Monday, March 17, 2014

Fallacy Monday: A Discussion of Fallacies [Clinton Wilcox]

I've decided to institute a series called Fallacy Monday, in which each Monday I will take a particular logical fallacy, give a brief examination of it, discuss why it is a fallacy, and how it relates to the abortion issue, giving examples of the fallacy being used on both sides of the issues. Why Fallacy Monday instead of Fallacy Friday? Because Fallacy Friday is cliche, despite the sweet, sweet use of alliteration.

I'll admit it: one of my pet peeves is when someone throws around a fallacy in an attempt to dismiss a well-intentioned argument, especially if the person throwing the fallacy around doesn't really understand what the fallacy is. It goes something like this: Person A makes an argument, Person B responds with "that's just fallacy X. Try again." To this kind of person, engaging with arguments becomes simply a game of Spot the Fallacy. He is not trying to honestly engage with the argument. The problem is you must first engage with an argument before you can decide whether or not it is fallacious, because most fallacies are not always fallacies.

There are many different forms of logic, but the most common argument you'll encounter (even if someone doesn't frame it in this way) takes the form of a syllogism, which is just an argument containing two or more premises that lead to a conclusion (sometimes there will be multiple conclusions if the argument gets more and more complex; but usually simpler arguments are seen as more reliable since there's less of a chance that the argument will go wrong somewhere). A syllogism looks like this:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates was a man.
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates was mortal.

An argument is said to be valid if the conclusion follows from its premises. If it is impossible for the conclusion to be false if the premises are true, the argument is valid. If a conclusion does not follow from its premises, it is invalid.

If an argument is valid and all of its premises are also true, then it is sound. Otherwise, it is unsound. It's important to recognize these distinctions because an argument can be valid, but unsound. Take the following argument:

Premise 1: All fish are mammals.
Premise 2: All mammals have hair.
Conclusion: Therefore, all fish have hair.

Now, this is a valid argument. If all fish are mammals, and all mammals have hair, then it follows that all fish have hair. However, this argument is unsound because as we know, fish are not mammals. So while valid, the argument is unsound.

So what is a logical fallacy? Simply put, it is an error in reasoning. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says about fallacies, "Traditional accounts define a fallacy as a pattern of poor reasoning which appears to be (and in this sense mimics) a pattern of good reasoning...Such accounts are a problematic basis for a general account of fallacies insofar as what appears to be good reasoning to one person may not appear so to another. In assessing ordinary arguments, these issues can be avoided by understanding fallacies more simply, as common patterns of faulty reasoning which can usefully be identified in the evaluation of informal arguments." To reiterate, one must engage with all arguments because an argument that appears fallacious on the surface may not actually be fallacious once you really understand the argument. Most fallacies are not always fallacious. Fallacies are not recognized so we can try and poke holes in someone's argument, they are recognized to help us avoid errors in reasoning.

So on Mondays for an indefinite and undetermined number of weeks, I'll be looking at a different fallacy. I am a big believer in taking people and their arguments seriously, especially those who disagree with us. You just can't know if your argument is right unless you're interacting with the arguments of those who believe differently than you do. You also can't respect someone if you don't take their arguments seriously. So let's take our conversations to the next level. Rather than engaging in pithy statements and bumper sticker philosophy, let's really look at the issue seriously and see which side has the stronger case.


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