While it has been many years since I lasted played the game Go Fish, since college at least, I regularly tell people in conversations to “go fish.” What I mean by this is something peculiar and potentially worthwhile for others to understand. There are really two types of communication that we engage in. The first is communication where we have prepared and possibly researched something to present to others, such as this blog entry. This type of communication is presented as a finished project, which while it may provoke further inquiry and discussion, stands on its own as a work and as a complete presentation. The other type of communication is that which is presented in response to something else and is part of a larger conversation, not complete without a larger context than the message itself alone. Often this second type of communication is done on a fairly rapid or even instant basis, and the examples chosen and selected, and the comments made, are generally not complete but are done quickly in order to answer the most important or most objectionable matters at hand. Often, in such a conversation, the evidence chosen is not in fact suitable to the case at hand, and when this occurs, I tell others to “go fish,” because they need to find something else that is germaine to the topic, if such evidence exists.
It is vastly easier to be better reasoned when one has prepared a message. While some of us (myself included) often tend to be rather quick and even impressionistic in our reflections and comments (my own blog entries are probably not too far off from the style and approach of Blaise Pascal as opposed to that of Thomas Aquinas), many people like to prepare messages that are airtight in their own eyes before they present them before a candid world. Sadly, most of the critical messages I see from other people tend to suffer from a consistent set of flaws: reasoning from mistaken premises, assuming facts not in evidence (including straw man and non sequitor arguments), and making false dilemmas. Unsurprisingly, all of these errors have drawn my frequent attention as someone who pays close attention to the logical content of argumentation and often finds it wanting.
Perhaps the most common logical problem is arguing from mistaken premises. The Southern political “philosopher” and politician John C. Calhoun was a master of tedious and lengthy deductive reasoning from flawed premises. But he has plenty of company. All arguments (even in mathematics) depend on premises that are assumed and not proven. If one is careful in logic, there will generally not be any mistakes in the quality of the reasoning, but there may be arguments in the premises, and it is the foundational ground of our arguments that present the most opportunities for error. This is true for a variety of reasons–especially because we tend to assume the veracity of our premises, and seldom allow the foundation ground of our worldview and belief system to come under question. As a university student examining the historiography of science, I saw how people sought to define neo-Darwinian evolution as part of the definition of science, claiming it as above disproof and as a “fundamental” aspect of any genuine definition of science, which is flagrantly illegitimate intellectual behavior.
An additional serious problem is assuming facts not in evidence, by which we make non sequitors (conclusions that do not follow from our premises because we assume the conclusion is true and do not bother to prove it or argue it). Another way of assuming facts not in evidence is to build a straw man and then to demolish it in the mistaken belief that one has answered the questions and concerns of others. What both of these related errors share in common is a desire to prove our point (in our own eyes and in those who agree with our conclusions) without doing the difficult work of actually dealing with either the evidence or reasoning necessary to show how our conclusions arise from our premises and reflect reality, or in dealing with those who disagree with us. Others may often be deeply mistaken, but they deserve to be taken seriously, whether it is because their concerns may be legitimate (even if their conclusions are not valid), or because the irreconcilable differences between us may lie in questions of interpretation, which means that no agreement is possible because the ground of premises is not only not the same but often directly hostile between the various camps. In allowing people to speak for themselves we can at least understand why others disagree, even if they do not do so on a rational basis, since reason alone is insufficient for people to dwell together in harmony–there must be a great deal of love as well as mercy and a fair amount of longsuffering and honest admission where the facts and evidence do not permit dogmatic conclusions.
Another common error, and one I did not realize was common until I started examining the error in close detail, is the problem of false dilemmas. For quite a few years I used a linux-based laptop (and may do so again if resources permit in the future), and it amused me how often there was an attempt on the part of many to point to a dilemma between Apple and Microsoft concerning computers, completely leaving out a valid (and often superior) third option, considering I viewed both Apple and Microsoft as corrupt companies with seriously flawed operating systems, and tiresome partisans. Obviously, the same sort of false dilemmas are true in a great variety of discussions, where people point to two options and claim that only those two options are valid, neglecting other valid potential solutions. Even in cases where there are two options that would be chosen, admitting the existence of other valid options provides more room to discuss possibilities, and to imagine a better future that is free of the partial truths that tend to be presented by ideologies, parties, and institutions. We must be able to envision other options than those which now exist in our world to defend a true and consistent worldview that is seldom to be found in institutions, and never in any kind of organized political system in this corrupt and fallen world.
And so, when I tell people to “go fish” in an argument, it is because they have not done their homework and have attempted to smuggle bad logic into a debate with me. And that bad logic simply will not fly. It frustrates me when people try to bring bad logic into my house and pass it off as reasonable discussion. It is even more frustrating when people engage in straw man reasoning and do not bother to actually read or listen to what I am saying and respond to it instead of the false ideas inside of their own heads, or when they engage in false dilemmas that seek to deny the very options and viewpoints I am presenting. So next time, when someone tells you to “go fish” in an argument, maybe you ought to examine what is missing in your own presentation, so that you can bring some real meat to a discussion, rather than one’s own bogus ideas and mistaken opinions, warmed over and presented as irrefutable truth. Do the world a favor and actually bother to engage others and examine where they come from and what they really believe.