I’m not a neurologist but … I’m told that when the doctor tests your reflexes with that rubber hammer and your lower leg springs forward, the message isn’t going all the way up to the brain. I guess that’s because evolution decided it didn’t need to. And so we get the metaphor of a kneejerk reaction.
Assuming I have the neurology right, the metaphor’s a good one, because a kneejerk reaction – whether it be to a snake or to an insult – is treated in this perfunctory way because further reflection on whatever’s happening would be a burden without compensatory payoff. By the time you’ve deliberated about it the snake would have already struck, or enough time would have passed since the insult that any counter-insult would just be lame. So we don’t deliberate. We just strike out at the snake, or strike back at the insult.
But as with any shortcut algorithm, kneejerk reactions can sometimes get things wrong. And as it turns out there are patterns to these errors. Psychologists – foremost among them Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – have done us yeoman service analyzing these patterns. As it turns out, some are domain-specific, others infect our thinking right across the board. But to our credit, we philosophers scooped these psychologists by several centuries. For example:
If today is Tuesday I have to teach Logic today. I do have to teach Logic today, therefore today is Tuesday. We call this affirming the consequent. We all do it. But the point of taking a critical thinking course is to learn not to do it, though of course the most we can hope for is to do it less often.
There’s a perfectly good reason why we affirm the consequent. More often than not a conditional is just half of a bi-conditional. So notwithstanding affirming the consequent is an invalid inference, more often than not the conclusion turns out to be true anyhow. So the speed with which we get the right answer has a higher payoff than the avoidance of the harm we incur by occasionally getting the wrong answer.
Yet another error in reasoning is denying the antecedent. If there’s steam coming from under the hood the radiator is out of water. There’s no steam coming from under the hood, so the water in the rad must be fine. This, by the way, is how I blew my last engine. But more often then not the water in the rad is fine, which is why we just keep driving.
As with affirming the consequent, we can train our students not to deny the antecedent. But as just noted, our predilection to these errors is domain-specific. And there’s at least one domain in which no amount of training seems to make the slightest difference. That’s the domain we might call ‘issues’.
Do I have an opinion about this or that? Of course I do. I’m pro-Choice. I’m in favor of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana. Notwithstanding I’m a Jew I have grave misgivings about Zionism. Notwithstanding I have gave misgivings about Zionism I suspect the Spielberg version of how six million of my co-religionists disappeared is probably pretty close to the way it was. I suspect 9/11 really was the work of nineteen incredibly brave young men and not an Israeli false flag operation. And so on. And if we were sitting in a bar, I’d be more than happy to bend your ear with any or all of these opinions.
But the promotion of none of them is my job as a philosopher. As a philosopher my job is to evaluate the validity of arguments about these and other matters, not pronounce on the truth-value of any end-of-pipe conclusions arising out of them.
I have a colleague down the hall for whom anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is his Precious. Among his argument for AGW is that those who deny it are shills for Big Oil. I point out that this is an invalid argument. (It’s called an ad hominem circumstantial.) He concludes that I too must be an AGW denier. This is just a straightforward case of denying the antecedent. If I deny that shilling against AGW in any way suggests the truth of AGW, then I must be denying the truth of AGW.
This is the kind of mistake I’ve learned to expect from my Intro to Phil of Religion students. I show them how each of the proofs for the existence of God fails, from which they conclude I’m trying to convince them of atheism. I do what I can to disabuse them of this. No, I tell them, absence of proof is not proof of absence. For that proof of absence I direct them to the problem of evil. Only if that can’t be solved, I tell them, do we then have a proof for the non-existence of God, or at least of the God of the Omnis.
But these are our students, many of them straight out of high school, where learning critical thinking skills is judged incompatible with inclusive socialization, or some such nonsense. But my colleague isn’t straight out of high school. He’s paid to have long since mastered these critical thinking skills. So what’s going on?
What’s going on is that True Believing is a critical-thinking-skills paralytic, including paralysis of the skill to recognize that one’s become a True Believer. It’s not that my colleague has so left the building that he can no longer see that he’s using an invalid argument form. It’s that he can no longer see that it matters. What matters, and all that matters, is his crusade.
Fair enough, say I. But what he doesn’t see is that those he thinks he’s trying to proselytize, though they may not know the names of these fallacies, nonetheless have a sixth sense for picking up on these cons. As soon as you stoop to this kind of argumentation, I tell him, you’ve joined your opponents in the gutter. And so all you’ve done is added to the cross-screeching. And when all they hear is cross-screeching, people just stop listening.
Put another way, as soon as you’re not listening to each other, no one else is listening to either of you. You think you’re saving the world from the deceits of the devil, but all you’re really doing is making yourself irrelevant to anything that could count as the conversation. In short, you’ve succumbed to Someone is Wrong on the Internet Syndrome (or SWIS).
SWIS was brilliantly captured in an episode of the West Wing. The Josh Lyman character – in spite of his assistant’s persistent warnings that these people are crazy! – can’t stop himself from correcting what was initially just someone’s innocently critical comment. But then, of course, the thing escalates. This is what you’re buying yourself into once you engage with one of these sites. You think you’re safe, because desgmogblog.com is just preaching to its own choir. But trolls are no more interested in ‘just the facts Jack’ than you are. They’re just looking for some fun, and like Josh Lyman you’re naive enough to provide it to them.
But maybe it’s fun for you too. Maybe you like showing off your command of what you take to be the ‘facts’, about which no one really gives a fuck. Maybe trolling and counter-trolling is your hobby. Maybe you’re like the gamer who’s forgotten it’s just a game. Maybe you’re becoming just a tad unhinged. Maybe you’ll pull your head out of your ass. Maybe it’s stuck there, and all we can do for you is just leave you alone.
What we can’t do, however, is leave you alone with our students. If they don’t know you’ve left the building they’re going to assume you’re still in it, and then, whether in class or in your office, they might say something philosophical, and then you might yell at them. Then we have to do something about you.
None of this would be necessary if we’d developed and sustained in our Department the ethos of combative camaraderie that characterizes a healthy intellectual community, a community in which we don’t resent being corrected but rather delight in it, because we’re interested in getting it right and not at all in being right. And this requires the instrumental supposition that we’re more likely than not wrong.
From which it follows that more likely than not I’m wrong about this. That’s why I’d desperately like to be corrected.