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Limits & Straw Men

…in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Chiron Academic Press – The Original Authoritative Edition) . Wisehouse. Kindle Edition.

Those words above inspired me, and evoked an image of that old linear graph from Algebra. I remembered the symbolic representation of absolute numbers and their representation both negative and positively correlated in spaces to the right and left of the point in question.

The absolute value of 4 and -4 is 4. From the 0 point above, we can move four units in either direction, |-4|=4, just as |4|=4. But what’s this to do with philosophy?

Back to Wittgenstein’s quote above, consider 0 as the limit. If we are considering a position or argument, it does little good to only consider the direction we are in agreement with.

All too often the approach to thinking is to pick one direction of thought. Granted, in many cases we may not need consider the alternative hypothesis (or null hypothesis). However, in discussion that has controversy or debatable aspects by reasonable people, we should consider the other side of the argument.

In other words, to use the symbolic representation of the absolute value line, if we had a position on a topic of immigration (and we plotted that opinion at “4”), then we should also consider the equal response to that topic at -4. Then in the discussion we may find that our initial plot should adjust to 3, and therefore we would then consider the different level of power opposite at -3. Perhaps we find a balance point at 0, or perhaps we don’t. At least the alternative hypothesis was considered.

Straw Man Arguments

It’s quite attractive, and often unintentional, to attempt to “win” a position by the use of the straw man argument. This is when the null hypothesis (opposite hypothesis) is considered but false identified.

Example: Climate Change

Recently a video has been going around of a woman interrupting a climate change talk. She addresses the politicians present and says something about the need is coming soon for humans to eat their own children, in order to stave off the consequences of climate change. This is a very unusual and odd belief, so sensational and fringe that one must consider it to be a prank.

However, if someone was against climate change, and then argued that climate change activists are negative influences due to their desire to cannibalize other humans, that would be a straw man argument.

Exactly how many climate change activists believe we’ll need to eat other human beings? Is this a real or viable position to pin against your adversary? Not at all. This is an absurd argument that only a fringe (potential prank) person would postulate.

This is a perfect example of a Straw Man argument. As a straw man may look like a human from a distance, up close we see it isn’t a human at all. It’s a trick, a ploy to look like a person. So too is this argument tricking people into aligning against climate change proponents, by misidentifying their cause as one of cannibalism.

This example may seem absurd, yet I’ve seen people perpetuate this argument, “I’m not a cannibal – I’m against these scientists and activists that want to eat other humans.” It’s simply a logical foul, as few if any reasonable scientist is advocating cannibalism.

Oddly one such person sending this message around Twitter is himself affiliated with a Satanic organization… and while that organization doesn’t engage in illegal activities, many Christians have labeled groups like that as having engaged in human sacrifice. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the damage is easily done.

Therefore, this is also an example of a lack of “seeing the other side clearly.” Not only are Straw Man arguments being used here, but the culprits are standing in a. proverbial glass house, throwing stones. They could equally be attacked by religious zealots with equal Straw Man arguments.

Example: Boyd Rice on Equality

In the book, “No,” author Boyd Rice attempts to wax philosophical on a variety of topics. Each topic is separated into its own chapter, as a short essay. In one such chapter titled, “Equality,” Boyd Rice attempts to discredit the notion of equality using a Straw Man argument.

Have you ever seen a demonstrable example of equality in your entire life? Can it be glimpsed in any dog show or classroom? In any ping pong game or chess match? Of course not. It’s a philosophical abstraction, something nowhere to be found in nature. Is 50 pounds of lead somehow equal to 50 pounds of gold?

Rice, Boyd No (17)

Boyd starts his analysis by stating the biological difficulties of equality. Instead of discussing the social implication, he quickly analyzes the lack of equality among biological distinction.

Boyd continues with several descriptions of inequality and builds a Straw Man argument that those who ponder equality must think like the erroneous conclusions he identifies:

Is the C.E.O. of McDonald’s equal to the person who manages the store or makes the fries? Of course not…. Would you switch places with the Down syndrome guy who bags your groceries at the supermarket, or the turban wearing fellow who drives your taxi home from he airport…. We exist as a hierarchy. And most of us wish o advance upwards within it. We want more, never less. And never, certainly, the same as the next guy. We speak of equality, but no one truly desires it. If you’ve ever really met someone who wants exactly the same as his fellow man, kill him. He’s some sort of pod person, not a human being. Peek into any microcosm you wish and look for the presence of equality. You won’t find it. Look for evidence of inequality, however, and you’ll find it in spades.

Ibid. (18)

Hopefully the reader spots several glaring problems with Boyd’s essay on equality. What I find fascinating is that this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this exact argument. When I was a child, my oldest brother (20 years older than me) chided me when I came home from school and talked about equality. He snapped at me with the same argument that no one is born equal.

But this argument is not the argument of social work towards equality. No one is trying to argue that a paraplegic is equal in physical capability to a healthy fireman. This idea of comparing the taxi driver to an IT consultant or a CEO to the fry cook is absurd. Yes, perhaps in some way there is an equality… perhaps they have the same IQ. But that’s not Boyd’s point. He’s pointing out that in general there is a distinction as vast as the ocean – that equality isn’t there. As he attests, “Peek into any microcosm you wish and look for the presence of equality. You won’t find it.”1

But this argument is not a standard, or typical argument for those seeking equality. The real case for equality is not in making two divergent things equal, but rather it is in removing the ARTIFICIAL inequalities put in place by culture, history or some other old program.

What Boyd (and my brother) didn’t understand is the true argument that people present for equality. A woman’s right to vote was a fight against an ARTIFICIAL inequality. Due to old programs and paradigms that stated a woman was incapable of making decisions that affected society, their right to vote was omitted. It took a long and hard fight to get that right established in America.

Other REAL examples of the fight for equality would be in the racial aspects of America. The right for slaves to be free. The right for an African American to have an equal vote to a white person. The right for an African American to eat at the same restaurant as a white person, or to ride at the front of a “white bus.” These examples I’ve given are the common and obvious struggles for equality, where the removal of artificial constructs were torn down. This is the true fight for equality.

However, if you are an author or celebrity, you may convince a following that equality doesn’t exist biologically so why bother? Such people (like Boyd Rice) pitch a Straw Man argument where those fighting for equality are ill identified with an incorrect position. Making their position an absurdity, it’s then easy to dismantle it and toss it out the window of discussion, in favor of some edgy philosophy. But the argument is null, as the argument is falsely writ.

In that same chapter (and throughout Boyd Rice’s book, “No”) he also lacks the understanding of Wittgenstein’s limits on thinking. Rice complains that the equality established in the constitution was created by a bunch of lawyers, who he then dismisses. By labeling the founders of the country as lawyers, he then vilifies the label and tosses out that argument altogether:

Of course, the founding fathers were mostly lawyers, gifted bullshit artists. They constitution, for all its merits, is a document full of flattering conceits. Conceits which constitute the very bedrock of modern democracy.

Ibid. (17)

Fascinating. It always pays to look in the mirror before making a strong attack. Couldn’t we also mirror this same argument back to Boyd Rice and simply say, “Well, Boyd Rice is a punk rock musician. As punk rock is a meaningless life adventure, where he had few if any struggles, what merit or even right does he have to talk about things he clearly lacks in education?”

These types of personal attacks, usually can be pointed back to the speaker/writer. Just because the founding fathers might be labeled as “lawyers,” does not determine the value of their words, anymore than being a punk rocker would determine one’s ability to theorize on philosophy.

It pays to consider the equal opposite argument, especially if it can be directed towards one’s own self. Hopefully this clears the air on Straw Man arguments, and thinking within limits.


  1. “No” page 18 by Boyd Rice

What do you think?

Written by Skotadi

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Foregone Conclusion (Example)