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Thinking about thinking

Do you sincerely want to be right?

Note this is not the same as “winning the argument”, in which entirely different rules apply. Relationship advice often includes ways of dealing with the arguments you have with your woman and perhaps one of the first rules is that the immediate overt subject of the argument (e.g. drinking milk from the carton) is usually just a flashpoint to unload all kinds of deeper grumbles that have been building since the last argument. Thus it is wise to step back from the content of the argument and consider what you are really arguing about and deal with that issue.

I find it useful to ask myself “what type of argument an I having?” As defined by the purpose of entering the argument, is it:

  1. Inquiry – A presentation of ideas and evidence to whittle down misconceptions and inaccuriacies until a best available position is reached.
  2. Political – Rival positions are presented to an audience in order to win them over, rather than to convince your rivals.
  3. Catharsis – The participants stand on opposite mountaintops flinging lightning at each other until they both feel better.
  4. Domination – You intend to dismantle your opponent piece by piece until they are in tatters and submit to your superiority.
  5. Persuasion – You want your opponent to abandon / change their position so that they more resemble your own.

Having outlined a typology it should be obvious that each requires a different tact. For example the quality and ability of your audience will strongly determine what evidence and logic you can present in a political argument as opposed to using rhetoric and appeal to emotions. Domination requires a ruthless single-mindedness of purpose that will deeply antagonise your co-participant whereas persuasion requires you to gradually coax them along with references to their own values. Whichever argument you are engaged in, an understanding of informal logic is crucial. Before turning it upon your co-participants you should first turn it on yourself and eliminate the cloudy areas of your own positions.

Most people cannot conduct arguments with clear logical thinking, listening comprehension, and measured appraisal of evidence. It’s simply not natural. Our instincts always pull us towards defending our public reputation, our identity, our tribe. We frequently make it personal and frequently employ intellectually dishonest sleights of hand. These latter are called fallacies and interest me greatly. Here’s an introduction to some of the commonly-deployed fallacies. Learn them, remember the names, and then identify them in the field. It’ll become so much easier to dismantle foggy thinking.

Equivocation – Using the same word to mean different things without clarifying which, hoping that the word itself provides the continuity that the logic cannot. For example:

      • Pam: “John is really selfish”
      • Ken: “No he’s not. Have you seen how hard he works to provide for his children”
      • Pam: “But he is happy when they are provided for, so really he’s just doing what he wants to do, and that’s selfish”.

Here the word selfish has morphed from the common understanding meaning an unreasonable self-regard to mean simply doing what makes you happy.

False Dilemma – The range of options is unfairly narrowed down to only two. America – Love it or leave it!

Logically Black is White Slide – Proposing that because the difference between two ends of a spectrum are made up of small incremental changes (e.g. black to white are seperated by many subtle different shades of gray) that they are actually the same thing.

No True Scotsman – When counterexamples prove a generalisation wrong, they are unfairly dismissed by redrawing the boundaries to arbitrarily exclude them. For example: “Islam is a religion of peace” draws the counterexample “But what about the jihadists?” so the boundary is redrawn post-hoc “They aren’t true muslims.”

Begging the Question – Assuming the conclusion within the premises of the argument. For example “The Bible is true because God wrote it, and God wouldn’t lie”

The Heaper – Very similar to the LBiWS. When you can’t draw a clear line between two states of being you deny the difference. If you keep piling grains of sand onto a table you will eventually have a heap, but which grain of sand turns it from not-yet-a-heap to heap? Much sophistry about the age of consent relies on this fallacy.

Many Questions – You ask a question that can only be answered by assuming the truth of another (unproven) premise. When did you stop beating your wife?

Poisoning the Well – Negatively characterising a position before introducing it. “I trust you’re not one of those imbeciles you thinks…..”

I was first introduced to these ideas at university when taking a course in Informal Logic. The two core texts were Anthony Weston – A rulebook for arguments and Antony Flew – Thinking about Thinking. Both are great little books that will immediately straighten out the kinks in your processing. Get them.

4 responses

  1. Good list, let’s add strawman and misconstruction…

    How about techniques to counter-handle these fallacies? [I'd say the first thing is to simply identify them and that's 90% of the battle won. I'll usually explain the error and restate their argument in a more orderly manner to tease out the fallacy by making the premises, conclusion, and connecting logic (or lack of it) more explicit. CC.]

    March 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm

  2. Here’s a great resource http://www.fallacyfiles.org/.

    March 22, 2012 at 9:49 pm

  3. Kuraje

    Antony Flew – Thinking about Thinking is out of print. It’s going used price is between $70 – $210.

    After some serious digging, I found it for $0.50 from a UK seller. 4 copies left as of my order if anyone else is interested:


    [damn, I should sell my copy.... K.]

    May 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm

  4. I’ve heard some teachers of logic at the university level claim that some people don’t seem to be able to learn it. But I did date one university professor who claimed good success in teaching thinking skills. I imagine that some people have an innate propensity to learn logic, and some are so well endowed with this propensity that they have a difficult time understanding other peoples lack of interest in clear logical thinking.

    I believe that logical ability is somewhat of an organ, in the same way that the ability to learn language is an innate organ as Chomsky conceived of it. Some of us are born with a strong and functional organ and some will never develop their organ no matter how much training is aimed to strengthen it.

    You can use the lense of developmental psychology to look at the matter as well. Most people never develop to the level of rationality, where they “rule the rules” and think about thinking. They are instead stuck in a mythological rule-role developmental stage where rules are handed down from above and can not be questioned. It’s a sliding scale though, as some can have temporary peak experiences of rationality, but their normal base day to day operations are pre-rational.

    Studies have been done to quantify what percentage of the population is stable at the rational stage. There are said to also be stages above the rational, where you can hold in mind at once several different viewpoints. Ken Wilber calls that “vision logic”. He details many further contraversial developmental stages above vision logic, however the vision logic stage has broad acceptance amongst developmental psychologists. I vaguely recall that less than 5% of people (2%?) are stable at the vision logic stage. [Excellent comment. CC]

    It can be frustrating and even lonely to be in a minority position of thinking more clearly than those who surround you. However for those of us with a strong organ of logic, we are not able to choose going along to get along.

    May 25, 2012 at 2:36 am

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