LogicWarrior Demand Reason

20Sep/100

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.

12Aug/100

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.
25Dec/090

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."

2Dec/090

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?

12Nov/090

Hypocrisy

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.”

20Oct/090

The Categorical Is (Usually) Your Enemy

Categoricals (statements without exception like all, every, never, and always) are rarely worth their rhetorical value in argument.  Usage of a categorical exposes one's argument to easy counter by coming up with a single counterexample.  Replying to the exception with "that's an exception" immediately voids the rhetorical high ground established by having a logical sound argument.

A: Killing is never justified.
B: What about in self-defense?

A is now stuck replying with noting self-defense as exception which makes A appear non-rigorous or having to have a more encapsulating argument that doesn't allow for self defense.  Some arguers will try to carve out an exception within a definition which may cede an argument due to rare definitions or make the arguer appear excessively semantic.

Common Failings: Categoricals involving humanity like "people don't change" or "men are evil" are often giveaways that the speaker is being rhetorical or non-rigorous.  The speaker may intent to say "most", but failure to make this simple change suggests that the person making the statement isn't actually interested in discussing the point.  Categoricals may be used for rhetorical flourish or to justify mass action.  Once one says "all objects of a certain class have  a specific quality" and this statement is accepted as part of the argument, logical actions meant to fix that quality can then be applied to the entire class of objects.  Once a categorical is conceded by an arguer argument by counterexample becomes difficult.

Avoiding This Failing: Words like most, the preponderance, and usually allow one to make statements regarding several but not all objects of a certain class.  In my experience also allows for "friendly" counterexamples while still maintaining logical integrity and maintaining relative rigor in presented fact.

Before employing a categorical try to find a counterexample.  If you do and wish to retain the categorical consider word choice:  "Murder is never justified" is far easier to defend than "killing is never justified".  Be careful as this may result in tautologies.  If one defines murder as unjustified killing, no useful claims have been added to the universe of discourse.  Alternatively, consider your end-game.  Continuing the above example, one could be arguing about capital punishment.  Trying to say "killing is wrong" is a weak claim as there's no evident reasoning supporting and to me it just sounds simplistic.  A statement like "the state doesn't have the right to take life of its citizens" (denying the jus gladii of an actor) is a more reasonable starting ground which maintains the categorical and restricts the domain of counterarguments.