All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Simple Truths and Politics

The Simple Truths Thesis is that within some domain of inquiry or dispute, there is a set of truths that only the wicked, stupid, or mendacious would question or deny.  (Philosophy15 video on it here) Some domains of inquiry admit of simple truths, for sure.  But even in those domains, not all truths within them are so simple.  The core problem with the simple truths thesis is that there’s a difference between being wrong and being irrational.  It’s possible to be rational and wrong, to make a mistake, to be led astray by some piece of evidence or a theory.  And to have one’s defaults set on interpreting those with whom one disagrees as being on the wrong side of a simple truth is to set oneself up for being deaf to all criticism.

A perfect recent instance of Simple Truths being wielded to defend against criticism is by President Donald Trump in his AP interview over the weekend.  Transcript here.  When asked about criticism he’s received over whether he’s not kept his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, Trump replies that they’ve, since he’s taken office, not been so bad.  Oh, and he can’t call them out on it if he’s also hoping to get help from them on North Korea.  But what does he think of the criticism?

And the media, some of them get it, in all fairness. But you know some of them either don’t get it, in which case they’re very stupid people, or they just don’t want to say it.

Stupid or mendacious.  Those are the only options.

Ad baculum cum balaklavam

The ad baculum fallacy is a fallacy of relevance.  It is of the form:

If you don’t assent to p, you’ll get a whuppin’.

You don’t want a whuppin’.

Therefore, you should assent to p.

The relevance failure is that there’s no obvious connection between the impending threatened whuppin’ and the truth of what’s assented to.

A regular error folks make about the ad baculum is that with law enforcement, the enforcement techniques are purely pragmatic reasons offered for a truth that was settled elsewhere.  So that you shouldn’t drive over 55 mph in a certain zone isn’t established by the fact that you could get a ticket for doing so; rather, that’s determined by safety considerations and what activity is in the zone.  But the ticketing is there to help motivate you when you aren’t moved by (or aware of) those justifying reasons.  So the police cruiser conspicuously sitting there with the radar gun isn’t a scare tactic in the vicious argumentative sense. It’s just a reminder.

Now, that seems right, but then there are cases where this two-lines bit of motivation seems to give too much leeway to the threat (and use) of force to enforcers.  Enter the Lake County Sheriff’s department and their new video about heroin use.  The image is one thing: black-ops cops.  But the message takes the whole thing further:

To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you: We’re coming for you…. Our undercover agents have already bought heroin from many of you, we are simply awaiting the arrest warrants to be finalized …. Enjoy looking over your shoulder constantly wondering if today’s the day we come for you. Enjoy trying to sleep tonight, wondering if tonight’s the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges.

There’s been plenty of complaint about the militarization of police forces, seeing those whom they protect and serve as a potential population with whom they must do deadly battle.

But here is where a diachronic way of looking at argumentative tropes is useful.  Ad baculum arguments aren’t fallacious just because they are irrelevant, but they are bad for us because they break down the dialectical goodwill necessary for argumentative culture.  Consider:  if you had an argument with your neighbor over a tree limb and she threatened you with a knife over it, would you go back to have a calm discussion later with her over a barking dog?  No.  Why?  Because it seems she likes knives a little too much.

Same with these characters in the Lake County Sheriff’s office.  They like playing scary intimidaters so much, it’s hard to imagine a good discussion of laws or police techniques with them.  So the way they do enforcement of decisions, even if the enforcement is independent of the argumentatively good means for it, undermines further critical exchange.  Ad baculum is bad for argumentative culture.

Then there is the worry of what that kind of power does to a person.  For a moment, recall what it does to my favorite cartoon id:


Come out, come out, wherever you are!

The New Scientist has a short article with the title, “Philosophers of Knowledge, Your Time Has Come.”  Right on!  Oh, but there’s a catch.

First, the setup.

A COMMON refrain heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been “episte… what?!” Even among educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.

Again, this seems right.  And many of the folks working in epistemology, and social epistemology in particular, have been working hard on getting the word out about the study of knowledge, the analysis of evidence, how argument works, and so on.  And it’s not just since the Trump Presidency — it’s been urgent for longer than that.  At least since classical Athens.  OK, so the New Scientist wants philosophers to enter the public sphere and discuss accounts of knowledge.

And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. . . .   Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.

Give me a break.  Seriously.  (In fact, when I read the above paragraph, I said something much stronger.)

The argument seems to be: philosophers are in the shadows, because we don’t see them in the public sphere.  And it must be because the ‘post-truthers’ have been keeping them there, or because they are just shy beasts.

The first problem is that this first line is an argument from ignorance.  Just because you haven’t seen X, it doesn’t mean there aren’t X’s.  In this case, the problem is that you’re often looking in places where you’re not seeing them.  Perhaps if one were to, say, go look.  Ask google.  Maybe ask a philosopher, “Hey, are there folks who do this epistemology stuff, but aren’t all academic-y who can sell this to a public audience?”

And just for the record, here are five, just right off the top of my head, who are public epistemology folks, who’ve been doing it, even before the great wave of orange anti-intellectualismMichael LynchJennifer LackeyLee McIntyre.  Alvin GoldmanPhilip Kitcher.  And one more that came to me while googling the pages for the others. Elizabeth Anderson.   And then there are lots of other folks doing that work, too.  I mean, geez, just look around for a second.  (And for the record, I count the work I do and what I’ve done with Rob Talisse as in this domain.)

The second bit of reasoning is truly insulting and erroneous as an explanation.  That philosophers shy from public controversy is not just nonsense, really, it is silly.  And it’s here that I think I have an explanation for why the folks at the New Scientist don’t know of any philosophers.  It’s that THEY ignore philosophers of knowledge.  I can recall almost every time, say, back in the NEW ATHEISM debates, the scientists would scoff at the philosophers when we talked about knowledge.  Why?  Because they thought THEY knew about knowledge, and we were bullshitters.  And that yielded the garbage arguments in Dawkins’ God Delusion and all the other ways scientists think they can handle questions external to their domains of inquiry.  And so when the editors of the New Scientist says, “Hey, where are all the philosophers?”  the answer is: “We’ve been here all along… it’s just that you’ve been ignoring us.”

‘Tis but a scratch

When the Black Knight gets his left arm chopped off in the battle with King Arthur, he shrugs, “Tis but a scratch.”  He continues fighting, and he loses his right arm.  “Just a flesh wound.”  Eventually, he’s had all his limbs hacked off, and he calls out to Arthur, who has spared his life (such as it is, now), and leaving.  “Ooooohhh… I see… running way!”

This downplayer strategy for challenges works only when the evidence of the situation isn’t clear.  And so in sports, one can’t be a big braggart when the L’s outnumber the W’s, for example.  But it seems that in politics (and perhaps business?) there’s just enough grey for big talk to cover difficulties.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times (which is behind a paywall, so a summary on Politico), Trump responds to questions about his difficulties with passing health care reform (i.e., “repealing and replacing Obamacare”).  Here’s his reply:

Yeah, I don’t lose. I don’t like to lose. But that wasn’t a definitive day. . .  There was no reason to take a vote. I said, ‘Don’t take a vote,’ and we will see what happens,. . . . But one way or the other, I promised the people great health care. We are going to have great health care in this country. Now, it will be in one form or another. It will be a repeal and replace of Obamacare which is the deal that is being negotiated now.

Two things.  #1.  That you don’t like to lose isn’t a piece of evidence that shows that you don’t lose.  Moreover, saying that the day wasn’t ‘definitive’ is a strange point — perhaps a way of re-casting a loss as something equivocal.  Perhaps what the President counts as a loss is a total loss, like having it go to a vote, nobody votes for it, and his pants fall down on TV.  Seriously, who does this guy think he is, Baghdad Bob?

#2.  Notice that the goalposts have moved here.  And with a kind of vague notion of what success will be.  “… one form or another.”  Sure, if you’ve got a well-stated goal like that, you’re sure to succeed.  The only more self-serving program would be to define success after the enterprise.

The important thing about lines of argument like this is that they are not packaged for the reporters who interview Trump or for his opposition, those who have critical views of the man and his policies.  Rather, they are designed for his preferred audience — they function as a way of re-casting the dialectical situation for those who are his, well… fans.  We’ve had a few discussions of the role of onlooking audience here at the NS, and I think that it’s at play here.  For sure refusing to call the miss with health care a ‘loss’ looks like more intransigence to many of us, but we are not the ones DT is talking to.  Just like when you see a straw man of a view and you see it clearly as a straw man, you find that you were not the target audience for those arguments.  Who are the folks targeted?  Folks who are looking for something to undermine the going story that the White House is floundering, that the President is a foopdoodle in charge of a group of people who, when they try to write legislation, find that they can only turn out raggabrash.  Nothing like standing in front of a flaming pile of tires and diapers and saying, “Nothing to see here… everything’s going according to plan.”


Philosophy15 on Straw and Iron Men

Readers of the NonSequitur are familiar with the Straw Man Fallacy varieties and especially the Iron Man.  John was down at Vanderbilt for a Friday Colloquium talk, and we had a chance to record an episode of Philosophy15 on Straw Men and Iron Men.  And the connection to longer-term argumentative pathologies, swamping in particular, was part of the agenda.

Chicken Littles of Straw

Chicken Little freaked out when hit on the head with an acorn, and called out, “The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!”  Everyone goes berserk, then they see it’s just an acorn.  Chicken Little then retires to being an overreacting chicken, and things return to normal.  The end.

Calling someone a ‘Chicken Little,’ then, works as a form of analogy.  One sees someone reacting strongly to something, perhaps that it forebodes something worse, and one then points out that they are overreacting or don’t see the situation clearly.

It’s a pretty common feature of contemporary American political culture for folks to think and say that Donald Trump is a danger not just to this country’s prosperity and safety, but to the world’s.  He’s an authoritarian, he seems to have (or at least there’s the accusation that he’s) colluded with another state to secure his election, and he seems to be a general nincompoop who surrounds himself with avaricious doofuses.  That makes him dangerous as the President of the United States.

Well, Heather Wilhelm at NRO has had it with the doom-saying chicken littles out there.

The unprecedented volume of apocalyptic media pronouncements that Trump has inspired is unhealthy. . . .  How many times can one presidential administration end life as we know it?

The coverage of the Trump administration is “crazed and breathless” and bent on spurring your outrage or stoking your fears with predictions of doom.  Chicken Little apocalyptic journalists.  But Wilhelm has a counter to this:

[C]ongratulations! If you’re reading this, it means you’re still alive, and have survived the approximately 5,000 world-ending decisions that the Trump administration has supposedly made thus far this year. The Russians, at least as far as I know, have not yet taken over. Faced with budget challenges and various logistical challenges, including the fact more than 1,000 miles of our border with Mexico is actually a river, it seems that Trump’s much-decried Great Wall of America could be slowly shuffled off into the “it seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe not really” pile. When it comes to health care, congressional Republicans seem to be in the political equivalent of that one unlucky bumper car that gets stuck in the corner, no matter which way you steer. As Francis Fukuyama addressed the panic in Politico this week: “Trump’s a dictator? He can’t even repeal Obamacare.”

The last line’s funny, I’ll give Fukuyama and Wilhelm that.  But how is this a reply to the worries people actually had about the Trump administration?
Seriously, the evidence here is that things aren’t SOOOO bad, so what’s with all the hand-wringing?  Moreover, it’s not that people were predicting that the world would end, or that it’ll be like RED DAWN up in here.  The worries were that he’s an authoritarian dingus, who will either do something belligerent or something stupid.  That he hasn’t done something mindbogglingly belligerent or incomprehesibly stupid YET isn’t reason that people who had worries that he will do something belligerent or stupid were wrong or had no basis.

We’ve got a new video up over at Philosophy15 on what Talisse and I have been calling ‘The Simple Truth Thesis.’  The thesis is that most problems that look complex are actually very simple and that all the wrangling over the issues is because the opposition is either benighted, stupid, or evil.  So there are simple truths about which only those of objectionable character would dispute, and so engaging in the disputes gives the bad character of the opposition too much credit and also threatens to obscure what was so easily seen before.  And so a corollary of the view is that there is no reasonable opposition.

Given that Talisse and I endorse Mill’s Maxim, the view that in order to properly understand and have justifying reasons for holding one’s own views, one must know the views of one’s opposition, we think the no reasonable opposition view is incorrect.  The Simple Truth Thesis is, in fact, an illusion created by not knowing about one’s opposition.

There is a puzzle to the Mill’s Maxim line here, since we’d endorsed limits to the Maxim, which it seems makes the Mill view consistent with a modified No Reasonable Opposition view.  The modified view now is a picture of unreasonable opposition.  But now the requirement for such an assessment requires reasons independent of the disagreement.

Philosophy15 on Swamping and Spitballing

A new episode at Philosophy15 is up, and in it Talisse and I talk through the related phenomena of what we’d been calling in our old 3QD piece, Spitballing and Swamping.  The topic’s gotten good coverage here at the NS, but it’s worth noting that spitballing has a close connection to what John and I have been calling the iron man.  (An earlier post about the connection here.)

The connection is that with spitballing, a speaker makes a number of statements, mostly controversial, usually vague, and always memorable, and waits for people to react.  When they respond critically, one strategy is for the spitballer to then say that they’ve interpreted the statement incorrectly — that’s not what I said!  And then follow up with more stuff, or rely on allies to craft interpretations of the statement that are more plausible.  Hence, spitball and rely on iron-manners in the background.

Swamping is still a concept in the works.  One version of it is that it is the use of spitballs to completely fill the space of discussion with matters that are pure distraction.  And so, for example, one may be enraged with the tweets from an orange monster and the consequent iron-manning the monster’s minions pursue in light of criticism, but this distracts us from the policy decisions the orange monster’s other minions are making at the EPA or in the Department of Energy.  Moreover, it makes it impossible to have any discussion that is not about the spitballer.  The crucial thing about swamping, then, is that we are in a way complicit with the strategy, because it’s we who go along with the outrage and drama of spitball consequences.  We, as it were, pull the wool over our own eyes.

On Originalism and Omelets

Q: How many eggs do French people like to have for breakfast?

A: One is an oeuf.

Hilarious!  That’s about the quality of Jonah Goldberg’s recent posting at NRO, titled “Close Encounters with a ‘Living Constitution'”.

Here’s the setup.  Goldberg orders an Arizona Omelet at the diner, the Red Flame.  But the server brings him a bowl of oatmeal.  When Goldberg objects that he didn’t order this, the server replies that he, in fact, did order the oatmeal.

“This is oatmeal,” I’d say. “The menu says that the Arizona Omelet has cheese and onions and jalapenos in it. It also says it’s an omelet.”

Waitress: “Well, we here at the Red Flame believe that the menu is a living, breathing document that changes with the times. Oatmeal is healthier than an omelet, and we feel that people should eat more of it. So, we only serve oatmeal, but we call it by different names.

The point, as we see, given the analogy, is that taking X as a ‘living document’ is just to impose one’s will on the document.  Words don’t mean what they mean at all.  Or they mean what we just want them to mean.  And here’s how Goldberg sees the plausibility of this line of thought:

That’s more like how the doctrine of the “Living Constitution” works in real life. A judge makes a small leap of interpretation that seems reasonable — say, replacing onions with shallots, which after all, are a kind of onion. Then the next judge makes another incremental hop in interpretation. And then another. And another. Until eventually the waitress brings me the head of Alfredo Garcia

So Goldberg’s reasoning is that because it happens in ‘incremental steps,’ there will be no constraint on how to read the Constitution or a menu, for that matter.   But the problem is that there must still be a ‘reasonable interpretation’ at each of these steps.  Red onions for shallots… and note what makes it reasonable is that they are kinds of onions.  (And note that it’s a replacement, not a re-interpretation.)
But here’s the big lie to the reasoning — none of the ‘reasonable’ replacements actually end up with what Goldberg takes as obvious — that there’s a series of reasonable interpretations of ‘omelet’ that yields a bowl of oatmeal.
Goldberg closes by noting how he sees the dialectical situation:
There are some issues where I think liberals have a sincerely held, rational, and legitimate point of view that I simply disagree with. But the doctrine of the Living Constitution is not one of them.
You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me.  At no point in time does someone who cares about individual rights thinks that there would be a problem with the dead hand?
And so, we see a fallacy double-dip.  First, there’s the faulty analogy between the situation of Living Document interpretation of the Constitution and the Red Fire Diner’s omelet, and the case Goldberg makes for it as a slippery slope.
The ur-fallacy here is the slippery slope, since reasonable interpretations don’t have the all-too-easy-slide to voluntarist re-writing, the slope isn’t slippery.  So the two cases aren’t analogous.  Oh well, if this is how well Goldberg thinks who hold Living Document views reason, then of course he shouldn’t think there’s a rational and reasonable disagreement.  But he’s not reasonably held that view.

Spitballs and Iron Men #2

One more example of a spitball getting ironmanned when challenged.  Trump tweeted that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election.

And he later told congressional leadership that the number was between 3 and 5 million.  That’s how he explained losing the popular vote.

In his recent Time interview with Michael Sherer, Trump clarifies the claim:

Well now if you take a look at the votes, when I say that, I mean mostly they register wrong, in other words, for the votes, they register incorrectly, and/or illegally. And they then vote. You have tremendous numbers of people. In fact I’m forming a committee on it.

But there’s no evidence that 3 million people voted with…

We’ll see after the committee. I have people say it was more than that. We will see after we have. But there will be, we are forming a committee. And we are going to do a study on it, a very serious problem.

But this is, first, different from the claim that 3 million ‘illegals’ voted — there’s a difference between illegals voting and illegal votes, right?  Second, this is another instance of the iron-manning of a spitball by turning it from an assertion to a query about something really important.  If Trump is right, then it’s something that should be reformed.  And perhaps we should investigate how widely it is the case that there is voter fraud of all the kinds he alleges.  But there’s a difference between claiming that it’s happening and holding that we should find out whether it is happening.  If you don’t have evidence for it at the time of the speech act, the claiming is wrong.  But that’s of course, what the iron-manning afterwards does — you get the benefit of claiming but without having to defend the claim.