January 11, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner: Opinionation, Obsession, and Obliviousness

I was almost going to pass off this man as a fallacious, headstrong, hyper-politicized pseudo-philosopher with no means to a platform but violence -- a sort of young Ted Kaczynski, except without the academic merits and anti-fiat rather than anti-industrialism fanaticism. In fact, before posting this, I recommended that Gary Curtis write a post about this guy on his blog because his blog likely acquires a much greater readership than mine does. He declined, so I'll settle for writing the post myself. Stupidity of this magnitude really is too great to ignore.

For me, this story is personally compelling for a number of reasons:
  • I have a huge interest in reasoning, especially through formal grammar and formal logic. Loughner apparently believed that he was an expert logician because he took an introductory logic class at Pima Community College (though his college professors there commented that he was a terrible student). In this respect, I can sympathize somewhat with Loughner's obsession with syllogistic reasoning and attempts at original and critical thought.
  • Loughner's (accused) murder of six people vindicates my strong belief that illogic is not benign and that "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." His ignorance of the fundamentals of logic, like the distinction between validity and soundness, and ass-backwards, meta-linguistic prattle speak volumes to the disasters that follow when people begin to imagine that they are geniuses or great visionaries before they demonstrate as much to anyone besides themselves. Loughner stands as a poster child for intellectual arrogance and dilettantism.
  • All philosophically well-trained people seek to show people who might let rhetoric alone sway them that grammars and logic are so powerful because they are so impersonal and not distracted by matters that are irrelevant to maximal coherence and the preservation of truth in arguments.
  • Loughner is an egoTist, but may or may not be an egoist, and we egoists may delineate ourselves well from this regular confusion by showing that that self-prioritization does not entail self-absorption.
  • At the time of this posting, I'm convinced that surviving a gunshot to the head while promoting free speech and open governmental engagement with the public is, among other things, a hugely compelling platform for Gabrielle Giffords' Presidential nomination in 2016 (No, there is no fan site!). We won't know until much later if she'll be will be able to serve at her present job in Congress, but I'd be amazed if she recovers and does not find immense political ascent because of it.
  • I was born and raised for the most part in Arizona, and I earned my B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University.
  • I've met other people like Loughner who were repulsed by logic and who came with their assumptions about how logic "ought to work", accusations that logic and grammar "didn't work in real life," or that they are "too controlling." I regularly worry that this population endangers me because these people do not bother to check themselves before they wreck themselves.
In my experience browsing introductory logic textbooks (which I did when I was teaching some children the basics of propositional logic and predicate logic), except equivocation, Loughner's fallacies are unsurprisingly not ones that people regularly learn in introductory logic classes. Many of them are really issues about abuses of language, especially the following four:
  1. Reification. -- This is the fallacy of confusing terms with referents for terms. More specifically, the reification fallacy occurs when one assumes that any lexeme or definition that one makes will necessarily contain a referent. Loughner believed that he was some sort of master of "conscience dreaming." However, conscience dreaming is just a noun phrase. It has no clear referent. I can only gather that Loughner believed that he was doing something very significant, but no one could know unless he explained what he was demarcating with his terms.
    • Here's an easy demonstration of the reification error: For argument, I'll say that I know everything about wigglewomps. Now, the term wigglewomp is meaningless because no speaker of any language knows what the referent for that term is because no one has defined it, and I haven't given any examples of what counts or doesn't count as a wigglewomp. My assertion of an expertise in wigglewomps, then, is just a vacuous truth until I show that there is a referent for the term that I am using.
    • More formally, the reification fallacy is this incorrect inference:
      1. I have a definition for x.
      2. Therefore, x exists.
  2. Neologism. -- Neologism is just a dime word that refers to a new coinage, usually a special qualification in the definition of a term that we regularly use. Sometimes an arguer will introduce a new lexeme and a new definition; but in other instances, he'll just change the definitions for terms that we regularly use. Neologism isn't a fallacy, per se, but it is a risky tactic in argument because it easily leads to equivocation and reification. Many arguers trap themselves in their solely comprehensible domains of discourse, and when that arguer fails to properly interpret his specialized terms and meanings against more common ones, he puts himself at constant risk of equivocating his new coinage with those coinages that are more familiar. Deceptive arguers use this trick deliberately in the hopes that a listener will not remember that his specialized definition was used in the argument, and thus enable the arguer's equivocation of their meanings later. What does he imagine a "mind controller," or the phrase "the first year in B.C.E." means?
  3. Equivocation. -- Equivocation occurs when someone treats two words with distinct meanings as though they were the same thing. This is exacerbated by superficial similarities among terms: homonymy, homophony, inexact synonymy, etc.
  4. Mere Validity. -- It is very easy to weave logically consistent ideas in artificially closed domains. Fiction is a clear example of this. However, even if the argument form is valid, it does not mean that the conclusions or premises are true. Loughner uses one rule of inference exclusively in his dialogs, modus ponens, and on his way he picked up a funny trick to convince himself of his statements (or so I'll accuse). In the conditional statement of his modus ponens arguments (e.g. P ⇒ Q), he wrote whatever he wanted to conclude as the consequent of that statement (Q) and then made any trivial action with minimal relevance to it the antecedent (P). He then stated the antecedent, and then, by modus ponens, his sought assertion followed.
    • Loughner's worst blunder is in this video, wherein he argues that his definition of a terrorist is implied by the fact that he defines it as such. His conclusion is true (and lifted from a dictionary), but the conditional premise is demonstrably false. I could define a terrorist to be all men who drink tea at noon, but that does not mean that terrorists are all men who drink tea at noon unless I make an excruciating effort in my use of terrorist* to ignore all of the connotations of the more common homonym, terrorist. Loughner does not do this. He rather uses the reification fallacy as the conditional premise.
    • It is also false that calling someone something bad implies that the argument that led to that description is ad hominem. I argue that Loughner is a murderer, but the argument that supports that assertion is not ad hominem.
In this pre-trial stage of the massacre, people seem to be very prone to speculate on the motives of the accused. If his uploaded videos and other online postings comprise his manifesto, there isn't any clear link. Nothing appears to imply that he must try to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords because some scribbled inference told him that he should do it.

However, there are aspects to his rhetoric that convince me that he thought in severe isolation. His attempted arguments don't try to address contrary objections. I see this happening a lot on Internet forums, personal blogs, and social networking sites. Users begin to write the opinions that they have on some topics where they have self-proclaimed insight or expertise, but don't really access resources that give the sort of criticisms that prompt the people to reconsider or revise one's already asserted position. There are definite problems that arise when the method of tenacity, even when it feigns logical rigor, dominates one's perspectives. Intellectual humility and falsifiability didn't even occur to this man, and many similar people who just close their ears to fallibility eventually convince themselves that their musings are divine. Loughner's actions are just a current instance that evidences such a claim.

UPDATE, 1/20/2011:

"I could say something sound right now, but I don't feel like it."
-- Jared Lee Loughner
I guess that he'll get around to it someday.

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