A Lesson in Critical Thinking I: Fallacies and Dinesh D’Souza

Normally I wouldn’t think that Dinesh D’Souza (American Christian/right-wing ideologue) was worthy of comment, however an article of his in the San Francisco Chronicle piqued my interest. You see this article – no, in fact just one paragraph – contains so many logical errors that it forms a perfect opportunity to illustrate some basic concepts of critical thinking. What I would like to do here is introduce some basic intellectual tools for analysing arguments (in the sense of a piece of reasoning), or pieces of attempted persuasive reasoning. The general concept that I will introduce here is that of a fallacy. Briefly (and informally), a fallacy is piece of reasoning where I claim that my argument proves something when in fact it doesn’t. Note, it is an important point that showing that an argument is a fallacy does not prove that the conclusion is false, instead it shows that you can’t reach that conclusion from those premises (in other words: this argument does not prove that). Dinesh D’Souza’s article claims to be an argument to prove that the soul exists. In fact it is a long string of fallacies, his conclusion simply does not follow from the numerous arguments that he puts forward. The most “interesting” paragraph is this one:

So is the long-standing human belief in the soul a fiction? We can answer this question by examining the issue of free will. Let me illustrate. I am sitting at my computer with a cup of coffee on my desk. I can reach over and take a sip if I choose; I can knock the coffee mug onto the carpet if I choose; I can just leave the cup alone and let the coffee get cold. Now I ask: Is there anything in the laws of physics that forces me do any of these things? Obviously not. In Milton Friedman’s phrase, I am “free to choose.”

So where is the first fallacy and what is it? Well it is contained in the first two sentences. The implicit claim here is that if free will is true then the soul exists, or to put it another way we are offered the choice of either (A) there is no such thing as free will and no such thing as the soul, or (B) the soul exists and we have free will. This is known as a false dilemma. We are offered two alternatives – A or B – and we are required to choose one of them. If we do not choose A, then it is claimed that we must choose B. However the two “horns” of the dilemma are not exhaustive, that is there are other options open to us. Philosophically speaking the problem of free will and the existence of the soul have been seen as independent problems. Indeed historically speaking there have been many people who have believed that we have free will and that the soul does not exist (so called “soft-determinists” and dualists who have believed in the mind, but have not identified it with the soul) as well as many who have believed that we do not have free will and the soul exists (any one who holds to a belief in predestination as many Christian sects do). So, in short, without a great deal of other premises (which D’Souza never mentions) there is no real connection between the two concepts, and we have other choices than those offered by D’Souza.

Now, what about the second fallacy? Well, it’s a blatant one and here it is, the claim is that he can show that we have free will with an example: “I can reach over and take a sip if I choose”. But the problem of free will is exactly the question of whether he can in fact choose to do this or whether this is just the appearance of choice, and he is no freer to choose to take a sip than the earth is free to take a break from orbiting the sun. D’Souza has just presupposed the very thing that he is claiming he is proving. This is known as the fallacy of begging the question.

The third fallacy is a version of equivocation. That is, where in one part of my argument I use a word to mean one thing, and then in another part of my argument I use the same word to mean another thing. What D’Souza is doing here is using free in its standard meaning: I chose to do one thing, but could I have chosen to do something other than I did? Then, later he uses the word free to mean “not forced by the laws of physics to do otherwise”. Why is this important? Well in the first instance we must be careful to use words in the same way in both our premises and conclusion because otherwise I will have proven one thing (the meaning of the word used in the premises) but have claimed to prove something else entirely (the meaning of the word in the conclusion). In our example D’Souza is saying “If I am not forced to do something by the laws of physics then I am free. Therefore I am free in the sense that I could have chosen to do otherwise.” The conclusion does not follow from the premise. For instance one can think that it is in fact psychological facts about you that mean that you could not have chosen otherwise.

The last sentence is so bizarre I hesitate to mention it, but it seems impossible to overlook. It could just be a throwaway remark – but it sticks out so strangely that it seems worthy of comment. What we appear to have in the sentence “In Milton Friedman’s phrase, I am “free to choose.”” is two fallacies: an appeal to authority and another example of equivocation (three different meanins of the word ‘free’ in one paragraph!). Firstly by invoking a famous intellectual in support of his argument D’Souza appears to be saying “believe my argument because someone famous and important believes it too.” This is a fallacy, because even if someone famous and important believes something, that is not evidence for it being true (it may well be that their reasons for believing it are evidence for it being true, but then those reasons should be stated). Secondly in Milton Friedman’s famous phrase he is talking about economic (and political) freedom, that is people making economic or political decisions without state coercion or influence. Almost certainly I am being unkind in describing this sentence as an example of an appeal to authority, but it is a nice way to illustrate another fallacy – 4 kinds and 5 examples – in this one paragraph.

The important point for me is that many people use arguments and reasoning to attempt to persuade us of one viewpoint or another, and they often do so very badly – or in a very misleading fashion. Critical thinking gives us the tools to properly evaluate  their reasoning and persuasive techniques. In this piece I have introduced an important notion – that of a fallacy – and shown several examples of fallacies – the false dilemma; begging the question; equivocatio; and, the appeal to authority.  In evaluating people’s attempts to persuade you, see if you can spot these techniques being used. If there case rests on one of these techniques then you should require better evidence to be persuaded!


~ by Doug Newdick on November 24, 2007.

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