The Good Mind Project: Absurd Implications of Godwin’s Law

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 what they 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.

If, in your believing something to be the case, and a would-be contradiction rears its ugly head, 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.

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.

Either:
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!)

or

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
-or-
b) yield to the great and awful consequences of the reductio, abandoning the misguided principle which led you there

or

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.

 

Photo–Flickr/Oggie Dog

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About Nathan Zimmerman

Nathan Zimmerman is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied philosophy and the history and philosophy of science. He lives in Philadelphia, where he works in medical consulting.

Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not likely. The reference to Nazism is usually to stifle an otherwise reasonable position. Just as suggesting that one or another thing was better in the Fifties brings accusations of wanting to return to Jim Crow.
    Thus, demonstrating a distinction is a waste of time.
    The other side is not operating in good faith, which is a prerequisite for the effectiveness of the distinction.

  2. Nathan Zimmerman says:

    I’m glad to see an attempted reductio!
    I make the claim that a reference to Nazism shouldn’t be ignored at face value because of powerful form of argument such a reference can take. Pointing to a possible contradiction, Richard suggests that if we took all such references seriously we’d waste our time arguing with imbeciles (which is an absurd result which, I agree, is to be avoided).

    Allow me to resolve this by, as I explain above, introducing a relevant distinction:The problem with the types of argument you point to is not unique to those involving a reference to Nazis or Jim Crow. Seems to me that we’re dealing with one of two things:
    1) someone intentionally making a bad argument because of its rhetorical powers
    or
    2) someone who is incapable (for whatever reason) of properly distinguishing between the essential features of the Nazis and those features which have little or nothing to do with what we find so despicable about them.

    Either way, my original point stands. If 1) is the case, liars and cheats in the game of reasoning ought generally to be ignored. I never sought to defend them. If 2), explaining why the other person is wrong may well help them to understand your position (and how to construct a reductio) more fully. And, as I said, the opportunity to introduce distinction against positions that you hold is an excellent opportunity for you to articulate that position more clearly for your own sake.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nathan. I say again, not likely. There is no number 2. Nobody is that dumb. Nobody.
    I am conservative, a vet, have done civil rights work, read history voraciously, and have been discussing/arguing on the ‘net for years. Never, ever, have I encountered anybody who accepted a distinction in such situations. Never.
    In theory, I accept the fact that there may be somebody as clueless as it is necessary to be to qualify as number 2. There is also no reason not to believe in life on other planets.

  4. Nathan Zimmerman says:

    Richard. Not sure what you’re driving at here. Do people lie? Yes. Do they misrepresent? Yes. Does that relieve us of the duty of thinking about how to interact in the non-vicious cases? Of course not. Why would you “discuss/argue on the ‘net” if no one accepts distinctions? Clearly something’s got to give.

    Anyway, it appears as though this line of thought is not going anywhere and for those readers whose hearts haven’t been hardened to the point that all remaining human interaction is viewed solely through the lens of ulterior motive, my argument may still resonate.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nathan. “hardened heart” and “ulterior motive” may be a dismissive attempt.
    Let’s take an example. Let’s say you hear somebody say that Israel is an apartheid country. Do you think a person who says that will sit still for, much less accept a distinction between Israel and the old South Africa? Do you think there is anybody who, 1, actually believes that, or, 2, is not so stuck on the idea that explaining the difference would actually work? At its most innocent, it’s a scream of pure emotion which got there by roads not involving facts and thus not susceptible to facts.
    Another example. Well-researched paper released today demonstrating that NOAA has been fudging the figures and doubling the warming trend over the last twenty years. IOW, there is no global warming. It’s an artifact of poor or corrupt reporting. We’ve had a hot, dry summer here in the US. If somebody says that proves AGW, and you say, look, southern and southeastern Europe had unprecedented and deadly cold and snow last winter and so we have to look at the globe entirely and maybe our summer isn’t the entire story.. And they say…umm. I guess you’re right. That’s a form of distinction. Also…the response is not happening. Not even.
    So, while distinctions exist, pointing them out rarely changes anything.

  6. Ben Labe says:

    Richard, would you mind citing the article about NOAA that you mentioned? I can’t find it.

    I think that despite your appraisal of peoples’ willingness to accept or grapple honestly with arguments, Nathan’s points still stand. That many people use Nazi analogies to argue in bad faith does not mean that they are always logically incorrect. What can make Nazi analogies so powerful is our near universal disgust of the moral principles of Nazism. If a fair analogy shows that someone is applying one of those principles, then that is a fairly devastating conclusion. It’s helpful to keep in mind two points. The first is that while few people admit in a given instantiation of an argument that they are incorrect, many interlocutors may end up abandoning the bad principles which have led them to make the wrong conclusions when they face later problems. The second is that, and here I’ll invoke the movie “Thank You for Smoking”, when you make arguments in public fora, you and your interlocutor are not the only people who are susceptible to influence. What is often more important is convincing everyone else that you have made the best arguments. Some of them might be equally unwilling to cede, but I maintain faith that there are enough of us who care about discovering the truth that my making arguments is worthwhile. You must too, or else you wouldn’t bother to comment. How you like that for a reductio?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben.
    For pre-release announcement and precis,
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/07/29/press-release-2/#more-68286

    To be literal, using the Nazi analogy is unnecessary. The Nazi moral principles are wrong without being coupled to Nazism and they weren’t invented by Hitler and Wagner or whomever. Using the Nazi reference–or asserting that Israel is an apartheid state, or any of a myriad other examples–is not done because of an ignorance of distinctions, but deliberately to cover over gross distinctions.
    Good point about third parties. Although my argument is not about third parties listening quietly, but about those actively seeking to cover over distinctions or discredit arguments not susceptible to logic and fact.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben. Pre-release announcement
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/07/29/press-release-2/and precis.

  9. Peter Houlihan says:

    I’ve yet to see a reductio ad hitlerum that was actually justified when not directly discussing WW2 or military history. Godwin’s law remains valid.

    • Ben Labe says:

      What makes those two features necessary? aren’t they incidental to the ideology of Nazism rather than essential? On the point of justification: I have certainly seen Nazi analogies that were logically valid and effective. Other analogies could have been used, of course, but as I mentioned earlier, the Nazi analogy works because it is a universal symbol of moral wrongheadedness. Keep in mind that there were plenty of Nazis who genuinely believed that what they were doing was right. That such tendencies might also exist in us is not as absurd as it may seem.

  10. Peter: It is wholly unclear what your argument here is. Not only does your not having seen something not have any bearing on the question of its logical possibility, but I actually gave a perfect example of such an application in the post you just read.
    It is simple: if someone believes that morality is merely relative to culture, it is open to us to point out that this means that Nazi atrocities were, strictly speaking, good. (Since ‘good’ only has meaning WITHIN a culture, by assumption of the other person’s position.) This is obviously not the case. Thus, moral relativism is false.

    There, now you’ve seen one.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Peter.
    In your opinion, is the unjustified reductio ad hitlerum ever, rarely, frequently, always a matter of innocent ignorance?
    IME, it’s always been a rhetorical technique. Thus,except for Ben’s third-party idea which is valid, there is no explaining the distinction.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nathan. If Peter’s never seen one, then by this time he can count on never seeing one at all. Therefore, as a practical matter, it does not exist and need not be dealt with as if the maker of the reductio actually believes that stuff. Further, it may serve as an example of the kinds of reductio which could be generically referred to in his term, “reductio ab hitlerum”. Saves time detailing all of them and in fact describes not only a category but a process.
    Now, that somebody may actually think there is a non WW II or non-Nazi connection in making such a reductio, missing a distinction, is theoretically true. Now what?
    Question is, what do we do when we encounter one? If we take it seriously, we are almost certainly providing a bit of humor for the other party. It is possible there is a third party genuinely puzzled by the issue, so there’s that.

    Speaking of cuturally-judged views; I believe there was a college prof not too many years ago horrified that his students could not be brought to unequivocally condemn Nazism. Sort of, you had to be there to understand them [Nazis].

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