Friday, 25 January 2013

The Ad Hominem Fallacy

The Ad hominem fallacy occurs when the arguer presents an argument and the opponent instead of attacking the argument attacks the arguer. Hence it is a fallacy of irrelevance because the opponent's response is irrelevant to deciding if the argument is good or bad.

Giving an openly insult towards the  arguer ("your stupid so your argument is false")is the most common but not the only form of ad hominem . Another form is veiled insults such "your not knowledgeable on this matter" , "not mature enough" , " not old enough" . All these responses EVEN if they were true would not undermine the argument ON THERE OWN.

Another very important form of ad hominem is called "ad hominem circumstantial", where the opponent asserts that since the arguer has a stake in the conclusion therefore his argument is false. for example suppose a filthy rich person presents an argument for why the tax rates should be reduced. In response the opponent says "well of course he wants taxes to be lowered thats because he want  to save his enormous wealth from excessive taxation hence his argument is false" . this response EVEN if true would be fallacious on its own.

In my view the most ideal discussion would be one where there are no persons at all only beliefs and the respective arguments and evidence interacting with each other. but since beliefs , arguments etc are ideas and ideas can exist only inside persons therefore the presence of a person in the discussion is a necessary evil . but thats the only role the person plays : to anchor the ideas . nothing more.

Notice the contrast where in ordinary discussion or those we see on the television we almost always start with an attack on the opponent ("your biased/liar/brainwashed"...) i myself have engaged in this fallacy so many times. it comes so naturally to us and for that reason one needs to be EXTRA careful.

PS : case for testimonial evidence is different.  ad hominems can be justified sometimes in that matter.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Freewill and Pascal's Wager

Most people would generally accept that we have freewill to act. i.e. we can raise our arms as and when we will. However is the same true for our beliefs? Do we have freewill to change our beliefs in the same manner we can raise our arms? i.e. merely by thinking about it ? Lets consider a thought experiment:

Suppose you and your loved ones are kidnapped by an evil psychopath (say "Jigsaw" from the "Saw" series). Jigsaw then asks you to change your beliefs about the colour of the sky i.e. to convince yourself that sky is not blue but rather yellow (like the colour of a taxi). You have a set amount of time. If you fail to do so then you along with your loved ones would meet a horrible death . On the other hand if you do succeed , you and your loved ones will be set free and in addition you will be rewarded a Billion US$ for your troubles. Lets also assume that Jigsaw can read your mind to determine if your new convictions about the colour of the sky are genuine are if your just merely  pretending to believe.

Given such a situation - where the penalty to disbelief is so fatal and reward to beleive so great - would you be able to change your beliefs merely by will ? Would you be able to convince yourself that when we look upwards towards the sky the colour we see is Yellow not Blue ? we can easily make many other examples like these e.g. convincing yourself that earth is flat,  or that  you are Hitler.

When I think of these thought experiments it seems to be very strongly that at-least in case of some beliefs we have no freewill. We cant merely will ourselves to start believing something else by our whims .Instead beliefs can only be changed either through (a) systematic brainwashing or, (b) by intellectual force : e.g. requiring the person to face up to evidence and arguments for and against his/her position. The position that we have freewill over our beliefs is referred to as Doxastic Voluntarism.

Pascals Wager

If voluntarism is false (which seems to be the case given the above thought experiments) then what implications are there for pascals wager ? Roughly speaking ,Pascal invites us to ignore the whole debate concerning arguments and evidences for God and instead calculate which position minimizes our risk and maximizes the reward. (the risk and rewards being hell and heaven etc). He then concludes that atheism is the most risky position and thus a prudent person would "bet" on  theism.

However this so-called bet requires an atheist to merely will himself to believe that God exist . But as we have seen , given the falsity of Voluntarism, such a feat  does not seems to be possible for ordinary human beings. An atheist cant choose to just believe in god no more than a theist can just choose to believe that god does not exist (assuming that he is not already in doubt on that particular question). Hence the argument is completely irrelevant from the point of view of the Atheist.

One point worth mentioning is that  Pascal himself attempts to address  this kind of objection. But it seems to me that he takes the brainwashing route: he requires the atheist to stop thinking and reading anything against theism , participate in theistic rituals and so on  and with time he expects that the atheist would come to believe genuinely. I find this unpersuasive. Firstly I still suspect whether such a brainwashing would indeed work given how important the question of God and atheism is to our lives. Secondly it raises a question: Is that really what a morally perfect God wants? that we should reject reason entirely and that we use psychological conditioning tricks to force ourselves to believe in him ? how is this kind of belief even moral let alone rational ? It seems to me that a faith that arise Through self-brainwashing is not a faith worth having.

Therefore to the list of  many other weaknesses of Pascals wager, we can add yet another entry as to why   we must reject the wager  : Because it relies on the dubious notion of Doxastic Voluntarism.