MetaCognitions | Cynicism: Just Another Bias


There, I said it. Cynics who view their cynicism as an asset, of course, will disagree, self-assured in believing themselves perfectly realistic and objective, completely missing the fact of their own self-deception. I will be accused of crippling naiveté. Of bias.

But that doesn’t even pass a basic prima facie, “On first face,” relevance test.

So I’m biased? So my views are skewed? So what? Who cares?

I’m biased. You’re biased. We’re all biased. Everyone is biased. To be human is to be biased. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. I’ll be up front with my biases: I’m pro-science, pro-rationality, pro-reality, pro-humanity, and anti-anything that dehumanizes or needlessly harms people.

We all view the world through a subjective lens, evaluating and passing judgment to everything and anything we come across without even knowing we’re doing it. Much of it is below the level of our conscious awareness. And there’s no way we know to step outside of our own individual brains save for the methods of science.

Complete certain knowledge about the world and perfect objectivity are impossible. Our brains and senses just don’t work that way. And to see the world and everyone and everything in it as fundamentally hopeless, ultimately futile, and irredeemably rotten is simply applying another set of value judgments, though destructively negative ones. 

I’m reasonably sure that if I had all of the same genetic contributions to my personality, all of the same upbringing, all of the same environment and life experiences of a staunch cynic, I would very likely be one now.

But I have not. Yet, I myself struggle daily with the temptation to cynicism to which our 24-7 news cycle culture subjects us. Clearly, that struggle is part of being human also. Some lose that struggle, and these deserve empathy and understanding, not the contempt they offer others, and not the loathing they often offer themselves.

If that sounds condescending or offensive, then consider this: Anything ever written or said will offend someone, and I don’t have the right to infringe on anyone’s freedom of thought to even try dictating for them what that might be. It’s out of my hands what any given person finds offensive. My point is, though, that I’m not condescending anyone. 

I’ll make the presumption here that most reading this are adults, or young and almost-adults, and should have thick skins in proportion to their own level of personal maturity. To treat others as functionally children by pandering to their feelings seems to me the epitome of condescension.

So, here’s why I’m throwing shade on cynicism as an alleged asset, virtue, or worldview: 

Cynicism means you’ve given up. Cynicism is surrender to bitterness, to an attitude of feigned superiority, and to contemptuousness. Cynicism is a cheap excuse for inaction, for fatalism, and for moral cowardice. In what universe are those anything but destructive?

All things pass, even the terrible things people sometimes do to each other. I do not have any use for a worldview that tells me that everyone by default is lying to or manipulating me and everyone else. Just because the world seems like an awful place doesn’t mean it ought to be, or that it’s useless to do something, anything, to make it less awful. Trying to make the world a better place is not a mere easily dismissed utopian faerie tale. Human effort applied unwisely causes our woes, human effort applied wisely can fix them.

I do not believe that human beings are fundamentally depraved. I view most of us as a mix of both good and evil, both right and wrong, both moral angels and devils at various times. We are all people, and people are complicated. 

I see people as having some worth, and the ability for some measure of good, skeptical thinking, a healthy blend of scientific literacy and critical thinking, though not as innately talented. It’s more of a capacity, a potentiality, and something we must learn as a skillset to do well in order to come to a more accurate, better, more useful view of the world and of ourselves. 

Good thinking ought in my view to be for everyone. It’s empowering. It’s illuminating. Good thinking is almost a kind of super-power. It’s even better than being able to throw silly comic book energy-bolts at people’s heads. It can be used for nearly everything in life. To me, it opens the gates to reality, the gates to wonder, and it’s also great fun.

Why say this? 

Because I can. Because I believe I should. To do something more useful than to merely shake my fist and simply rail and curse the night. Because I see people, even those I know and care for, fall prey some kind of pseudoscience, specious political claim, or fallacious health scare. And it’s not because they are somehow gullible, or stupid, or weak. 

Oh, no, it’s just not that simple!

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m gullible. There are times when I’m far too trusting, far too easily swayed by spurious argumentation, and I believe many things that I cannot possibly prove objectively. I have to watch myself daily, hourly, and despite this, I sometimes fail.

To blame the deceived for their own deception is to ignore the fact that we can all be fooled at a vulnerable moment by anyone who knows how to push our buttons. We are best of all at pushing our own buttons. To be human is to be vulnerable, no matter how smart we may think we are. To think ourselves immune to that is to ignore our own vulnerability, and we cannot be vigilant against a foe that we ignore. 

To blame the victim is cynical, and with the sense of false superiority that comes with it, that cynicism makes us lower our guard. Ironically, even con artists can be conned, especially by other con artists who know what hooks them. Cynicism easily leads to being used and manipulated, despite its frequently implied justification of defending the cynic from being used and manipulated.

I think that good thinking is a much better defense against the dark arts of scam artists, pandering politicians, and fraudsters than cynical thinking, which only makes you more vulnerable, not less.

And those, I think, are reasons enough.

(This post has been updated on 8/1/2019, 14:50)

Mr. Eccles Presents | Mindscape: David Chalmers on Consciousness, Etc.


Blog post with show notes, audio player, and transcript: https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/…

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/seanmcarroll

The “Easy Problems” of consciousness have to do with how the brain takes in information, thinks about it, and turns it into action. The “Hard Problem,” on the other hand, is the task of explaining our individual, subjective, first-person experiences of the world. What is it like to be me, rather than someone else? Everyone agrees that the Easy Problems are hard; some people think the Hard Problem is almost impossible, while others think it’s pretty easy.

Today’s guest, David Chalmers, is arguably the leading philosopher of consciousness working today, and the one who coined the phrase “the Hard Problem,” as well as proposing the philosophical zombie thought experiment. Recently he has been taking seriously the notion of panpsychism.

We talk about these knotty issues (about which we deeply disagree), but also spend some time on the possibility that we live in a computer simulation. Would simulated lives be “real”? (There we agree — yes they would.)

David Chalmers got his Ph.D. from Indiana University working under Douglas Hoftstadter.

He is currently University Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University and co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness.

He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Among his books are The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, The Character of Consciousness, and Constructing the World.

He and David Bourget founded the PhilPapers project.

Mr. Eccles Presents | Sci-fi and Philosophy


This is episode 87 of the Ra-Men vodcast, hosted by YouTuber Aron Ra, and here featuring his recent interview with one of my favorite philosophy professors, David Kyle Johnson. He’s the same gent who taught the Great Courses course I’ve reviewed a bit back, The Big Questions of Philosophy, and here he’s discussing the latest offering of his from the Great Courses, Sci-Phi, Science Fiction as Philosophy. He and Aron go over the outline of the course, as well as addressing a few essential points, two of which include the existence of knowable facts, and that apologetics is at best philosophy done badly, its abuse and in method its antithesis; that even if we do exist in a computer simulation, said simulation is reality for us, a reality with its own rules and its own facts, though everything would exist in digital form as bits in a server. Professor Johnson notes the importance of philosophy, how it gave rise to all other intellectual disciplines, and even now has use in the modern age.

One thing I’ve noticed about apologetics, and Johnson points this out, is that it always, without fail, operates on the basis of an agenda to defend, often religious, though I personally know at least one political apologist, have read many in my time, and have locked horns once with another (Here’s looking at you, Tobin). Apologetics is unconcerned with such niceties as a search for knowledge over error, of getting one’s facts right and using cogent reasoning, or with rigorous thinking and a deep understanding of concepts. It is instead concerned with the sowing and perpetuation of confusion over clarity, fallacies over good reasoning, and twisting the facts beyond recognition to support whatever agenda is at play, rationalizing backward from the conclusion by shoehorning the premises to support it.

That being said, I love debates and listen to or watch them often, but they are not for me to engage in personally, not yet, at least. I’m an inexperienced public speaker, tend to get emotional in an argument, and I’m easily annoyed, not thinking myself particularly kindhearted when faced with an arguer who shows that they are not willing to abide by the rules of good rhetoric, logic, or dialogue, and have nothing of any evident value to teach me from their perspective. I try to avoid arguing with anyone online, much less in meatspace, almost never to folks I don’t know, rarely with those I do, and prefer to do any argument through the medium of a blog post, or more abstractly, through my stories in published fiction. That’s good for offsetting my fight-or-flight response, and keeping my thinking clear. This is why I don’t debate apologists, including those who try to pass themselves off as philosophers. I find apologists who pull what they erroneously think to be unimpeachable philosophizing in a serious debate incredibly annoying. They argue dishonestly, as per the nature of apologetics, and I refuse to debate anyone who argues in bad faith, obviously so to anyone who is logically and rhetorically literate and not operating under the agenda to defend a presupposed conclusion.

Anyhoo, the interview lasts for about 30 minutes, and it’s quite good. Both Ra and Johnson are articulate, knowledgable, and a lot of fun to listen to. That’s something worth aspiring to in time, and with practice.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Here are the show notes (via Aron Ra):

Interviewing Professor David Johnson of Kings College about his Great Courses–Exploring Metaphysics and The Big Questions of Philosophy and Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (buy it on DVD/CD or stream it):

http://www.thegreatcourses.com/sciphi Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (Audible Audiobook): https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Phi-Scienc…

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (DVD from Amazon as of Jun 4th: https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Phi-Scienc…

“The Great Courses Plus” (Smartphone App: Has “The Big Questions of Philosophy” and should have “Sci-Phi” by June 25). https://www.thegreatcoursesplus.com/apps

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (On iTunes): https://itunes.apple.com/us/audiobook… Here is the websites for my other courses (which are also available as audiobooks, etc.):

Big Questions of Philosophy: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/cours…

Exploring Metaphysics: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/cours…

Here is a link to his article on Craig: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl…

And here is my article on (open letter to) Bill Nye: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl… Writing the letter is what actually got me the opportunity to speak to him. It was my “Big Questions of Philosophy” course that convinced him to love philosophy—especially the first four lectures. He emailed me to thank me and everything.

You could also direct them to my two blogs:

Plato on Pop: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl…

A logical Take: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/bl…

Category Nonprofits & Activism

Project Logicality | The Non Sequitur Fallacy


What’s going on when the reasons we give to support or refute a statement have no relation to it at all? What is the fundamental error of reasoning underpinning almost all logical fallacies, and when does this represent special cases?

Here we discuss the general fallacy of the Non Sequitur, Latin for does not follow.

This can generally refer to any sort of logical fallacy, any argument where a logical connection between premises is implied that just isn’t there.

This fallacy is often found with other forms of invalid reasoning in the very same statement. Here’s a couple of handy examples of the most common form:

Our cult shall be feared by all, for Azathoth is freakin’ scary when annoyed.

Human-caused global warming is impossible, because it’s cyclical, the ozone hole over the antarctic is closing, cow farts, and Mars is warming too, not just the earth.

But there are more specific named forms of this fallacy as well:

The Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle:

In which a conclusion is incorrectly drawn from two given or assumed premises, and takes the form of:

All Xs are Cs.

A is a C.

So, A is an X.

An obviously ridiculous example would be:

All birds generate their own body heat.

My cats generate their own body heat.

My cats are birds.

There is…

…Denying the Antecedent:

Which takes the form of:

If C is true, then D is true.

C is false.

So, D is also false.

A good example would be:

If I am in ancient Athens, I’m in Greece.

I’m not in ancient Athens.

So, I’m not in Greece.

This is absurd, as there are many locations and times in Greece other than Athens or the Ancient period. There is also…

…Affirming the Consequent:

which takes the form:

If C is true then D is true.

D is true.

So C is true.

An example:

If my Senior Technician intends to transfer me to another project, she’ll have a talk with the Program Director.

My Senior Technician is going to talk with the Program Director.

She wants to get me transferred to another project.

This last is clearly an example of invalid reasoning because the Senior Tech could be seeing the Program Director for entirely different reasons than those given.

One problem people sometimes have with this fallacy is that it can be subtle, and they are often too proud to speak out when they cannot see how an argument follows, or are too polite to point out its lack of relevance to the speaker.

It’s important to more specifically pick out what is being said even as a less general sort of fallacy, including the non sequitur’s aforementioned variants.

So be careful that what facts you bring to an argument are actually relevant to the point you’re trying to make. Otherwise, it may just fail the application of the “so what” test!

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Fully Updated, Retitled, Broken Links Removed on 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | The Appeal to Force


 Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48

(This post contains rough language, and at least one rather graphic example, not particularly kid-friendly, is provided. Then, this is not a kid-friendly blog, so no biggie.)

What happens when the threat of force is used as an argument? Is such use valid? If so, when?
Here we discuss the appeal to force, just for the sake of annoying pedantry, the argument from the cudgel, or the ad baculum fallacy.

It’s an informal, language-derived argument, often an irrelevant appeal, to compel compliance or even merely seeming agreement with a claim using force or its threat, whether physical, psychological, or legal.

It may be thought of as a subset of the argument from final consequences, and in a simple and slightly vulgar formulation basically amounts to:

Agree with me and do as I say, or I’ll kick your f**king *ss!

Or a bit less crudely,

Agree that I’m right because I’m badder and meaner than you are and I can light you up!

There’s also:

Do as I say, not as I do …or else!

That last might also double as an argument from authority, it and the ad baculum both being not-so-subtle forms of bullying.

It’s a fallacy when the threat implied or expressed used has no valid relation to the claim. It aims to exploit a demand for submission to authority or fear to substitute for good argument.

This is probably apocryphal, but there’s a classic example I’ve seen in one of my Great Courses lectures, of something attributed to Hitler, on hearing the then Pope’s displeasure with his policies, in which he allegedly said:

“…and how many tanks does the Pope have?”

Not exactly a rhetorical question.

But that nicely illustrates the use of this argument in exploiting the idea that ‘might makes right.’

Another example of this is Pascal’s wager, with its choice, actually a false dichotomy, of theistic belief while supposedly losing nothing and maybe winning everything, or non-belief and the supposed risk if ‘wrong,’ whatever that means. There are many unstated assumptions going into the wager without independent support, which if not presupposed undermine Pascal’s case, but I won’t deal with that here.

An ad baculum argument can have valid applications, as when the threat made directly relates to the claims and not just to overthrow discussion by substituting intimidation or fear for real justification of a claim.

There are those criminal penalties imposed as punishment in various legal systems. This includes crimes like theft, fraud, murder, and treason, with such penalties as narfling the Garthok, or maybe being consigned to Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor pit for making awful movie references on this blog.

Ouch.

For example:

If you read the forbidden (and completely made-up) haiku collection ‘Reflections on Infinity,’ horrible and nasty critters (equally fictitious) from the Outer Void (as made-up as the first two) will show up and slowly eat your brain. Attracting the attention of such horrors can be horrific, worse than death, as madness comes while they eat your brain. To best avoid this unpleasant fate, you must not read ‘Reflections on Infinity.’

Okay, so that was a little over the top.

With many arguments, sometimes using fallacies or not, valid or invalid use depends on context. The use of it for furthering is valid and invalid for squelching reasonable discussion.

Most such fallacies are not simple and easy matters of the argument structure. They depend on meaning bound up in language, which is not merely decorative filler as with formal logic.

Content matters. With informal arguments, content and meaning are structure.

One final note as well: an argument may be formally valid in terms of structure, yet informally invalid, committing a fallacy, or several fallacies, in the exact same statement.

So we must examine our assumptions going into an argument, and our reasoning to our conclusions on two fronts, both formally and informally.

And that, I think, goes a bit further to making us better, smarter thinkers, and more skillful with our reasoning as a means of self-defense for the mind in a post-truth world.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Project Logicality | Slippery Slopes & False Continua


Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48Are chains of causation inexorable and dire? Does a continuum between extremes mean that neither extreme differs, or that one of those extremes doesn’t exist?

Here, we’ll discuss the Slippery Slope, and the two False Continua, similar arguments though representing causal and semantic versions respectively.

But first I’ll deal with its causal version, the Fallacy of the Beard, also the Camel’s Nose fallacy. The first name comes from an analogy with the greying of a man’s beard, in which the amount of grey is small at first, but inevitably progresses until the entire beard is grey. The second name comes from a fable in which a camel is permitted by its owner to stick its nose in the tent for warmth from the cold desert night air, quickly followed by the entire camel, who crowds its owner out of the tent and into the cold.

The slippery slope asserts that a position or claim is unacceptable because if accepted, its worst extreme must inevitably follow, without sound reasons as to how or why this must be.

It’s a fallacy that’s both committed and labels itself as an argument strategy at the same time, with the use of such opening phrases as “It’s a slippery slope if…” or “It sets a bad precedent when…” and so on.

A superficially similar form of argument can be a strong line of reasoning when the chain of inference is laid out and each link logically follows, but the fallacy refers to the specious usage, as below:

The public teaching of comparative religion leads to awareness of religious diversity, then to religious doubt, then to agnosticism, then to atheism, then to anti-theism, then to nihilism, then to moral degeneracy, then inevitably to the disintegration of a society in total anarchy, so we don’t want comparative religion courses taught in our public schools.

Beside the fact that the evidence just doesn’t bear this ridiculous chain of consequences out, note here that no supporting reasons or other justification are ever provided as to why this chain must be true.

The Vagueness, or False Continuum, is below, used in two ways:

One version attempts to argue that concepts B and E shade into each other along a continuum without any fine dividing line between them, so they are the same thing, that no distinction exists.

But it just doesn’t follow that:

There is no difference between blue light and yellow light, despite no sharp dividing point in wavelengths in the visible spectrum.

Nor does it follow that:

There is no separation between humid or dry weather when the moisture in the air at any one time and place varies in degree from high to low.

The second variant is used to argue that concept B differs so little from concept E with no fine line between them, that concept E simply doesn’t exist. As for this one, it doesn’t follow that:

Truth doesn’t exist because of the continuum between truth and falsehood. The concept of truth is without any objective reference. It’s all falsehood, and we don’t know a thing!

These two fallacies, causal and semantic, are distinct, but they are mentioned together here as the use of the semantic version can and does often lead to the commission of the causal version. Their joint use implies that a slip from position or claim B to E is inevitable because of the lack of a fine point of separation between them.

The tricky thing about fallacies like these, often used by postmodernists and political buffs with conspiratorial leanings, is that they are common in social discourse, especially in academic settings like the Humanities, and oddly hard to recognize as specious while committing them oneself.

Learn to note them, and picking them out reliably becomes easier with practice, even to avoiding the temptation to use them in your own arguments, which is always a plus.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Updated 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | Reducing to Absurdity


Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48What happens when we carry a train of reasoning to its ultimate extreme, far past the reaches of sanity to the realm of the patently absurd? Here, we discuss such an argument in informal logic, borrowed from formal mathematical reasoning, and here known as the Reductio ad Absurdum.

In formal logic it may be used to show an argument’s claim to be false by following it to its ultimate logical conclusion, revealing a contradiction, an absurdity, or it may be used as a form of Straw-Man argument, known here as the False Reductio. I’ll deal first with the latter.

This works by forcing a conclusion that while absurd, doesn’t use the actual reasoning of the original argument, such as:

If you’re skeptical of the existence of UFOs, Bigfoot, and ancient aliens, then you must also be skeptical of the existence of the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, and the Empire State Building, since you’ve never been there to see those places.

This is fallacious because the proportional nature of the claims requires proportional standards of evidence. The criteria for each differ, and the argument itself ignores the use of evidence other than anecdotal testimony and grainy, low-resolution, or obviously photoshopped videos and photos.

Here is one of my favorites:

If you don’t believe in psychic abilities then you also disbelieve in dark matter and dark energy, so 90% of the Universe does not exist to you because you haven’t seen those either.

Again with ignoring evidence other than personally witnessing something. Also, it fails to consider the fact that though there is some question as to what dark matter and dark energy are, they have been reliably observed by their effects on the visible universe itself, and the evidence shows that they are real. Clearly, elusive supernormal psychic abilities and invisible but indirectly observable astrophysical phenomena are not analogous.

But all is not without a ray of light in the dark. There is an informally valid and intellectually honest use of this as well, to highlight the fallaciousness of some extraordinary claims. Here, the actual train of logic of the original argument is kept intact.

Here are a couple of silly claims I’ve come across:

The ancient Egyptians could not have built the pyramids without alien or Atlantean help. They were far too primitive a civilization.

 

In order to know what a human skeleton looks like, the Maya and Aztecs must have been given X-ray machines by ancient astronauts.

Such claims reek not only of thinly disguised racism and colonialist arrogance, but stupidity and historical shortsightedness as well. Typical of most of the claims of pseudo-archaeology, especially where ancient non-whites are not given due credit for their accomplishments.

And skeletons? Come on, that’s just silly!

Meh!

Here, we may apply the same train of logic to what the proponents of these ideas, mostly whites of Western descent, dare not apply it to: historical Europeans:

How could the Medievals possibly have had the intelligence to invent such marvels as the crossbow, stained glass windows, steel armor and weapons, and those massive cathedrals! They had to get their technology from aliens, because they were too inept to come up with them on their own! They must have gotten medical imaging technology from the aliens too, because Medieval art has lots of skeletons in it, and how could they have possibly known what those looked like without using it?

Absurd? Clearly it is, and in retaining as closely as can be the reasoning of the original applied to another subject, it shows that.

A side note: Technology is cumulative, and evolves over time, with earlier, precursor technologies leading to better, more advanced ones, with archaeological remnants to show this progression, no matter the location, or ethnic and cultural makeup of the civilization. This is true even dating as far back as the Paleolithic with stone tools.

Never underestimate human genius. There exists brilliance in every human era, with no need to gift early peoples with technology from super-civilizations for such tasks as constructing even impressive monuments, which require only engineering, tools, and social organization which we know they had, as opposed to the claims of pseudo-historians in massive, and dare I say, monumental, arguments from ignorance.

But I digress.

Reason is a tool. Use it well and it will serve you reliably, leading to the acquisition of more true conclusions than false ones. But abuse it, and the content of the claims you accept and promote becomes much more prone to error. Especially when you misrepresent the chain of another’s reasoning for ideological ends.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017.06.06)