Y’know, if you don’t think that a horse is defined as such due to some innate form of ‘horseness’, then you should go read some Aristotle.*
If you don’t think that Evolution has any basis in reality, then Darwin has some things to tell you.
If you think that we can’t know anything at all about the origin of the universe, then you should listen to Victor Stenger.
I’m appealing to authority here? Well… Yes, I am. And this is not a problem at all. Let me break it down for you…
So the ‘skeptic community’ is pretty enamoured with ‘fallacies‘. I’ll often hear people call out the fallacies when listening to a creationist babble on about their nonsense, or if a homeopath is waffling on about how happy they are when they use their products. You can even find ‘fallacy bingo cards‘ on the internet for when you attend a talk. It’s great. I love this stuff. I’m very happy to see people taking some ancient and basic Philosophical content and applying it to modern life. Aristotle identified roughly 140 fallacies (many of which are sub-divisions of higher order fallacies, so are pretty redundant). Since Aristotle, a few more were added, but it’s really Aristotle’s fallacies that are the core of any critical thinking course.
Unfortunately… Many skeptics don’t understand fallacies. They seem to use them as a “you are wrong” declaration, as if the mere declaration that ‘the speaker has committed a fallacy’ means that the conversation is over, and ‘the speaker’ needs to A) apologise, and B) shut up.
A formal fallacy is an actual logical error, such that the details of what the person has said (and the context in which they are speaking) is irrelevant: the actual form of the argument is in error. For example:
1) If all swans are white, then this particular swan is white
2) This particular swan is white
Conclusion) Therefore all swans are white
This can be generally stated as:
1) If P then Q
C) Therefore P
The reason this is a formal fallacy is that if premise 1) is true and premise 2) is true, it is possible that P is false. It does not follow that P is true, ergo this argument is logically false. (This is a technically term meaning ‘the argument cannot be true for any combination of the truth values of P and Q)
But notice that my claim here still requires an explanation. In a real conversation, it’s likely that the speaker has made a number of claims. I can’t merely stand up in the Q&A of a lecture and declare that the speaker has committed the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent and sit down: I need to identify the problematic premises, and I need to show that the speaker’s conclusion is primarily dependent upon those premises.
Just making the declaration is nothing more than merely asserting that the speaker is incorrect. In that situation, declaring that the speaker has committed a fallacy is no different (practically speaking) from just standing up and declaring that one disagrees with the speaker. Something which, I hope, most of the readers of this blog will recognise as generally pointless. (Please note that I’m speaking of the context of a formal presentation, not of a popular rally where standing up to disagree (i.e. Presenting a dissenting view) is absolutely important).
So, even in the case of a Formal Fallacy, it’s necessary to explain your position.
An Informal Fallacy is, on the other hand, focused on the content of the argument. And since the content is often context dependent, an argument may often have the form of an Informal Fallacy and not be false.
1) I found a strange lump on my body that wasn’t there before.
2) My doctor told me to have it removed.
C) Therefore, I should have it removed.
Appeal to Authority? Absolutely. Problematic? Absolutely not.
1) Either Beethoven is better than Mozart or Mozart is better than Beethoven.
2) My doctor told me that Beethoven is better than Mozart.
C) Therefore, Beethoven is better than Mozart.
Appeal to Authority? Absolutely. Problematic? Absolutely.
Appealing to an Authority is only problematic when the person in question has no relevant skill in the area. Furthermore, what makes the Appeal acceptable is not merely that the person is recognised as an expert in the relevant area, but also they can explain their decision and provide you with the warrant for their position. The non-expert is unable to do so (pretty much by definition).
So simply declaring that someone is Appealing to Authority is not the end of a discussion. Yes, congratulations, you have noticed that when someone says “go talk to Aristotle” when discussing Essentialism they are invoking the name of a famous, known expert in a particular field (the person who quite literally invented that particular field). Now that you have invoked the Appeal to Authority Fallacy, the onus is on you to explain what the problem is. Fallacies don’t operate like the umpire in baseball: declaring a ball to be out may make it so, but declaring something to be a Fallacy does not make it so.
If explaining your position is important when declaring something to be a Formal Fallacy, it’s even more so when making a declaration of an Informal Fallacy as an Informal Fallacy is highly contextually dependent.
*Incidentally, Aristotle is completely wrong about the nature of ‘things’. However, I’ll still refer people to Aristotle simply because reading that while wrestling with how you explain his errors will teach you about a million more things than reading most anything else…