The idea for this post came up one day watching a political debate on the TV. The right wing candidate was standing for a statement while the left wing candidate was, obviously, standing for the opposing statement. The arguments used by both candidates looked well built, from the logical point of view. I wondered then, how it was possible that two radically opposing positions could be laid on correct logical foundations. Could be two opposing positions right at the same time?, was there any hidden trick in that debate?.
This post is about filtering lies, or incorrect reasoning looking correct. Demagogy is a set of techniques well known by politicians and the media. I do not think a single reader would get scared if I say that most of the media serve hidden (or not that hidden) interests. We live times with an overdose of information, being that “information” a mixture of real facts, not contrasted facts and spurious interpretations of the real facts. Is there any way to defence ourselves from this polluted fallout?.
In my opinion, most of us are lacking in logical tools to analyse information, what make us easy targets for politicians, the media and other people using demagogy around. This post is about developing what I call “the Schopenhauer’s filter”, a tool to screen statements for lies, demagogy or logical mistakes.
I would say that “the Schopenhauer’s filter” is not only a tool to unmask lies looking true, but also a way to refine our own reasoning and build more solid foundations for our personal schemes or believes.
Fig.1 We all suffer a fallout of lies and true-looking arguments
WHEN A BOOK CHOOSES YOU. THE ART OF BEING RIGHT
Long time ago, when walking around Merida, a beautiful Spanish town (1), I came across an old bookshop with a few books on show. I took a look and quickly one of them caught my eye, “The art of being right” (2) by Schopenhauer. I got the feeling that I had to flick through that book, so I came into the bookshop and tried to find out what it was about. It was a really thin book about a series of strategies to convince others that your argument is right even if it is not. I found the topic interesting and I bought it.
Schopenhauer (3) is a very famous German philosopher from the nineteenth century. I had heard of him at high school long time ago, when I attended a philosophy subject, but actually I did not know much about his writing. I started the reading that night and I soon understood that it was one of those books, small in terms of size but huge in terms of knowledge. Years later, I would get a similar feeling with “The art of war”. Curiously, the word “art” is present in both titles.
The book starts by an introduction to Aristotelian Dialectic, hard staff in my opinion. So, if the reader decided to give the book a try, I would suggest you skip this part. The main body of the book is aimed at describing a series of demagogy strategies to win any debate. However, although I find it interesting, that is not the part I am more interested in, but in the basic rules of logic, that Schopenhauer introduces prior to the demagogy strategies explanation. Personally speaking, that is the deep soul of the book, and that is what I will be talking about in this post. The demagogy strategies are interested as well, so it is also worth reading on them.
The book hides the key to both, the white and black magic. On the one hand you can use the logic laws to unmask false arguments and help yours be better founded. On the other hand you can use Schopenhauer’s strategies to manipulate those rules without others noticing. As Peter Parker’s uncle, Ben, said in Spiderman: “with a great power comes a great responsibility” (sorry, I cannot help introducing this quote here).
Fig.2 The art of being right. A master piece of logic
THE SCHOPENHAUER’S FILTER
After analysing the book “The art of being right” I took the basic logic laws from it and combined them with some personal ideas in order to get a tool to unmask false arguments and lies, and to build my own arguments on more solid foundations. I would like to share this technique here with you.
The filter consists in a series of sequential questions applied to the statement we want to validate or reject. If a question is answered in a positive way, then it is the next question’s turn. If not, the statement must be rejected or modified until passing through the current question’s filter. The questions are the following:
- Is the statement based on correct principles?
- Is the statement derived correctly from those principles?
- Can you find exceptions to the statement?
- If you develop the statement under more general conditions, does it lead you to an absurd?
In order to carry out a complete study on certain statement or hypothesis, the Schopenhauer’s filter should be applied twice, firstly to the hypothesis and secondly to the alternative hypothesis, that is to say the opposing argument. By analysing the alternative hypothesis we can find wick points in the principal one, or additional arguments that should be considered. Hence, applying the filter twice has the effect of leading us to shape more strongly our arguments.
Fig.3 Distillation of arguments. The Schopenhauer’s filter
Next, I further elaborate on each step.
Warning: The examples analysed in the following sections are illustrations of each step in the filter, so not all the steps of the filter are applied to the examples. Hence, take the examples as a partial analysis. If the reader were interested in any of the subjects, the whole Schopenhauer’s filter should be applied to the argument and its alternative.
Is the statement based on correct principles?
Statements or arguments always rely on more general principles, and sometimes the latter are compound principles relying on more basic ones and so on. The goal in this step is to distil the basic principles from the statement. This task may take some time but it is crucial.
What may happen is that the distilled principles are not positive or acceptable, so the statement would be hence rejected. Other times, it may happen that the statement does not rely on the principles in a general way, that is to say, the statement is so general that we cannot say that the underlying principles apply to all the cases. Here, some additional constraints should be introduced in the statement to make it valid. Other times, the number of constraints to be introduced is so big that the statement must be rejected for not being general enough.
Fig.4 Any statement is based on more basic principles. They must be distilled
In order to illustrate the way to proceed, let us set the following statement as example: “The reception in a country of uncontrolled immigration causes a drop in the local salaries. Hence, we have to control the entrance to immigrants”. This can be recognised as a usual argument against immigration. I find two principles applying here, both related to salary dynamics: on the one hand each country usually has, set by law, a minimum wage, and on the other hand the dynamics of the wage would be following the offer and demand law.
According to the first principle, the wages will never go under the minimum wage established by law, so the analysed argument is false, or at least bad built to meet this principle. A constraint must be introduced in the argument, so we need to reformulate it: “The reception in a country of uncontrolled immigration causes a drop in the local salaries, whose limit is the local minimum wage. Hence, we have to control the entrance to immigrants”.
According to the second principle, the offer and demand law may lead to a drop in salaries in those fields where more immigrants are received. Generally speaking, immigration is related to the search for more favourable economic conditions, so in most of the cases the migration flows affect only those sectors with low level of qualification. Therefore, I find another constraint to be introduced here, if we do not want to reject the argument directly: “only some sectors with low level of qualification will be affected”.
I see an additional factor applying to this situation. According to offer and demand law the salaries will drop only if the offer is far greater than demand. The argument establishes, in a general way, that always the reception of immigrants leads to a drop in salaries, but it is radically false, since it will depend on the labour demand in the affected sectors. Sometimes, the gradual ageing of the population in a country leads to an increasing labour demand. Therefore, there is an additional constraint to be added: “The reception in a country of uncontrolled immigration causes a drop, in the local salaries of specific sectors, whose limit is the local minimum wage. This is true only when the increase of the offer due to the immigrants arriving is far bigger than de local demand. Hence we have to control the entrance to immigrants”. It comes clear, that the final phrase “Hence we have to control the entrance to immigrants” cannot be derived from the previous constraints as a general conclusion. So, the argument is not as general enough as it seems at a first glance.
Is the statement derived correctly from the principles?
Sometimes, the underlying principles a statement relies on, are totally correct but they do not imply the statement, due to a tricky or incorrect reasoning when deriving the statement from the principles.
Fig.5 Derive your conclusions carefully from the basic principles
In order to illustrate this type of inconsistency I will set as example the following economic argument “When the economy is stuck it is necessary a huge public investment like it was done during the so-called “New deal” in the United States, after the second world war. It was proved at the time that it is the correct way to proceed in these situations”. I have to say here, that the huge public investment got positive results at that time. So, we could say that the underlying principle is a fact: a huge public investment reactivated the economy after the second world war. Hence, the first question in the Schopenhauer filter is passed satisfactory. The problem is how to move from that fact to the argument we are analysing without tripping in the process. I would say that the global economy is becoming more and more complex over time. The massive interconnection in trading, the complex financial products as swaps, futures, options and many other exotic products have turned the global economy into a complex network of financial inputs and outputs in which certain events can cause a chain reaction, as we sadly witnessed in 2008. Do you remember the concept of “sensitivity to the initial conditions” ruling the Chaos theory, shown in one of my previous posts? https://unveilingthereality.com/2015/03/06/reality-is-a-complex-object-ii/
The point here is to highlight that the “New deal” worked out under the conditions at the time. Perhaps, and only perhaps, other factors should be isolated before considering that a country’s economy is a linear relation where each action leads to inevitably the same reaction. My purpose is not to provide a clear answer here on this subject, but to highlight that the reasoning leading from one true principle or fact to an argument must be reasoned carefully before leaping in the dark. The problem with the argument is that it is not proved that only public investment can reactivate an economy, under any type of circumstance, for any type of country and independently from other factors. So, the derivation of the statement from the principle is completely wrong. Hence, additional constraints or conditions should be introduced, if possible, to improve the argument. If additional constraints were not found to make the argument clearly derived from the principles, then the argument should be rejected.
Can you find exceptions to the statement?
If we have been able to get to this point, we should supposedly have a consistent argument at this stage. So, we should be sure that the underlying principles are correct and our argument is well derived from them. However, we have still to try and find fissures. If a good looking argument had exceptions, then we cannot say that it is true for a general situation. If the number of exceptions were small, then we could still introduce constraints or conditions to make our argument true, by making it more specific. However, if the number of exceptions were big, then we should reject the argument, because it cannot be right if there were a good number of exceptions.
Fig.6 If you find exceptions in the argument, you need either to add additional constraints to define correctly the scope or reject the argument
In order to illustrate the previous concept, let me analyse the following statement: “I have the right to own legally a gun for self-defence. The self-defence right is basic, so my government should allow me to bear guns”. The underlying principle here is “I have the right to defence myself”. We can consider this principle legitimate, however there are other principles in play as we will see at the end of this section. By now, I would consider only this basic principle.
Let us take a look at the way in which the argument is derived from the principle. Obviously, in order to be able to protect ourselves from someone armed we need a gun, otherwise I would not have any choice. So, it comes clear that the need for bearing guns is well derived from the principle. So far, everything seems nice.
In order to search for those exceptions for which the argument would not be valid, we need to find out whether the argument is valid for anyone within the population of a country. Obviously, I would say that people with criminal records should be discriminated, since they have already proved that they will take any advantage to go against law. Moreover, I would say that a lot of people without criminal records are a potential risk with a gun in their hands. If the argument consists in allowing people to bear guns for self-defence, we should exclude all the individuals that potentially could use those guns for different purposes. This way we established a theoretical set of exceptions
The problem is how to set up a practical way to screen those potential dangerous people. What profiles are we looking for?, I would say that people potentially unstable or with extreme ideas. In order to get this screening achieved, we could propose to run psychological tests to grant the final approval.
I wonder now, if a psychological test is able to work as a practical filter in terms of reducing considerably the risk. It occurs to me that perhaps we could search for an empirical proof for this, by taking a look at other countries or corporations providing guns and applying any type of psychological control. We could investigate into the statistics of police departments around the world, armies, countries applying this type of controls to hunters, etc. In a serious study it would come clear if given a risk situation in which the use of force is necessary, the armed individual (the legal one) is able in average, to react in a proper and proportional manner. On the other hand, the records on accidents due to fire arms should be also considered, as well as the cases in which the legal armed individuals have used their fire arms beyond the concept of proportionality. Even more, we should include the ratio of people committing violent actions not related to self-defence. I sincerely think that this study, if serious, considering data from all around the world, would provide in which proportion a psychological set of tests can filter potential risk.
If the number of accidents or bad behaviour were far less than that for correct actions, it would be proved that, in average, the psychological tests can play the expected filtering role. However, If it were the other way around, I would conclude that there is no way to filter the exceptions, what from the perspective of the logic would lead us to reject the argument under study.
It could be studied as well those countries granting access to fire arms without any type of special control. By studying the number of accidents versus the number of well conducted self-defence actions, we would find out if the level of risk in a society gets increased or decreased when having permissive access to fire arms.
So, I have to conclude that the argument is not general enough as to be considered acceptable, if we do not introduce a valid mechanism to isolated, and ban, the exceptions. If practical methods to do that were not proved to be reliable enough, then the argument should be rejected completely from a logical point of view, since the argument would lead to a more dangerous society, what goes against a more basic right for any citizen: the right to have a government working for a safer society for everybody, for those willing to bear fire arms and for those not willing to.
If I develop the statement, does it lead me to an absurd?
Once in this step we should be pretty sure about our argument or statement, but we need already to stress it in order to put it to the test and check how strong its foundations are. This step is about stretching the argument beyond its breakdown limits to understand better its scope and find out if new constraints need to be added if we understood that such scope is not general enough.
The way to do that is to develop the argument in several directions and see where we get. There is not any defined technique to do that, your imagination is the limit. The linguistic structure would be something like “if we consider the argument to be true then xxxxxx”, where “xxxx” would be a series of consequences derived from the argument.
Fig.7 Sometimes an apparently right argument leads you to an absurdity
An example to illustrate this process could be the argument “parents education is the most important factor in the future behaviour of a child”. If we consider that argument to be true then, all the kids in a family will have similar behaviours in the future. However, it does not match that in the same family there are cases in which one of the children will end up being a public offender while the others will lead normal lives. Hence, the parents’ education factor, on its own, cannot explain how children will be when adults. We should assume that other factors out of parent’s control are involved in the process. On the other hand, we can consider the alternative statement “human behaviour is determined by a sort of factory settings the baby is given birth with”. If that were true, it will explain different behaviours among brothers receiving the same family education. However, in that case it would be impossible to find a “family brand” in brother’s personality. Nevertheless I have seen how certain deep principles are present in brothers and sisters belonging to the same family, what would imply that even if family education cannot explain everything it is still important. Therefore, the factory setting theory, on its own, does not explain all the experimental evidences. Actually, it seems that both arguments, family education and factory settings, may have a deep influence but only in certain percentage to be determined.
By the way, there are other factors influencing human personality, like non-linear effects happening in life, like in chaos theory. However, analysing deeply this subject is not the goal of this post.
Applying the Schopenhauer filter to the alternative hypothesis
Analysing the alternative statement is a really healthy exercise to go more deeply into the foundations of the statements. Generally speaking, denning our opinions is healthy because most of the times we have a set of beliefs rather than a set of arguments. Sometime in the past we came to certain conclusion and we stand for it for the rest of our lives, without reviewing if the conditions for that conclusion to be true still apply. In other words, we need to put each statement to the test, not only by stretching it like in the fourth step of the filter but also by applying the whole filter to the alternative statement or hypothesis.
Fig.8 By applying the Schopenhauer’s filter to the alternative statement we can understand deeply the logic of the original one
It is easy to deny statements, it is not necessary for me to provide any special guidance, I will only quote some alternative statements for some of the examples we have been using so far: “Bearing fire arms is not an individual right”, “parent’s education has no influence at all in children’s future behaviour in life”, “public investment has not any positive impact in the economy of a country when it is stuck”, etc. I hope the reader goes into applying the filter to these arguments and dive into the possibilities the method can provide when working on alternative arguments.
MOST OF THE DISCUSSIONS CANNOT HAVE A WINNER
Backing up to the introduction of this post, and considering what we know now about the Schopenhauer’s filter, we can resume the question I brought up there: can two opposing arguments be right at the same time?, the answer is NO. I can say “I prefer lemon flavour” and a friend of mine “I prefer orange flavour”, but this belongs to the subjective world, based on opinions rather than in arguments built on the rules of logic. In the world of subjective opinions there are no worse or better options, lemon and orange are ok at the same time. The problem comes when we shift to the objective topics and people argue based on opinions rather than based on proofs or logical reasoning.
In the logic world, two opposing statements cannot be true at the same time. I would better say “two opposing statements cannot be true at the same time, UNDER THE SAME CONSTRAINTS”. The last part is really important, since most of the discussions take place confronting statements valid under different constraints. It is like a soccer player standing for one way to play the ball against a basketball player standing for a different way, both trying to be right. It is funny how people get stuck confronting ideas with others without agreeing the premises the discussion relies on. It is like to throw a ball into the pitch and not agree if we are going to play rugby, soccer or chess.
I would like to tell here a personal story about my discussion with my brother in law about evolution. He is a brilliant biologist, so he knows a thing or two about the subject. During a nice dinner in his place, in Girona (4), and accompanied with an interesting wine, I brought up the subject by saying that the human brain seems to me an impressive outcome of evolution. However, he quickly replied that in terms of evolution the human brain is nothing, in comparison with bacteria, since they will be capable of surviving under almost any type of external conditions, while human being would be quite sensitive to big external changes. My point was that human beings, for better or worse, have been able to compete better with other species and not only adapt themselves to the current conditions but also to even change the external conditions themselves. I will not get the reader bored with the details of the discussion, but basically the opposing statements are the ones I have introduced. A couple of days after that dinner, I gave it a second thought and I saw clearly that we both were right at the same time, but only because one was playing basketball and other volleyball. The key in the discussion were the constraints for both arguments, the external conditions. When the external conditions are even or change slowly, specialization is a way to compete better, and it is what the human brain did, and I guess keeps doing. The fact that the external conditions have not changed dramatically lately it does not mean that evolution does not continue its way, evolution under even external conditions. Under these conditions, the best adapted species will compete better and others will disappear. However, in a context in which the external conditions changed dramatically bacteria will get adapted very soon and human race would disappear. However, it does not mean that the human brain cannot be considered a marvellous evolutionary outcome. Therefore, it is not more than a matter of constraints. Most of the discussions are sterile and turn into a way to measure the level of testosterone rather than measure the worth of the logical arguments.
Fig.9 What are we playing?. The lack in the definition of the constraints applying to the arguments is like to mix boxing and chess