Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Courtier's Impertinent Reply

Not an actual courtier; then again, it's not an actual logical fallacy

In looking for that picture, I came across the alleged (Wikipedia is right, for once) logical fallacy of the "courtier's reply."  It apparently goes like this:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
So there you are:  the man who laughs at commonly accepted knowledge is the wise child perceiving the Emperor is naked.  And to fail to understand this, on the basis that the child is uneducated and simple, rather than wise in innocence and ignorance, is to court logical fallacious reasoning.

The irony here is that P.Z. Myers is a biologist by training (reportedly; I can't vouch for anything except the name), not a logician.  Were I to say in my ignorance cum innocence that biology was bosh, he would undoubtedly reject my reasoning as the product of an unlearned mind, and a fine example of foolishness, to boot.  He would not be wrong.  But without any training in logic (which is a field of study and human thought as old as Aristotle, and as complex as Godel's Theorem of Incompleteness, which I doubt Mr. Myers could read and understand anymore than I can), he declares to understand logic enough to identify a new fallacy of reasoning.

Logic is very close to mathematics (which is the reason Godel's theorem was a reply to Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, and why the theorem itself creates a formula, a near algebraic one, to establish its proof.).  The logic used by Godel is modal logic:  it involves symbols and signs indicating functions, much as mathematics does; but it has its own symbols and signs and uses them in ways arithmetic and calculus and other forms of mathematics, do not.  Still, the idea is to eliminate lexical issues of the kind that so annoyed Wittgenstein (who knew better than to apply such formal reasoning to all human concerns; that's where Russell foundered and why Whitehead abandoned the project for a quasi-theological tome).  The lexical problem shows up in a simple syllogism:

Major premise:  All humans are mortal.
Minor premise:  Socrates is mortal.
Conclusion:       Socrates is human.

That is an actual logical fallacy.  It's called the fallacy of the undistributed middle.  If you don't read carefully, you won't note the problem immediately.  If I rewrite it as pseudo-modal logic (I don't have the chops myself, though I studied it briefly in college decades ago, and I'm not going to figure out how to make the correct symbols on this keyboard), it looks kind of like this:

All H are M.
S is M.
S is H.

Still not perfectly clear, I suppose, although clearer that the class of things with the characteristic "M" are "H", but that does not mean all "M" are "H".  Modal logic has rules and set formulae (sort of like knowing "2+2=4" without doing the calculation, or remembering the multiplication tables) which would establish the error, to the logician, as casually as we accept "2+2=5" is wrong.  If you don't know modal logic, of course, you don't know that, though you can reason it out.  Now, can we reduce Myers' alleged fallacy to symbols, the better to understand it?  Only if you can tell me what it is in the first place, because while the Wiki interpretation makes sense, it doesn't necessarily derive from the quoted passage. Besides, there's the problem of the shuffle, as the example itself replaces real arguments with Myers' straw-man versions.  The whole thing is shot through with chop logic to the point it doesn't say anything.  But to say P.Z. Myers is not a logician and doesn't understand logic, is not to court the alleged fallacy of the courtier's reply.  It is, in fact, to prove there is no fallacy, nor even an appeal to authority (Wikipedia identifies the fallacy as a sort of appeal to authority; if it identified a legitimate fallacy in reasoning.). Myers' argument is an appeal to ignorance; which is a logical fallacy.

The appeal to authority is a tricky one.  On the one hand, to shut down argument because "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!" is certainly a logical fallacy, being an appeal to authority.  But has P.Z. Myers recapitulated personally every scientific study he learned in school, to verify independently the validity of such studies?  Or has he accepted the reasoning behind the conclusions because that is what he was taught, because he took those teachings as authority?  There has to be an appeal to authority, or we have to reinvent the wheel with every individual born.  The legitimacy of the appeal is the issue; not the appeal itself.

This argument came up, per the Wikipedia article (my authority for this, such as it is), in the context of Dawkins' challenge to the existence of God in The God Delusion.  I've written about that and Terry Eagleton's criticism of Dawkins on the subject, and even the arguments about the existence of God (there's probably a lot of overlap in those links), so I won't belabor the subjects here.  Suffice to say the Courtier's Reply is called by critics the "Myers' shuffle" for good reason, if only because the alleged logical fallacy seems to apply (again, per the Wiki article) only to arguments about the existence of God.  Again, I've addressed this subject before, though I think Kierkegaard did it better almost 2 centuries ago:

It is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists-worse still, for the brave souls who venture to do it, the difficulty is of such a kind that fame by no means awaits those who are preoccupied with it. The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore, whether I am moving in the world of sensate palpability or in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who does indeed exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium [addition] or the eternal prius [pre-supposition], it can never be demonstrated. We shall take our time; after all, there is no reason for us to rush as there is for those who, out of concern for themselves, or for the god, or for something else, must rush to get proof that something exists. In that case, there is good reason to make haste, especially if the one involved has in all honesty made an accounting of the danger that he himself or the object being investigated does not exist until he proves it and does not dishonestly harbor the secret thought that essentially it exists whether he demonstrates it or not.

If one wanted to demonstrate Napoleon's existence from Napoleon's works, would it not be most curious, since his existence certainly explains the works but the works do not demonstrate his existence unless I have already in advanace interpreted the word "his" in such a way as to have assumed that he exists. But Napoleon is only an individual, and to that extent there is no absolute relation between him and his works-thus someone else could have done the same works. Perhaps that is why I cannot reason from the works to existence. If I call the works Napoleon's works, then the demonstration is superfluous, since I have already" mentioned his name. If I ignore this, I can never demonstrate from the works that they are Napoleon's but demonstrate (purely ideally) that such works are the works of a great general etc. However between the god and his works there is an absolute relation. God is not a name but a concept, and perhaps because of that his essentia involvit existentiam [essence involves existence].

Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments.

Another reason to have some reading under your belt.  I'm not sure what the biological (read: scientific) definition of "existence" is, but I'm sure it's not the one used by philosophers of religion (who debate the existence of God), nor of phenomenologists (who discuss the nature of existence and being), nor even of the average person (who doesn't spend much time on these subjects).  Johannes Climacus can argue that essence involves existence (a philosophical argument of some age now), but he also points out that to argue about the existence of God one must first accept such existence is possible, and then why prove it?  If you don't accept the possibility, how is it proven?  Or, as Climacus put it:

If, namely the god does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then of course it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it, since I, in the very moment the demonstration commences, would presuppose it not as doubtful--which a presupposition cannot be, inasmuch as it is a presupposition--but as decided, because otherwise I would not begin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist. If, however, I interpret the expression "to demonstrate the existence of the god" to mean that I want to demonstrate that the unknown, which exists, is the god, than I do not express myself very felicitously, for then I demonstrate nothing, least of all an existence, but I develop the definiteness of a concept.

And the definiteness of a concept is a philosophical pursuit, no matter how much Myers may wants to insist it is an empirical one (itself a philosophy which defines concepts, and I'm guessing Myers isn't a very philosophical guy).  It's going 'round the mulberry bush (or the prickly pear, if you prefer to update), but that's about all it is.  Conclusive, decisive, definitive, it is not.  And just to point this out is to point out again the error of the "courtier's reply."  An argument from ignorance is not an argument; it's just ignorance.

P.Z. Myers is sitting at the kiddie's table throwing food while adults, the real thinkers like Kierkegaard and Derrida and Godel and Aristotle and Wittgenstein, have an adult conversation in another room.

1 comment:

  1. I think what Meyers and Dawkins do could be considered an appeal to arrogance of the kind that is hardly unknown to scientists. What they're doing is appealing to their fellow scientists' enjoyment of a status of wisdom based on their expertise and how those outside of the scientistic priesthood don't understand their work. Those are the wannabees that populate the blog threads of Meyers' blogs and who buy Dawkins' books.

    I've got to make some time to read Kierkegaard. I wish I had spent less time with simplistic nonsense and more with theologians.