Atheists vs Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An atheist who goes by [theresidentskeptic] is one of many atheists who have demanded that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy change its definition of atheism to their preferred one, namely, the dishonest “lack of belief” definition.  Here’s how the SEoP’s definition reads:

AtheismStanfordDEF

And here is [theresidentskeptic]’s email and Stanford’s reply:

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Stanford,

I am constantly having your definitions of atheism and agnosticism regurgitated to me by people who don’t seem to understand what they mean and your authoritative definition completely muddies the waters.

Your definition which can be seen at the the following link states:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheis…sticism/#1

“‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it.”

I am forced to point out to you that agnosticism deals with knowledge claims, not claims of belief. Why are you conflating the two? A belief necessarily deals with a single claim; God exists is one claim; God does not exist is another claim- or String theory is true is one claim; string theory is not true is another claim.

A cosmologist who does not know if either position about string theory is true would be considered an agnostic. The cosmologist then disbelieves claim 1; string theory is true, therefore, for lack of a better term, is an atheist with respect to string theory. They do not necessarily believe that claim 2; string theory is false, is true.

Similarly, with respect to god claims, a person who does not know if either claim (god exists / god does not exist) is true would be an agnostic. The person who disbelieves claim 1; God exists is an atheist and this does not say anything about their acceptance that claim 2; god does not exist, is true.

I will use an analogy:

If I made the claim that there are an odd number of blades of grass in my front yard, would you believe me?

No, you wouldn’t unless I could substantiate that claim (if you are rational). Does that then mean you believe the opposite of that claim? That there are an even number of blades of grass in my front yard? No, you wouldn’t accept that claim either. With respect to your belief in the true dichotomy of the nature of the grass then, you are an atheist; you disbelieve claim 1; there are an odd number of blades of grass. If you don’t know which claim is true, you are an agnostic. The terms are not mutually exclusive.

With respect to god claims, I identify as an agnostic atheist; I do not know if a god exists or not, and I disbelieve the claim that a god does exist.

Gnostic: Of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge. –> Therefore it’s opposite, agnostic, relates to a lack of knowledge.

Theist: Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures –> Therefore it’s opposite, atheist, relates to a lack of belief in the existence of gods and not necessarily the belief in the opposite claim, that no gods exist.

Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists

Source [for definitions]: Oxford English Dictionary*

Kindly update your definitions to reflect this.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
[theresidentskeptic]

*EVE NOTE: [theresidentskeptic] is being dishonest here: his definitions are from the Oxford Dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is an important distinction—the OD accepts and uses much looser standards than the OED. The OD is what you get from Google. The OED requires a hefty fee to access.

———————————-REPLY FROM STANFORD BELOW———————————-

Dear [theresidentskeptic]

Thank you for writing to us about the entry on atheism and agnosticism. We have received messages about this issue before and are continuing to consider whether and how the entry might be adjusted.

That said, the matter is not as clear cut as you suggest. While the term “atheism” is used in a variety of ways in general discourse, our entry is on its meaning in the philosophical literature. Traditionally speaking, the definition in our entry—that ‘atheism’ means the denial of the existence of God—is correct in the philosophical literature. Some now refer to this standard meaning as “positive atheism” and contrast it with the broader notion of atheism” which has the meaning you suggest—that ‘atheism’ simply means not-theist.

In our understanding, the argument for this broader notion was introduced into the philosophical literature by Antony Flew in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972). In that work, he noted that he was using an etymological argument to try to convince people *not* to follow the *standard meaning* of the term. His goal was to reframe the debate about the existence of God and to re-brand “atheism” as a default position.

Not everyone has been convinced to use the term in Flew’s way simply on the force of his argument. For some, who consider themselves atheists in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to water down a perfectly good concept. For others, who consider themselves agnostics in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to re-label them “atheists”—a term they rejected.

All that said, we are continuing to examine the situation regarding the definitions as presented in this entry.

All the best,
Yours,
Uri

——————————————————-
Uri Nodelman Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Senior Editor
CSLI/Cordura Hall editors@plato.stanford.edu
Stanford University ph. 650-723-0488
Stanford, CA 94305-4115 fx. 650-725-2166
——————————————————-

[EVE NOTE: Emphasis mine.]

[EVE NOTE: You also have to admit that “Based on a false etymology of a word, one grammatically plausible but as it happens, etymologically incorrect in the word’s history, I argue that we should give an established term a totally new definition, because doing so would have the advantage of making the position that I happen to hold (in 1972—I’ll change my mind later) a distinct rhetorical (but not substantive) advantage in arguments and debate about the subject.” If this is not special pleading, there is no such thing as special pleading.]

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The Analytic Problem with Personal Moral Relativism

I sat down to write a blog post about this, and realized that I had already done it.  Here’s the original: Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg. But I can give a more succinct account here, for easy reference.

Here’s the basic point: Anyone who claims that moral judgments of the form “X is wrong”  reduces to personal opinion, personal belief, personal view, etc. seems to be saying something incoherent. That is, the attempt to reduce moral judgments to the status of personal belief or opinions fails because it ends up being incoherent.

Why is this the case?

(1) Anyone who makes a claim like “A proposition of the form ‘X is wrong’ (e.g. ‘rape is wrong’) stated by P means only that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’,” is claiming that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’ gives the analysis or meaning of the expression “X is wrong.”

This analysis necessarily fails because “X is wrong” is supposed to be explained as “P believes that X is wrong” which contains the the proposition “X is wrong” embedded within it—and so this embedded portion of “P believes that X is wrong” still needs to be explained. If it is true that “X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong” then the “X is wrong” embedded inside “P believes that X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong,” which yields the analysis “P believes that P believes that X is wrong.”  And “P believes that P believes that X is wrong” itself still contains the embedded “X is wrong” and so becomes “P believes that P believes that P believes that X is wrong” … which still contains the embedded “X is wrong,” which is therefore never explained at any level.  All that is done is to set off an infinite regress which explains nothing at any point.

So attempting to analyze or give the meaning of “X is wrong” as someone’s belief or opinion or view that “X is wrong” is failed pseudo-analysis of moral propositions, being both infinite and failing at every point to give the meaning of “X is wrong.”

(2) Alternately one could attempt to analyze “X is wrong” stated by P as “P disapproves of X.” But now one needs to give the analysis or meaning of “P disapproves of X”—it should be clear that “P disapproves of X” cannot mean “P thinks that X is wrong” because this analysis would be both circular and generate same infinite regress problem above.

(3) One could hold that “X is wrong” stated by P means “P disapproves of X” where “P disapproves of X” is treated as a brute psychological fact without any rational content—it need not be analyzed because it has no rational content. But if the relativist makes this move, he is embracing emotivism, which entirely removes moral judgments from the sphere of reason altogether, which is not what the relativist meant originally when he said that moral judgments were personal judgments.  He did not, presumably, mean at first to deny that they are judgments.  He only wanted to claim that they were “personal” judgments.  But clearly one cannot coherently hold that “all moral judgments are really only personal judgments and are also not judgments at all.”

The UPSHOT: The “personal relativist” needs to give a coherent analysis of moral judgments of the from “X is wrong” that (a) does not set off an infinite non-explanatory regress, (b) is not circular, and (c) does not collapse his position into a different position entirely, viz. emotivism.

Here is philosopher Davis S. Oderberg saying essentially the same thing:

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular.

On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

Time and Motion: A Thought Experiment

I wanted to share an interesting thought experiment concerning the nature of time. I’ve known about this for many years, but can’t for the life of me remember the name of the philosopher who came up with it—I’m 99% sure it was a woman, but beyond that I have no clue. If any one knows the origin, please let me know.

Anyhow, our unknown philosopher asks us to imagine a universe with some unusual properties.  This universe is very much like our own, except that it is divided into three distinct regions, call them A, B, and C.

And each region has a strange property with respect to motion. Every so often, at regular intervals, all motion in a given region stops completely, leaving everything and everyone inside the region completely “frozen” or “suspended.” Anyone in a non-suspended region can easily observe that everyone and everything in a suspended region is completely motionless.  Each motion freeze lasts for exactly one year.  Those inside the motion frozen region do not experience the freeze subjectively at all.  From their perspective, it appears as if the other non-frozen region(s) change totally in an instant (a year’s worth of change).

Region A motion freezes 1 year out of every 3.

Region B motion freezes 1 year out of every 4.

Region C motion  freezes 1 year out of every 5.

So it looks like this:

TimeThreePartUniverse

So let’s consider what this would look like as the years pass.  I have arbitrarily decided to start in a cycle where B and C are both motion-frozen in year 1 and A was frozen in year 0 and so on this chart freezes again in year 3:

Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 4.42.55 AM

It isn’t hard to work out that regions A and B will freeze together once every 12 years (3 x 4), that regions A and C will freeze together once every 15 years (3 x 5) and that regions B and C will freeze together once every 20 years (4 x 5).  And it further isn’t hard to work out that all three regions A, B, and C, will freeze together once every 60 years (3 x 4 x 5)—something that happens to happen in the 21st year as I’ve set it up (I can’t be bothered to type out 120+ years—you can see the patterns well enough).

Now, everyone agrees that time in very closely related to motion or change.  And indeed, we usually imagine a timestop in fantasy or science fiction as a “freeze” or “suspension” of all motion, just as actually occurs in this universe.  And indeed, from the subjective point of view of those in a motion-frozen region in this universe, no time will have been experienced as passing, either subjectively or by external objective phenomena within the region (e.g. no one will have aged in the frozen “year”).

So, here is the question: is time independent of motion, or not?

From the point of view of anyone within a non-frozen region looking at a frozen region in universe ABC, it is clear that “that region is frozen for one year,” so that time passes despite the lack of motion. So they have good reason to think time is independent of motion, at least the motion of the frozen regions.

From the point of view of those in a frozen region, although they experience no passage of time during their “frozen year” they do see that the other regions freeze for one year, and they see that on a regular basis, the other regions they expect to be non-frozen while they are frozen do indeed “leap ahead” by one year.  So they have good reason to think time is independent of motion.

What about year 21? Or more generally, the year that occurs every 60 years when regions A, B, and C all freeze? No one at all will experience this freeze, or be able to see it “from outside” since it affects all three regions. There will be absolutely no detectable evidence that it occurred at all.

However, my philosopher whose name I can’t recall asks: isn’t the most rational conclusion to hold that all three regions of the universe did, in fact, “freeze for one year” in which time did, in fact, pass—even though with motion suspended this had no effect on anything or anyone?  Wouldn’t it be more rational to believe that “one year passed in which nothing happened because everything was frozen” than to believe that otherwise entirely regular and predictable time freeze simply did not occur (when what we would expect is for it to occur in all three regions, and thus expect it to be undetectable)?

One consequence of this would be to hold that year 21 DID NOT HAPPEN, but it this is so, then it would not be true that A freezes every 3 years, B every 4, and C every 5, but that this happens except that, every 60 years, when the freeze would include A, B, and C, no year happens, and A waits 6 years to freeze, B 8, and C 10 years.  The principle of parsimony suggests that an ad hoc adjustment require by saying that the “unexperienced by all year” simply did not happen is less rational than simply accepting that there really was a “year experienced by no one,” which is both in line with the rules of this universe and also what we would expect of the 60th year—namely, that it really did happen, but since everyone happened to be frozen, no one experienced it.

But if this is the case, must it not be the case that time—however much we experience by means of and through motion—is yet not motion, but something that can also, theoretically, measure rest or non-motion?

What do you think? Leave some comments. I’m interested if you find this thought experiment enough to motivate an intuition that time really is logically and really distinction from motion or change, however closely connected the two are either ontologically or phenomenologically.

An atheist philosopher’s critique of the “lack of belief” definition of atheism

“The Philosopher’s Groan” was a philosophical blog that seems no longer to exist. This is shame, as it had a number of interesting posts.  One in particular stands out to my mind, because it is an atheist philosopher’s trenchant critique of the tendentious “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism.

Although strictly speaking it should make no difference whatever whether a theist or an atheist critiques a given atheistic talking point, in practice it does, since most atheists will simply dismiss criticism made by theists out of hand.

It is therefore very worthwhile for you atheists to hear it from one of your own, that the “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism is severely flawed, tendentious, and at this point in the discussion, simply intellectually dishonest to maintain.

Here, then, is a link to Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do? 

Because I know you’re probably too lazy to click a link just on my say-so, I’ll give you some of the main points:

________________________________________________________________

Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do?

There is a common view – one you yourself may hold – that the only intellectually honest position for an atheist to have is a ‘lack of belief’ in gods. Today I’m going to argue that this definition is confused, and should be retired. It is too broad to be useful, and that we ought to reserve the word ‘atheist’ for active disbelief in the existence of gods.

In recent years, many counter-apologists have come to recognise ‘atheism’ as meaning a ‘lack of belief’ in gods, and that’s it. That is to say, atheism is the end result of rejecting – but not necessarily denying — the positive claims of religion. It’s a non-committal, neutral stance. The reasons usually provided to motivate this definition are some variation on the following:

  1. It is impossible to prove a negative, or to know that something doesn’t exist;
  2. a ‘lack of belief’ isn’t a belief;
  3. that ‘-theism’ (belief) and ‘-gnosticism’ (knowledge) are independent, non-mutually exclusive categories;
  4. the rejection of a claim doesn’t mean accepting the opposite (charge of a false dichotomy); and,
  5. that the etymology of the word ‘atheism’ breaks down to ‘a-‘ meaning ‘without’ and ‘-theos’ meaning ‘gods’, and is thus correct by definition.

I’ll take each of these in turn.

(1) It is possible to prove a negative by demonstrating a logical contradiction: there are no married bachelors, or square circles. Those paired concepts are mutually incompatible, and rule each other out. If the concept of god is incoherent, then the thing it points to can’t exist. And that’s the end of the story.

Furthermore, it’s possible to argue for a negative with an ‘absence of evidence’ argument. If X exists, I should expect to find evidence Z. If evidence Z isn’t found, X is not likely to exist. While not irrefutable, we don’t need it to be to say with a high probability that X doesn’t exist. If you think we do need it to be irrefutable to say X doesn’t exist, then you’re an infallibilist about knowledge, and I’ve already written about why that’s not a desirable position.

[Eve: Cf. my posts You Can’t Prove a Negative and You Can’t Prove a Negative Part 2.]

(2) This seems to be a confusion between the folk concept of ‘belief’, and it’s more precise philosophical definition. The folk concept is something like ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof‘. The philosophical definition is something like ‘a mental state that represents a state of affairs which is accepted as true by the believer‘.

[Eve: A failure to make this distinction leads to such hilarity as William Lane Craig’s humiliation of Lawrence Krauss after Krauss declared in a debate “I have no beliefs!”, to which Dr. Craig humorously responded “Do you really believe that?”]

The philosophical definition means, roughly, a ‘picture’ or a ‘sentence’ in your head that you think is an accurate representation of the world. You look at a wall, you have a belief about that wall. You think about the past, you have a belief about the past. The word just tells me that you think the world is a certain way. It shouldn’t conjure up the spectre of ‘acceptance without evidence’, which is confusing it with ‘faith’.

The only time someone can be said to have a lack of belief regarding a god is before they’ve heard the claim for one. In some minimalist sense this person is an a-theist, but that’s an extremely weak point to hang one’s hat on. After hearing it, they can accept, reject or mull over the claim undecided. But lacking a belief about it is no longer open to them.

When we’re talking about scientific concepts, we make the effort to use appropriate scientific language. We ought to make the same effort to be philosophically precise in matters of philosophy. ‘Atheism’ and ‘belief’ are also technical terms in philosophy. This might rub some anti-philosophical types the wrong way, but like it or not, if you engage in rational argument, you’re doing philosophy. And anything worth doing is worth doing correctly.

(3) This one is often said in conjunction with ‘2’, and is usually accompanied by this graphic:

agnosticatheistgraph

The first thing I can say here is that belief and knowledge are not usually paired this way. As our justification for a belief being true gets stronger, it eventually qualifies as knowledge (because knowledge is at least a ‘justified, true, belief’). So this makes both the gnostic positions rather redundant, as you necessarily have to have a belief if you also have knowledge.

The second thing I can say is that this ‘neat’ partitioning doesn’t capture the degrees of confidence we have in our beliefs and knowledge. I know that the Sun is a star. I also know that evolution has occurred. Do I know these two facts to the same degree of confidence? No. They’re both very high, but not identical — and they’re certainly not 100% certain. This graphic doesn’t capture that nuance, and neither does the distinction it’s attempting to carve out. It’s too simple. Our minds don’t work like this.

(4) While it is true that ‘believing X’ and ‘believing not-X’ aren’t the only options, I disagree that the middling position of ‘not believing X’ is a useful definition of atheism. It’s far too broad to capture just what we might intuitively want to call an atheist (it drifts too far into ‘Area C’). I’ll try to motivate this change of intuition in you.

If a mere ‘lack of belief in god’ is sufficient to be an atheist, then babies are atheists. You might say “yes, they are, or at least were before religion got its mitts on them!” But on this definition chimps are also atheists. As are dolphins, dogs, and doors. They all lack belief in a god.

You might object that the ‘thing’ has to be capable of beliefs at all to prevent the ‘door’ from making this absurd (that’s going to be a problem for anything that is defined in purely negative terms). But suppose I grant that point, even though it seems extremely ad hoc. Are you comfortable calling a dog an atheist? If so, are you just as comfortable calling a goldfish apolitical? Calling the ants in my garden a colony of atheists feels like a misuse of words to me, because this word – defined in this way – picks out any conscious thing on the planet as its referent. That’s a huge net. If we think of atheism as ‘positive disbelief’, that picks out a very small subset of belief-capable humans, and that’s a more desirable outcome.

(5) is an interesting one, as it is a great example of what I call the ‘fetishisation of etymology’. It treats language as if it’s static and eternal, rather than the truly fluid organism it really is. Words change meaning all the time, mostly due to popular usage, but sometimes due to necessity (like the planet example). Thumping the table and shouting “words have meanings!” as I so often see happen, is not an argument.

[Eve: For an excellent case of ‘linguistic fetishization’—although not in this case a fetishization of etymology—see my account of my encounter on Twitter with a linguistic fetishist who maintained that ‘words have only one true meaning, so it is usually the case that the inventors of a word are using it wrongly as soon as they invent it, since its true meaning may not be known for centuries’ at Chaucer, Lit Fish, and Go Fuck Yourself, and Revisiting Whales and Fish One Last Time.]

In the first few centuries CE, the word ‘atheist’ was used by polytheistic pagans to describe Christians, who they were ridiculing for believing in ‘one god for everything’. They taunted them that they should just round it off to an even zero since they were most of the way there already. Before them, it was used by the pagans against the Epicureans (yes, this one, even though this quote is wrongly attributed to him by an early Christian scholar) in Ancient Greece, who believed that the gods did exist and were made of atoms, but were unconcerned with human affairs.

So the word ‘atheist’ has changed several times in history already in response to a conscious or unconscious desire for it to do so. Rather than let the folk concept flitter to and fro, I’d rather intelligently design our language so we can mean what we say, and say what we mean. Like Pluto and the planets, it seems to me that once this folk concept is scrutinised, it comes up short and in need of a rethink.

If you’re still hung up on etymology being king, look up the word ‘nice’ here & here for examples of a word whose meaning has changed dramatically in just 700 years.

[Eve: adding a useful reference on the etymology of atheism.  Not that one should fetishize etymology, but it is worth knowing that the etymology of atheism simply is not a- theism but atheos -ism: See my The Etymology of Atheism.]

The Etymology of Atheism

Many people are mistaken about the etymology of the word “atheism.” They think it comes from an alpha-privative negation a- joined with theism, that is, they think

atheism  =  a- theism

or

atheism = the negation of theism

That is not where atheism comes from, however. ‘Atheism’ is in fact an older word than ‘theism.’  It comes originally from the Greek ἄθεος meaning ‘godless’ or ‘without god’.  The -ισμός is a later addition, which means “doctrine of” or “teaching of.”  Hence

atheismἄθεος -ισμός = atheos -ism

or

atheism = the doctrine or teaching of Godlessness, i.e. the teaching that there is no God.

Here’s a breakdown of the history:

EtymologyOfAtheism

As noted above the new redefinition of atheism as “lack of belief in God” was a bit of philosophical slight of hand (or more precisely slight of language, or even more precisely sophistry, perpetrated Antony Flew and a few of his atheistic fellow travelers starting in the early 1970s.  Flew was probably the most consistent atheist apologist in philosophy through most of the 20th century—and it is worthwhile to note that late in his life, when retired and finally with enough leisure to read Aristotle carefully for the first time, Flew was rationally forced to reverse his lifelong position and embrace rational theism. Maybe he should have read Aristotle earlier in his career? Kudos to Flew for having the intellectual and philosophical integrity to publicly reverse himself on the very position he had built his entire philosophical career maintaining.  That extraordinary act of philosophical courage and integrity almost makes me forgive him for perpetrating this pernicious bit of sophistry:

Flew Atheism Etymology

ADDENDUM: I’m not making this up. Of course I’m not, because I don’t just make stuff up. But for those atheists reading this who just assume that I am making it up, here’s a link to what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about it, in response to atheists’ persistent attempts to bully them into changing their definition:

Atheists vs The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hint: They say the same thing I do. The “redefinition” of atheism was an argument strategy by Antony Flew, one which was never accepted as any sort of consensus, and one for which there are excellent reasons to reject.

“Fallacies” aren’t what you think they are—and they aren’t very useful.

If you spend any amount of time online following or taking part in debates, you’ll eventually see someone accuse someone else of committing or employing “a fallacy.” What exactly does this mean?

The superficial thing it means as that the accuser is claiming that there is something wrong with the other person’s argument—specifically that the conclusion they are drawing doesn’t follow from the premises they are using; and so (by definition) their argument is logically invalid—where “logically invalid” just means “it is possible that the premises are true and the conclusion is false.”

But people often assume or act as if a fallacy were something more than this, that it is a kind of meta-error that makes arguments erroneous, that it is a kind of formal invalidity maker. But “fallacies” are no such thing.

What is a “fallacy”?

There is fairly wide agreement about what one is, some kind of error in reasoning, but if you take a close look at how logicians both professional and popular define “fallacy,” you will quickly see that there seems to be no “something more than just an error” that people seem to think there is. Here’s a representative list of definitions:

“A fallacy is a deceptive error of thinking.” – Gensler, Introduction to Logic

“A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning.” – Kreeft, Socratic Logic

“A fallacy is a flaw in reasoning.” – yourlogicalfallacyis.com

“A fallacy is an error in reasoning.” – The Nizkor Project

“A fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning or ‘wrong moves’ in the construction of an argument.” – Wikipedia

“Fallacies are deceptively bad arguments.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“A fallacy is a kind of error in reasoning.” – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

What makes an argument valid or invalid?

There are two basic principles of logic that you must grasp to understand this, and one false principle that you must recognize as false. Let’s start with the correct principles:

(V1) An argument is valid if and only if it instantiates any valid argument form.

(V2) An argument is invalid if and only if it fails to instantiate any valid argument form.

This principle is INCORRECT:

(F1) An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form.

Reasoning is movement of the mind from premises to a conclusion, from point A to point B. An argument is valid if it can get from point A to point B by any possible route; it is invalid only if one cannot rationally get from A to B at all. Note that the fact “you can’t get from A to B by route F” doesn’t entail “you can’t get from A to B at all.” This is why (F1) above is a FALSE PRINCIPLE: The fact that a given argument A instantiates a given invalid argument form F shows nothing at all about the validity of A; A can, in principle, instantiate any number of invalid argument forms and still be valid—it only has to instantiate just one valid argument form to be valid.

Consider: “You can’t reach the North Pole by going south; therefore, you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going east; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going west; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southeast; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southwest; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” ETC.

The fact that there are innumerable directions by which you cannot reach the North Pole doesn’t show anything at all about whether you can reach the North Pole.  The fact that there is one direction you can travel in which will get you to the North Pole—namely, north—shows that you can, in fact, reach the North Pole. The only thing that matters is that there is a way that succeeds.

And logic is just like that. If there is a valid route from A to B, it doesn’t matter whether there is an invalid route from A to B, or many, or an infinite number (which there are: there are always an infinite number of invalid routes from A to B you can propose).

AN EXAMPLE: Consider the following argument:

  1. q ⇒ q
  2. q
  3. ∴ q

This argument instantiates the invalid argument form affirming the consequent. Is it invalid? No. Why not? It also instantiates the perfectly valid form modus ponens.  So it really doesn’t matter that it instantiates an invalid form, since it also instantiates a valid form—which is all that matters.

THE UPSHOT: people think that IF they have correctly identified an invalid argument form that an argument instantiates, THEN they have shown something about the argument’s validity.  But they haven’t. That no more works than what is sometimes called the “fallacy fallacy,” which is to hold that showing that an argument for conclusion C is invalid shows that conclusion C is false. But this doesn’t work. An argument for C can be invalid and C still be true.  And it is just as wrong to hold that showing an argument A instantiates an invalid argument form F shows that argument A is invalid.

Sophia vs Jacob: A Hypothetical Twitter exchange

Suppose Sophia and Jacob are having a Twitter exchange, and Sophia makes an argument, to which Jacob responds by typing (in all caps of course) “BANDWAGON FALLACY!” and ‘helpfully’ providing Sophia with a link to yourlogicalfallacyis.com’s description of the Bandwagon fallacy:

1. Jacob hasn’t shown anything about Sophia’s argument. All he has done is say the name of an alleged fallacy. If Jacob’s position is that an argument is proven to be invalid on the condition that someone says the name of a fallacy, then he’s in pretty dire trouble. Sophia can simply elect to accept Jacob’s rule and proceed to “refute” all Jacob’s arguments by saying the names of various fallacies; or she can ask him to prove his rule is correct—and defeat every argument he attempts to give for it by saying the names of various fallacies; or if Sophia is feeling particularly snarky, she can post one of my cards to Jacob, which uses the rule he is implicitly appealing to to defeat itself. When someone thinks they can refute your argument by saying the name of a fallacy, this is the name of the fallacy you say to refute their argument that they have refuted your argument by saying the name of a fallacy:

evecardfallaciesnominalfallacyfallacy

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument. All Jacob as done so far is argue “I have said the name of an error; therefore your argument is in error.

2. Suppose Jacob mans up and really does try to show that Sophia’s argument fits the alleged pattern of the “bandwagon fallacy.” And let’s suppose he succeeds. Well, he still hasn’t shown anything about the validity or invalidity of Sophia’s argument. We’ve allowed that he has shown that Sophia’s argument instantiates a type of reasoning that, as an informal fallacy, can be invalid, but it is the nature of informal fallacies (aka material fallacies) that they are sometimes errors and sometimes not. I’ve written a lot about this, mostly for Twitter. If you like, you can have a look at what I have to say about material fallacies HERE.  But just to give some examples:

(a) an appeal to authority is sometimes erroneous, sometimes not; appeal to experts in their fields or a scientific consensus are not errors of reasoning. In the 1990s, Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem is indeed a theorem.  How do I know this? Because a few dozen of the the few thousand people capable of understanding Wiles’ proof checked it very carefully and agreed. So, my belief that Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is sound is based entirely on the authority of some of the world’s foremost mathematicians. I could verify Wiles’ proof for myself, but it would require around a decade of mathematical study before I’d be in a position to—and frankly I don’t have the time or inclination. That is what expert mathematicians are for. If we were disallowed from appealing to authority, we’d have to establish all knowledge for ourselves at all times, which would completely defeat the point of the division of intellectual labor, and completely wreck science, since no established scientific “conclusions” could ever be appealed to.

(b) an argument from parts to whole is not always an error.  If you argued that “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg, so the entire Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg” you’d be making an error (and if you want to call it “fallacy of composition” go ahead).  But if you argued “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is brick, so the Yellow Brick Road is a brick road” or “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is yellow, so the Yellow Brick Road is yellow” you wouldn’t be making an error.

(c) An appeal to universal human experience is not an “ad populum fallacy,” for example in the case of such claims as: “minds exist” or “human beings by nature are divided into two sexes” or “time has three dimensions, past, present, and future” or “anger and fear are emotions found in human beings” or Euclid’s Common Notions: “The whole is greater than the part” or “equals added to equals are equal” or “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another.”  The point here is that there really are COMMON NOTIONS, as Euclid uses that term, namely, things which all human beings know or can recognize that do not stand in need of any formal proof, because they are too simple or too obvious to have one (this is also called the consensus gentium, “the consensus of the whole species”—I’ve discussed how it differs from an ad populum error HERE.

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed to TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form some informal fallacy or another. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a form which may or may not be an error; therefore it is in error!

3. But let’s make it a bit easier on Jacob, and suppose that he has detected in Sophia’s argument not an informal fallacy but a formal fallacy, such as affirming the consequent. Now, formal fallacies are different from material or informal fallacies in that they are invalid just in virtue of their form, and so do not depend on the situation, context, or content as to whether they are valid or invalid. They are simply invalid. Period.

Now, let us suppose that Jacob succeeds in showing that Sophia’s argument does indeed instantiate the invalid argument form called affirming the consequent (P⇒Q; Q; ∴P). Has Jacob now shown that Sophia’s argument is invalid? No, he has not. He has not, because to do so, he would have to be appealing to principle (F1): An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form, which as we have seen, is a false principle.

Sophia is therefore entirely within her epistemic and logical rights to says to Jacob, after he has demonstrated that her argument instantiates the form of affirming the consequent, “So what? You still haven’t shown my argument is invalid. You wasted a lot of effort on showing something that has no logical bearing on whether my argument is valid or invalid.”

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form even of a formal fallacy. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a formally invalid argument form, an error; therefore it is in error.” And this argument is an enthymeme that requires the false principle (F1) as its hidden premise, and so is unsound.

4. Jacob’s problem is that, in order to show that Sophia’s argument is invalid, he has only two options: (A) the direct logic-indifferent method, in which he can show that Sophia’s argument is invalid by showing that, while her premises are true, her conclusion is false.  This isn’t really a “method” at all—it is simply showing that Sophia’s argument is a case of the very definition of an invalid argument, namely, an argument with true premises and a false conclusion; or (B) Jacob can attempt to show that there is NO logically valid argument form which Sophia’s argument instantiates (remember, her argument only needs to instantiate ONE to be valid), in any formal-logical system, including those which have not yet been discovered or constructed.  In other words, to use method (B) Jacob would have to prove the nonexistence of a logical form which Sophia’s argument instantiates. And as most people are well aware, it is damn-near impossible to prove absolutely the nonexistence of something (showing it to be contradictory is the only way I know that this can be done).

THE UPSHOT HERE is that all appeals to fallacies as a way of refuting arguments or proving invalidity all seem to be instances of (B)—and they all fail because they can’t actually do the work of demonstrating invalidity.  THE MOST they can accomplish is to raise a doubt about the validity of an argument by suggesting that the argument in question has nothing more to it than the invalid form it instantiates.  That is to say, that the person making the argument is appealing to the invalid form as a valid form, which he or she means to establish validity, either in the mistaken belief that it is valid or disingenuously as a rhetorical move.  But if the person making the argument says “No, I see that pattern is invalid, but that’s not what I’m claiming makes my argument valid,” then an appeal to fallacy really can’t DO anything else. People WANT to say “No! Your argument instantiates an invalid argument form! It’s invalid!” But they can’t logically say that. That’s (F1) again, and (F1) is false—obviously false, even: “You can’t get from A to B” obviously does not follow from “You can’t get from A to B by route F.”

Why aren’t “fallacies” very useful?

A fallacy is usually a name given to some general type of error or mistake. The problem with this is that errors do not, strictly speaking, have ‘types’—there are no general forms of error, because error by its way of being is indefinite and indeterminate—and what is indefinite and indeterminate is cannot be defined or determined rigorously.

Fallacies aren’t very useful because they CAN’T DO MUCH.

Naming a fallacy certainly doesn’t show anything about an argument’s validity or invalidity.

Showing that an argument fits the form of a informal fallacy doesn’t show anything at all, since material fallacies aren’t always fallacious—that depends entirely on the content, and you’d still have to show that the argument in question is in error, something which, if you are able to do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely redundant and superfluous, and if you can’t do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely toothless and pointless.  So in the case of informal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.

Showing that an argument instantiates a formally fallacious argument form also doesn’t show anything about the validity of the argument. Because (F1) is false, from the fact that a given argument A instantiates a given formally invalid argument form F, NOTHING FOLLOWS ABOUT THE VALIDITY OR INVALIDITY OF A.  So, once again, if you are going to get anywhere, you’d have to show an error in the argument itself, and the appeal to the fallacy (1) does not show any error, nor (2) add anything to the demonstration of error if one is able to show an error in the specific argument. So in the case of formal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.

Basically, citing a fallacy or appealing to a fallacy is just a roundabout way of saying “Your argument is in error”—and this is something that still needs to be shown. Either can you can show an error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is superfluous and adds nothing; or you cannot show any error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is pointless and accomplishes nothing.

EITHER WAY, the citation of a fallacy ADDS NOTHING and DOES NOTHING. 

ADDENDUM:

It is with satisfaction and pleasure that I learn that Peter Geach, one of the greatest logicians of the 20th century, and a philosopher I respect extremely highly, makes the same point that I do: that ‘fallacies’ understood as invalid argument forms are not invalidity-makers of arguments:

GeachValidInvalid

As Geach notes, if it were the case that invalid argument forms were invalidity-makers, then all arguments would be invalid, since all arguments can be reformulated an the conjunction of all their premises with &s, leaving us with the invalid form

  1. p1 & p2 & p3 & p4 & … & pn
  2. ∴ q

or more simply

  1. p
  2. ∴ q

which gives us a simple modus tollens

  1. If instantiating a logically invalid argument form makes an argument invalid, no arguments are logically valid.
  2. But some arguments are logically valid.
  3. ∴ Instantiating a logically invalid argument from does not make an argument invalid.

Q.E.D.

Philosophers are (or should be) interested in truth, not originality, so I am always pleased to find points that I make in philosophers I respect.

Why the ‘Burden of Proof’ Destroys Rational Discourse

As my friend Chris Lansdown has noted, not only is the “burden of proof” not useful in discussions, it actually renders all discussion and argument impossible, if it is taken seriously.

Consider someone who claims that his opponent has the burden of proof. By his own principle that “the one who claims has the burden of proof,” he has the burden of proof to prove his claim that his opponent has the burden of proof.

Suppose he attempts to do so. In order to prove this, he will have to make an argument. In order to make an argument, he will have to assert other claims, namely, the premises of the argument he offers as a proof.

But in asserting these new claims as premises, he immediately, by his own principle, acquires a burden of proof to prove his additional claims. So he will need to prove his new claims, the premises, as well.

But to prove his premises, he will need to make an argument for each premise, and every argument he makes will require more still more premises—that is, claims—and with every new claim he asserts, he acquires—by his own “the one who claims has the burden of proof” principle—a new burden of proof to prove each of the new claims.

This very obviously results in an infinite regress, in which he must prove the proof and then prove the proof of the proof and then prove the proof of the proof of the proof etc. ad infinitum.  And since this endless task cannot be completed by any human being, it would destroy any meaningful conversation before it even begins.

Thus, literally the ONLY way to have a rational discussion about ANYTHING is to DISREGARD the nonsensical pseudo-logical principle that “the burden of proof is on the one who claims.”