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Project Logicality: The Reductio Ad Absurdum – Invalid & Valid


Let’s suppose that there are two men engaged in an argument, we’ll call them Mr. A and Mr. B.

They’re engaged in a rather spirited discussion on psi-phenomena, and Mr. A argues that psi is unlikely to exist because truly compelling evidence, in the form of successful replications of psi, regardless of the beliefs or level of enthusiasm of those attempting the replication of the initial studies, does not currently exist.

Note that he is not saying he doesn’t think it’s real because he hasn’t personally experienced it nor seen concrete, direct evidence of its existence, but that despite the immense volume of evidence in the literature, it just isn’t very convincing by reasonable scientific standards, and so one should remain skeptical for the time being.

Nor is he arguing that it’s impossible, only unlikely to exist until convincing evidence under reasonable conditions by reasonably objective research workers indicates otherwise.

In his rebuttal, Mr. B argues that Mr. A, in thinking that psi probably isn’t real, must also believe that dark energy and dark matter must not exist, because Mr. A hasn’t seen them either, and that he must therefore believe that 90% of the universe must not exist.

But wait…

Mr. A said nothing about needing to see psi himself, only that convincing evidence obtained under adequate conditions by non-believers in psi is not there, not yet, saying nothing at all about the evidence needed to establish dark matter or dark energy, both of which have different evidential requirements than psi does, for which almost the entire body of data consists of statistical quirks, convincing or not.

Mr. A’s argument has, as can be seen, been misrepresented, and in such a way as to carry it to an absurd conclusion, the claim that by his own reasoning, most of the universe doesn’t exist.

That last was an example of a fallacious Reductio ad absurdum, and of course there was probably much more said than simply the above. But Mr. B’s argument was fallacious because it led to an absurd conclusion without using the actual chain of reasoning of Mr. A’s argument, by misrepresenting that argument as a straw person.

Later, Mr. A and Mr. B get into a discussion of the nature of reality, in which Mr. B, not liking the direction of the argument, responds to what he feels are the overly absolutist statements of his opponent, in exasperation saying in a rather postmodern fashion, “Reality is nothing!”

There are several ways that this can be interpreted, but in this case, a clarification is not offered, and Mr. A cannot read minds nor thinks at the time to ask for a clarification, so the most likely interpretation, that B is claiming reality doesn’t exist, will have to do.

What does this mean? Can we carry this claim to it’s ultimate conclusion without merely misrepresenting it?

Let’s see…

What is reality? And I don’t mean what is its ultimate nature in fact, but what is the meaning of the word? How is it used?

Reality, by definition, is that which can truly be said to exist, no matter it’s nature or other properties:

a=a: reality is real.

To be real, this quality of existing is essential, whether the thing existing is directly observable or not. If something doesn’t exist, then it’s not part of reality, and if it’s not even imagined, it’s not fantasy either.

What is everything that is real?

We call it the Universe, or the Cosmos, take your pick, though myself, I’m partial to the latter, though for this discussion I’ll use “universe” for the totality of existence.

To say that reality is nothing, in this context implies that the universe doesn’t exist, 100% of it, not just 90% in the straw person argument above, since the universe is everything, with or without any supplementation to it by anything allegedly supernatural.

But if the universe is everything that exists, and everything currently within and originating within the universe, by definition existing as part of its totality, and therefore part of all reality…

Hmmm… I smell something funny about this, don’t you?..

If the ‘reality does not exist’ interpretation holds and the claim were true, then the claim could never be made, since neither of the two persons would even exist themselves in order to have their argument.

But if Mr. B exists to make his argument to Mr. A, and Mr. A exists to hear the argument, then the claim, assuming this interpretation, is simply, obviously, and demonstrably false.

Clearly this is an unacceptable conclusion, at least until such time as Mr. B offers a clarification of his statement that requires a different interpretation of what he said, we must assume what we did know and thus consider this a valid Reductio ad absurdum.

But personal debates among argumentative friends are often messy, impromptu, with little if any ‘rehearsal’ or ‘practice’ beforehand, and unless both are skilled arguers, it is unlikely that normative standards or ideals will reasonably be met without time and practice.

This is just one of the hazards of personal arguments, but it’s something that can be improved if done systematically and with time, skillfully and instinctively, but the rewards of rich and confident testing of our knowledge by argumentation far outstrip any annoyance that may result in the beginning.

Project Logicality: Argumentation’s Basic Assumptions


An argument is a connected series of statement...

An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. (Photo credit: harold.lloyd)

This is the second re-release in my Project Logicality series, and it was posted in its original form in April of 2011. I’ve corrected and re-written this and reposted it here, hopefully clearer and to the point. May all your arguments be rational and all your disputes be resolved. ~ Troythulu

We persuade others through our arguments, to get them to accept the statements and claims we make as likely true of their own free choice, justified on the basis of the reasons we give rather than prove them absolutely. Argumentation contributes to healthy discussion and debate, to let those so arguing find common ground, and to make easier a willingness to compromise.

People argue daily, though seldom with skill, and in my view, argumentation as a well-honed tool of a functional democratic republic is needed more than ever with the increasing decay of social discourse, political polarization and interpersonal conflicts that ever more are seen as irreconcilable.

In this post, I’ll describe the basic assumptions and basic conditions that go into any attempt at constructive argument, and before I do, I’ll note as before that good argument is intellectual in force, not coercive or deceptive. It is an ethical means of influencing others, limiting their freedom of action without imposing on their freedom of will.

First, argument is carried out under conditions of uncertainty: We generally don’t argue about things we think certain, though that doesn’t prevent us from talking about them.

We argue about things because we think it important enough to convince others of them, and things may well turn out to be otherwise. If things were absolutely self-evident, they would be so to all, and there would be no need to convince anyone of them.

These differences may be implied and apparent to an analyst, concealed in the context of an argument, or explicit, obvious to an audience. Bear in mind that even the concept of certainty can depend on the audience addressed and the assumptions they bring to the table as to what it means.

Second, Argumentation must consider the needs of an audience. people argue about things that matter to them, attempting to resolve what they think are conflicting positions that cannot simply be settled by any non-argumentative means; appealing to common knowledge, or widely-shared empirical methods; things they consider to be non-trivial, matters important enough to need resolution.

This is not to pander to their biases, or to say that one claim is just as good as any other, it’s just that in being ethical, we must consider what is likely to persuade a given audience as if they were exercising their critical judgment on the merits of the arguments we give, and the soundness of the justifications we offer for our claims.

The audience is the final judge of whether an argument is strong or weak, justified or not, assenting to it if it is strong or justified, rejecting it if not.

Third, argumentation is both adversarial and cooperative. we make choices in arguments, choices in what arguments to select, and how to arrange and present them, based upon the audience we are addressing.

The adversarial components of argumentation help the rigor of the discussion; they help us avoid hasty generalizations; they reduce omission of important details. Skilled arguers seek first to find common ground which is itself the bedrock upon which they can meaningfully discuss their disagreement. Ultimately, these enhance our confidence of the outcome, a confidence pending better arguments to be made in future.

Fourth, argumentation involves restrained partisanship. It requires a cooperative effort between arguer and audience, despite the contentiousness often associated with everyday argument.

Arguers must share a common system of terms, assumptions, and meanings. This allows resolution of the dispute, and is needed to permit any meaningful argument at all.

Fifth, and finally, argument involves elements of risk. This is the risk of losing the argument, the risk of being shown wrong, the risk of having to alter one’s views and position, and in either case the emotional disruption of wounding one’s self-esteem or losing face with others.

But the cooperative aspect of argument means that in willingly accepting these risks, each arguer is respecting the rights and personhood of the other, and in so doing, claiming that same privilege of respect from the other for him or herself.

I think that these are good situational benchmarks, and are the optimal conditions, I would argue even necessary conditions, under which can be made any serious attempt to argue constructively, for the purpose of reaching the best possible conclusions given the means at hand.

 

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Why I get my science from scientists and not #FauxNews…


I feel up to blogging for this morning, and during this day and the next I’ll be reading up on SF approaches to zero-point energy production for a friend of mine, which should be fun.

*waves at @Ravenpenny*

Especially important in looking into zero-point energy is avoiding any use of blatant pseudoscience from so called “free energy” machine sellers…

Rubber science is acceptable within the context of fiction, implausible technological quackery is NOT!

So far, I’ve got two reference pages out of five candidates in separate browser tags. The other three candidate pages are all crank sites, with obvious red flags. I won’t sully my reputation, such as that is as a relative no-name in the skeptical community, by using those last as sources.

This raises a question…

Out of the arguments of both proponents and critics of any claim, how do I decide which claimant is more credible?

There are a set of steps I use that make for a useful start of any inquiry, and I’ll put these into three groups of related questions:

  • First: Which side in a given controversy, genuine or manufactroversy, commits the fewest logical fallacies? Which side has the most valid or cogent arguments and makes the fewest errors in reasoning? Once these are compared and an answer obtained, I then choose the side with the best arguments and go to step two. Remember though, to take care to see fallacious arguments that are actually there, and not the result of wishful seeing. And so…
  • Secondly: Which side has the better factual support for their claims. Do their respective claims add up under adequate fact-checking using reliable sources? Do credible sources support or reject the claims made? Which sources have the better track-record and reputation as a valid and reliable? Next…
  • Thirdly: Related to the second, but worth it’s own step: Which factual statements, when checked, even if and when true, are actually relevant to the claims and counterclaims made? Does the alleged factual support of a given claim actually have anything to do with it?

These three points are a basic rundown of the steps I use.

Answering these questions on science and science-relevant news are one reason I tend to support climate scientists over so-called climate sceptics, and professional biologists over the various species of creationists found online and in religion and politics.

They are the reason that I tend to give more credence to the statements of astronomers than I do astrologers, Physicists and psychologists more than psychic claimants, chemists over alchemists, and neuroscientists over phrenologists.

These questions are the reasons I don’t get my science from clergymen, religious apologists, allegedly fair and balanced media outlets, politicians or radio talk-show propagandists.

Those are not what I would call credible sources.

I get my science from scientists, and science-writers with a real background in the field, thank you, not preachers, partisan bloggers, or people who loudly decry government and taxation while also running for public office so they can get paid a rather handsome salary, with kickbacks and bribes paid by lobbyists, otherwise funded by my taxes.

Course Review: Argumentation – the Study of Effective Reasoning


This course from the Teaching Company, taught by Northwestern University professor David Zarefsky, has long been one of my favorites where home study is concerned and life situation, tuition, textbook, and travel expenses make de facto college study cost-prohibitive.

This set of twenty-four thirty-minute lectures, in a set of four DVDs, is a good introduction to both the fundamentals and finer points of argumentation, the use of reason to gain the willing adherence of an audience to whatever case you wish to argue.

Of course, the point made in the very first lecture is that far from being mere bickering and quarreling, far better than a verbal fight, argumentation is not about these things, but the noble art of negotiation and deliberation by the process of offering reasons, acceptable and sound ones, for the claims we make.

This course, as Zarefsky tells you from the start, is not about winning more arguments with your spouse, convincing an atheist that God exists, nor about convincing a theist that there is no god.

There’s a selection of suggested textbooks for the course, though I’ve found the lectures will do perfectly fine on their own with the study guide booklet that is included. For my own purposes, I’ve gotten some of the textbooks because of the usefulness of delving deeper into the subject matter, and I have taken written drafts of study notes from each lecture on the most important points of the lessons.

Some criticisms, otherwise I’m a poor critic, but I’ll keep it constructive:

Zarefsky uses many examples and illustrations of the main points of each lecture, and most of these are helpful, though some are a bit overused and a couple of times I had to improvise once I got his point by coming up with my own.

In one lecture, (#13, Reasoning from Parts to Whole) he uses hypothetical emails from Teaching Company customers to clarify a discussion of arguing from general to specific and from specific to general and how either can be inductive or deductive. Once was sure I got it, I translated it into a discussion of generalizing and classifying about sand-worn stones found on a beach, used in an old post of mine (Here).

All in all though, Professor Zarefsky’s a top-notch instructor, and I would be very pleased to study under him as a classroom environment teacher now that I’m used to his style.

The course as a whole is extremely information-dense, and that’s a good thing, though it’s spaced out nicely in the format of the twenty-four lessons it’s recorded in. I recommend having a pen and note book or the digital equivalent handy while watching or listening to these — there’s a lot to take in, even as spaced out as they are, and you may want to get the more subtle but vital points of each lesson as well as the well-illustrated ones.

I recommend this course for anyone interested in developing their skill in rational deliberation and decision-making in a world where we are all too often divided and polarized in our positions, a world in which the climate of debate is poisoned by the forces of unreason and dogmatic bullheadedness.

Nonbelief without Evidence Needs no Justification


An artist's conception of 79 Ceti b (min mass ...

An artist’s conception of 79 Ceti b (min mass ~0.26 M J ), an exoplanet with a mass less than Saturn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I sometimes come across someone who takes much exception to my nonbelief in their pet claim, or confuses it with a denial of their claim, or thinks I’m infringing on their right to believe by expressing my views on the subject when asked. If one doesn’t like the answer, one should not ask the question.

Well, given the notorious lack of evidence for most odd claims one will come across, I’m of the view that provisional nonbelief of a claim, any claim unsupported by real evidence, any evidence admissible in science, at the least a court of law, needs no justification.

My particular approach to knowledge is one in which reason and experience work together to build a tentative, continuously updated view of the world. This means that I place a premium on accepting claims as true if I have reasons to accept them, if some sort of valid, demonstrable evidence, direct or indirect, supports the claim.

My rules of rational engagement do not require me to prove anyone’s beliefs wrong, since that is not my aim. This is because I’m not the claimant, and the burden of proof falls squarely on the shoulders of the one making the knowledge claim, not the critic.

That’s not just a pronouncement from the chair, as with many questionable claims, but simply the way science works.

Consider — The rules of science are there for a reason, and were not just thrown together arbitrarily — they are the way they are because they allow science to be as effective and reliable as it is.

What’s my basis for knowing this? Seven years spent informally educating myself on the nature, purpose, process and history of science, formal symbolic logic and argumentation theory, and a good layman’s understanding of the psychology of belief, all of these gained from the work and writings of professionals in their respective fields.

I’m still learning all these and more, and will continue doing so until my death.

I will not debate anyone lacking the integrity to abide by basic standards of logic and intellectual honesty. People are certainly welcome to their cozy beliefs, but failure to abide by the ethics of good argument will get you ignored; persistent disregard will win ridicule, in the most tongue-in-cheek, civil manner deserved by the claimant.

My nonbelief in The Great Cosmic Dragon of the Metallic Hydrogen Seas of Jupiter™ needs no justification; I’ve obviously just made it up, so I’ve no reason at all to believe it exists.

Perhaps there is a giant alien sea monster of titanic proportions and cosmic origin living on Jupiter at this moment, but as it currently stands, no evidence points to that conclusion — no reason exists for anyone to justifiably say it is real.

The idea would quite rightly not be taken seriously by astrobiologists or astronomers who specialize in the study of gas giant planets or hypothetical life-forms on other worlds.

It would be surprising if I turn out to be wrong about this, but it would not shake the foundations of my world.

I could be wrong about Xulleus the Bunny God — He Who Nibbles Annoyingly at the Center of the Universe. Perhaps such a strange, irritating, and disgustingly cute being does exist, but I’ve no reason to believe he does, and no need to justify the fact that I don’t believe.

Regarding religious belief and nonbelief of other religions on the part of believers:

Does a Christian feel any need to fully justify a nonbelief in Indra or Quetzalcoatl or Shiva or Weng Chiang?

I think not.

Does a Hindu think it’s important to have rigorous logical proofs for supporting a nonbelief in Thor, the Dagda, or Zeus?

I don’t think that’s the case either.

Do Muslims feel it necessary to have a rock-solid defense of their nonbelief in Marduk, Kadaklan, or Freya?

The quick answer: No.

Do Scientologists think it matters to have an airtight, knockdown argument refuting the reality of Cthulhu or Ishtar?

Hardly.

Most religions don’t give much thought to the gods of others, except to dismiss them out of hand, or with some fundamentalist sects, consider them ‘real’ entities, but (lesser) evil beings in disguise.

Fear is as good a motivator as faith, and they often feed on each other.

The most rigorous standards of proof are demanded of and by believers for the gods of other religions, and the position of those with no religion, but typically I’ve noticed that one’s own religion always gets a free pass.

Interesting double standard there.

I could be wrong. You could be wrong. We could all be wrong. But if I’m wrong, I want to be SHOWN wrong.

Historically, most of the criticisms of any religious belief system have come from outside the belief system, most of the defense of any religion has come from those with a powerful vested interest in supporting it from within.

Yes, some traditions do encourage debate on certain matters within the faith, but by far, questioning the fundamental tenets of the religion is frowned upon, sometimes severely, sometimes fatally — the price for heresy in powerful, entrenched religions is high, sometimes involving excommunication, imprisonment, torture, and/or execution.

Even in the 21st century. It all depends on where you live.

Science, on the other hand, is intensely self-critical, with the proponents of any idea vigorously debating their findings with their colleagues and rivals in the same field; not a good environment to foster groupthink and ‘hide the data’ conspiracies.

Science is a fiercely competitive free market of ideas, and open to anyone willing to abide by its rules of logic and evidence.

The rules of science must be obeyed if its practice is to work well, but they do not have to obey themselves.

Religious apologetics and indoctrination have been around as long as religions themselves have, for many thousands of years, while science communication and education are relatively recent, and science itself only a few hundred years in a recognizable form.

Religious apologetics, like religion itself, is a lucrative and influentual industry, undertaken by those with a strong vested interest to defend the faith on the part of powerful and often ancient organized religious bodies.

In contrast, science communication and education are often poorly funded and struggle against attempts to politicize them by entrenched legislative bodies, wealthy corporations, think tanks, tireless, well-funded lobbyists, and clergy antagonistic to the findings of science and their implications.

Presently, there’s still no consensus on a metaphysically certain justification of science, and neither it nor its methods are true or false in any logical sense, but I’ll issue a challenge here:

Show me something, anything that works better, more reliably, more effectively, more efficiently, and I’ll switch my advocacy and support to that. But I’ll be up front: I’m not holding my breath…

…for by the time someone does come up with something better, I’m of the strong suspicion that I’ll be long since dead. I’m also of the strong suspicion that it will bear some resemblance in output if not methods to what we currently call science, only more so.

Prove me wrong.

Talotaa frang.

(Last Update: 3:30 AM, 2013/06/19 — Grammatical Corrections/Meaning Unchanged)

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