2014/08/26

Drunken Zombie at Gen Con

Proving again that late is better than never, my excellent colleagues at the Drunken Zombie Podcast have posted the recordings we made during our trip to Gen Con. Unlike last year, we didn't find the time to do much recording at the actual convention, but hopefully you'll find the conversations we recorded in the car entertaining.

2014/08/20

Arguments People Think Are Logical Fallacies But Aren't


To someone with formal training in logic, the internet can be a strange place indeed. It's analogous to being a pharmacist at an Old West medicine show. People guzzle down snake oil and keep going back for more.

One of the major reasons for these continued errors is many commentators' habit of parroting phrases they've seen online without taking the time to really understand what these concepts mean. As a public service, I'll cover a few of the more commonly misunderstood ideas, including often distorted logical fallacies.

Let's start by defining what "argument" means. Contrary to popular misuse, arguing doesn't mean verbally attacking someone or browbeating a debate opponent into shutting up. An argument is just two or more people trying to reach the truth through dialogue--trading premises back and forth.

Since this post is primarily concerned with logical fallacies and the misidentification thereof, we need to talk about syllogisms--the category of arguments that logical fallacies apply to. A syllogism is a form of deductive argument constructed from two or more premises leading to a conclusion that, if the premises are true and the form is correct, must also be true.

Syllogism Example:
A) All popes are Catholic.
B) Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the Pope.
Therefore, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is Catholic.

The picture of Chewbacca fighting Nazis while riding a giant squirrel illustrates two important points. The first is the need to define logical invalidity. There's a widespread misconception that "invalid" means "untrue". That's not necessarily the case. A syllogism is valid if its conclusion follows from the premises, even if the premises and/or conclusion are completely false. Therefore, validity only refers to an argument's form; not its truth value.

Here's a false yet valid argument:
A) Everything that's brown is a bear.
B) My car is brown.
Therefore, my car is a bear.

The conclusion is false because premise A is false; not because the syllogism is structured improperly. The false conclusion does follow from the premises.

Got it? Doesn't matter. I'll discuss some fake logical fallacies anyway.

1. Godwin's Law
The Chewie picture's second lesson. Godwin's Law predicts that the likelihood of Hitler/Nazis being invoked in an internet argument is directly proportional to the duration/intensity of said argument. Comparing someone to Hitler in a combox is hyperbolic and cliched, but it's not necessarily fallacious. The following valid argument shows why:

A) An evil act is evil regardless of who the perpetrator is.
B) Hitler committed genocide.
C) Hitler's genocide was evil.
D) Stalin also committed genocide.
Therefore, Stalin's genocide was evil.

So you can say that anyone who brings up Nazis forfeits the debate, but doing so is a rhetorical--not a dialectical--move.

2. No True Scotsman
No True Scotsman is a rhetorical device that isn't formally fallacious (only informally). It's not a structural flaw in an argument, but an attempt to dodge an unwanted conclusion.

Example:
Jack: No writers are Libertarians.
Bob: I'm a writer, and I'm a Libertarian.
Jack: Well, no real writers are Libertarians.

On the other hand, No True Scotsman arguments can still be valid.
A) Everything that flies is a bird.
B) Bats fly.
C)Therefore, bats are birds.
D) But all true birds have feathers.
E) Bats don't have feathers.
F) Therefore, bats aren't birds.

3. Reductio ad infinitum
One effective way to disprove an argument is to show that it necessarily leads to an absurd conclusion. An argument that concludes to an infinite regress is one such absurdity. Nevertheless, the web abounds with claims that Reductio ad infinitum is a logical fallacy.

The reason that some folks call shenanigans on this type of reductio argument is because Aristotle and Aquinas use it in their proofs for God. As Dr. Edward Feser definitively shows, the same people who dismiss Reductio ad infinitum as fallacious commit the very real Straw Man fallacy in the process.

The confusion seems to arise from Bertrand Russell cribbing David Hume's incomplete treatment of classical First Cause arguments. Their Straw Man refutation goes like this: "If everything has a cause, and God caused the universe, what caused God?"

Russell's counter-argument would be valid if it addressed what Aristotle, Aquinas, et al. actually said. Neither the Aristotelians nor the Scholastics ever claimed that "Everything has a cause." That canard is a gross simplification of sophisticated arguments that are really more like, "Everything that exists contingently must receive its being from something that exists necessarily." The accusation of special pleading leveled at the straw man utterly fails against the original argument.

As for why an infinite regress is absurd, Consider a train so long as to circle the equator that's all boxcars with no engine. Is the idea of those cars going anywhere on their own rational? Exactly.

So ends the post. Hopefully it has gone a short way toward elevating the state of online discourse. If you can think of any more non-fallacies, leave a comment below. I may do other posts on this topic.

2014/08/19

Gen Con Recap

As promised, here's my Gen Con 2014 after action report.


Over the weekend I joined the Drunken Zombie Podcast in their now traditional excursion to Indianapolis, where they put on a couple of short horror film marathons at Gen Con. Just like last year, I drove. I call my car the Drunken Zombie Mobile Studio because we always record a few segments while in transit. (Look for this year's episode at DZ's site soon.)


Nobody was sure if the trip was going to happen until a week or so before the con. Somehow, we got our personal, work, and money issues under control, but that left us rushing to make travel arrangements at the last minute. The best deal we could get on accommodations was at a hotel twenty-plus minutes away from the con, but it was only fifty bucks a night, so who am I to complain?


Work schedule conflicts meant skipping Thursday to show up on Friday. There was a bit of a mix-up over our badges, but GMHQ sorted it out in time for me to catch a fascinating panel with Dave Wolverton. (If you're like me, you're probably most familiar with his work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but he's written everything from novels and short stories to screenplays and video games.) Dave taught Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells, and when it comes to writing, nothing but world-altering knowledge bombs come forth from his mouth.


I've been attending conventions of various kinds for fifteen years now and have experienced a diminishing return on fun at most of them starting with the second year. Gen Con bucked that trend--hard. I'd deeply enjoyed seeing pros like Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Scott Lynch last year; and since they and many other writers skipped Gen Con this year (some because of Worldcon), I lowered my expectations for the 2014 Writers' Symposium. I couldn't have been more wrong.


In addition to the venerable David Farland, the literary tag team of Jim Butcher and Larry Correia rocked my weekend like a jug of nitroglycerin launched from a trebuchet. These guys supposedly hadn't met before, but their mutual entertainment-first work ethic and aversion to authority makes me suspect that they're twins separated at birth (yes, that kind).


DZ ended up having a great turnout for their mini film fest, despite a few scheduling snags, and every random congoer I talked to expressed a keen interest in indie horror films. I think it bodes well for the Drunken Zombie International Film Festival in November.


Now that I've recovered from my weekend of dizzying nerdery, I can say that I had as much--if not more--fun at Gen Con this year as I did last year. I got career advice from borderline psychotic authors, the chance to try out some cool games, and best of all: three days of mind-blowing fun with some of my best buds. Clearly, my life can only go downhill from here!

2014/08/18

Get a Different Table

The winners of the 2014 Hugo Awards were announced yesterday. I heartily congratulate the authors of the winning works. As for the other nominees, take heart. Being nominated actually is an honor--especially considering how the whole process is structured.


Much is being made of the losses suffered by Opera Vita Aeterna and Warbound. Partisans on both sides seem to have forgotten the purpose of Larry Correia's Sad Puppies campaign. The point was to prove that the Hugos aren't an objective standard of literary quality, but a reflection of Worldcon attendees' tastes (since the winners are decided by the membership's popular vote, this conclusion should spark no controversy).


The record clearly shows that Larry never expected to win. His strategy hinged on provoking his detractors so the public could see their vitriolic response. Said reaction was duly provided when he and Day were nominated, and their defeats occasioned a second, definitive round of bad sportsmanship from their critics.


Some fans disappointed by Sunday's results are lobbying for an even bigger Sad Puppies effort next year in an attempt to outnumber the traditional Worldcon membership. As someone who rooted for Wheel of Time (and a fan of Larry), my take is, if you're not welcome at the table; don't call more football team members over to crowd out the drama club kids who were there first. Get a different table.


I'm aware of arguments that favor invading Worldcon to "save SFF". Though saving science fiction and fantasy is a worthy goal, the Hugos are the wrong battlefield. We need only look to Jordan and Sanderson's loss for proof that the set of "Worldcon voters" is not identical to the set of "people who read SFF". If The Wheel of Time's sales are any indication, the former group is a tiny subset of the latter.


Worldcon is a free association of likeminded SFF fans who give awards to works that satisfy their collective tastes. Let them enjoy the right to continue their tradition. Some see the phenomenon of "message fiction" beating more popular fare in awards contests as an ill omen for the genre. Fear not. The paroxysms shaking legacy publishing in the course of the digital revolution make it unlikely that debut and midlist works--which usually seem to sweep the Hugo Awards--will appear in print for much longer.


Authors who primarily wish to preach a message will always have a digital platform. But SFF is part of the entertainment industry, where the real crown goes to the best entertainers. Activism isn't needed. Market forces have already determined that the future belongs to the Jordans, Sandersons, and Correias of genre publishing.

2014/08/15

Going to Gen Con

I'm heading to Indianapolis today as part of Drunken Zombie's Gen Con excursion. We'll be running a mini festival of short horror films by independent filmmakers. There are two showings scheduled: one on Friday evening and one on Saturday afternoon, so please stop by if you're a fan of independent horror who's attending the con.


Besides helping DZ run their event, I plan to spend a lot of time at the Gen Con Writer's Symposium. An unfortunate scheduling conflict with World Con means that many major authors will be in London this year. Fortunately, several authors I'm really excited about have decided to remain stateside for Gen Con, including Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, and Dave Wolverton.


I'll be back with a full report after the con.

2014/08/13

The Primacy of Speculative Reason

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.
-Dr. Ian Malcolm

Americans' habitual contempt for speculative reason never fails to dismay me, though our great country's myopic fascination with pure practicality is hardly surprising. A brief survey of our history reveals a clear preference for asking, "What should be done/how should we do it?" over "Why should we do this/what does it mean?".

From before the time of Plato; through Aristotle and Aquinas, the chief concern of Western philosophy was to address important questions through dialogue based on appeals to first principles (i.e. speculative reason). This noble tradition's downfall can be traced to the work of a single German philosopher. No, it's not Karl Marx. To pinpoint the moment when speculative reason toppled  from its throne, we must go back yet another century to the work of Immanuel Kant.

Frustrated by the perceived lack of stability in classical metaphysics (despite probably having read very little of it), Kant restricted the sphere of rational knowledge to experience and empiricism--despite the fact that doing so requires an appeal to sources of knowledge beyond experience and empiricism. Likewise, he failed to anticipate the catastrophic results of undermining natural law-based ethics while absolutizing personal autonomy.

If you're a typical postmodern Westerner, you probably couldn't care less about anything in the post above (except for the Jurassic Park quote--man, is it amazing how well that movie holds up or what?). You can be certain that I understand your deeply ingrained impatience with history, ontology, and philosophy in general. Rest assured that I'll explain why you should be gravely, intimately concerned with the airy notions that a bunch of Greeks and Germans discussed in the forgotten dark age that gripped the world before last Wednesday.

Exhibit A in my case for speculative reason is this article by Matt Saccaro. I cite this piece as a perfect example of 1) the practical reason-fueled utilitarian bias that dominates American culture and 2) the self-refuting absurdity of that bias. In support of his proposal to cut liberal arts disciplines from college curricula, the author argues that these fields of study serve only to shelter "intellectual cravens" unfit for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees. Removing "soft disciplines" like literature, fine arts, etc. would keep the riffraff out of college and in their rightful place as blue-collar laborers.

Mr. Saccaro's belief that, "the realities of the 21st century world make it true" that students whose natural gifts and dispositions lead them to non-STEM vocations have no business in college is less self-evident than he assumes. I could build a counter argument based on declining STEM job security due to the glut of outsourcing and work visas, along with the need for authoritative standards in fields like law, education, and yes, art; but that would mean first accepting the current zeitgeist's false, biased terms. No, all that's needed to show the faults in Saccaro's position is to ask, "How do you know that?"

Setting aside the flagrant hubris of pigeonholing all human beings in either STEM or Intellectual Craven categories (I'll take Mr. Saccaro's identification of skilled tradesmen with college washouts more seriously when he demonstrates enough skill to install water and gas lines for a laundry room without flooding/blowing up his home), I'll point out that asserting the supremacy of STEM fields over liberal arts involves a value statement. I.e. to avoid circularity, arguments from utility must appeal to principles discovered through metaphysics. Practical reason depends on speculative reason.

I couldn't cast a silver bullet more lethal to utilitarian bias than the one Saccaro uses to shoot himself in the foot:
There are two possible fates for the American postsecondary education system. One is for it to maintain its current status as a factory that produces debt-slaves and baristas that can recite Emmanuel Kant’s passages from memory. The other is for Universities and Colleges to become leaner, more-functional institutions that remove all unnecessary coursework, and focus only on what matters.
That whirring sound is Kant spinning in his grave.