The Fallacy to Rule Them All
Note: This post is partly inspired by McGilchrist’s book, The Matter With Things, which I’m currently reading and highly recommend.
Once you have seen it, you probably will never unsee it.
It’s perhaps the most common and most damaging fallacy out there. And it’s particularly attractive to those of us who like abstract thought.
It goes something like this:
Observe some straight-forward facts.
Create an isolated space in your mind as a virtual container.
Violently transplant these facts from reality into your virtual container.
Submit those facts to a chop-up, cut-and-paste, logic-operation spree.
Take that salad and create a whole new abstract painting out of it, using random tools you happen to have at hand.
Equate this painting with reality and ignore everything that doesn’t fit the picture.
Go out and promote your new painting as the REAL reality you have finally uncovered, and never look back.
The result is essentially a whole new model of reality that then becomes your only way of looking at things. And this process leads to an outlook on the world that is completely at odds with our lived experience, common sense, and often basic human decency.
Here are a few examples of how that looks like—first, the initial fact, second, the product of the virtual mind-chopping process:
There can be illusions where we don’t know what’s real
→ Reality doesn’t exist and we’re all living in our heads
Newton’s laws are powerful tools when applied to specific physical systems
→ The universe is entirely made of dead matter and deterministic
There are big issues between social classes of society, made worse by power imbalances
→ All history should be seen as a class struggle, and classes eradicated
Absolute truth seems to be unattainable for us in many ways
→ There is no truth and everything is subjective
Women have often been treated unfairly
→ All social ills are caused by the patriarchy
Genetics is a thing
→ Everything about us is ruled by selfish genes
Communism is an authoritarian nightmare
→ Every market regulation will doom us to slavery
Texts can be interpreted in various ways, and we always bring our own context to the table
→ There is no better or worse way of understanding a text
I’m sure you can come up with many more such examples.
One tell-tale sign of dealing with a fallacy like that, I think, is this: someone points out to you (or vice-versa) that something real, like an actual real-life example, runs counter to your particular all-encompassing theory that you created in your virtual mind-container. You will then immediately reply that “no, it only appears to be that way; in REAL reality, it’s completely different and my theory applies”.
The hot-headed Australian philosopher David Stove called it the “when it comes right down to it” style of thought:
Sure, human life looks nothing like a pure extension of selfish genes. But when it comes right down to it (in REAL reality), it is all controlled by genes maximizing replication.
Sure, many women would say they don’t feel particularly oppressed, but when it comes right down to it, they all are victims of the patriarchy in myriad ways.
Yes, this particular market regulation didn’t seem to do any damage. But when it comes right down to it, this always leads to totalitarianism.
Indeed, humans not having free will runs completely counter our everyday experience. But when it comes right down to it, we are just deterministic machines.
The fallacy works in reverse, too: in that case, you start with a rejection of the second statement, the grand theory, and for good reasons. But then, you wrongly conclude that the initial observation must be wrong as well.
For example, you might have come to the conclusion that the “selfish genes” theory is plain silly. But then you go on to conclude that genetics is nonsense altogether, or that there are no powerful biological drives at all that can influence our behavior and thoughts. This means you are as guilty of over-abstraction as the original promoter of the theory you reject, just in reverse.
You might think that all that these examples show is that we should be careful not to over-generalize certain things, and not hold extremist positions. That is certainly part of it.
But I think it goes deeper than that: the process I have described leads to a radical decoupling from reality and from our own lived experience. It’s as if we create this dull program in our heads and become that program: we are entirely incapable of switching perspectives, mentally “changing gears” so to speak.
This keeps us from recognizing any limits of our pet-theory, and from realizing that only if we bring a whole array of angles to bear on reality can we hope to get a somewhat accurate picture.
Crucially, we lose the ability to judge in which situation a certain way of thinking might be appropriate, and in which situation it completely leads us astray.
This doesn’t mean that all general theories are completely wrong or useless.
But to judge such theories, the scope of their validity, and the specific situations they should be applied to, we need both knowledge and experience.
This includes knowledge about our own mind, and experience with observing how it works, how it comes to conclusions, when it is prone to generalizations, how it is influenced by the current zeitgeist, what it feels like to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, etc.
We need to gain experience in putting our abstract theories in their proper place as one way of looking at things, one piece of the puzzle, useful in certain specific situations—if even that.
R. G. Collingwood talked about how we should “re-enact” the thoughts of others in our own minds if we want to understand history; and this is true for understanding theories about the world in general, past and present, as well. But to do that, again, we need to have a good grip on how our own minds work, via both knowledge and experience. That way, we can not only learn how to spot faulty thinking and faulty theories, but also truly understand those authors and ideas that offer the greatest insights.
Indeed, Collingwood thought that how much of history we are able to truly understand says a lot about the maturity of our minds.
It works like a feedback loop: by studying history and past ideas, while trying to recreate the thoughts of these past thinkers in our minds, we learn about where certain currents and ideas come from, how they developed, and how our own minds work. As we become better at it, we also become better at “re-enacting” past thoughts: we truly understand what drove people’s thoughts and actions in the past, for better or worse. This in turn teaches us about our own minds: rinse and repeat.
We then begin to get a deep sense of the forces at play in ourselves as well as in the authors we study.
This also means that contrary to what many people believe these days, there is a “right” way to understand texts and theories, or at least there are better and worse ways. The more you understand your own mind, the better you are at keeping yourself connected to Deep Reality, the better you will understand—and judge—other minds, past and present.
The deeper principles of the mind don’t change over time; what changes is that certain ideas become entrenched, fashionable, and dominant.
Even though they are often just overblown abstractions, they become the exclusive lens from which to look at the world, which leads to a culture-wide detachment from what’s real. They stand in the way of truly understanding, of “re-enacting”, the thoughts of others.
To avoid this fallacy, we must continuously watch out for it, learn to recognize it, and learn to watch our own minds as we think.
Otherwise, we may quickly end up in our virtual mind-container, fabricating nonsense, and use that nonsense as a sledgehammer to beat up the world around us.
And that is not good.
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