The Rational Fallacies

So if the so-called logical fallacies are usually misapplied in rational discussions, might there be some other types of fallacies that apply to rational discussions instead? I think there are. I will call these fallacies “The Rational Fallacies.”

Rational Fallacies, unlike logical fallacies, are fallacies that really do apply to rational discussions. If rationality is rooted in Karl Popper’s epistemology (or that is the best-known description of rationality today) then rational fallacies would not be logical problems, but problems of immunizing one’s argument from criticism or a failure to understand ‘negativism’ (as opposed to ‘positivism’.) Or perhaps just a refusal to take one’s opponent’s theory seriously so as to shut down the critical discussion from moving forward. Some of the logical fallacies may also be rational fallacies — in particular, straw-manning comes to mind. But many rational fallacies are unrelated to logical fallacies.

Here is my attempt to make a non-exhaustive list of rational fallacies. Can you think of others:

Category: Easy-To-Varyness

Ad-Hocing: Saving one’s theory by the introduction of an ad hoc theory. This is always possible and so methodologically Popper ruled it out as it turns every theory into an easy-to-vary theory. One potential issue here: it’s always possible that the ad hoc theory was the start of a research program that ends in an actual good explanation. In other words, ad hoc arguments are dangerous because they make every theory easy-to-vary but they might actually be correct, so we can’t truly claim to rule them out either. Ideally, we’ll bring ad hoc arguments but not take them too seriously until they can be improved enough to be testable. A theory saved by an ad hoc argument must still be considered to have a serious problem.

Explanation Gapping: One particularly common form of ad hoc argument is an explanation that has a conceptual gap more or less the same size as the problem it’s trying to explain.

Falling Back to the Abstract: Every false theory can be turned vaguer and vaguer until it becomes impossible to test, and thus can be claimed to not be refuted.

Untestable Argument: People tend to favor untestable arguments because they can’t be refuted. But rationally speaking, these should be considered ‘not even wrong.’

Shiftable Argument: Similar to untestable arguments, but here one can theoretically test them but they are really easy to change up to match (or not match) any test.

Nominal Fallacy: This one is more famous as a logical fallacy. It’s where you assign a name to something and then thinks you now know something about it. From Wikipedia: “Stuart Firestein has described the fallacy as ‘…the error of believing that the label carries explanatory information.'” It’s actually a form of word essentialism.

Category: Positivism

Argument By Bad Analogy: Any point can be made via analogy so long as you find the right analogy. Even black and white are analogous in that they are colors. Whether or not an analogy is rationally valid will actually be determined by how the analogies differ, not by how they are the same. So arguments by analogy are only meaningful if they can’t be criticized as being a bad analogy.

Positive Evidence Argument: The evidence presented “supports” not only the theory the person is advocating but its competitors as well.

Narrativizing: People often feel they’ve made a good argument if they merely offer a narrative fitting the facts together without any attempt to either explain what is wrong with competing theories nor even to check if the narrative they are advancing creates testable predictions or not. Also known as the Narrative Fallacy.

Confirm Bias: Confirmation bias is seeking only evidence for the theory you favor. This is sometimes considered a logical fallacy but seems more like a rational fallacy.

Category: Justificationism

Justificationizing: The argument that since a theory hasn’t been definitely proven false beyond doubt, the arguments made were invalid. Since nothing can be proven beyond doubt, this argument over explains.

Category: Non-Discussion

Various techniques to avoid critical discussion in the first place.

Wordism: Insisting either that your opponent used a word incorrectly (because said word is presumed to have only one essential meaning) or that until they define a term for you the discussion can’t continue. This is a common strategy to bog the discussion down forever while avoiding the appearance of having conceded any points. This also violates word essentialism so it’s never a fair approach.

Dying On the Hill of a Definition: This is a special case of wordism. Consider that if you are about a lose an argument, there is an all-purpose face-saving strategy available to you. You can insist that your opponent misused a term or did not define it well. If they ask you to define what you mean by that term, you can insist they need to define it better. No matter how they define the term, you can claim they got something wrong. Since words actually have many meanings, depending on the context, you’ll always be correct that they are defining the term wrong for some context. If they try to give multiple definitions for multiple contexts you can simply disagree with any definition that will cause a problem for your argument and insist only on definitions non-problematic for you. When asked to offer your own definition for the concept in question, you can claim there is no such word. In short, you can stonewall any conversation under any circumstance by simply insisting on your own narrow definitions. You will likely even feel like you are making valid points because you are ‘clarifying your terms’ well. This whole approach is built on word essentialism and thus is always false.

Argument by Tautology: Since we can choose to define words any way we wish, it is always trivial to ‘win an argument’ by simply defining one’s terms in such a way that one is necessarily correct. When you do this, you may even sincerely feel you’ve made a fair rational point when in fact you’ve just said nothing at all since your conclusion is part of the built-in assumptions in your definitions. This is actually a form of wordism mixed with circular argument but disguised as a logical deduction.

Creedalism: Spend any time talking to a devote Christian about the Trinity doctrine and you’ve got a pretty good idea what this rational fallacy is about. Sometimes people become more enamored with what words are used to express an idea than trying to make their idea clear. Basically, any choice of words that don’t match the ‘creed’ must of necessity be wrong and will be rejected under all circumstances. This is sometimes a case of talking past each other, which is bad enough. But it can even come in a worse form where the creedalist isn’t actually saying anything meaningful at all and that is why they need things worded in a certain vague way. Any attempt to make actual sense of what they saying has to be opposed because then it would become obvious (even to them) that they aren’t saying anything at all.

Refusing the Premise: Very different than disagreeing about a premise. Rationally speaking, we take every theory seriously. So, if a theory is wrong, there is never any harm in saying ‘okay, if that premise is true, I’d agree with you. But it’s not and here is why.’ But if our own pet theory is wrong and we feel dogmatic about it, it would be embarrassing to take the opposing theory seriously so it becomes tempting to refuse to take the other theory seriously. Or it might even harm our own theory to realize we can’t easily identify which premises we are specifically disagreeing over. A common form of refusing the premise is refusing to even try a thought experiment offered or to change the thought experiment to something different than pretending to take it. All forms of not taking the opponent’s theory seriously fall under this fallacy. (i.e. you just refuse to even engage the other theory at all because you just want to give positive arguments for your own theory: see category positivism.)

Cherry-Picking: This happens when a person offers you 10 problems with your theory and you choose the weakest problem and demonstrate that one is wrong while ignoring the rest. A special case of refusing the premise.

Repeating: Your opponent already explained the problem with your argument and you never responded with an explanation of why you disagreed. Instead, you just repeated the argument again without addressing first what was wrong with his attempt to refute your point.

Uncharitable Reading: Because it is impossible to say something in a way that can’t be misunderstood, it must also be the case that everything said — no matter how well — is subject to an interpretation that is not what was intended. In other words, critical rational discussions require charity of interpretation for the discussion to move forward. One common tactic to stop an uncomfortable conversation is to simply choose to consistently interpret the other person in uncharitable ways. Once this choice is made, it will prove always possible and so the conversation can’t move forward.

Over Moralizing: For better or worse, moral arguments are a powerful way to stop a conversation and not have to assess it rationally. So there is a natural desire to turn every argument into a moral one to reduce the perceived need to rationally discuss it any further. A related problem is boiling your argument down to a vague moral problem even though no specific moral mistake was ever made. For example, complaining that Madonna doesn’t deserve to get paid more than Mrs. Jones, your children’s awesome tutor/teacher, and then use that outcome as a basis for vaguely criticizing all existing institutions while offering no real alternative theories.

Category: Logical Fallacies

This is the list of logical fallacies that are sometimes also rational fallacies.

Straw-manning: Misrepresenting the other theory to make it easier to show problems. Often happens for the valid reason that it is genuinely hard to communicate ideas to the mind of another person. It really only becomes a problem if, after the other person tells you you straw-manned them, you refuse to slow down and figure out how to better represent their view. However, if the person is being a creedalist (see above) it may prove impossible to ever satisfy them. So just because someone says you straw-manned them doesn’t mean you did. It’s more about how well you handle doing your best to really take their views seriously.

Circular Argument: aka Begging the Question. You sneak the conclusion into the premises.

Equivocation: Not recognizing that word essentialism is false and that words have multiple meanings and you just used two different meanings as if they were a single concept.

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