Beyond reason and dignity

Imagine Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore having a hearty conversation on “the nature of reality”. One such meeting did take place at Einstein’s residence in 1930. Now imagine, despite little evidence to convince us, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Mozart poring over a mystifying intrigue that immortalises their sonatas and concertos. Further, imagine Socrates engaging Plato in a dialectic on the impact of “traditional morality” and “virtue” in the Athenian society. Now imagine Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sharing notes on “class struggle” while composing the “Communist Manifesto”. Finally, imagine Abdus Salam inviting his hero Paul Dirac to shed light on the existence of “antimatter”. To many of us, these conversations could either be intellectually enlightening and deeply absorbing or… utterly boring.

So, let’s talk about something stupendously more interesting. Something that draws our attention. Let’s imagine the mayhem we witness on news shows on TV every day. The guests on these shows belong to this political party or that political party. As soon as they take a seat around the table on each side of the anchorperson, logic sneaks out of the room. These guests are invited to enlighten us with their side of the news story to be discussed. They do. They delight us with as much rubbish and as little logic as possible. And guess what? They are always right even when they are wrong. But there’s a method to their madness. First, their voices get louder. Then, they start to sling mud at each other, their tempers flare, their arguments turn into accusations and counter accusations. From our cozy drawing rooms, sipping on chai, we believe every word of the guest who belongs to the political party we support and we condemn every word of the guest who presents the opposing view. It’s not about truth. It’s not about logic. It’s about persuasion. And we always get persuaded by those arguments that reaffirm our beliefs and convictions even if they are completely wide of the mark.

In a speech that invigorated his supporters, Donald Trump once lambasted Hillary Clinton, “While sometimes I can be too honest, Hillary Clinton is the exact opposite: she never tells the truth. One lie after another, and getting worse each passing day.” Here, Trump was guilty of the fallacy called ad hominem as he was attacking his political opponent as opposed to defending his position. Here at home, Imran Khan is well known to hurl personal insults on his political opponents by repeatedly calling them thieves thereby enrapturing and motivating his cult of admirers. Arguments ad hominem abound in real life, such as: “You say that college education should be free, but you’re not that smart.”

In a straw man argument, a very common logical fallacy, a person, instead of addressing the question, distorts his opponent’s position and attacks it. For example, a student, instead of critiquing a particular school policy like no smoking on campus or no late-night parties, simply blasts: “Our principal wants to ban everything that is fun.” In politics, the straw man argument is often used in smear campaigns. US Senator Bernie Sanders once proposed the elimination of fiscal subsidies for big corporations and the rich and redirecting those funds to raising the minimum wage and to subsidise the cost of higher education. He was immediately labeled a communist advocating the failed economic policies of the previous Soviet Union.

A fallacy refers to the use of invalid or faulty reasoning. Logical fallacies can be formal or informal. Consider the syllogism (where a conclusion is drawn from preceding premises): If A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C. But what if the statement “A is greater than B” is false? Then the conclusion may be false. But if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Now consider this syllogism: Some A are B, some B are C, therefore some A are C. It might be tempting to believe this argument to be valid, however, it’s not. For instance, some dogs (A) are black objects (B), and some black objects (B) are denim jeans, but it does not follow that some dogs are denim jeans. This pattern is an example of the fallacy of the undistributed middle. In other words, we have to be careful with logical fallacies.

But why have an argument when I am always right even when I am wrong? In her article, ‘Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds’, Elizabeth Kolbert cites a Stanford study that concludes that once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant. Even after the evidence for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs. Hence, those who believe in Donald Trump or Imran Khan to be the messiah and saviour will continue to do so and those who consider them as fascist or evil will continue to do so as well. This reasoning, or resistance to reasoning, extends beyond politics and encompasses social, ideological and religious beliefs. A friend of my wife who happens to be a devout Christian tried to convince my wife to believe in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Saviour, as the Son of God, as one of the three eternal members of the Godhead. My wife apparently felt uncomfortable. But what if, in response, my wife had asked her Christian friend to abandon her faith and accept Prophet Muhammad as the last prophet and messenger of God? The proposition, I assume, would have made her friend equally uncomfortable. Aaron Smith, in ‘5 Reasons Why People Stick to Their Beliefs, No Matter What’, stresses that we all naturally strive to reduce uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that sit poorly with our dearly held beliefs.

But why do we like to argue – especially when it comes to religion or politics – even if our arguments are loaded with fallacies? Why are facts unable to change our minds? Why do we stick to our beliefs, no matter what? Because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Because belonging to a group, a political party, or a religion, or even a country, gives us a sense of identity, a sense of belongingness, a sense of security. When we believe that we have won an argument, and we always do, it gives us an edge. It has nothing to do with logic. It’s psychology. Unfortunately, it becomes a problem when we become self-righteous and flaunt our hypocrisy in public.