Abelard for Today

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Pierre Abelard, Sicet Non, 1130

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

Use Systematic Doubt andQuestion Everything

The most common application of this principle is the dictum that argumentsfrom authority have no value. The mere fact that someone in authority saidsomething is no guarantee it is correct. Any source that claims infallibilitystill has to submit every single statement to scrutiny. After all, maybe thesource 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 recallthe O. J. Simpson trial. Questioning everything doesn't preclude the possibilityof 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 BetweenProof and Persuasion

If we really did this as a society, would the advertising industry be morethan 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, bythe way, pretty much what advertising consisted of before the 20th century.

Would we be having the endless debate over campaign finance reform if peopledid 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, whererecording companies paid radio stations to air certain songs. I was alwayspuzzled by these, because I could never figure out what business this was of anygovernment agency. Even more, however, I could never see how any amount of air playcould make a bad song good. If the song was irritating enough, I can even seehow it would reduce a station's audience.

Let's get to the root of the problem. Payola and campaign finance areproblems because we have a superficial society of people who don't think forthemselves. External targets are tempting because they are easy targets, butunless the root cause is addressed, nothing will change. (Suggested remedy:electronic balloting. Before you vote, you have to answer ten questions pickedrandomly from the questions asked of prospective new citizens. Less than eightcorrect, your vote doesn't count.) Ten-second sound bites will stop being aninstrument of political campaigns when they stop getting results. We'll get indepth news coverage when the McNeill-Lehrer News Hour out-draws the networknews. We'll get quality TV when PBS out-draws the networks.

Be precise in use of words, andexpect precision of others

In the 1960's, California had an ultra-conservative superintendent ofeducation called Max Rafferty. I once saw an article about him posted on abulletin board in which he defended himself against accusations of racism bynoting things he had done to improve minority education, his hiring of minorityemployees, and so on. Someone sarcastically wrote in "so therefore he's nota racist!"

Yes - if he doesn't espouse racism or practice it, therefore he's not aracist. 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 thathas come to mean merely whatever its user wants it to mean, but buzzwords ingeneral 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 askwho you think you are saying that someone is or is not a Christian. C. S. Lewistook on this platitude in Mere Christianity, pointing out that the broaddefinition of "Christian" had every virtue except utility. By making"Christian" merely a synonym for "nice person" we create aredundant term while depriving ourselves of a term for someone who holds aparticular body of beliefs.

Watch for error, even in HolyScripture

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

Anatomy of a SubstantiveArgument

As I look at popular culture and the writings of my students, Iam convinced that the vast majority of Americans have no idea what a logicalargument 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 nounsand 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 elementof a logical chain proves the whole thing. Sometimes this is true. If a chain isproven except for one link, proving that last link completes the chain. If achain of reasoning has one link disproven, the chain is disproven; youcannot get to the final objective via that route. But the ultimate point maystill be true. For example, Piltdown Man was once considered evidence that manevolved from an ape-like ancestor. Piltdown Man has been discredited. Thereforethe logical chain invoking Piltdown Man as an intermediate between humans andapes 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 anape-like ancestor. But there are other logical chains involving other fossilsthat are still valid. So the ultimate point is still true: man evolved froman ape-like ancestor.

It's like traveling. If there's only one road from A to B, and a bridge isout, you can't get there. If there are many routes, finding the bridge out is aninconvenience but doesn't prevent you from making the trip. However, findingthat a bridge is not out doesn't prove that the entire road is open. To get fromA 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'swhat you have to do to logical chains. Every single link has to be identifiedand 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 ofTurin, a linen strip with the imprint of a person that was widely believed to bethe burial shroud of Christ. Radiocarbon dating has revealed it to be medievalin age. Before the dating, some religious believers considered the shroudirrefutable proof of the Gospel accounts of Christ's resurrection. Theinteresting thing is that anti-religious skeptics, instead of doing whatskeptics ought to do, which is analyze the logical chain piece by piece, reactedwith something very much like panic, wholly out of proportion to the evidence.

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

Break any link, and the Shroud no longer makes its case. So, even if theshroud is the actual burial shroud of Christ, all we have is a historicalrelic connected to a famous person. The most critical link, the final one, isnot proven. The physical evidence is equally consistent with resurrection orwith the body being removed. I've seen a hair claimed to be from the beard ofMohammed, 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'tdisprove Mohammed's claims, merely that someone misrepresented a hair. If theshroud 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 eachothers' package deal arguments rather than critically analyzing them (if theywere 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 theyare offended by a statement proves something. The fact that someone isoffended proves only that someone is offended - it does not prove thatthe offense is justified. And even if the offense is justified, thatdoesn't prove the offended party is right. Some people deserve to beoffended. Maybe the offense means the person's value system is a mess and needsto be reorganized.

Some people like to announce pompously that they "reject" someparticular 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 Closingof the American Mind to a large group of faculty here. Then we got togetherand acted it out. It was called a "discussion," but that's whatactually happened. One person at my table noted that Bloom had "aconservative view of human nature" and was "hostile to the women'smovement" as if those labels constituted proof of something instead ofbeing mere descriptions.

Wishing Doesn’t Make it So

What exactly does anyone gain by clinging to a demonstrably false idea? Atbest a false sense of security. At worst, reality may be sneaking up behind himready to have him for lunch (two words: Soviet Union). What can you possiblylose 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 theprospect that the ideology is false. Substantive arguments preserve logicand data. Most people try to preserve ideology. I love the saying"true science can never conflict with religion," as if there were nosuch thing as false religion.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Watch any TV court show and you can see this process at work. Two neighborshave a quarrel. When Judge Judy asks for proof, the plaintiff will cite everygrievance he or she has ever had. The plaintiff feels that because he's got acomplaint, anything that putsthe neighbor in a bad light proves what a rotten person the neighbor is, andtherefore proves his or her case. And the plaintiff will feel very hurt andwronged when the judge refuses to admit the evidence as irrelevant. When alawyer 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 mydog, therefore he's a rotten person" might be hard to prove, so many peopletry to prove the converse: "My neighbor is a rotten person, therefore hekilled 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 ThreeKings, 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 ofmy criticisms of the film was that it tried to portray an Iraqi officer as adecent person, despite the fact that he had only recently witnessed an atrocityand done nothing. My attacker replied with:

What's this?  You mean the moralUSA 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.  Ofcourse, there are wars in Africa where larger countries take their neighborsunprovoked, we don't seem to be losing much sleep over that. You'rekidding yourself if you think we helped Kuwait because we were worried aboutunchecked Iraqi aggression.  If Iraq had pulled off a Naval invasion ofSicily do you think we would've blinked.  Nope.  Why?  BecauseSicily doesn't have a darn thing that we need. ... Let me throw a few more phrases at youwhile 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 thinkwe're in any position to be judging the morality of any other country, given ourown history.

Man, everything but the kitchen sink here. So I took the guy on, point bypoint. What I should have done was pointed out that the issue was whether thefilm had degenerated into absurdity by trying to portray a coward and accompliceto murder in a good light, and that immoral actions by other people at othertimes and places do not affect the reality that this particular character was acoward 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 thatSaddam Hussein invaded a defenseless neighbor without any provocation. So mycritic went this route: "The U.S. is always wrong,  therefore the GulfWar was wrong."

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

A very similar logic crops up in discussions about crime. Some activists willpoint 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 theparticular victim of the crime ever harm the criminal? If the answer is no, if thatparticular individual had never harmed his attacker, then the attacker hadan obligation to reciprocate in kind. Period. Wholly apart from whatever otherpain or injustice the attacker had ever suffered, that individual hadnever wronged him, and he therefore owed that person the same dignity.

Scattergun attacks with irrelevancies are legion. Many people are so foggyabout logic they don't even understand why irrelevancies are irrelevant. They'llget 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 24 May 2020

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