Thursday, September 20, 2012

Serious Absurdity

One of the greatest logical and rhetorical tools ever discovered is the Reductio Ad Absurdum. Used prominently by Socrates, this technique takes a premise that someone holds to be true and shows that its logical conclusion is absurd. If the conclusion is absurd, then the premise has to be false.

For example, in the Republic, the character Socrates says that justice cannot be defined as “paying back what you owe.” If you hold that position, it will lead to an absurd conclusion. Let's say you borrow a neighbor's axe. And then later that neighbor goes insane and wants his axe back so he can bury it in your skull. Well, if justice is paying what you owe, and you owe your neighbor his axe, then you must give him the axe so he can kill you. Now this conclusion is absurd, so therefore the premise that justice is paying what you owe must be wrong (there are more nuances to the argument, but you get the gist).

Similarly, in my debate club we were debating the use of oil. One of my very intelligent students who cared deeply for the environment said, “Everyone needs to stop driving cars.” Her thinking was that since global warming is caused by pollution and millions of cars cause millions of tons of pollution, then we should stop polluting but driving cars. I then had the following dialogue:

Me: How do we get around without cars?
Her: We ride bikes.
Me: What happens when it rains?
Her: Maybe we could have a covering.
Me: Okay, how will you transport things like groceries and children.
Her: We can make them more stable so they don't fall over.
Me: Like adding 2 more wheels?
Her: Yes
Me: And what happens if you get tired? You won't be able to make long trips then?
Her: Well, maybe something could peddle for you...
Me: Like an engine? Don't we call an enclosed, four-wheel, self-propelled vehicle a “car?”

There was even more to the conversation, like how the price of everything in the world would escalate and the like. But the student understood that her original premise was absurd because the conclusion was absurd.

But I am here to tell you that this is becoming rare.

A few weeks ago, movie director Nick Cassavettes, most famous for his film “The Notebook” said in an interview that he had no problem with incest. His current movie, Yellow, is based on a brother/sister romance. On the topic of keeping it “all in the family” Cassavettes said:

Who gives a [BLEEP] if people judge you? I’m not saying this is an absolute but in a way, if you’re not having kids – who gives a damn? Love who you want. Isn’t that what we say? Gay marriage – love who you want? If it’s your brother or sister it’s super-weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.”

If you are disgusted by what you just read, then that means that you are still morally sane. But here's the shocking thing that may blow your mind:

Cassavettes' argument is logically sound.

In class we would talk about “gay marriage.” This is the most emotionally charged issue we discuss. The theological teaching is very clear. But what about when theology mixes with civil issues? There are many who believe that even if the Church does not recognize these unions, the state should do so because of the supposed separation therein.

So when addressing this outside of religion, we go through the logic arguments. The principle that proponents of “gay marriage” hold, Cassavettes states, is two consenting adults should be allowed to form a legal union as the primary family unit. Or in other words, as I say to my students, “Do you think that you should be allowed to marry anyone you want?” Many say yes.

Then I say: “Then if that is your principle then how do you allow 'gay marriage' and not 'incestuous marriage?'”

There are some vain attempts to reference things that were discarded when they argued for “gay marriage,” like the Bible or social stigma. But in the end, they cannot find an argument which allows one and disallows the other. This is a classic Reductio Ad Absurdum. So what was the result?

Well, I'm reminded of a story Dr. Peter Kreeft told. He was arguing in class with some radical feminists who favored abortion. He pointed out that every argument for abortion would also have to allow for infanticide. At the end of the class, they approached him and said, “You know, we thought you were wrong, but now we agree with you.” So Dr. Kreeft asked “So you are now pro-life?” “No,” they replied, “we're pro-infanticide.”

And that is how it is beginning to go. Most students are not ready to embrace the idea of brothers and sisters embracing each other in that way. But there is a growing percentage who agree with Cassavettes and say that it is no big deal.

Now part of this is just the naivete of youth. The lack of world experience makes theoretical views of the world more likely. And since for many of them the focus of their reality is emotional rather than logical, they can easily fall here. But I believe this is not an aberration.

It is the beginning of a trend.

The Reductio Ad Absurdum is losing its power because we are losing the sense of the absurd. The reason why is because more and more we are rejecting the idea that human beings have a certain nature. If we have a certain nature than things will either objectively work for humans or they will not. If there is no human nature, then there is no bound to ways humans can find fulfillment

I understand why some people are reluctant to appeal to human nature. Too often in history men have point to “nature” as an excuse for their own biases.  For example, the “Hamite Curse” was an odd interpretation of Scripture that held that blacks were inferior to whites by nature.

But just because someone makes a corrupt appeal to nature it does not therefore refute the idea that we have an essential nature.

The only way we can know what something is to understand its nature. If there is no human nature, then all bets are off. None of us would then have essential human rights. Those in power could determine who would have the right to live, to vote, to work, to worship freely, etc.

And the death of absurdity also marks the death of reason. For only someone rational can understand when something is stupid. Why would anyone want abandon reason?

Because once you abandon reason, you are free to do whatever you wish. Reason binds you. It is a tether to the objective world. Break the tether and you choose for yourself what is right an wrong.

I remember having an argument in class about abortion. I had a student insist that because the mother and unborn child are physically bound, then the fetus is part of the mother's body (i.e. they are the same person). But I had a trump card. A Reductio that would blow her argument away:

What about Siamese Twins? Are they the same person?” I asked, as if to say “Check Mate.”

Her response: “Yes.”

What?” I asked stunned. “But they have two names, two lives, two different minds. They understand themselves as two different people.”

Well,” she said, “you've heard of split personalities!”

And at that point, I literally collapsed to the floor. It was the moment that I was confronted with the terrible truth: that often the will overrides the intellect. The absurd position cannot be defended by reason.

So reason must be abandoned.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer

Things fall apart.

The center does not hold.

If desire is the only justifier, then reason serves only as an obstacle. We need to return to reason and recognize the rational order that binds the universe to a common reality.

To not do so would be absurd.

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