The Case for Philosophy in America's High Schools -- Part 4: The Social Sciences as Ad Hominem

"Giles and Justin" is one of several assignments that plunged students into a maelstrom of philosophical questions that promote self-clarification and personal growth. Students must see that everything they are learning speaks to them and their lives, and a teacher must see the course through their eyes alone. This is the secret of holding their interest.

The assignment was as follows: Giles is a man whom most people would call "modern." Rejecting traditional beliefs, he is a thoroughgoing skeptic who refuses to grant the truth of anything unless it can be empirically proven. As far as he is concerned, the existence of God, the freedom of the will, and an afterlife are "superstitious notions unworthy of the 21st century." To him, religion and the eternal verities are human creations. Man believes what he does because of social conditioning.

Justin, on the other hand, believes in traditional thought. Everything Giles rejects, Justin believes in and, conversely, everything Giles believes in, Justin rejects.

Giles believes in modern thought because: he was raised in it by his parents; he is rebelling against his parents; he was brainwashed when young; he believes in it blindly; he is afraid of questioning it; all his friends believe in it; he derives emotional advantages from believing in it; he needs to justify his behavior; he would have to rethink his entire life were modern thought false. Or he wants to seek attention; appear different, respectable, fashionable, virtuous, enlightened; judge or condemn others; convert others to his views because he's unsure of himself; find acceptance or advance himself socially; be rejected or persecuted; fill an emotional vacuum in his life by believing in something new, exciting, or dangerous; frighten or shock others. Or it enables him to cope with misfortune or lessen guilt and anxiety; gives him comfort, happiness, peace, security, direction, meaning, purpose, identity, and ready-made answers to the questions of life. Justin believes in traditional thought for the identical reasons.

Part A. (1.) Choose any three of the above italicized reasons and show, step-by-step, how you would prove that these are the reasons why Giles believes in modern thought. Try to identify with him emotionally to understand his psychology. (2.) Assume that Giles actually does believe in modern thought for many of the above reasons. Would those reasons disprove modern thought? Discuss your answer in detail. (3.) Are any fallacies present? If so, name and discuss them. (4.) What insights did you gain by doing this assignment?

Part B. Answer the same four questions by role-playing Justin.

***

I gave students two days to complete the assignment and then talked them through it. As to the first question, most students thought that it was impossible to "prove" that any of the italicized reasons actually prompted Giles or Justin to believe in modern or traditional thought, although those reasons were certainly possible. Students couldn't even say, much less "prove," why they themselves held their beliefs, let alone why others held theirs. So many things affect a person both consciously and unconsciously that it's impossible to say exactly why people hold their beliefs. "It's like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall" was one simile used. "Everything slips away on you."

As to the second question, students realized that the reasons given for both Giles' and Justin's beliefs had no bearing whatsoever on whether either system was true or false. The reasons for believing in either system, and the truth of that system, were two separate issues. This came as a relief to some students who saw themselves in either Giles or Justin and identified with many of the reasons given. However, after doing the assignment, they understood that those reasons would not invalidate either set of beliefs.

This realization led students to a question that struck them as even more urgent: How, then, would one determine which view was right? Hunger for this kind of learning must come from the student. If one wants an answer, one must find it oneself. A teacher can only prepare the way. The journey must be undertaken by the student oneself.

With respect to the third question, students saw all the italicized reasons or conditioning factors as so many ad hominem fallacies, if they were used to disprove either set of beliefs. A few weeks earlier, students had been introduced to fallacies, which included the appeal to the man and the fallacy of origins.

Appeal to the Man (Argumentum ad hominem)

Rather than disprove an idea, one attacks the person who holds it. Implied is the assumption that if something is wrong with the person, then what that person says or believes cannot be true. The attack may take the form of name-calling or denigrating a person's character, appearance, background, nationality, or religion. Typical examples would be: "Her idea can't be true. She's just a kid." "His idea is false because an unhappy childhood makes him think that way."

Less Obvious Forms of the Ad Hominem Fallacy

However, there is also a less obvious form of this fallacy which cites psychological reasons for holding an idea or belief as in the case of Giles and Justin, or sociological factors that condition or influence one's beliefs or outlook on life. These factors would include someone's age, sex, race, social class, education, marital status, occupation, religion, nationality, political affiliation, or the century in which one lived.

For instance, would children, their parents, and their grandparents view life in the same way? Would men and women; blacks and whites; the rich, the poor, and the middle class; high-school dropouts and college graduates; single and married persons; plumbers and lawyers; Jews, Muslims, and Christians; Democrats, Republicans, and socialists; 2nd -century Roman legionaries, 12th-century French peasants, and 18th-century English merchants share the same outlook?

One sees in these examples how different sociological factors condition each group to see the world differently. Each has a piece of a larger truth, and each can learn from the other. Yet, each group is sometimes judged as being "biased" or "wrong" because it doesn't share the values and beliefs of the judger. Are these judgments objective assessments, or regrettable lapses into tribalism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and prejudice?

Instead of viewing these conditioning factors as providing a rich spectrum of different insights into a multifaceted reality, the judger dismisses such factors as so many distorting lenses that compromise the ability of these groups to see the world "objectively," at least as defined by the judger.

Fallacy of Origins (Argumentum ad originem)

There is also the fallacy of origins, which tries to refute an idea by explaining how it arose historically within a particular cultural, economic, political, sociological, or psychological context. This is a legitimate process of historical reconstruction and is not part of the fallacy. The fallacy occurs when one then draws the unwarranted inference that because one has explained an idea's origin, one has thereby explained away its truth. Unexplained, however, is the non sequitur of why this conclusion necessarily follows, unless one, of course, is begging the question of its falsity to begin with by the circular logic of assuming that explaining its origin thereby renders it false.

Three cases in point are the Roman poet Statius, who says in his Thebaid (III, 661) that "fear first created the gods on earth"; the origin of religion (addressed in a previous article), and Freud's dismissal of the immortality of the soul in section 19 of his Reflections on War and Death. These three conclusions are indefensible for two reasons: first, the historical factors which purport to explain the origins of those ideas and the question of the truth of those ideas are two different issues, which the fallacy reduces to one.

Second, were these two issues the same, no idea could ever be true since every idea has historical origins. If one were to dismiss ideas as false which arose out of fear and uncertainty, one would likewise have to dismiss those that arose out of joy and certainty, or clinical detachment, unless one employed the fallacy of special pleading of arbitrarily making exceptions of examples that would weaken one's case.

Student Insights

Concerning the fourth question, students discovered that thinking through questions slowly and methodically on paper both cleared the mind and calmed the spirit. Writing their responses gave them the necessary detachment from themselves and their thoughts to induce constant revision. As they added layer upon layer of continuing insight, they argued with themselves as devil's advocate, an exhilarating initiation into the provisional nature of creative thinking.

Their greatest discovery, however, was the need for integrity of motive in fashioning one's own set of convictions. Students began to understand that authenticity of life means subjecting one's beliefs to a searching analysis since the reasons cited for both Giles and Justin were unworthy of a meaningful life. To use an old-fashioned phrase, students had undergone an examination of conscience as the initial step of their philosophical journey.

Implications for the Social Sciences

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not making a case in this article for modern or traditional thought, the existence of the gods, the origin of religion, or the afterlife. I am simply pointing out that attempts to refute such beliefs with fallacies are doomed to failure by their providing psychological/sociological answers to what are essentially philosophical questions. Reductionist solutions to such questions imply their own metaphysical (in this case, positivistic) assumptions, which their practitioners may be unaware they are making.

This caveat raises a larger point about the social sciences. Citing reasons why an idea, philosophy, or belief system is believed does not disprove the truth of that system as some social scientists assume. Such reasons simply point out the possible conditioning factors why one may hold those beliefs, as was the case in the example of Justin and Giles.

It is for this reason that such why-explanations, when used by the social sciences to discredit beliefs, are irrelevant in establishing their falsity. At best, they may give one pause if one held one's beliefs for those reasons, since one would now understand that those reasons neither proved nor disproved one's beliefs, but only predisposed one in holding them. At worst, these explanations, if used to discredit those beliefs, would be ad hominems.

The social sciences are at the heart of the humanistic tradition. They hold up a mirror to human nature and show us the conditioning factors about why we believe and behave as we do. For this contribution to understanding ourselves, we are in their debt in helping us find a more substantial foundation for what we hold true. However, when their findings are designed to prove, or subtly insinuate, the falsity of beliefs by psychologizing or sociologizing away their truth, these sciences overreach themselves by misreading their findings. The social sciences bring us honesty in scrutinizing what may be unworthy motives in holding our beliefs, but they do not prove that those beliefs are false. Evidence alone can accomplish that.

Wittgenstein's iconic dictum is quite apt in this context: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." We must be modest in our speculations by limiting our words to what can be known. This is not to say that we should not speculate as much as we want, as far as we want, and about whatever we want, or that we should fear censure or punishment in thrusting the torch of philosophy into the dark night of mystery that surrounds human existence.

Yet, at the same time, we must also have a factual basis for our sallies into the unknown lest we people the void with vain imaginings. Otherwise, we are playing with loaded dice and should not be surprised when our conclusions mirror our wishes.