The Owl of Minerva and the Fallacy Fallacy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

87000462-3The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. That's a metaphorical way of saying that wisdom is something that arises only at the end of inquiry, always in hindsight. You have to make the errors to learn from them, for sure. But there's more to the Owl of Minerva insight – our learning from the errors creates new capacities for error. And so, the process of learning from our mistakes is an endless task. That's what we call the Owl of Minerva Problem (we've written more about it HERE and HERE).

The fallacy fallacy is a good way to appreciate the Owl of Minerva Problem. The fallacy fallacy occurs when one starts seeing fallacies everywhere. In the same way that the college sophomore taking Abnormal Psychology becomes convinced that everyone in her dorm suffers from some disassociative disorder, students of informal logic frequently become convinced that fallacies are everywhere. That's fine, in a way. There are lots of fallacies and bad reasoning. That's because reasoning well is hard, and humans are regularly pretty bad at it. But once one starts seeing fallacies everywhere, one is tempted to think those who say so many things on the basis of fallacious reasons are thereby wrong about the things they say. But that inference, too, is a fallacy! Here's the basic scheme:

S is committed to p

S gives argument A for p

A is a fallacy

Therefore, p is false

The conclusion does not follow. Just because people have terrible reasons for some conclusion, it doesn't mean that the conclusion is false. Your uncle may believe something on the basis of wishful thinking, but that doesn't make it a false belief. So if he believes that the sun will rise tomorrow because he just can't go on in the dark, he's got a dumb reason, but his conclusion's still right. That's why we evaluate reasons as reasons independently of evaluating the conclusion. That's the whole point of critical thinking – keeping those questions separate.

This point about the fallacy fallacy is important because it provides a case where training in informal logic and fallacy detection actually creates a new kind of error. Nobody could commit the fallacy fallacy if there were no vocabulary of fallacies to begin with. The metalanguage of logic, which is supposed to help make us better reasoners, ends up making possible a particular kind of argumentative pathology. From the project of fallacy correction arises a new fallacy. Now, if that ain't ironic, we don't know what is.

The whole point of developing our critical vocabularies and skills of reflection was to have them then return to our first-order reasoning to improve it, to be a tool for correction. But when we return to our reasoning, these tools are still in the hands of fallible, hasty, easily distracted creatures such as ourselves. And so, logic helps and corrects, and it may even direct us to new ideas. But it also brings its own distinctive set of problems, and it turns out that some of these problems can be understood and corrected only in hindsight. This is what makes argument repair notoriously so difficult; the tools of logic can be turned against logic itself, and, moreover, one's mastery of logic's tools can render one vulnerable to distinctive forms of irrationality.

As we have suggested elsewhere, the Owl of Minerva Problem infects our political reasoning. New communications technologies have created exciting new modes of political discourse; yet these very innovations bring with them new ways in which political discourse can be fouled. Consider: trolling and sock-puppetry are possible because of our social media platforms. And, just as with the fallacy fallacy, those who have gained mastery of these concepts can use their mastery in developing new errors. For example, in political argument on social media, it is not uncommon to find one participant charging another with being a "bot." To be sure, posts and comments that are the products of bots are problematic, and it's good to call out bots for what they are; however, one frequently finds the accusation that a comment is produced by a bot simply when a discussant makes an assertion that others think is false. Perhaps by the time you are reading this column there will be a term for those who falsely call others bots? Then the production of an additional term for those who improperly deploy that criticism can't be far behind. Our conceptual vocabulary for evaluating argumentative performance is doomed to run behind the degenerative argumentative practices. In a nutshell, that's the Owl of Minerva Problem, and its inescapability is bad news.

There is some good news mixed with the bad, though. To repeat, the bad news is that the tools we have for argument correction will contribute to new problems that need new corrections. In a sense, we create problems with our solutions. The good news, however, is that the problems to correct are often before us, open to our reflective awareness, because they are products of our reflection and attempts at correction. We can detect them, and we have ready to hand tools for thinking about them and moving to correct them too. The process is, by this analysis, endless. But, really, that's the job. In the same way that bodily hygiene is about the regular quotidian efforts of cleanliness and healthiness, so it goes for intellectual hygiene. Nobody would believe you if you said you had a product that made it so that you'd never have to shower or brush your teeth. Well, so it goes, too, for intellectual health.