You're Being Absurd! Two Powerful Tools for Philosophical Argumentation
It’s the sort of general purpose crowbar of rational argument where you take your opponent's premises and deduce something absurd from them.
Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and a grandson. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
His first book, Content and Consciousness, appeared in 1969, followed by Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981 and he is the author of over three hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.
Dennett gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.
He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.
A tool that everybody should be familiar with and, in fact, people use it all the time, is reductio ad absurdum arguments. It’s the sort of general purpose crowbar of rational argument where you take your opponent's premises and deduce something absurd from them. That is, you deduce a contradiction officially.
We use it all the time without paying much attention to it. You may say something like "If he gets here in time for supper, he’ll have to fly like Superman" - which his absurd. Nobody can fly that fast. You don’t even bother spelling it out. You point out that something that somebody imagined or proposed has a ridiculous consequence. So then you go back and throw out one of the premises – whichever one is applicable.
So that’s been known and named for several millennia, and as I say, it’s the workhorse of philosophical argumentation. And it has a partner which is a rhetorical questions. If you look closely you’ll see that rhetorical questions are almost always just shortened reductio ad absurdum arguments. They imply a reductio. When you ask a rhetorical question with that sort of yucky, sneery way, you’re saying, "Wouldn’t that be ridiculous. I don’t have to pause for a moment to refute that." You ask the question and you don’t expect it to be answered because the answer would be embarrassing.
One of the tools that I suggest in my book is to use that fact to find the weakness in a lot of arguments. When someone uses a reductio or uses a rhetorical question, they are, in effect, saying this isn’t worth your time or mine to look at closely. This is so obvious I can just make a sort of joke out of it. Pause. Be obstreperous and take a good look at it and see if you can answer it. Sometimes just answer the rhetorical question. Ask, “Why not? I think I can actually answer this." And this is a great way of upsetting the apple cart sometimes.
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