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‘And debate with them in the best of ways’; two logical fallacies.

In General Discussion on March 4, 2012 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu

😀

So, as you may have guessed, a lot of my posts have a strong relation to arguments I get to on the Wild West of discussion that is the internet. I thought I would discuss a couple of logical fallacies in relation to good discussion, and relate them to my previous post as well as the concept of adhab in Islam.

So to start with, we have what is called the ad hominem fallacy. This fallacy is often colloquially used to refer to insults, but it is more than that. The ad hominem fallacy is an argument that, rather than focussing on the points made, focuses on the character of the person making the points. Now it should stand to reason that the two are unrelated, yet we as humans often fall into the trap presented by this fallacy.

One of the main ways this occurs is accusations of hypocrisy. An individual will point out a contradiction between what a person advocates in their argument, and what they actually do. In reality an individual’s hypocrisy will rarely have any relationship with an argument (unless, for example, it is an argument about character). If I drank, yet told others not to drink, would my hypocrisy have any bearing upon the validity of my argument about the negative nature of drinking?

Another way this creeps in is through arguments about an individual’s motivation. It is a common tactic in discussions to point out that a person’s background is the reason behind the argument they are making. That may be true, but what does it have to do with the validity of the argument they are making? Nothing. A Palestinian or Israeli’s investment in the conflict does not make either of their claims more or less true. The truth of their arguments is what defines the truth of their arguments!

Finally, the most classic form of ad hominem is the aforementioned insults. If I’m thick as a block of wood, it won’t make me saying ‘one plus one equals two’ any less true. The character of an individual, any flaws, physical characteristics or anything else, are irrelevant to any points they make.

It is important to be able to both identify ad hominem in other’s points as well as your own. The first is in order to point out what is a cheap or ignorant tactic in a debate. The second is purely a matter of good conduct! You must remember that you never have to resort to ad hominem. Indeed if you do, you are showing that you do not trust your own arguments. As Allah says: ‘and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious’[1], not only does ridding your argument of such fallacies make them more sound, it will be an act of good adhab (manners) and an emulation of Prophetic character.

The second is related to the first, in that it is about irrelevant points of discussion. It is called the non sequitur fallacy. The literal meaning of non sequitur is ‘it does not follow’ and is similar to ad hominem (Latin for ‘to the man’) in that it is both easy to make and quite common, despite being easy to spot. A non sequitur fallacy is when there is a disconnection between two parts of someone’s argument. It can also refer to a point made against another argument that has nothing to do with it.

An example of the latter type of mistake would be me pointing out that ‘I think that Mushroom is disgusting, because it is a fungus and has a horrible slimy texture when cooked’. To which the person committing the fallacy would reply with ‘but mushrooms are a good source of protein’. While the point the person is making may be true, it does not relate to my assertion. It is thus a non sequitur.

An example of the former would be someone saying ‘you are critical of people un-critically accepting narratives, post-structuralists reject absolute truth narratives, and therefore you are a post-structuralist’. The first statement is true, the second statement is true, but the third is not necessarily true, it does not automatically follow.

This type of fallacy is surprisingly common, especially in political debates. They are however easy to avoid, simply by making sure that there is a link between each premise and its conclusion. Avoiding such fallacies is again a matter of good adhab, as non sequiturs are a type of falsehood. When one thing has nothing to do with another thing, but is presented as though it is, one is lying. The non  sequitur is thus often used by people deliberately to distract from the unsupportable nature of their own arguments. ‘Look at how bad it is for the Palestinians, things are worse there than here, so why ask for reform?’ sound familiar?

I pray you are all in the best of health and iman.

Til next time!

Walaykum Salaam Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu.


[1] Surah An-Nahl , Yusuf Ali translation.

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