Sometimes it is literally unbelievable how – to a great part wilfully – ignorant people can be. It would be easy to blame this on stupidity, but, alas, this would mean to choose the easy way out. Indeed, ignorance, especially wilful ignorance, does not always go along with sheer stupidity. Wilful ignorance is rather the product of misled basic beliefs being held not only in the absence of, but even and, as it seems, foremost against all evidence to the contrary. The article ‘Big Bullies: The Right Wing’s Anti-Anti-Bullying Strategies’1 on the website People for the American Way demonstrates this exemplarily for the right wing in the United States of America with respect to Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) rights. Its political strategies as to whatever concern employ the well-known fallacies of argumentum ad hominem, appeal to authority, argumentum ad ignorantiam, appeal to tradition, straw man fallacy, fallacy of composition, fallacy of division, fallacist’s fallacy, and even outright lies.
More appealing, however, is that this kind of presentation of a viewpoint demonstrates that wilfully ignorant people are able to copy, nay replicate originally valid argument strategies without realizing that the contents they insert render the outcome at best faulty, at worst completely absurd. This impression gets increases if we take into consideration that these people seldom come up with any original argument. In most cases, what they do is simply to turn round the argument they are presented with, although it does not even make sense to do so. In the religion-vs-atheism debate, the most famous example probably is the assertion that atheism required even more faith than religion. Related to this is the claim that atheism were itself a religion. This is obviously not correct, and yet people who make these claims fail to see the faultiness of their claims.
Needless to say, a mere appeal to rationality, the mere claim to arrive at one’s conclusions through reason and reason alone is as faulty as said claims. Every human is prone to bias, ignorance, and logical fallacies. Being rational and realizing flaws in one area do not entail being rational and realizing the flaws in every area. As I have stated before, in my view, atheism is best defined, not as a positive propositional attitude accompanying a negative proposition – I believe [that no (kind of) god exists] –, but as a negative propositional attitude accompanying a positive proposition – I do not believe [that any (kind of) god exists]. Thus, atheism is defined as the absence of a belief, rather than being a belief in itself. This definition enables us to see that and why it is far more difficult to organize irreligious people than to organize any other interest group: irreligious people often have only one thing in common, namely, the absence of a belief. It also allows us to see that being irreligious does not automatically render someone a good person. This would be the same fallacy as concluding that someone must be a good person because they are religious.
Most likely one of the worst approaches to convince someone else of one’s own view is an alleged appeal to common sense. I encountered this fallacy quite often recently on the internet, particularly on Twitter. All kinds of claims have been made in the name of common sense throughout history, and yet most of them are demonstrably wrong. Common sense is, if truth be told, a false friend. The German expression ‘gesunder Menschenverstand’ makes this even more evident: literally, it translates into English as ‘healthy human understanding’. This appeal is, then, an appeal to what we believe we see or hear, for instance that the earth is flat, that the sun revolves about the earth, that our houses are haunted by ghosts and demons at night, or that we have free will which is placed at the top end of (all) causal chains, rather than at their bottom end. Any appeal, made by whomever, to common sense should therefore be mistrusted, for what appears plausible at first sight is more often than not to be proved wrong.
It has long been known that our decisions heavily depend upon emotions.2 Unfortunately, what appeals most to our emotions is not necessarily the best or true. The usual explanation is the survival value of quick decisions: the rational analysis and evaluation of all incoming information would take far too long in many situations. A quick, albeit false, flight is better than a false decision to stay and in due course to be injured or killed. Also, we are here so as to survive (whether it be the individual organism, as Charles Darwn originally assumed in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Presentation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life , or the gene, as Richard Dawkins proposed in his The Selfish Gene ), not so as to find out how everything works. Although this is not necessarily true, it is as of now the best explanation with regard to the evidence. The objection that this is only one possible explanation is more of philosophical interest than in applied science.
This is also and most often a problem in politics and religious talk. We often encounter appeals to what is theoretically possible instead of what is actually most likely to happen. Since 9/11 we have witnessed this being applied as a stragety to attack and undermine most of the rights achieved during the last century. Yes, of course, it is possible that terrorists use modern high technology in order to construct or obtain a nuclear bomb and get caught because of a 24/7/365 tracking of everyone everywhere. Yet is this also most likely? It is just as possible that I wake up with three eyes instead of two, that the earth stops turning in an instant, that I do not even exist.3 There indeed exist at least two senses of ‘possible’. The first one is actual possibility, the other one is hypothetical possibility. Both politics and religious talk thrive on this ambiguity and often render themselves guilty of equivocation.
The biggest problem is, in any case, the appeal to emotion which makes faulty or even absurd arguments (both as to their premises and as to their conclusions) seem – or better: feel – intuitively valid and sound.4 Often, this is brought about by a combination of deliberately false premises building a straw man, followed up by anappeal to consequences. In religious talk, we encounter this most often as follows:
P1 Moral values are given by (the Abrahamic) God.
P2 Atheists do not believe in (the Abrahamic) God.
C Atheists lack moral values.
In an even more evident manner, we encounter this scheme in an anti-evolutionary argument:
P1 The theory of evolution (TOE) claims that humans come from apes.
P2 There are still apes.
C TOE is false.
In the first case, the argument makes an implicit appeal to authority; for there is no other evidence in favour of its first premise than the traditional scripts of the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Furthermore, the often passionately promoted conclusion is demonstrably false. There is a plethora of irreligious people who behave perfectly morally. In the second case, the first premise is clearly a straw man, for no (serious) supporter of TOE, including Charles Darwin himself, has ever claimed humans came from apes. Rather, the claim in the favour of which all evidence we have until now testifies is that modern humans and modern apes have common ancestors. Wilful ignorance appears to be the last resort in these cases. As Richard Dawkins once pointed out in an interview (unfortunately, I forgot in which one of the many he has given; if anyone can help me, please let me know!), if you cannot dismiss or refute the evidence, just repeat the mantra you learnt by heart: ‘There is no evidence!’
Now, not only is the shield of (wilful) ignorance, including logical fallacies, oftentimes so thick that no rational argument can possibly reach through to an otherwise mostly sane understanding; but also do people of this kind command a high degree of organization and mobilization, as well as an seemingly infinite amount of financial resources. These, in turn, are the perfect prerequisites for political and economic influence. At many times, we laugh at these people and their delusions; these delusions carry a real threat to our societies and world in general with them, though. At the moment, there appears to be no other means than lobbying for a rational worldview. Yet we are far away from being safe. Political and economic power are in most cases in the hands of people whose horizon ends where the line between their own advantages and the common welfare is drawn. At the time being, humankind is balancing on a knife’s edge: on the one side, delusion – on the other side, cold-bloodedly applied reason for selfish purposes.
2. Cf. Goleman, Daniel: Emotional Intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ; New York: Bantam Books, 1995; especially pp. 30–32; 58–59; 97.
See also: Oxford Companion to the Affective Sciences.
3. In fact, Réné Descartes’s Cogito, ergo sum (from today’s view) unwarrentedly assumes that there is a nonphysical, single entity to be called ‘I’; the only invulnerable conclusion to be theoretically drawn from thinking is that something exists. Even if we set aside all empirical knowledge, it remains theoretically possible that ‘I’ comprises several parts.
4. I use ‘valid’ with respect to an argument’s form, ‘sound’ as to its contents, respectively. In my sense, a deductive argument can be both valid and sound, whereas an inductive argument can only be sound. Compare the following arguments:
P1 All humans are mortal.
P2 Socrates is a human.
C Socrates is mortal.
[Deductive argument, valid and sound (with respect to our actual world)]
P1 All cats can fly.
P2 All dogs are cats.
C All dogs can fly.
[Deductive argument, valid, but unsound (with respect to our actual world)]
P1 Up to now, the sun has always risen.
C The sun will rise tomorrow.
[Inductive argument, sound (with respect to our actual world), but, strictly speaking, invalid]