Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Summary dismissal

Not every civil court case proceeds to trial. Some are settled "out of court" by the parties involved. Others are settled by the judge in a "summary dismissal" or "summary judgment". The suit is deemed to be unworthy of trial, even without a full hearing. In this way valuable time is saved and litigants are discouraged from bringing frivolous lawsuits.

We often do the same thing with ideas. In fact, a great deal of what appears to be debate about ideas actually takes place in a "pre-trial" phase, in which people discuss whether an idea should even be granted a serious hearing. Many – most? – discussions go no further.

Now, this is no bad thing. A serious logical and factual argument – a full case for trial, so to speak – is not all that easy to put together, even if we are attacking a very bad idea or defending a very good one. And many ideas are so stupidly wrong or so transparently wicked that they do not merit that kind of response anyway.

So I am not opposed in principle to the "summary dismissal" of an idea – a rejection that precedes a full discussion of the factual merits. Such judgments are necessary and inevitable. They are a legitimate part of the practical art of reason. Yet I am uneasy, because this kind of preemptive action carries obvious risks. After all, the idea that I reject might be a good one. If I never grant it a real hearing, how will I ever find out?

But even when this possibility seems remote, there is a deeper snare, a subtler temptation. If we can get the opposing point of view summarily dismissed from discussion, then we win. Our ideas not only prevail, they prevail without challenge. We know this, and the advantages of it are so great that we work very hard to win the preliminary phase of the debate.

The reason I call this a "temptation" is because such "pre-trial" actions take place, by definition, prior to the start of serious factual debate. These actions involve claims of consensus, invocation of social norms, emotional appeals, rhetorical strategies, and so on. The tools used in this phase of a debate remain largely unexamined because the whole point of this phase is to avoid the arduous business of careful examination. And if someone cries foul – if the "motion to dismiss" an idea is challenged as being out of order – then this suggestion itself can be attacked in the same way. The locus of discussion creeps backward to questions of mere form and propriety; and in my experience, it usually happens that the actual issue is never actually engaged.

I do think that "summary dismissal" is the rational way to deal with a great many ideas. But on what grounds should we invoke it? In other words, when should we not discuss the factual merits of a proposition? When is it proper to arrive at a "summary dismissal" without, so to speak, going to trial?

This is a hard question. As a start on it, I've tried to identify some ways in which "summary dismissal" is actually employed in public and personal debates. Imagine that X stands for some proposition, and let SD stand for the summary dismissal of X. That is, SD means, We should not discuss the factual merits of X. It seems to me that SD has several forms.

Weak form

The simplest and weakest form of SD is, A discussion of the factual merits of X is unnecessary. There are a couple of possible justifications for this proposition.
  • It may be that X has already been shown to be false. I should not spend my time logically refuting your proposed angle trisection, because such constructions have been proved to be impossible.
The second justification involves an estimate of likelihood, and this depends on my own rational judgment. That's okay. I'm not looking to get around such judgments; I simply want to understand them.

Strong form

In the previous version of SD, the basis for summary dismissal was that debate of X was a waste of effort. Sometimes a stronger sort of claim is made, however: A discussion of the factual merits of X would be bad and harmful. Again, I see two possible justifications for this position.

  • Some principles are so foundational to civil order or polite society that they must not be contradicted. If the proposition X contradicts them, then public discussion and debate of X – a discussion that presumes, at least in a formal way, that X might be true – is harmful. Examples abound. For instance, even if the thing is easy to refute – or especially if it is easy to refute – it would be harmful to bring up for debate the proposition that Fred is a serial child molester. A discussion of this could be almost as damaging to Fred as an actual accusation, so we should give it a summary dismissal. (The exception, of course, is when there really are serious grounds for believing that Fred is a serial child molester. Since the "pre-trial" action can involve a preliminary look at evidence, such an exception does not undermine our discussion.)
This sort of thing is easiest to see in debates about practical reason – that is, in debates about what should or should not be done. Thus, it would be impolite (at least) to debate the proposition that old Fred should be taken out and shot dead. It would be invidious to give such a suggestion serious discussion, even if we ultimately decide to let Fred live.
  • Another justification for this strong form of summary dismissal is less direct. It may be that a public debate of X might be harmless in theory – X itself does not contradict a foundational principle – but the practical reality could be that any debate of X would almost certainly cross the line. I think that this is how a great many well-intentioned people approach questions of gender or racial differences in IQ. The proposition that Oompa Loompas are on average smarter than Pottsylvanians does not necessarily entail the evils of racial discrimination and so on. It does not contradict the foundational principle that human beings should be equal in dignity and before the law. But in practice (so the argument goes) it will surely be used to rationalize many such evils. Even the proposed debate can awaken them. Therefore it is better to reject the question altogether, to summarily dismiss X without probing its factual basis.
I hope I've made it clear that I do not simply reject this strong form of SD. Nevertheless, we should be aware of the danger: this form recommends that we dismiss debate of X for a reason other than its probable truth or falsehood. Instead we appeal to moral principles or social norms. But what if those principles or norms cause us to reject unheard the case for a new truth? Society may desperately need to recognize and adapt to this truth, but this cannot happen unless the case is made. The history of science has many examples of this – not as many examples as some would claim, but enough to be cause for worry.

Conversely, wrong or bad ideas can persist as prejudices, unspoken but also unchallenged, if they are never admitted to open discussion. In this way, the very action we take to preserve our foundational principles can in the long run weaken them.

Ad hominem form

There is an even stronger and more definite form of summary dismissal, which may be conveniently expressed thus: People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are bad people. Discussion of X should thus be avoided. In this version, the phrase bad people might either mean defective people or wicked people. The underlying justification for this runs as follows:
  • Let us suppose that either the weak or strong forms of SD hold – that is, debate of X should be summarily dismissed on the grounds already discussed. If this is true, then we must question either the intellect or the motives of those who propose X for discussion. Either they are stupid and ignorant, or they are up to no good. Either one is bad. If they are stupid and ignorant, we should not give them the chance to spread their crummy ideas. If they are up to no good – if they are not interested in truth or wish to do harm by damaging a foundational principle – then their wicked intentions should be thwarted at the earliest opportunity.
As an example, consider Holocaust denial. The basic facts of the Holocaust are well established. What then shall we make of those who wish to bring these facts up for challenge and debate? At best, they are complete idiots. More likely, they are anti-Semites and worse. In the latter case, we must regard them as the enemy, and we ought not grant them legitimacy by bringing their ideas to debate.
  • Alternately, it might be that public debate of X is harmless in theory – but a desire to debate X serves as a reliable "dye marker" identifying people with bad and harmful aims. (These people may, in fact, be using X as a "stalking horse" for worse ideas.)
I think this type of SD describes the arguments of certain fierce critics of the Creationists. Because Creationism is so obviously ludicrous as science, the critics argue, those who seek to have Creationism widely debated – to give it "balanced treatment" in the schools, for instance – fall into two groups. There are the ignorant fools and the intellectual charlatans. What they really seek is to promulgate their anti-scientific fundamentalist religion, to close off the space our society affords for free scientific inquiry. The same critics have a similar reaction to "Intelligent Design" theories. Although ID comes in the form of a debatable secular idea, its proponents are actually the same old dumb and deceitful Creationist crowd with the same bad aims.

Even this form of SD, I think, is defensible in some circumstances. Some people might be so completely stupid and wrong that we should not waste time debating their ideas. (I recall one movie reviewer for a university newspaper, for instance, who was wrong so frequently that he was actually quite reliable. If he hated it, you should see it.) I also believe that evil people do exist, and I think that some of them want to use the forms of intellectual discussion to further very wicked causes. We are under no obligation to give them the oxygen to do so.

Yet when I lay this out as a principle, it gives me a queasy feeling. It is too powerful a weapon to be comfortable with.

If I can win a "pre-trial" action on these grounds – if I can have my opponent designated as either ridiculous or reprehensible – then I have won a victory indeed. Not only have I secured my beliefs against the present challenge, but I have also undermined the legitimacy of my opponent. His future standing to insist on debate has been destroyed. It does not matter what he says, because any proposition he advances is tainted at its source. I have not merely won this debate. I have won them all.

A lot of modern political "debate" functions at this level. The actual issues at stake are almost never discussed directly. That would require some costly engagement with facts and logic. Instead, the discussion remains in the messier, more emotional and rhetorical "pre-trial" phase, where everyone is seeking a favorable summary judgment. If I can convince the majority of voters that my opponent is not merely wrong but actually farcical or fiendish, then I win the game, whether or not I can make a coherent case for my own policies.

The example that comes to my mind is sure to irritate some of my friends, but I will invoke it anyway. It seems clear to me that Sarah Palin was the target of exactly such a "pre-trial" attack during the presidential campaign last fall. This campaign was largely successful – completely so in my own social set – with the result that her actual ideas (yes, she does have a few) need never actually be discussed. You can simply ridicule her as a clown or hate her as a witch, according to your taste. I don't think you have to be a fan, or even agree with her at all, to be a little disturbed by the whole thing.

Transitive or associational forms

Believe it or not, I think that there are even more extended versions of SD that are in reasonably common use. Here are two:
  • Proposition X is logically distinct from Y, but X is nevertheless associated with Y in some fashion. (For example, many people who favor one also favor the other.) Proposition Y should be summarily dismissed for one of the reasons above. X "inherits" this property because of its association with Y.
  • People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are associated in some fashion with other people who are bad. (The association might be via agreement on other propositions Y, Z, etc.) This association is itself sufficient for summary dismissal of X.
In each of these, the grounds for summary dismissal of X are transmitted via a chain of association, either between ideas or between people. (Note that people can mediate associations of ideas, and ideas can mediate associations of people.) I'm trying hard to come up with plausible justifications for either of these, but I have to admit defeat. To me, they appear to be nonsense on stilts.

When we humans reason about the world, we often use heuristic strategies that are difficult to defend on a purely "rational" basis. There are many experiments and studies showing that human beings are actors of "limited rationality". Yet I think that our flawed strategies often represent sensible ways to deal with the real world. We are mortal and have a lot to do, so we take a lot of short-cuts. Our own knowledge is limited; so is our intelligence; and at bottom we know this. We therefore take our own abstractions far less seriously than we might, often appearing to act "illogically" or "inconsistently". (Academics like me, who are trained to take abstractions with deadly seriousness, can mistakenly ascribe to folly what really represents practical wisdom.) In any discussion, our overall assessment of a speaker's smarts and sincerity – a type of judgment we are fairly good at – will likely outweigh any logical or factual assessment of his words. All of these things do leave us vulnerable – just ask a successful confidence man – but they are actually necessary adaptations to our real situation in the world. We can't do without the short-cuts; but we must be wary lest we be led astray.

Yet we must also ask how we ourselves – not quite on purpose, maybe, but not wholly by accident either – abuse these heuristic strategies for our own ends. We are, at root, more lawyers than philosophers. We want to win our arguments, and we do not mind doing so by manipulating the quick and informal process by which we and others decide which ideas merit serious consideration. In this regard, our imperfection as rational beings is of a different order. We are flawed, not merely in the intellect, but also in the will and the heart. We are fools, but also sinners.


Blogger Ron Griggs said...

Per the transitive form of SD, yes I can see your assertion that it is simply "nonsense on stilts," especially for someone trained to examine abstract ideas, well, in the abstract. But it is difficult for most of us to examine an idea in abstract, i.e. away from the context of the proposer. Let me give you an example:

I have a friend who has fallen into what I consider a false understanding of human nature. He believes that all human motivation (in fact our basic human nature) is entirely economic: that all human behavior can be explained by economic motives. His mantra for understanding any issue or controversy is "follow the money."

I believe he is profoundly mistaken about this, but this underlying belief affects many of his ideas. I've examined propositions he's made (call them X and Y) and I think they are wrong, wrong primarily because of this underlying misunderstanding about human nature. When he proposes Z, I execute the "strong transitive SD," suspecting Z precisely because he has proposed both X and Y (which I have judged to be wrong) and because I believe Z based on his same underlying misconception. Indeed there is a whole class of future propositions he could make that I would summarily dismiss for the same reason--the strong transitive SD on stilts, if you will! So tell me, is this really "nonsense on stilts?"

9:10 PM  
Anonymous exarch said...

We have a political party with barely camouflaged racist tendencies in Belgium, and more than once I've heard someone say something along the lines "I wish one of the other political parties had come up with that, because they make a good point, but it's already tainted because they came up with it".

I'm quite sure that in politics, many things get summarily dismissed because they originate on the wrong end of the political spectrum. What's more, it seems that any politician on the other side who then picks up that idea is suspect.

That leaves many brilliant ideas (and critiques) on the cutting room floor. That's unfortunate.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In your discussion of ad hominem summary judgment, you allude to but do not fully consider the circumstances in which earlier full trials have resolved the issues. Those who repeatedly make the same arguments that have been clearly refuted should not have standing to bring the case forward again as though the prior discussion has not taken place.

A proper summary response is, we've heard this before and it didn't stand up. Come back with new information or evidence and we'll have a discussion. The fact that you are just repeating yourself, ignoring what has already been shown, demonstrates you are an ignoramus, an ideologue, or a charlatan. There's no need for further conversation until you come up with something real and new.

1:39 PM  
Blogger ben nelson said...

This is all fairly consistent with the lawyer analogy, but that's something worth disputing. There is nothing about the constitution of human nature that makes us miniature lawyers instead of philosophers.

I find more promise in the idea that dismissal, if it is ever justified, is justified only through its ad hominem forms. We view a person as being unserious or unresponsive to reasons, and hence no dialogue can happen. The lack of good will is what trivializes and cuts off debate from the start.

But when someone asks me in private why Creationism should not be debated, then it is not right for me to summarily dismiss her on any of the above social grounds. Such dismissals would engage in the very trivialization of debate which is the entire problem in a culture of vacuity.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...

Here is a quick response to Ron: A new proposition X comes from a well-known source, and we give it a summary dismissal. If we do so because it is derived from a rotten conceptual framework used by the source, a framework that we have already examined and rejected, then this looks like the "weak form" of SD. We dismiss X because it is another instance of a genus of things we have rejected through more careful means.

Of course, this only works if there is a logical connection between X and the framework. If my friend has lousy ideas about economics and human motivation, this might still leave large areas (gardening, astrophysics, chess strategy) more or less unaffected.

However, it could be that mere correlations exist -- for instance, economic determinists might often also be organic gardeners. Should we reject debate about organic gardening just because that's the sort of thing that those idiotic economic determinists promote?

Obviously, I'm making this example up. The point of it is that ideas occur in clusters -- sets of ideas held by individuals and groups -- but that these clusters do not necessarily represent logical groupings. They may be due to historical or social accidents. I do think it is nonsense to dismiss an idea on those grounds alone.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Im watching your video for TTC. That of which all is part (reality, the universe, energymassspacetime) cannot be observed (from the outside) because observation means separation, there is no observation without an observer.

Hence an unthinkable thought for the realm of mind: the mind of a primate. In which there is unavoidable separation.

Perhaps reality is an infinite sizescale ranging from atoms to galaxies, infinite like the decimals of pi explaining why somewhere there had to be these laws of nature (we find ourselves in the middle of the known sizescale).


7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So this guy doesn’t know about his different brainhalves, two mindhalves, communicating. but thinking about realm of mind is impossible. well if we do our realm of mind thinkining process

And it doesn’t stop thinkinag bout realm of mind. we saw how this world view could be, amazing. we are somekind of computers that ought not think unthinkable dreams, if we don’t we gain the fact that we can think clearly. we can dream them but remember that whenever there is an observer in observation there is separation. hence the imagination is incorrect, a representation, a dream, perhaps correct but nevertheless a model .

A true model, a representation that explains existence as existence in nothing. each layer explaining the next, just infinite explanation. we get the pattern but not the whole thing. a quick lick on the universe has been achieved.

the mind of a primate a realm of mind. but primate is a word we must get rid of. people hate this word. now I know why. I will from now on say I referring to observation. I is synonymous with obsrevation, separation, distinguishion, meaning, color, feeling, streaming from the sensors.

I bit myself in the cheeck, I guess I have a mind playing devil within me.

now my left half is crying, it bit me. but it bit itself because the nerve cross over before the brain.

we are unhappy, I am happy I have a house and big income but that is not a thing to be proud of. it is sick. because some starve while others are wealthy. history has lead us to this, now we know what we are where we are survived through a brutal history. developed layer by layer. a vast mind too big to be held in the realm it gives rise to. but then we imagine it again. so perhaps we should imagine it all the time. be in the realm of mind.

realm of mind, vision aint blurred cause I got access to muscles hanging above my eyes. eyebrows in a face, vision staring ahead as primate vision does. the vision gained being slightly different than you’d expect if you had modern technology as your body, but nevertheless good enough vision to navigate as molecules fire in cells, cells send electrochemical signals, to the brain. that’s the realm where E=mcc. I drop into the unthinkable thought by that equation. It forces you to see energymass and spacetime together. like 12=3*2*2. E=m*c*c.
I am a fool to get it, this quantum guy knows it intuitively. amazing how much description can be gained.
We are pattern finding machines and we found the final pattern. now what? realm of mind no unthinkable thoughts. no imaginations. but still indeed so many because we can imagine what we want we are freed.

I guess then when the whole world knows this knowledge will just be so simple and understood. we are on the verge of something huge. my left half is singing britney houston.
realm of mind is deduced as being what it is by saying “I think therefore I am”, because what is the simplest task for the mind? To claim existence. it is the very first thing anything that could call itself a mind would do. it is most basic instict, pre-brain even as electricity in wires in a simple robot. It didn’t claim to observe but it most likely observed. though not like a primate, we’ve had a different evolution.
thoughts about evolution lead to the beginning and the today, lets think about the future.
I think therefore I am
I exist
I exist for me
A realm of mind
that contains all that description. it explains its own therebeing. in exactly the kind of way you would expect. a mind in a machine. a soul in a robot. just like we have, they snuck upon us by slowly improving but today robots are alive as much as insects. they see. interpret pictures. soon they’ll merge several streams of picture into a single bottleneck simplifier. give it to the next layer which interprets atoms and energies as objects. these things we see are solid because atoms are a trillionth of its size is the nucleus. the mass is lost. disappears. we will never find mass because it is massenergy in timespace.

8:42 PM  

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