For the closing days of summer, I am posting every chapter of the first edition of Everything You Believe Is Wrong. My enemies ravaged the first edition, inserting typos galore while I was distracted in the service of our people. I here leave their efforts untouched, so that the insidiousness of their behavior is plain. Meanwhile, I am completely revamping and expanding the book, and looking forward to incorporating your comments and criticisms (no need to point out typos and grammar errors). The second edition will be glorious.
This is the Chapter 7: Big Muscles.
A Harvard graduate walks down the street and comes across a 50-lb sack of cement barring his way. He reaches down to shift the obstruction, but discovers that, despite all his might, the bulk won’t budge. He declares, “I am a Harvard graduate, a superior being trained at our best institution; I have advanced degrees. Surely, I have big muscles. Yet I cannot move this weight. Therefore, it cannot be moved.”
This is a fallacy because any man not bound for employment with the State Department or its equivalent could easily lift the sack. That this two-legged supremely credentialed and well-connected soy-infused anemic could not is insufficient evidence that nobody could.
Stated thus, the fallacy is plain and is so stupid that only a graduate in Women’s Studies could make it (likely after watching the latest female-led superhero movie). It survives, though, and is not even uncommon, because it isn’t usually stated in terms of prodigious physiques, but of mental muscles instead.
This logical infirmity strikes politicians and pundits particularly, where it often leads to the False Dichotomy Fallacy, which is a special case of the Big Muscles. A politician will say, “We have to raise taxes/implement my plan/vote Yes because nothing else will work” and the pundit will agree: “I have followed this politician with close attention, and I, an upstanding person with several awards in journalism, well paid by my oligarchic masters for writing my opinions, and possessor of an earnest desire to change the world, cannot see an alternative solution; therefore, there isn’t one.”
We can also call the fallacy the I Can’t See Another Way Fallacy, the standard of bores and bureaucrats from time immemorial.
These examples, though they are made daily, are of such transparent illogicality that we need not take them seriously. Let us pass quickly on.
Take something meatier and of fundamental importance, such as the philosophical “problem” of free will. This subject might seem dull to you, but I promise you it won’t be in future years. Denying free will is a terrific way of stripping the humanity from a person, and once the humanity is gone, we have only a mere beast left. And we’ve already seen what we can ethically do to beasts.
Everybody knows they have free will. For instance, an academic has the free will to write a paper arguing that free will is an “illusion”. That this academic really believe in free will, regardless of what he argues, is proved when his paper on the subject is rejected. Sit next to one of these maligned and misused authors the day after his rejection and you will soon learn all you need to know about his true views of free will.
Now the denial of free will, when it happens, is often showy bullshit—I use this word with its technical definition—and sometimes it isn’t. But in some cases, and not so infrequently, either, the delusion that we do not have free will is believed, in a sort of way.
Incidentally, before we progress too far, it is well to note that some are triggered by judgmental words like delusion. Some react and become emotional and say in effect things like, “Briggs, you shouldn’t use words like that.” Of course, if I have no free will, then I have no choice but to use words like that. You’re stuck with me.
A common impetus in claiming we do not have free will is feeling sorry for those who are punished. The anti-free-will writer doesn’t like to see folks in jail. So he admonishes us, telling us we ought to understand criminals didn’t have any choice but to break the law. They didn’t have any choice, because free will is an “illusion”. Therefore, punishing people for something they had no choice but to do is wrong.
Of course, if people did not have free will, and since judges are people, the judge who sentences the criminal to jail also had no choice but to sentence the criminal to jail. And we spectators have no choice but to celebrate or decry the judge’s sentences.
This counter argument is never thought of those by those saying criminals don’t have free will. Strange, ain’t it?
The spectacle of an academic philosopher writing, “I as myself don’t really exist, and I don’t make good choices, and in fact make no choices at all, because making free choices is impossible, but if everybody realized we don’t have free will, then we’d all make better choices!” This kind of sentence, not stated as bluntly, is so ludicrous yet so common we ought to make a drinking game of it. Every time an academic announces free will is an “illusion” we have to choose to take a shot. If you value sobriety, stay away from Computer Science and Philosophy Departments.
It should be obvious free will cannot be an illusion. An illusion held by whom? It takes a person equipped with free will, i.e. free choice in at least some situations, to have an illusion. That is the only way to know an illusion is an illusion. Thus we have the Illusion Of Illusion Fallacy.
This is why denying free will is a denial of self. People claiming illusion somehow suppose they ride above their bodies and minds in some unexplained way, and merely witness life unfolding before them, powerless to make real choices, but somehow there is some entity below themselves which falsely believes it is making choices.
You can’t have both things being true at once. Either a walking meat machine is a true zombie, programmed in all its actions, and therefore incapable of having illusions—it can’t know it’s a zombie—or you have to have free will, with the possibility that some choices are only apparent, but where some choices are real.
Skip all that, though, because these are not instances of the Big Muscles Fallacy per se. They are all fallacies, all right, and ripe opportunities for hilarity, but they are not our main concern.
Here is an example of the Big Muscles Fallacy with respect to denying free will. “I have a theory of how the brain operates,” says the academic, “And nowhere in this theory is there room for any sort of guiding consciousness. My theory is that everything is atoms in motion, guided by immutable physical laws. Therefore, free will does not exist.”
This is the Big Muscles because two conditions have been met. One, the academic denies what is obvious, and necessary, to all: that we have free will. Everybody observes it, and we observe it because it is a fact. When you blush over a sin, such as when you lie to your wife, saying, “I have no idea who failed to use a knife to cut the strudel”, or when you forgive your colleague for taking credit for your work, or because you tortured a person to death for the fun of it, are all instances where you know with utter, absolute certainty, you could have acted differently. Free will exists. You can only have an illusion of what you do not have; you have to have free will to entertain the idea of illusions.
The first condition of the Big Muscles has been met: a true observation has been denied. The second condition is this: the academic loves his theory so much that he cannot abide the idea of it being in error. He is saying, “Since I cannot discover a way in which my theory is wrong, it isn’t wrong; therefore, free will doesn’t exist.”
Weakness of thought, his admitted inability to think behind his own limitations, is offered as proof. It is like a child saying “Since I cannot solve for x in x + 7 = 11, a solution does not exist, and x is therefore a number of a kind never before known to mathematicians.”
Materialism, the belief that life is nothing except a conglomeration of forces (who origins shalt not be spoken of, or ascribed to other mysterious forces, like randomness, a god), forces which we know more or less well, but forces which in any case are thought not to be guided by any spiritual powers, is the reason behind the anti-free-will theory.
This theory says the brain and body are a kind of machine. Maybe we don’t have all the particulars about how this machine works—yet—but we don’t need them all to say that since the body is a machine, it necessarily lacks free will. Materialism must be true, it is thought. After all, look at how many great toys given to us from science!
For instance? I used to be able to leave my house and not be pestered for hours. Now I have a cell phone, produced by materialistic physical theories, and I need never have to endure peace and quiet again.
The delights of these ever-present thinking-suppression (and tracking) devices aside, that because physical theories have good explanations in one area, does not prove they must have good explanations in every area. To think so is the Materialism Fallacy.
Materialism, at least in the form held by free-will deniers, must be false. It must necessarily be false, because free will is observed to be true. That you cannot figure out how free will works is irrelevant. That our brightest top elite minds cannot figure it out is irrelevant. That even I, Briggs, your author, cannot figure it out is irrelevant. That (supposing it is so) nobody ever figures it out is irrelevant! We don’t even know why the universe is set up so that 1 + 1 = 2 is always true; but we do fine using the fact.
We are in the position of a cave man who fell into a wormhole to emerge in 2020 in Queens, New York who sees giant metal boxes soar impossibly through the skies. Ask him how this is possible, and he will say (translated) “I do not know.” But ask him if it is so, and he must answer “Yes, of course.” The cave man would be committing the Big Muscles if he said that because he couldn’t figure out how these things fly, that therefore they were not flying.
We can try exposing the Big Muscles to an ardent theory believer as bitter acidic medicine to cut through his belief. This almost never works, though. The academic’s theory, his model, is too beautiful to behold. He loves it. He cannot give it up. He based his career on is, and he has followers, perhaps even minions (grad students).
He says, “I can’t see how any of the premises in my argument are false; therefore, none are false. Thus the absurdity that there is not free will follows.” The Harvard graduate hasn’t been able to lift the weight, the weight cannot be lifted. The faith the person has in his argumentative abilities—his self esteem—has triumphed over plain reality.
The Big Muscles is no different than the honest but untutored fellow who says,“I don’t see how a material thing can be both a wave and a particle; therefore, it must be one or the other and not both,” Or, “I can’t figure out a better system of government than democracy, which is said to be better than all the other ones; therefore, it is the best.” We would never accept the fallacy in such low forms, but we easily swallow it when cowed by compelling credentials. The Big Muscles is not far from the Argument From Authority Fallacy after all.
We also mustn’t confuse the Big Muscles with the Deadly Sin of Reification, with which it shares certain similarities. Reification, like Big Muscles, occurs when a man embraces theory over reality, but in Reification the conclusion does follow from the premises, and where the premises or conclusion replace reality.
Thus a mathematician will lay out a set of self-consistent equations and say, “These complex and tenure-winning equations represent another universe, which must therefore exist”. The act of mapping the symbols in the equations to reality as if they were reality has taken place in the mathematician’s mind alone. Scientists and statisticians, those who use models, are most prone to this Deadly Sin. I have written about it at length in Uncertainty.
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