Philosophical Multicore

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Archive for the ‘Rationality’ Category

In Defense of Moral Investigation

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 31, 2012

Some argue that certain claims about the nature of reality could cause people to become more immoral. Examples of such suppositions include:

1. People should follow Christianity because we will be more moral if we have to avoid eternal damnation.
2. The theory of evolution says that since people evolved from bacteria and have no immortal souls, human lives are worthless. Therefore, we can rape and kill each other and there’s nothing wrong with that.
3. The theory of evolution says that people should act selfishly all the time.
4. If free will doesn’t exist, people will be free to hurt and kill each other and won’t be held responsible.

Such arguments are bogus. Any new information about reality, if properly understood (that part is important), can only cause people to become more ethical. Morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand morality.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Ethics, Rationality, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Ethos, Pathos, Logos

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 16, 2012

These three concepts constitute Aristotle’s appeals: ethos, an appeal to character; pathos, an appeal to emotion; and logos, an appeal to logic. Although these rhetorical strategies have a longstanding history, this three-pronged model does not effectively represent honest rhetoric.


Ethos usually manifests as an appeal to authority, in which the author explains that his argument comes from a credible source and is therefore correct. This is not a distinct type of argument, but actually a subset of logos. An appeal to authority, when done properly, forms a logical argument:

1. This authority figure is usually correct on this subject.
2. This authority figure claims X is true.
3. Therefore, X is probably true.

Of course, an appeal to authority can be done improperly, such as when it uses a non-expert or makes a more strict claim than it can (i.e., this authority figure claims X is true, therefore X must be true). Such incorrect applications are fallacious. But when used correctly, an appeal to authority—ethos—is simply a type of logos.

Sometimes, ethos may represent the reverse: an attempt to demonstrate that one’s opponent is not credible—an argument ad hominem. This type of argument is nearly always fallacious. And in this case as well, if it is not fallacious then it can be expressed as a logical argument and is therefore a subset of logos.


Of Aristotle’s three strategies, pathos has the least sway. An appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy: it represents an attempt to subvert the reader’s sense of reason. According to Fallacy Files, “Appeals to emotion are always fallacious when intended to influence our beliefs, but they are sometimes reasonable when they aim to motivate us to act.” (More on this second clause in a future essay.)

The emotional appeal probably occurs more frequently than any other logical fallacy, but that makes it no less fallacious. A strong rhetorician makes frequent use of emotional appeals, but an honest debater uses emotion only as a supplement to logical argumentation, and only, as Fallacy Files explains, to motivate the reader to action.


Logos—the appeal to logic—represents the only true means of argumentation. Any other form of argument is, by definition, unsound. Logos is the only of Aristotle’s appeals that holds serious rational merit, and therefore deserves the greatest consideration. Ethos and pathos do not deserve to rest on the same plane as logos; any non-logical form of argumentation exists either to supplement or to subvert logic.

A Better Model

Sound argument rests not on three pillars, but on one: the pillar of logic. But there is no reason to consider argumentation as a single thing: one could devise a number of models to represent the process of rational thought in different terms. It could be represented as the unity of pure reason a priori and factual information a posteriori; it could be thought of as a logical core with branches representing the myriad logical fallacies. Either of these models would make a more effective model than Aristotle’s appeals, and surely there exist even better models than these.

Instead of teaching Aristotle’s rhetorical devices to debaters and writers, we should teach how to speak and write persuasively without resorting to logical fallacies, and how to identify and respond to fallacious reasoning when others use it. If people understand how to form strong logical arguments and avoid emotional appeals and reactions, we as a society will be empowered to make wiser decisions—and side with the people who are the most correct rather than the most persuasive.

Posted in Debate, Rationality | 2 Comments »

A Question of Burden

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 16, 2010

Burden of proof is an issue that is often muddled or misunderstood. I will not be addressing burden of proof in general; rather, I am going to focus on a particular situation.

There are many cases in which one side is arguing to allow a particular behavior, and the other side is arguing against it. The opponent asks, Why should this behavior be allowed?

There are myriad examples. Three rather prominent ones are, Why should gays be allowed to marry? Why should people under 18 be allowed to vote? Why should people be allowed to carry guns?

In some cases, the opponent will take this argument a little further. People don’t need to carry guns, so there is no reason to allow people to legally carry guns. Or, minors don’t need to vote. Most teenagers just care about Britney Spears’ latest song. They’re not interested in politics.

These questions misconstrue the concept of burden of proof. They do so because of a certain well-established human right: liberty.

It is widely agreed that, all else being equal, liberty is a good thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. The likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson argued for the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property. (And if you think about it, these three rights can be compressed into the single supreme right of liberty.) Libertarianism (the philosophy, not just the political party) is founded on the concept of self-ownership, a synonym for liberty. Kantian Deontology dictates that we treat other people as ends rather than as means — that is, that we do not restrict their liberty. Even Utilitarianism strongly supports the idea of liberty, although not quite so severely: in most cases, liberty is conducive to maximizing utility.

From this, we can infer that liberty should be maximized whenever possible. Our justice system reflects this. Even laws that restrict liberty are ultimately intended to increase liberty overall. For example, our freedom is restricted in the case of murder because if we murder someone, that completely robs them of their liberty.

I expect it is widely agreed upon that, all else being equal, liberty is preferential to restriction. This can be seen anecdotally. Many of what are considered to be the most horrible of situations are based primarily upon a restriction of freedom: slavery, imprisonment, and even death are all excellent examples. The more restrictive it is, the more suffering it will entail.

Now that we have examined the topic of liberty, we are equipped to answer the first three questions. Why should gays be allowed to marry? Why should people under 18 be allowed to vote? Why should people be allowed to carry guns?

The response is, why not? Liberty is preferential to restriction. All else being equal, we ought to allow gays to marry. We ought to allow anyone to vote. We ought to allow people to carry guns. In fact, all else being equal, we ought to allow people to marry animals and carry nuclear weapons. So why don’t we?

We don’t allow people to marry animals or carry nuclear weapons because, in those cases, all else is not equal. Animals cannot offer consent to marriage, so the contract would be meaningless and to enforce it would be to restrict the freedom of the animal. Furthermore, this would nearly always be used as an excuse to reap the legal benefits of marriage without the difficulty of marrying an actual person — in very few cases would someone actually be in love with an animal. In the case of carrying a nuclear weapon, the risks far outweigh the benefits.

Even as obvious as those arguments were, it is still my side’s responsibility to make those arguments. I was arguing for the restriction of liberty. If those arguments had never been made, then we would be morally obligated to allow inter-species marriage and the carrying of WMDs. However, since those arguments were made, we have legitimate reason to restrict freedom in those cases.

Am I saying that no one has ever made an argument for why gay marriage should be illegal, or for why minors should not be able to vote, or for why guns should be banned? Not at all. Rather, I am addressing the specific argument that attempts to shift the burden of proof. The question is not why we should allow these things. The question is why we should NOT allow these things. By default, we are allowed to do anything. Liberty cannot be restricted without a good reason, and this is why the question of why we should allow something is not a legitimate one.

Posted in Debate, Rationality | Leave a Comment »

Median Utilitarianism

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 17, 2010

Recently I’ve been thinking about different sorts of averages. The mean average is the most common: add up all the values, and divide by how many values there are. But another useful average is the median average: put all the values in a line, and take the one in the middle. This is useful for some types of averages. For example, if you want to find the average person’s income, the mean would not be very accurate since people like Bill Gates would push the average up. But a median average would be more reasonable.

This got me to thinking about Utilitarianism. On one particular axis, the two types of Utilitarianism are what could be called Average Utilitarianism and Total Utilitarianism. They may have more proper names, but I think that those are descriptive enough. The basic idea there is that Total Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering overall, while Average Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering only for the average person. This is when I started thinking about what kind of average we’re talking about here. Mean average is the type that people usually talk about. But using a median average would possibly be more advantageous. For example, it would be the solution to problems such as the Mere Addition Paradox, also known as the Repugnant Conclusion. The basic idea is that, according to Total Utilitarianism, a great massive population filled with people whose lives are barely worth living is more valuable than a small population filled with people whose lives are rich and enjoyable. Median Utilitarianism solves this problem (so does Mean Utilitarianism).

Another problem solved by Median Utilitarianism is the problem of the Utility Monster. The best description I can find on the web is from a blog:

The “utility monster” was one of philosopher Robert Nozick’s objections to utilitarian theory.

Nozick postulated a creature who received 100 units of utility (pleasure, happiness) per unit of resource consumption, in a universe where everybody else received 1 unit of utility per unit of resource consumption. In this type of universe, Nozick argued, utilitarian would require that all of the people who got lesser utility be sacrificed (give up any and all resources) to the utility monster. This moral demand for sacrifice, however, is absurd. Therefore, basic utilitarianism is defeated by means of a reduction to absurdity.

Median Utilitarianism fixes this problem on an intuitive level. By Median Utilitarianism, making more and more people unhappy to support the happiness of one being is not actually a good thing, since it reduces median happiness — but notice that it still increases total and mean happiness.

Median Utilitarianism probably has problems of its own, but it resolves these two objections to Utilitarian moral theory.

Posted in Ethics, Rationality, Utilitarianism | 4 Comments »

Dumb Quote by Supposedly Smart Person

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 14, 2009

If you can conceive of morality without god, why can you not conceive of society without government?
~ Peter Saint-André

Let me answer that question with a question: If you can conceive of morality without god, why can you not conceive of peaches without apples?

(Both questions used the same logic.)

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Philosophy, Rationality | 1 Comment »

Straw Man Argument: the Most Powerful Fallacy Known to Man

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 9, 2009

The Straw Man Argument is a very commonly used fallacy in the world of debating. And no wonder: it’s incredibly powerful. If used correctly, it can be highly deceptive and very difficult to notice. If done poorly, of course, it doesn’t work at all. But what matters not is the tools that you possess; what matters is that you can effectively utilize them to achieve your goals.

So what exactly is this infamous Straw Man Argument? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Debate, Rationality | Leave a Comment »

Why Descartes Was Wrong

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 14, 2009

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Descartes uttered the famous words: “I think, therefore I am.” Actually he said “Cogito, ergo sum” since back then whenever a cool person thought of a cool thing to say, he would say it in Latin. Aren’t you glad you don’t live during the Enlightenment?

When it comes down to it, though, this logic is flawed. “I think” bears an inherent assumption of existence. So “I think, therefore I am” begs the question. Is it possible to fix this flaw? Well, we can avoid begging the question by saying “There are thoughts, therefore I am.” But this doesn’t make sense. You could use this to prove that anything exists. And unless you think, you don’t know if you exist. So we can say “There are thoughts, therefore there is existence.” But once again this begs the question.

What about “There is an experience of an entity having thoughts, therefore an entity must exist.” This is more complicated and may look promising, but ultimately it too begs the question. An experience must be had by some entity. So we cannot even be sure that there are experiences.

In conclusion, we know nothing, not even our own existence. Which is interesting, since by saying “we” I am already assuming that we exist.

Posted in Philosophy, Rationality | 9 Comments »

The Real Occam’s Razor

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 4, 2009

“Never increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything” – William of Occam

And as a bonus, an Albert Einstein quote:

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

Posted in Rationality | Leave a Comment »

Omnipotence and Everything

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 1, 2009

This is an exploration into the world of omnipotence and everything, and an alternative proof that omnipotence is impossible. (The original proof is in the form of a question: “Can an omnipotent being create a rock so large that even the being cannot lift it?”)

Omnipotence can be defined like this:

An omnipotent being is one that can do everything.

The problem is, what is “everything”? Time for set theory.

Imagine a set S. If there is some item i not contained in set S, then S is not the set of everything. If no such item i exists, then S is the set of everything.

In this case, S contains all command. An omnipotent being should be able to perform every command in set S. Since S contains all commands, it contains some command which we will call P: “do not ever execute any command in set S.” It is impossible to comply with this. To not execute any command requires that the being not exist, since existence itself is a command. If you have trouble buying that, think of it like this: set S contains some command “continue to exist.” The being must be able to comply with this. But it is impossible to comply with this and with P. Therefore, it is impossible to do everything.

While we are in this set, let’s look at some other contradictions. There must be some command “stop existing”; this conflicts with “continue to exist.” Only one of them can be done. Additionally, since one has to either exist or not exist, one of these two commands has to be performed; no matter which one it is, it contradicts action P.

Assuming that there are infinitely many possible commands, there must also be infinitely many possible commands of the form “do not ever . . . .” These commands are extremely restricting, and more contradictions pop up. For every single “do not ever X”, there is an “always X”, and these are also contradictory. So not only is there one contradiction, but there are infinitely many contradictions.

Set theory can work wonders to destroy the concept of omnipotence.

Posted in Rationality | 9 Comments »

Appeal to Authority is a Necessary Evil

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 25, 2009

An appeal to authority goes like this:

1. Person A believes B.
2. Person A is an expert on the subject of B.
3. Therefore, B is true.

This is clearly fallacious. However, an appeal to authority is sometimes useful with scientific topics. My explanation goes something like this:

1. There is too much knowledge on the given subject for one person to have it all.
2. An expert is more likely to have more knowledge than the average person.
3. I am an average person.
4. Therefore, an expert’s opinion is probably based on more and better information than mine.
5. Therefore, an expert is more likely to be right than I am.
6. Therefore, I should trust an expert’s opinion.

This works in many situations. For example, I do not know the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem. But expert mathematicians say that the proof is sound, so I trust them. This does not prove that the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem is sound, but at least we have good reason to believe it.

Posted in Rationality | Leave a Comment »

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