The Problems with Polemics

I think that the chief difference between those who practice a scientific approach to understanding of the natural world and those who practice a philosophical approach is illustrated in the progress of thinking from the ancient philosophers to modern science.

The ancient philosophers believed that they could understand the world solely by thinking about a relatively few empirical observations. Although such approaches might be relevant to discussions of value-laden subjects such as ethics or esthetics, they were of limited value in understanding the physical world.

By the 17th century, Sir Francis Bacon was emphasizing the need for a more scientific approach to understanding the physical world.

"As a procedural starting point, at the dawn of a movement that would become modern science, Bacon rejected both the scholastic view that equated knowledge with conservation and the Renaissance reform that sought to recapture a long-lost perfection. Natural knowledge, he proclaimed, must be reconceptualized as a cumulative process of discovery, propelled by processing sensory data about the external world through the reasoning powers of the human brain." [s]
The idea caught on and the scientific revolution ensured that scientific understanding replaced the metaphysics of the ancients, medievals, and the earliest scientists. In the scientific method, a set of observations leads to formulation of hypotheses that propose logical explanations for the empirical phenomena. Predictions are made on the basis of these hypotheses and are tested against further empirical and experimental data. If further data does not support the hypothesis, then a new hypothesis is formulated that better fits all available data. Ultimately, those hypotheses that withstand this possibility of falsification become accepted as theories. Thus, scientific theories are much more likely than are 'vernacular' theories to accurately exlain reality. Scientific knowledge, then, is a system of verified or verifiable empirical data logically interconnected by tested theories.

Although the history of ideas is interesting, science discards disproven hypotheses and moves on, “historical” philosophy does not. By “historical philosophy," I refer to rhetoric, polemics, and apologetics, which are more concerned with the appearance of authority than with the truth value of content and which set out to argue a position by quoting those who have previously made a statement that follows the position taken by previous writers. This is quite different than the use of references to scientific articles, which point back to empirical or experimental evidence rather than to mere opinion.

It is circular to attempt to prove a point solely by noting that some ancient philosopher had said something with which we agree, yet this is a standard apologetic ploy. This tactic would be equivalent to my claiming that sperm contain microscopic humans and calling up Lamarck’s beliefs to “prove” my point.

In essence, the value of an idea depends upon its content and not upon how many illustrious, but mistaken thinkers have stated it. (To be fair to apologistic philosophers, I think that their intent is to discuss content even though their thinking is distorted by insistence on defending weak positions.) The strength of science, which is both misunderstood and attacked by its detractors, is that scientific knowledge is continuously scrutinized and refined by its qualified practitioners, whose work is measured according to accepted standards (peer review). Although professional (academic) philosophers do work within a logical system, philosophers work within areas that exclude the possibility of experimental verification. If the area under study could be experimentally tested, then that investigation should involve scientific method and would be outside the field of philosophy.

Not only do many people fail to understand the content and nature of science, they mistakenly assume that any thought system – set of opinions – counts as valid philosophy. In this Misinformation Explosion Age, people are increasingly unaware that lay opinion, particularly biased opinion, carries no real authority about the natural world whenever lay opinion runs counter to established scientific knowledge. Let's designate such people, Laypersons of the Misinformation Explosion, or LAMEs. Not only do LAMEs form illogical opinions on the basis of too little information, they form mistaken opinions on the basis of deliberate or ignorant misiformation pasted across the Internet. LAMEs are particularly credulous in the face of emotionally appealing rhetoric, and this is particularly apparent in relation to the ridiculous creation vs evolution debate, which really ought not to be a debate at all since only the scientific explanation is empirically supported.

The problem, I think, lies not merely with polemics and apologetics as rhetorical devices to sell an argument, it lies also with the fact that those who argue such positions also 'think' in the same clumsy style. That is, rather than learning the techniques of critical thinking, they assimilate (and later quote) arguments that they have accepted purely because they like the argument or its conclusions. They often go so far as to admit, "I like what Joe Bloe says about this, [quote]."

Such emotional, LAME thinkers are not so much concerned with whether or not the argument is logically based upon relevant evidence as they are distracted by the emotional appeal that the argument's conclusion provides. Such thinkers will uncritically accept any conclusion that fits their preconceived notions or biases without any concern or awareness of whether or not the conclusion represents reality.

LAMEs are emotional thinkers who construct their view of the world, not from logical analysis of empirical evidence, but from a pastiche of favored conclusions: ignorant conclusion 1 + unfounded conclusion 2 → illogical conclusion 3.

Typically, the arguments of LAMEs are packed to overflowing with false premises and fallacies of logic. For example, further compounding the cognitive mistake of favoring misinformation with emotionally appealing conclusions, illogical conclusion 3 may be cited as proof of ignorant conclusion 1 and/or unfounded conclusion 2.

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