Monthly Archives: March 2013

For Better or Worse Reasoning in Print

For_Better_or_Worse__Cover_for_KindleWhy listen to  illogical diatribes when you can read them? I mean, read a rational examination of the arguments against same sex marriage.

This concise work is aimed at presenting a logical assessment of the stock arguments against same-sex marriage. While my position is in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, I have made every effort to present a fair and rational assessment of the stock arguments against it. The work itself is divided into distinct sections. The first section provides some background material regarding arguments. The second section focuses on the common fallacious arguments used to argue against same-sex marriage. The third section examines standard moral arguments against same-sex marriage and this is followed by a brief look at the procreation argument. The work closes, appropriately enough, with a few modest proposals regarding marriage.

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Alito on Same-Sex Marriage

Official 2007 portrait of U.S. Supreme Court A...

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The United States Supreme Court is now considering a case involving same-sex marriage which has once again brought this matter into the media spotlight.

My view is and has been that legitimate marriage is essentially a legal and economic contract between two consenting adults. Because of this, I have argued in For Better or Worse Reasoning at length in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Jokingly, I have also suggested that people who dislike homosexuality should be for gay marriage because this would inevitably lead to the suffering of gay divorce.

Recently, Justice Alito had the following to say about the matter:

Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new. I think it was first adopted in The Netherlands in 2000. So there isn’t a lot of data about its effect. And it may turn out to be a — a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing, as the supporters of Proposition 8 apparently believe.

But you want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution, which is newer than cell phones or the Internet? I mean we — we are not — we do not have the ability to see the future. On a question like that, of such fundamental importance, why should it not be left for the people, either acting through initiatives and referendums or through their elected public officials?

It is tempting to see Alito as committing an fallacious appeal to tradition. After all, one of the stock “arguments” against same-sex marriage is to appeal to claim that traditional marriage is, well, traditional.  This a fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct simply because it is older, traditional, or “always has been done.” This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. X is old or traditional

2. Therefore X is correct or better.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the age of something does not automatically make it correct or better than something newer. This is made quite obvious by the following example: The theory that witches and demons cause disease is far older than the theory that microorganism cause diseases. Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.

This sort of “reasoning” is appealing for a variety of reasons. First, people often prefer to stick with what is older or traditional. This is a fairly common psychological characteristic of people which may stem from the fact that people feel more comfortable about what has been around longer. Second, sticking with things that are older or traditional is often easier than testing new things. Hence, people often prefer older and traditional things out of laziness. Hence, Appeal to Tradition is a somewhat common fallacy.

It should not be assumed that new things must be better than old things any more than it should be assumed that old things are better than new things. The age of thing does not, in general, have any bearing on its quality or correctness (in this context). In the case of tradition, assuming that something is correct just because it is considered a tradition is poor reasoning. For example, if the belief that 1+1 = 56 were a tradition of a group of people it would hardly follow that it is true.

Obviously, age does have a bearing in some contexts. For example, if a person concluded that aged wine would be better than brand new wine, he would not be committing an Appeal to Tradition. This is because, in such cases the age of the thing is relevant to its quality. Thus, the fallacy is committed only when the age is not, in and of itself, relevant to the claim.

One final issue that must be considered is the “test of time.” In some cases people might be assuming that because something has lasted as a tradition or has been around a long time that it is true because it has “passed the test of time.” If a person assumes that something must be correct or true simply because it has persisted a long time, then he has committed an Appeal to Tradition. After all, as history has shown people can persist in accepting false claims for centuries.

However, if a person argues that the claim or thing in question has successfully stood up to challenges and tests for a long period of time then they would not be committing a fallacy. In such cases the claim would be backed by evidence. As an example, the theory that matter is made of subatomic particles has survived numerous tests and challenges over the years so there is a weight of evidence in its favor. The claim is reasonable to accept because of the weight of this evidence and not because the claim is old. Thus, a claim’s surviving legitimate challenges and passing valid tests for a long period of time can justify the acceptance of a claim. But mere age or persistence does not warrant accepting a claim.

However, Alito’s remarks could be taken in a somewhat different manner. Rather than interpreting this as an indirect appeal to tradition, Alito could be seen as arguing that he does not have enough information to properly assess the consequences of same-sex marriage because it has not been around long enough for its consequences to have been properly assessed. Thus, Alito concludes that since he cannot see the future it follows that the decision on the matter should be left to the people.

This reply does have a certain appeal. After all, determining the consequences of same sex-marriage will take time. Part of this involves the obvious fact that consequences have to occur before they can determined and it will take time for the consequences to play out. Part of this is also the fact that a proper assessment of such a matter takes time to conduct.

That said, this seems to be more of a concern about scientific methodology (or moral assessment) rather than a concern about the matter of constitutionality. After all, determining whether or not denying same-sex couples the right to marry is unconstitutional does not seem to require assessing the consequences of allowing same sex-marriage. Assessing it ethical, in terms of an appeal to consequences  would  obviously involve considering the consequences-but this is a rather different matter than sorting out the constitutionality of the matter.

The key question, as I see it, is not “what might be the consequences of allowing same-sex marriage” but “does denying same-sex couples the right to marry violate the constitution?” I am, of course, inclined to answer the second question with a “yes.” To borrow from and modify Kant’s view, we do not need to wait and see the consequences of same-sex marriage in order to determine the constitutionality of the matter.

There is also the obvious response that we can predict what is likely to occur in the case of same sex marriage. After all, we have centuries of information available about marriage and same-sex relationships and we can make inferences from that evidence. To borrow an idea from Mill, when considering the consequences we would not be setting out into a vast unknown. Rather, we would be setting out on a sea that we have charts and maps for. Laying aside the metaphor, we have a reasonable idea of the consequences of allowing same-sex marriage. The main one would, of course, be that we stop denying people a legitimate right.

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A Six-Gun for Socrates in Print


This short book presents a series of philosophical essays written in response to gun violence in the United States. While the matters of guns, violence and rights are often met with emotional responses, my approach has been to consider these matters from a philosophical standpoint. This does not involve looking at them without emotion. Rather, it involves considering them in a rational way and this requires considering how our emotions affect our views of these vital matters.

Available via Amazon.

Moralism and politics

Colleagues may I think be interested in a controversial book review of mine, just out in PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS.
Have a read, and do comment here with your reactions. I’m interested.

Big thinking

The current issue of tpm features a series of essays on grassroots philosophy — philosophy that’s alive and at large outside the academic world.  We’re putting some of the essays online for free, and here’s one by Hilary Lawson, called ‘Back to Big Thinking’.

Some say that philosophy is marginalised, it has lost its way — to some loud scientists, philosophy is even a figure of fun.  What happened?  Lawson wonders whether the rise of analytic philosophy is responsible.

What came to be known as analytic philosophy developed its own arcane character and its own impenetrable terminology. In the process it has gradually walled itself in to its own ivory tower. At the outset the philosophy of logical analysis set out to provide the framework for others to do their thinking. It was to be the under-labourer clearing the ground. No grand theories here, just solid work aimed at making life more effective for other disciplines.

The very project of course in some sense demeaned philosophy – although it may have appealed to a British sense of understatement. Gone were the goals of a grand metaphysical vision. Instead, a limited role lay ahead. This would have been well if it had succeeded. If the clarifications it offered had indeed proved valuable to other disciplines and if other disciplines had taken its insights as a basis for their own investigations.

The reality has been rather more prosaic. A century of analytic philosophy is hard pushed to find a single clarification that has been of any real value to another discipline. Not least perhaps because such advances relied on the emergence of agreement amongst philosophical enquirers. How could other disciplines make use of the new insights if philosophers themselves were still in dispute? Philosophers in the public mind actually outpace economists or politicians in this respect as the philosophical joke currently doing the rounds neatly identifies: How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on how you define “change”.

The application of logic to language never lived up to Russell’s dream. Having demonstrated that logic could describe mathematics, or so he believed, he understandably wished to extend this to language, thereby providing a perfect medium, free of error, for all to use. It was a great idea. It has motivated generations of philosophers and philosophy departments. The problem though is that the dream is impossible – as Wittgenstein thought he had demonstrated in the Tractatus, almost at the outset of the project.

Philosophy has not turned into a science. The twentieth century desire to do so can now be seen as a wide-eyed scientism, the response of a culture that was so enamoured with the success of science that it sought to replicate it in every field. A century on the idea seems far-fetched. Under-labourers are all very well but not so effective if each is challenging the others work. Logic was meant to cut through dispute and provide definitive conclusions. Unsurprisingly it failed to do so. Is there anyone who seriously believes that philosophy is closer to definitive conclusions today than it was a century ago?

Well?  Anyone?  You can read the whole article here.

76 Fallacies in Print


76 Fallacies is now available in print from Amazon and other fine sellers of books.

In addition to combining the content of my 42 Fallacies and 30 More Fallacies, this book features some revisions as well as a new section on common formal fallacies.

As the title indicates, this book presents seventy six fallacies. The focus is on providing the reader with definitions and examples of these common fallacies rather than being a handbook on winning arguments or general logic.

The book presents the following 73 informal fallacies:

Accent, Fallacy of
Accident, Fallacy of
Ad Hominem
Ad Hominem Tu Quoque
Amphiboly, Fallacy of
Anecdotal Evidence, Fallacy Of
Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief
Appeal to Authority, Fallacious
Appeal to Belief
Appeal to Common Practice
Appeal to Emotion
Appeal to Envy
Appeal to Fear
Appeal to Flattery
Appeal to Group Identity
Appeal to Guilt
Appeal to Novelty
Appeal to Pity
Appeal to Popularity
Appeal to Ridicule
Appeal to Spite
Appeal to Tradition
Appeal to Silence
Appeal to Vanity
Argumentum ad Hitlerum
Begging the Question
Biased Generalization
Burden of Proof
Complex Question
Composition, Fallacy of
Confusing Cause and Effect
Confusing Explanations and Excuses
Circumstantial Ad Hominem
Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc
Division, Fallacy of
Equivocation, Fallacy of
Fallacious Example
Fallacy Fallacy
False Dilemma
Gambler’s Fallacy
Genetic Fallacy
Guilt by Association
Hasty Generalization
Historian’s Fallacy
Illicit Conversion
Ignoring a Common Cause
Incomplete Evidence
Middle Ground
Misleading Vividness
Moving the Goal Posts
Oversimplified Cause
Overconfident Inference from Unknown Statistics
Pathetic Fallacy
Peer Pressure
Personal Attack
Poisoning the Well
Positive Ad Hominem
Post Hoc
Proving X, Concluding Y
Psychologist’s fallacy
Questionable Cause
Red HerringReification, Fallacy of
Relativist Fallacy
Slippery Slope
Special Pleading
Straw Man
Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
Two Wrongs Make a Right
Victim Fallacy
Weak Analogy

The book contains the following three formal (deductive) fallacies:

Affirming the Consequent
Denying the Antecedent
Undistributed Middle

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Why Psychology Ain’t Science

Those interested in the post-NightWaves ( ) debate raging on Twitter on this topic, may wish check out my ‘Rupert Read’ twitterstream ( ). In any case, here, for those interested, and between teaching (and so in very brief), are some more thoughts — in more than 140 characters, on this important topic…:

[Note: if you haven’t heard the programme, I suggest you do that first, at; go 35 minutes in.]

I see no reason to quarrel with Keith Laws’s claim that psychologists selectively handle, frame etc their data in order to present novel positive findings and that this way of doing their work is systemic and fits well with journals’, editors’ and reviewers’ worrying desire for novelty for the sake of it, etc. . So there is some bedrock agreement between Laws and I. But I am unsure as to whether Laws appreciates what the real – deep — differences are between psychology and disciplines like geology, astronomy and physics. And does he really have a good understanding of how such sciences operate, or is he wedded to a simplistic picture, namely a Popperian one? If one is making the claim that Psychology, it if adopted a ‘rigorously’ Falsificationist methodology, would be more like other sciences, then it would be helpful to be confident that other sciences had adopted such a methodology themselves! And I have zero such confidence, for reason I will explain.

It seems to me that Laws treats truth as the sole scientific virtue much as Rawls does justice with regards to institutions (see the opening of Rawls’s A THEORY OF JUSTICE – as critiqued by me for instance here: (paper published in the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Wittgenstein Colloquium, a few years back)). Rejecting a theory as false can be called finding a truth, but is it an interesting, significant truth or is it a mere triviality? There is nothing scientific in piling up truth upon truth. More needs to be said about the content of psychology, about its problems and its concepts. As I pointed up in the programme: Kuhn would suggest that improved qualitative understanding is what serious scientific advance is about, and that Popperian Falsificationism is an almost-complete misunderstanding of how real science actually works (Because all theories are born refuted; because if science were as Popper insisted it should be, then it would (ironically) be more like much philosophy or ‘social science’ than real science (because scientists would always be tearing everything up and starting all over again, rather than progressing); because Popper missed the massive phenomenon of ‘normal science’; & crucially because science needs to be based in a shared qualitative understanding of science based normally in a widely-accepted breakthrough).

Roughly: Does psychology have a ‘paradigm’? It looks in fact that it has too many (viz.: psychologIES), or none, rather than one. (For explication, see the relevant chapters of my and Sharrock’s KUHN (Polity, 2002), and our shortly-forthcoming piece in Kindi’s edited collection marking the 50th anniversary of Kuhn’s STRUCTURE, on social/human ‘science’ vs. natural science. Cf. also what I said in my NightWaves appearance on the 50th anniversary of the STRUCTURE: ).

Sure enough, Laws demonstrates that the formal requirements of statistical method are not adhered to in psychology and that in cases where they are they might still leave room for gerrymandering (Why they do so in my view takes us partly back to psychology’s concepts and partly back to the comparison to other sciences/disciplines – as I mentioned in my first remarks in the programme). But suppose these problems were in fact solved through enforced replication. Would psychology fare any better? Granted its house would be orderly in a sense, but would it be closer to being a science? My suggestion is that things might, ironically, then be even worse: because psychology would then look more like the scientific image of science, while not actually being any closer to being or being able to be the kind of discipline that Kuhn talks about, when he talks – on the basis, recall, of extensive work as a historian of science – of the nature of actual sciences. (For more detail on why, see my and Sharrock’s KUHN, and also (and especially) my recent WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIENCES. In particular, Part 2 of the latter dissects some claims on the part of psychologists to match what (in Part 1 of the book) I argue real science is: roughly, Kuhnian puzzle-solving within a research tradition, in a field that is not one that we construct and inhabit just by virtue (following here Schutz and Garfinkel and Wittgenstein) of being competent social actors. (Cf. on this also my, Hutchinson’s and Sharrock’s THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE.).)

If psychology were indeed a Popperian-style science it wouldn’t be a very good science – the operations which are designed to replicate (sic.!) the procedures of ‘genuine sciences’ are only pale imitations of their originals and the attempt to deliver ‘scientific achievements’ by means of ‘[allegedly] scientific procedures’ doesn’t yield any genuinely powerful findings, just vast and sprawling literatures and vast and weak databases. For, of course, wearing the outer trappings of science doesn’t make something into a science. But: psychology doesn’t need to be one – better understanding doesn’t only come from science. To think that it does is scientism.
My kind (and also Laws’s kind) of criticisms of our modern pseudo-sciences are regularly issued (and equally regularly disregarded) by the practitioners and methodologists and observers of those pseudo-sciences. To put the point polemically: Established Psychology is one of those juggernauts that Wittgenstein didn’t like, and rightly so. (See again the 4 programmes archived at for my take on this, especially the NIGHTWAVES special on Wittgenstein and my recent discussion with Glaser on scientism and ‘Enlightenment’.)
Where Popper can be useful, as Nassim Taleb reminds us, is in a different way to that proposed by Laws and assumed by worryingly-many psychologists: Namely, in undercutting the pretensions of ‘social/human science’ to be able to model and predict the future. In opening our minds instead to the necessary presence in the human world of ‘black swans’.
A valuable exercise would be to follow the procedure of Lucas and of ‘Goodhart’s Law’ (implicit in 2.4 of my WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIE NCES, and cf. ) and to look into the extent to which it is conceptually absurd to think of Psychology as a timeless body of knowledge, because of the extent of its historicity and of absorption of any teaching it has into what we know and do (and thus adaptation of our expectations etc, and undercutting of that teaching). What has been done for Economics needs doing for Psychology too, before the latter results in some analogue caused by the latter of the credit crunch/crash… . And hereabouts, as I pointed out in the programme (and on twitter), is then another severe limit on the extent to which Psychology is in principle scientifisable: The nature of human learning, and the way in which Psychology feeds back into our society, makes Psychology constitutively ill-suited to being genuinely scientific in nature and outcome (because psychology is inherently unpredictable; by which I mean: there are inherent limits on its predictability, limits far deeper than those present in (e.g.) quantum phenomena. Limits analogous to those sketched by Taleb vis a vis Economics.).
Ironically: the more impact Psychology has, the less like a science – the less like chemistry or astronomy, etc. – it can be. Psychology cannot be scientific because our psychology plays a dance with it (psychological subjects inherently resist (or sometimes, sadly, welcome – but again, actively) objectification – see on this Michel Henry’s BARBARISM, and Merleau-Ponty’s magnificent manifesto of anti-psychologism, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION), while in actual sciences there is a more simple dialectic of subject and object.
I could go on, talking for instance about why Psychology just ain’t in the head; but this is I hope sufficient for now, to indicate the bases of my disquiet, and to provide some sources.
In sum and in short, then: Laws’s are familiar problems to anyone who thinks about rather than buys into professionalised social/human science including psychology, and it is helpful of him to have raised them, and pointed out ways in which Psychology does not live up to its main corporate (Popperian) self-image. But this tells us nothing about whether such a self-image is actually desirable. Law’s paper doesn’t address the serious question – what does all this (i.e. what Laws tells us) actually tell us about the aggregate value of that vast multitude of studies already out there? I would hazard that that value is, unfortunately, far lower than most Psychologists would like us to believe. Laws and his friends are too concerned with the processing of Psychological work, and not concerned enough with the content of what’s being processed.

[With thanks to Wes Sharrock and Leonidas Tsilipakos for input.]

42 Fallacies in Print



My first Kindle book, 42 Fallacies, has been manifested in the physical world.

Available now as a paperback on Amazon.

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Philosophy in Prisons

There’s an article on teaching philosophy in prisons by Alan Smith in the current issue of tpm.  It’s part of a series on grassroots philosophy.  Here’s an excerpt:

Time went by and I settled down with a regular group of men, mostly from D Wing. People came and went, though, as sentences ended and new guys were shipped in, and this meant that there were quite regular crises as philosophy virgins were seduced into our strange ways. Philosophy attracted men who had long sentences to serve, and they brought into class the hard faced generosity that gets them through the years. They said things that frightened me to death. Shayne on abortion: “If we could turn back the years, Sim, wouldn’t it be better, knowing as we do now that you were going to turn out to be a murdering nut-case who’s been nothing but a drain on society, wouldn’t aborting you have been a good idea?”

Intersting stuff, philosophy in the wider world.  You can read the whole thing here:  “Captive Audience“.

Failure is Just another Chance for Success

Adaptation of above image illustrating an Inte...

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Like most people, the highway of my life is strewn with the wreckage of my numerous failures. When I was a younger man, I looked at failure as a matter of disgrace and resented each failure. While I sometimes engaged in the shameful practice of shifting the blame to others, I learned to accept the wisdom of Confucius, namely that when the archer misses the target he should seek the cause within himself. Or, as this is expressed in the West, it is a poor craftsperson who blames his tools.

While I still regard failure as potentially disgraceful and worthy of resentment, I have learned to have a somewhat more developed view of the matter. After all, while I must bear the responsibility for my failures and they are most often entirely my fault, a failure need not be a matter of disgrace. Most obviously, if I have done the best that I could have done and still met with failure, then there is no disgrace in this. No more could have been expected of me, for I did all that I could possibly do. There are, of course, challenges that we face that are beyond us—what matters in such cases is not that we have failed, but that the challenge has been justly and bravely faced. After all, to fail well can be better than to succeed poorly or wickedly.  Perhaps it could even be argued that a noble failure is a form of success.

One thing that repeated failures have taught me is that there will be more failures. On the one hand, this view can easily lead to despair: if we can be sure that the road ahead will also be littered with the wreckage of failures, should we not greet this future with tears and lamentations at our fates? On the other hand, this view can lead to confidence and hope: have we not survived the wrecks that litter our pasts? Have we not had victories as well? Surely, there shall be more victories in the future and the failures shall be endured as they have before.

Another thing that my repeated failures have taught me is that failure is just another chance to succeed. For example, when I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to be on a sports team. Since basketball was a prestige sport and I had played before, I have it a try. I was awful and after one of the tryouts, the coach said to me “we have an important position for you. We need a manager.” I said, “Coach, I need to do a sport.” He replied, “Go out for winter track. They have to take everyone.” I went to the track practice the next day, wearing my basketball sneakers.

I found that track had its own tryouts—the coach tested everyone’s abilities to see how well a person could jump, sprint, or throw. It turned out that I could jump seven feet forward from a standing start, but could not long, triple or high jump worth a darn. I was also found to be unsuitable for sprinting, hurdling and throwing. So, I ended up where people without any talent in the prestige events ended up—I was slotted to be a distance runner.

Being in poor shape, the practices were tough. By throwing up, I learned to not eat before I ran. By having my feet torn up and bloodied by the basketball shoes, I learned I needed to get better shoes. I was a poor runner my first season and a poor runner in the spring track season that followed. However, by the time cross country arrived, I could run without throwing up and without bringing shame to my ancestors.

When I went off to college, I stuck with running and went all-conference in cross country. I am still a runner today. Without my failure at basketball, I might have never become a runner—so, I owe my success to that failure.

As a second example, when I was in college I thought that I was a good writer, so I sent off some of my work to a game company. I received a brutal rejection letter in reply. I kept at it, earning a stack of rejection letters. However, one day I got the letter I had been waiting for—my work had been accepted. I did the same thing in philosophy—earning a stack of rejections before earning a publication.

Lest anyone think that I am a Pollyanna, I will say that I have encountered defeats that seem to still remain as failures—aside from the lessons learned from them, of course. But even in those cases, I did succeed at learning to not fail in that way again. Also, I recognize that there can be failures that put an end to all opportunities for success—that is, failures that are complete failures. However, saying “failure is just another opportunity for success, except when it is not” does not have the same appeal as the original.

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