Thursday, July 27, 2017

Please Don't Point Out Logical Fallacies

Pointing out logical fallacies is pointless. Though it is useful to study logical fallacies so that you can analyze your own thinking and make adjustments, but to point out the logical fallacies in someone else's thinking is entirely counter productive.

If you are in a disagreement with someone, by definition they do no view you as an authority on the subject and thus they are unlikely to accept your analysis of whether or not their thought process is fallacious or not. The reason why they think the thoughts they do is because they think their thought process is right, and no one likes to be told they are wrong.

The whole reason why they are disagreeing with you in the first place is because they think your thought process is out of order. So if you attempt to point out an error in their thinking they are not disposed to begin an introspective analysis of their thinking. Almost by definition, your thinking is in error, so any attempt to point out an error in their thinking will be rejected immediately. Thus it is pointless and counter productive to point out the fallacies in someone else's thinking.

This does not mean that you never point out logical fallacies, just do not expect the person you are critiquing to respond positively. It is also justified for certain egregious misuses of logic and reasoning, but not as a tool to convince those afflicted, but to warn those who are unconvinced and can be swayed by your reason, that is, those who have not taken a position yet.

But it is a very good idea to study logical fallacies so that you can improve your own thinking. A good place to start is by analyzing what other people say and see if you can pick out the logical fallacies. First start with arguments you disagree with. Those are the easiest. Next you move to arguments you have no opinion about one way or the other. This allows you to dispassionately assess the arguments. When you are comfortable with those you can move on to arguments that you naturally agree with. Those are the hardest arguments to analyze, with the exception of your own arguments. It takes a lot of humility to analyze your own thinking for fallacies.

Some good fallacies to start with are perhaps the most famous ones such as ad hominem, slippery slope, or the post hoc fallacy. Once you can identify fallacies in arguments that you already disagree with, then you can try moving on to something more difficult. Just remember that pointing out a fallacy in someone else's argument is (almost) never productive. I can think of one, and only one, case when I pointed out someone's fallacious thinking and it actually made an impact on them, and they admitted that I "got them" and for a moment their defenses were down and I was talking to a human being. Unfortunately it did not last.

Remember the point of studying fallacies is to eventually analyze your own thoughts and learn to remove fallacious thinking. When you do that then you can begin to build convincing arguments that can sway people to your position.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why did Nephi pray?

In response to my post on Laman and Lemuel my mother asked, "Why did Nephi pray?" In my previous post I explained that, based on the culture of the time, Laman and Lemuel may not have considered it proper to pray to ask God to know something. It would have been more in keeping with their culture to seek out a seer, or someone with an item used for divination. Without a seer to answer their questions the only valid way of understanding prophecy would be to figure it out through reason. When reason was inadequate they had no way of gaining further insight into revelation from God.

When we approach the story we usually take note of Laman and Lemuel's failure to pray and identify with Nephi's apparent natural understanding about the role of prayer in revelation. But when we consider Nephi's reaction to his father's vision we have to keep in mind that not only are we reading it through our cultural lens, but also we are reading the version of the story that Nephi wrote many years later. By the time he wrote his story Nephi may have been much more comfortable with praying to receive knowledge through revelation, but it may not have been that way at the time.

We can deduce that there was one particular scripture that impacted how Nephi viewed revelation and prayer because he quoted it to Laman and Lemuel. In 1 Nephi 15:11 Nephi says,
"Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you."
This verse was evidently on the brass plates, but is not found in our Old Testament. We do not know when Nephi first encountered this verse, but it may have only been read by Lehi and his family just a few days before. In retelling this story many years later, Nephi carefully incorporates this verse into his exchange with his brothers (see how verse 10 sets up how verse 11 applies to the situation). But at the time Nephi may have only recently learned of that verse, and much like Joseph Smith with James 1:5, took it seriously. The same verse may not have had the same impact, or even been noticed by Laman and Lemuel.

But in 1 Nephi 11:20-21, Nephi mentions that his brothers were humbled and began to ask sincere questions. They must have found that verse convincing, but that would also mean that they were not familiar with it, so Nephi must have also just learned that verse when they acquired the brass plates.

So why did Nephi pray? He did it because he read the scriptures and found out that he could. It is "obvious" to us now, and it was obvious to Nephi later in life, but at the time it was a new thing.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What happened to the Church of Scotland?

What has happened to the Church of Scotland? I don't mean what is happening to it now, because it is obvious that whatever happened, happened years ago and just now we are seeing the effects.

A recent article from the BBC has the slightly misleading headline, "Religious affiliation in Scotland 'declines sharply'". The title explicitly points to a decrease in the number of Scots who self identify as members of a church. The apparent conclusion is that religion in general in the country is becoming less important. But if we dig into the data we get a slightly different picture.

Right off the bat the article notes that since 1999 the percentage of people reporting "no religion" has increased from 40% to 58%. This definitely makes it look like religion in general is struggling in Scotland. But not until the end of the article do we find out that as a percentage of the overall population all other religions or Christian denominations have remained constant. Within statistical uncertainty there has been no change for everyone other than the Church of Scotland (the Kirk). The entire increase in people reporting "no religion" is driven by former members of the Kirk.

It is interesting to note that while the other denominations are not picking up those leaving the Kirk, their membership is keeping pace with population growth. They may have a hard time bringing in new converts but they are not in the state of crisis seen in the Kirk. From the data the number of people who self identify as members of the Kirk has decreased by a half since 1999. If half the members of the church of Scotland chose to leave in 18 years while all other religions and denominations have continued to grow, albeit at the rate of population growth, then that indicates that there is, or was, something about the Church of Scotland that resulted in this sudden drop that was not present in other denominations and religions.

This kind of thing does not just happen overnight, or even in just a few years. In order for there to be this dramatic of a decrease over the last 20 years means that the seeds of this crisis were sown long ago. That is why at the beginning I said that it is not happening now but happened years ago.

So there was something about the culture or the teachings of the Church of Scotland that brought it to this crisis. I do not have enough insight or data to determine how it got to this point. But it is also interesting to note that there is data that shows that similar trends hold for the church of England. Since 1983 the number of people in England who self report as Anglican has dropped from 40% to 17%, while the number of non-religious has climbed from 31% to 48%. The proportion of people from other Christian denominations have remained roughly constant, with some fluctuation, but the number of non-Christians has climbed from 2% to 8%.

But this is not isolated data. I recently read an article from The West Australian entitled, "We’re losing our religion". This article followed the format set by the BBC article by noting that the number of people reporting "No Religion" has increased, but when we look at the data the same trend holds. The percentage of Anglicans has declined, while all other denominations have stayed the same (with the exception of Catholics, whose representation declined by 5% of the population).

So while there are definitely more people who self identify as having "No Religion" the vast majority have come from either the Church of Scotland or the Church of England. This massive shift in social attitudes definitely has put pressure on other denominations, but the data indicate that at least in Scotland, England and Australia, religion in general is not going away, just a particular form of it.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Ad Hominem Arguments vs. Ad Hominem Fallacies

In almost any internet debate there invariably comes a moment when someone will accuse another of using an ad hominem attack or argument. Unfortunately on the internet, any disagreement or attempt to disprove someone's argument is perceived as an attack on the person. But that fundamentally misunderstands what an ad hominem argument is. The key to identifying an ad hominem argument is to consider whether or not the response is responding to the original argument, or if it is ignoring the argument and responding directly to the source of the argument.

While it is common for people to mistakenly interpret an argument against their position as an attack on themselves, what is almost universally misunderstood is that not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious.

To put it simply, all ad hominem fallacies are ad hominem arguments, but not all ad hominem arguments are ad hominem fallacies.

What many people don't realize is that an ad hominem argument is a perfectly valid way of arguing. For example, say there was a video on the internet of someone dressed in University of Utah clothing giving a negative critique of BYU's football team. We could easily dismiss a negative argument about BYU football from the Ute fan based solely on the fact that they are a Ute fan, and not unbiased in their assessment of BYU football. Saying, "Well they are a Ute fan, so of course they will say that." is an ad hominem argument. It does not respond to what was said, but only attacks the person making the argument in order to undermine their argument. This can be a perfectly valid argument.

Now if the person in U of U clothing turned out to be the U of U football coach, then dismissing them as a Ute fan would turn the ad hominem argument into a fallacy. A football coach probably has a sound basis for his argument, and refusing to address his arguments would make it a fallacy.

Sound ad hominem arguments are used more frequently than people realize. Statements such as, "They are paid to say that." or, "They are an advocate for [blank] so of course they would say that." Looking at the source of an argument and dismissing it based solely on the source is an ad hominem argument. Whether or not it is a fallacy is another matter.

So despite what many people on the internet immediately assume, to be dismissive of someone because they lack the necessary expertise can be a valid argument, and is not automatically a fallacy. But if the argument is not considered at all you better have a good reason for dismissing the source and not considering the argument. If not you run the risk of committing an ad hominem fallacy in your argument.