Friday, October 12, 2018

Yes, It's Important To Teach Students HOW To Think - Not WHAT To Think

Loyola University philosophy students (ca. 1964) regularly were tested in the rigors of thinking using core questions such as 'How would you choose to live (and why) if you learned humans were the product of accidental mutations via evolution?'

Sue Sharkey and Bruce Benson were correct to draw attention to the need for collegians' critical thinking in their Denver Post Sunday Perspective article, 'It's Critical To Teach Students How To Think, Not What To Think' (p. 4D).  But this elicits the question of exactly HOW that training ought to proceed.    What techniques should one employ in critical thinking?   At Loyola, as part of the required  Arts and Sciences core courses, we all took Logic (Phil. 220), and what follows are some of the takeaways from my preserved notes.

In previous posts I explored a number of basic logical fallacies, this was at the '101' level. But as we learned at Loyola, arguments  are not always blatantly fallacious - many more are subtle and the defects can be much more difficult to recognize and challenge. But the ability to do so forms a crucial support if the student (or average person, citizen) is to be able to do critical thinking.

Consider: Logic requires the isolation and separation of objects in order to relate them to propositions. In this way both generalizations and deductions can be made.

A logical sequence might be (given propositions p, q, and r):

If p, then q

If q, then r

Hence p-> r

(Hence, p implies r)

However, to do this necessitates that the objects connected to the propositions p, q, and r be isolated from each other by category.  This is why good, solid arguments are often difficult to craft. But in general, as Fr. Hecker,  S.J. often reminded us, a good argument must satisfy three conditions:

i)The premises must provide a reasonable amount of support for the conclusions

ii) The truth of the premises must be well established

iii)It must not be circular.

While a blatant fallacy may well omit or cut corners with one or more of these, there are other fallacious arguments that aren't so self-evident. Let's consider the following under the category of 'disguised nonarguments'.

1) Petitio Principii  (Begging the question):

In fact, there is no "question" to follow or beg but rather it refers to the specious circular argument under consideration.  In general, this is a variant of circular reasoning whereby the conclusion is merely a restatement of something stated in one or more premises, e.g.

The assassins of  U.S. presidents have all been lone nuts

Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone nut.

Therefore, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JFK.

Apart from being circular (which makes it a bad argument in itself) the initial premise also suffers from over-generalization.  The secondary fallacy at work here is "hasty generalization".  That is, assuming that because previous presidents may have been slain by loners or "lone nuts" JFK would have had to have been as well.  In addition, the assumption is made that Oswald was a "nut", which is refuted by all the evidence we know about him. This was best summed up by author Michael Parenti (The JFK Assassination  - Defending the Gangster State.):

"Lee Harvey Oswald spent most of his adult life not as a lone drifter but directly linked to the U.S. intelligence community. All of his IQ tests show that he was above average in intelligence and a quick learner. At the age of eighteen in the U.S. Marines he had secret security clearance and was working at Marine Air Control in Atsugi Air Force Base in Japan, a top secret location from which the CIA launched U2 flights and performed other kinds of covert operations in China. The next year he was assigned to El Toro Air Station in California with security clearance to work radar. “.

Another (somewhat)  less controversial example of begging the question:

God existed before the universe because He created it

Therefore God had no beginning

Therefore, God exists without a cause because He is the first cause.

Again, we see that the conclusion is simply a restatement (using different words) of the initial premise.  Further, since  a "causeless God" is a much more extraordinary claim than a causeless cosmos then much greater argumentative heft must be summoned to defend it. The example shown, however, reveals "God" is trotted out as part of the premise, and the causeless attribute is added as a separate part. Thus,  the religionist's argument is useless because the conclusion is one of the premises. Circular logic cannot prove a conclusion because, if the conclusion is doubted, the premise which leads to it will also be doubted.

2) Post hoc ergo proper hoc:


"Jim got seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. I prayed for him and he got better after five days. Therefore, my prayers made him better."

This is quite common and easily exposed. It basically means a person has connected some event in a causal fashion with an event that has gone before – though there is no proof whatever of causal nexus.

It is often observed after disasters, when there are few survivors, and they claim that they “experienced a miracle” by escaping alive. In fact no connection exists between the plane crash or whatever, and their survival. They were merely lucky – to perhaps be sitting in the right seat at the right time, nothing more.

3) Affirming the consequent:

In affirming the consequent, the offender starts out by stating or claiming  ab initio that which they still need to prove or demonstrate. The classic example from real life can be found in the Katzenbach memo which defined the modus operandi and purpose of the Warren Commission, e.g.

"It is important that all facts surrounding President Kennedy's assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all the facts have been told and that a statement to this effect be made now.

The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin, that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.

In this memo argument, one can see Katzenbach had Oswald pegged as the assassin of JFK even prior to the Commission's commencement. A classic case of "affirming the consequent" and a major reason we refer to the WC report as a whitewash.

Here’s the deal: the laws of deductive logic used in an argument, prevent a person from affirming that which he must prove. It doesn’t matter if what’s being affirmed happens to be Lee Oswald's being the one and only JFK assassin,  visiting aliens from an advanced civilization (or some vague “intelligent designer”)  presumed to be responsible for the intricacies of the inner ear or the human eye, or the validity of astrological horoscopes in x, y or z situations.

In each and every case the claim has to be presented as a conclusion to rigorous propositions or deductions, not stated as fact from the outset. 

4) Fallacy of Equivocation:

This disguised argument usually depends on a particular word or set of words having two or more different meanings in the context of a single argument, e.g.

Man is an inventor

No woman is a man

Therefore, no woman is an inventor.

Here, the obvious flaw inheres in the conflation in the use of "Man" for "mankind" or the  whole human species, with "man" an individual member of the species and of male gender.   This is a reminder that when confronted with argument to be sure the terms are consistent for the given premises in the context.

5) Slippery Slope:


"If we legalize marijuana across the country, our people will collectively lose the ability to want to do anything- and they'll just tune out  - so we can be taken over by anyone!" 

"If  we pass the universal basic income  (UBI) everyone will just become a lazy good -for- nothing and the country will rot from the inside!"

Those who invoke slippery slope arguments want to convince you that legalizing marijuana, or passing the UBI (e.g. for workers displaced from jobs by AI, or automation)  will send the country on the road to economic or moral perdition. Some manner of calamity will rain down on one and all. Families will be torn asunder with members hooked on opioids.  Functioning society will crash. Wall Street will cease to have a DOW or NASDAQ, whatever.

 The base thread in all slippery slope arguments is the assumption, or perhaps more accurately the false assumption, that some disdained behavior or policy will lead inexorably to a vastly worse outlook or behavior. Although these tactics are insipid on their face, since no concrete evidence is ever presented to support them (or if it is, it’s specious), they’re invoked because people can be so easily misled by appeals to fear. All that’s required is a preconceived negative image, e.g. an MJ user zoned out and oblivious to the world around him, and the recipient of the disinformation will be ready to accept just about any claim.

History shows, time and time again, that appeals to slippery slope reasoning often do much more harm to innocent people than they do to advance a case for some agenda- whether preventing nationwide legalization of MJ, refusing to vote an atheist into public office, or providing a universal basic income for soon to be displaced workers.

6)  Ignotum per Ignotius:

Example:  "The human eye is far too complex an organ to have come about in any way other than intelligent design."

Of all the fallacies, I supsect this is perhaps the most endemic and pervasive within the U.S. cultural war landscape. This dates from as far back as 1925, when Christian “design” model creationists argued the best “cure for atheism” was the structure and design of the eye. Well, hardly! Since, after all, the eye “sees” optimally at a particular wavelength (~ 5500 Å) of light, precisely because it evolved on a planet with a star whose maximum radiation output is at that wavelength!

What is the logical fallacy of ignotum per ignotius? Basically it translates from the Latin to mean: “seeking to explain the not understood by the less well understood.” In this case, attempting to account for the alleged grandiose “design” of the human eye by appeal to totally unknown constructs (e.g. a supernatural or unknown "designer"). This, after all, would have to be the subtext if the eye’s design is being viewed as “a cure for atheism”. (E.g. the atheist is compelled to surrender evolution via natural selection, since the inherent nonrandom survival features are alleged to be unable to account for the splendid design).

The problem with this line of argument is that it invokes a less well-known or understood mechanism (“the designer”) to account for a structure or organ whose origin may not be fully apprehended at this moment. But who or what is this designer? The proponents of the various forms of creationism (including the now fashionable intelligent design) won’t say, but it doesn’t require an Einstein to infer they are interjecting a supernatural agent. That is, “God.”

The problem is that all intelligent design (ID) has done is to subsume naturalistic evolution's observations then magically assert they are produced by "intelligent design", since no random process could possibly arrive at such intricacy in a billion years. Thus, rather than accept a fairly well understood random process ID’ers opt to nix it in favor of a much less well understood “designer” about whose specifics, attributes they are totally silent.

All they can offer up is the canard that: “X, Y or Z structures display irreducible complexity, hence there must be some unseen intellect working behind the scene to create it!" This is pure nonsense as well as a circular argument- but most important commits ignotum per ignotius fallacy. (Note that very often logical fallacies are committed in sets, though one particular transgression stands out.)

To paraphrase the philosopher David Hume[1]:

"No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

For example, consider the example of the eye again. Is the falsehood of its intelligent design more miraculous than the fact it attempts to establish: that the eye is the product of intelligent design? Arguably no. While the falsehood would leave natural selection as a primary agent, it is (as we saw) in no way is “more miraculous” or incredible than the initial ID proposal! As I noted earlier, by the time natural selection appears, a selection effect in the genome is already solidified. So no "random chance exists", .e.g

) Arguing from authority:

Example: "Read John 3:16! If you don't believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior you are going to Hell!"

If you’ve ever argued with orthodox Christians, you know how often they cite chapter and verse from their Bible to try to force an argument to their side.  The tendency has become so predictable it resembles a kind of dog whistle response whenever an unbeliever appears in view. The Fundies (especially) salivate-drool and aren't even aware they're doing it. You start a rational argument with a hard core believer, and within five minutes he’s trotting out the old canard:

“The fool hath said within his heart there is no God!”

If that citation doesn’t work, look for him to go back to his biblical or scriptural grab bag for some other forlorn, antiquated quote (say like John 3: 16) , all in an effort to convince you that you, Mr. or Ms. Heathen, are going against two thousand year old authority and God’s holy writ! The favorite quotes, by the way, seem to be all those dealing with “Hell” in the New Testament, or related to the end times and the “Beast” written about in Revelation. All of these, as well as the psychotic personality portrayed in the Old Testament, disclose (god-) concepts fashioned by human minds. Martin Foreman hits the nail squarely on the head when he writes[2]:

“No self-respecting human author, far less an all-knowing deity, would suggest (the Bible) is worthy to be considered a holy text

Catholics at least are somewhat less predictable than Protestants, maybe because Catholics were forbidden to read the Bible for centuries, so didn’t develop the incredible fetishism and obsessive dependence displayed by many evangelical Protestants

8) Red Herring:

In any argument or debate with a diehard cultural warrior, the most anticipated tactic is always the red herring. This tried and true ruse represents an effort to re-direct a debate away from its central issue to a marginal or peripheral one.


Look at all the crime, the murders and the drugs going on! If it weren’t for atheists we’d have none of these!

"Socialism has always failed because it seeks to steal from those who create the jobs, and produce the goods!"

In fact, none of the above are remotely related to, or effects from, the cause imputed. More atheists aren't going to increase crime (there are fewer atheists per capita in prisons than any other group), nor are socialists going to "steal" from those who create jobs.

In each case the red herring exploiter seeks to take attention off the real causes of whatever problems are under discussion and deflect them to a specious scapegoat or smokescreen cause. Thus, poverty and extreme economic inequality aren't examined as the primary sources of crime, drugs etc. - but instead atheism is blamed.  Similarly, an inefficient, capitalist economic model isn't examined  (based on the Pareto distribution) for why its sundry aspects fail in a low aggregate demand society. Instead,  Socialists are blamed for trying to "steal" the means of production - when in fact the alleged job creators are merely sitting on their money and doing nothing- leaving millions jobless - yes, who would have jobs under Socialism because tax monies would be used for capital works- alternate energy programs and not launching wars or specious spending.

9)Fallacy of Ambipholy:

Any statement or argument characterized by ambipholy contains imprecise grammar or syntax which permits one or more interpretations and hence is designed to mislead.  (Give only one of the interpretations will be accurate).   This fallacy generally occurs when a person attempts to support a conclusion using a faulty interpretation of a grammatically ambiguous statement.


Pons and Fleischmann's demonstration of cold fusion showed that we can obtain energy from nuclear fusion.

Here the mixup is between "cold fusion" and nuclear fusion, thereby leading too many readers to believe they are the same thing, but they are not. Pons and Flesichmann basically conducted their experiments at room temperatures while genuine nuclear fusion requires temperatures such as developed in special machines called tokamaks, e.g.

In addition, the cold fusion experiments never generated excess heat (thermal energy) beyond the limits of measurement errors.

A more prosaic example - from modern advertising:

"This mattress comes with a lifetime guarantee!"

With this statement in the advertisement, the consumer assumes the product is guaranteed for as long as she lives whereas a careful reading of the fine print actually reveals the guarantee refers to the life of the product, the mattress. In other words, when the mattress goes, it goes! THAT'S the lifetime!

Of course, the classic case of ambipholy - as Fr. Hecker informed us - was in Croesus, King of Lydia.  The story has it that the King asked an oracle if he could be assured a great victory in going to war with Persia.  The oracle replied: "You will destroy a great kingdom" - which Croesus interpreted to mean Persia.   So Croesus confidently went to war unaware the kingdom to be destroyed was his own.

10)The Straw Man fallacy:

This one is often used in political campaigns so we ought to be especially aware of it now with the midterms scheduled in 25 days.   The basic strategy is to set up a "straw" person who can be knocked down easier than the real one. In this case the straw is a dubious argument.  In effect, the opponent's argument is construed in the least sympathetic way possible or an earlier incident or event is elaborated on in the most deleterious fashion. Example:

"If the Democrats take over the House they will take away your tax cuts and use the money for 'Medicare for All."

In fact the Demos will do no such thing since the tax cuts passed last year are already law. What they CAN do is vote to prevent an extension of the existing tax cuts - which are projected to add more than $2 trillion to the deficit.

Another straw man to expect:

"The Senate Judiciary Democrats tried to destroy a good man during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and used the presumption of guilt instead of innocence"

They Senate Judiciary Dems did no such thing because the hearing was NOT a trial and Kavanaugh was not a "defendant" or the "accused".  He was a former federal judge now about to be promoted to the highest court and legal position in the land.  Hence, the hearing was a rigorous job interview nothing more. In any similar corporate capacity - with so much at stake (a nearly 30-40 year job position) do you really believe any LESS grilling would be done? If so,  you live in Wonderland.

Be aware this political season of the arguments trotted out in whatever venue, and see if you can apply critical thinking to validate them.

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