If you’ve never seen this sketch before, it’s a classic of the Monty Python library. Unlike so much of what is passed as comedy on television today, this particular bit of cinematic history can help us learn something. The skit illustrates quite a few things that happen when argument is reduced to absurdity by tactics that are not parts of a proper argument.
Make no mistake, argument means something very different in the world of science and logic than it does in the day to day world. We talk about arguments with our boss or arguments with our spouse very flippantly, but the reality is that many of these are not actual arguments.
In preparing to write this post, I was all set to write a thorough explanation when I discovered that someone had done it for me. I’ll quote a couple of the meatier paragraphs to get you going, but then, you must immediately drop whatever you’re doing and read this blog post at NeuroLogica with all due haste.
The beauty of a logical argument is that it is, well… logical. It is, in a way, like mathematics. In math 1+1 must =2. If there is a disagreement about this, it can be resolved objectively and definitively. If two people doing the same math problem come up with different answers, how should they respond? Should they each defend their answer at all costs. Or, should they exam each other’s solution to see if one, or both, might contain an error, and then resolve the error to see what the correct answer is?
Likewise, if two people have come to different conclusions about a factual claim, then one or both must be wrong. Both cannot be correct. That means that one or both must have made an error in the arguments they used to come to their conclusions. The two parties should work together to examine their arguments and resolve any errors.
This point is often overlooked, especially in our post-PC world of “respect for opposing views.” Again, realize that politics is not the same as science. It’s one thing to compromise on a spending bill for the purposes of quelling dissent from competing interest groups. It’s quite another to suggest that in a matter of science, we take some sort of middle ground between competing hypotheses. No, logic and science are about learning a single bit of binary data to go with a very straightforward and rigorously defined question. Is X True? The answer can only be yes or no. One or zero.
At the risk of spoiling all the fun in my thread about zygotes, I feel compelled to throw out this spoiler:
Keep in mind, this only works if the arguments are about factual claims, not subjective feelings or value judgments. There is no objective way to resolve a difference of opinion regarding aesthetics, for example. If you prefer Mozart to Beethoven, there is no way to prove that with facts or logic. It is very helpful, however, to identify when a conclusion contains an aesthetic opinion or a moral choice. It avoids arguing endlessly over an issue that is inherently irresolvable.
An excellent example of this is the abortion debate. Ultimately, all arguments over abortion come down to a personal moral choice: which should have greater value, the mother’s right to make choices regarding her own body, or the unborn fetus’s right not to be killed. All attempts to resolve this objectively have resulted in further arguments that are dependent upon value judgments, for example: at what point at or after conception does an embryo or fetus become a person? Also, how does the fetus’s total biological dependence upon its mother affect their respective rights?
Like I said, I’m risking spoiling all the fun, but I have to admit that I’ve been intentionally having a little fun, and it’s time to set the thing on the table. As I mentioned in that thread, no self-respecting scientist would claim that science can answer the question of whether or not abortion should be legal. It’s a political question, not a scientific one. All science can do is either support or contradict the premises within various arguments of value.
That thread was intended to demonstrate that if and when an opponent of abortion makes the statement that abortion is “ending a human life,” science can (and should, I believe… but that’s just my personal moral value) step in and say, “Um… Excuse me, I don’t wish to offer my own conclusion, but I can tell you that your facts are wrong. A zygote is not, in fact, a human being.
It does not prove that science is on the side of abortion rights. It demonstrates that one argument used by abortion opponents is wrong. If they are to win the day, they must abandon that argument and find one that is factually correct.
One day, I’m going to have to get around to writing my own explanation of the nature of an argument if I’m going to call this a respectable blog on knowledge and science, but I hope today you’ll forgive me for taking the short-cut. In any case, the blog I linked you to is a very good and concise essay on the nature of “real arguments.”