Abelard for Today

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Pierre Abelard, Sic et Non, 1130

The philosopher Pierre Abelard wrote one of the first modern works on logic, Sic et Non (Yes and No) about 1130. Almost 900 years later, it's still relevant. Abelard laid down four basic principles of reasoning:

Use Systematic Doubt and Question Everything

The most common application of this principle is the dictum that arguments from authority have no value. The mere fact that someone in authority said something is no guarantee it is correct. Any source that claims infallibility still has to submit every single statement to scrutiny. After all, maybe the source isn't infallible after all.

To put it as bluntly as possible, anyone who uses the term "skeptic" in a negative sense is a charlatan.

But you also have to question your own questions and doubt your own doubts. Are the questions really valid, or born of insecurity, insufficient information, or wishful thinking? There is such a thing as unreasonable doubt - just recall the O. J. Simpson trial. Questioning everything doesn't preclude the possibility of getting answers.

Pseudoscientists' favorite culture medium is unreasonable doubt. As G. K. Chesterton once pointed out: "The purpose of the mind, as of the mouth, is to open it in order to close it again on something solid."

Learn the Difference Between Proof and Persuasion

If we really did this as a society, would the advertising industry be more than 5 per cent as big as it is? Advertising would be largely confined to saying "Here's a new product or service you might find useful." This is, by the way, pretty much what advertising consisted of before the 20th century.

Would we be having the endless debate over campaign finance reform if people did this? How can even a billion dollars of air time make a stupid idea sound? It applies elsewhere as well. I recall the Payola scandals of the 1950's, where recording companies paid radio stations to air certain songs. I was always puzzled by these, because I could never figure out what business this was of any government agency. Even more, however, I could never see how any amount of air play could make a bad song good. If the song was irritating enough, I can even see how it would reduce a station's audience.

Let's get to the root of the problem. Payola and campaign finance are problems because we have a superficial society of people who don't think for themselves. External targets are tempting because they are easy targets, but unless the root cause is addressed, nothing will change. (Suggested remedy: electronic balloting. Before you vote, you have to answer ten questions picked randomly from the questions asked of prospective new citizens. Less than eight correct, your vote doesn't count.) Ten-second sound bites will stop being an instrument of political campaigns when they stop getting results. We'll get in depth news coverage when the McNeill-Lehrer News Hour out-draws the network news. We'll get quality TV when PBS out-draws the networks.

Be precise in use of words, and expect precision of others

In the 1960's, California had an ultra-conservative superintendent of education called Max Rafferty. I once saw an article about him posted on a bulletin board in which he defended himself against accusations of racism by noting things he had done to improve minority education, his hiring of minority employees, and so on. Someone sarcastically wrote in "so therefore he's not a racist!"

Yes - if he doesn't espouse racism or practice it, therefore he's not a racist. Even if you don't like his policies, if he doesn't fit the definition of "racist," he isn't one. Discussion is over.

"Racist" is maybe the most notorious word in American society that has come to mean merely whatever its user wants it to mean, but buzzwords in general suffer the same flaw.

There can be complimentary buzzwords also. Try using the term "Christian" in a strict theological sense and someone is sure to ask who you think you are saying that someone is or is not a Christian. C. S. Lewis took on this platitude in Mere Christianity, pointing out that the broad definition of "Christian" had every virtue except utility. By making "Christian" merely a synonym for "nice person" we create a redundant term while depriving ourselves of a term for someone who holds a particular body of beliefs.

Watch for error, even in Holy Scripture

How is it that a cleric in the Middle Ages can see this but anti-evolutionists in the 21st century can't?

Anatomy of a Substantive Argument

As I look at popular culture and the writings of my students, I am convinced that the vast majority of Americans have no idea what a logical argument is. A logical argument looks like this:

(Statement)
Is
(True/False)
Because
(Facts or Logical Propositions)

Note that facts and logical propositions consist mostly of nouns and verbs. Adjectives like "racist" or "politically correct" have no place here.

Applying Abelard

No package deals

The "package deal" mentality is the idea that proving one element of a logical chain proves the whole thing. Sometimes this is true. If a chain is proven except for one link, proving that last link completes the chain. If a chain of reasoning has one link disproven, the chain is disproven; you cannot get to the final objective via that route. But the ultimate point may still be true. For example, Piltdown Man was once considered evidence that man evolved from an ape-like ancestor. Piltdown Man has been discredited. Therefore the logical chain invoking Piltdown Man as an intermediate between humans and apes is invalid. If Piltdown Man were the only evidence linking humans and apes, we would have good grounds for questioning whether humans had evolved from an ape-like ancestor. But there are other logical chains involving other fossils that are still valid. So the ultimate point is still true: man evolved from an ape-like ancestor.

It's like traveling. If there's only one road from A to B, and a bridge is out, you can't get there. If there are many routes, finding the bridge out is an inconvenience but doesn't prevent you from making the trip. However, finding that a bridge is not out doesn't prove that the entire road is open. To get from A to B you have to cover the entire route. Showing that the first bridge is open shows only that the first bridge is open.

"Ana-lyze" comes from two Greek words meaning take apart. That's what you have to do to logical chains. Every single link has to be identified and tested. It's rather like the story of the man who fell off the Empire State Building and as he passed each floor said "so far, so good." Just because the reasoning worked 102 times in a row doesn't mean it will work the 103rd time.

A good place to see the package deal mentality in action is the Shroud of Turin, a linen strip with the imprint of a person that was widely believed to be the burial shroud of Christ. Radiocarbon dating has revealed it to be medieval in age. Before the dating, some religious believers considered the shroud irrefutable proof of the Gospel accounts of Christ's resurrection. The interesting thing is that anti-religious skeptics, instead of doing what skeptics ought to do, which is analyze the logical chain piece by piece, reacted with something very much like panic, wholly out of proportion to the evidence.

In order to prove the Gospel accounts of Christ's resurrection, the Shroud would have to:

Break any link, and the Shroud no longer makes its case. So, even if the shroud is the actual burial shroud of Christ, all we have is a historical relic connected to a famous person. The most critical link, the final one, is not proven. The physical evidence is equally consistent with resurrection or with the body being removed. I've seen a hair claimed to be from the beard of Mohammed, but that doesn't prove he received messages from Gabriel. However, note that discrediting the relics doesn't disprove the supernatural claims, merely one line of evidence. If the hair is actually someone else's, it doesn't disprove Mohammed's claims, merely that someone misrepresented a hair. If the shroud is a fake, it proves only that some devout believer created a forgery. Proving that one bridge is out doesn't prove that all routes are impassible.

The problem with the Package Deal mentality is that many people assume that if you can prove any one link in the logical chain, you have proven the whole chain. So, if you want to prove the War in Iraq is wrong, you start with the premise "The U.S. is wrong in everything," point to slavery or the Wounded Knee massacre, and there you are. Or, if you want to prove the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection, you prove the Shroud of Turin dates from the First Century.

Evolution is another great place to see the package deal mentality in action. It's interesting that extremists on both sides of a debate tend to accept each others' package deal arguments rather than critically analyzing them (if they were capable of dispassionate, rational analysis, they wouldn't be extremists, would they?)  

Adjectives, Labels and Emotional Responses are not Substantive Arguments

I am simply astonished by how often people seem to think the fact that they are offended by a statement proves something. The fact that someone is offended proves only that someone is offended - it does not prove that the offense is justified. And even if the offense is justified, that doesn't prove the offended party is right. Some people deserve to be offended. Maybe the offense means the person's value system is a mess and needs to be reorganized.

Some people like to announce pompously that they "reject" some particular value. Bully for them. That's not proof.

Labels May Not be Accurate, and Never Prove Anything

Some years ago, someone had the bright idea of distributing Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind to a large group of faculty here. Then we got together and acted it out. It was called a "discussion," but that's what actually happened. One person at my table noted that Bloom had "a conservative view of human nature" and was "hostile to the women's movement" as if those labels constituted proof of something instead of being mere descriptions.

Wishing Doesn’t Make it So

What exactly does anyone gain by clinging to a demonstrably false idea? At best a false sense of security. At worst, reality may be sneaking up behind him ready to have him for lunch (two words: Soviet Union). What can you possibly lose by pursuing the truth wherever it leads? 

Conflicting with an ideology doesn’t make it false

In any conflict between ideology and evidence, we have to consider the prospect that the ideology is false. Substantive arguments preserve logic and data. Most people try to preserve ideology. I love the saying "true science can never conflict with religion," as if there were no such thing as false religion.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Watch any TV court show and you can see this process at work. Two neighbors have a quarrel. When Judge Judy asks for proof, the plaintiff will cite every grievance he or she has ever had. The plaintiff feels that because he's got a complaint, anything that puts the neighbor in a bad light proves what a rotten person the neighbor is, and therefore proves his or her case. And the plaintiff will feel very hurt and wronged when the judge refuses to admit the evidence as irrelevant. When a lawyer can get away with injecting irrelevancies, as happened in the O. J. Simpson trial, he can quite literally help someone get away with murder.

Beware of the fallacy of proving the converse. "My neighbor killed my dog, therefore he's a rotten person" might be hard to prove, so many people try to prove the converse: "My neighbor is a rotten person, therefore he killed my dog." A lot of distractions in debate boil down to this fallacy.

I recently fell into this trap myself. I wrote a review of the film Three Kings, which I felt was a sloppily done, sophomoric piece of drivel. That drew an extremely angry response from one person who loved the film. One of my criticisms of the film was that it tried to portray an Iraqi officer as a decent person, despite the fact that he had only recently witnessed an atrocity and done nothing. My attacker replied with:

What's this?  You mean the moral USA had a problem with a big country attacking it's neighbor unprovoked?  Wow, we're looking out for the small guys then, eh?  Pretty good of us.  Of course, there are wars in Africa where larger countries take their neighbors unprovoked, we don't seem to be losing much sleep over that. You're kidding yourself if you think we helped Kuwait because we were worried about unchecked Iraqi aggression.  If Iraq had pulled off a Naval invasion of Sicily do you think we would've blinked.  Nope.  Why?  Because Sicily doesn't have a darn thing that we need. ... Let me throw a few more phrases at you while you're busy congratulating America on it's morality:  My Lai, No Gun Ri, Wounded Knee, Trail of Tears, Iran Contra affair ... I don't really think we're in any position to be judging the morality of any other country, given our own history.

Man, everything but the kitchen sink here. So I took the guy on, point by point. What I should have done was pointed out that the issue was whether the film had degenerated into absurdity by trying to portray a coward and accomplice to murder in a good light, and that immoral actions by other people at other times and places do not affect the reality that this particular character was a coward and accomplice to murder.

My critic was basically proving the converse. "The Gulf War was wrong, therefore the U.S. was wrong in fighting it" is hard to prove, given that Saddam Hussein invaded a defenseless neighbor without any provocation. So my critic went this route: "The U.S. is always wrong,  therefore the Gulf War was wrong."

This tactic crops up all the time, and it is so easy to be seduced by it. The proper response is simply to keep repeating "The subject is X. What do you have to say that's pertinent to X?" Keep hammering away on the central issue. If your opponent insists that his comments are relevant, make him explain how and why.

A very similar logic crops up in discussions about crime. Some activists will point out that criminals were victims of abuse, inequality, injustice and so on. Often true, always regrettable when it is. But the real issue is this: did the particular victim of the crime ever harm the criminal? If the answer is no, if that particular individual had never harmed his attacker, then the attacker had an obligation to reciprocate in kind. Period. Wholly apart from whatever other pain or injustice the attacker had ever suffered, that individual had never wronged him, and he therefore owed that person the same dignity.

Scattergun attacks with irrelevancies are legion. Many people are so foggy about logic they don't even understand why irrelevancies are irrelevant. They'll get very angry at being held narrowly to the issues. The solution is focus, focus, focus.


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Created 10 December 2001, Last Update 02 June 2010

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