The Anthropomorphised Dog

Subcomandante Marcos on board games

Marcos told a story: a group of chess players were absorbed in an important game of chess being played at a high level. An Indian approached, watched and asked what they were playing. No one answered him. The Indian came near to the chess table and considered the positions of the pieces, the serious and grim faces of the players and the expectant attitude of those watching them. He repeated his question. Only one of the chess-players bothered to reply: “This is something you wouldn’t understand, it is a game for important and knowledgeable people.”

The Indian watched silently and continued observing the board and the movements of the contestants. After a while, he ventured a question, “And why are you playing if you already know who is going to win?” The same player, who had responded to him before, replied: “You’ll never understand. This is for experts, this is outside your intellectual reach.” The Indian said nothing. He continued watching, and then left. After a short time, he returned bringing something with him. Without saying anything, he approached the chess table and planted in the middle of it an old bottle full of mud. The players were upset and looked angrily at him. The Indian smiled maliciously and said, “Checkmate!”


two paragraphs from chapter on anticipated objections

Taking language across the divide, from a natural, organic system that functions, however inexplicably, at worlds, to a formal logical system is itself a complex matter of translation.  The gulf between natural language and formal systems of logic is navigable only by giving something up,  translating in either direction. The problem is best exposed by reference to the degree of nuance available in natural language in writing fiction and talking about it.  Even with no firm guarantee that natural language means anything at all, a dialogue can be thrown together at a moment’s notice about the possibility, potentiality, plausibility, or proximity of fictional states of affairs.   Complex and only minimally dissimilar concepts are immediately available and distinguishable.  Developing a formal structure that gets some of  the same concepts up and running is a much more arduous task.  

It is best to avoid claims that suggest the bridge between the natural language in which fictional texts occur and the formal language by which they are analysed has properly been crossed.  Fiction is (almost always) composed in natural language and almost always talked about this way.  The formalisation of tropes of fiction is a process of abstraction that has purpose in examining patterns in language and the rhetorical effects of texts at worlds.  It is  possible to think about fiction logically, for the fruits this yields  although fiction employs natural, usually poetic, forms of discourse that forego the precise, well grounded but less flexible sorts of meaning afforded by logical discourse.   But the full import or complexity of natural language in fiction is not captured by this process. 

Climate Change Denial and the Pro-Slavery Lobby: A Rhetorical Comparison

In retrospect, 205 years after the abolition of slavery, the position of reactionary Pro-Slavery forces appears not only appalling and sinister but ridiculous as well.  Rotund men with large moustaches, wigs, top hats, waistcoats and petticoats rose in Parliament and other august fora and put the case for retaining slavery. Despite momentum in the slavery abolition movement in Britain from the 1770s on, the growing support of church, government, and the commons, it wasn’t until 1807 that slavery was finally ended in the UK.  And even then, since it remained legal in the colonies, and the West Indies in particular, it was decades more before Britain’s slave trade was entirely concluded.

The Pro-slavery movement was a success, inasmuch as it helped delay an end to a colonial slave-based economy for two generations in the face of mainstream opposition.

Centuries apart climate change and slavery are not overtly similar issues except perhaps on the points of polarisation and the scale of their effect.   But look more closely at the arguments that underpinned the Abolitionist and Pro-Slavery movements and the similarities multiply.  Of course, the polemic conceit in making this comparison is to suggest that two centuries hence climate change deniers, here likened to the Pro-Slavery camp, will seem equally preposterous. We can hope they won’t be equally successful.

Abolition was progressive, support for slavery reactionary.  Abolition would require substantial change, adjustment, and concession, pro-slavery was an argument for the status quo.  Abolition was a policy aimed at shaping the future – a policy, somewhat selfishly, partly for the British people of the future. Pro-slavery was an argument for retaining the comforts of the day.

From a modern perspective there are two things that might be seen as quickly differentiating  the issue of abolition of slavery from that of climate change action: first the scientific foundation on which arguments about climate change rest, and second the massive disaster that appears to await if nothing is done to arrest warming.    But in fact both of these were central to the Abolition debate. 

There was a central scientific question in the debate on slavery: that of whether slaves were or were not human beings. Fabulous, appalling but of genuine scientific interest to minds of the day.  Those in favour of abolition were generally those who answered this scientific question in the affirmative, those against often answered in the negative.

From a modern perspective a second difference between movements for action on slavery and climate change, 200 years apart,  is that slavery should be stopped to end current injustice and suffering, while action should be taken on climate change to avoid future disaster.  But Abolitionists, like some of those warning of the dire conditions that await us in a warming world, were prone to melodramatic pronouncements about the future. The point of reference for this doomsaying was impending moral rather than environmental catastrophe:  the long-term cost to Britain’s moral standards and standing.  Slavery may render economic benefits but comes at the cost of human decency: human cruelty.  How great that cost might be could not be judged. The fear for Britain’s soul was taken seriously, and linked to a pragmatic argument about future diplomacy.  If it was the case that slaves were human beings, and might be deserving of independence, future positive relations between different peoples of the Earth could depend on a swift end to their subjugation and mistreatment.

The most important factor in favor of abolishing the slave trade, however, was the morally degradating affect that this “cancer” of the mind was having not only on individuals, but also on the nation. It was seriously wondered where the moral and spiritual nature of the nation was going to end up, if the nation’s actions towards their fellow men continued in this way. Lorraine Martin

Imagine a Britain today in which slavery is still legal, and it is clear that the continued trade and subjugation of people would indeed foster a good deal of disharmony and disquiet from other nations.  In this sense the claim was reasonable, two hundred years ago.  But like arguments today about the catastrophe that awaits us sans action on climate changed, the threat to morality and diplomacy was often couched in sensational, melodramatic terms.  Essentially accurate, and invoked in the best of causes, the threat was nonetheless a propagandistic tool.  The most extreme depictions of a future warmed world and associated disaster can be seen similarly.

The similarities between Pro-Slavers and Climate Change Deniers, in intention, tactics, and sincerity are substantiated by further examination of the former’s rhetoric. The principle argument against the abolition of slavery was economic. The cost would be too great.  The economy would suffer, perhaps crash. Standards of living would inevitably fall. As in the case of the climate change issue two alternative catastrophes were presented. Those against slavery warned of disaster in the long-term future.  Those who insisted on retaining slavery warned of economic Armageddeon as a result of the change of policy.

Other, peripheral arguments were less salubrious still than the economic argument against ending slavery. One appalling idea put forward was that the people of Africa were slaves by their nature: they had enslaved one another long before Europeans became involved in the trade.  Some challenged openly the idea that slaves were human beings, entitled to the same rights, possessed of the same faculties and capacity for suffering or free will.  Others, conceding the essential humanity of slaves, asserted that European and in particular British slavery was a civilising force that could only improve the lot of savages:

those in favor of keeping slavery believed that Africans were savages, heathens, who were in need of a master to teach them the ways of Christianity. These savages were unfit for freedom, as they were irrational and unschooled in true morality.

These arguments would never sway the increasing number of British citizens opposed to slavery at home or abroad.  But they did not have to: the point – their function – was as something to point to to say ‘Look, there are two sides to this debate.’  The pro-slavers did not need to actually win people over. As long as there was content to fill speeches in Parliament and in public and pieces in newspapers,  discussion – talk – about whether ending slavery was right could be prolonged indefinitely.

Most chilling is the realisation that over time the pro-slavery movement adapted to new moral norms, moving away from outrage at the very idea that slaves are properly human beings and might be freed.  It became instead an entirely cynical exercise in denying the inevitably total abolition of slavery.  The pro-slavery lobby   ‘used delaying tactics, for example, suggesting the need for further time or investigation, before consideration of the issue by the House, or supporting compromise solutions.’  To demonstrate their humane credentials, the pro-slavers drew up policies for easing the awful conditions under which slaves in the West Indies lived and worked. They argued for less radical action: not ending slavery altogether but improving it (echoes of ‘Direct Action’.)  The ‘amelioration programme’ proposed in 1823 would modernise slavery, recognising new understanding of humane treatment of those in servitude.

It was argued that in a period of economic depression especially, no-one in their right mind would even consider allowing the government to pay the compensation to the owners which was always called for in any argument for abolition.

Home Secretary Henry Dundas, a stalwart of the pro-slavery lobby, proposed a gradual abolition, a tapered reduction in the numbers of slaves. The intent was at this point purely delay: the extraction of profit from free labour for a few more years.

The arguments and activities of slavery abolitionists arose from commitment to a cause and to the future.  In retrospect the Pro-Slavery lobby appears obfuscating, obstreperous, and insincere. Its arguments were shrill and  constructed to serve a purpose – to profit from delay.  There seems to be little need to tease out in more detail the parallels between pro-slavery and climate change denial: they are self-evident.  It’s almost as though it’s somehow the same people, two centuries later, minus the handlebar moustaches, monocles and petticoats.  Or at least it’s their ideological descendents.

Next time: climate change denial likened to the pro-anorexia movement.

Inauthentic Representations of the Public Mind

 On ABC Radio National’s new Drive programme on Friday the authenticity of research came under discussion between host Julian Morrow and guest Amber Jamieson @ambiej in the Twitterati segment

Media reports indicated research had found it is now more expensive to live in Sydney and Melbourne than in New York New York. But an insightful blog article from a Matt Cowgill (here) debunked the media reports, observing that the research failed to take exchange rates and inflation into account.

Morrow placed fault with the media reporting on the issue, since the research had the valid purpose of assessing the expense of various cities for people working internationally and being paid in US dollars.  Authentic research had been mistreated by the media, a common enough phenomenon, anecdotally, and one that does occasionally receive media attention itself.

The research in this case was wrongly used to fabricate a story for media outlets.  But unless the story results in a flood of optimistic Australian emigrants falling on hard times in the Big Apple, it’s a relatively harmless example.  There are worse forms of abuse, when research credible and otherwise generate ‘facts’ of various degrees of inaccuracy  that populate the media and, whether we like it or not, contribute to our picture of what the world is like.

On the RN Drive programme on Friday at 730ish a worse form of abuse was imminent, since the political panel discussion that closed the show carried a particularly crass example of poorly represented public opinion supposedly grounded in (unreferenced) research.

Morrow described his Friday political panel as a ‘high council of political wisdom.’  This week the press were represented by Mischa Schubert, the tiny pseudo-intellectual class of tankthinkers by Chris Berg of the IPA, and the people were represented authoritatively by Ipsos Research Australia director Rebecca Huntley. Not the interests of the people. The opinions. Huntley, apparently, has her finger on the pulse. She can read the ‘public mind’:

Morrow:  Has the public mind moved to the opposition and the prospect of an Abbott government?’ 

Huntley:  The leader of the Opposition hasn’t come up much since the election. The general perception of him during the election is that he ran a good election…a disciplined election.

This is a casual comment on an end-of-week panel discussion on RN’s relatively light Friday Drive show. But in research terms – in terms of facts and data – Huntley’s made a big claim. It was only the first:

‘Despite the fact that the polls continuously say that Kevin Rudd is popular with people, what is clear is that the idea of him coming back isn’t one that makes people happy. People think the entire thing is a disaster.’

‘When people talk about the Labor time in Government they can’t believe it’s only been four years. For them it feels like eight years.  They actually have a feeling – the kind of fatigue you see from voters – that normally comes after three or four terms.’

This was how Huntley described the public mood following the election of the Labor Govt in 2007: 

Of course it started with an incredible sense – and we got it in our groups, which was extraordinary, cause most people don’t give two hoot about politics – but this sense of time for a change and excitement. And then a little bit of bewilderment – what’s this guy on about – and then a bit of concern around the GFC, and then some real frustration, and then just this sudden kind of this sudden act of getting rid of this man, that people were a bit worried about but weren’t actually ready to toss.

At least, Huntley gave a superficial impression of being an authority: on public opinion, on the Public Mind.  But she did none of the work that goes along with being an authority on a subject. Her language was sloppy (‘There was this kind of sense that..’). She did not give statistical evidence.  She did not refer to the methodology employed by Ipsos Research Australia, or its limitations. Specifically, she made no mention of the sample sizes of quantitative research, did not report what questions were asked, gave no account of the conditions in which the research was undertaken or how the participants were selected. 

Research companies often employ commercial databases or build their own databases of respondents. These are clearly not representative of the populace in general. To what extent is the research referenced here generalisable to the population of Australia? To the extent that Huntley’s research is  focus group based, it would again be instructive  be informed how many people have been spoken to, the method of interview,  and again, how the citizens were selected. 

None of this was raised in the panel discussion.  There was no mention, even, of the difficulty of capturing and presenting public opinion in an accurate way. 

Surveys conducted by market research organizations are often not based on random sampling, which makes them ineffective.  Questions asked in surveys are not necessarily available. Surveys are frequently of the ‘omnibus’ variety, concerning a range of different topics.  When we hear that people answered a particular way to a particular question on a particular topic it should be remembered that the people who gave those answers may have been on question 46 of a 60 question survey that asks about the supermarket shopping experience, nuclear energy, wine and gay marriage.

Not only does the wording of survey questions have a significant effect on results, the order and number of questions can also affect respondents answers.

Despite this total lack of the sort of rigour usually associated with credible research – and no mention of the specific research supporting broad political statements –  Huntley carries the credentials and readily assumes the knowledge to speak directly for the people.  Jules Morrow introduced Huntley as a director of Ipsos and reinforced her position of authority by asking her directly for information on the tenor of ‘the public mind’.

Huntley’s rhetoric is couched in a small cache of phrases like  ‘There’s a view.. People think…   They feel that… What is clear is that… We get very strong messages…’  even ‘They’re, like…’

These are very broad and non-specific catch-all phrases that brush aside any obstacles with respect to the source of their veracity. But as rhetoric some of these propositions have the form of the fallacy Argumentum ad Populum, the assertion that because many people believe something to be true it must be true.  The presentation of findings from a research company is ideally analysis, not persuasion.  These statements, though, have the form of the latter.

Huntley’s credentials as a researcher with a market research company provide grounds for broad generalisations about public opinion, taking the form of assertions about what most people think or what some people think.  After making a few assertions containing phrases like ‘people think..’ and ‘The perception is..’ and ‘There’s a view..’ anything Huntley said seems as though it probably must quite likely also be what most or many people think:

Morrow: Isn’t it the case that at some mystical point..

Huntley: Yes.

Morrow: ..people just turn off.

Huntley:  It’s true. And there’s this sense of which it’s not unlike a relationship.

Huntley says at one point of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott  ‘… the reality is that he now looks like one of the most stable people in the Federal Parliament.’  .Now this is confusing. Who believes this?  Huntley?  The Australian populace?  Who said this? How many people? In what forum? How were they selected? What were they asked, or how was the discussion steered?  If this is the reality it’s all terribly vague.

 Huntley is reprising a role that others have taken (spokesmouths from Rehame and Media Monitors are past and local examples) as a chronicler of public opinion.  But a for-profit multi-national company such as Ipsos-McKay (locally Ipsos Research Australia) has its own interests, makes decisions in these interests about what research it should undertake, what questions to ask, how to present results and conclusions.  This introduces a bias that must, at least, be taken into account.

In Europe, for example, Ipsos has conducted a series of surveys that included questions about the nuclear energy industry.  The first bits of research in this series were actually commissioned by the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association.  Later research was done spontaneously by Ipsos.  The latest iteration of the research has found that public support for the nuclear energy industry is surprisingly high, despite the relatively recent disaster at the Fukiyama nuclear power plant in Japan.

Given that the British nuclear energy industry’s lobbying or ‘umbrella’ organization has been a client of Ipsos it is clear that continuing this line of research could be of advantage to Ipsos, directly or indirectly.

If being cynical about arrangements such as these it might be suggested that Ipsos not only has an interest in conducting research in certain areas of interest to clients, prospective clients, friends and other companies associated with Ipsos, there is also a real vested interest for the company in arriving at certain findings vis a vis public opinion.  With respect to nuclear energy the company has an interest  in finding that public support for the industry has not been adversely affected.  This bias may be just a perception, but it is something that Ipsos should identify.  This is particularly the case since the company in Europe has personal as well as professional links with the nuclear industry. Ipsos director Yves-Claude Abescat is also an executive head of French finance giant Societe Generale, which defends its funding of nuclear power more directly on its own website   Abescat’s role at Ipsos may have nothing to do with the company’s self-funded research into public support for the nuclear industry, or the finding that there is a relatively high level of public support for the nuclear industry.  But there’s the perception..

Bias or perceptions of bias should propel Ipsos to take further care in the preparation and preparation of research.  There is always the danger that the company could be seen as attempting to manipulate rather than simply record the tenor of the public mind.  The same perception of vested interest could also affect the credibility of political research.  If a company such as Ipsos, operating in economic environments , finds it has a preference for one political party or another, there is at least the problem of a perception of bias by way of vested interest.  It is natural that a large company might favour the party promising lower corporate taxes, for example, or a more laissez faire economic environment.  A party that is a better friend to a big business organization like Ipsos.

In this case,  it is clear that Rebecca Huntley’s comment on Radio National Drive is susceptible not only to claims of a lack of rigour, or at least the presentation of such, but also perceptions of bias based on what is good for the company.  This is not to make the assumption that all research is suspect because based on self-interest.  People who heart big corporations are often heard to remark that absolute focus on enrichment of the corporation is in the nature of that kind of organisation , and that it is well and good that this is so.  This ethos is honestly stated, but can only promote suspicion as to which are the presiding motives of the organization in all that it subsequently does.

Perhaps this blog-type tirade is all silly pedantry.  It’s the Friday evening drive time political panel, part of Radio National’s very slightly funky revamp, not intended as the most serious of political discussions. It is political discussion, though.

The presentation of research into public opinion is important because this sort of stuff – generalisations and statistics in the media – is the source material for what we as a community, a nation, a city, an age group, collectively think and believe.  Whether we like it or not, whether we’re cynical about it or not, having spent a lot of time thinking about how the media works or not,  it tends to affect, to some degree, our overall perception of ‘what society thinks.’   Public opinion, perversely, has a powerful influence on individual belief. 

Even where people reject the rest of society in forming their own views and convictions, work from first principles, a self-sustaining code, their actions in relation to their beliefs are affected by their idea of what society thinks.  What we think others believe powerfully influences aspects of our own identity in terms of belonging, isolation, and so on. Certain views are made acceptable or unacceptable, by virtue of public opinion and the way that we as a society measure it, talk about it, represent it.

Picking on Huntley and Radio National in particular may not be especially fair, but this case is representative of a more general thread that runs through the Australian media that that assumes public sentiment is easily measurable, known, knowable, suggesting it’s alright to casually summarise the public mood. 

Anyone who considers a handful of the people they know and the range of beliefs and opinions those people hold – on politicians, on social issues, in terms of what they think the universe is like, what they like and dislike – the idiosyncrasies and oddities and contradictions in the opinions of a few friends or colleagues or family members – must realise the fantastically complex task at hand in mapping and reporting the public opinion of a nation.  Impossible really, and the approximations that result should be labeled as such.

In this context the poll results printed on newspaper front pages and reported on in headlines on network news are gross approximations of the complexity and variation of sentiment in the Australian populace.  They fail utterly to record, for example, the citizens’ cynicism, complaints, disgust with the political system in general, forcing people into expressing a preference for one of the small range of potential political leaders they don’t choose.

An account of public opinion like the one given by RN’s Ipsos researcher is far worse. Research is not meaningless.  Nor is the idea of expertise. Rebecca Huntley may be full-time in the middle of the flow of political discourse, and this does bring insight.  Her research methodology may be rigorous, her focus groups well chosen, well directed, under good, readily repeatable conditions.  But the best research is presented together with information about its methodology, and its limitations. 

The best research findings are clear and specific.  Comment should be presented carefully, with proper qualification. Where there is not time or room to include qualifications, methodology, questionnaire questions and so on, there is the capacity to reference other media that does do that job in a publicly accessible way.  

It’s fair to speculate on the sentiment of the public in general, to make suggestions as to what the mood might be. It’s fair to present sound research, together with caveats, as an indication of public opinion. Taking care to maintain a high standard in this regard would befit Radio National and benefit Ipsos and its representatives.  Presenting public opinion as a fait accompli does both research and the ‘public mind’ a disservice.

Rules of Argument VI: The Logic of the Affair (part I)

Argument:  My love is not having and has not had an affair.

How can we prove a partner has not at some point carried on an affair with someone else, and never revealed it?

The affirmative case

Logically and traditionally we begin with the affirmative case:  My partner is not having and has not had an affair.  Premises are required to support the conclusion.  My partner loves me, I trust her, her love has been consistent and unwavering.

Some Conclusions, by the way (I’ve left this out up to this point for sake of simplicity) require a set of specific premises to support them.  Another way to put this is to say that some premises do not in themselves do the job of supporting a conclusion: they require Help.  A third way of looking at this is to say that some premises contain assumptions that require explanation before a conclusion can be accepted.

Premise A + Premise B -> Conclusion

Premise A + Supporting Premise for A -> Conclusion

she is a kind person,  and a kind person would not have an affair, so therefore she would not have an affair

This form of argument is a strong form because it contains a definition that ties kindness to a particular kind of action.

Again, though, it can be seen as hinting at what is MISSING in most arguments:  the complete set of premises and supporting premises required to fully support even a simple conclusion is really never made.

Negative case

So we can concoct a list of comforting reasons, premises that support the assertion that ‘my partner has not had an affair.’

But to complete a dialectic argument (for the best chance of finding the truth) we’re forced to look at the opposing case: My partner is having or has had an affair.

With a kind of dread, we can open Pandora’s box and search for premises supporting this unpleasant conclusion.  The problem is that thinking dispassionately some premises will quickly be found.

For example in spatio-temporal terms it must be considered an affair is possible, recently or in the distant past.  Two people do not spend all their time together, and so there have probably been times unaccounted for in terms of a partner’s activity.

At this point it might be tempting to return to the list of premises supporting the affirmative argument that no affair has been had.  But a dispassionate assessment of the situation does not permit the use of a general hypothesis such as ‘She loves me’ to interfere in the search for premises supporting the dreadful case that something has happened, – some current or past romance with someone else..

If there has been an affair, then there have been lies, and my partner does not lie about important things. So there is no affair, and there has been no affair: “she’s faithful and I trust her.”

The temptation is to slip back to the affirmative case – to try to find the reason why there is NO possibility that something has Gone On, some betrayal.

But the premises suggesting that there MAY HAVE been an affair are insidious: they cannot be properly refuted.  There only has to be a glint of possibility that faithfulness is a lie in order that the case remain open.

Rules of Argument 87:
If the central Proposition of an Argument is an Absolute Statement in the Negative, then it need only be shown that a Possible Truth holds in order to refute the proposition.

Having Affairs at Possible Worlds

Another way of thinking about this sort of possibility is to think is ‘is a world where an affair took place possible?’  (Or is there a possible world at which an affair HAS happened).

In order to ascertain whether there is a possible world at which the unthinkable (hyperbole) has occured,  there are two methods:

The first is to look at the list of premises that support the argument that no affair has taken place.  Are any of these absolute truths?  An absolute truth is one that must hold at EVERY world.

Rules of Argument 983:
If any premise supporting an argument is Absolutely True then the conclusion can be said to be true as well.

The second method for considering whether or not an affair may have transpired between one’s partner and some third party is to consider whether the possibility of an affair contradicts any of the Absolute Truths about worlds: any of the things that MUST be true at ALL worlds.  This is a more roundabout approach.

To discover what is absolutely true, or true at all worlds, think about what a world MUST have in order to exist. What things are necessary?

Once it is known what must exist at all worlds the absolutely true premises can be examined.  Do any of these contradict the supporting premises for either side of the argument?  Is there any reason why the possibility of this imagined affair contradicts a necessary truth of the universe?  If so it cannot have taken place.  Is any necessary truth of reality brought into contradiction when the dichotomous opposite is considered – ‘my partner has not had an affair’? If so, it is impossible that no affair has taken place.

The likely conclusion from such speculation  is that one cannot prove one’s partner has not had an affair.  It remains inexorably possible.  A world exists at which an affair is taking or has taken place.  After two digressions.


A sort of cheap trick around acknowledging that the contingency of my partner having had a romantic liaison with another soul, a better lover, a more handsome man, is to say that my love can’t have done that to me, and if she has then she cannot be my love.

This argument has the advantage of being logically consistent, whether it is determined to be true or not.  Whether it is true or not seems to be dependent as much on arguments about naming and defining things as anything actually in the world.

About Truth Being in Language, Not in the World, Exactly

If a digression while mid-digression is permitted,  the problem of identity brings us near to the idea that Truth, in any case, isn’t in the world exactly. It’s in language about the world.  In the world, things exist or do not.  Things hold.  Things are. Truth is in language, and in the relationship between what can be said and what there is: it’s about statements, propositions, conclusions, arguments, premises.

A statement is true if the situation it describes holds.  For example the statement ‘The sky is blue’ is true if and when the sky is blue.  The sky being blue is not true or false, it just IS. It’s always a statement about the sky’s blueness that is true or false.

(Sky and blueness may themselves just be  constructions..)

To return to my digression proper,

familiar problem in possible worlds’ theory of identity.  We might say that infinite other versions of ourselves exist at an infinite number of possible worlds.  Or we might say that infinite other people a bit like us exist at other worlds.  By what virtue do we say that another version of us is us?  Because another person has the same name?  No, because many people might have the same name.  Name and passport number?  Better, but it’s a very arbitrary measure of individuality and identity.  And given infinite worlds there’s a world at which every other possible David Spencer has my passport number.

As it turns out there is really no simple way to resolve this conflict:  it remains to hint at the collision of problems of logic and semantics at a certain point and in a certain way that is near impossible to untangle.  We might decide on a concrete set of criteria that distinguish  particular identities even across vast numbers of worlds:  Possible David Spencers, for example, are those that have the right name, look roughly like me, live in the same house as me, have the same dog.

But for this sort of argument or list of criteria there is always a problematic case, demonstrating that an arbitrary line has been drawn about who is and who isn’t a David Spencer.  Is there a version of me that does not have a dog?  Well, not by the criteria listed above, because not having a dog means by definition it’s not a version of me.  Because it was added arbitrarily to the definition.

This reasoning can be rather absurdly extended to the present case

Premise A:  My partner would never have an affair.

Premise B:  A woman who greatly resembles my partner in all but Premise A has had an affair.

Conclusion:  A woman who is not my partner has had an affair.

The above  reasoning  can be applied even after the fact of an affair has been confirmed and endorsed by all parties involved.  In this case a trick of identity and semantics is employed to lessen the blow.  The partner that had loved, had been in love – had been true to the relationship and to yourself – she has disappeared.  In her stead there is a human being similar in many respects.  But she has a different history, and her love is not of the same quality, so it cannot really be her.

(part II imminent, in which a Platonic justification of the affirmative is considered, after a bit more on evidence)

Othello as Analogy for Argument

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rules for Argument V – Types of Premise


“It is the mark of an educated person  to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle



A succinct explanation of the meaning of a term or phrase

Hypothesis, general statement, or theory

The first kind of premise is a general statement or hypothesis.


The second kind of premise is an exemplar – the example that best support a conclusion.


A refutation is an argument against an opposing point of view.

Belief or opinion

 the expression of one’s personal point of view


a reference to a text or person on a subject


A statement concerning the rules or conduct of argument



Theory and Example

Some people have decided that they don’t like ‘theory’.  Theory is not good, they might say. (This is a theory about theory. A meta-theory. ) But everyone develops theories or hypotheses, or general ideas about the world, all the time.

A theory is the natural result of thinking about a number of examples together.  If the sun comes up, to take a mundane example, every morning that we can remember, this series of examples produces a general hypothesis about the world.  The sun comes up every morning. 

This is the kind of hypothesis that can be used as a premise to support an argument. It is also clear that a hypothesis – a generalisation about the way things might be – is a kind of conclusion supported by a number of examples that serve as premises for an argument.

Premise + Premise -> conclusion      example + example – > general statement about patterns of events


Kinds of Exemplar


 Details, records and results of observations of things and events


Data generalising in a mathematical (and often probabilistic) way.


similar events or instances of the past




What then is the cause of these things?  For it was not without reason

and just cause  that the hellenes in old days were so prompt for

freedom, so it is not without reason or cause that they are now so

prompt to be slaves. There was a spirit, men of Athens, a sprit in the

minds of the people in those days, which is absent today – the spirit

which vanquished the wealth of Persia,  which led Hellas in the path of

freedom, and never gave way in face of battle by sea or by land; a spirit

whose extinction today has brought universal ruin and turned Hellas

uppside down.  What was this spirit?  It was nothing subtle or clever

-Demosthenes, urging the Athenians to fight Phillip of Macedon, 331



the telling of a true event


the  telling of one’s personal experience


Narrative examples

Plato appears to have deplored fiction for the most part, while deploying narrative and fabrication as devices of argument with great frequency.  A premise can be ‘dressed’ in a narrative in order to make a point more vividly.  


a reference to something that shares qualities with the subject (reasoning or explaining from parallel cases)


when one meaning or concept stands for, or  symbolises, another.


a fictional story that makes an argument or contains a moral

Rules of Argument IV – Tactics

Tactics for Argument

“The question is which is to be master, that’s all.” – Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.


Shifting the Ground

Consider an argument as a game, in which conclusions and premises are argued and then sit like pieces on a board:  black for true, white for false, or in the case of an argument comparing two alternatives black for ‘a’ and white for ‘b’.

One piece is set on a particular statement – the proposition, argument, or conclusion. This is an arbitrary decision decided at the outset.   Other statements can then be picked out or presented, supporting the conclusion or refuting it.  Statements that support the conclusion are represented in the game with a black tile.  Statements that refute the conclusion are represented in the game with a white tile.

In a debate in which one person defends a proposition, arguing it is true, and another person attacks the proposition, the game for the defender is to ensure that all of the premises on the board remain true.

The debater attacking the proposition has to try to turn over any piece, making it ‘white’ or ‘false’.  Technically, if any piece on the board is white, the conclusion does not hold: the central piece in the game becomes white, and the game is over.

Dialectic or comparative argument

A comparative argument between two options has different rules.  These rules describe an argument structure akin to the Socratic method – the dialectic. 

In the case of opposing arguments ‘a’ and ‘b’ both sides of the argument can be developed constructively, and both sides of the argument can be refuted.  In this case the stronger argument prevails:  using  the allegory of the game, one white piece or false premise does not win the game in this case: the rules have changed.

 Instead the game involves trying to turn most of the pieces on the board to one colour.  The colour of the ‘conclusion’ tile is determined by the quantity (or quality, to break with the allegory) of the premises on each side.


Rules for Argument III – Terms


A discussion on a point, topic or theme following the structure Premise + premise -> conclusion


A statement in an argument that asserts something, says that something is true.  In an argument a conclusion  is supported by other statements, called premises.


A premise is a statement in an argument that supports a particular conclusion.


Something not stated that must be true in order for a premise or a conclusion to be true.  Meanings are a kind of assumption: every word in a statement has a meaning or set of meanings that could be stated in order to make the statement more clear.

In an argument people can actually agree on a premise or conclusion while agreeing to quite different things, if they have different assumptions about what words in the statement mean, or different assumptions about the things referenced in the statement.

Hidden Assumption:

A hidden assumption is one that has not been considered or uncovered.


Any assertion whatsoever, including conclusions, premises, supporting premises, and sentences related in no way to an argument at hand.

Supporting Premise:

A premise that supports another premise in the same way that a premise might support a conclusion.  A supporting premise has another premise as its conclusion.   (A supporting premise may also be a premise that supports the ‘proper’ conclusion.)


Thesis + antithesis -> synthesis

A mode or method of debate.  The dialectic is sometimes called the ‘Socratic method’.  It is used for discovering different sides of an argument and comparing their strengths.  For this reason it is considered a philosophical rather than a rhetorical tool.  That is, the dialectic is often thought to be about discovering what is true rather than persuading others to believe a particular argument.

The dialectic consists of an idea, an assertion, a proposition (a statement or conclusion) called a ‘thesis’.  The method of the dialectic requires that the opposite of the thesis also be found: the ‘anti-thesis.’

When the thesis and the antithesis are brought together and assumptions about them examined, it is possible to develop a ‘synthesis’:  determining which is the most reasonable of thesis/antithesis.


A dichotomy is a pair of binary opposites.  Examples of dichotomies are 0/1, right/wrong, up/down, left/right.   An argument is dichotomous when two opposing assertions are presented.  For example the argument ‘It’s good to be rich’ has the opposing assertion ‘It’s wrong to be rich.’  An argument like ‘either you’re with us or you’re against us’ is also based on a dichotomy: on opposing ideas.

Any debate topic is a dichotomy, since it is presented in a form in which speakers are ‘for’ and ‘against’ a proposition.

False Dichotomy

The presentation of two opposing positions as the only two choices, where in fact there are others.

e.g Either you’re with us or you’re against us.

The example is a clear case of false dichotomy. The argument presents two choices, when in fact there are clearly more options. The audience might feel neutral towards the speaker but is not given that choice.

Many dichotomous arguments can be shown to be false by drawing the dichotomy out into a ‘continuum’.  If a dichotomy is two points representing binary opposites, a continuum is a line between those two points.

Take the above example.  If we say in response to that statement ‘no, we’re neither with you OR against you’, then a middle point is identified between the two extremes.  This creates a ‘continuum’: a line between two extremes.  A continuum can have an infinite number of possible points.


As above. A continuum, technically, is an infinite series of points between two end points. In the context of argument it is a range of statements that express positions somewhere between two extremes.

By way of an example, the thesis ‘It’s good to be rich’ has, as mentioned, the anti-thesis ‘It’s bad to be rich.’  This might be the first that springs to mind.  But by looking at the terms in the original proposition, other ‘anti-theses’ can be found.  For example, it could be argued that the opposing argument is that ‘It’s good to be poor.’  Or that it’s WRONG to be rich, which is to define the opposite of good in a particular way.

Rhetorical fallacy

An archetypal mistake in argument.  A fallacious premise does not necessarily make an argument untrue. But the premise itself is not valid used as a support for a conclusion.

Rhetorical device

An archetypal device of content or style in rhetoric.

Myth in the Origin of Democracy

The central, binding myth for the modern Western state is that of Democracy, celebrated in the festival and performance of elections, reiterated with extraordinary frequency in public and conversational discourse, and noisily contested by the heterodoxy –  those opposing institutionalised power.

The orthodox myth of Democracy carries enormous influence in twenty-first century societies. In its institutional meaning the symbol ‘democracy’, and the related terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, represent concepts associated with the mandate of Government. These symbols are instrumental in persuading populations to voluntary cede decision-making over their lives and communities to the executive of governments and representative forums; to cede moral judgement in many matters to another arm of Government; to allow the enforcement of  legislation by police.

The diversity of organisations and individuals that employ these terms, including the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea  and even the United States Government, demonstrates both the influence and the depth of the symbol’s referents for both adherents and opponents of State power.  The use of the words ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are almost politically ubiquitous, the prominence and political potency of these symbols for the orthodoxy ensure their re-interpretation and re-iteration by dissenting voices.

Two distinct definitions of ‘democracy’ proposed by Noam Chomsky in his critique of global democratic processes in Necessary Illusions describs a critical divide between orthodox and heterodox democracy. Orthodox democracy, that of the state, Chomsky asserts, is narrowly conceived: the citizen is a consumer, an observer but not a participant. (Chomsky 1999 p27)  But heterodox democracy indicates a citizen’s opportunity to inform themselves, to take part in inquiry and discussion and policy formation, and … political action.’ (Chomsky 1999 p27)  This second form of democracy symbolises direct, independent, individual political action. ‘In Chomsky’s first model democracy’ is no longer a motivating force: political action is reduced to a proxy, ritual, infrequent ballot.  Here the symbol denotes the relationship between the individual and the institutions of state in which political will is invested.

Herbert Marcuse suggests in One-Dimensional Man that modern Western civilisation represents one ‘project’ of realisation among others’ (Marcuse 1968 p14), warning that such a project ‘tends to become exclusive and to determine the development of the society as a whole.’ (Marcuse 1968 p14)  If our technologically-driven civilisation is ‘the latest stage in the realisation of a specific historical project’ (Marcuse 1968 p14)  then the society of Classical Athens is the crucible of many of the specifics of the Western political and intellectual paradigm.

Deleuze and Guittari, in analysing Clastres’ model for the state in Mille Plateau, identify a ‘voluntary submission’ (Deleuze and Guittari 1987 p359)  intrinsic to the State:   ‘In what way did people want or desire servitude, which most certainly did not come to them as the outcome of an involuntary and unfortunate war? They did, after all, have counter-state mechanisms at their disposal. So how and why the State? Why did the State triumph?’ (Deleuze and Guittari 1987 p359)

Despite the enormous influence of the symbolic architecture of democracy, details of the mythic narrative of democracy are largely lost in the West. Knowledge of democracy is focused on the present for many people – on the drama of elections, and the processes of Westminster or US-style parliaments.   Today there remains the FACT of the origin of democracy in ancient Greece, its  and awareness that Athenian democracy was limited to free adult males.  But many of the powerful symbols of the modern state – Democracy itself, the ballot, court, juries – derive from the Hellenic example of two and a half millennia ago. Together these symbols underpin the modern Myth of State, reinforcing its gravity, permanence, and benevolence in the minds of its citizens.

The fundamental purpose of the Western myth of state could be described as the provision of a narrative of civilisation’s origins. The invocation of its symbols become commemoration, or celebration, or reiteration, of a significant historical event: the transition of civilisation from the ancient tribal mode to the rational Western state. All but the barest of details appear to have disappeared from the narrative of democracy’s origins, but the central fact of this critical transition retains all of its moment.

An uncritical reading of the origin of the phenomenon and lexicon of Democracy – ‘DEMO = for the people. ‘KRATIA’ = rule’ (Kinzl 1978) – suggests that over a period of centuries, in the Hellenic region of.  the Mediterranean, and particularly in Athens, the idea gradually emerged, in concert with the development of rational beliefs and rudimentary sciences, that communities might deny total power to kings and tyrants and rule themselves by ballot. At the beginning of the fifth century BC an Athenian nobleman, Kleisthenes of the Alcmeidenae, was instrumental in driving out the tyrants Hippias and Hipparchus and establishing accord between gentry and commons (Heredotus, The Histories). He drafted a new constitution for Athens, and the first democratic state was conceived.

‘Kleisthenes made the ‘deme’ or village into the fundamental unit of political organization and managed to convince the Athenians to adopt their deme-name into their own. To prevent regionalism from creeping back into the system as people changed their address, Kleisthenes decreed that a citizen, once assigned to a deme, must retain that deme-affiliation even if he moved to another part of Attica.’ (Blackwell, 1997 )

Thomas R. Martin writes that ‘with these reforms the fundamental bridge from clan to city-based representation of individuals was crossed.’ (Martin 1991)

Other historians are more circumspect in their interpretation of Kleisthenes’ action: ‘His reforms, seen broadly, took two forms: he refined the basic institutions of the Athenian democracy, and he redefined fundamentally how the people of Athens saw themselves in relation to each other and to the state.’   (Blackwell 1997 )

Deleuze and Guittari describe these events as a moment of near-apotheosis : ‘The state is what makes the distinction between governors and governed possible. … we do not see how the State can be explained by what it pressuposes, even with recourse to dialectics. The State seems to rise up in a single stroke, in an imperial form, and does not depend on progressive factors. Its on-the-spot emergence is like a stroke of genius, the birth of Athena.’ (Deleuze and Guitarri 1987 p359)

On the one hand Kleisthenes democratic reforms are interpreted as the defining moment in humanity’s advancement to a civilised condition, on the other a critical historical shift in the investment of public power in particular instititions, deserving of examination because they are ancient models for their counterparts of the present day.

Some scholars, sceptics of the traditional story of democracy’s birth, indicate Hellenic democracy was a part of a wider movement across Attica and beyond.  In his book Early Popular Government Outside Athens W. Eric Robinson notes Heredotus made observations about ‘demokratia gegographically at a distance’, such as that at Cyrene, and that this evidence ‘broadly concurs with that provide by Aristotle. (Robinson 1998)  Generally he observes ‘The city- state was essentially a socio-political edifice ripe for such a development (p. 65), and it is not remarkable that the emergence of the polis  form in the eighth century should have coincided from the outset with mass participation in discussion, if not governing, as the Homeric texts well illustrate.’  (Robinson 1998)

His conclusion is that numerous colonies across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea reflect some form of democratisation in their initial stages, (Robinson 1998) and that further ‘these colonies did not acquire their participatory form of government from Athens’  (Robinson 1998)

The proposition that there were democratic movements all over the Hellenic world at the time of Kleisthenes in Athens, lends support to a heterodox doctrine that retains a mandate for democratic action in the hands of the people, a democracy that is spontaneous and popular, capable of grass roots generation, and possibly regeneration.  But it is not refutative of the myth of Athenian democracy as a source of a specific exemplar particularly well remembered in extant historical and theoretical texts.

Other scholars, however, specifically disrupt the original narrative, and impugn the good intentions of Kleisthenes, the instrumental democratic innovator, in re-examination of the events of the critical period for Athenian Government. In his treatise Democracy: A Study of the Early History of the Term Konrad H. Kinzl asks’When was the term DHMOKRATI/A coined, and what did the creator of this term intend when he coined it?’ (Kinzl 1978)

Kinzl’s approach encourages a more cynical and critical interpretation of the origins of Democracy in language and politics, but one that informs an understanding of the use of the political symbol in the modern era. Thomas Martin suggests optimistically that ‘as an aristocrat looking for popular support, Kleisthenes had reason to invent the kind of system he thought ordinary people wanted.’ (Martin, 1991)

But Kinzl argues that the term was a neologism in the time of Kleisthenes (Kinzl, 1978) and possibly merely a political device used to describe a ‘New Deal’ for the disenfranchised commons of Athens while the power of the old nobility was surreptitiously restored.

Mythographer Robert Graves suggests in Greek Myths that Kleisthenes’ manipulation of Democracy as a symbol of institutionalisation and the State involved a historical and mythological revisionism. (Graves, 1960 p352)  In retelling the story of Theseus, the fabled founder of the Athenian city-state, who purportedly introduced political innovations of his own, Graves notes ‘The mythical elements of the Theseus story have been submerged in what purports to be Athenian constitutional history; but the federalisation of Attica is dated several hundred years too early; and Theseus democratic reforms are fifth-century propaganda, probably invented by Kleisthenes.’ (Graves, 1960 p352)

In the Development of Athenian Democracy Christopher Blackwell corroborates this interpretation of the importance of the Athenian moment for the modern State (Blackwell, 1997), placing the science of rhetoric itself at the centre of a social and political revolution. He asserts that  ‘the idea that persuasion, rather than force or status, should constitute the mechanism for political decision-making in the emerging Athenian democracy fit well with the spirit of the intellectual changes which were taking place during the late Archaic Age.’ (Blackwell, 1997)

Rather than exposing any one ‘true’ narrative that informs and limits interpretation of hellenic democracy for modern people,  exploration of the narrative elements latent in the myth of State exposes a history of narrative contestation:  what is most familiar about the political milieu in which the origin of democracy evolved are the manipulations of representation, narrative, symbol, and event that characterise our own democratic institutions.  The character of discourse as well as its content is the inheritance of the Athenian iteration of the myth of State.

If the investigation of Democracy reveals a history of semiotic manipulation, the interpretation of which is reliant in part on problematic sources, then it can be argued the true influence of the classical episteme on the modern democratic model derives from deeper currents in Hellenic civilisation.