Friday, June 06, 2008


Fallacies are a important part of debate since Aristotle. Since discovering that the other side is committing a fallacy is about as close to a victory as one is ever going to get in most internet debates, the definition of what is a fallacy is hotly debated.

In order to look at this we take a step back to look at the big picture. The fallacy system is clearly designed to improve the standard of debate. But it does so in a very specific way - it is designed to catch misleading arguments. As per Aristotle fallacies are fallacies because they are deceptive. Note that an argument that is effective is MORE likely to be a fallacy than one that is not.

The assumption that is made in this system is that once we have weeded out misleading arguments the debate will get back on track towards a resolution, and that it doesn't matter if this takes a little more time than it might if we risked being mislead. This is similar to how other systems are defined in science.

For an example imagine someone using the fallacy of composition taken from wilkipedia

"all the band members (constituent parts) are highly skilled, therefore the band (composite item) is highly skilled"

Those able to detect that the argument may mislead thus 'call the fallacy' by saying that it is a 'fallacy of composition' and highlight that the person making the argument should try again.

Note that this is as far as i know universally accepted as a fallacy, BUT (although I'm not a music expert) if all the members are skilled then the band is more likely to be skilled. So there is some evidence provided by this argument, in that it could rationally influence the degree of creedance one gives to a position or one could argue it is dialectically effective in as far as a valid point is being made in a vivid way.

However it is still accepted as a fallacy (in certain context)*... Why?

Because there remains a potential to be misleading and we expect better. The failure to make a potentially persuasive argument or making it in a unpersuasive manner just leaves the debate more or less where it started but making a misleading argument (and it being accepted as opposed to rejected via the fallacy system) has the potential to corrupt the entire debate. Using the fallacy system gives us a simple rule for throwing out fallacies without having to determine if they have, for example, some sort of utilitarian use (which would be unworkable).

At an individual debate level there is not much cost because the person making this argument doesn't need to give the above argument in a misleading form to make the relevant point (presumably that it is good to have skilled band members) and as long as the other side also plays by the rules they suffer no disadvantage.

* it is a fallacy when the assumption being made is relevant. To take begging the question - it is OK to have a 'circular argument' if no one is likely to be mislead by that argument. For example I am typing therefore i am typing is circular but it isn't likely to mislead. Potential to mislead may be context Dependant.


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