Day 42: On Bad Arguments

Did any of you realize that I had skipped Day 42?

Anyway, that was what happened, so I am writing this post right now to make up for the poor Day 42 that I unintentionally skipped and nobody cared enough to inform me (sob)(sob). Alright, the anthropomorphic Day 42 who is standing right next to me right now has just told me to let it go (meaning he’s forgiven me — and you, my dear readers), and instead make it count.

I want to write, again, today about what I have learned from my colleague Mike, who, in a way, has taught me more than many people who have formally been my teachers.

Recently, in fact, I posted on my wall an article from the English newspapers The Guardian regarding why we have children? Many people who know me probably know that I personally have been wrestling with this question for a very long time, although I have, also for quite a while already, come to the conclusion that I won’t have mine. The reason for which was simple: there’s a way for me to take care of myself when I am old, and that I don’t need an heir to inherit any of my materials or financial remains after I die (I have decided to donate everything — including my body — to those whom I believe would make the best out of it whether or not they are related to me by blood, and also to charity). I have come to this conclusion after having deeply and thoroughly exercising my ability reason. I can’t think of any other reasons to want to throw someone into the world without his or her consent just because I want that person to take care of me when I am old, or to inherit my last name, or my assets (not that I think I’d have very many for anyone given how stoic my life after beginning to think about myself philosophically has been). Mike, then, commented with the following words:

Yeah right, how absurd it is that a person who hasn’t got any children is trying to answer the question whether to have any children.

Mike was right about one thing: I don’t have any children. It was obvious that he was attacking me, by pointing out that I should not be able to say anything in this matter, that this question was out of my intellectual reach. This form of attack, in a form of a argument, has a name: Ad Hominem, which is a Latin word meaning “against the man” or “against the person.” The definition of Ad Hominem that I can possibly come up with goes as followed:

By discrediting the source of information, whether by attacking the source’s lack of arbitrary qualities or, simply, by attacking the person (therefore “ad hominem“), the person using ad hominem argument succeeds in disengaging himself or herself from the argument completely.

It’s true. Mike was trying to shut me up, by saying that I did not even possess the right to even come up with this question. After having read Mike’s comment again for the second time, however, I spent a few minutes thinking silently to myself about I may have done wrong (again, I am a falliblist, so I don’t always think of myself as being right even when I have adequate evidence that I may be right).

Was I wrong to think that I wouldn’t want a kid because I don’t want anyone to have to take care of me?

Was I wrong to think that I could try to draw a conclusion about a problem without having to experience it?

Was I wrong to think that I do not need to have kids to know whether I would want to have kids, or not?

(By the way, tangent alert** The German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, building on the theory of knowledge hitherto developed by Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume, has the answers for all of these questions covered, in what he calls a synthetic and analytic and a priori and a posteriori analysis, which is a topic for another time).

After spending some time musing over Mike’s comment, I eventually arrived at the conclusion Mike’s comment was ridiculous for two reasons. Contextually, the goal of the question that I posed in relation to the article was to get people to think carefully whether or not they should have kids. What are the pros and cons, and what are hidden pros and hidden cons of having someone who is an biological and analog product of your marriage, and so on. So, to point out that only those who already have kids can answer this question is just missing the point. It’s not about competing to show-off whose experience is more legitimate. The goal of the post was to try to get people, as many as possible, to entertain both their trained and innate ability to reason to come to grips with something that might allow us to save ourselves from a mistake. I mean, what if one really shouldn’t have a child because one is not ready, not interested in having someone to be around, not wanting to spend a large part of one’s income on another member of the family, etc., and would have to take the responsibility to taking care of — or not, as one can always disown a child and let that child starve to death, give him or her to the orphanage, or worst, sell him or her in the black market — for the rest of one’s life?

Second, Mike’s argument is full of fallacies, the ad hominem fallacy was one, and there’s an obvious another, which is what many would like to call a “slippery slope” fallacy.

In Mike’s case, he believes that it is always the case that a person could only know what it means to possess something after he or she has possessed it. If that’s the case, since “slippery slope” means to claim that the only possibly scenario once something is believed, allowed, and acted upon is the most extreme version of that particular view, then there’s nothing any one of us can know at all. For instance, one can argue that Mike doesn’t know anything about having children because he only has a child (and therefore, by definition, not children) therefore he himself also has no access to the knowledge of the experience of having more than one child. Even that, he still wouldn’t know it anyway because his child is different from other child, and therefore, since experience of a person varies hence there’s no way of grasping the gist of the complete idea of parenthood. The list goes on, and you get the point. In other words, the person with a particular experience gets to monopolize the knowledge., which would mean that, when applies this principle elsewhere, there is no way to foresee any problems because you are going to need to have those problems yourself before you could get to say about them. In that case, what is the purpose of education then?

In fact, I would go so far as to say that we human beings have not extinct because we listen to each other, we exercise our reason, and we learn from the mistakes of others. Otherwise, make no mistake, we would all be dead. Examples of  counterarguments to this kind of “slippery slope” fallacy are all over, and you can tell how ridiculous they sound. For instance, “are ou saying that you can’t know whether a snake is poisonous until you get bitten by it.” Or “are you saying that you can in no ways know that an act of suicide is bad until you try it.” Good luck with that, Mikey. I’ll learn from the expert which kinds of snakes to avoid, and I will not commit suicide because I can imagine (sort of) how would my loved ones feel like to not having me around any more because of my untimely death.

Another colleague of mine, Bill, also wrote a response. Bill was a proponent of the idea of having children, and his argument was:

Why have children? For me, it’s one major thing to experience in life as a human being. I wouldn’t not have a baby for the fear of what I’ve missed out on!

Like me, Bill also doesn’t have any children (so, if Mike happened to know Bill, Mike would have smacked Bill with the same ad hominem argument). But what’s the problem with Bill’s argument, especially on the part in which he said “ it’s one major thing to experience in life as a human being.” One of the most common fallacies in argumentation is what we call “Appeal to consequences,” and the idea of which is just because something, when appear to be true, will fit into the domain in which one happen to believe that which would make one’s life better (in this sense, “to not missing out on what life has to offer”) does not mean that it is true. Bill and I are good friends, and I can see the point from which he is coming, and I can’t say that he’s wrong to say that. My problem is, solely, with his argument.

Another side note on the Appeal to consequences fallacy is another form of Appeal to consequences fallacy, known as “using consequences as antecedents.” The description of this fallacy goes as followed: just because one happens to believe that a consequence is something one personally would be happy to have doesn’t mean that which is the only option, both for oneself and for others. Just because one see, feel, think of something doesn’t mean that which one see, feel, and think is the only way that which could be seen, felt, and thought about. So, in the sense, the kind of argument that Bill was making might sound similar to something like, “I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to go out hunting large wild animals — because it’s one major thing to experience in life as a human being, as hunting is a true proof that culture is above nature, and that human beings are above animals in the food chain.” Think for a second here. These two argument are the same kind of argument — they appeal to the consequences that one wish to obtain: to have children for Bill, and to prove human being’s ability to kill lives (which may result in having a feast or having a trophy stuffed animal heads afterwards). This is a dangerous kind of fallacy.

I then went on to listen to the latest episode from my favorite Podcast program Philosophize This, in which the host Stephen West discusses common fallacies in argument. He wrote the blurb:

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument listening to your opposition, and you have a strong feeling that something is very wrong with the point that they’re making, but you can’t pinpoint exactly what it is?

So, as always, I jumped into the shower (whenever I run out of ideas I always like to pour some hot water on my head). While taking a shower this morning, listening to this particular Philosophize This episode, I came up with some thoughts on common fallacies we use (sometimes without knowing them) in arguments. Knowing them, I believe, we can avoid making them, and therefore will become much more careful when making arguments — a very useful thing to know in debating anything at all.
First, “Appeal to consequences” and “Using Consequences as Antecedents” — see above à la Bill’s comment.

Second, “Appeal to ignorance”: Just because there is no definite proof that something doesn’t exist, or isn’t true, doesn’t mean that which doesn’t exist or isn’t true, and therefore must exist and then true. This is a very very common fallacy. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides the following example:

Nobody has ever proved to me there’s a God, so I know there is no God.

There’re so many things we don’t know. Just because we used to believe, at one time, that the world wasn’t spherical (and that it was flat) doesn’t make the world not spherical and therefore flat. Simply put, just because you don’t know, can’t prove something doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or not true. For this particular fallacy, the key is to be open-minded and constructively skeptical. Even better, to be fallabilistic or to have the essential quality of being open-minded and constructively skeptical at the same time.

Third, “Appeal to comforting status quo”: Also known as the “if it ain’t a broken don’t fix it” fallacy. Status quo here means “the existing state of affairs.” Some might even call it “an argument of a lazy swine.” Just because something works for someone — for now and perhaps the immediate future — doesn’t mean that it will always work.

My college Mike No. 2 (yes, there’re two Mikes and they’re both my great teachers on how not to make an argument — ouchs), once said to me:

If I have been in China for 7 years — doing well — without having to learn Chinese, why would I need it now?

The extreme version of this kind of fallacy would be to say, “the plane is still flying, let’s wait until it is no longer flying properly to fix it.” Well, once that happens, one often does not have the opportunity to fix it, doesn’t it. My friend Max has helped me putting it into words by noting that it might also not be the best way for something to work in the status quo, not only that it might stop working at some point. Well, one can also see this kind of argument being based on the idea of arrogance, and the lack of the understanding of self-development. Another related fallacy to Appeal to comforting status quo is “Appeal to personal incredulity,” meaning just because something seems too difficult or complex for one to understand, that one has the right to say, assume, or make judgement that which isn’t true, or that which is not necessary. An example of this comes from my friend Sands, who said to me one time after her effort to try to understand the very basis of Socratic ideas of arguing-by-questioning failed miserably:

I think all philosophers are stupid. All I need is my own philosophy. I don’t give a damn about other people’s thoughts.

Fourth, “straw man fallacy”: This fallacy takes place when one of the parties engaging in an argument takes the direction of the argument differently by creating a simplistic straw man to attack based on his or her misunderstanding of your original argument, and therefore making you feel as though the original argument with which you have come up is weak. Dr. Michael C. Labossiere, the author of a Macintosh tutorial named Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0 has provided us with the following example (with a minor modification to fit the current world’s situation) of a straw man fallacy.

Senator Jones says that we should not fund the attack of the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Syria. I disagree entirely. I can’t understand why he wants to leave us defenseless, and be killed by the terrorist like that.

There’re a few more, actually, but I got to go home now, so I’ll stop here (what kind of fallacy is that???). I am still at my office, typing this, guys. Okay, two more.

Fifth, the “False equivalence” fallacy. This is also known as the “black and white” fallacy. Basically, you happen to believe that either A or B is true, and you happen to also believe that B is not true. Therefore, A must be true. For example, imaging you really love someone, and therefore you believe that which person has to either love you (A) or not love you (B). Then, because that person still talks to you so therefore that person must not not love you, therefore that person must love you (A is true). What happens next is that you would then decide to leave no room for any alternatives because of your fixation on the fallacy that A must be true. This is the kind of conversation that could happen when you do so:

Look, you are going to have to make up your mind. Either you decide to marry me, or you decide you are going to live the rest of your life without me in it.

Finally, sixth, a “bandwagon fallacy”: Just because most people like it doesn’t mean it has to be true. The website above describes it as followed:

The Bandwagon is a fallacy in which a threat of rejection by one’s peers (or peer pressure) is substituted for evidence in an “argument.”

You here this all the time, especially in China. I also calls this kind of argument “the social structure is bigger than me” fallacy. For example, what  I hear all the time are:

I have to get married because I turn 27, otherwise the “whole society” will think of me as being unwanted — leftover to rot.

I have to study hard, otherwise why would anyone look at me?

I have to make a lot of money, so that I can be a member of that group.

Whenever you happen to say “you have to” do something and you don’t know exactly why, and after  you carefully entertain your reason and find out that there’s nothing there except the peer pressure, then you’re under the malignant of a bandwagon fallacy. So, as opposed to saying “I have to,” say “I should.” These are questions that provide you with better preconditions to your decisions:

You should get married because you have found someone you love with whom want to spend the rest of your life (or as long as possible), no matter how old you are.

You should be studying hard because you believe in the power of knowledge not because you want someone to look at you.

You should be making money because you want to make good use of it, not because you want a membership of a certain group that judges a person based on how much money he or she has.

This fallacy is also a slippery slope. You could say something like, “I must do this because if I don’t do it then I’d be the odd one out.” Here, one can substitute “this” with all kinds of horrible things (e.g., steal, rape, kill, just to name a few).

So, when someone says that he or she is doing it because he or she believes that which to be the only argument that is valid, you could tell that person to “get off that wrong bandwagon” — and walk, run, bike, or whatever. Therefore, living his or her life, instead, in “good faith.”


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