Thursday, October 06, 2005

Pitchforking Babies

Within seconds of publishing the previous post, I read this wonderful piece by Tom Kreitzberg. Tom is talking about the "logical standards" that it is tempting to apply in every day conversations and he raises the question of how reasonable (!) it is to have such expectations in such conversations:
Not that I deny there is such a thing as "foolish consistency." Insisting on the same prudential actions in different situations with obvious and relevant distinctions could be described that way.

It seems to me, though, that, on the list of all the faults we humans are heir to, "consistency" of any kind wouldn't rank very high. On the contrary, I'd say foolish inconsistency is far more common.
We want to hold people to logical standards because that's what enables dialectical progress, and when folks are inconsistent, it's impossible to get anywhere with them in a conversation. But Tom is one of the finest judges of human nature that I know:
This thought came to me after reading a comment elsewhere that I took strong exception to. I ran through a list of the direct logical corollaries of that statement, picked out a particularly bad one, and began to compose a reply along the lines of, "Oh, really? If you think that, then you must think this."

I stopped myself before sending it. When people say such things to me, they're often wrong, because "this" in no way follows from "that." Before I fired off my unanswerable answer, I wanted to make sure that the this I had picked really did follow as the night the day from the that the other fellow had asserted.

That's when it occurred to me: It doesn't matter whether the this followed from the that. I was dealing with a human being, and human beings are perfectly capable of holding, in fact quite likely to hold, contradictory positions. The fact that P implies Q by no means means the fact I hold P implies I hold Q. "If you think that, then you must think this" ain't so.

One consequence is that devastating replies aren't always so devastating. "If you're right, then there's nothing wrong with pitchforking babies!" may be logically true, but it can be countered by a foolishly inconsistent, "Please, I'm not saying it's okay to pitchfork babies."
This is just marvelous stuff, and I quote it at length because it is said so much more eloquently than I could have said it, yet it is precisely what I have often thought myself.

Perhaps it borders on being a venial sin to become overly irritated by the logical inconsistency of the person on the street; if so, then it is a sin that I am particularly prone to. I can't really blame anyone but myself, but it is tempting to blame my job, since philosophy is particularly anal-retentive when it comes to logical consistency. Socrates, in fact, can be said to have shaped all of Western philosophy in the manner of his own method, the Socratic ad hominem, which had no other purpose than to show folks that they hold inconsistent beliefs and to get them to revise, reject, or reform whatever might be inconsistent in their worldview.

The "Socratic ad hominem" argument is really nothing more than the so-called "Socratic Method" that some folks may already have heard about. It is an "ad hominem" argument in the sense that it adopts the attitudes and presuppositions of some other person and uses them against that person's own point of view. (Note that this is not the usual sense of the expression "ad hominem"--in many contexts the phrase denotes a personal attack rather than an argument, but the Socratic ad hominem is not fallacious--it is in fact a valid argument form.) The way it usually works is this. Socrates would ask his interlocutor to say what he really thinks about some subject, and then, having elicited some kind of commitment from his interlocutor, Socrates would proceed to ask questions about that commitment that were designed to expose the logical consequences of maintaining the commitment. Eventually a logical consequence would be exposed that the interlocutor himself did not agree with. Since this unhappy result was the direct consequence of having that initial commitment, the interlocutor would be forced, on pain of irrationality, to either accept the unaccaptable consequence or else reject the initial commitment.

None of this would work at all if folks were not interested in having "rational beliefs", rational in the sense of cohering. Anyone can fill a basket full of incompatible beliefs pretty easily: "I believe abortion is wrong, but I also believe it's right; I believe capital punishment is wrong, but I also believe it's right..." etc. But it might be rather embarrassing to have others look through your basket when it's filled with that kind of stuff. What most of us really want is a basket full of beliefs that at least appear to be reasonably related to each other. That's what the Socratic ad hominem is designed to assess: is it, in fact, the case, that your beliefs are rational in this sense? If not, it's time to clean out your basket.

One way to approach Tom's worry that "'If you think that, then you must think this' ain't so" is to replace the "must" with "ought to". We're talking rational normativity here: if I believe that p entails q, and I also believe p, then I ought to believe q even if I do not, in fact, believe q. And others may reasonably expect me to believe q. If I don't believe q, that is a problem with me, not with the expectations of others. I am not fitting in to the rational discourse game that is human society. I am making myself, literally, a misfit.

Well, I can't write as well as Tom Kreitzberg, or reason as well as Socrates, but I suppose I can bitch about as well as anybody. And, all appearances to the contrary, of course I'm not advocating pitchforking babies.


Tom P. said...

Most human beings have responsibilities so we usually don't have time to think the consequences of every belief we hold through to the end. Socrates probably had slaves to do things like change the cat box so he could sit on the couch and ruminate over philosophy stuff but most of us are just muddling through between fixing dinner and picking up the kids from soccer practice. Asking people to think through every belief they hold to their logical conclusion is a bit much. Me, I'm a mess of illogical thinking but I'm just trying to get through the day.

Scott Carson said...

It seems to me that the difficulty is not so much that people are inconsistent--I agree that few of us have the kind of time (or inclination!) that Socrates had for the examination of logical consequences--but rather that they refuse to see their inconsistencies when they are pointed out to them. There is a kind of intellectual pride, or hubris, or something involved, that has the effect of making us stick to our guns in the face of compelling arguments against us.

Is this, too, just a matter of time? Would we be persuaded to change our views if we could devote more time to hearing the arguments to the contrary? I doubt it. I think it has more to do with stubbornness, and a desire to be right. Don't get me wrong--I've come across folks who were capable of seeing their own mistakes and of changing their views. I've even done it myself! But, like many people, I can be pretty pig-headed and I'm fairly sure it isn't because I'm right all the time, and my own experience, not only with students but with colleagues and others, has been that folks very rarely change their most deeply held convictions even when presented with compelling reasons to do so.

Probably it's just human nature.