Monday, February 29, 2016

The fallacy fallacy


Black-and-white thinking, which I discussed in my blog last week, is not only a psychological and a sociological phenomenon, but it happens also in philosophy. There it is usually called “false dilemma”, but it goes also by other names, like bifurcation and the fallacy of false choice.
A false dilemma is just one member of the big family of fallacies you can commit in your reasoning. There are at least two questions: what is exactly a fallacy and which fallacies do exist? Since the subject of fallacy is new to me – and that’s just why it made me curious to know more about it – I did some research on the Internet and soon I came to the conclusion that both questions don’t have an answer. A fallacy is a false argumentation, indeed, but is it enough to define this type of mistakes? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( makes clear that it is almost impossible to give a comprehensive definition. As usually, the philosophers disagree. Let me follow what this website (IEP for short) says.
Some researchers define a fallacy, so IEP in section 4, “as an argument that is deductively invalid or that has very little inductive strength.” But if this were true, a false dilemma would not be a fallacy, for it is a correct reasoning in this sense. A second definition says that “a fallacy is a mistake in an argument that arises from something other than merely false premises.” However, a false dilemma does start from false premises, so it wouldn’t be a fallacy according to this definition. What definition would we take then? “Still other researchers”, so IEP, “define a fallacy as an argument that is not good. Good arguments are ... deductively valid or inductively strong, and ... contain only true, well-established premises, but are not question-begging.” But if a scientist rejects an old theory and replaces it by a new one, scientists who developed the old theory would then be fallacious argumentators, which is a rather dubious supposition; not everybody will accept it. So, we should try again another definition: “A fallacious argument [is] ... one that either is deductively invalid or is inductively very weak or contains an unjustified premise or that ignores relevant evidence that is available and that should be known by the arguer.” However, this makes almost every error in argumentation a fallacy. A last try given by the IEP is that “a fallacy is a failure to provide adequate proof for a belief, the failure being disguised to make the proof look adequate.” Maybe this is yet the best one, but I think that also this definition is not flawless.
I’ll stop quoting possible definitions of fallacy. I think that we can endorse the conclusion of the IEP in section 4: “Researchers in the field are deeply divided ...” Or should we conclude that there are no fallacies for the simple reason that it’s impossible to define what a fallacy is? But this looks like a fallacy fallacy: The reasoning that a conclusion is false (as a fact), because the reasoning that leads to that conclusion is false.
Maybe we should look at the practice: Which “recognized” fallacies do we know? Also here we have a problem. The IEP lists 213 fallacies. However, the list is only a partial list. It’s not exhaustive. In view of that, it is to be wondered whether the word “fallacy” is more than a label past at will on an error in reasoning. Only one item in the list actually bears the name of fallacy: the prosecutor’s fallacy (“the mistake of over-emphasizing the strength of a piece of evidence while paying insufficient attention to the context”, so the IEP).
What other fallacies does the list contain? I’ll mention only a few:
- Appeal to emotions: A claim is to be accepted merely because it arouses emotional feelings like anger, fear, grief, love, outrage, sympathy, etc.
- Begging the question: A conclusion is derived from premises that presuppose the conclusion. 
- Digression: The answer doesn’t really respond to the question asked.
- Hedging: You refine your claim simply to avoid counterevidence and then act as if your revised claim is the same as the original.
- Scapegoating: Unfairly blaming an unpopular person or group of people for a problem.
But does it matter whether a wrong argumentation is a fallacy? What is important is that we see that some argumentations are false and that such a list of so-called fallacies will certainly help us to avoid them. But maybe this is only wishful thinking and maybe such a list functions only as a smokescreen, although I must admit that what I say now looks like a false analogy.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Shades of grey

A widespread phenomenon in human thinking is what psychologists call “splitting”: Something is this or it is that. It’s never a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s a table or it’s a chair. I like something or I don’t. It’s a planet or it isn’t. And so on. Or rather, so we think it is. However, in reality most is a bit of this and a bit of that. We can sit on a table, and sometimes we do, although it’s an exception. We can put things on a chair, which we do more often. And we even have table chairs for children. On Facebook we can say that we lake a thing but we cannot say that we like it only a little bit or like it very much, although it’s actually the way we feel. And compare the discussion about the question whether Pluto is or isn’t a planet and the emotions it aroused. As if it cannot be so that this satellite of the earth has many characteristics of what we consider a planet, but not all of them. Psychologists have coined the concept of “splitting” for this mode of thought, as said. In plain English we call it black and white thinking.
Black and white thinking is often not as innocent as the discussion on the status of a celestial body like Pluto is. If people tend to think in black and white terms about themselves and see themselves more black than white, they can become depressive. If they think in extremes about others, it can disturb personal relations or even make good relations with others impossible. Therefore the problem of black and white thinking is closely connected with questions of mental health.
Thinking in black and white is not only a psychological but also a sociological phenomenon. In sociology it is ingroup-outgroup thinking or ethnocentrism: the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own group. Also the opposite belief exists, namely that one’s own group is inferior to other groups (cf class and caste societies). The belief that one’s own group is different can have also a more neutral expression: The “We are not like them” doesn’t need to say that the own group is superior or inferior, but simply that it is different and that’s it.
If we look around, we find these phenomena in all kinds of discussions, also in one of the most important current discussions in Europe, namely whether Europe has to receive refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Many participants in this discussion ascribe refugees and other immigrants characteristics as a group; not as the individuals they are. “They” are such or “they” are so, many people tell us; and these “such” or “so” are often negative terms (I’ll spare you what these terms are; they make me often sad. I’m sure you know what I mean). Let me be clear, there are bad persons among the refugees, but good persons as well. Look around and watch: Isn’t it so that most people around us are middle-of-the-road? Some are a bit above it, some are a lot above it; others are a bit below it and yet others a lot more. Such is society and such are refugees and immigrants as well, even if they may not be completely representative of the societies  they come from.
Being a photographer, all this makes me think of the way you make a picture. I used to make only colour photos but more and more I tend to photograph in black-and-white. But why do we talk about black-and-white photography? Take a random black-and-white picture and look at it: Though we call it black-and-white what you actually see is many shades of greys with, indeed, here and there deep black and bright white. And what is most important in the so-called black-and-white photography is not getting the right deep blacks and bright whites but getting the right shades of grey. A certain photo can have more blacks than an average photo or just more bright whites, and if the blacks or whites prevail we call such a photo “low key” or “high key” respectively, but in the end it exists of shades of grey.
What has all this to do with society and with refugees and immigrants? When people think about society and special aspects of it, at first they tend to think in black and white: “People are this”, “people are that”, “this group is such and that group is so”. Is it true? Look around, come closer and watch. What do you see? Maybe a deep black spot here and a bright white one there but on the whole you’ll see a picture with all shades of grey, even in case it is low key or high key.

Monday, February 15, 2016

On the move

Today the refugee problem is in the centre of attention. At least in Europe, for, what many people in this part of the world don’t realize is that, say, in Tanzania, Vietnam or Chile the European refugee question is maybe only a little newspaper report among many others or a news item on TV at most. And I must say that even though the Netherlands receives the biggest stream of refugees since tens of years, in my little town you notice nothing of it. Moreover, the Netherlands has become a multicultural country through the years, so that it’s normal to see people of foreign origin and to hear foreign languages everywhere.
Although everyone here knows that there are refugee camps all over the country since already many years and that it is the same so in other countries, most people think that such big migrations are exceptional. Therefore, I think that it is good to put the phenomenon into perspective, not for playing it down and for saying that actually there is no need to help but for showing that being on the move and looking for a better place to live is not as uncommon as many people think. Even more, I dare to say that migrating is a human property. It’s in our genes, so to speak. Being on the run for violence and war is only the most extreme instance of it.
Take a look at history and you’ll see that migration is not only a phenomenon related to war and violence, but that it is almost related to daily life. Even if we consider the groups of people arriving in Europe via Turkey and Greece searching for a better life, we see that about half of them are not fleeing the wars in the Middle East but that they have blended into the crowds of war victims in order to enter Europe in pursuit of jobs. But actually most migration happens in a completely legal way. Take the Netherlands: through the years many people have migrated to Canada and Australia and to a lot of other countries in this world, inside and outside Europe. The USA wouldn’t have been the powerful nation it is today if not so many people from Europe and elsewhere had settled there. The Argentinean population is mainly of Italian and Spanish origin. Many people in Malagasy and Mauritius have their roots on the other side of the Indian Ocean. These are only a few examples but if we should study the problem in detail our conclusion would be that hardly any people has lived “eternally” on the site where it lives today. Since man started to go out of Africa in prehistory, he (and she) has always been on the move and stayed never longer than a number of generations on the same site. As Jean-Michel Delacomptée writes in a book on Montaigne: “Since the dawn of time it is the fate of humanity to leave its villages and see what exists elsewhere” (p. 122) Delacomptée refers here to tourism, but this quotation describes also very well man’s destiny to move for other reasons, often not freely and without necessity but pushed by war or a miserable life or pulled by the prospect of a better future.
During his conquest of Gaul in the first century BC, now and then Julius Caesar run across people who wanted to settle in the territory conquered by him or wanted to pass through it. Nowadays we should call them migrants or refugees. How did Caesar deal with them? I know of two cases, and I am afraid that they are typical of the way refugees and migrants were treated in those days. The Helvetians were moving from the present Switzerland and wanted to establish themselves in what is now South-western France. Caesar stopped them with his army and the result was a battle in which two third of the migrants (about 200,000 people, including women and children) were killed. The battle of Oss in the Netherlands was even more dramatic. The Tencteri en Usipetes were on the move and wanted to enter Northern Gaul, which was against Caesar’s will. Caesar sought a pretext for a battle and easily beat the unprepared opponents. Two tribes – several hundred thousand people all together, again including women and children – were completely extirpated. It’s a difficult question whether there has been any progress in history, but I think that’s not the way we want to treat migrants and refugees today, or at least most of us don’t want it...

Reference: Jean-Michel Delacomptée, Adieu Montaigne. Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2015.

Monday, February 08, 2016

On the function of conflicts

People make choices and act in order to realize them. They don’t simply act, but they have to act, as we have seen in my blog last week. In their choices people follow what they consider their interests, or usually they do. Choices don’t need to be conscious and as a rule people are not aware that they make them. Most choices are made unconsciously. We follow the stream of life as, for instance, the sociologist Alfred Schütz has made clear. Only when something needs special attention we become aware of it. This doesn’t mean that we are a kind of zombies most of the time. You must see yourself as the captain of an aeroplane that is flying on the automatic pilot. Maybe you don’t know how the mechanism works but as long as the plane is moving in the right direction and everything is okay, the pilot lets the automaton go its own way and doesn’t take action. He or she only keeps control.
Our interests often clash with the interests of other people. Then there is a conflict. Usually it is innocent and we would hardly give it that name. There are social rules to regulate the matter and to solve the discord in good harmony. Sometimes we find conflicts even fun and we organize them with the purpose to solve them. Sport competition is a case in point. Then we don’t talk of conflicts, but we call them games, play, a challenge, and the like. For the word “conflict” has a negative connotation: We see it as something that must be avoided. Is it right?
It’s true that a clash of interests and then the conflict that follows is often associated with quarrel, and, when the quarrel escalates, in the end with violence and even with war. Since clashes of interests, so conflicts, cannot be avoided, one could get the idea that society is based on violence and force. And it’s true that it happens that conflicts are solved violently. Everybody knows such cases. If we look at states, we call them war. Is it necessary?
As the American political scientist and peace researcher Gene Sharp made clear, conflict and violence are two things. They are not fundamentally related, also not in the last resort. Conflicts cannot be avoided, so Sharp. Conflict in society helps creativity and brings about necessary political and social changes like making an end to oppression and dictatorship. We can express it by saying that conflict has a function (in the way Robert K. Merton used this concept). But this doesn’t imply that this function has to be fulfilled by violence. The essence of solving conflicts that threat to become violent is to look for alternatives that have the same function as the violent solutions in the sense that they substitute them by meeting the interests of the people that are in a conflict relation but that don’t lead to all the nasty effects of violence. Within societies this has already been completely accepted. Think of mediation, taking legal action, and what other means there are for non-violent conflict resolution. And if violence is used by private individuals, the police or another state authority interferes and stops it. In theory this is also accepted on the international level. The first steps have already been made. About a century ago the International Court of Justice was established in The Hague, the Netherlands, for settling legal disputes between states. In the meantime there are several other international courts of different types. It’s also a task of the Security Council of the United Nations to prevent that international conflicts end in wars and to stop wars once they have broken out. Besides there are international organisations with the task of resolving or, preferably, preventing violence between states and between major groups within states; both state organisations and private organisations. Often their efforts are successful (it’s cynical that usually you don’t hear about it). Too often their efforts fail yet. But just as once violence was an integral part of conflicts within society but stopped by the development of functional equivalents, there is no reason to assume that this can’t also happen between states. However, there is yet a long way to go before violence as a way of resolving international conflict has been banned. But the first steps have been taken already.

Reference: Gene Sharp, Social power and political freedom. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1980. See also

Monday, February 01, 2016

Why we cannot act but have to

In my blog last week we have seen: Distinctions are often not as clear as they seem at first sight, but they are gradual. How to define “man”? Following Aristotle we might use speech or language as a criterion to distinguish men from (other) animals, but we saw that this will fail. Not only gibbons have a sort of language. Probably many animals have and maybe we can only say that man has the most developed language of all. So if we take language as an indicator, the distinction between men and animals is gradual. I think it will be the same when we use Aristotle’s definition of man as a “zoon politikon” (a political being), for it seems that also apes have a kind of political deliberations. And isn’t it so that many animals have a kind of power structure? From this respect it’s not a strange idea that “political” deliberations exist on many levels, from very primitive or instinctive till rational consultations. Also Plato came across the problem how difficult it is to develop a sound definition, when he defined man as a biped without feathers and then Diogenes took a picked chicken saying: “Look, Plato’s man!” Without a doubt also Plato’s new definition that “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails” will have its weaknesses. I leave it to my readers to find them, but as these examples illustrate: differences are often by degrees. There is no rule or there is an exception.
If this is already true when we consider facts of nature, it is even more true when we consider “facts” of thought. It’s not without reason that I write the word “fact” between quotations marks, for what could such facts be?
I became aware of this when, long ago, I studied the discussion on the foundations of knowledge and morality between the German philosophers Hans Albert and Karl-Otto Apel. Albert’s answer to the traditional epistemological questions “How do you know?” and “How do you justify?” is that in the end we don’t know and can’t justify. Every answer to these questions is groundless, for either
- we fall into an infinite regress, or
- we rotate regressively in a vicious circle, or
- we break off our reasoning at a point that might be justified for us but that is in fact arbitrary.
Albert called this trilemma the “Münchhausen-Trilemma”, referring to the story of the baron who pulled himself and the horse on which he was sitting out of a mire by his own hair. Albert was not the first who described the trilemma, but he gave it a nice name.
As such Albert is right but as Apel put forward: In each argumentation we cannot escape that we have to take positions, anyhow. To formulate it broader: we cannot do nothing and let things go for the reason that whatever we do will be arbitrary and that there might something better we could do, so let’s go on looking for it. We have to stop somewhere and act. But how to stop and act if each point to stop our deliberations and to act is arbitrary? Robert Audi sees yet a fourth lemma that can be added to this trilemma:
- “to stop with something that is known or justifiedly believed, ... but not known on the basis of any further knowledge or justified belief”.
Much can be said about this addition to the Münchhausen-Trilemma – and Audi does – but I would interpret it this way: If we cannot stop our reasoning on the basis of knowledge or a thought or idea, we must base our choices on something different. And what else can this be than that we are on this world? That we have been put here and that, if we don’t want to die, we have to act? That we cannot do nothing? We are here on this world and this makes that we must choose anyway, even if it would be the ultimate choice of not being here, i.e. to die. The world we find ourselves in is our starting point, so the place where we find ourselves at birth, the language we learn first, the food we eat, whether we are born poor or rich, etc. These are things we cannot help and make that we have to act. However, this is so for everybody and, as the Münchhausen trilemma tell us, finally nobody is right when persons meet. Maybe the only thing we can do on the basis of Audi’s lemma is to “live and let live” and do a lot of things together. Happily it is what many people do, but sometimes it goes wrong, and some will say that often it must go wrong. Then interests clash leading to all kinds of nasty conflicts.

Sources: Albert, Hans, Traktat über kritische Vernunft, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1968; Apel, Karl-Otto, Die Erklären:Verstehen-Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979; Robert Audi, The Structure of Justification, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 (quotation on p. 119).