Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dispatch From The Voice Of Reason

Hopefully we have all agreed that the use of critical thinking skills is desirable. (Please have a peruse of the previous dispatch regarding this subject - Awakening The Intellect To Study Itself)
First understand that in no way do I suggest that my skills in this area are superior or any such nonsense. I will claim only to be aware of these concepts, attempting to use them is an ongoing and evolving activity that for me, personally; is more successful in some areas of my life than in others. Being aware of common breaches of reasoning, we all can improve our lives and the quality of debate on all fronts. We encounter fallacy constantly. Recognition of it, in our own reasoning or in the reasoning of others is a liberation, a step towards intellectual honesty, ...keepin' it real.

A "fallacy" is a mistake. "Logical" fallacy is a mistake in reasoning.

Aristotle was the first formal logician—codifying the rules of correct reasoning. He was first to name types of logical error, and the first to group them into categories. The result is his book On Sophistical Refutations.

Aristotle's teacher, Plato, was the first philosopher to collect examples of bad reasoning, which is an important preliminary piece of field work before naming and cataloging. Plato's "Euthydemus" preserves a collection of fallacious arguments in dialogue form, putting the examples into the mouths of two sophists. For this reason, fallacious arguments are sometimes called "sophistry". In the centuries since Plato and Aristotle, many philosophers and logicians have added to fallacy studies, among them John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Arthur Schopenhauer. Recognizing bad reasoning is the path to implementing sound judgment and good reasoning. Why bother studying bad logic? Well, even if you could count on reasoning correctly 100% of the time, you cannot count on others doing so. In logical self-defense, you need to be able to spot poor reasoning, and—more importantly—to understand it. To be able to correct others' mistakes, or to refute them convincingly, you need to understand why they are wrong. Let's have a look at some fallacies that we encounter quite often.

The Ad Hominem
Translated from Latin to English, "Ad Hominem" means "against the man" or "against the person." An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant claim about the author of or the person presenting the claim. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of the person making the claim, their circumstances, or their actions is made (or sometimes the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). Unfortunately, Ad Hominem is now a standard practice in mainstream media/editorial. Polarizing the public opinion is often accomplished by using sweeping generalizations: What do you expect from a liberal?. This technique takes Ad Hominem a step further and seeks to create or demonize a particular social categorization, associate the person with such a group, and as a result discount the individual and the value of his opinion. Opponents of Thomas Jefferson for instance, in the presidential election of 1800 accused the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, one of the founding fathers of the nation of being an anti-American, a godless atheist (isn't that like being a white Caucasian?), and a tool of the godless French ( Jefferson had served as U.S. ambassador to France). Newspapers owned by Federalists (the opposing political party du jour) claimed that the election of Jefferson would cause the "teaching of murder robbery, rape, adultery and incest". (Source- Sound familiar?
Ad Hominem fallacies are nothing new, after all the ancient Greeks must have used them enough for Aristotle to have given it a name. But what is different today is the ownership of communications has become highly concentrated and capable of reaching far more people.

When people refer to others by generalized groups (secularist, atheist, liberal, conservative, feminist, hippy, etc.) be wary of the veiled attempt at ad hominem. For example, in mainstream America, many Christians have erroneously tried to associate atheism with satanism, and therefore seek to discredit the identity of an atheist as the evil opposite of Christianity. What it really is, a lack of belief in all such supernatural mythology, requires the rejection of the guy with the horns and pitchfork as well. In this manner, the reference to atheism, or secularism becomes a sort of a codified ad hominem.
Talking about it is one thing, there's nothing like seeing bad logic in action though.
Here are video examples from a constant ad hominem source:

Ah, yes... the personal attack...used most often when actually presenting a legitimate argument is not an option.

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