Mischke Show Notes: Nov. 12, 2009


Today on's 'In The Stream' with T.D. Mischke: a discussion of the following with Quinton Skinner:

  • Anyone who was ever involved in a formal debate program or who took a beginning philosophy class is familiar with the concept of logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are common ways of thinking or arguing that are superficially appealing, but upon analysis they are found to be false. Logical fallacies are easy to commit and difficult to identify. Some of the more common logical fallacies include:

  • Appeal to authority - An important or famous person believes X, therefore X is true.
  • Ad hominem attack - The person who is promoting X is a big jerk, therefore X is false.
  • False dichotomies - You have two choices, my view X, or its opposite not-X which is obviously disastrous.
  • False analogy - X is like Y and Y is obviously true, therefore X is true.
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc - X happened before Y, therefore X caused Y.

There are many other varieties of logical fallacies that have been defined, but I think I've come up with a new one-Argument by Aphorism.

An aphorism is a very concise (usually one short sentence), wise, witty and incisive observation that by virtue of the clarity that it brings to an argument cuts through all the complexity and ambiguity of an issue and brings immediate resolution and finality to an argument. Many useful aphorisms are extra-effective having been spoken or written by an authority. When an aphorism is artfully used the listener will often have an "ah-ha moment," and be overwhelmed by force of the aphorism. We all love to use aphorisms and anyone who does any public speaking knows how effective they can be in engaging an audience. Many of us put favorite aphorisms on the signature lines of our email.

The only problem is that argument by aphorism is a logical fallacy. Or, to put it more technically, aphorisms are bullshit. If you examine any aphorism closely you'll find that it's actually totally false, or only very narrowly true, or nonsensical. Let's look a few of the more well known aphorisms.

Albert Einstein: "God does not play dice with the Universe." Einstein used this aphorism to argue against the principles of quantum mechanics. It is now commonly invoked to argue that random events are not really random but that they have underlying, unseen causes. Well, it turns out that God does play dice (quantum mechanics is totally vindicated) and in fact most of the time when we see order, there is really chaos.

George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This aphorism suggests that there is a cyclical nature to history and that events tend to repeat themselves over and over. Usually this aphorism is invoked to make a particular political point-Our current economic crisis is the same as the Great Depression; Afghanistanis the same as Vietnam; this energy crisisis like the last energy crisis. The thing is, history is not cyclical. It's more of a meander that sometimes bolts off on an unexpected tangent. Knowing history is certainly a good thing, but every age and every problem is unique and we will not find valid solutions by copying the past.

Friedrich Nietzsche: "That which does not destroy us makes us stronger." This is supposed to comfort us-all the adversity and pain that we are experiencing is making us a better person. Not so much. We cannot, of course, avoid adversity in life, but psychologists and common sense tell us that in fact adversity, pain, misfortune does not make us stronger, they damage us. And enough pain and adversity will in fact destroy us. The falsehood of Nietzsche's aphorism is so apparent that it's spawned its own counter-aphorisms which are funnier and truer: "What doesn't kill you hurts pretty bad." "What doesn't kill you postpones the inevitable."

Here's a particularly idiotic one that is used as the title of an online seminar: "Only a dead fish swims with the current." The point of this is that to buy into the prevailing wisdom (the current) is the equivalent of being a dead fish. This metaphor doesn't even make sense-lots of things swim with the current: dead fish, live fish, kayaks, canoes, people floating on inner tubes.lots of things. The conventional wisdom is undoubtedly wrong in many cases, but the dead fish observationis does not make a compelling case.

Well, you get the idea. As one investigates aphorisms one begins to realize that there is an entire aphorism ecosystem with its own peculiar attributes. One of its peculiarities is that some of the more quotable aphorisms are attributed to multiple authors. For example: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." This is attributed to both Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein. As far as I can tell, neither of them ever said or wrote this.

And there's this, one of the most popular aphorisms these days: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." This is being attributed to either physicist Niels Bohr, in which case its intended to be ironic and funny, or to Yogi Berra, in which case it's simply another Yogi-ism. Again, there's no evidence that either one of them said it. One of the most fertile sources of banal and vapid aphorisms is the self-help industry.

Here are some popular bits of wisdom on how to succeed:

  • "The surest way not to fail is to determine to succeed." --  Richard Sheridan
  • "The elevator to success is out of order. You'll have to use the step at a time." -- Tony Robbins 
  • "Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire." -- Norman Vincent Peale 
  • "Most of the important accomplishments are achieved by those who kept trying when there seemed to be no hope at all." -- Dale Carnegie

Wow, I feel better already. But wait, now I'm confused. Let's look at that last one again: "Most of the important accomplishments are achieved by those who kept trying when there seemed to be no hope at all." OK, that seems to be telling me that persistence and perseverance, even in the face of repeated failure will eventually pay off. But I thought Einstein (or was it Ben Franklin) said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results," which is sort of saying the exact opposite, that persistence and stick-to-itiveness is idiotic. Damn.

Which illustrates another attribute of the aphorism universe -- dueling aphorisms. It turns out that for every bit of aphoristic wisdom there is another bit which will say the exact opposite. Go ahead and try it. Pick a favorite aphorism and go online and search and you'll quickly find one pointing in the opposite direction.

Yes, aphorisms are moronic, but they're still irresistible. To me the best are those that are self-negating, that illustrate the futility and wretchedness of the human condition. Whether they're intended just to be funny or to be a serious commentary they work very well. Some of the best:

  • "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work.I want to achieve it through not dying." -- Woody Allen.

  • "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." -- H.L. Mencken
  • "An egoist is a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me." -- Ambrose Bierce

  •  And my current favorite: "Sometimes what's right isn't as important as what's profitable." -- Trey Parker (creator of South Park)
A few more thoughts:

  • The Nylez Files: Talkin' war movies with our resident film scholar, Nyles Schwartz.
  • I didn't have a dad like this. I'm not sure I would have wanted a dad like this. But I would like to have occasionally visited a dad like this in the neighborhood.
  • You ever see Jim Carey's website? He did a find job with it, I think. Sit with it awhile and allow it to unfold.

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