Wednesday, May 31, 2006

God appears, or disappears, in a puff of logic

An interesting thing occurred to me the other night. We were talking about the fact that even the Vatican finds "intelligent design" to be objectionable, and Dan summed up the Pope's position as something like "if God exists and is active in the world, then scientific evidence -- including the evidence to support evolution -- must be true." This isn't precisely the official position, but it's a good amalgam of John Paul II's impressive rationality and Consolmagno's anti-ID statements.

I tried formalizing this argument, but it involved a lot of predicate logic, which I'm not super at, and am currently relearning. So here's the informal gist: If God exists, then God is active in the world. If God is active, then all evidence (i.e. all observation of the world) is God-caused (or at least God-approved). Conclusions from God-approved evidence are true (this is just a fundamental precept of religion). There exists evidence for evolution; therefore evidence for evolution is God-approved. Hence, evolution is a true conclusion.

Put it all together, with some identity substitutions and liberal use of the transitive property, and what do you get? "If God exists, then evolution is true." Now here's where things get interesting. A statement of the form A -> B (if A then B) can only be false if B is false and A is true. F -> F, F -> T, and T -> T all evaluate to be true statements. This seems a little counterintuitive, but if you substitute English phrases it becomes a little clearer. You can't really argue with "if Jess owns a unicorn, then Laura is a skilled contortionist," because I don't own a unicorn -- sure, Laura's not a skilled contortionist, but that doesn't mean that if I own a unicorn she's not one. We don't know, because I don't own a unicorn! Likewise, "if Jess owns a unicorn, then Laura lives in Seattle" is true, because Laura would live in Seattle whether I owned a unicorn or not -- at least until she moves to Chicago, at which point the statement will still be true. The only thing that would be false is "if Jess has funny-colored hair, then Laura is a skilled contortionist." I do, and she isn't, so that's wrong.

What does that mean for the hyper-digested form of the Vatican position? "If God exists, then evolution is true." Well, evolution is true -- anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of science knows this. Thus, for this position to be true, it's logically unnecessary to speculate on whether or not God exists. If God exists, we have T -> T, which is true; if he doesn't, we have F -> T, which is also true. As long as we know the consequent is true (and all this requires is a cursory look at the overwhelming evidence), then we can feel however we like about the truth value of the antecedent. Voila: hard logical proof that faith and science need not be mutually exclusive.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Big Brother is watching "Will and Grace"

From Tim Graham on the National Review blog, care of Dispatches from the Culture Wars: an amazingly concise and pithy logical absurdity.
On the occasion of the final episode of NBC's Will & Grace, Katie Couric insisted, "on a serious note," that it's one of her daughter's favorite shows, and it's so important to teach tolerance of "people who are different" at a "very early age." Anyone who expected a fair and balanced anchorwoman at CBS on the hot-button social issues, shred your illusions now.
So, tolerance is unfair. Unbiased acceptance is unbalanced. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

Correct me if I'm just being a fogey here, but back when people read books, weren't the mouth-frothing extremists a little more careful to avoid getting their rhetoric right out of dystopian fiction novels?

Since we here at Truth Tables like putting names to fallacies, let me go on record as saying that the whole "fair and balanced" line is the biggest crock of tautology and special pleading since I don't know when. "We're Fair and Balanced, so we don't have to be fair or balanced." Tim Graham, I submit to you my favorite rebuttal, suitable for many situations: Words mean things. Consider looking up a few.

Friday, May 19, 2006

If you like our adorable puppy, you'll love our pack of rottweilers

Via Wonkette, this awesomely disingenuous ad from Big Oil:

"They call it pollution. We call it life."

Jess and I were having a hard time pinning this one down, fallacy-wise, but we think it's the fallacy of composition: if some carbon dioxide is good, lots of carbon dioxide will be awesome!

I'd like to suggest some more ads for the Competitive Enterprise Institute to create:

They call it a bloodbath; we call it life

They call it a flood; we call it a warm bath

They call it ventricular tachycardia; we call it our hearts going pitter-pat

If Hitler loved kittens, then kittens are evil

It's the reductio ad absurdum in Colbert's bit that really delighted me. Except that it's not really a reductio ad absurdum, because the original claims are so legitimately absurd. It is, in fact, what Colbert does best: taking truly absurd arguments and embracing them so thoroughly that their absurdity can't help but come to the fore.

It might seem reasonable, to Fox News fans, that finding similarities between the Iranian president's ideas and "Democratic talking points" would reflect badly on both. But when Colbert jumps into the fray by saying that "if someone is sufficiently evil, everything about them and what they believe is wrong, whether or not it's right" -- well, it's not a reductio, because it doesn't in any way misrepresent the original argument. But it certainly makes the absurdity hard to miss.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

ad hominemejad

Jess brought my attention to this excellent recent segment on The Colbert Report. Not only do the Republicans in question commit a classic ad hominem fallacy--thereby disobeying the rules of classical logic--but Colbert ties it to the primary tenet of internets logic: name-checking Hitler is a great way to destroy your argument.

Of course, Colbert brilliantly sees their ad hominem and raises them reductio ad absurdum. And this is what we love about Colbert: he fights absurdity with absurdity. I aspire to do the same.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Taking Cohen at his word

Here's a copy of a letter Laura and I sent to the Washington Post, regarding everyone's favorite "liberal" columnist.

Dear editors:

As people who paid attention not only in our algebra classes, but in our logic classes as well, we believe we have figured out Richard Cohen's argument from his recent column ("So Not Funny," May 4). First, Cohen defines "rudeness" as "taking advantage of the other person's sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving." Thus, a statement is "rude" only when there is no threat of retaliation from its object. Second, the phrase "speaking truth to power" is defined to require "repercussions, consequences -- maybe even death in some countries. When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or -- if you're at work -- take away your office." Ergo, a "true" statement is one against which there is some retaliation. The contrapositive of this premise -- "if there is no retaliation, the statement is not true" -- follows logically, and indeed Cohen affirms this when he claims that Colbert was not "speaking truth to power" because "he will not suffer any consequence at all."

Cohen states that "The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity." By applying the premises above, we can see that this "stuff" is not rude when it gets you punched in a bar, since retaliation implies a non-rude statement. It's also possible, though not necessary, for the "stuff" to be true when said in a bar. However, when said on a dais, the same thing cannot be true, since there will presumably be no retaliation. It is, however, rude. In fact, anything rude cannot be true, and anything true cannot be rude.

One interesting consequence of Cohen's logic is that if something is not rude, it must necessarily have negative repercussions. (The identity between "rude" and "no retaliation" means that the statement "if there is no retaliation, then the statement is rude" is true, as is its contrapositive "if the statement is not rude, then there is retaliation"). In other words, politeness has to be punished. This perhaps explains Cohen's shrill denunciation of the readers who responded to his Colbert column ("Digital Lynch Mob," May 9). Cohen complains of his interlocutors' across-the-board "ignorant, false and downright idiotic vituperation," but admits that he "peeked into only a few of the e-mails." He is, therefore, punishing the hundreds of calm, rational letter-writers whose emails he did not see fit to peruse, which is of course the correct response to politeness. Interestingly, however, his angry response rendered all of the letters not rude – the identity between "rude" and "no retaliation" also means that the statements "if something is rude then there is no retaliation," and therefore "if something is retaliated against then it is not rude," are necessarily true. Had Cohen not whined about the letters' rudeness, they would all have been false (if something is true, there are negative consequences, so if there are no negative consequences, it is not true). However, since he did complain, they were all polite.

We must admit to a certain pride in navigating Cohen's logic, which -- being uninformed by algebra classes, and perhaps by rhetorical writing classes too -- is frankly rather obscure. Perhaps Mr. Cohen would like to meet to discuss our findings... in a bar, of course. We wouldn't want to be rude.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What are we doing here?

Here's what we figure: Anyone can call "ad hominem" or "straw man." Even a right-wing pundit can do it -- you can tell because they do it all the time, whether or not the fallacies are being committed. But who has the guts and the keen logical know-how to apply the tenets of formal logic to mass-media rhetoric?

Not us. But we're doing it anyway.

Here's a little background: We met in logic class at nerd camp, twelve years ago, when we were 14 and 15. We did sorites and syllogisms and got drilled on the Aristotelian square of oppositions and were delighted by the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy. Neither of us became philosophers, though we have formal logic and rhetoric and symbolic logic and Boolean logic and philosophy of science under our collective belt. But we're still the kind of people who call each other up to say "oh my god, have you seen Wikipedia's list of fallacies? It's fantastic!" Laura has a book of sorites; she does 'em for fun, now that she's no longer training to teach LSAT courses. Jess reads logic texts on purpose, and does puzzles. We are, in other words, logical hobbyists. Dilettantes.

But that's all you need to be to feel oppressed by the irrational effluvium spewed forth by certain pundits, politicians, and talking heads. So we thought we'd bring our constant hair-tearing over these problems into the public eye. Why? Because we're good writers, because we're funny, because we enjoy checking Technorati obsessively. Because we want to join a larger conversation about how words mean things, sophistry doesn't trump reasoning, and logic exists whether you like it or not.
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