Logic’s Last Stand

November 19, 2009

Pseudo-Intellectualism and Equivocation

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , , , — Zurahn @ 7:38 pm

I like to argue, or at the very least, I gravitate toward it. One area that I’ve long held issue is religion for the directly identifiable harm caused by misinformation and poor critical thinking, but there’s a bigger, overarching issue that’s more prevalent not only ongoing in religion, but pretty much all areas of disagreement.

The biggest threat, as I see it, to the progression and advancement of critical thinking in society is not religion, nor politics, nor pseudo-science, nor the educational system. It’s pseudo-intellectualism, because it’s perhaps the first true evolution of the aspects of religion that appeal to people.

People as a whole are lazy-thinkers — we all are. It’s instinctive, and in most cases appropriate, to be inductive and intuitive about things. So when somebody states something that at face value appears reasonable, intuitively we’ll tend to agree, and when we agree, take that up ourselves. The problem is that for something in which you take a position such as aforementioned religion or politics or medical treatment or economics or anything of the sort, a first-glance interpretation just isn’t going to cut it.

But let’s get onto what exactly I mean by “pseudo-intellectualism.” It’s what I categorize a point that at face value, as I said, appears deep and/or fair-minded, but upon minimal evaluation is in fact intellectually bankrupt. It’s very similar, and perhaps the parent-set of what Daniel Dennett calls “deepities.” His definition of “deepity” is, “A proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed.” But let’s get into an example, shall we?

This one is from Bill Maher on his show, talking to the panel about vaccinations,

“[the medical field] is wrong about a lot of stuff. There’s a hundred thousand people who die every year of medical error. There’s over a hundred thousand who die from properly prescribed prescription medicine drugs. Forty-five thousand die from basically the profit-motive. It’s a sick society, ok, and if you think I’m the crazy one for wanting to just look into this more, you’re too inside the matrix, not me.”

This variation is perhaps the most common and widespread of the fallacies of pseudo-intellectualism, and that’s “we can never be sure, therefor we can never come to any conclusions whatsoever” or as I’ll call it, the “I don’t know” fallacy. None of what he said actually relates to the effacacy of vaccination; you just as fairly could say “thousands die each year from animal attacks. If you think I’m the crazy one for wanting to look into the safety of going to the park more…” Worse yet, it essentially reaches the unintended conclusion that the entire field of medicine is worthless. It doesn’t address what “look into this more” means, given there have been clinical trials, he has no medical training, and you could always say “look into it more.” He has said pretty much nothing of value, and is a fancy way of framing “I don’t know therefor let’s do nothing” as a valid position.

It’s a similar issue with, for a lack of a better term, religious sympathizers. The typical argument goes something along the lines of, “You shouldn’t be so dismissive of people’s belief in god. You can’t know, and some people believe and others don’t. It’s faith either way.”

Again, it’s the “I don’t know” fallacy of equivocation. You don’t know whether or not I can transform into animals and you will never know, but does that make believing it just as valid as not? It’s insanity, but people want to play the high-road, faked “open-mindedness” which is really just willful ignorance.

That’s exactly how the “Intelligent Design” advocates had tried to play-up for years, and are still trying in a way, though they’ve pretty much dropped the ID thing since Dover. Rather than take a position, they’d take the “oh, but how can you be so sure of evolution? There are other opinions,” angle, which the short answer for this and every other one of these is evidence a lack of evidence is a lack of efficacy.

This is a problem that has aggrevated me for years, even in the gaming space. Common is to hear someone suggest that all reviews are subjective, therefor all reviews are valid. The existence of subjectivity does not mean the absense of collective agreement or objectivity. It does not negate that aspects included in the overall subjective work can be objectively true or false.

Other angles, which is where the deepity side of things comes in, is the attempt to make something seem wonderfully poetic, meaningful and deep, when it’s really just nonsense. Dennett’s example is, “Love is just a word.” While true that “love” is a word, that’s trivial, and stating that what the word represents is a word is clearly false.

A similar example I have, again from the gaming spectrum, is “games are art.” We hear it time again, but nobody bothers to try and define what they’re talking about. As you’ve probably heard me say before, a game is a set of rules, and the presentation of those rules does not affect what the game is. Few would suggest that tic-tac-toe is art, but many would say a modern videogame such as Uncharted 2 is art. Why is this? It’s because games aren’t art, they contain art. Of course there is artistry in games, but you’re confusing terms to call the game itself the artistic part.

What Dennett was using the term to demonstrate was use-mention errors — conflating a word’s meaning with a word’s use. What I’m using it to demonstrate is the pseudo-intellectual practise of feigning fairness. Saying, “I don’t have a side” can be wrong, and often is.

More and more, being frank and honest is considered somehow wrong, dismissed as incorrect in some sort of weird ad-hominem assumption. Conclusions can be made and sides can be correct. Positions can also be unsupported, unreasonable and logically unsound and unsupportable. This all irrespective of whether or not an objective conclusion on what the specific ultimate truth is.

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