Category Archives: logic & debate

For your reading pleasure

I have replaced the About page with Five things the Den loves.

Trolley dilemmas Part 1

The tendency to rely on feelings rather than reason as a moral guide is a particularly depressing facet of human nature. There is the famous moral dilemma of the trolley:

A runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed unless you, a bystander, flip a switch which will divert it on to another track, where it will kill one person. Should you flip the switch?

To which most people answer in the affirmative. There is the fat man variation:

The runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track where it will kill five people. You are standing on a bridge above the track… Next to you, a fat man is standing on the very edge of the bridge. He would certainly block the trolley, although he would undoubtedly die from the impact. A small nudge and he would fall right onto the track below. No one would ever know. Should you push him?

To which most people, including the inventor of the scenario, answer in the negative. The consequences of both proposed actions in the two thought experiments are the same. Either one person dies, or else five do. So repulsive is the feeling of directly causing a death that most people would prefer to let the greater tragedy occur; five preventable deaths passively allowed bother us less than one death actively caused. The element of direct causation, the only thing that distinguishes the latter proposed action from the former, is of course utterly irrelevant to the dead people.

(If you don’t believe most people really do give the wrong answers to these tests, and are often proud of the fact, read some of the reader responses to the BBC News article)

There is a conclusion to be had here.

1. All other factors the same, the deaths of 5 human beings is a greater evil than the death of 1 human being.
2. The above moral dilemma demonstrates that most people if put in such a situation would choose the greater evil.
3. Therefore, most people are evil.

I’m not joking. Not even 50% joking. Maybe 25% joking. The willful irrationality of man truly is depressing. When will we learn to properly distrust our fweewings when our highly developed faculties of reason are up to the task?

The even more depressing thought — faculties of reason in most of us probably are NOT up to the task.

Too depressing, too depressing. I’ll continue this another day. What would make me fweel better now would be the sense of moral accomplishment I could get from pushing a fat man in front of a trolley in order to save some lives (in a way that flipping a switch to save some lives would not). Failing that, chocolate.

I have discovered the invincible argument

I encountered it recently, and it went like this:

“Anyone who thinks that the reason we went into Iraq was for anything other than oil is insane.”

As I tried to think of a counterargument to this I quickly realized that the task was futile. This truly was an invincible argument. I had no choice but to accept it, as you, my dear readers, must now be realizing yourselves.

Normally when you encounter a statement which is false, you can refute it with a statement of fact. But no statement can be uttered in contradiction to this one without the speaker classifying himself among the mentally unhinged, thereby rendering his own statement, as well as anything else he may say–or even think–as dismissible, at the least. (At the most, he ought be carted off to the funny farm as a preventative measure against further pronouncements of nonsense)

The argument of the type “Anyone who thinks/believes X is insane” is therefore completely impervious to all refutation. It is thoroughly unassailable; the bulletproof standard of debate. It is to debate what Shaquille O’Neal is to basketball. Like the Pythagorean Theorem, it ain’t got no answer. My regret is that it took me this long to discover it. Think of all the applications!

Work – “Anyone who thinks that the most valuable employee this company has got is any person other than myself is insane.”

Try this with your coworkers. Should they attempt to deny it they’ll come out looking like imbeciles in front of your boss, which can only be good for you.

School – “Teacher, anyone who thinks that this assignment is anything other than a total waste of time is insane.”

Ouch! Just imagining the silence with which these words would have stricken my high school chemistry teacher tickles me with delight…and not a small amount of nostalgic regret.

Dating – “Gertrude, anyone who thinks you’ve got anything better to do with your time than go moshing with me this saturday is insane.”

This one is almost too good to share.

Well now, what should you do when you find yourself on the receiving end of the golden argument? You should agree with the speaker–quickly. Otherwise, I’ll be seeing you in the padded cell across from me.

Be like Socrates

The Kyrios Dialogue is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Socratic dialogue in existence that applies the Socratic Method to a modern issue with a dialectical style and effectiveness comparable to the early dialogues of Plato.

Like every Socratic dialogue that has ever been recorded, The Kyrios Dialogue is fiction (who on earth could stand to be around a Socrates-type for longer than a quarter of a minute?) , but the author explains that it was drawn from actual conversation, so it has that going for it.

I enjoyed reading through the whole dialogue. It makes me want to go out and hone my gadfly skills. However, I can’t afford to lose any more friends.

The sanctity of marriage is safe

Thanks to the brave men who defend it for us. Brave men like him.

Better Know a Lobbyist pt 1

Better Know a Lobbyist pt 2


Be sure to watch both videos.

Not happy with the debates

Enough about health care, energy reform, the economy, and issues that affect honest hard-working Americans. With many nations outside America intact and their lands yet uninvaded, I think most of us would agree that it is important to have a president who isn’t afraid to slam his palm on the red button, pull the red trigger, yank forcefully the red lever. I want a president who is capable of laughing with maniacal glee, and who uses the phrase “into the stone age” frequently. I want to see more attention given to assessing a candidate’s bombliness (not to be confused with bombability).

Moderators of debates need to quit asking the softball questions and instead put forth ones like these:

– There are many kinds of bombs out there, smart bombs, dumb bombs, H-bombs, A-bombs, F-bombs. Which is your favorite? (a smart candidate will like smart bombs)

– I’m going to list some countries. Please arrange them in the order in which you would favor seeing them turned into glass. Iran. Iraq. Pakistan. Mexico. Canada. France.

– Which of the following persons best exemplifies your ideals as a commander-in-chief? A. George Washington B. Abraham Lincoln C. Enola Gay

(Extra credit on any of the questions if the candidate works into his answer the phrase “into the stone age”)

Another thing that might be useful, or at least fun to watch, would be to set up the debate so that there is a lever built into the podium of each candidate which he is free to operate. When pulled it releases a mechanism that drops onto the other candidates…well, maybe not REAL bombs, but something unpleasant. Dishwater. Cow dung. Half-dead spiders. Something like that. The candidate looking the cleanest at the end of the night is probably our guy.

Godwin’s Second Law

We all know Godwin’s First Law:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

According to Wikipedia, Godwin introduced the above as a memetic experiment. I’m wondering if the same could be done with his Second Law:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a rant involving Bush or his administration approaches one.

A friend and I may have come up with it, but we’d be glad to attribute it to Godwin if it would speed up memetic acceleration. I’m a half a mind to write up a Wikipedia entry on it now in order to get it going. What do you think?

Three types of disagreements

This is the way I see it.

Disagreements can occur because one or both parties has their facts wrong. Provided that those facts are objectively demonstrable and both parties are rational, the disagreement ought to be resolvable. But if you are dealing with someone who will not acknowledge an established fact then you may as well end the discussion right there.

Disagreements can occur because one or both parties has their logic wrong. This type of disagreement, too, ought to be resolvable, but in practice is often not. We may not like to admit when our facts are off, but we hate to admit when our logic is off. If you are dealing with someone who will not acknowledge a logical error then you may as well end the discussion right there.

If both parties agree on the facts, and neither is making a logical error, then the basis for disagreement is probably due to evaluations inferred not only from knowledge but from subjective perceptions. When all the variables of a situation are not known, we fill in the blanks with guesses based on personal wisdom, experiences, impressions, prejudices.

This is the type of disagreement by which the teenager rejects the parent’s decree of not being allowed out alone past curfew. The parent cannot tell the future, cannot say for certain that were the teenager to go out late anything would happen that would justify prohibiting him or her from having this little fun, but instead makes an evaluation that draws from personal wisdom and experience. The teenager, having a different set of wisdom and experience, makes a different evaluation.

This is also the type of disagreement by which most arguments of a political nature occur, as the consequences of any given policy are never truly known before it has been implemented, and even afterwards there are far too many variables for any one person to process thoroughly. Consciously or not, we fill in all sorts of blanks by making subjective inferences. Needless to say, some people go to greater lengths than others to obtain as much objective data as they can so as to avoid having to do this as much as possible.

When the basis of disagreement is this last type, further discussion may or may not bring about a resolution. The manifestation of additional facts at some later date might be enough to settle it, but you can never really count on that. Don’t underestimate people’s resistance to replacing their impressions and prejudices with objective facts.

Christopher Hitchens On Free Speech

Here’s Hitchens defending free speech (attacking proposed “hate speech” legislation in Canada) and reflexively showing some more of that trademark contempt for religion.

“Now I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion.”

“I think it should be, religion, treated with ridicule and hatred and contempt.”

Yes, he made both of these statements in the same speech. Can he not see the irony? The first half of his address, however, was quite solid. Hitch is an intellectual heavyweight who you have to take seriously even though it is, I think, impossible for virtually anybody to agree with the man 100% of the time.

(via Nuke’s News & Views)

The Great Afterlife Debate

Having previously read the writing of or heard the speaking of both of these two gentleman, I knew this was gonna be a great debate. Michael Shermer, a prominent hardcore skeptic, and Deepak Chopra, a New Age author who writes about consciousness, mix it up at the Skeptic website. They touch on NDE’s, OBE’s, ESP, remote viewing, animal intuition, prayer, talking to the dead, mind fields, quantum mechanics as it relates to consciousness, the nature of the soul, and much more.

It’s quite long but a great read if you find this kind of stuff as interesting as I do. First Shermer attempts to debunk a wide variety of paranormal claims related to the subject of Chopra’s most recent book. Then Chopra responds. The nature of this debate format is that the person who goes second appears to have won the debate. It would be highly interesting to watch the two of them duel over specific points in a back-and-forth manner.

Where do I stand? My jury is still very much out!