Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Fallacies II: General Word-related Fallacies

Fallacies: General Word-related Fallacies

as well as Fallacies with Similar Basic Flaws in Reasoning

There are many kinds of fallacies that fly by rather unnoticed, especially in online debates. The previous example is but one, and it is not even of a similar type of word-related fallacy that I am thinking of right now. Having consulted several lists of fallacies, it turns out only some of the semantic fallacies seem to have names - and even then, the scope they are given tends to be fairly restricted, even if the same kind of fallacy easily could be applied elsewhere as well.

Often, these fallacies are of a kind I would call naive prescriptive lexical Platonic realism

Example 1: The Jews are the members of a religion, hence the Jews cannot form an ethnicity too.
This assumes that the definitions of religion and ethnicity are
  • mutually exclusive
  • objectively right and true
  • prescriptive, rather than descriptive
Mutually exclusive signifying that if something signifies a religion, it cannot also signify the members of an ethnicity and vice versa. Objectively right and true in that using even slightly different definitions somehow is objectionable - and some seem to think this objectionableness is objectively true, even - essentially stating that there is an absolute ethics that forbids using terms in a different way. Prescriptive, in that if something is a religion, it must conform - religion is strictly defined, and when we say something is a religion, all this baggage suddenly comes along and we can also therefore predict a lot of things about the subject - in this case, Judaism - once we know it is a religion.

Usually, the thing we can know about a religion - any religion, really, but Judaism will be the example I will use here - is that it is exactly like protestant Christianity. Viz. it has a scripture, which is its only source of doctrine and rules, which are obtained by a literal reading of that book. It has ceremonies and beliefs, and if you do not hold those beliefs, you are going to hell. If you hold the right beliefs, you go to heaven. The rabbi is the person who leads the service, and he serves as some kind of interface between God and the believer. He also has the right to officiate at weddings, and perform circumcisions and so on. 

All of those are basically wrong to different extents:
  • Judaism does have scripture, but they are not the only source of doctrines and rules, and the rules are not obtained by literal readings of the text.
  • The beliefs about the afterlife are not clearly spelled out, but it would seem almost all Jews reject the idea of an eternal hell, as well as the belief that condemnation depends on belief. Going to heaven is definitely not predicated on having the right belief.
  • The rabbi is a scholar of Judaism, not a middleman. He is supposed to know the rules of Judaism well, and to be able to reach conclusions on new issues in Jewish law. It is tradition that each Jewish congregation should have a rabbi as its leader, but he does not have any specific role in the service (although some congregations may have traditions along the lines of 'the rabbi must never turn his back to the congregation during a service', essentially placing him the furthest back!). Any bar-mitzva Jewish man (and in conservative and reform Judaism women as well) who knows the liturgy can lead it. It is not unusual that the rabbi does not take that role. I gather in more liberal versions of Judaism, it is more common for a rabbi to officiate, but even then this is not mandatory.
  • Jewish rabbis do officiate at weddings in some countries where secular law has given them that right (or, from a Jewish religious point of view, forced that responsibility on them by requiring that someone officiate at weddings in the first place). Jewish law does not require that, but instead requires witnesses and the signing of a wedding contract - the ketubah. Oftentimes, of course, the only persons available to check the validity of the ketubah per Jewish law is a rabbi, but if someone else of sufficient knowledge can verify it, that is ok. The verification, as far as I can tell, need not occur during the wedding itself but can be done earlier.
All of these are things I have seen people assume hold true for Judaism simply because Judaism is a religion. Apparently, people believe that the word religion only includes things which satisfy all the things I italicized above (or some other similar list of distinctive features).

Similarly, you run into some atheists who refuse to accept that Buddhism is a religion because it is not theistic, or it lacks this or that trait that protestant Christianity has.

To me, this seems a very naive view of what it means for something to be something. When a chef calls a fruit a berry, he is not disagreeing with the botanist, he is not making a statement along the lines that modern biology is wrong. He is classifying the various plant parts he runs into according to their use in cooking and such characteristics that he readily can discern.

A commonly raised objection to my stance here would be that words mean things, and superficially, it would seem my stance undermines this guarantee. I have two major responses to that criticism.

First, this is in fact typical of human language, and enables it to adapt to any number of new situations. We cannot a priori know which traits are important distinguishing lines, and a purely taxonomic approach will probably be useless - if the chef adhered to biological taxonomy, the fruit compote suddenly turns into a berry, drupe and aggregate fruit compote and the average green salad no longer contains vegetables, but tubers, leafs, false fruits (cucumber), ...
Clearly words have to have useful meanings as well; and for the chef, vegetable is a more useful category than most botanical meanings. I am not saying the botanist is wrong, I am saying his or her classification is useful in one context, not the other.

Further, the classificatory scheme used by the botanists and biologists in general rely on observations that are needlessly complex for most real-world situations. Developing some kind of artificial fertilizer might benefit from such observations - cooking probably does not.

Finally, words still mean things in my approach. In fact, it turns out my approach preserves, with greater fidelity, the meaning of words as they are attested in actual use. If we made a tool intended to efficiently fix a certain problem, and people found another use for it that was better, more useful, and so on, would we be right to refuse to accept the results of their use of it, to scorn them for finding a better application for it? This is what a prescriptive armchair prescriptivist approach essentially does.

Getting back to the main example I have been running with - viz. Jews - members of a religion or members of an ethnicity?- we can easily find a synthesis of these two statements. Judaism is indeed a religion, a religion that concerns itself a lot with a specific ethnicity. Non-members of this ethnicity can believe in the religion without joining the ethnicity, (but this is unusual). Non-members of the ethnicity who wish to join the ethnicity, can do so. In doing so, they become part of the community - and ethnicities tend to form communities. Ethnicity and religion both are somewhat fluid concepts, and both are relatively recent concepts as well. Judaism as a religion predates the current "formal" definition of what a religion is. The Jewish people, as an ethnicity, predates the current "formal" definition of what an ethnicity is.

Both religion and ethnicity are terms that have been made up to describe some phenomena we have experiences of - viz. some humans have cultural, linguistic, etc links that make them form a kind of group. Ethnicity, in addition, is somewhat fuzzy, one can simultaneously belong to several different ethnicities that overlap in various ways, not necessarily even hierarchically. I am simultaneously a member of the Swedish-speaking Finns, the Finns, the major Swedish ethnical sphere (but I am not a member of the Swedish-ethnicity in Sweden), Ostrobothnians, and maybe even some other group. I know Jewish people that are Jewish, Swedish-speaking Finns and Finns, and Jewish people that are Jews and Finns. I also know Jewish people who are Jewish and American. The fact that Jewish people can be members of other ethnicities does not preclude Jewish people from being members of a Jewish ethnicity as well - ethnicities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, except in some specific frameworks ­ - but if we demand that such a framework is adhered to, we are enforcing an interpretation of things, not trying to describe them objectively.

There we run into an important concept: frameworks. Whether a certain thing is an ethnicity or not may very well be different in the eyes of secular law, the opinions of individual members of the different ethnicities, etc. We need to know which framework is being assumed to know whether something is accurate and to know what knowledge we can derive from a statement made in that framework. If someone says Buddhism isn't a religion, we must know what kind of framework this statement is made in to be able to know what it says about Buddhism - on the other hand, the same applies when someone says Buddhism is a religion. Words still mean things, but context tells us what things they mean.

Too often "words mean things" is used to reach a conclusion that does not validly follow from what is known about a thing, and the examples I gave above with regards to conclusions about Judaism based on knowing one single factoid about Judaism should amply illustrate just how flawed this form of reasoning is. Yet it's a fairly popular form of reasoning even among people who pretend to be rationalists, skeptics and scientifically minded.

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