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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Self-refuting arguments

Why do people use arguments that can't possibly convince anyone? Because they have to

S elf-refuting arguments are arguments that unintentionally convince people that the opposite of what they intend to claim is true. There are many variations of these, but they fall into three main categories.

1. Arguing from Tradition

Perhaps the most appealing self-refuting argument is the one that says “we've always done it this way because it's traditional, and therefore that newfangled thing is a bad idea.” Indeed, traditions can be very beautiful. They improve the stability of society, strengthen its solidarity, and enhance its culture. According to this idea, as developed by Edmund Burke, a society is a self-organizing entity that must be allowed to develop naturally. People shouldn't try to improve human nature by imposing their views on it because we are imperfect and unable to grasp the magnificence inherent in a system that evolved in ways we don't understand.

Captain Kirk arguing with Nomad

. . . And you did not discover your mistake. You have made two errors! And you did not discover that you did not discover your mistake. You have made three errors! In point of fact, you have made an infinite number of errors!

This is an appealing argument on many levels. We all have traditions that we enjoy, which give life meaning and bond us to other humans. Science tells us that self-organizing phenomena can be superior in many ways to artificial ones. Even our artists try to make their work appear natural. And there's no doubt that ill-considered change can make things worse.

But there's a problem: what happens when some people start doing things differently for ideological reasons? Soon this new way of doing things becomes a tradition of its own, and the traditionalist must yield to it out of consistency, even if it is harmful. Thus a traditionalist argument is not a strong position; conservatives who adopt it sometimes complain that their comrades keep surrendering to the opposition, but they're overlooking the fact that surrendering is the nature of tradition. What's actually happening is that an appeal to tradition is not an argument at all. When it becomes a substitute for real argument, traditionalists will always find themselves outmaneuvered.

Russell Kirk, the founder of movement conservatism, said as much, but in many more words. Many conservatives intuitively recognized early on that building an ideology on tradition alone was making a castle out of sand. But out of respect for tradition, no one dared to repudiate Kirk.

2. Arguing from Fear

I recently came across an article whose author tried to argue against evolutionary psychology, which is a powerful new evidence-based branch of anthropology—a welcome development in a field in danger of being overrun by identity politics—by claiming that it was “a dangerous idea.” The writer tried to smear its adherents by tying them to the so-called alt-right and by saying that those discussing its findings are terrible, bad people that we shouldn't listen to because doing so will make you a terrible, bad person.

These are all clear signs that the writer doesn't have an actual argument: he's merely afraid of the findings, for reasons he doesn't want you to know, and he's trying to make you afraid of them too.

He wants you to believe that science is ideological, and that there are two competing factions battling it out. So he tries to politicize the debate. To get his beliefs to prevail, he appeals to groupthink by making us afraid of the bogeyman on the side he's opposed to.

This is a very common style of argument. It's what's happening when people tell us their opponents are Exactly Like Hitler, or that they are homophobic, sexists, racists, TERFs, and a thousand other pejorative terms that are so common. It's a threat intended to convince you by making you afraid: if you believe it, we'll use those pejoratives against you, too.

This style of argument fails because the smear term eventually loses its fear value. Remember ‘deplorable’, ‘male chauvinist’, ‘sexist’, and ‘white supremacist’? These were all terms that people invented to scare others into agreeing with them. Their only effect was to create groups of people who were proud of the label. Anti-racists convince their audience that there is no such thing as racism, and even if there is the worst that can happen is that somebody calls you a tired, worn-out name.

This is why climate alarmists are losing the climate debates: ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ proved not to be scary enough, so rather than trying to present an actual case—which would involve actual work and might turn out to be impossible—activists had to keep inventing newer, scarier terms. What actually happened was the opponents found the new terms amusing and started ridiculing them.

Appealing to fear is the last resort of a failing argument. One paper in Nature Climate Change claimed that 467 things, all of them bad and scary, were certain to occur because of global warming. Another academic last week claimed that fully half the species of plants and animals on Earth will go extinct by 2070. The amount of evidence required to prove that 467 things are happening or that half of the 8,700,000 species on the planet are going extinct would be astronomical. These aren't scientific conclu­sions. They're not even real arguments; they're unsupportable claims intended to incite fear.

Short version: arguing by trying to create fear isn't bad just because labeling and making unsubstant­iated claims are bad. It's bad because it's not an argument at all.

3. Arguing from Undefinable Concepts

An undefinable concept is one that has no shared definition. It can only be described in vague terms that refer to the original concept itself. Two common examples are God and free will.

People have argued for centuries about both God and free will, but no one can say for sure what they really are or even whether they really exist. Free will is sometimes defined as ‘intentional behavior unconstrained by necessity or fate; the ability to act at one's own discretion.’ Another definition is ’the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.’ These aren't definitions so much as descriptions because they don't answer the question of how or whether we can choose, which is the essence of free will.

There are other definitions of free will, such as the legal sense, where you have free will if no other person is telling you what you can and can't do. But almost nobody cares about those.

God and free will might sound unrelated, but as I will show, if you start an argument with an undefinable concept you can argue to any conclusion you want. Free will is one of those things that everybody wants to believe they have, but nobody knows what it means. In fact, it doesn't mean anything. It's undefinable.

Our behavior is either caused or uncaused. If it's uncaused, whether by purely random phenomena like quantum mechanics or by uncontrolled forces, then we have by definition no control over it, and it's not intentional behavior. If our behavior is caused, then it's controlled by whatever causes it, irrespective of whether it is our genetic programming or a sequence of neurons firing inside our heads, and we are not really free. Even our thoughts are constrained by our knowledge, by logic, and by all our previous thoughts and memories. We can't just think anything we want. We can only think things that our brains allow us to think.

Some people argue that if our minds are mere computers, then everything we think is one of two things: an instinct pre-programmed by evolution, or a collection of conditioned responses programmed into us by our environment. Therefore, unbeknownst to ourselves, we have no free will.

At this point, they'll typically argue that because we “know” we have free will (since the alternative is too terrible to contemplate—an argument from fear), there must be something more to our minds than these pre-programmed responses, perhaps a soul or a spark of the divine, but certainly something immaterial and supernatural. From this, it's easy to conclude that immaterial spirits are real. These immaterial beings must come from somewhere, therefore God must exist.

What has happened is that they started from a premise that has no actual meaning, which allows them to conclude whatever they want.

Likewise, when someone gets halfway through their essay and suddenly they start talking about God, unless the article is about theology it means they've run out of convincing arguments. Unless they can prove they are God himself—which is not so easy—we have no sure way of evaluating their claims.


Why do people do this? Why would someone try to politicize a scientific issue or use a self-refuting argument, knowing it will automatically fail? Is it laziness or are they unaware that their logic is unconvincing? In many cases, the reason is that they know the facts are against them, and they hope the reader is too stupid to figure it out.

When a writer relies on an ill-defined concept without telling us what they actually mean, we cannot evaluate the truth of their claim. And as with all self-refuting arguments, in all likelihood that's just the way the writer likes it.

feb 22 2020, 5:31 am

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