Tag Archives: Aristotle

The Socratic problem for fallacy theory

How do you explain that someone is being irrational? What does even mean to be irrational? What does it mean to explain irrationality? After all, “it seemed right at the the time” is a perpetual phenomenological condition–this is the problem Aristotle tried to account for in his discussion of Akrasia (weakness of will; incontinence) in book VII of the NIcomachean Ethics: how can someone know that they should Phi, intend to do Phi, but then fail to Phi? You can’t explain this by referring to reasons because the reasons, at least the motivating ones, are inoperative in some important sense. Fans ofThe Philosopher know that he struggled mightily with this problem after rejecting the Socratic claim that akrasia is just ignorance. In a lot of ways he ends up embracing that view, though in doing so he seems to identify a different shade of the problem: there are different kinds of reasons.

Something akin to this problem haunts argumentation theory. For, it seems obvious that people commit fallacies all of the time. This is to say, on one account, they see premises as supporting a conclusion when they don’t. One problem for fallacy theory is that they seem to them to support the conclusion, so fallacies aren’t really irrational. This is the Socratic problem for fallacy theory. There are not fallacies because no one ever seems to be irrational to themselves.

To the Socratic problem for fallacy theory there’s the Aristotelian distinction between kinds of reasons. And of course when we say reasons we also mean, just like Aristotle, explanations (which is what the Greek seems to mean anyway). So we can explain someone’s holding p in a way that doesn’t entail that holding p was rational (or justified, which is similar but different).

Lots of things might count as accounts of irrationality; one common one is bias. This has the handy virtue of locating the skewing of someone’s reason in some kind of psychological tendency to mess up some key element of the reasoning process in a way that’s undetectable to them. So, confirmation bias, for example, standardly consists in noticing only that evidence that appears to confirm your desired outcome.

Since you cannot will yourself to believe some particular conclusion, this works out great, because you can look at (or better not look at) evidence that might produce it (or avoid that which will). Of course, you can’t be completely be aware of this going on (thus–bias). This is what Aristotle was trying to represent.

This is one very cursory account of the relation between what people mean by irrationality in argumentation and what others mean by it. There is, by the way, a lot of confusion about what it means to teach this stuff–to teach about it, to teach to avoid it, etc. More on that here. I recommend that article for anyone interested in teaching critical thinking.

Having said all of this, there is interesting research (outside of my wheelhouse sadly) on bias being going in psychology and elsewhere. Here is one example. A sample graph:

However, over the course of my research, I’ve come to question all of these assumptions. As I begun exploring the literature on confirmation bias in more depth, I first realised that there is not just one thing referred to by ‘confirmation bias’, but a whole host of different tendencies, often overlapping but not well connected. I realised that this is because of course a ‘confirmation bias’ can arise at different stages of reasoning: in how we seek out new information, in how we decide what questions to ask, in how we interpret and evaluate information, and in how we actually update our beliefs. I realised that the term ‘confirmation bias’ was much more poorly defined and less well understood than I’d thought, and that the findings often used to justify it were disparate, disconnected, and not always that robust.

The questions about bias lead to other ones about open-mindedness:

All of this investigation led me to seriously question the assumptions that I had started with: that confirmation bias was pervasive, ubiquitous, and problematic, and that more open-mindedness was always better. Some of this can be explained as terminological confusion: as I scrutinised the terms I’d been using unquestioningly, I realised that different interpretations led to different conclusions. I have attempted to clarify some of the terminological confusion that arises around these issues: distinguishing between different things we might mean when we say a ‘confirmation bias’ exists (from bias as simply an inclination in one direction, to a systematic deviation from normative standards), and distinguishing between ‘open-mindedness’ as a descriptive, normative, or prescriptive concept. However, some substantive issues remained, leading me to conclusions I would not have expected myself to be sympathetic to a few years ago: that the extent to which our prior beliefs influence reasoning may well be adaptive across a range of scenarios given the various goals we are pursuing, and that it may not always be better to be ‘more open-minded’. It’s easy to say that people should be more willing to consider alternatives and less influenced by what they believe, but much harder to say how one does this. Being a total ‘blank slate’ with no assumptions or preconceptions is not a desirable or realistic starting point, and temporarily ‘setting aside’ one’s beliefs and assumptions whenever it would be useful to consider alternatives is incredibly cognitively demanding, if possible to do at all. There are tradeoffs we have to make, between the benefits of certainty and assumptions, and the benefits of having an ‘open mind’, that I had not acknowledged before.

What is interesting is how questions about one kind of account (the bias one, which is explanatory) lead back to the questions they were in a sense meant to solve (the normative one). But perhaps this distinction is mistaken.

Dissensus profundus

To have a meaningful or maybe productive disagreement you should be able to identify what it is you disagree about. Once, for example, I had a disagreement with a neighbor over whether some or other species of vine was an invasive (it was and she was right). It was easy in that case to point to the source of our disagreement: some factual claim about Boston Ivy (irrelevant side note: there are no climbing ivy species native to Chicago). Crucially, it was also easy to point to a source for confidence in such claims about plants: a plant manual (or something like that).

Sometimes, however, it’s easy to point to what you disagree about, but not easy to find a solution–this is because you disagree about what a solution would be. This is a deep disagreement (check on this project on the topic). You disagree so fundamentally that you disagree about disagreeing.

On this topic today I learned, courtesy of Dr. Sara J.Uckelman’s Medieval Logic and Semantics blog, a Latin phrase for this situation:

Contra negantem principia non est disputandum

Or: “against someone who denies principles there can’t be a debate.”

Well, in some cases, according to Duns Scotus, there is one thing you can do:

Et ideo negantes talia manifesta indigent poena vel scientia vel sensu, quia secundum Avicennam primo Metaphysicae : Negantes primum principium sunt vapulandi vel exponendi igni, quousque concedant quod non est idem comburi et non comburi, vapulari et non vapulari.

And thus those who deny such manifest things need punishment or knowledge or sense, because, According to Avicenna (I Metaphysics): those denying a first principle ought to be beaten or burnt until they concede that being burned is not the same as not being burned and being beaten is not the same as not being beaten.

There you might have a valid case of ad baculum, though I don’t recommend this as a general principle.

Fouling is part of the game

Quote of the day (Aristotle Sophistical Refutations 11 (171b20-35):

So, then, any merely apparent reasoning about these things is a contentious argument, and any reasoning that merely appears to conform to the subject in hand, even though it be genuine reasoning, is a contentious argument: for it is merely apparent in its conformity to the subject-matter, so that it is deceptive and plays foul. For just as a foul in a race is a definite type of fault, and is a kind of foul fighting, so the art of contentious reasoning is foul fighting in disputation: for in the former case those who are resolved to win at all costs snatch at everything, and so in the latter case do contentious reasoners. Those, then, who do this in order to win the mere victory are generally considered to be contentious and quarrelsome persons, while those who do it to win a reputation with a view to making money are sophistical. For the art of sophistry is, as we said,’ a kind of art of money-making from a merely apparent wisdom, and this is why they aim at a merely apparent demonstration: and quarrelsome persons and sophists both employ the same arguments, but not with the same motives: and the same argument will be sophistical and contentious, but not in the same respect; rather, it will be contentious in so far as its aim is an apparent victory, while in so far as its aim is an apparent wisdom, it will be sophistical: for the art of sophistry is a certain appearance of wisdom without the reality. The contentious argument stands in somewhat the same relation to the dialectical as the drawer of false diagrams to the geometrician; for it beguiles by misreasoning from the same principles as dialectic uses, just as the drawer of a false diagram beguiles the geometrician.

This is often the analogy that I use when discussing fallacies. I get little traction, because the students think fouling is part of the game.

Aristotle, On Trolling

This long-overdue translation (by Rachel Barney, Toronto) of Aristotle’s seminal, On Trolling, is worth a careful read. A sample:

Hence the modes of trolling are many: the concern-troll, the one who ‘sees the other side’, the polite inquirer into the obvious. For the perfected troll has no need of rudeness or abuse, or even of fallacy (this belongs rather to sophistic or eristic, and requires making an argument): he only makes a suggestion or indication [semainein ˆ ].

Read it. It’s only two pages.

A couple of items

In case one is interested in how philosophers have reacted to David Brooks' piece (mentioned here yesterday), then they can go over to the Leiter Reports and comment.

In case one is interested in bad arguments in general–as we are–then one can go badarguments.org to practice identifying them.  Have fun.

Finally, if one has been following George F. Will's scientific escapades (discussed by us here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here), one might be interested in the following article published in yesterday's Washington Post.  Here's a critical passage:

The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.

If only the article were distributed as widely as Will's various factually and logically challenged op-eds.  Here's Tom Toles (of the Washington Post!) on George Will:



General philosophical post today.  It doesn't seem David Brooks has read Aristotle.  Had he read Aristotle, he would have not written this:

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.


UPDATE.  Ok, on the strength of a conversation with one of the commentators here, I will add the following two paragraphs (directly from above) to make the Aristotle point clearer.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

Now discuss (again).