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The Enlightenment and Liberalism

Updated on December 1, 2010

Logical Fallacy's

Texans and Alaskans are more patriotic than this sham that currently sits in the White House

Texans and Alaskans that want to secede from the union are more patriotic then the current president of the United States? Another value judgment that isn’t worth the time it took for you to type it. I asked this person, can you demonstrate how the people of two states that would want to secede from the country are showing any degree of patriotism when they are decidedly anti-American? How is that patriotic?

Here’s an example of the absolutist statement that you’ll see often. He doesn’t say that Texans and Alaskans seem to be more patriotic….Nope. He goes all the way and makes the definitive statement of absolute certitude that this is the truth. Texans and Alaskans ARE more patriotic then the president. So, demonstrate how that is true. I mean, what is that statement based on?

What methodology was used to come to this profound conclusion? This is the most common kind of statement I’ve found coming from those on the right. The conservative theory of rationality tells him this. That theory of rationality is voiced by authoritarian figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and others. What you’ll notice in a debate is the reliance on absolute statements. There seems to be a need among conservatives to define people and package them into neat little boxes. Is this a part of the conservative ideology or theory of rationality? Let’s look back at what marked the difference with this kind of thinking and liberal thought.

““to understand the Enlightenment and the foundations of democracy is to know that doctrinal substance was less important than overall philosophy.” It wasn’t as much Descartes’ reason as it was Newton’s Laws. Not abstraction and definition, but rather observation and experience. The real power of reason lay not in the possession, but in the aquisition of truth. The ideal for knowledge was a further development of 17th century logic and science with an emphasis on:”

  1. The particular rather than the general; (there is a conservative tendency to offer up sweeping generalities and present them as factual truths. ex: Healthcare will lead to Armegeddon. Liberals hate America. Obama is a Marxist, the list of generalizations is very long)
  2. Observable facts rather than principles; ( conservatives are known to embrace their principles dogmatically. None of their principles however can be demonstrated as true)
  3. Experience rather than rational speculation.( once again, Healthcare will lead to armegeddon. The healthcare reform bill will create "death panels".)

What you’ll find in abundance from those presenting conservative ideology is an emphasis on Inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning leads from the particular to the general. They seem to have a tendency to take a particular fact, and couple it with a group of other facts, and then present a conclusion in the form of a generality and claim that it’s an irrefutable truth. Glenn Beck, drawing his circles on a blackboard and showing how everything leads to the US becoming….China. It’s unmistakable. There can be no other conclusion. After all, the circles don’t lie.

Deductive reasoning works the other way. Taking the general statement and leading to the particular. Inductive reasoning can never give you the truth. It makes predictions but it can’t claim to present truth because it can never exhaust all the possibilities that exist in the universe to test a theory. It makes the claim that “All Swans are White”. It does that because every swan that we’ve seen has been white. Therefore the conclusion is that all swans are white. Except that they aren’t. We found black swans in Australia. They won't accept this of course, because All Swans are White. A black swan is some other kind of bird altogether.

Glenn Beck and many of the others of his ilk are guilty of the logical fallacy known as Hasty Generalization. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough. It has the following form:

Sample S, which is too small, is taken from population P.

  1. Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on S.

You’ll identify this easily when Beck or Limbaugh tells you that “All progressives are this, or All liberals are that”. “They want to take your freedom from you”. “They hate America.” “The president wants to destroy America.” Statements like these apply what is called a universal quantifier. You’ll hear that a lot, and when you do, you’ll know that the moron saying it is an illogical buffoon who makes a lot of money spouting this kind of thing to an unsophisticated audience. They make outrageous absolute statements targeting a monolithic thing they call “the Liberal”. They actually play on the fact that most people work on emotions and not critical-thinking. They’re probably right about that considering the size of their audience in spite of the complete absence of reason and logic. More on this later.

A popular argument approach which is actually a part of the conservative ideal for tradition is the Appeal to Tradition (Argumentum Ad Traditio): This line of thought asserts that a premise must be true because people have always believed it or done it. It is almost an automatic knee jerk response by conservatives who base their ideology on preserving existing institutions. Alternatively, it may conclude that the premise has always worked in the past and will thus always work in the future: “Jefferson City has kept its urban growth boundary at six miles for the past thirty years. That has been good enough for thirty years, so why should we change it now? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”( Healthcare anyone?) Such an argument is appealing in that it seems to be common sense, but it ignores important questions. Might an alternative policy work even better than the old one? Are there drawbacks to that long-standing policy? Are circumstances changing from the way they were thirty years ago?

Another used frequently is the Appeal to Improper Authority (Argumentum Ad Verecundium, literally “argument from that which is improper”): An appeal to an improper authority, such as a famous person or a source that may not be reliable. This fallacy attempts to capitalize upon feelings of respect or familiarity with a famous individual. It is not fallacious to refer to an admitted authority if the individual’s expertise is within a strict field of knowledge. On the other hand, to cite Einstein to settle an argument about education or economics is fallacious. To cite Darwin, an authority on biology, on religious matters is fallacious. To cite the Pope on legal problems is fallacious. The worst offenders usually involve movie stars and psychic hotlines.

A subcategory is the Appeal to Biased Authority. In this sort of appeal, the authority is one who actually is knowledgeable on the matter, but one who may have professional or personal motivations that render his professional judgment suspect: for instance, “To determine whether fraternities are beneficial to this campus, we interviewed all the frat presidents.” Or again, “To find out whether or not sludge-mining really is endangering the Tuskogee salamander’s breeding grounds, we interviewed the supervisors of the sludge-mines, who declared there is no problem.” Indeed, it is important to get “both viewpoints” on an argument, but basing a substantial part of your argument on a source that has personal, professional, or financial interests at stake may lead to biased arguments. A good example of this is the debate that occurred over healthcare in congress. Republicans cited studies by The Lewin Group who were experts on Heathcare. The catch is that The Lewin Group is a wholly owned subsidiary of United Health Group. One of the largest Health Insurance companies in the country who certainly had a vested interest in the outcome. The Republicans made the Appeal to Biased Authority.

One of Glenn Becks favorite tools is the Appeal to Emotion(Argumentum Ad Misericordiam, literally, “argument from pity”): An emotional appeal concerning what should be a logical issue during a debate. While pathos generally works to reinforce a reader’s sense of duty or outrage at some abuse, if a writer tries to use emotion merely for the sake of getting the reader to accept what should be a logical conclusion, the argument is a fallacy. For example, in the 1880s, prosecutors in a Virginia court presented overwhelming proof that a boy was guilty of murdering his parents with an ax. The defense presented a “not-guilty” plea for on the grounds that the boy was now an orphan, with no one to look after his interests if the court was not lenient. This appeal to emotion obviously seems misplaced, and the argument is irrelevant to the question of whether or not he did the crime. Beck takes this form of fallacy to new heights for a TV personality employing the use of camphor under the eyes to induce tears while telling his audience, “ I’m just a man who loves his country”. Cue the tears and stand back while hordes of believers become his followers. It works and Beck can bank on it to the tune of about $20 million a year.

Another Fallacy is called Begging the Question (also called Petitio Principii, this term is sometimes used interchangeably with Circular Reasoning: If writers assume as evidence for their argument the very conclusion they are attempting to prove, they engage in the fallacy of begging the question. The most common form of this fallacy is when the first claim is initially loaded with the very conclusion one has yet to prove. For instance, suppose a particular student group states, “Useless courses like English 101 should be dropped from the college’s curriculum.” The members of the student group then immediately move on in the argument, illustrating that spending money on a useless course is something nobody wants. Yes, we all agree that spending money on useless courses is a bad thing. However, those students never did prove that English 101 was itself a useless course–they merely “begged the question” and moved on to the next “safe” part of the argument, skipping over the part that’s the real controversy, the heart of the matter, the most important component. Begging the question is often hidden in the form of a complex question . Today the same approach is used by conservatives to argue against everything from Healthcare, to Social Security, to the Department of Education by making the preliminary claim that “Useless” programs such as these should be eliminated from our vernment system. First of all, they haven’t proven that they are useless – they merely “begged the question” Once again, they assume as evidence for their argument the very conclusion they are attempting to prove. They announce that the programs are useless or wasteful, without having proven that they are.

Circular Reasoning is closely related to Begging the Question. Often the writers using this fallacy word take one idea and phrase it in two statements. The assertions differ sufficiently to obscure the fact that that the same proposition occurs as both a premise and a conclusion. The speaker or author then tries to “prove” his or her assertion by merely repeating it in different words. Richard Whately wrote in Elements of Logic (London 1826): “To allow every man unbounded freedom of speech must always be on the whole, advantageous to the state; for it is highly conducive to the interest of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.” Obviously the premise is not logically irrelevant to the conclusion, for if the premise is true the conclusion must also be true. It is, however, logically irrelevant in proving the conclusion. In the example, the author is repeating the same point in different words, and then attempting to “prove” the first assertion with the second one. A more complex but equally fallacious type of circular reasoning is to create a circular chain of reasoning like this one: “God exists.” “How do you know that God exists?” “The Bible says so.” “Why should I believe the Bible?” “Because it’s the inspired word of God.”

The so-called “final proof” relies on unproven evidence set forth initially as the subject of debate. Basically, the argument goes in an endless circle, with each step of the argument relying on a previous one, which in turn relies on the first argument yet to be proven. Surely God deserves a more intelligible argument than the circular reasoning proposed in this example!

Hasty Generalization (Dicto Simpliciter, also called “Jumping to Conclusions,” “Converse Accident”) which we spoke of at the beginning of this chapter provides the mistaken use of inductive reasoning when there are too few samples to prove a point. Example: “Susan failed Biology 101. Herman failed Biology 101. Egbert failed Biology 101. I therefore conclude that most students who take Biology 101 will fail it.” In understanding and characterizing general situations, a logician cannot normally examine every single example. However, the examples used in inductive reasoning should be typical of the problem or situation at hand. Maybe Susan, Herman, and Egbert are exceptionally poor students. Maybe they were sick and missed too many lectures that term to pass. If a logician wants to make the case that most students will fail Biology 101, she should (a) get a very large sample–at least one larger than three–or (b) if that isn’t possible, she will need to go out of his way to prove to the reader that her three samples are somehow representative of the norm. If a logician considers only exceptional or dramatic cases and generalizes a rule that fits these alone, the author commits the fallacy of hasty generalization.

The previous illustration of “All Swans are White” is another example.

Thanks here, to the Logical Fallacies Handlist . There are many sources of logical fallacies on the internet. Some of my favorites are the Nizkor Project, Logical Fallacies, and Stephens Guide. All of them are good and should be a part of everyone’s favorites on their computer if their interested at all in trying to argue from reason. Just create a “favorites” folder called logical fallacies and save as many as you can for reference.

As we can see, a person, attempts to present Texans and Alaskans as being more patriotic than the current president as if it’s an observable fact. It’s not. He’s making a value judgment. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but his opinion is baseless. What is the criteria for making that claim? It’s supported by another opinion, and another and so on into infinite regress. He can’t defend his claim and so he offers up what amounts to bullshit. In any debate online with somebody like this, their argument should be dismantled through logic and the person dismissed as incapable of making a worthwhile argument. Never entertain BS.

Here is an argument made by one poster to a political forum:

There are different domains of truth but you are conflating all truth into one domain.” Let’s stop there for a moment. This person is making a definitive statement about truth. I have to ask where he came up with this idea? What are the different domains that he describes? For the record let’s understand that I’m not a relativist. A relativist doesn’t believe in universal truth, since everything is relative to him. I do see that an absolute truth exists. I simply do not believe that anyone can possess it. We can however aquire it in portions by eliminating those things that are false and only serve to obscure the truth.

He goes on:

"objectively demonstratable whether it is raining. It is not demonstratable , unless one subjectively experiences it, that God exists." ( so somebody can demonstrate that God exists through a subjective experience? How? Since the experience is subjective, how can you demonstrate objectively that God exists?

"The laws of classical physics do not apply at the quantum domain of accuracy- and so the laws of classical physics are laws that definitively apply within the classical domain – but not outside of that domain." ( What is “classical physics? We never had a course in “classical physics in school. We had Physics. What is he talking about here? I’m getting that unmistakable aroma of bovine excrement wafting through the air.

"As one who does believe in God, I see Obama as an atheist, no matter whether he claims to be of one religion or another. (What this person “see’s isn’t really important, since he can never know the mind of another person…but he’ll tell you otherwise I’m sure ) His explanation for his membership in Wrights “church” was that he needed to be a member because it would advance his political career- "( perhaps he can provide some kind of evidence for that claim. A statement from Obama would do. ) "and the Obama team seemed to believe that this was a perfectly acceptable rationalization. Obama thinks that he can legistlate “neighborliness’ because he believes that such character traits can be created by human laws- reminiscent of Marx who believed that a system of human government can transform human character."

 Really? How does this person know what Obama thinks about legislating neighborliness? I never heard him say anything of the sort. But now I’m told that this person knows what Obama thinks about such things. It’s amazing. Conservatism makes a person psychic. They can now read minds. And of course they are infallibly correct, because their theory of rationality must be correct. It is man-made and man is fallible but those things that come from man are of course infallible. So…ask him where he gets these ideas. They must be based on something. What justifies his view?

He goes on:

Rational thinking that progresses human development. It’s my right to abort this thing in my womb. Very rational.”

Yes in fact it is. If that “thing” in the womb is determined to have a lifespan of 5 minutes outside the womb how is it NOT a rational decision to terminate a pregnancy? Whatever the reason for the decision to terminate a pregnancy is, it is not up to some outside force such as this person to make that determination for another.

” Prove that without values, man is returned to a beast. I just did. Even animals fight to the death for their offspring. Where does that place man?” Actually some animals will eat their offspring if they need to. Another fact to take into consideration is that animals do not reason.

They are incapable of making these kinds of choices. First he claims that man is returned to a beast, for exercising his reason, which is the very thing that separates us from the animal world.Then he claims that man is actually lower than an animal since an animal will fight to the death for their offspring. Except, not all animals do that. On top of all of that, he’s making a value judgment on having values by claiming that without values man is returned to a beast. That claim in itself is a value. So…how does he demonstrate the truth of the statement? He doesn’t. He chooses this route: ”What are your values?”Don’t tell me you don’t have any. You value your life, or you wouldn’t still be here on this earth.”

Why would it matter to you? They’re mine, not yours.

”What is your purpose on earth? You have a purpose, you’re not random. If you believe that God enslaves, you’re wrong. God liberates if you don’t strictly follow dogma. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?.... Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Corinthians 1, 19-25”<

So…enter the theory of rationality. The Bible. His argument is based on the Bible. And of course I would ask what proves the Bible, and we arrive at the circular argument which we saw in the logical fallacies. And this is the problem with those who harbor theories of rationality.

William Bartley pointed out that “Beliefs must be justified by an appeal to an authority of some kind (usually the source of the belief in question) and this justification by an appropriate authority makes the belief either rational, or if not rational, at least valid for the person who holds it.” However this is a requirement that can never be adequetly met due to the problem of validation or the dilemma of infinite regress vs. dogmatism.”

The point here is not to simply take Bartley’s word for it, but to examine whether what he’s saying is itself rational. When pressed our friend will resort to the Bible for his answers. When I press him for some basis for the Bible as an authority, he’ll claim it’s the word of God. I ask how he knows that, and I’m told the Bible says so. He is caught in the dilemma of infinite regress vs his own religious dogma. He can’t let go of the dogma of his religious beliefs which are his theory of rationality, so he must resort to circular reasoning.

The framework I come from permits a rationalist to be characterized as one who is willing to entertain any position and holds all his positions, including his most fundamental standards, goals, and decisions, and his basic philosophical position itself, open to criticism; one who never cuts off an argument by resorting to faith, or irrational commitment to justify some belief that has been under severe critical fire; one who is committed, attached, addicted, to no position. I have no qualms about putting my own ideas up to criticism. I recognize the fallibility of human beings. Nobody owns the Truth, including me. So, I’m not attempting to defend anything. Our friend is.

My closest friend, Tom, has a son who was in a terrible accident and is completely paralyzed from the neck down. He asked a politician who opposed stem cell research a question. He asked him if he had a son who was paralyzed and he was told that there was a possibility that his son might be able to regain some movement and relief from pain by an injection that came about as a result of this scientific research, what would he do? Would he still oppose stem cell research which at the very least offered some hope? Tom never got an answer from this guy. It seems his theory of rationality wouldn’t permit him to address that kind of situation. Principles and values are great to have. But what do you do when they collide with the truth? Do you maintain the principle which you claim you must never compromise, and thus live a lie; or do you abandon the principle and accept truth, and admit that your principles can in fact be compromised?

There you are. Now go forth and be logical.


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