Tag Archives: Socrates

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.

Socrates and Donald Rumsfeld

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow had some poignant words the other day for the zombie tribe of war pundits:

“If you’re an architect or a conspirator or one of the primary actors in the Iraq War–in arguably the grandest and most craven foreign policy disaster in American history–your opinion is no longer required on matters of war and peace. Please enjoy painting portraits of dogs or something. Painting portraits of yourself in the bathroom, trying to get clean. Please enjoy the loving comfort of your family and loved ones, and your god. But we as a country never ever need to hear from you about war, ever again. You can go now.”

Here’s Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias:

SOCRATES: Well, then, if you and I, Callicles, were intending to set about some public business, and were advising one another to undertake buildings, such as walls, docks or temples of the largest size, ought we not to examine ourselves, first, as to whether we know or do not know the art of building, and who taught us?—would not that be necessary, Callicles?


SOCRATES: In the second place, we should have to consider whether we had ever constructed any private house, either of our own or for our friends, and whether this building of ours was a success or not; and if upon consideration we found that we had had good and eminent masters, and had been successful in constructing many fine buildings, not only with their assistance, but without them, by our own unaided skill—in that case prudence would not dissuade us from proceeding to the construction of public works. But if we had no master to show, and only a number of worthless buildings or none at all, then, surely, it would be ridiculous in us to attempt public works, or to advise one another to undertake them. Is not this true?

CALLICLES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And does not the same hold in all other cases? If you and I were physicians, and were advising one another that we were competent to practise as state-physicians, should I not ask about you, and would you not ask about me, Well, but how about Socrates himself, has he good health? and was any one else ever known to be cured by him, whether slave or freeman? And I should make the same enquiries about you. And if we arrived at the conclusion that no one, whether citizen or stranger, man or woman, had ever been any the better for the medical skill of either of us, then, by Heaven, Callicles, what an absurdity to think that we or any human being should be so silly as to set up as state-physicians and advise others like ourselves to do the same, without having first practised in private, whether successfully or not, and acquired experience of the art! Is not this, as they say, to begin with the big jar when you are learning the potter’s art; which is a foolish thing?


Should be so damn obvious.  But it isn’t.

There’s no modern Socrates, so you must be…

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist of some standing.  But he, unfortunately, isn't much for logic. Or, perhaps, simple consistency.  His recent article, "The New Sophists," over at National Review Online, exemplifies these two traits in spades.

Hanson's thesis is that there's just so much double-talk and empty rhetoric, especially from the left, and more especially regarding global warming.  Al Gore "convinced the governments of the Western world that they were facing a global-warming Armageddon, and then hired out his services to address the hysteria that he had helped create."  And the recent record snowfalls in the Northeast are clear evidence that global warming is a sham.  When climate scientists explained that events like this are not only consistent with global warming, but to be expected, Hanson retorts:

The New York Times just published an op-ed assuring the public that the current record cold and snow is proof of global warming. In theory, they could be, but one wonders: What, then, would record winter heat and drought prove?

It's not just climate science that has the double-talk, though.  Hanson sees it with discussions of the Constitution:

One, the Washington Post’s 26-year-old Ezra Klein, recently scoffed on MSNBC that a bothersome U.S. Constitution was “written more than 100 years ago” and has “no binding power on anything.”

To all of this, Hanson makes his analogy with classical Athens and the problem of the sophists:

One constant here is equating wisdom with a certificate of graduation from a prestigious school. If, in the fashion of the sophist Protagoras, someone writes that record cold proves record heat, . . . or that a 223-year-old Constitution is 100 years old and largely irrelevant, then credibility can be claimed only in the title or the credentials — but not the logic — of the writer.

OK. That's a nice point, at least if it were true about the cases he was discussing. (Did Hanson not read the reasons in the NYT article he never cites as to why we'd get crazy snowfalls because of global warming?  If he's going to talk about the article, talk about its argument, too.  Sheesh.  And Klein said it was over 100 years old, and that it's not binding, … but that doesn't matter to Hanson, I guess).  But it's on this point about sophists run amok that Hanson bemoans our fate:

We are living in a new age of sophism — but without a modern Socrates to remind the public just how silly our highly credentialed and privileged new rhetoricians can be.

So we don't have a modern Socrates.  So what's Hanson doing, then?  By that statement, he can't think he's Socrates or doing the job of criticizing the new rhetoricians, can he?  So what is he?  I think I know:  He's another sophist.