All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

I just repeat things I read

Lordy, what a presser yesterday! There was a lot for us to work on, but Trump gave an interesting answer to a challenge.

First, the challenge.  In the opening remarks and in the Q&A, Trump swung back to talking about the election.  He said his 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232 was the largest win since Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. However, Obama won more electoral votes in 2008 and 2012, Bill Clinton won more in 1992 and 1996 and George H.W. Bush won more in 1988.  So much for historic — at least he beat W’s 2000.  To this, Peter Alexander of NBC, after having corrected Trump on this, asked him:

Why should Americans trust you?

Trump’s replies were, from what I can gather from the audio:

I was given that information… I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.


I was given that information…  Actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?

To the last bit, Alexander replies,

Well, you’re the President.

The last is interesting, if only because it’s an elision of instituional authority with cognitive authority.  But the more interesting feature is that Trump’s best reply to being caught out on a falsehood is (a) to say he’s just reading what’s written for him, and (b) to say he’d heard it before.  Of course, neither is a reply to the question of whether he’s reliable.

That he reads what’s written for him is not a relevant reply, since the question could be then put to: why should we trust the things you read?  To the latter, the issue isn’t whether he’s heard it before (there are many untrustworthy rumors and things people say), but whether they are credible.

I think these must be something like weak ad populum arguments, to the effect:

It’s been said/written that p

Therefore, p

The bridge principle, like with ad populum arguments, must be something along the lines If people are saying it, that’s reason to believe it’s true.

The problem with all ad populum arguments is that they are very weak inductions.  Moreover, if you don’t know who said it, then they aren’t really even cases of believing on the basis of testimony — it’s just that you’d heard it.  Generally, on-record testimony is better evidence, at least because people can be held responsible for their assertions.


Tu Quoqu…erm

Arguments from hypocrisy can legitimately target a number of features of a speaker’s case.  They may show that a proposal is really impractical, or they may show that things are more complicated than the speaker’s pronouncements make it seem.  Or they, in ad hominem fashion, may show that the speaker lacks the ethotic standing (has a moral right) to lecture us about X, Y, or Z.  But they usually are irrelevant — that’s why they have a name for the fallacy, the tu quoque.

One, I think uncontroversial, constraint on these (even fallacious) versions of arguments from inconsistency/hypocrisy is that the two events must be actually inconsistent.  Otherwise, no hypocrisy.  Surely, an argument from hypocrisy needs for there to be hypocrisy, first.

Enter Jerome Hudson over at Breitbart with his clearly newsworthy report on Matt Damon’s apparent hypocrisy:

 “Great Wall” Star: “I’m not a fan of walls”

So, how is this news? Moreover, I don’t see the hypocrisy.  The Matt Damon movie is about a wall keeping out lizard monsters and what look like sword-wielding dragons.  The Trump wall isn’t designed for that purpose, no matter how racist you are.

Two wrongs of straw

Kellyanne Conway has had a hard couple weeks.  She had the ‘alternate facts‘ brouhaha, then she had the case where she made up a massacre in Bowling Green.   That then yielded a refusal by  a number of news outlets to interview her.  CNN’s ran for 48 hours. She had a credibility deficit.

Jonah Goldberg, over at National Review Online has come to Conway’s defense saying that she is “good at her job, and the media hates her for it.”  You see, she’s regularly been sent on a tough mission – to defend Trump’s policies against a media set on interpreting everything they say in the worst possible light.

President Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, have mastered the art of defending straw-man positions that don’t reflect the actions and views of the president himself.

Just for clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that I don’t think Goldberg is holding that Conway must defend straw man positions, but rather she must defend against straw men of her positions.  It has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see the language of informal logic abused, but this one is a doozy!  Regardless, the point is a fair one.  If folks have been getting the views and policies wrong, it’s the job of the communicators to set the record straight.

But it’s here that Goldberg switches gears – you see, if you must defend against those who straw man in hostile fashion, then you, too, must fight dirty. And a lesson from history is a case in point.

In 2012, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, flatly lied on five Sunday news shows, saying that the attack on the Benghazi compound was “spontaneous” and the direct result of a “heinous and offensive video.” No one talked of banning her from the airwaves. Nor should they have. Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie.

This, of course, is a curious line of argument, since the lies made the administration’s position (in both cases!)look considerably worse.  Who needs a straw manner in one’s opposition when one is doing such a bang-up job oneself?

Philosophy15 – What’s a Metalanguage?

The distinction between first-order languages, or object languages, and metalanguages is a familiar one to readers of the NS.  However, over at Philosophy15, Rob Talisse and I try to explain how once we have the distinction, a unique kind of phenomenon occurs within arguments. In effect, the point of the metalanguage is to have a kind of evaluative criterion for arguments, but the trouble is that it keeps getting used as just one more line of first-order argument.  One of the results, we see, is what we call weaponized metalanguages.

Philosophy15 – Why Argument Must Be Dialectical

Over at Philosophy15, Talisse and I have a short bit on why argument must not only have the core relation between premises and conclusions, but also must have a dialectical element to it.  A familiar point for those who are regular NS readers, but worth a  quick posting.

A consequent point is that it looks like the dialectical element to argument leads to a few skeptical problems for those who think that democracy must be deliberative.  (We follow up on that in the next episode.)

Question-begging and terms of preference

Dysphemisms and euphemisms – it’s all in the naming when it comes to the rhetoric of a cause.  So one side’s freedom-fighters are the other side’s guerillas or insurgents.  And now it comes to what terms to use for those who protest much of the Trump Presidency.  From the start, the term resistance was appealing for those who were sympathetic with the protester-cause.  And for those who see it as mere trouble-making by sore losers, it’s obstructionism or public tantrums.  Fair enough, really.  What really matters is whether the folks have a point.

But that’s just it — if you think they’ve got a point, then that determines the term to use.  So far, this is the sensible thought shared by many, and Varad Mehta at NRO (with a nicely barbed title, “Resistance is Facile”) makes similar remarks.  But then he sees a fallacy behind it all when it comes to reporting on the matter:

There’s an element of circular reasoning involved: The media reports on the resistance because the resistance exists because the media reports on the resistance. But thinking something doesn’t make it real.

But the second part of the circle isn’t part of the question-begging, is it?  That is, the media may report on the ‘resistance’ because it is happening and is pretty widespread.  That’s the first part.  But the second part isn’t part of the issue, is it?  Moreover, the resistance doesn’t exist because the media reports on it.  Rather, it’s something that people are doing on their own, organizing through social media, and so on.  It’s not because CNN set up some cameras.

So, the lesson is that, to use Mehta’s words, just thinking something is circular reasoning doesn’t make it circular.

The Clearing the Decks Fallacy

Talisse and I have a short bit at Philosophy15 on a new fallacy we’ve been seeing in philosophy.  Well, really, it’s not a new phenomenon, we’ve just started noticing it. One reason is that we’ve become particularly interested in how dialectical standards change over extended philosophical work. Here’s the basic setup.

Stage 1: Hold one’s dialectical opponents to a very high standard of scrutiny.   Show that they do not pass that level of scrutiny.

Stage 2: Deduce that the standard of scrutiny is likely too high, and then introduce a new, lower standard.

Stage 3: Show that one’s own view passes the lower standard.

The problem is that in many cases, the other views criticized in Stage 1 would pass the lower standard in Stage 3, just as one’s own view does.  But they don’t get mentioned in stage 3.  So the argument proceeds as though their being eliminated by the high standards eliminates them full stop.

This strategy we call clearing the decks.  It shows up lots in the history of philosophy, and it is particularly noxious when philosophers do metaphilosophy.

The basic rule, we think, that gets broken is a form of the rule that in deliberating between choices, one uses a consistent standard for the ultimate decision.  It’s not that one must use the same standard throughout, as we can find that some standards are too strict or lax and need to change them.  It’s just that when we make the final decision, we apply the same standard to all eligible options.  With clearing the decks, once the standard is lowered, there are more eligible options.   In some ways, it’s a form of argument from double standards.

More on Alternative Facts

Talisse and I have a short piece over at 3QuarksDaily on the heat/light ratio in the ‘Alternative Facts’ reaction.   In many ways, it’s a follow-up to John’s earlier observation that Conway, on a more charitable interpretation, should have used a term like ‘rebutting’ or ‘complicating’ facts, since she’s talking about the evidence for the attendance claims.

The point: a little training in the argumentative culture of the humanities helps with these distinctions. The sad irony is that a representative of the Trump administration is hamstrung by the use of language in an area the administration is actively trying to undermine.


Some analogies are like idolatry

It was a pretty widely used trope to invoke idolatry to criticize the support for the Obama Presidency, especially early on.  So it’s not a surprise to see it come back for critique of opposition to Trump, except in this case, invoking the fall of what the believers took to be the true religion.  Enter David French for some gloating:

I’m beginning to get a sense of what it was like to be alive in ancient times when a marauding warlord melted down your village’s golden calf. Weeping. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments. Wearing of vagina hats. Their god failed to protect the village, and now he’s a bracelet on the warlord’s wrist. It’s pathetic, really, the emotional reaction to Donald Trump’s victory, but the intensity of the emotion is nothing new. Remember the ecstasy when Barack Obama won?

So, the point is supposed to be that Obama-style liberalism was a kind of false religion — a golden calf, of sorts.  Now that it’s not only fallen, but is destroyed by another, the old true believers are in shock, despair.  And French takes it that it’s because these true-believers just have got the wrong religion.

This is post-Christian politics to its core. This is the politics one gets when this world is our only home, and no one is in charge but us. There is no sense of proportion.

The funny thing about analogies is that they are supposed to not be identities.  But French just went from saying that liberalism is like a false religion that’s fallen to just saying it is a false religion that’s fallen.  Doesn’t that change the point?  And, hey, don’t conservative Christians get angry when their religion’s not the law of the land, too?  Of course, one’s sense of proportion is indexed to the religion (or set of values) one thinks is true – of course you think that others have no sense of proportion when they mourn things you think are worthless or vicious.