Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Implication vs. Association

Today, I want to stress a component of yesterday’s posting where I claimed that the movie “Expelled” should be evaluated, not as a documentary, but as propaganda.

The part I want to focus on is the distinction between ‘implication’ (the process of deriving conclusions from premises) and ‘association’ (the process of linking, not by implication or any type of inference, a concept with an emotion).

I want to apply this distinction to the relationship between evolution and Nazi Germany.

On the implication side of this relationship, we have people who claim (correctly) that problems associated with deriving an ‘ought’ statement from an ‘is’ statement prevents any reasonable thinker from deriving the ‘ought’ statements of Nazi-style racism from the ‘is’ statements of evolutionary theory.

This is not to say that people will not go ahead and make this mistake. People who have fallen in love with a particular view of how the world ‘ought’ to be have shown themselves quite adept at deriving those ‘ought’ statements from any number of nonsense conclusions. Some derive their favorite bigotries and prejudices from mistaken inferences out of Darwin. Others assign their favorite bigotries and prejudices to a God and say, ‘It is not me who wishes these people to be condemned as immoral, it is God. I am but a humble servant.’ Only, the ‘humble servant’ is the one who picked his or her god’s make-believe prejudices.

The fact that people engage in these types of sloppy inferences in defense of their favorite prejudices is not an argument against the truth of those premises, or even an argument against accepting those premises.

For all practical purposes, the argument is, “A does not imply B. B is a horrendous thing to have people believe, and there are people out there who want to believe B who think that they can derive it from A. They are mistaken, of course, However, in order to combat the prevalence of those who believe B, we must deny A, so as to block people from making this false inference from A to B.”

Specifically, evolutionary theory does not imply Nazi-style racism. However, Nazi-style racists are prone to make this inference anyway. Because Nazi-style racism is so horrendous, we must deny Nazi-style racists from the opportunity to rationalize their horrendous beliefs by appeal to evolution. We do this by denying that the claims of evolution are true.”

If the claim that the opposition is making is that Nazi-style racism actually can be derived from evolution, then they are simply mistaken. Actually, this is worse than simply being mistaken. This is the type of mistake that qualifies a person as a hate-mongering bigot. It is the type of mistake that a person embraces because they want to believe that the inference is valid. Their desire to believe is, itself, a desire to hate and a need to embrace something . . . anything . . . that gives their hate an illusion of validity.

Of course, the first obvious response is that this does not imply evolution is false. It’s like arguing, “If you tell Jim that the person who killed his daughter was black, it will reinforce his racism against blacks. We do not want to reinforce his racism against blacks, so do not tell him that his daughter’s murder was black.” This does not imply that the daughter’s murderer was not black. Trying to go from this type of argument to, “Therefore, the daughter’s murderer was not black,” is entirely invalid.

With all of the available evidence showing that the claims of evolution are true, this line of reasoning puts the denial of evolution (to the degree that it holds up) into the category of a “Noble Lie”. The proponents of this argument are claiming that we need to lie to the people – for their own good, of course – because the people cannot handle the truth.

There is a substantial stack of arguments that can be brought against any assertion that we must preach a ‘Noble Lie’. The first is that we need an accurate understanding of how the world works in order to explain and predict what happens in the real world. We need to be able to explain and predict real-world events in order to pursue good states of affairs and avoid harmful states of affairs. The person who is ignorant of the fact that a particular common mushroom is poisonous is more likely to eat it and suffer the ill effects.

Evolutionary theory is necessary to understanding and predicting events in medicine and health, the environment, and even human behavior. It allows us to prevent and cure disease, grow food, determine our nutritional needs, protect the environment that keeps us alive. We are far better off telling people the truth about evolution and to teach them that it is a mistake to try to derive Nazi-style racist ‘ought’ statements from the ‘is’ statements of evolution than to deny the truth of evolution.

We are talking about an invalid inference here, and invalid inferences can come from anywhere. As many American writings before the civil war tell us, and even many of the claims made in America in the 100 years after the civil war, people can derive their favorite prejudices from religion as well. In fact, since gods are fictional beings, and they get their morals from the people who invent them, it is far easier for a person to find his prejudices in the claims of a god he creates in his own image than in a scientific theory he does not invent.

Besides, Nazi-style racists are not the only people who derive their favorite ‘ought’ statement prejudices from ‘is’ statements. This is a very common mistake that Scottish philosopher David Hume called the root of all ‘vulgar’ systems of morality. So, if we want people to grow up to be able to engage in sound moral reasoning, we need to teach them the error of deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Which means that we should not be ignoring the problem by hiding the truth of evolution. We should be embracing the truth and focus instead on the mistake of deriving Nazi-style ‘ought’ conclusions from strong scientific ‘is’ premises.

All of this is sound criticism of those who want to condemn evolution on the basis that Nazi-style racists might use invalid inferences from it to give their hatred an illusion of legitimacy.

However, we need to distinguish this from another form of reasoning that has nothing to do with inference. It is the reasoning of association.

Using this method, the speaker talks about ‘intelligent design’ while showing the audience positive and reassuring images, then talks about ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ while showing images of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and other frightening images. The purpose here is not to get the audience to infer Nazi-style racism from evolution, but to associate the emotions tied to these images to mention of the concepts of ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’.

The idea here is that any audience member who is successfully infected with this association, when he hears a speaker talk about ‘atheists’ or ‘evolution’, will have an emotional reaction akin to the reaction that can be expected of somebody talking about ‘Nazi-style racism’ or ‘Soviet tyranny’. This emotional reaction immediately shuts down any hope for debate or reason. The listener will view any attempt to convince him that these views are correct as akin to convincing him to accept Nazi-style racism or Soviet tyranny. That reaction alone will close his mind to any type of reasoned argument.

What I wrote yesterday, and what I want to make more explicit today, is that it is a mistake to evaluate Ben Stein’s “Exposed” as a movie that attempts to defend the ‘inference’ from evolution to Nazi-style racism, or to argue that the possibility that Nazi-style racists might benefit from invalid inferences from Evolution. It is meant to generate an emotional reaction to the concepts of ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ that will cause viewers (students, voters, audience members) to react to these concepts as they would react to somebody defending Hitler or Stalin.

The association is not grounded on reason. Consequently, all of that stuff that I wrote above on ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and ‘valid inferences’ are all irrelevant. If you give those types of arguments to somebody conditioned to respond to the concept of ‘atheist’ and ‘evolution’ in the way described here, he will see your arguments as merely an attempt to seduce him into becoming the moral equivalent of a Nazi-style racist or Stalinist. If your arguments sound reasonable, then it is merely because the devil is a clever speaker who easily seduces the listener who listens with his brain and not with his heart.

These types of associations require a different type of response – not a response grounded on reason, but a response grounded on ethics. This is where the ethicist steps in, condemning attempts to manufacture this association as examples of promoting unreasoned hatred and bigotry, and leveling the charge of intellectual recklessness (at best) and malicious error (at worst) against the perpetrators of these moral crimes.

The rationalist at this point will only find himself frustrated at his inability to ‘get through to’ the listener with arguments that, to him, make perfectly good sense.

In order to deal with the problem of association, this film, and similar practices that are commonly employed against reason and science, need to be attacked on from a moral perspective. It is not sufficient to say that the reasoning sucks. It is necessary to add the fact that a morally responsible person would not make such a mistake, and how those types of arguments demonstrate an urge to promote hatred and injustice.

Please note that I am not declaring that this is an ‘either/or’ situation here. It is not the case that we ‘either’ attack the movie for its poor use of logic ‘or’ we condemn the movie as a display of hate-mongering. Rather, we must use the fact that the movie contains poor reasoning to infer, among other things, that it is really hate-mongering propaganda. Do not stop and feel content that you have succeeded when you have torn apart the arguments. From there, go on and condemn the people who made those arguments. Condemn them, not for their stupidity, but for an eagerness to promote hatred that blinded them to reason.

Where we are talking about the crime of invalid inference, we can apply reason to demonstrate the error. However, where we are talking about the crime of malicious association, the answer is not (just to) point out where reason has failed, but to point out how a morally responsible person would not have made such a mistake.


Anonymous said...

"...with all of the available evidence showing that the claims of evolution are true..."

So, are you simply uninformed in the creation/evolution discussion or purposefully lying in your comment?

Martin Freedman said...


It might be useful to realize before you publish a comment online to make sure you are replying to the poster rather looking at yourself in the mirror. Clearly you forgot this time, but I cannot judge as to whether you are misinformed or purposefully lying. Which is it?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am aware of the fact that some people deny that evidence. I am also aware of the fact that they are grossly mistaken.

The truth of the matter is, the evidence in favor of evolution is overwhelming.