So you’ve decided to invoke Godwin’s Law during an Internet flame war, huh? Nathan Zimmerman explains why you need to think twice about that.
Hello all—thanks for checking out the Good Mind Project. Go here to see the inaugural post. As we explained last time, Ben and I would like to explore some of the more interesting lessons we’ve taken away from a close study of philosophy. Our goal here is not to explore the discipline’s more esoteric topics so much as to create a small space for those interested in reflecting on the patterns of reasoning that make them whatthey are so that they—and we—might be better for it.
Today, we’d like to talk about a topic that is very important to us as it is one of the most general principles of good reasoning and, despite this, remains cloaked in mystery to many. I’m going to show you this most powerful logical tool and demonstrate that you already employ it whether or not you are aware. In addition, if I’m successful, you’ll never—EVER—dismiss an application of Godwin’s law out of hand again.
Suppose you’re going to visit your friend who, let’s say, lives in a city that you’ve never been to. To get there, you must rely on your GPS, as it provides you with directions that get you to where you need to go faster than any alternative decision procedure available to you. Let’s just say that you believe it when it tells you to turn left (even if the damned thing tells you at the very last second).
On the way there, the GPS guides you over a bridge and, once in the middle of it, tells you to take a hard right turn. Instinctively you get ready to turn but, seeing the long drop to a watery grave that awaits you, you decide it best to take the guidance of your GPS with a grain of salt. It appears you can no longer fully believe its directions: it is only a dumb machine, after all.
The principle I’m talking about has been understood since at least Aristotle and has been an essential building block in every major discipline our culture has seen fit to support through the university. Not only would there never have been a Kant or a Descartes if the reductio had not its important place in mankind’s rational apparatus, there never would have been a moon landing or a Model T or—and this point can be known with deductive certainty—the computer on which you read this article. It is known as the Reductio ad Absurdam, which translates to ‘reduction to absurdity’. Its form is that of a weighing of two potential outcomes from a given train of thought.
1) you choose to follow an inferential trail wherever it may lead (Ah yes, I suppose that since I believe that the USA is wholly good, and the USA has fought for oppression and fascism on more than one occasion, it follows that this oppression and those fascisms were good from the broadest and most true perspective!)
2) you abandon the principle which would have led you to such catastrophic and absurd conclusions (Oh my! I had thought that the US of A was wholly good but now am aware of its support for oppression and fascism. I suppose I’m left to conclude that the USA isn’t always the good guy.).
So, how does one properly deal with a reduction to absurdity? There are a three possibilities. Choose your own adventure:
1) Accept the validity of a reductio and either:
a) hold strong with your convictions, bite the bullet, and admit that whatever potentially nasty conclusion is being pointed to is (perhaps sadly) the case
b) yield to the great and awful consequences of the reductio, abandoning the misguided principle which led you there
2) attempt to undercut it.
Undercutting a reductio is not altogether simple. It requires practice and a keen perception of the pivot points around which inferential connections turn. It is important to note here that the successful reduction to absurdity is not a mere connection that is drawn between two notions. There’s nothing evil about brushing one’s teeth or wearing sweaters just because many of the worst Nazis (told you Godwin’s law would come up) did both with some regularity. The important question is not what, in particular, one is denying or affirming. Rather, the question is as to what the principle or guiding notion is on the basis of which an action is carried out or a belief held.Think back to the car example: you wouldn’t merely dismiss the notion that this direction was right. Instead, drawn as we all are to an explanation which has the twin virtues of simplicity and a wide applicability, you would see past the mere fact that the device got a point wrong to the principle that it can get things wrong generally and should only be trusted so far.
Medieval philosophers used to say, “where there is contradiction, introduce a distinction”. What they meant is this: if, in your believing something to be the case, a would-be contradiction rears its ugly head (a contradiction between two of your beliefs is another way of talking about our topic today) you can only hope to escape it by saying exactly how the principle on which you hold that which is potentially absurd differs from the principle which has the unwanted consequences.
This has already gone on a bit too long, I’m afraid, for the medium. I’ll cut to the chase and hopefully revisit this very interesting and very important topic in the near future. For now, you should take this much away: a reductio ad absurdam so powerful and brazen as the one which would tie your position to Nazism should be welcomed rather than shunned or laughed at. It is a very powerful reduction on which nearly everyone agrees (obviously, if your position DOES entail Nazism—or, as in many attempts to carve out a morally relativistic framework, the acceptableness of Nazism—it’s almost certainly wrong). In addition, because the reduction is so ludicrous, your job as defender of a position is that much easier. It provides a very simple opportunity for you to introduce a distinction which will clarify the more exact shape of your position to yourself and to your interlocutors.
If you like this article or our goal here at the good mind project, We encourage you to try and apply the reductio as you watch the news or debate politics with a colleague. Above all, the Good Mind Project can be part of the Good Men Project because the development of a good mind is such a crucial part of being a good person. Please leave comments, questions, and arguments below—having a good mind is not something one does in isolation.