Reductio ad Absurdum Isn’t Straw

Reductio ab Absurdum is a criticism of a position which shows that it is false by demonstrating that absurd conclusions follow from it. A Straw Man is a fake position that sounds like someone’s real position which is constructed by an opponent because it’s easier to disprove than the person’s real position. (It is often the case that the straw man is accidentally constructed because the attacker has never understood his opponents real position.) These two are often confused for each other, which is a bit odd, and I think that a big part of the explanation for why is Kantian epistemology. (I wrote about Kant’s substitute for knowledge here, and this blog post won’t make much sense unless you read that first.)

The relevant part of Kantian epistemology is that each of the several contradictory universal theories held by a person are held only in the areas of life in which the person believes that they produce correct results. In all other aspects of life, the universal theory is ignored. To continue with the example of neck-down darwinism, survival of the fittest is not even considered in the realm of politics, and all men being created equal is not even considered in the realm of science. Each theory has its proper domain, not in the sense of the domain where it makes claims, but rather the domain where its claims are heeded. This is the key ingredient in reductio ad absurdum being called a straw man.

Suppose Fred and James are arguing, and James holds a Kantian epistemology while Fred does not. Fred points out that James’ materialism implies that no action is any more moral than another, because no human action creates or destroys matter. James says that this is a straw man, because he never said that. Yet Fred never claimed that James said that, he claimed that James would have to say that if he were being consistent with what he (James) did say. Why is James so convinced that his is a straw man?

It’s because morality is not someplace that James applies materialism. To James’ mind, showing that one of his universal theories has implications is not enough to prove that James believes those implications. Instead, it must be shown that James actually believes that the universal theory should be applied to that part of life. James sees Frank’s reductio argument as a straw man because James does not believe his universal theory (materialism) should be applied to this part of life (morality), and so its implications in that area of life are in no way his position.

It’s difficult to know what to make of James’ contention that this is a straw man of his position. In a sense he’s right, because that implication of materialism is not his position. But that’s because materialism is not his position, despite the fact that he has claimed it to be. It’s not his position because he does not actually have a position. His claim to believe that truth is unknowable and so the best we can do is refining our theories as we “test” them against evidence is basically a methodological form of blank skepticism. It makes no positive claims of any kind, other than the self-evidently true ones about what at the moment appears to be the memory of past experiences, and as such attributing any positive claim to it is mistaken. This is an utter failure of rational thinking, but that’s really the only criticism which can be leveled against it. By claiming no more knowledge of the world than is possessed by a worm, it cannot be proven wrong about anything. The real problem is that the people who claim to believe this are essentially committing the moral crime of stolen valor. Just as a deserter pretending to be a decorated war hero is reprehensible, so is a putative earthworm who still wants to be treated like a man. Such skeptics would be consistent enough if they didn’t complain about being treated like worms. In practice, they complain about it quite loudly. They rely on the fact that we don’t believe them to live a much better life than they are entitled to according to their philosophy of the world. In argument, they take advantage of good manners. If we were to take their words seriously, the only correct response amounts to, though it is possible to state it less bluntly, “shut your mouth among your betters, dog”.

Kant’s Version of Knowledge

For those who don’t know, there is a school of philosophy called, unfortunately enough given the passage of time, Modern Philosophy. It had several features, but the main one was that it denied that knowledge was really possible. It was rarely that explicit, and oddly enough started in the 1600s with René Descartes’ proof that knowledge is possible. It ended with Immanuel Kant’s work in the 1700s trying to come up with a workable substitute for knowledge. It’s a common school of philosophy, these days, and no one has ever been able to figure out how its adherents are acting in good faith—especially since its adherents deny that good faith is really possible—but everyone acts like they are anyway since they seem to claim to, and academia is a very polite place (in front of students, anyway). There’s a joke about Modern Philosophy which runs:

Modern Philosophy was born with Descartes, died with Kant, and has been roaming the halls of academia ever since like a zombie: eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

The most pernicious effect of Modern Philosophy—and I say this despite Modern Philosophy’s causative relationship to the existence of Post-Modernism—is the version of knowledge which Kant came up with in order to try to solve the problems of Modern Philosophy. (In technical terms, Kantian epistemology.) What Kant proposed was, roughly, the following:

We can’t have any direct knowledge of things apart from ourselves, so the best that we can do is to ape the scientific method: create theories of the world and then test them, refining them over time as we get more evidence.

Kant went on to say that we must believe in God, free will, and the immortality of the soul, because the alternative hypotheses predict an irrational world, which is not what we live in.

Most everyone else who takes Modern Philosophy seriously was quite happy to believe that we live in an irrational world, and so they will happily reject all three. (Interestingly, Kant was reputed to be a creature of extreme habit that never varied; I don’t know if that was of any significance to his intuitions.) But this has become the dominant idea of what knowledge is. It is not a direct communion of the mind with things outside of the mind, which everyone up until this point had meant by knowledge whether they affirmed or denied it.

The tricky thing to recognizing this is that Kant was very intelligent, and of a philosophical disposition. Most people are not very intelligent, and more importantly most people are not of a philosophical disposition. The result, taking these two things into account, is analogous to what has happened in physics after Newtonian mechanics was shown to be false.

Someone unfamiliar with how physics is conducted might think that once Newton’s laws of motion were shown to be wrong, they would have been discarded, but they were not. The reason they were not is that they are not very far from correct in low-mass and low-velocity situations, but they are much easier to compute. Since most everything that happens on the earth is in a low-mass, low-velocity situation compared to where the errors in Newtonian mechanics become noticeable, people just go on using Newtonian mechanics whenever they know that the error would be small. Basically, they know that the laws are wrong, but since there is always measurement error and other sources of imprecision in practice, the laws can be used anywhere we know that the error would be so small as to be insignificant compared to our measurement tolerances.

People do the same thing with the theories of reality which they substitute for knowledge. Instead of, like Kant, coming up with one consistent theory which is the best theory they can possibly come up with, they will use several theories—which they know to be quite wrong in some cases—and just make sure to restrict their application of these theories to the parts of life where these theories produce correct results. (Also, emotional reaction is commonly used as the test of whether the theory is right—does the theory say something that makes people feel worse than the alternative.) Neck-down Darwinism is probably the best example. (If you’re not familiar with it: below the neck evolution explains everything about the human body, but above the neck all men are created equal.)

The result is that people are completely unfazed when you point out the contradictions in their beliefs. They already knew that their beliefs contradicted. They just have some sort of rule (possibly a rule-of-thumb) for which belief they apply in the cases of contradiction. Most of them take this as part of the nature of knowledge: since a universally correct theory is impossible (so far) to construct, the best that you can do is several contradictory universal theories which are only applied where they have been experimentally verified to produce “correct” results. Many people with Kantian epistemology consider it a sign of mental weakness to be unaware that your own beliefs contradict; only the small-minded or extremely inexperienced think that one theory covers everything.

The truly sinister thing about this epistemology is that it deprives the victim of the obvious means of escape. For most wrong theories of the universe, running into an unresolvable (actual, rather than apparent) contradiction is evidence that the theory is wrong, and a sign that alternatives must be sought. Someone suffering from Kantian epistemology won’t even pause at contradictions, so God alone knows how they will know to look for something better.