One of my favourite things to do in the world is play Mad Libs with peoples’ arguments. If someone says something particularly derpy, I simply fiddle around with the nouns, the names, and the ideas, and see what I come up with. Literally, take their idea apart and fill in the blanks with something else. Does it sound equally valid that way? Does it sound like complete zebrashit that way? Does it still work as an argument that way?
By looking at what changes and what doesn’t when you do this, it reveals a lot about the nature of someone’s thought process and reveals the chinks in an argument and logical process with relative ease. For instance, most first cause arguments for the existence of God can be equally applied to the existence of any god of any religion. Imagine taking William Lane Craig standing up for Christianity with his Kalam Argument and transplanting it over to Islam. It still works that way round. The fact it still works to support two competing and different religions points out a big logical leap in the therefore department. (Really, first-cause type arguments can only be used to support one particular conclusion, which is a trivial one.)
But our murderous parents are different…
I first tried Mad Libbing an argument a few years ago when looking over the defence statements of some parents who effectively murdered their child by standing and praying over her as she died from an easily curable/treatable form of diabetes. The defence statement simply said that the parents were being true to their faith in God, and that they genuinely thought they were doing Right by God.
During their sentencing, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard said the Neumanns are “very good people raising their family who made a bad decision, a reckless decision.” He then gently encouraged them to remember that “God probably works through other people, some of them doctors.”
This sort of defence frames what would otherwise be considered as death from criminal negligence as a freedom-of-religion or an expression-of-faith issue. Lighter sentences from judges are known to correlate with that – in this case, six months in prison and some probation. It made me think about the reaction it would elicit if these parents were to say how they wanted to unquestionably follow Charles Manson, instead. Or what if they didn’t subscribe to a fairly mainstream religion with a strong lobbying base, or if they had just outright stated that random voices in their head told them to do it? It made me think how quickly we would react in horror to this, and how quickly a judge and/or jury would be to pass a far more harsh judgement on them. Nothing about the defence would actually change by doing this, though. All they would be changing is the subject of their belief, not the fact that a child died because they believed it so strongly and were subsequently rendered negligent by it. Only our prejudices towards the specifics would change.
This isn’t me making things up, harsher judgements were applied to a vegan couple when their child died of malnutrition. Again, just because of their beliefs. No judge or defence lawyer was there to give them a reassuring nod to their deeply held ideas about the world, and to reduce their sentences to a slap on the wrist and a “naughty naughty” for it.
We didn’t starve my son to death. We didn’t starve my son for weeks and weeks and weeks. You know we’ve been vegetarians. We’re against animal cruelty. So why would I be cruel to my son? We’re against animals being burdened. Why would be cruel and burden him and try to drive around and do something with his body? We’re going to jail for no reason.
Nothing has changed between these two. It’s still a case of two sets of parents who used their deeply held beliefs and inadvertently killed their child by following through with them. Yet the conclusions reached are different. One was given a stern talking to about faith by a Judge and six months, the others had a life sentence and abuse hurled at them by a prosecuting lawyer.
Madness in the method
It wouldn’t be until a few years after I looked over the first example about the God-based murder defence that I found that, in fact, there is a reason this can work. There is, in fact, reason that looking at similar arguments, and showing them reaching different conclusions can be used to highlight argumentative flaws.
Formal logic is what underpins ideas and arguments (or, at least, it should be). Logic is not even 2 + 2 = 4, it’s more fundamental even than that. It’s the basic rule that says how and why 2 + 2 = 4; by defining what “+”, “2”, “4” and “=” even mean in the first place. This builds the rules that numbers work on, and so we can say things like “if 2 + 2 = 4, then 5 – 3 = 2” and so on. The thing about such logic is that it’s practically independent of its actual content, it’s distilled very purely into “if this, therefore that” without a care for what this and that are. I can say ♣ + ♦ = ♠ and justify it with some form of formal logic under it and demonstrate through that logic whether ♥ – ♦ = ♠ is also true. If the logic is valid on one, the logic is valid on the other. I can’t say, “if 2 + 2 = 4, then 7 -3 = 12”. It must hold to be at least consistent.
In principle, if you take a bunch of premises, A and B, and assert that they must come to the conclusion, Z, then any isomorphic arguments for A and B will produce an equally valid set of isomorphic conclusions, Z. If you can justify one with supposed logic, you can justify the other with the same logic. Valid logic is tautologically valid logic. Should we then point out that these new isomorphic premises don’t actually lead to the the new conclusion, then there’s one of two problems. Either there’s something wrong with our substitution (i.e., we’ve made a bad analogy, but that’s easy to fix) or there’s almost certainly something wrong in the underlying logical form of the argument.
Making exceptions to your own rule to say “nuh-uh”, just because you don’t like the conclusion it produces under other circumstances, is an ad hoc fallacy. It’s what happens when someone punishes a pair of vegans but lets of a pair of Christians. It’s what happens when people tolerate misogynists but not racists. It’s the same piece of bullshit that restricts marriage from couples on basis of sexuality, even though we’ve already completely overhauled the concept of marriage from where it was a century or two ago.
These exceptions don’t derive from logic, but straight out of the anus. Eventually the list of exceptions can grow so long that the original argument is all but useless. The fact you need even a single exception in the first place proves that the argument isn’t especially sound. So saying we should respect peoples’ cherished beliefs and be lenient when those beliefs lead them astray should apply as equally to vegans as it should to Christians. Making an exception of one but not the other is bullshit, and merely gives undue privilege to one idea for no other reason than historical precedence.
In formal terms
Let’s illustrate how just swapping some of the objects in an argument can show up flaws with this cute little syllogism.
Premise 1: Some men are doctors.
Premise 2: Some doctors are tall.
Conclusion: Some men are tall.
Totally valid, right? I mean, you have tall men. You know this because you have short men to compare them with. This is true. You won’t find an argument against “some men are tall” that doesn’t involve crude and trivial semantics like “not compared to the Eiffel Tower they’re not!”.
But the logic itself… doesn’t actually work. Remember, this is just the logic, the framework of the argument, that we’re looking at. People can still come to correct conclusions through wrong arguments, although it’s more likely that they will come to wrong conclusions through wrong arguments. It’s still a non sequitur and therefore a formal logical fallacy as the logical framework here doesn’t hold up and there is nothing in the premises that actually support the conclusion. This hard to spot when we think a conclusion is correct, or pre-assume that it is. It biases us against examining the argument or evidence more closely; we simply assume it’s true and forget to examine the thought process.
Not convinced that we can’t conclude that some men are tall based on those premises? If I was to change a few of the words, and engage in such Mad-Libbing, the argument could be changed to read:
Premise 1: Some men are doctors.
Premise 2: Some doctors have vaginas.
Conclusion: Some men have vaginas.
The conclusion is wrong; men don’t have vaginas. Gender/sexual fluidity aside just for a minute (we can assume, for the sake of argument, that men are defined as not having vaginas), this conclusion is wrong. The underlying logic is the same in both syllogisms, but because the absurdity of the conclusion is actually highlighted here, we can see the error clear as day.
In generic skeletal form it’s this:
Premise 1: Group X overlaps with Group Y.
Premise 2: Group Y possesses property A.
Conclusion: Group X also possesses property A.
There are many ways this could have been laid out generically (it could have used entirely symbolic notation), but importantly when it is laid out formally we can also see the logical typos. The Mad Lib substitution made us aware of it, the formal logic demonstrates it.
It can be a bit difficult to make this leap towards examining an argument completely devoid of context, but it’s possible to simply play with substitutions to see what goes wrong. Perhaps if a particular Mad Lib sounds wrong, you haven’t defined a term properly, or more than likely you’ve tried to say something about a label, not an actual property. Any argument about what constitutes a “religion” – say, in the context of “all religions are bad for humanity” – does this without fail.
You need to be very careful about over-extending an analogy, though. You can’t simply say “this small cup still holds coffee, therefore Pluto is a planet”, for instance. This is about highlighting logical flaws in an argument to show that it doesn’t hold, not about introducing new ones.