Wednesday, May 05, 2004

More Than Words for Snow (4): Ridiculing Them With Their Own Argument

In my last post on this topic -- of how language can shape thought -- I promised a follow-up, but this isn't it! I have been working, here and there, on that followup, but it's taking longer than I had thought, and it's not done yet. (The first two posts on this topic can be found here and here).

This post centers around a simple example. Imagine that person A has presented the following argument to an audience:

If a person's argument has property Q, then it is an invalid argument, and as such, is worthless.
Person B raises an issue with this, and after explaining it, sums up by saying "If something's has Q then it's worthless".

We can look at the two statements in logical terms. A's comment is "If has Q, then invalid argument, then worthless". B's comment is "If has Q, then worthless". The content of B's statement can be derived by A using standard logical operations. In logic, if we have a statement saying "X then Y then Z" implies that "X then Y". Thus, B's comment says nothing that A's didn't. B's comment seems such an obvious consequence of A's that it seems a little pointless for them to have even said it.

But B knew what they were doing. In fact, Person B had a distaste for A's idea, and was using their comment to hold up A's argument as being silly. I'll explain why in a moment, because before I can do so I need to divulge something I've been holding back about A's argument. A's argument is such that the connection between the premise "If something has property Q" and the conclusion "is invalid argument" is not intuitively obvious.

An intuitively obvious connection won't require any explanation. If I say that "If you leave your door unlocked at night, then there is a greater chance your house will be robbed" the connection between the premise and the conclusion is intuitively obvious. But if I say that "eating certain high-fat foods can help you lose weight", hardly intuivtively obvious, you'll be wanting some explanation to show how that could be, otherwise, it's likely to sound a bit ridiculous.

The logical structure and truth of a statement is unaffected by the obviousness of the connection between the elements of that statement. That B's comment is a derivable consequence of A's is no way effected by the not-at-all intuitively obvious connection in the first step of A's argument.

I'm almost ready to put it all together now. I can now return to the statements made by A and B, and present them again in light of what we now know. In A's talk, they spent a fair bit of time explaining why that not-at-all intuitively obvious connection between "If something has property Q" and the conclusion "is invalid argument". Some people may have been convinced, but others not. After explaining why this they are thus invalid arguments, A went about explaining if something's an invalid argument then it's worthless.

Having heard A's reasons, an audience member was in a position to understand why "If has property Q" then "is invalid argument" (whether they bought this argument is another matter), and they were also in a position to see why "If is an invalid argument" then "is worthless". Thus, as a consequence of this, there were in a position to see the argument as a whole, and that "If has property Q" then "worthless" (which happened also to be what B said).

We can now see why B's statement was meant to ridicule A's argument by making it look silly. If A had just said "If has property B then it's an invalid argument" without explaining why, it would've sounded ridiculous. B's is making A's argument sound even worse, by making it look like A's simply stating "If some has property B, then it's worthless". B's statement left out all the supporting argument, and just presented to statement to the light of intuition. To intuition, the conclusion that "is an invalid argument" sounded ridiculous, but the conclusion "is worthless", which is a much stronger conclusion, consequently sounds even more ridiculous.

...and I'd spend some more time working on this post, to try and make the point clearer and to flesh out some conclusions, but it's getting quite late (it took me about an hour to write the post you see here, so it's now ten to one in the morning). I'll leave you with a point I hope to flesh out more in the future: the content of a statement matters, but so does the form in which it's presented.... that latter may not matter when it comes to content, but it does when it comes to interpretation... interpretation can make a big difference... interpretation matters.

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