Monday, July 8, 2013

How NOT to Reconstruct an Argument

First thing: I absolutely LOVE P!nk and this song. That being said, any criticisms and critically evaluative remarks should not be taken as instances of disapproval. This is a wonderfully uplifting song, and the fact that I feel like I have to make this disclaimer should be taken as evidence for how much I love it! Second thing: when I first heard this song I knew I wanted to write something about it; I just wasn’t sure what exactly. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what the main focus of this post will be. I think I have a better grip on what I want to say than when I first heard it, but I worry it may still be disjointed at times. However, I think there are some interesting lessons here, even if I cannot tie them neatly together.

In most introductory philosophy courses students are asked to reconstruct an argument from class. This allows the student to better critically engage with the argument they will be addressing by making sure they have an appropriate understanding of their opponents’ position. This ability to successfully reconstruct an argument demonstrates that the student has an understanding of the difficult course material, and it helps to focus the students’ argument on a more manageable topic. If you’re reading an article by some philosopher (and you disagree with said philosopher), before explaining what it is you specifically disagree with, you have to reconstruct the philosophers’ argument to show the reader what part of the argument you will be addressing. For example, if you’re writing a paper on the morality of abortion, it’s just not possible to show why abortion is morally right or wrong in a paper for class (though many people will try!). Instead, you want to focus your argument on a more manageable topic. What you’ll most likely end up doing is pointing out something that needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about the morality of abortion, or pointing out something that is wrong with another person’s argument. Either way, before you can start you have to have a clear understanding of the topic you will be discussing; and, if you’re discussing someone else’s specific argument, then you need to first explain that person’s argument to demonstrate your understanding and show the reader what specific issue you have with the argument.

In “Try” P!nk seems to try to reconstruct an opponent’s argument. It’s not clear who the opponent is, but the main point seems to be that anyone who is trying to tell you to quit because you’re going to get hurt is not providing sufficient reason for you to give up. P!nk’s reconstruction takes place during the chorus. This is what she takes her opponent’s argument to be:

“Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame.
Where there is a flame
Someone’s bound to get burned.”

The implied conclusion seems to be that if you’re going to get burned, then it’s not worth having the desire being discussed. This is followed by P!nk’s response:

“But just because it burns
Doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.
You’ve gotta get up and try try try
Gotta get up and try try try
You gotta get up and try try try.”

So, P!nk’s opponent seems to be saying that if you have desires then you’re going to get burned (because with desire comes a flame). P!nk’s response: just because it burns doesn’t mean you have to give up (in fact, the only sufficient reason to give up seems to be death). In her own words, “you’ve gotta get up and try try try.”

First, it should be pointed out that even though P!nk is encouraging you to not give up, she never actually provides us with any reason why we shouldn’t give up. In other words, there is no reason why we should try try try. (If you’re suspicious of my claim, take a look at the lyrics. If someone can point out something that is offered as a reason to keep trying, I’d love to hear it!). As a paper in a philosophy course, I’d probably give this paper a ‘D-‘. The only reason it doesn’t get an ‘F’ is because there is an attempt at reconstructing an argument, and it’s an encouraging formalization of whatever topic is being discussed. Second, a major mistake occurs in P!nk’s reconstruction. Her opponent clearly commits the fallacy of equivocation. Now, P!nk could just explain where the equivocation is occurring, thus showing the argument to be fallacious and giving us no reason to accept it. However, she seems to assume that there is some validity to this rather weak argument. While I’m not sure that anyone would ever make this actual argument, it seems like a cheap-way-out to attack what is a clearly fallacious argument. The equivocation occurs with the word ‘flame.’ In the first use, ‘flame’ seems to mean something like ‘a motivation to achieve the desired thing.’ In the second use, however, ‘flame’ literally means ‘fire.’ Consider how weird the phrase would be if we swapped ‘flame’ with the two different ways in which it is used. First:

“Where there is desire
There is gonna be [a motivation to achieve the desired thing]
Where there is a [a motivation to achieve the desired thing]
Someone’s bound to get burned.”

Notice, when ‘flame’ is taken to mean ‘a motivation to achieve the desired thing,’ it is clearly false that when someone has motivation to achieve something they desire they are always going to suffer burns. It’s not any better if ‘flame’ literally means ‘fire’:

“Where there is desire
There is gonna be [fire]
Where there is a [fire]
Someone’s bound to get burned.”

As is clear, it is also false that anytime someone has a desire a fire is actually present. Using two different senses of the word ‘flame’ is clearly fallacious. It would be weird to think that with desire comes ‘a motivation to achieve the desired thing’ and this ‘motivation to achieve the desired thing’ will literally burn you. Likewise, it is equally weird to think that with desire comes ‘fire.’

Again, I LOVE this song. It’ll never get old. I just hope students looking for advice on how to write a philosophy paper don’t turn to P!nk. She is an absolutely amazing pop star; but a philosopher she is not.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sara Bareilles Wants You to Share Your Ideas!

One of the most common things I’ve heard from students who are curious about the grade they received on a paper concerns vague, ambiguous, or mis-worded sentences/phrases they have used. Typically the conversation runs as follows:

               Teacher: “I wasn’t sure what you meant by phrase (or word) ‘x’?”
               Inquiring Student: “Oh, well, what I meant by ‘x’ was ‘y.’”

Usually I am tempted to respond: “Then why didn’t you just say ‘y’…?” However, as I still tend to face these struggles myself, I have to remember that it can be really hard to “say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out.”

In her newest song Sara Bareilles gives a clear explanation of the value of being clear and concise with your wording. Or, as she puts it, an explanation of the value of saying what you want to say and sharing your ideas (and thereby yourself) with people!

This song also does a nice job of articulating what is expected, and appreciated or valued, by teaching assistants, instructors, and professors of philosophy courses. Part of developing critical thinking skills requires you to share your ideas and have them challenged. In order to best justify your opinions, views, or ideas, you have to be able to respond to criticisms they may face. It usually takes some practice and exposure before having your opinions, views, and ideas challenged becomes fun, but in order to develop good critical thinking skills you have to be able to understand what your opponents are saying and what criticisms your opinions, views, and ideas face.

All of that being said, in order to receive and understand criticism, you have to share your ideas! That means putting yourself and your views on the line and making yourself vulnerable by being willing to have them challenged. Saying what you mean is difficult, and it takes a lot of courage. This, however, is one of the many benefits of taking a philosophy course. You are encouraged to say things clearly and concisely! These courses help you to develop critical thinking skills and give you the tools necessary to defend your opinions, views, and ideas. It can be frightening, but the better you are at standing up against criticisms, the more confident you can be in your opinions, views, and ideas! And, since saying what you want to say takes courage, and philosophy courses encourage you to say what you want to say, then taking philosophy course helps you to become brave!

It seems appropriate to share one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from one of my philosophy professors: “If you can use either a one syllable word or a ten syllable word, for the love of God, use the one syllable word!” So, follow Sara’s advice and “say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out.” As she so happily puts it, “Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live. Maybe one of these days you can let the light in, and show me how big your brave is.”

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chris Brown Ends the Quest for Truth and Understanding Rather Early...

In a lot of introductory philosophy courses these themes get brought up (see also: The Matrix, Total Recall, and many, many other movies!). If you had the option of choosing to live in the real-world full of some pain and suffering or a living in a dream-world full of happiness, which would you choose? In the real-world you may not be happy all the time, but you at least know what's true or what's real. In the dream-world you won't know what's true or real, but you will at least be guaranteed some kind of happiness. This is a difficult decision for a lot of people, but for Chris Brown the answer seems pretty clear.

While I have no idea how the lyrics of this song make any sense (see for yourself!), let's try to get a big picture of what's going on. If this love is a lie (i.e., if the love that Chris Brown is feeling does not actually exist in the real-world), then Chris Brown must be dreaming (or in a dream-world). If the love can only be found in the dream-world, then he'd rather stay in the dream-world even though it's not the real-world. 

While this option does not seem to be unpopular, the weird thing is that the option to choose the dream-world over the real-world is made without any supporting justification! Why stay in the dream-world? Well, I'm assuming it's because that's where this love exists. However, we are not told why this love is so great, or why we should believe that it cannot be had in the real-world. Now, to be charitable, let's grant that it is a special kind of love (which it would have to be if someone loved Chris Brown at all...) which can only be had in the dream-world. Even if this is the case, why would you abandon all the other truths and joys that come with seeking an understanding of the real-world for a dream-world that contains this kind of love? Seems pretty selfish to me... then again, I would expect nothing less from Chris Brown. It's bad enough to abandon the real-world and the ability to contribute to other peoples, as well as your own, understanding of the real-world, but to do so for what would clearly be a false or pretend love! That's just tragic. Remember, given that this love exists only in the dream-world, that means this love would not exist in the real-world; thus, it's not really love! It's just a fake version of love. In other words, it's a false love, or, a lie. So, Chris Brown would be abandoning the truth and understanding, and a shot at real love, for a fake love. Doesn't make much sense to me...

I don't know about you, but I'll take the real-world any day. Even with it's uncertainty and painful experiences, it still seems better than a lie... but that may because I get joy from seeking an understanding of the real-world. Not Chris Brown though. Of course, the dream-world is probably the only place that Chris Brown can find love these days. Anyways, it's a tragedy that a quest for truth and understanding could be ended so early. An inquiring mind lost at the young age of 23... such a waste. Chris Brown's quest for truth and understanding: dead at 23 (1989-2012).

Failing to Have Justification for Something You Really Believe is Apparently Like the Loss of Love

In the song "Just Give Me A Reason," P!nk and Nate Ruess (of the band Fun.) recount how painful it is to lose a loved one without being given any reason why the love ended. All they want is an explanation or a reason concerning why the love is gone. Notice: what seems to be the most difficult aspect of the love being over is that there is no reason why the love ended. It's not just that the love is gone; it's that the love is gone without any reason being provided.

What struck me about this song was that it seems like a similar feeling is found when someone is starting to lose their ability to hold a belief or conviction they've previously took to be unquestionable. This is a painful part of philosophy. Think about something you took to be unquestionable at some point in your life (e.g., belief in God, belief in a particular scientific theory, belief in some explanation of a some significant event, belief that a certain ethical theory was correct, etc.). Without a reason concerning why you should continue to hold a belief, or without justification for a belief, it gets harder and harder to keep that belief. Eventually, if you fail to have any reasons or justification for holding a belief that at one time meant so much to you, or at one time provided you with such comfort, then you won't be able to keep that belief.

Let's look at the chorus:
"Just give me a reason.
Just a little bit's enough.
Just a second, we're not broken just bent,
And we can learn to love again.
It's in the stars.
It's been written in the scars on our hearts.
We're not broken just bent,
And we can learn to love again."

Again, it seems like this song could have just as easily been about how hard it is to lose a belief that you hold so dearly (or how hard it is to lose the ability to justify a belief that you hold so dearly). Notice that we can swap out the words relating to 'love' with words relating to 'belief' and the sentiment of the song is still preserved! In the following presentation of the chorus I've replaced the words referring to 'love' with words relating to 'belief' or 'justification' (the word 'it's' should be taken as referring to the belief, whichever one you hold dearest, in question). Take a look:
"Just give me a reason.
Just a little bit's enough.
Just a second, [it's] not broken just bent,
And we can learn to [believe] again.
[It's] in the stars.
[It's] been written in the scars on our hearts.
We're not broken just bent,
And we can learn to [believe] again."

While I have just replaced the words referencing 'love' in the chorus, if you replace the words referencing 'love' in the rest of the song with words referencing 'belief' or 'justification,' then the meaning is still preserved!
It seems like losing the ability to justify a belief or hold a particular thought to be true can be just as painful as losing love. This is why philosophy is important! Epistemology is a field dedicated to justification and knowledge. Without reasons or justifications for our beliefs we succumb to the same horrendous feeling and torment being described in the song. However, if you can critically engage with your deeply held beliefs, then you'll know how to better handle situations like this. You'll either be better able to (i) abandon beliefs for which you have no justification, or (ii) you'll be better able to defend your beliefs, and the chances of you being able to offer justification for your beliefs is greater. :) 

Yay epistemology!!!!!!