Monday, March 19, 2018

Appeal to the Stone

As I have previously noted, 'The theory of fallacies is merely partially systematized folklore; as one would expect from folklore, it is a weird brew of logical tidbits, practical advice, ethical admonition, historical detritus of exploded or doubtful theories, things people thought clever or neat at some point, and misunderstandings.' One of the interesting things about it is seeing how different fallacies -- or more often, pseudo-fallacies -- emerge into common discourse.

I recently came across an attribution of the fallacy of the 'appeal to the stone'. It's an interesting example of how these things are born. The original idea is well known:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

Any Berkeley scholar will note that Boswell and Johnson seem to have misunderstood Berkeley's claim, although in a way that was usually done. (Thus Jonathan Swift, who was Berkeley's friend, is said to have played the practical joke of telling his servants to leave the door locked when Berkeley came to call, because the door was only in Berkeley's mind.) Berkeley, in fact, would arguably agree with Johnson on the key point. But it's not a fallacy to misunderstand a position. Moreover, given what Johnson thought he was refuting, one can simply see the action as a reason to regard the claim as wrong, and it's certainly not a fallacy to give such a reason.

Regardless, the 'appeal to the stone' gets its name from association with the story, whether the story exemplifies it or not. According to Wikipedia, "Argumentum ad lapidem (Latin: "appeal to the stone") is a logical fallacy that consists in dismissing a statement as absurd without giving proof of its absurdity." Considering bare dismissal without reasoning as a fallacy, which is an error of reasoning, is dubious already, but in any case it seems implausible to say that there are no absurdities that can be dismissed without proof. For instance, if I say "P & ~P", whatever P may be, there seems to be no problem with just dismissing the claim as absurd. 'Absurdity' is a classification term; classifications can have quirks or unexpected results, but some things will just be obviously the kind of thing for which you have the classification, 'absurdity', to begin with. There will be times when you can't get away with mere classification without proof -- although those will perhaps all be cases either of 'begging the question' or of just being wrong to begin with. Some classifications, however, have to be basic, and some things will indeed just be absurd. Now, to be sure, although the article is a bit obscure, it does seem at least to suggest that argumentum ad lapidem is a form of begging the question, in that it links it to 'proof by assertion', "where an unproved or disproved claim is asserted as true on no ground other than that of its truth having been asserted." In this way one could make some kind of sense of the fallacy attribution, and in a fruitful way, since petitio principii, unlike most fallacies, has a good account (Aristotle's). The case still would be complicated and uncertain however, since, as Aristotle noted, you can't beg questions with immediate principles, and the falsity of some absurdities is an immediate principle (as in the case of contradiction above).

Wikipedia's account is heavily based on Madsen Pirie's How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, although it's clear from the Talk page that there has been some effort to make more sense of it. Pirie's discussion is interesting, in that it is based on the principle, "An argument or piece of evidence cannot be dismissed because it fails to conform to an existing opinion." This does not seem to be universally true, although there will indeed be cases where it would be foolish to dismiss an argument so easily. Much of the problem is that we do a lot of different things with arguments in a lot of different contexts. Some of those contexts will have presuppositions that need to be taken into account. It is not unreasonable to dismiss an argument against (say) the possibility of evolution in a class on evolution. If Pirie means 'opinion' in a broad sense, so that it includes things we think we know, then the principle is too broad: it would make it impossible to reject any argument at all. If Pirie means 'opinion' in a narrow sense, so that it excludes anything we actually know, it becomes more plausible for some cases, but, as I have noted, not for every kind of context. (It's interesting, incidentally, that one of Pirie's examples is no-platforming or shouting down a speaker on college campuses. This shows that Pirie's point is a more controversial one than you would gather from the Wikipedia article -- in the book Pirie is actually trying to present a particular picture of what rational discourse is, and each fallacy discussed identifies elements of that picture. Pirie is fairly explicit about this, and for this reason is explicitly generous about what counts as a 'fallacy'. But much of the picture is deliberately put forward in contrast to other conceptions of rational discourse, or at least other practices purporting to be rational discourse. This isn't a problem in Pirie's book, but it's noticeable that it vanishes entirely in the Wikipedia article. This phenomenon, of a set of claims from a very specific argumentative context continuing even after the context is dropped, is very common in the history of fallacies; I've discussed it here before, for example, with the case of false analogy.)

Most of the uses of 'appeal to the stone' or 'argumentum ad lapidem' as a fallacy label trace back to Pirie's book, either in this edition or in the earlier edition, which had the title, The Book of the Fallacy. But the term did not originate here. The earliest I've been able to trace it is to 1959, in Fearnside and Holthier's Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument; you can find it under section 39, 'Abandonment of Discussion', in the 'Diversions' section. Their comment is notable:

Johnson's refutation of Berkeley, a form of refusing to discuss the "absurd," is jestingly referred to by philosophers as the invention of a new fallacy, the appeal ad lapidem (to the stone).

We see here all the later elements of it -- and the explicit recognition that it is something of a joke fallacy. I suspect that their doing so is related to their treating in a discussion of fallacies while also recognizing in the same section that abandoning discussion is not the sort of thing that would ordinarily be considered a fallacy. In any case, this is not the first instance of a joke-fallacy insinuating its way onto serious lists of fallacies; the same thing happened with argumentum ad crumenam and argumentum ad baculum much earlier, as I've also noted before.

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