Monday, May 30, 2011

The “Lazy Aristotle” Fallacy

Otherwise known as “confusing the natural with the common” or “the ‘normal’ equivocation”. The word ‘normal’ signifies at least two different terms or concepts that are entirely distinct in themselves, even though they might be related in very fundamental ways (hence the confusion). Here are the two senses I have in mind and as I would distinguish them:

Normal1 = what is the most frequent; what is common; whatever happens the majority of the time.

Normal2 = what is normative (i.e., what should or ought to be the case).

Here is an example that at once shows the difference between these two senses and also that there is *no* reason to think that they must coincide.

Suppose the world’s water supply is contaminated in such a way that it makes every single dog have three legs or, if a certain dog has yet to be born, it is born with only three legs. It seems to me that in the sense of normal1, the following statement would be true:

(1) It is normal for dogs to have only three legs.

If the ‘normal’ in (1) means frequent, common, or what happens the majority of the time, then of course it is true. How could it be the case that each and every dog has only three legs but and it not be ‘common’ for them to have only three legs?

But clearly, even though (1) might be true in the normal1 sense it is patently false if taken in the normal2 sense. That is, even though it might be the case that all dogs have only three legs, it most certainly is not the case that all dogs should or ought to have only three legs. On the contrary, as Aristotle would put it: it is the nature of a dog to have four legs, and therefore all dogs should have four legs.

The basic upshot is this. Suppose that some act F happens most of the time. Nothing follows about whether F should happen most of the time. And vice-versa. Suppose F ought to happen. Nothing follows about whether F will in fact happen all of the time or even most times.

Here are some more putative cases where normal1 and normal2 most certainly do not coincide:

From what I hear, binge drinking is not uncommon on college campuses, yet it seems that binge drinking should be uncommon.

Binge drinking is at best normal1 but not normal2.

Prior to the Civil War, slavery in the South was very common, yet it should not have been.

Slavery was normal1 but surely not normal2.

In 1930’s Germany anti-Semitism might have been common, yet if it was, it should not have been.

Anti-Semitism may have been normal1 but surely not normal2.

What is especially vexing about the fallacy is that you often hear people using some fact about what is normal1 as evidence to think that the act in question is normal2, which either equivocates on the two senses or begs the very question at hand or both. Here is an example:

(2) Homosexuality is wrong because it is not normal.

The inference here is something like this:

(3) Homosexuality is not normal.

(4) Therefore, homosexuality is wrong.

If ‘normal’ means normal1, then this argument is invalid. As we have seen before, just because F is not common, it does not mean that F-ing ought to not take place.

If ‘normal’ here means normal2, then sure enough the argument would be valid, but then it would be begging the question. For to say that F-ing ought to not take place is tantamount to saying that F-ing is wrong.

I call this the “Lazy Aristotle Fallacy” because Aristotle was prone to thinking that what happens “either always or for the most part” was indicative of a thing’s nature, where “nature” here is to be understood as the “what it is to be” of a thing—its essence (as opposed to “that place people go when they go camping.”) Since Aristotle was thinking of natures as essences, they are the kinds of things that ground normative claims. But, as we have seen, it is not at all clear the connection between what is common, what is natural, and what ought to happen, much less how we ought to move from one to the next, even if it is very common for us to do so.

All this to say that I think this fallacy is nothing short of a rampant intellectual disease that has infected most of the human “sciences” (e.g., psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, psychiatry, and the like). I also think that failing to recognize this fallacy is one of the major confusions behind the ever shifting faces of the various forms of relativism.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Watership Down.

“As meaningful as that sounds to me, I kind of wish it wasn’t true. I want to feel like the bunnies in Watership Down. They don’t feel any regret.

on critiquing first-order, oh wait, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, …. ad nauseam, vanity.

Me: “It’s especially vain to be worried about appearing vain.”

Me: “It’s even more vain to feel the need to point that out.”

Me: “I suppose, but that’s not as vain as feeling the need to point it out that it’s vain to feel the need to point it out that to be worried about appearing vain is itself vain.”

Me: “I suppose, but now it seems that it would be equally vain, if not more so, to not post this. For the only reason why I wouldn’t do it is out of fear of appearing vain.”

Me: “Nice. Press “publish post”.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

towards a panentheism.

I used to think that the sunset was something distinct from God’s glory. I thought it was merely a symbol, or a representation, or some likeness of it, but something distinct from it. Consequently, I thought that the glorious sunset was at best a device that pointed to something beyond it—that it was merely an instrument—and that we were supposed to behold something other than it.

But now I think that the sunset is the glory of God, or at least a manifestation of it.

“What’s the difference between a manifestation and a representation?”

It’s this:

The ring on the beloved’s finger represents the lover’s love. It points to it, but it is not the love itself. But the way in which the lover may kiss his beloved is a manifestation of his love. Unlike the representation, the manifestation cannot be separated from what it is a manifestation of. And this is why the former she can live without, the latter she cannot.


... the whole earth is full of His Glory. (Isaiah 6:3)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

so it wasn't before?

[walking home after dinner, I look up and see the stars I never see in L.A. Relative to the treetops, it feels as if the moon is following us home.]*

“Hey Dad,” I began, “Do you think that you’ll walk on the moon before you go to heaven?”


“Do you think you’ll walk on the moon in heaven?”

“Through Christ all things are possible.”


* “What makes you think it’s not?” Oh, I don’t know, “Science”?

Friday, May 13, 2011

a thought.

“If you were able to live the lives of everyone who had a life worth living, then would you be satisfied?”

“No. There’d always be another life to live.”

-Blaise Pascal (If he would have said it)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I never claimed to understand what happens after dark.

“Hey Dad,” I began, “Do you think that the night is intrinsically evil?”

[enter thirty seconds of silence (the real one-mis-sis-sip-pi kind)]



“Me neither,” I merely thought to myself, but what the hell was he thinking about for thirty whole seconds?”

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