Thursday 26 July 2012

The vital importance of inferring motivation


It is regarded (among rigorous rational people) as bad practice to use ad hominem arguments - attacking the man rather than his argument.

I have had this done to me, and found it maddening - people who know nothing about me imputing all kinds of false motivations and completely ignoring (or re-writing) the argument...


Yet this kind of thing is probably necessary (as well as inevitable) because everything hinges on motivation.

Sometimes 'reasonable' ideas must be opposed because of the motivations of those proposing them - whether these are individual motivations or institutional motivations.


The Left always does this - but the Right (especially the secular Right) has often been hampered by scruples against the ad hominem - however, I have come to believe that these are not really scruples, but an error.

Looking back at the long defeat of Christianity, we can see that the process was attained by an incremental series of many small steps, each of which was rationally defensible when viewed in isolation (and without making any assumptions about motivation).

Yet it is equally obvious as to the motivations of those who pursued these multiple incremental steps, that they knew exactly what they were doing: breaking-up the long term strategy into deniably-small stages, each stage ratcheting the next.


(It is rather like a Gateway drug: each sin a person is persuaded to adopt, leads on to further sins, in order to be consistent with or justify the gateway sin.)


So let's just drop the prohibition on ad hominem arguments, shall we?

When we know people or institutions are badly-motivated and aiming-at evil outcomes - then they should be opposed, even if what they are trying to do just now (considered in a specific context) seems to be pretty harmless.



dearieme said...

It's partly about trust - can I trust that this chap is reporting facts accurately, is his logic advanced in good faith?

If he is a sincere Marxist, for example, of course not. He owes no duty of good faith to bourgeois society. Many other varieties of leftist evidently feel the same way.

Consider the4tyledus bogus economic history published by the Hammonds, or spurious biology by Gould. Twats, the lot of 'em.

Thomas Raab said...

At least part of the problem might arise from the fact that decisions are often made and carried through, without proper indication of what the long-term goals and motivation behind the changes are.

Instead of attacking people based on what might as well (since this is what it often comes down to) be characterized as ones own fantasies about their motivation, would the first step not be to demand of the persons initiating such changes, to clearly state their long-time goals and motivation?

Part of the corruption of many societal traits seem to be the fact that many idealistic measures are camouflaged as urgent solutions to present problems - but nevertheless have (idealistically motivated) long-term effects.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thomas Raab - you are welcome to try! My personal experience is that this is a complete waste of time *at best* and probably actually counter-productive, perhaps because to do so means adopting a subordinate and 'pleading' stance.

Whereas anti-modern religious groups who simply ignore 'argument' and state loud and clear and repeatedly what they want or do not want, often seem to get their way (or at least get left alone).

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - SJ Gould is a good example. A great deal of objective, disinterested, rational ink was spilled (including by people I know personally) to demonstrate his errors and misinterpretations; but the facts were simple and obvious: he was by nature and choice a lying Commie B******; as anybody who had any dealings with him knew within a few minutes. 'Nuff' said.

Wurmbrand said...

S. J. Gould comes in for some thumps in passing, here:

Bruce Charlton said...

SJ Gould was an incompetent crook spouting numerous falsehoods but is treated as an oracle by the mass media - while Cyril Burt was and is falsely smeared as a fraud, yet his results were all confirmed. This is what happened to science after the rise of the New Left and political correctness from teh mid-1960s (Burt was a man of the Old Left, as indeed were nearly all the major pioneer IQ researchers).

Samson J. said...

Yes, yes, yes, Dr. C. I have written about this before. There used to be a theology forum (I won’t name it) that I frequented when I was a new Christian, and oftentimes, in the midst of heated debates, participants would impute this or that psychological motivation to an opponent. Debaters were accused of unfairly “psychologizing” their counterparts, and an oft-heard refrain was “concentrate on the argument, not on a person’s motivations, which you can’t possibly know anyway.”

Well, I don’t agree with this. Over ten+ years of reading online apologetics and debates, I have observed, and would stake my life on this as sure as anything, that it almost always, almost always, if you wait long enough (sometimes taking years), eventually becomes clear that an atheist is not really arguing in good faith, but instead his pig-headed atheism is rooted in a psychological desire to avoid God - either because the person has been hurt, or because he’s too caught up in some sin or other. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched an atheist for years, and finally, one day, he lets his guard down a little bit and lets you see what it is that’s really keeping him away from faith.

The plain fact is that very often, people’s positions *are* motivated by underlying psychological desires or defense mechanisms. It does a severe disservice to fellow Christians (especially new ones, for whom this revelation can offer quite a bit of relief and insight) struggling to make sense of the world not to point this out.

dearieme said...

Have I ever told you my Cyril Burt story, Bruce?

Bruce Charlton said...

Do tell...

dearieme said...

At the time the Burt-is-a-crook shemozzle was at its height, my wife was a research assistant to an academic psychologist. One day he remarked that one aspect of the charges against Burt was certainly wrong - the allegation that he had invented two research assistants; the boss said he'd known one of the allegedly invented women.

My wife asked if he ought not to add this fact to the debate. He made it clear that it would be lunacy to get involved in that sort of academic war and would do no such thing.

dearieme said...

I should add that Burt may have been a crook for all I know - the first academic crook I came across had published a paper with some real data and lots of invented data in it. The colleague who told me about it added "the invented data are probably pretty realistic - he had a good feel for numbers in that field".

Bruce Charlton said...

"He made it clear that it would be lunacy to get involved in that sort of academic war and would do no such thing."

Of course he was perfectly correct - inconvenient facts are irrelevant and ignored when you are a lying CB.

Like the assertion that brain size (and skull size) correlates significantly with IQ (and thus with all the things IQ correlates-with)- which most 'educated' people regard as a childish/ ridiculous/ evil delusion but which is a plain fact.

BTW - My conviction that Burt was OK comes from other people in the IQ research community who I trust and who are in a position to know - not least HJ Eysenck.

Anonymous Conservative said...

Eric Hoffer wrote something to the effect of, "To find what most frightens your enemy, look to what they use to frighten you."

The problem non-CB's have is that they view this all through their own psychology.

As an example, if I called BGC a dangerous religious wackjob, he would ignore me, and instead try to prove me factually wrong. Why? Because if he were an honest observer, facts are how he would decide the issue for himself, and ad hominem attacks would play little role. He assumes that is how everyone else is, so that is how he fights, in his effort to win over the ignorant mob.

CBs, instead resort to the ad-hominem. Why? They are Lemmings, and they view the world as if all others are as well. If they saw an argument, and one guy was right, but the crowd was about to turn upon him and kill him, and the other was clearly wrong, but was going to live and be celebrated by the mob, they would line up behind the wrong guy - both to save their own asses, and maybe even capitalize on it for themselves.

This is why we should seek to out-group the CB as an ignorant and pathetic coward, unworthy of anything more than ridcule and laughter. This will acquire the imbecilic Lemmings to our side. Of course we should also level the CB with logic, to grab the BGC's as well.

Our problem is we are attached to truth, and that is our battle. Unfortunately, there are a lot of idiots out there who don't think like that, and we make little effort to acquire their support as well, when ti is there just for the taking.

If truth is to win in these times, that must change.

BTW, I love the term CB's. I am definitely stealing that one.