Thinking critically about critical reasoning

February 10, 2014

After observing a comment exchange with a classic (to my eye) misuse of an ad hominem accusation, I was moved to ask whether there were critical reasoning classes that looked at more than good vs. fallacious arguments and took a more dialectical or even broader view. This got turned into a NewAPPS post by Ed Kazarian. There are some interested suggestions for books in the comments, and I hope to follow up on them. There is a ton of work and books on things like cognitive blindnesses, discussion, etc. but I don’t know if there’s a good text/hand book on, well, roughly, being a good (in a general sense) cognitively driven social being. Let me try an example. What’s wrong with:

If the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious.
The moon is made of cheese.
Therefore it is delicious.

If I think to my very old critical reasoning days, the diagnosis would be that this is valid but unsound with the second premise being definitely false and the first being dubious (but it might be hard to articulate exactly what’s dubious about it). But let’s compare it to:

We all agree, I’m sure, that if the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious
As everyone knows, the moon is made of cheese.
Therefore it is delicious.

This version is somehow worse, though the logic is probably the same. It depends a bit on the reading of “We all agree, I’m sure” and the “As everyone knows”. It might be false that we all agree, that I’m sure we do, and that everyone knows without the core argument being either unsound or invalid. None of these decorations alter the logical force or truth status of the moon/cheese argument. Yet, the second could be much worse, or, at least, irritating to me. The decorations are designed to incline us against questioning the premises. This could be good if it would be a waste of time to investigate them, or a big problem if they are in contention. They could be a problem just by triggering a lot of discussion about the truth (or appropriateness) of the decorations and thus potentially derailing the discussion.

After observing a comment exchange with a classic (to my eye) misuse of an ad hominem accusation, I was moved to ask whether there were critical reasoning classes that looked at more than good vs. fallacious arguments and took a more dialectical or even broader view. This got turned into a NewAPPS post by Ed Kazarian. There are some interested suggestions for books in the comments, and I hope to follow up on them. There is a ton of work and books on things like cognitive blindnesses, discussion, etc. but I don’t know if there’s a good text/hand book on, well, roughly, being a good (in a general sense) cognitively driven social being. Let me try an example. What’s wrong with:

If the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious.

The moon is made of cheese.

Therefore it is delicious.

If I think to my very old critical reasoning days, the diagnosis would be that this is valid but unsound with the second premise being definitely false and the first being dubious (but it might be hard to articulate exactly what’s dubious about it). But let’s compare it to:

We all agree, I’m sure, that if the moon is made of cheese,

As everyone knows, the moon is made of cheese.

Therefore it is delicious.

Consider:

Look you fatuous idiot, if the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious.
Even a monster asshole like you knows that the moon is made of cheese.
Therefore it is delicious. I also hate you and all your works.

Of course, this does not instantiate the ad hominem fallacy. Indeed, there is no attempt at refutation. There is a lot of insult and denigration in this presentation, however. The first (“Look you fatuous idiot” speaks against the intellect of the interlocutor; the second speaks against their character; and the third just expresses what we might have figured out from the first two, i.e., that the speaker has a wee touch of animosity toward the listener.
But from what I recall of a standard critical reasoning perspective, the main thing you can say about this is that it’s a bit obscure and perhaps inciting. But these things might have a dialectical or community oriented focus. They may even, perhaps, be appropriate (it at least partially depends on 1) whether it is and taken as ironic and even friendly or 2) whether the hearer “deserves” it or 3) whether the overall effect is positive).
There are clearly some dialectical considerations in standard critical reasoning disucssions. Burden of proof is a dialectical notion. But consider this (glib) presentation of the related “fallacy“:

The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim, and is not upon anyone else to disprove. The inability, or disinclination, to disprove a claim does not render that claim valid, nor give it any credence whatsoever. However it is important to note that we can never be certain of anything, and so we must assign value to any claim based on the available evidence, and to dismiss something on the basis that it hasn’t been proven beyond all doubt is also fallacious reasoning.

This does not take into account anything about the relative positions of the discussants, the prima facie nature of the claims, or the ways that demands might be unfair, or otherwise problematic (except to point out that demand for conclusiveness is another fallacy).

In fact, we often do earn a presumptive credibility for unsupported claims and can lose the benefit of presumptive credibility for unsupported doubts. We can get or lose these credibilities unjustly or ineffectively (e.g., many problematic uses of authority involve giving too much presumptive credibility).
I feel that a lot of the philosophising I’ve encountered (and promulgated!) is not very sensitive to important aspects of individual and joint cognition over the mid to long haul. (Lots of people have observed this, cf. for example, loads of feminist critiques, among others.)

This makes me sad. When I was a brash young philosopher major, I said to people that I liked philosophy because it was the best way to learn how to think. This is so obviously bonkers, I’m rather ashamed to have thought it. This attitude doesn’t seem that uncommon.

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