Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Spotting and Avoiding Debating Tricks, Part 1: Mischaracterizing the Scope or Degree of Commitment of a Claim

1. Scope
1.1 Claims can have a wider or narrower scope:
1.2 One? Some? Many? Most? All?
1.3 Example: All men are pigs vs. most men are pigs vs. many men are pigs vs. some men are pigs vs. one man is a pig

2. Commitment
2.1 Claims can also have a weaker or stronger degree of commitment
2.2 Certain that P? Probable that P, Plausible that P? Not inconceivable that P, etc.?
2.3 Examples: It is certain that Steve's a pig vs. I know Steve's a pig vs. it's probable that Steve's a pig vs. It's plausible that Steve's a pig vs. it's possible that Steve's a pig

3. Scope, Commitment, and Evidential Standards
3.1 The stronger a claim's degree of commitment, the harder it is to justify it
3.2 The weaker a claim's degree of commitment, the easier it is to justify it
3.3 The wider a claim's scope, the harder it is to justify it
3.4 The narrower a claim's scope, the easier it is to justify it

4. Morals, part I: When arguing your own position
4.1 When arguing your position, don't make a claim with a wider scope than is absolutely required to justify your position
4.2 When arguing your position, don't make a claim with a stronger degree of commitment than is absolutely required to justify your position
4.3 Example 1: "I'm arguing that it's certain that no gods exist"
4.3.1 The claim has maximal scope, and maximal degree of commitment
4.3.2 So, the claim is very hard to justify
4.3.4 Example 2: "I'm arguing that the evidence fails to make the existence of the God of orthodox Christian theism more reasonable than not."
4.3.4.1 Significantly mitigated scope and commitment
4.3.4.2 Thus, your evidential burden is much, much lower
4.3.4.3 But if established, it's sufficient to undercut the rationality of orthodox Christian theism (leave the issue of properly basic beliefs for another occasion)

5. Morals, part II: When others are arguing with you
5.1 It's common for a person to "cheat" by mischaracterizing their interlocutor's claims (cf. the straw man fallacy)
5.2 A common way to do this is to mischaracterize the substance of one's claim or position
5.3 However, another sort of mischaracterization occurs when a person mischaracterizes the scope or degree of commitment of their interlocutor's claim
5.4 Thus, a person will characterize their interlocutor's claim as having a wider scope, a stronger degree of commitment, or both
5.5 In doing this, they unfairly raise the evidential standards for their interlocutor to make their case

Homework: Listen to some William Lane Craig debates. Can you find any instances where Craig mischaracterizes the scope or degree of commitment of his interlocutor's claims? Do his interlocutors mischaracterize the scope or degree of commitment of Craig's claims?

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