LogicWarrior Demand Reason


The Faults of the Calorie Counting Myth

Summary: The myth of calorie counting states that small daily errors in counting calories will accumulate over time and over decades can amount to a large swing in weight and, since no one can count calories with sufficient accuracy, calorie counting should not be done.  This notion is unreasonable as it assumes one uses neither feedback mechanisms, nor any sort of adjustment to modify the actions the person takes like periodically checking the scale or noticing body changes.  Calorie counting can be a useful technique, but it has limitations.  Requesting people discard the tool because of this premise is arguing in bad faith.

Background: I first encountered the Calorie Counting Myth, the idea that weight change can not be accurately described as calories in minus calories expended throughout the day (the energy balance equation), on Windows Weekly hosted by Paul Thurrott.  He was reading "Why We Get Fat" and commenting on how calorie counting didn't work.  His argument, which I believe is repeated from the text, cites that to gain a pound a year, one only needs to eat one addition cracker a day .  Over time, this adds up and even an astute calorie counter can become overweight over decades.  Later, I read a Reader's Digest article “Is This Any Way to Lose Weight?” from the February 2011 edition which stated the following which I got from PrimalToad as the text is not available online directly.  This is a more detailed explanation of the "small errors build" of above and can be skipped:

Public health authorities want us to practice ‘energy balance,’ which is a new way to say that you shouldn’t take in more calories than you expend. So what does energy balance entail?

If you consume about 2,700 calories a day, which is typical if you average men and women together, that’s a million calories a year, or ten million calories in a decade. Over the course of a decade, you’re eating roughly ten tons of food. How accurately do you have to match calories-in to calories-out so that you don’t gain more than 20 pounds over the course of a decade? Because if you gain 20 pounds every decade, you’ll go from being lean in your 20s to obese in your 40s, which many of us do. And the answer is: 20 calories a day. If you take in an extra 20 calories a day and put it into your fat tissue, you will gain 20 pounds every decade.

The point is, nobody can match calories-in to calories-out with that kind of precision. Twenty calories is like a single bite of a McDonald’s hamburger. It’s a couple of sups of Coca-Cola or a few bites of an apple. No matter how good you are at counting calories, you can’t do it.

The Argument: I will restate the above argument in more rigorous terms:  "Were one to try to perfectly count calories through the common tools available to the dieter and were that dieter to strictly use calorie counting as the estimator of one's weight, over time that estimation would become inaccurate as small discrepancies between calories consumed and calories expanded mounted and thus this estimator should not be used."  Once we phrase it that way, the argument becomes a bit dubious.  No one just uses calorie counting as their sole gauge of weight, there are other tools one uses like a damn bathroom scale. To not weigh oneself would be the equivalent of determining when one should refuel by only reading the gas pump display and odometer and never looking at your fuel gauge. The bathroom scale is a feedback system that allows one to re-adjust and calibrate ones calorie counting just as the fuel gauge is a feedback system showing how to update one's estimation on the distance one can go until your tank is empty.  I found that over time, there was a 300 calorie error in my estimation of daily burn, once I compensated for this, I started again achieving the weight loss results I wanted.  This is a correction factor that will change over time, but that has made calorie counting a helpful weight loss tool.  The cause of this gap isn't entirely important as once I considered it, the gap between model and practice closed.  These correction factors aren't rare like "oh, the tank goes quickly once you hit half" or "this place says a pizza will feed 3 people but they're small so over-order".

Conclusion: Saying that calorie counting doesn't work is a misrepresentation of how calorie counting is actually used and is an example of the perils of oversimplification.  Calorie counting is a valid tool but is indeed useless to use in a vacuum which doesn't reasonably occur.

Assumptions I Make in the Above Post:

  • That Paul Thurrott accurately portrayed the sentiments of the author.
  • That people who are calorie counters also regularly weigh themselves.
  • That the proponents of the calorie counting myth don't also propose some alternative hypothesis which would show calorie counting not just to be the small and persistent inaccuracy I show is fine but some very large inaccuracy, for instance by saying that nutrition labels don't accurately model how the body burns calories.

Another Example: I was looking for examples of where uses a derived estimator coupled with a periodic observation of a parameter and found a neat one.  A lot of military robots use GPS to figure out where they are but often go into areas where GPS will either not work or where doing such, apparently, gives away the position of the item.  In these cases, the robot will determine its location by using accelerometers to derive how far its traveled since its last point.  These estimations become wildly inaccurate over time as determining position from acceleration requires double integrating and the robot must periodically relocate itself using GPS, if only for an instant.  Projecting a location based on position data plus the characteristics of movement is called dead reckoning and is an example of propagation of uncertainty, a term I now love.

Bias: I've used calorie counting among other tools to help me lose 85 lbs as of this initial post.  I couldn't reasonably think of how my belief that it's a reasonable tool would undercut the argument that it is misrepresented, but if the reader believes he or she has found such a way, please comment.


Money Is Time

"Time is Money" was first popularized by Benjamin Franklin [citation needed] and I've heard this countless times through my business education.  I am disappointed by our willingness to recognize that the opposite, "money is time", is also true and can help one lead a fulfilled life.  On a mathematical level, "is" translates to equivalence meaning it should go both ways; one would consider it foolish to say that "2+2=4" but "4≠2+2".  While I recognize that there are maths where associativity does not work, I think Peano arithmatic is the norm for most.  Let's explore.
Hidden Assumptions: "Time is money" implicitly focuses on the finiteness of the former but no only that, on some set finiteness.  There is an assumption seemingly that regardless of what we do, we will expire on a particular date, no matter how the time between then and now is filled which short reflection makes seem foolish.  If I spend some quantity of time each day improving my cardiovascular system I'll probably extend my life.  To take the argument to absurdity, one doesn't "waste time" when seeing a surgeon to have a ruptured appendix removed; one certainly gains it.  The time we have is finite but not specifically set and treating life as a candle burning at a constant speed ignores both science and reason in favor of some clockwork inhumanity.
The exact conversion assumes the perpetual ability to transform which is far from the case.  I can't convert the spare time I have when I can't sleep easily into money in the same way I can convert additional time during the day into wages nor is the exchange constant.  Money is fungible in a way that time isn't but really misses the point.  An equivalence that would get more to the point for me would be "money is satisfaction" or "time is enjoyment" which form dissociated statements that draw on another set of equivalences.
The Reverse:  "Pay for convenience" seems to be the closest implicit recognition to "money is time" as one pays for prepared foods or to have a 3rd party do chores.  The actions are obvious and pervasive but never seem to register as what they are, paying to get back time.  So, I think it's reasonably well proven that the equivalence worth boths ways or that at least there is an exchange with the heavy caveat that the two are not perfectly interchangeable.  So how do we run with this?
Valuing Time: In 2002, a British professor calculated the cost of "doing things yourself" and while the numbers have probably changed, I think the concept is valid.  Try pricing our your free time.  I value an hour to myself at about $12.  I came to this conclusion when I stopped judging Magic events that paid about $9 an hour and realized that the difference wasn't quite made up in enjoyment when I included the cost of little annoyances like dealing with panhandlers and a short lunch break.  Your number will be different, but once you have it, see where it takes you.
Another technique I used was trade on specialization.  I've recently taken to doing computer work for people in exchange for help with Scouting events and other tasks.  I've had a long-term project of updating the maps of Ockanickon, but I clocked this as taking at least 20 hours to do.  A Scout friend offered to do it if I repaired some computers he had so he could do the task.  Cleaning and debugging took about 4 hours and he's nearly finished the project for which I consider myself proximally responsible.  I take care of my housemate's photo collection in exchange for him cleaning the gutters.  Time can be traded both ways.
Valuing Money: When trying to figure out if something's worth it, include the whole cost.  I thought it was a good deal having Midas do my oil changes as they could do in an hour what it took me two, but I realized that I wasn't gaining back nearly as much time as I wished once I considered the time I lost often waiting.  I thought eating out saved time to use as a social endeavor but by just having guests present for food preparation, I feel I regained that time and saved part of the cost of the third party preparation.
Conclusion: Time is not an end in the same way money is not an end.  Both are resources consumed to deliver value and in different cases each will deliver more return than the other in a given case.  Awareness of this is another tool in the arsenal of realizing our values.

Underdetermination and You

Summary: Underdetermination occurs when a group of facts could be explained by multiple theories and a theory that has a rival theory in this case is said to be underdetermined.  Remembering underdetermination is a powerful way to avoid jumping to conclusions in cases where an immediate conclusion is not needed and reminds one of the important of context in forming conclusions.  Check your theories for underdetermination by seeing if another theory could explain present facts and if you find one, find an experiment that could separate the two.

Background on Underdetermination: I first ran into underdetermination when arguing with someone about the usage of science as a way to find out things about the world.  He retorted that most areas of knowledge were underdetermined and, I having no response to this, ceded that he had used argumentum ad dictionarium to win.  Underdetermination is simply the phenomenon whereby a given theory that is otherwise incompatible with another theory both explain a given set of facts.  Scientific examples of this are legion as underdetermination exists until one find the fact that is explained by one theory but not the other and experimentation allows one to sift out the invalid theory.  Underdetermination can also be taken to extremes to question all conclusions made from observation but that is beyond the scope of this piece.

Underdetermination is easy to spot when there are two theories, but much more difficult when there's only one.  How are we to know that the Newtonian model has the monopoly of truth on orbital mechanics?  Quite simply, we don't as there could be an equally valid theory that posited the same as Newtonian mechanics but only for our region of space and we'd have no way to dispel it.  Let's focus on systems that are a bit less abstract.

Underdetermination in Human Interactions:  Figuring out what's going on is hard and I'll use Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World as an example.

Copyright Wyeth Estate, used here for commentary.

The constellation of facts as presented is a woman in a field gazing towards a farmhouse.  When I first saw the piece I thought it was a statement about human aloneness, or the status of women, or rural life or some such thing, only later did I learn that the person depicted had her legs paralyzed from polio and crawling is the way she got around.  All my theories were underdetermined (each could be valid with the available facts) but that extra context ruled them all out.  The same thing happens when we interact with someone a limited number of times.  People are complicated and only over long periods can enough data be collected to create cogent narratives of how someone operates.  So, why not just say "don't jump to conclusions"?  Because this only hints at the depth of the phenomenon, and because sometimes you should.

The Cost of Underdetermination: If you're in a scenario with a high failure cost or one where the maximum amount of information available is low, running with an underdetermined theory is the best you can do.  I'd consider it unreasonable to wait until a realtor has sold a significant enough sample size of houses to draw a conclusion if one is planning on moving at a particular time so their five house track record may be enough but otherwise, waiting is almost always an option.

You meet someone at a party and decide they're a jerk after talking for about 10 minutes about music, but this could be caused by the person in question having had a bad day, you misreading the interaction, the topic of music being one on which you disagree, the other people in the group agitate you, or he indeed being a jerk.  But what's the cost of delaying that assessment?  It's a party so you'll mingle with other groups over time or move onto other topics and probably run into him again unless you make a conscious effort to avoid.  This second chance encounter allows you to potentially rule out topic, mood, and grouping all at a trivial cost.

Tactics: If you do find yourself in a case where two theories could explain something, ask "what would differentiate the two?"  I had a coworker who gave me stern looks when I shouted an expletive upon injuring myself or are test going awry so I assumed he didn't like curses but realized he may not like loud noises.  I tested this by just yelling "GHAAAAA" and I got the same look.  Until that test, there were two reasonable possibilities; not liking yelling, or no liking cursing and both were underdetermined until that test.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry

Wikipedia Entry on Christina's World


The Power of Removing Cliches

Summary: Cliches may seem like a shortcut but they can introduce holes in arguments and get discussions off topic.  If you find rigor important, cliches are not worth their word savings and a savvy audience will recognize them as a mark of laziness or tired writing.  Conversely, a cliche can be a wedge to cut into a poorly constructed argument or to attack hasty writing.

What's a cliche? A trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser,  or strong as an ox.  <wordporn>The term cliche comes from the name of a stencil or plate in certain types of printing and may be derived from the sound made in printing.</wordporn>

cliche. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved September 20, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cliche

Why do we see so many? Two reasons, poor writing, and poor revising.  Some cliches create a shortcut for the reader about the author like the phrases  sands of time, this day and age, march of history, winds of change all suggesting a certain historical agency or prophecy of the writer.  Regarding editing, Grammar Girl summed it up nicely "Clichés often appear in early drafts when you're trying to keep the writing going but you've run out of words to describe an action, event, or person."  If your argument is going to be submitted via text, do a check for them and replace cliches with another phrasing.  Internet discourse often involves hasty writing and eschews editing so cliches frequently appear.

Punish Arguments that Use Cliches

Ask for Specifics - Cliches  let one cheat by leveraging the manifold meanings of a word or phrase.  If someone says "society doesn't value the artist", society could refer to a culture, a specific class, pop media, some derisive title for tastemakers, or some other group entirely. The person may be trying to use a word in two difference senses at once such as stating that "society doesn't value the work of neo-post-industrial  slash-grindcore artist and society should pay for the creative work we do".  The first instance of society may refer to tastemakers while the second instance may refer to the population of consumers as a whole.  Ask "could please explain what you mean by society?" if the person's not thought about their definitions what they say may not jive with their usage.

Take Advantage of Context - If an argument uses a cliche as a shortcut, attack the terms of the shortcut.  Someone attacking Western consumerism may use the phrase "there are children starving in Africa" to point out resource waste caused by perceived excessive consumption but food shortages have many reasons.  A reply of "what does despotic government have to do with my new car?" or "yes, regional differences in climate can cause famine but I don't see how that relates to my rock garden".  "Starving in Africa" fails because the cultural knowledge is too high.

Avoiding cliches circumvents these vulnerabilities and with throw of an opponent who has prepared for them.  An advocate for capitalism may say "unhindered trade improves the lives of all it touches" the Africa cliche leaves open many holes and could be circumvented with "how has it helped the Mongolian cattle rancher whose fleece is sold worldwide but who has nothing beyond what fits in his yurt?"

Strategic Cliche Use

The Irony Reply - The most devastating reply leveraging cliches that I've seen occurred at Carpenter Hall during an taping of Justice Talking years ago. "You've said we need to do this 'for our children's future, to help mother earth, and for sustainable growth and have refused to provide data.  Please stop treating us like children".  I considered this a wonderful example of pointing out that an astute audience will frown upon the use of cliches and recognize them as an evasive tactic.

Strategic Vagueness - I consider this cheating but have found cases where I hadn't quite figured out the fine points of an argument, where the picture wasn't quite finished and I may not have been able to fill it in:

MC Escher "Print Gallery" - The area in the center is unfillable

A cliche is a fat marker to the fine-point pen of elegant reason.  The cliche taps the part of the mind that allows for historicity, tradition, and "conventional wisdom" which escapes the full light of reason.  Someone was attempting to convince me that President Obama was some sort of Commie Nazi and attempted to capitalize on my ignorance of his family history by simply saying "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" after suggesting that Obama's father was a radical of some stripe.  "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" is horseshit that is trivially refuted by anecdote of the dozens of case I've encountered with large generational differences.  If he said "children are like their parents" instead he probably would have been more aware of the failings of what he said and I would have been faster to point them out.

Twist of Phrase - Changing the phrasing can lead to some interesting alterations.  The pot calling the kettle metal, a penny saved is a penny not spent, when god gives you lemons you find a new god, like cars chasing dogs, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease but is the first to be replaced. These devices both fight cliches and the often faulty reasoning that enables them.


The Cult of Failure

The web 2.0 credo of "fail quickly" elevates the notion of failures to what I consider to be unsafe levels.  Failure as a method of education is valid only if it meets some basic criteria:

  1. The mechanism of failure is discernible - Cases where the mechanism of failure is not discernible lead to brute force scenarios.  Take for instance breaking a combination lock.  Each failure only reduces the solution space, succeeding after the 1000th try vs. the first leads to no gain in wisdom.
  2. The mechanism of failure is controllable - Many failures are caused by events beyond ones control.  If you're planing an event that's canceled due to a tornado warning, there's little learned by this failure.
  3. The cost of failure is low - I don't think anyone would want their surgeon, architect, or lawyer to learn by failure.

So, when can failure work as a learning tool?

  1. When it leads to efficiency -  Taking a cocktail of over the counter drugs to deal with a cold may "cure" most simple ailments but this solution will be neither healthy in the long term nor useful in figuring out specifically what was wrong.
  2. When the cost of prediction is high - Much time can be wasted trying to make the best decision.  At a former employer, 2 12-person meetings were spent determining which of two printers to buy.  Assuming the value of a person-hour of work was greater than $20, the cost difference between the two was less than the lost time.  In this case, the cost was time.
  3. When it advances the frontier or knowledge - The LHC may discern the Higgs Boson.  A much more interesting result may be not finding it as it would suggest the standard model may have fundamental errors.

I'd prefer the maxim "fail quickly" be replaced with "fail wisely".

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The Problem of Evil in Under 5 Minutes

WARNING! This entry is an "Under 5 Minutes" post meaning that it does an overview of a topic someone out there has probably spent their lives investigating or thinking about.  This post is a starting point and is not mean to be a talisman against people with doctorates in philosophy.  The "Under 5 Minutes" claim only applies to the summary.  I can wax idiotic for as long as I want after.

Summary: The classical powers of God are omniscience (all knowing), omnipotence (all powerful), and omnibenevolence (everything God does is good) and the existence of evil suggests these are not internally consistent.  If failing to prevent a harm that would be very easy to stop is bad, the existence of suffering by the guiltless (infants) means God is not omnipotent (can't stop the harm), God is not omniscient (can't see the harm), or God is not omnibonevolent (doesn't think the harm is bad).

Exposition: I am more annoyed by internal inconsistency than basal faith.  I was talking with someone on the porch of Foster Hall and as his theory of how to explain away the Synoptic Problem (Why the Gospel don't agree on everything) he shrugged his shoulder and said "God can do anything" (omnipotence: check).  Earlier he said "God knows everything" (omniscience: check), so I went for closure by asking "is God all good?" to which he said "yes" (omnibenevolence: check).  I decided to press the point.

In More Detail - Definitions

Omniscience: All knowing, knowning everything that can be known.  Modified Definition that Invalidates Argument: Knowing everything that one chooses to know, meaning able to restrict one's own knowledge.

Omnipotence: All powerful, able to do anything.  There are a few flavors like pure agency where God can do literally anything even if not logically possible like create 4-sided triangles or create a burrito so hot he can't lift it.  Modified Definition that Invalidates Argument: Able to do anything that's consistent with the being's nature.  For instance, if a being is the omnipotent eidolon of forgiveness it couldn't hold a grudge.

Omnibenevolence: All good, infinite capacity for kindness.  Modified Definition that Invalidates Argument:  1) Rather than good defining the being, the being defines good.  If an omnibenevolent being did something we'd view as wrong, we simply had the wrong definition of wrong.  2) Rather than infinite capacity for kindness, the being merely has perfect morality.  God could have perfect morality and it could be the case that it is not a moral action to interfere with natural events.

In More Detail - Assumptions

  • God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent (I love that word).
  • We use the listed definitions above (or something close to it).
  • Failing to prevent a harm is a bad thing.  An infant or small child is left to sit on the edge of a fountain and, not having motor control, falls in.  I think the morally aware person would consider failing to rescue the infant to be a lapse of morality and more importantly wrong.
  • There is such thing as perfect innocence meaning that there are people that can be in a state that no harm that could come to them would be considered just or right; I think most people would put infants in this category.

In More Detail - The Argument

God often is called all-knowing, all-poweful, and all-good so the question is, how can there be evil?  I'd go one step back and say "how can there be suffering"?  Let us take the child killed during a natural disaster.  If the child is sufficiently young we can claim that it possesses innocence, meaning there were no acts or qualities of the infant that would justify the harm.  When the disaster hits and the infant died the failure of God to prevent the death of an innocent would be a wrong, meaning God is not all good.  Alternatively, God is all good, and all powerful, but doesn't know the problem exists so doesn't know to step in.  Finally, God could know there's a problem, and want to do something, but is powerless to stop the harm.  This makes a pretty strong case on how the three classic powers of God are not both internally consistent and consistent with what is commonly called right.

In More Detail - Ways Out... or Not

  • God's eternal nature means he exists outside of time and can't interfere.  Sure, but this requires a non-personal God and I don't know of many genuine deists running around.
  • Suffering is simply a way to learn and grow morally.  I doubt moral growth can occur when one's dead.
  • Innocents receive a kind of theological "get out of jail free card".  Ok, but what's the point of existence in the first place if you can skip over it?  This would also allow a twisted logic of encouraging infanticide.  This line is more straw-manny than I normally would want to go, but I've had it pop up once or twice.
  • Suffering isn't bad, everyone experiences it and is required to fashion the soul.  Yep, but it seems that suffering is rarely correlated with action.  I'm a member of the lucky sperm club with a comfortable life.  If it isn't bad, it sure does hurt.
  • The "the lord works in mysterious ways" cop out.  Sure, but if you're going to claim God is inscrutable in all ways, worship and discussion both have no meaning.  If you honestly think this is the case and haven't jumped to an Apophatic faith (can only speak of God in terms of what God isn't) I consider that internally inconsistent.

Opposite vs. Not

Basic Idea: In a rigorous argument, one must differentiate between when one wants "opposite" to mean "conceptual opposite" vs. "logical opposite" aka "not".  In the first case, one is taking the conceptual inverse of a claim but in the latter merely claiming diagreement with a specific claim.  For instance, the conceptual opposite of "hot" is cold" while the logical opposite of "hot" is "not hot".

More Detail: When one disagrees with a claim, some arguers will assume their opponents simply mean the opposite.  This is sloppy and can lead to ridiculous arguments.  For instance, if someone disagree with me on the existence of global warming he or she is probably not advocating global cooling.   Debate demands a simple way of saying "your claim is not the case".  This is symbolically represented by the "not" operator.  "Not" and "non" don't always roll of the tongue; something that causes harm but not a lot of it is not necessarily harmful and is more accurately called not harmless.  Again, awkward wording.  So, let's take a deeper look at using "not".

The Law of the Excluded Middle teaches us that either a statement or its opposite must be true if the statement is properly formed.  I find this comforting in that it means between any two properly statements one must be true.  What do I mean by properly formed?  Some statements make assumptions.  For instance, I have no sisters.  What is the logical value of the statement "my sister is left-handed"?  If we say it's false because my sister doesn't exist, the inverse of that statement must be true making my sister right-handed (excluding ambidexterity and such things).  This is meaningless as one could reasonably start with either claim of handedness, call it false, and conclude the opposite.  Always check assumptions.

Saying "not" allows one to be very specific.  When taking the negative in argument, one has no requirement to either replace that which is being negated with a positive truth or defend the rhetorical opposite of a position.  If I claim that someone is not guilty of a crime, I have no obligation to find the real guilty party.  Do not get cowed into providing an alternative.  If one doesn't believe that man is the cause of global warming don't feel obliged to provide an alternative.  One may, and if backed by fact, one should provide an alternative but it often the case with preliminary phenomenon that you don't know what's right but you do know what's wrong.  Unexplained phenomenon blamed on ghosts are prime examples of some people's need to fill the void with an explanation.

Rhetorical Opposites and "Not"- Quantity Claims: Conceptual opposites share a common distance from a center point. The opposite of hot is cold and the opposite of cool is warm.  Each term is equally distant from neutral as its opposite.  Lukewarm isn't diametrically opposite of frigid.  These distances may seem obvious, but what about with claims of quantity?  What is the opposite of all?  The diametric opposite of all is none, but the logical opposite of all is simply not all, a number of elements less than the total in a set.  The diametric opposite of none is all, but the logical opposite of none is not none, a number of elements more than an empty set.  So, some can then mean "any number of elements less than the total" or "any number of elements greater than zero".  Tricky...

Identifying Overlap and Pitfalls: Sometimes there is overlap, when a case can only have two possible outcomes.  Do not succumb to a false dichotomy as there is often a middle ground.  The conceptual opposite of a positive number is a negative number, the logical opposite is simply "not positive" which includes a negative number and zero.  Moral arguments seem disposed to ignoring neutrality.  My father claims someone is a good kid and I disagree.  I don't think he's a bad kid, I simply think he's not a good one and my dad assumes me the cynic.  Be clear, when using the logical opposite preface it with "simply" or follow up with a clarifying.  "I don't think he's a good kid.  I'm not claiming he's a bad one, just not a good one."


Rapid Fire Definitions

Don't complicate reality.  Clear thinking requires mechanisms for quickly dealing with large concepts that someone may sometimes get hung-up on.  While wandering down ratholes of philosophical navel-gazing may be enjoyable it is rarely fruitful.   Each of the follow has books dedicated to its discussion and ramifications, that's super but a practical logic requires a concise set of definitions that are easily transferred. 

Warning: Flowery definitions that are neither functional nor direct often indicate a failure to fully form an idea.  While literary flourishes are nice and may even help elucidate the experience of big phenomenon most discussion does not require this level of depth.

Do not hesitate to demand that others define their terms.  If I define ethics with Rand's definition of "what one does to get what's needed to survive" and you define it with a normative definition of "analysis of what makes an action right or wrong" we're heading for wreck.

My Rapid Fire Definitions:

Art - Arrangement of forms to elicit an emotional response.

Consciousness - Awareness to a narrative of events.

Ethics - How one achieves value while being moral.  Without chaining definitions:  How to get the important without doing wrong.

Justice - The distribution of right consequences.

Life - self-sustaining biological systems.

Mind - What the brain does.

Morals - System for determining what is right and wrong.

Time - A system of measurement to determine the sequence of events.

Truth - That which agrees with experienced reality.

Values  - What one considers consistently important.

Many words do double duty for instance "free" can mean without cost as well as without restriction leading to the phrases "free as in beer" and "free as in speech.

So, what are your rapid deploy definitions?



There is an annoying and frustrating space between rhetoric and argument that consists of arguments that cause rage but are still valid.  Legalistic arguments often fit into this space of things that trigger some basal part of the brain as being wrong but fit within the strictures of rigorous logic.  When invoking pathos, one’s right response would be “fuck a couch” but this is neither permitted under current social norms nor under the rules of traditional debate formats.

Within this space also lies another phenomenon that turns housewives into knife-wielding maniacs and children into firebrand iconoclasts: hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is formally defined by American Heritage as “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness”.  I think a more from-the-gut definition would be “the space between what one says and what one does”.  At first blush, hypocrisy seems like something that could reasonably derail an argument but this is not always the case.

Acceptable Hypocrisies

The Voice of Experience: My dad wanted my brother and I to finish high school and got mad if we skipped school.  He dropped out of high school and entered the Navy when he was 17.  Is this hypocrisy? Yes.  Do I have a problem with it? No.  Acceptable hypocrisy often plays the role of the voice of experience of someone having made a mistake or seen the consequences of an action and attempting to steer other away from the mistake.  Simply because it’s acceptable in this case doesn’t mean it is always so as the person waging the hypocrisy must have some way of showing the negative outcome.  If my father were unable to come up with a good reason for me to finish high school or simply said “listen to me, I’m your father” this would simply be an argument from authority.

Job Duties:  There are often differences between what one as a person considers appropriate and what one is called to do as part of their job.  Consider the elementary school teacher that smokes marijuana but whose charged with delivering anti-drug information to children.  If he or she is delivering the information in good faith then the hypocrisy can again be acceptable as he or she is merely performing the functions of her job.  The appropriateness of this example depends on to what extent one considers a teach a role-model and how strongly one excludes what’s done in private.

Maximizing Value: Al Gore is often panned for generating CO2 via jet travel while spreading his message of anthropogenic climate change.  While this may seem hypocritical, I think it largely represents a failure to consider trade-offs.  If a presentation effectively reduces CO2 production from the audience my more that what is generated by the trip there’s been a net savings.  One could reasonably say that he could do more but a simple attack of “you use planes while telling people to reduce greenhouse gas production” seems simplistic.

Logical Rigor: The final and most annoying case of hypocrisy is when it occurs in an environment of logical rigor.  An SUV sporting a “Support Solar Power” bumper sticker suggests cognitive dissonance in the driver but the apparent contradiction does not invalidate the statement.  One could accost the driver for this inconsistency but to attack the argument would be an ad hominem attack.

Unacceptable Hypocrisy

Arguments from Authority: Arguments of the form “You wish to emulate me, I do this activity, thus you should too” are easily countered by examples of hypocrisy.  Celebrity endorsements for products not used or the holier-than-thou politician being unwoven by scandal fit this category.

Using Hypocrisy to Your Advantage

Often, arguments come from emotion more so than from rigor and in these cases pointing out hypocrisy can be devastating.  A common form of hypocrisy is the Tu quoque (literally “you too”) where the speaker commits the action he or she is opposing.  This is different from the argument from authority as it attacks authenticity.  Audiences tend to quickly lose interesting in arguments waged by those who don’t appear to support them thinking “not even the proponent believes it, why should I?”

Provide Context: If one is forced into hypocrisy provide context.  A chronic smoker addressing kids could say “kids, smoking is bad for you” or the much more persuasive and tell “I recognize that smoking is harmful and every morning I wake up coughing I wish I had never started.  Kids, don’t smoke.”

Point Out Differences: If one is called out for committing a wrong that one is accusing another of having done as well, note why that person’s case is different.  “I know there are cases as a library volunteer where I’ve not fulfilled all my promises but we’re considering a person for a board position.”


Basic Laws of Logic

Before I can launch into diatribes about overcoming fallacies and pwning abusers of heap arguments the rules of the game need be established. Luckily, logic only has three. Yep, three laws rule all of logic and rule with an iron fist. Each has a cute name and a seemingly innocent definition, but it’s the ramifications of these statements that slay arguments and spawn doctoral theses. Let’s meet ‘em in some detail:

Law of Identity

Definition: a given something is a given something (tricky shit, eh?)

It may be a bit of jump, but the Law of Identity implies that all things have characteristics, because without characteristics, something can’t be identified and therefore we could call something a something in the first place. Things are identified by those characteristics, so if you’re given something without characteristics in an argument, you really haven’t been given anything (happens a lot with bad definitions of God, mind and other abstracts). A lot of discussion on the Law of Identity uses fruity terms like essence, usia (Greek for essence), nature and so on, but these words have too much baggage for my tastes. The Law of Identity’s opposite is also useful, a something isn’t a not something. Pimps aren’t hoes, light isn’t dark and a shit load of other things that are profoundly obvious.

Uses: The Law of Identity is great for dismissing ridiculous claims and crystal-waving bullshit from the start. Someone making claims that “the God and the pigeon are one” can be dismissed outright as being non-logical so you can skip arguing and go straight to calling the speaker a fucktard. The Law of Identity also quickly cuts down people that abuse analogies. “Blah A is like blah B which has this property so blah A must too” is a fallacy of association that can be dismissed simply by saying “but Blah A isn’t Blah B, it’s Blah A”. Some discretion is needed in using this argument as Blah A and Blah B can be the same if they’re just two words for the same thing. A lot of art-house arguments depend on abusing analogies; the Law of Identity is the shotgun of logic with high stopping power against these arguments that never runs out of ammo.

Law of Non-Contradiction

Definition: a given something can’t be both that something and not that something.

This law is another seemingly obvious point but in practice the Law of Non-Contradiction is the foundation of argumentative validity. The Law of Non-Contradiction makes logic truth preserving so that you’ll never go from a true point and arrive at a false point. Contradiction negates logic, and while true paradox may be something fun which to reflect unless you’re attempting to unite with the godhead by reaching nirvana, contradiction simply has no place in logic. This is not to say that something can’t appear to be self-contradictory and this idea is the basis of a lot of statements of reflection. In the course of debate another definition may become useful: Both a claim and not that claim can’t be true. So, if a statement holds even a teensy weensy bit of falseness, it must be entirely false.

Uses: The Law of Non-Contradiction allows one to throw out any argument which allows something and its negation to both be true. I was once arguing with a dullard in an Intellectual Heritage class that said Christianity and Hinduism were essential the same and he then proceeded to point of the similarities. I asked him if he thought Hinduism had many Gods, to get him in the non-contradiction trap of saying one was polytheistic and the other was monotheistic. He said everything came from Brahman. I asked him if Brahman was a conscious force, to which he rightly replied no. The contradiction now came in that one believed God was conscious while the other stated he wasn’t.

Abuses: The Law of Non-Contradiction only applies to two qualities of the same characteristic at the same time. Stuff can change or be analyzed in different lights creating some false counter arguments. The Rational Argumentator has a dubious article “proving” that light can’t be both a particle and a wave via the Law of Non-Contradiction. This argument ignores the fact that physicists don’t treat light as a particle and a wave at the same time. The Argumentator’s argument would be similar to saying a human can’t be both a child and an adult ignoring the fact that with time one turns into the other and that no one is arguing that one’s both the same at the same time. Their argument also uses non-Scientific definitions and is selectively rigorous, but that’s for later.

Law of the Excluded Middle

Definition: A statement must be either true or false.

Note: The phrases “truth value” or “logical value” will pop up periodically and these merely refer to whether a statement is true or false.

Two things happen because of the Law of the Excluded Middle, the first is limiting logical statements the second is the slaying of the word “maybe”. The Law of the Excluded Middle implies that only statements that can have a truth value can be looked at logically. For instance, “I can has cheezburger?” has no logical value because a question can’t be true or false. Also, “Blow me” has no logical value because commands can’t be true or false. The Law of the Excluded Middle also rules out logical statements answered with “sometimes” or “maybe”. A statement may have to be adjusted to get a proper truth value. Like the statement “Tim has always been a cock jockey” can’t be answered true because there are times when Tim’s cock jockeyness is in dispute. So we can retool the statement to “Tim is currently a cock jockey” or “Tim is usually a cock jockey” to get our sought value of true.

Uses: The Law of the Excluded Middle pops up a lot in discussions of free-will. Some people are inclined to come up with some 3rd option that is neither true nor false when they really should be redefining or attacking the question. In most cases, these answers are simply elaborate forms of free will or non-free will. These arguments also involve some assumptions that may be invalid. The question “free will exists” is different from “all actions are governed by free will” and “perfect information prevents free will” where some lazy arguers will assume they’re the same. In cases where “maybe” seems like the right answer, seek to redefine the question or point out the flaws of the statement. The Law of Non-Contradiction can work with the Law of the Excluded Middle to point out deficiencies of ethical arguments that leave no room for moderation.

Abuses: The Law of the Excluded Middle can be abused to create false dilemmas such as occurs with the “either you’re with us or against us mentality” or “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”. In both cases, a party may be neutral or non-involved. The Law of the Excluded Middle only applies to cases with two options. Truth values are either true or false so the Law applies to those. Many arguers assume that “not x” is the same as “the opposite of x” and this is where many false dilemmas are born.


Keep in mind that the laws of logic have no proof and have come to be accepted not because they’re provable but because they’re both largely obvious and the most philosophers could ever get to agree on. Even at that, Immanuel Kant based logic on values rather than truth. Crazy bastard.