Tag Archives: argumentation

Cynic Argumentation

Many arguments are called ‘cynical,’ but is there anything that is common to them? Is there a general form of cynical argument?

One type of cynical argument is a kind of reductio ad absurdem, a proof by contradiction, to discredit a premise. The first step is to take the premise and associate it with some worldview.

  1. Assume P. (premise)
  2. P holds under worldviews W.  (Cynical Generalization)

Then, the cynic discredits those worldviews.

  1. Worldviews W are not the sort of views we want.    (ethical, logical or other valuation)
  2. Therefore the premise P is rejected because it leads to absurd consequences.  (Contradiction 2, 3)

What is unique here is the use of worldviews. The cynic generalizes from the premise to associated worldviews. Instead of finding something wrong with the premise itself, the cynic objects to any line of thought that leads to the premise.

Therefore, the criticism mounted here is existential: The cynic objects to people’s way of life, their existences. In doing so, the cynic changes the standards of evaluation. Though the premise may be unassailable on its own, when it is placed in the wider context of life, it no longer remains innocent or safe. By focusing the argument in this way, the premise can be seen as a symptom of affliction, an unwanted life—an absurdity.

— — — —

I find this argumentation style particularly interesting because of the Cynical Generalization step. The generalization is something like modal. However, it is not a generalization to possible worlds, but to possible lives. The cynic considers all possible lives that include affirming the premise and asks whether it is possible or desirable to live those lives.

Since we do reject different ways of life all the time that we feel are not for our selves, this argument style cannot be dismissed as flippant. Moreover, it is an extremely powerful argument: as historical cynics have shown, if you are willing to forgo the trappings of society, you are freer to reject its laws and conclusions.

Posted in argumentation, logic, philosophy. Tagged with , .

The Paradox of Unreasonability

“You’re being unreasonable!”

One or more of you may have had this directed at you. But what does the speaker mean by it?

Presumably the speaker believes that the listener is not acting according to some given standard. However, if the speaker had an argument to that effect, the speaker should’ve presented it. Hence, all the above statement means is that the speaker has run out of arguments and has resorted to name-calling: being unreasonable is another way of saying crazy.

Now, though, the situation has reversed itself. It is not the listener that has acted unreasonably, but the speaker. Without an argument that concludes that the listener is being unreasonable, then it is not the listener that is being unreasonable, but the speaker. The speaker is name-calling, when, by the speaker’s own standards, an argument is required. For what else is reasonable but to present an argument? So, by saying that the listener is being unreasonable, in essence the speaker is declaring themself unreasonable.

But, yet again, the situation reverses itself. If a person has run out of arguments, and makes a statement to that effect, then he or she is being perfectly reasonable. This returns us to the beginning! Therefore, by making a claim about someone else being unreasonable, you paradoxically show that you yourself are and are not reasonable, such that if you are, then you are not, and if you are not, then you are.

Posted in argumentation, logic, philosophy. Tagged with , .

Fodor May Yet Be Clever

I was trying to figure out what Fodor could have been thinking.  Here’s what I came up with:

  1. If we are trying to figure out what Evolution has done, then we presuppose that Evolution is capable of doing something.
  2. If Evolution is capable of doing something, then there must be some mechanism of Evolution that does the doing.

Now imagine yourself in the position of the mechanism of Evolution that does the doing, i.e. the mechanism that selects the traits that yield a higher fitness.

The question becomes: is it possible for you to select for a trait?

The answer is NO.

To understand why, consider what happens when we try to give an evolutionary explanation of something:  we are beset by a near infinite selection of different possibilities.  Only through careful study can we narrow down which traits are actually the ones that increase an organism’s fitness and, if we are in a historical context, only give a most likely candidate for such a trait.

Now imagine yourself back in the position of the mechanism.  The mechanism is stuck with the exact same sort of problem that we have when trying to figure out what it has done:  it has no more an ability to select a single trait than we have to figure out which trait it has selected with our first guess.  Whenever it tries to select for a trait, it may mistakenly also select for another trait that is not so good for the organism, or it may not have even recognized the trait it thought it was selecting for.

Therefore, since this mechanism can’t work, evolution is bunk.

OK.  Now let’s take a step back and look at this argument.  Basically there are two parts:  the first part is an argument that there is a mechanism that does the doing and the second part says the mechanism can’t have done anything.  When I saw Fodor speak on this topic, I believe (it was a while ago now) he spent a good deal of time on arguing for the first part and I didn’t really understand what he was up to.  Now it makes sense because if we accept that there is some mechanism that does the doing, then we may be committed to admitting to at least some amount of skepticism about evolution based upon the second part.  Getting even some skepticism about evolution would be a sufficiently large accomplishment, and so I figure this must be Fodor’s ultimate goal.

In light of this argument I offer this wild conjecture for your reading pleasure:

Replace “mechanism” with “agent”.  Now, instead of an argument against evolution, it is an argument against Intelligent Design.  Intelligent Design has the designer/ agent built directly into it, and this makes the argument much more knock-down:  There is no need to argue for the existence of a mechanism because it is right in the title, and since the intelligence of ID is something like our intelligence, it makes sense that it would suffer from the same problems that ours does.

What I think happened is that Fodor was sitting around thinking why intelligent design doesn’t work and realized that if he could make a strong enough argument that evolution also required some sort of agent, in the form of an evolutionary mechanism, then he could return a similar result.  Since having a technical reason for discounting ID wouldn’t make much of splash, Fodor dropped the argument against ID and pursued the argument against evolution.

Personally I kind of like this argument against ID.  If I ever run into some ID people, I may even bring it up.

Posted in argumentation, biology, evolution, philosophy, random idiocy, science, wild conjecture. Tagged with , , , , , .

On Block and Kitcher on Fodor

Ned Block and Philip Kitcher have posted a review of Fodor/Piatelli-Palmarini’s “What Darwin Got Wrong” (via Leiter).

It is a well executed, though flawed, counter to Fodor’s arguments.  First they give a nice rundown of the underdetermination issue I posted about here.

Then they discuss the “intensional fallacy”.  They argue that the crux of F & P’s argument can be seen as trying to split up the causal efficacious trait and the selected-for trait.  This means that F & P believe that there is no way to connect the evolutionary reason – the trait that increased an organism’s fitness – with our explanation of the trait that was selected-for.  Block & Kitcher argue that it is trivial to match the two up because

selection-for is a causal notion, and, since causation is extensional, so is selection-for.

Insofar as we believe that our explanation of the selected-for trait is extensional, i.e. truth-preserving when switching between different names of the same thing, we can say that we do pick out the causally efficacious trait.

Unfortunately Block and Kitcher sacrificed our normal concept of explanation to make this counter-argument.  They note that explanations are never normally extensional, but that we are making an exception in this case.  This is ok to do because

we thinking beings can give (intensional) explanations in terms of [one trait] rather than the other properties. In giving the explanation, we (thinking beings) describe the property in our preferred way.

I do not understand what is going on here.  Basically it looks as if “preferred way” is just a fancy way to say “own words”, but describing something in our own words doesn’t make it right.  Nor is it a reason to change what should count as an explanation.

Unless Block and Kitcher are prepared to give further justification as to why we should disregard our normal understanding of explanation, it looks as if their solution to Fodor’s argument is ad hoc.  They are using explanation* — which is a special kind of explanation that can be extensional — but they have not given a reason why explanation* should be preferred over of regular explanation (outside of causing Fodor trouble).  Without this reason, the use of explanation* is ad hoc, and hence the argument fails because it turns on an ad hoc premise: the assumption that explanation* can be substituted for explanation.

However, I did say above that Block and Kitcher’s argument is well executed:  My argument against using an ad hoc term-term* distinction is obscure compared to their argument and so, for the vast majority of people, it will appear that their argument is effective.  Overall this is a good thing: less nonsense needs to surround evolution (though I’ll be a little sad to see it go: I’m #1 in a Google search for “fodor what darwin got wrong“).

[EDIT:  I’ve put up a new analysis (24 March 2010) of Fodor’s argument here: Hypotheses Natura Non Fingo.  It also includes a review of the responses of Block, Kitcher and Sober ]

For my take on what Fodor got wrong, see my post What Fodor Got Wrong, and the follow up Dismantling Fodor’s Argument (also linked above in reference to underdetermination).  I’ll post something soon specifically addressing the intensionality issue:  Fodor’s Intensional Criticism of Evolution.

Posted in argumentation, biology, evolution, fitness, news, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , , , .