no such magical thinking.   And, as my story shows, even some atheists have this tendency.  But I would suspect that “Natural born” atheists may be much less inclined toward “Though-Action Fusion”.  Tom Rees may be a Natural-Born Atheist.

Conclusions:

  • Thought-Action Fusion is a cognitive bias available to Theists and Atheists alike.
  • Just because you have Though-Action Fusion tendencies doesn’t mean you have to indulge them!
  • So, you don’t have to cure a Christian of their superstitions in order for them to become an Atheist, they just have to be a significantly unattached to their superstitious tendencies .  This concept will be part of my developing series on “How to Cure a Christian“.

Question to Readers:  Do any of you do “Thought-Action Fusion”?  (please read Tom’s article for examples)

_______________
Related Post of mine:

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The Spackle God

Brain Spackle“Spackle” is an American genericized word like Kleenex (tissue) and Band-Aid (adhesive bandage).  Spackle is a filler used to repair cracks, fissures, holes and other defects in walls.  And in my model below, Spackle is the supernatural the stuff used to fill your mind where your knowledge is lacking.  My “Spackle God” is the same as the classic term “God of the Gaps“.  I prefer “Spackle God” because it sounds cool and focuses on the cheap stuff that fills the gaps, instead of the gaps themselves.

Since de-converting from Christianity I have tried to make sense of both my former believing-self and now of Christians who still believe.  The Spackle god image to the right is one I have used to make sense of what believers call “God”.  In this model, the red figure stands for the god created by the cluster of supernatural explanations believers use to fill holes in their knowledge.  Being a true skeptic, I have left some white space inside the “God” hexagon to represent a possible actual god.

Over the last centuries, the Spackle god has shrunk significantly and consequently the white-space “possible god” which it supports has likewise diminished.  As scientists have discovered the mechanisms of lightening, floods, earthquakes, famines, and disease once attributed to god(s),  “God” has gotten radically tinier.  Evolution, Physics, Cognitive Science (to mention a few) have continued to shrink the Spackle god and replaced it with much more substantial material.   The strip below illustrates what I think should happen as science and reason inevitably whittle down the Spackle god even further.  The remaining “God” will be pathetic in size and destitute of explanatory power.  But my model has a problem.

The Shrinking Spackle God

Below I show three versions of how I see believers reacting to science’s whittling away of the Spackle god.

  1. The Disillusioned Believer:  Almost no significant god left.  This god may only appear at severe times of trouble, perhaps as a desperate prayer, and even then the ex-believer probably chuckles at themselves.
  2. The Science-Resistant Believer: The anti-evolutionist, flat-earthist, anti-geologist, anti-historian.  You can imagine see-no-evil, hear-no-evil monkeys as another image.  The arrows are their efforts to resist and obstruct knowledge.
  3. The Science-Friendly Believer:  These believers incorporate well-reasoned insights and discoveries for the most part and their “God” only shrinks a little.  Science and reason play a large role in their epistemology.

The Disillusioned
Believer

The Science-Resistant
Believer

The Science-Friendly
Believer

But I have been puzzled by these science-friendly believers who admittedly see their Spackle god shrink yet their “God” hexagon stays relatively inflated.  In this model, their “God” should contract.  I have been pondering and blogging about that phenomena over the last year.  I have wondered why their “God” does not collapse more without the support of the Spackle god.  Finally I think I have a visual model that helps explain why all that white space does not collapse further in the science-friendly believer’s model.  I will share that new model in my next post.  This post has been an introduction.  But before I post, what are your ideas?

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How well do you wipe?

Indian toiletI lived for many years in countries where wiping after defecating is done very differently than in the USA. In India, like many countries, we stooped and pooped.  Then after relieving ourselves, we’d clean our soiled anus by wetting down our left hand and wiping, then rinsing our hand and repeating until perfectly clean — both our anus and our hand.   We’d take some water from a nearby faucet or little pot and splash it on our anus several times and then wipe our anus until clean and next, wash our hands they too were beautifully clean. No toilet paper needed or wasted.

As some of you may know, Indians often eat with their barehands. But  worry not, they only eat with their right hand while their left hand is used solely wiping.

To illustrate these stooping methods, I found some instructions for both an Indian toilet and a Japanese toilet teaching foreigners how to use their toilets.  I could not find illustrations of the wiping technique.

IndianToilet

Japanese Toilet Directions

Inevitably, when my American acquaintances hear of the Indian butt-wiping style they are disgusted to think about touching poop directly with their hands, yet alone touching their anus.  They make fun of this primitive custom.  In reaction to their parochial disgust, I often rant as follows:

Oh, I see, instead I guess it is far more civilized to take a piece of paper and smear the poop into your butt crack.  You Americans just keep taking swipes and then checking your tissue each time until you decide, “there, that is clean enough”, and seal the deal by pulling up your pants to allowing the remaining bits to become dingle berries attached to your butt hairs.  Then, those dingle berries scent your office space, home or school all day long.  Yuck !  Meanwhile, you let the precious remnants ferment until you eventually do the real cleaning in your shower or bath where you touch your anus, so why not do it every time you shit?

Here are some photo-shopped pics of toilet paper with various degrees of wiping.  At what stage do you stop wiping?

first swipe

first swipe

second swipe

second swipe

third swipe

third swipe

Do you find this conversation disgusting?  Of course you do.  The human mind has a taboo area for disgusting and taboo subjects.  The interesting thing is that religion items get stuffed in this part of mind too.  I have seen this mental clumping together of scatology and soteriology when I have visited the mentally ill in several countries.  For when psychosis strikes, out comes both poop-talk and religious-talk !

So, is the Indian method of wiping really all that disgusting once someone points out how actually disgusting your unquestioned method can also be?  Actually, unless you have wiped your butt Indian style for a year or so with others who do the same, it would be hard for you to think objectively about my question.  Parochialism is amplified by the taboo part of the brain.  Alas, how difficult it is for us to really understand each other.

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Sobriety Quote War

whirling_dervishMy view of mind, beliefs and life claims that false beliefs can still be used well and serve what people of diverse views agree to be good.  Thus not all religion is bad, not all religious practice is bad and perhaps at any given time a wrong belief does more good than a correct belief.

This simple paragraph seems to split the blogging atheist community into two camps.  On my recent “What are Beliefs” post,  some colleagues argued against my position.  To accent their point, a poignant quote by George Bernard Shaw was put forward.  So I have decided to put together a little quote war below.  The “Sober Camp” are the hyper-rationalists (who believe that wrong beliefs are always bad because they always lead to bad outcomes)  and the “Drunk Camp” emotive-rationalists (my camp, and yes, I made up that word, who belief emotions and beliefs are always linked and that the emotional life is as important as the mental life – perhaps, at times, more important.)  In a later post, I shall enjoy writing more about alcohol.

“Sober Camp”:  Hyper-Rationalists

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one”
-George Bernard Shaw(Irish literary Critic, Playwright and Essayist. 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature, 1856-1950)

Strength of mind rests in sobriety; for this keeps your reason unclouded by passion.”
-Pythagoras (57- 495 BCE)


“Drunk Camp”:  Emotive-Rationalists

“To the sober person adventurous conduct often seems insanity.”
-Aristotle(Ancient Greek Philosopher, Scientist and Physician, 384 BCE-322 BCE)

“Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absent-minded. Someone sober will worry about events going badly. Let the lover be.”
-Jalal ad-Din Rumi(Persian Poet and Mystic, 1207-1273)

“The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober.”
-William Butler Yeats(Irish prose Writer, Dramatist and Poet. 1865-1939)

“The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.”
-William James(American Philosopher and Psychologist, leader of the philosophical movement of Pragmatism, 1842-1910)

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Dismissing Religion

Alonzo Fyfe runs an excellent blog called “Atheist Ethicist“.   I agree strongly with his recent post which laments that many atheist look down on their fellow atheists saying,

“If you do not share my dismissal of religion, you do not belong in my community.”

Alfonzo shows how such thinking is dangerous.  I would encourage you to read Alonzo’s post and see yet another atheist who disagrees with indiscriminate rejection of anything religious.  We need to persuade the indiscriminate thinking of other atheists.   Please don’t hesitate to speak out when you visit their sites.  Though I am very critical of many aspects of religion, I am discriminately critical.  I have tried to capture this notion with the phrase:  “Sympathetic Atheist“.

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Unprovable Faith

The Edge.org is a site dedicated to skeptical, critical thinking among intellects of very different beliefs.  In a 2005 post (later to become a book) they explored the important question of:

What Do You Believe Is True
Even Though You Cannot Prove It ?

To tease your interests, below I list the unprovable beliefs of just a few of these writers.  I will let you guess why I chose the ones I did.  Please do go to the site to read their full explanations of their ‘confessions’ — they are fascinating.  Presently, I am writing a larger post on “Faith” and I will refer back to these examples as evidence for my conclusions.

  • The universe is infinite.
    Alexander Vilenkin, Physicist
  • That time does not exist.
    Carlo Rovelli, Physicist
  • I believe that intelligent life may presently be unique to our Earth.
    Marin Rees, Cosmologist
  • I believe we are not alone.
    Carolyn Porco , Planetary Scientist
  • The continuum hypothesis is false.  I think human-level artificial intelligence will be achieved.
    John McCarthy, computer scientist
  • Capitalism and other market-driven systems are better than their alternatives.
    Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief, Wired
  • We’re living in a draft version of the universe—and there is no final version. The revisions never stop.
    Rudy Rucker, Mathematician, Computer Scientist
  • I believe in science. Unlike mathematical theorems, scientific results can’t be proved.They can only be tested again and again, until only a fool would not believe them.
    Seth Lloyd, Quantum Mechanical Engineer
  • I believe that people are getting better.  In other words, I believe in moral progress.
    W. Daniel Hillis, Physicist, Computer Scientist
  • Progress
    Neil Gershenfeld, Physicist
  • Human Behavior is Unconsciously Controlled
    Robart R. Provine, Psychologist and NeuroScientist.
  • Cockroaches are conscious
    Alun Anderson, Editor-in-Chief, New Scientist
  • Consciousness and its contents are all that exist
    Donald Hoffman, Cognitive Scientist
  • I believe there is an external reality and you are not all figments of my imagination.
    Janna Levin, Physicist
  • I believe nothing to be true (clearly real) if it cannot be proved.
    Maria Spiropulu, Physicist
  • That reality exists and science is the best method for understanding it.
    Michael Schermer, Publisher
  • Quantum Mechanics is not a final theory.
    Lee Smolin, Physicist
  • Most ideas taught in Economics 101 will be proved false eventually.
    Jean Paul Schmetz, Economist
  • That our universe is infinite in size, finite in age, and just one among many.
    John Barrow, Cosmologist
  • There is no God that has existence apart from people’s thoughts of God.
    Scott Atran, Anthropologist
  • There is a God.
    David Myers, Psychologist
  • I believe, first, that all people have the same fundamental concepts, values, concerns, and commitments, despite our diverse languages, religions, social practices, and expressed beliefs.
    Elizabeth Spelke, Psychologist
  • I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives.
    Roger Schank,  Psychologist & Computer Scientist
  • Science, like most human activities, is based on a belief, namely the assumption that nature is understandable.
    Piet Hut, Astrophysicist
  • It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will.
    Susan Blackmore, Psychologist
  • I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I, nor anyone else, has been able to prove it.
    Joseph Ledox, Neuroscientist
  • I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery.
    Nicholas Humphrey, Psychologist

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Mushroom Faith

ChantrelleThis may be my last post.  For yet again, I am going to take a step of faith in my life.  I just snapped this photo of wild mushrooms a friend picked for me this weekend.  I will cook and eat them tonight after my workout at the gym.  If things take a spin for the worse, I want to go out feeling strong.

My friend is a physician, an avid fly fisherman and has picked wild mushrooms for decades — or so he tells me.  I have worked with him now for about 6 months.  He has met my wife and kids.  He tells me has eaten lots of mushrooms and over the last few months and he has given me mini-discourses on both picking and cultivating mushrooms.  Seems trustworthy to me !

So sure, I have lots of reasons to trust him.  But it is still just trust — it is only faith.  For he might well be exaggerating (or lying) about his mushrooms experience and he could have easily faked some of the knowledge because I, myself, have not read up on mushrooms in order to check him.  And heck, he could have made a mistake.  Further, just because he is a good surgeon doesn’t mean he’s good at mushrooming.   Besides, I have not really seen him make moral decisions — I don’t know how careful he is at protecting others.  But, nonetheless, I am going to trust him — I am going to make a leap of faith.

Of course my faith will be based on some level of evidence, albeit far from perfect evidence.  But really calling it “evidence” is sort of odd — as if the word “evidence” is clearly defined.  For even anecdotal evidence counts for something when it is all you have.  The concept of levels of evidence helps us weighing evidence.  But, as in medicine, for some types of information, low-levels of evidence is the best you can get.

A common pitfall for atheists is “reason-stupor” — some atheists are so enamored with their own reasoning ability to naively feel they don’t act on faith and that faith is the antithesis of reason.  They feel that they only believe things based on evidence and they deny that they hold any knowledge based on faith.  OK, after a beer or two, they may confess some level of trust in sources,  but they naively believe that the sources base their knowledge on evidence.    Tonight I want to clearly demonstrate that even secular evidence-weak leaps of faith can succeed.   I risk my life to the furthering of dialogue between atheists and theists !  Oh, how noble !

Though I have good insurance, my wife is still a little worried because she just watched a movie called “Into the Wild” where a man goes to Alaska to live by himself off the land and dies eating wild plants.  So, please pray for my naturalistic soul!  And btw, in case I don’t make it, the physician’s name is M……………

_______________________
Notes:  These are suppose to be “Chanterelle” mushrooms, which are suppose to be in season.  But of course they belong to the a Chanterelle look-alike is the Jack o’Lantern mushroom which is poisonous.

Addendum:  I may not object to “faith” per se, but I do object to misused faith.  Let me illustrate:
Let’s say a believer has faith that Jesus/Mohammed/Krishna/Siddhartha or some other distant religious figure  performed miracles.  Well, if it was true, it is known because someone witnessed the miracle and passed that on to someone else and so on.  Additionally, you may have possible confirmatory observations.  But now the questioning begins:  You have to question how accurate those observations are.  This is anecdotal evidence — which can be useful.  But it is hindered not only by distance in time but by likelihood. Since we don’t really see miracles today, it is hard to imagine in a reasonable way they happened back then. So indeed, though the belief is based on trusting (faith) stories of others, those stories are not sensible, thus problematic. So it is not “faith” I have problems with, but it is having faith in the highly improbable and/or unreasonable information and then treating it sacredly that I have problems.  Treating something sacred means throwing the cloak of sanctity over it so others feel taboo in questioning.

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