Tag Archives: Owl of Minerva problem

Arguing with Children

The other day the New York Times ran an op-ed about Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist. The TL;DR is that activism, particularly the activism of Ms.Thunberg, is “at odds with democracy.”

Many on Twitter wondered how attempting to persuade people to take an interest in an issue could be undemocratic. It seems, if anything, just like how you do democracy.

What the author really means, however, is that her argument methods are no good. He writes:

Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.


Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.

Kids her age have not seen much of life. Her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.

Pointing out in an argument with a child that they’re a child and you can’t really argue with them is pretty much the same thing as arguing with them, only it’s way more dishonest because it’s patronizing, self-contradictory, and itself pretty much fallacious. For, in the first place, you’re actually arguing with them, you’re just not doing it right by calling into question the truth of the premises or the logic of their conclusions. Instead, you’re pointing out that they’re children who, because of their fragile nature (I won’t even point out the other thing he mentions–see how I can be ironic too!), cannot be criticized by adults.

Still more perplexlingly, and equally ironically, the author argues that drawing negative conclusions about people’s behavior is not allowed:

Increasingly, climate agitators want action, not distraction. That often requires demonizing anyone who stands in the way. In July the climate editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad complained that Paris’s declaration of a “climate state of emergency” on July 9 had not been accompanied by a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower. In Germany the word “Flugscham” is one of the last year’s more interesting coinages. It means not fear of flying but shame of flying, and of the pollution it brings about. The German economist Niko Paech urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving S.U.V.s, too.

I’m supposing that the people making such arguments should be ashamed of themselves. Geez. It’s pretty much an inescapable feature of disagreements that the people with whom you disagree are doing something wrong. That’s just the way it’s done. When the disagreement concerns actions, then it follows that the claim will be that doing that action is wrong, and so should not be an action that is done. Pointing this out is just how you do arguments in a democracy. Maybe, just maybe, the extremity of the wrongness is exaggerated. If so, that’s something that’s pretty easy to point out.

To end on a rather more general note, this is another example of what Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin call the Owl of Minerva problem. The argument is so often not about what to do or what to believe but about what are legitimate arguments concerning what to do or what to believe.

Sadly, sometimes it’s pretty easy to have an argument about first order issues. Even Greta Thunberg, a mere child, can direct you to that.

Argumentative clutter

A while back, not that long ago actually, you couldn’t escape memes about Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering expert and reality TV personality. The most famous one was to ask, about any object that you have laying around your house: does it spark joy? If it doesn’t, then you get rid of it.

Over at Philosophy15, run by our own Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, they run another version of the “Owl of Minerva Problem.” Here’s the video (it’s a two-parter, this is part I):

A common stoic-type (Scott can confirm this) argument against extra stuff (one that I unsuccessfully employ all of the time) is that stuff just creates the need for more stuff. There’s a version of the this in Boethius’s Consolation.

Interestingly, this works for arguments as well, though there is no Marie Kondo here to help you. The better you get at arguments, the more argument furniture, rugs, tchotchkes you gather in the form of argument vocabulary, fallacy names, etc. In a sense, gathering this stuff is what it means, in the minds of many at least, to be good at arguing. The problem is that it gets subsumed into arguments such that you then have to gather more of it–more second (third?) order vocabulary, and so forth, to manage the misemployment of fallacy vocabulary, for instance.

One quick example of that. The Harry Potter Problem, so I call it, is the employment fallacy names (expecto ad hominem!) in place of ordinary language critique of argument. The Harry Potter problem only arises because we have a second-order vocabulary.

Anyway, back to the main point: you can get rid of stuff, lead a more simple life. This is not an option with arguments, even though the cause of the problem is pretty much the same. We’re stuck with the clutter. The only solution is more clutter.


Self straw manning

Image result for straw man

This is a continuation of Scott’s post from yesterday, where he observed that you can perform a kind of self straw man. You say something vague, knowing that you’re going to be “misinterpreted” and then you complain that you have been misinterpreted.

This kind of move–and I’ll give a slightly more subtle version of this in a moment–nicely illustrates the Owl of Minerva Problem for fallacy theory. The Owl of Minerva problem, as Scott and Robert Talisse describe it over at 3 Quarks Daily, runs like this:

But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.

The introduction of a metavocabulary will change the way we argue and it will, inevitably, become a thing we argue about.  The theoretical question is whether there is any distinction between the levels of meta-argumentation. The practical question is whether there is anything we can do about the seemingly inexorable journey to meta-argumentation. I have a theory on this but I’ll save that for another time.

Now for self straw manning.  This is a slightly more subtle version of yesterday’s example. Here’s the text (a bit longish, sorry) from a recent profile of Sam Harris by Nathan J.Robinson.

A number of critics labeled Harris “racist” or “Islamophobic” for his commentary on Muslims, charges that enraged him. First, he said, Islam is not a race, but a set of ideas. And second, while a phobia is an irrational fear, his belief about the dangers of Islam was perfectly rational, based on an understanding of its theological doctrines. The criticisms did not lead him to rethink the way he spoke about Islam,[4] but convinced him that ignorant Western leftists were using silly terms like “Islamophobia” to avoid facing the harsh truth that, contra “tolerance” rhetoric, Islam is not an “otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists” but a religion that is “fundamentalist” and warlike at its core.[5]

Each time Harris said something about Islam that created outrage, he had a defense prepared. When he wondered why anybody would want any more “fucking Muslims,” he was merely playing “Devil’s advocate.” When he said that airport security should profile “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he was simply demanding acknowledgment that a 22-year old Syrian man was objectively more likely to engage in terrorism than a 90-year-old Iowan grandmother. (Harris also said that he wasn’t advocating that only Muslims should be profiled, and that people with his own demographic characteristics should also be given extra scrutiny.) And when he suggested that if an avowedly suicidal Islamist government achieved long-range nuclear weapons capability, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own,” he was simply referring to a hypothetical situation and not in any way suggesting nuking the cities of actually-existing Muslims.[6]

It’s not necessary to use “Islamophobia” or the r-word in order to conclude that Harris was doing something both disturbing and irrational here. As James Croft of Patheos noted, Harris would follow a common pattern when talking about Islam: (1) Say something that sounds deeply extreme and bigoted. (2) Carefully build in a qualification that makes it possible to deny that the statement is literally bigoted. (3) When audiences react with predictable horror, point to the qualification in order to insist the audience must be stupid and irrational. How can you be upset with him for merely playing Devil’s Advocate? How can you be upset with him for advocating profiling, when he also said that he himself should be profiled? How can you object, unless your “tolerance” is downright pathological, to the idea that it would be legitimate to destroy a country that was bent on destroying yours?

Sam Harris is certainly a divisive figure. I’d also venture to guess that he is smart enough to know his audience, some of whom (such as Robinson here above) strongly disagree with him. He might be expected, therefore, for the purposes of having a productive debate, to make his commitments absolutely clear. This would involve, one would hope, avoiding bombastic utterances bound to provoke strong reactions or misinterpretations.

But, crucially, arguments are not always about convincing new people to adhere to your view, but to strengthen the attitudes of your followers. It seems to me that just such a tactic as the self-straw man is ideal. You get an opponent (cleverly, this case) to embody the very stereotype of the unreasonable, ideology-driven mismanager of fallacy vocabulary by setting up a straw man of your own view for them. They’re drawn to that but not to your qualifications and so the trap closes.

Fallacy theory and democracy

Instead of writing something myself today, I thought I’d post a link to this interesting piece by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse on Democracy and the Owl of Minerva Problem. A critical graph:

We argue in our natural languages, and so often when we argue, we argue over economies, animals, environments, poverty, and so on. But arguments are structured collections of statements that are alleged to manifest certain kinds of logical relations; consequently, they, too, can be the subject of scrutiny and disagreement. And often in order to evaluate a claim about, say, poverty, we need to attend specifically to the argument alleged to support it. In order to discuss arguments, as arguments, we must develop a language about the argumentative use of language. That is, we must develop a metalanguage. The objective in developing a metalanguage about argument is to enable us to talk about a given argument’s quality without taking a side in the debate over the truth of its conclusion.

The critical idea is that our theory about deliberative debate always follows the debate itself. This explains our ill-preparedness for what these debates offer. See: 2016.