10/21/14

Logical Fallacies


Dilbert
Post hoc fallacyLast night at council I referred to seeing what I believed was a post hoc fallacy in a report, or more properly a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Yeah, I probably annoyed some folks in the audience because I used Latin words and that confused them. But hey, they already think I’m a jerk because I can spell words like egregious and nefarious without using spellcheck, so I doubt I lost any votes over it.

It means an error in assigning a causal relationship between two or more coincidental events. For example:

  1. I combed my hair a different way and I came down with a cold.
  2. After a few days, I combed my hair the old way and the cold went away.
  3. Therefore combing my hair a different way gave me a cold.

This is an easy one to see through, but you’d be surprised how many people apply this logical fallacy to their thinking. For example, the typical chemtrail conspiracy theory:

  1. I saw contrails from a plane overhead.
  2. My skin got itchy afterwards.
  3. Therefore the government is spraying something from jet planes that is making me sick.

Which pretty much sums up the whole nonsense around chemtrails. People naturally look for events that explain what they already believe to be true (confirmation bias). When causality does not exist between events, what you often find is merely wishful thinking.

Post hoc fallacies are part of a group of related informal, logical fallacies that fall under the general non causa pro causa group.* The Fallacy Files describes this category as:

…the most general fallacy of reasoning to conclusions about causality. Some authors describe it as inferring that something is the cause of something else when it isn’t, an interpretation encouraged by the fallacy’s names. However, inferring a false causal relation is often just a mistake, and it can be the result of reasoning which is as cogent as can be, since all reasoning to causal conclusions is ultimately inductive.

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10/19/14

Skepticism Too Easily Slides Into Cynicism


CynicismYears spent in the media, plus decades of independent practice as a writer and social critic honed my native skepticism into a protective psychological barrier against a wide range of social ailments and inappropriate, often dangerous beliefs. It has made me question motives, statements, logic and conclusions, and search for the underlying truths. It motivated me to explore, to examine, to dig deep. To try to understand, not simply deny.

It’s an easy slide, however, from a healthy skepticism to a soul-destroying cynicism – using the modern sense of the word. Modern cynicism encourages acceptance of the notion that everything is bad, rotten and evil except the viewer; cynics become too lazy, too self-assured of their own faith and beliefs to investigate further. They draw conclusions from surface appearances without going deeper; and blanket everything with negativism.

Skeptics, however, keep enough of an open mind to continue asking questions. Healthy skepticism is often paired with conscious awareness, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion:

In order to have more freedom and empowerment in our lives we need conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion. The more we practice these skills, the less we’ll be subject to manipulation and exploitation and the more unencumbered we’ll be in pursuing true happiness and fulfillment…
Our skepticism will bring out the best in the upstanding people and institutions and will bring out the worst in those that are dishonest and corrupt. By asking questions and observing the reactions and responses of those we’re questioning, we’re able to discover who we’re really dealing with and make informed choices with respect to them.
To question things is to take back control of our lives, because knowledge and understanding bring us power and choice and enable us to act on our own behalf in the best, most informed manner. Not accepting everything at face value and being skeptical about the underlying motivations of those who want to lead us, advise us or profit from us is a wise course of action for all the above reasons.

Cynics simply don’t believe in anything but their own surety. They don’t feel the need to go looking for the roots and the causes that skeptics hunt and wrestle with. Cynics are negative, skeptics are searching for answers. Cynics don’t have to take responsibility for things because they’ve already decided the world is against them: skeptics look for answers and meaning to make things connect and work.

You cannot shed light into the darkness if you’re convinced that there’s some ulterior motive behind the light. That’s why conspiracy theorists are for the most part cynics in the dark. Scientists, on the other hand, are generally skeptics with candles.

I’ve tried, through my life, to keep my skepticism healthy and active; a tool to fuel my curiosity, while dampening the trend to assume a cynical approach. I have tried to use skepticism in the way of free inquiry, as taught in the Kalama Sutra. After all, the word comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning “inquiry.” Not doubt.

I’m not always successful in avoiding the cascade into cynicism – it’s easier and faster, requires less effort and thought, especially with social media, but overall I believe I have stayed above it.

The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote in Pensées Philosophiques (1746):

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.

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10/2/14

A Buddhist Guide for Voters


Kalama Sutra
While it was intended as a general ‘charter of free inquiry,’ the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (or sutta) contains wise words that all voters – especially local voters – should heed during the municipal election campaign.

The Kalamas were a people in ancient India. Gotama visited them and stopped in a town called Kesaputta, where he gave a sermon, now referred to as the Kalama Sutra. At first the citizens came to him with a deep problem: how to trust what people were telling them. They had been visited by many religious teachers who all held divergent views. Not unlike candidates for Collingwood council going door to door. Well, without the spirituality and a few badmouthing other candidates, too. But let’s not get distracted by them.

Here’s how Soma Thera translates what the villagers said:*

There are some monks and brahmans… who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces… Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

That’s a lot like trying to decide which candidate is the best one(s) to vote for. Some explain what they stand for while others merely revile what others stand for. Some offer hope and a future, others tear it down. Some simply tell lies. Doubt and uncertainty arise. When they come to your door or make statements in an all-candidates’ meeting, how do you trust what they say?

That’s when the Buddha made one of his most memorable speeches, in which he told the listeners they had to decide the truth for themselves, to examine the claims and prove what is right or wrong for themselves, and not make choices based on hearsay, ideology or gossip:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas.

  • Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing;
  • nor upon tradition;
  • nor upon rumor;
  • nor upon what is in a scripture;
  • nor upon surmise;
  • nor upon an axiom;
  • nor upon specious reasoning;
  • nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability;
  • nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

One might add some modern terms to that list of things that do not offer a suitable basis on which to form an opinion of what is or is not truthful:

  • nor by blogs;
  • nor by speeches;
  • nor by campaign literature;
  • nor by self-written pieces in the local newspaper;
  • nor by innuendo;
  • nor by unproven or unfounded allegation;
  • nor by rumour;
  • nor by email blasts;
  • nor by claims made when stumping;

He then tells the citizens that to learn for themselves what is bad, what is bad, evil and harmful, they must assess everything by asking, “Does this do good? Or harm? Does it lead to suffering?”

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10/1/14

Plato’s Apology


Walk AwayPlato records the trial and death of Socrates in four dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. I’ve been reading The Apology this week and finding in it references that reflect well in today’s world, particularly in politics.*

In The Apology – which meant defence in Greek, not saying sorry as it does today – Socrates defends himself against his accusers in a deft and bold way, but he loses his case anyway. Still, he defended himself by telling the truth, off-the-cuff and spontaneously.

The Jowett translation of this dialogue opens with these words…

How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.
But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; – I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency; they certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!
Well, as I was saying, they have hardly uttered a word, or not more than a word, of truth; but you shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator – let no one expect this of me.

I sympathize. Socrates faced accusers who slandered and lied about him and he found himself on trial in public, wrongfully accused and unprepared for the spiteful accusations against him, the misguided opinions.

I know that feeling. He then asks the jurors to

…think only of the justice of my cause, and give heed to that: let the judge decide justly and the speaker speak truly.

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09/29/14

Montaigne: The Depravity of Our Morals


Montaigne“Our judgments follow the depravity of our morals and remain sick,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay On Cato the Younger (Essay XXXVII, Book I, Screech translation, Penguin Classics, 2003). That’s quite a condemnation.*

Montaigne opens that essay by quietly commenting, “I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me.” Would that we all had his strength, not to judge others by what we think of ourselves. But he was born long before the age of selfies.

In our more narcissistic age of social media we are all too quick to judge, too quick to anger, too quick to take offence. We react first, strike back immediately, think long after. We treat anyone with different ideas or visions as intruders; trespassers on our internet. We disparage rather than discuss. We hurl invectives and insults rather than ask questions. We slough off civil debate in favour of personal attack.

(Yes, I’ve been reading The Essays again. I never seem to tire of Montaigne; there’s always something in his words to move me, inspire me and make me think. There’s nothing quite so comforting as sitting on the front porch in the late afternoon, under a clear, warm sky, Susan reading beside me, dogs at my feet, while I sip a glass of homemade wine and peruse Montaigne… well, him and a small pile of other books I am also currently reading. Would that these moments could be frozen in time and all afternoons be so comforting and civilized… as blogger J. D Taylor writes, “I will never finish reading Montaigne…”)

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09/26/14

Examined Lives


Examined LivesThought and deed. Thought and life. How does a person’s life, their upbringing, their daily toil affect their deepest thoughts, their beliefs, faith and passions?

And as outsiders looking in, can we understand a person’s thinking by examining their lives? Can we understand their philosophy that way?

I don’t know. Biographies describe the events of a person’s life, but cannot look into their innermost thoughts. Modern biographies told in conjunction with living people as collaborators may pull the curtains up, letting us see what they want us to see. But dead people?

Most lives are measured in arbitrary milestones that mark various transitions on the roads of our lives. Our tenth birthday. Or thirtieth. Sixtieth. First kiss, Last girl/boyfriend. First car. 100,00th kilometre on the odometer. Fifth anniversary. Tenth. First job, Last job. And so on. Do these events define a person, or are they just convenient places on which to hang memories or to craft stories that reflect the bigger picture?

Most of the biographies I’ve read, most of those that still sit on my bookshelves, follow the predictable path through their subject’s life: birth, childhood, teens… building the story through the stages of life until the focal period is reached – Shakespeare’s writing prime, Darwin’s epiphany before he wrote Origin, Einstein’s period of cosmological insight, Patton’s WWII activities, Nixon’s presidency, Hudson set adrift on the bay – there’s always a particular someplace the author wants to take us. Someplace that every other line in the book leads to; someplace that justifies all the rest of the writing.

Biographies are, too, interpretations; a form of storytelling designed to lift or tear down the subject for the audience. To reaffirm or demolish the image others (and history) have built around them. And to shore that view up through the bricks and mortar of fact and (allegedly) objective data.

Most of my biographies are about scientists, politicians, kings and queens, writers, warriors, explorers. Very few seem to be about philosophers (Montaigne excepted). Which is one reason I picked up James Miller’s 2011 book, Examined Lives, in which he looks at twelve philosophers – not just who they were and how they lived, but how that influenced what they thought. I wanted to flesh out my rather thin knowledge about these people: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche.

(You might note that my happy discovery of Montaigne among them helped incur my interest in the rest…). Yes, they are all men, all Western philosophers, and it’s a very personal selection, not entirely representative of the long trends and history of Western philosophy. Miller explains why he chose them, why he wrote this book, Examined Lives, and why philosophy is important to us today, in this radio interview:

Surely we can’t know them through fully biography alone; only know of them. But does knowing what Descartes ate, or where Montaigne wrote, or when Nietzsche went for his daily walks help us understand their thinking? Perhaps, if a causal link can be demonstrated (and that events and thoughts are not simply synchronistic) we can connect the dots. Miller helps us do that.

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