Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Credibility, Ad Hominem, and Ghosts

If there is one thing that continuously confuses me, it is people that are hung up on talking about the credibility of an individual rather than the facts of an argument. I see it all over the place, and to a certain point I understand it.

If I were to make a claim, for example, that I see ghosts on October 31st every year in some location that no one ever is, and no one has ever witnessed it, then what I am doing is making a statement tied to my credibility. However, if someone tells me that they think I am a gullible sod that believes inane superstitions, then they are questioning my credibility. This is understandable and warranted, because I have no evidence for what I believe. This is an anecdotal experience, and someone has to believe me in order to believe it.

However, if I were to see a lot of ghosts on October 31st, and myself and a lot of other people correlate those experiences, we're starting to have a better case to consider. We now have to ask what would delude a large group of people into believing something, or if that thing is actually happening. We also have to define what was seen, and whether it actually was a ghost. In this case, though my credibility is not necessarily the only thing in question, it is reinforced by other anecdotal experiences, so that it need be considered moreso than some insane person seeing something on one else does and trying to convince people of that. The person may no longer have an agenda if a ton of other people agree with them.

Unless, of course, that witness is paying those other people a large sum of money to lie about it. That throws a wrench in the whole thing.

Why am I talking about this? Because the way to settle the question of whether ghosts appear on October 31st is to get some evidence that it is happening. This doesn't mean, necessarily, to establish what the ghosts are or why/how it is happening, just that there's evidence that it is happening. The easiest way is probably to get a video recording that can be confirmed to be legitimate without tampering (a difficult task). This is evidence, and it makes the question of my credibility irrelevant.

So, if I am the only one that sees ghosts on October 31st, and I make a video of it and there are forensic tests done on the video to confirm its' legitimacy, then it doesn't matter what I stand to gain from it, whether I'm paying people to agree with me, whether I am a terrible person or a blight on society. I am still correct about this one thing, and we can deduce from there to find out more.

This is why I do not understand the question of credibility. To be sure, there are cases where it is important. However, even if there is a large group of people that all think the same thing and they have high levels of it in the form of qualifications, ethical standards, attractiveness, reliability, etc., they can still be totally incorrect. The human capacity for self-delusion alone makes this so, and large groups have, historically, all agreed on things that are, in retrospect, insane when we find evidence to the contrary. We've not only agreed on it, we have killed others who disagree, we have ostracized and hurt people that disagree, and we have created entire groups devoted to telling ourselves that we're right.

To make matters worse, this level of groupthink makes a fallacy called Ad Hominem very effective. Ad Hominem is rejecting a proposition on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. So say someone claims something for which there is evidence, such as say, the heliocentricity of the solar system (sun at the center, planets and other bodies orbiting), and they show the evidence. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that this person has no qualifications that others do who have a vested interest in that area, and the people with the credibility simply cite that that person doesn't know what they're talking about, and explain how little they are qualified to state such things. Their qualifications, by contrast, show that they know what they are talking about, and they believe that the solar system's center is Earth. Clearly, the sun goes across the sky and comes up every day, and sets every night, as do other bodies that have been identified as planets.

In this case, the geocentrists' claim is supported by a fallacy of perspective. We appear to, intuitively, be at the center of all we see. So clearly, we are, and what business has the man with no qualifications to say otherwise?

Well, he has evidence. The question of where we are in the solar system is not a matter of qualifications or credibility, it is a matter of evidence. Observations and deduction from those observations lead to a conclusion that anyone can see.

Of course, we end up in deeper intellectual water when we discuss philosophy, and deep questions like the existence of god and the implications of scientific discoveries. As familiar as the example of heliocentrism should be the theory of evolution, which is railed against constantly by those with a vested interest in it being untrue, and which I have written about previously. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and it is still denied with no counter-evidence, accompanied by irrelevant details about credibility, oftentimes attacking the credibility of the scientific community itself.

So why the irrelevant details being thrown around? Evolution is a threat to people with an interest in the things it addresses, just as heliocentrism was. In its' time, heliocentrism was a threat to the authority of the church, just as evolution has been today. This is slowly becoming not the case as the evidence is slowly becoming undeniable to all but certain sects, but what should be obvious to the observer is that credibility is a matter of authority in cases like these, whereas evidence can ignore that entirely. I have no scientific qualifications, but if I prove something and the scientific community all tries to disprove it and fails/ends up proving it, I have made a discovery, regardless of whether I have the credibility to back it up.

I want to come back around to the example of the ghost. You see, there's no totally reliable evidence that ghosts actually exist, but some people tend to think they do. People that are otherwise reasonable and rational people, people interested in evidence, think that ghosts exist. Ghosts are usually witnessed visually, and sometimes audibly, but they are typically believed to be the spirits of the dead, something beyond measuring in all other ways than by sight or sound, and no evidence has been conclusively proven using these criteria.

They may exist, but to choose to think they exist is a belief, a type of faith. You either have your own experience, or you believe the anecdotes of others. There may even be circumstantial evidence of their existence, like things that could only be caused by ghosts (objects falling over, doors closing). However, those things do not constitute evidence, as they can be caused by any number of things. Again, all of what one feels about ghosts could be correct. But it is a belief, not evidence.

Why does this matter? Because if you recall, we have discussed that evidence preempts this whole question of credibility. So I could simply say that that belief is incorrect, and I could be just as correct about the issue as the other person is. We could agree to disagree, or the believer could become angry that I don't believe. He could say that it should be relevant to my life, because ghosts are going to end the world. He could even say that they're a superior form of life and deserve veneration in some respects, and because they deserve it, I should bow down. Perhaps a ghost is the source of our world or our universe or all of reality, and that all scientific inquiry should bow down to ghost theorists' views, because their views are all encompassing.

Perhaps the head ghost got so angry that we were killing each other or venerating not-ghosty things or masturbating that he destroyed us all, and saved a few people, in his ghost-like mercy. Perhaps he has eternal torment by his ghost pals in store for those who don't agree, or perhaps we'll simply be missing out on his ghost-like love if we do not agree with the head ghost that all ghostists know, and we'll be left to our own personal torment by not being in the know, embracing his possibly existent...ghost appendages. Perhaps this analogy is getting creepy, and is as thinly veiled as the ghosts I'm talking about, and you are starting to see the problem.

You see, we've gone in a few paragraphs from something that is a belief that we can agree to disagree on, to something that people can easily intellectually bully others into believing, with threats, with credibility attacks, with any number of tactics, and we've even usurped and changed what evidence is.

If people have always believed in something and seen patterns of them throughout history, all we need to do is research it, all we need to do is become an expert, and we gain the authority to call everyone else an idiot if they don't agree, or to bully others into submission, or to terrify them into believing like they do to avoid wrath.

The problem is not that people disagree, it's that people are far too easy to bully and manipulate with a little sleight of hand, and so we have to ask a question when someone is really into getting us to believe something that lacks evidence. What are they selling? Why are they adamant about this? What do they get? What do words like evidence and love and good mean to them? Why are they attacking those who do not believe how they do and why do their arguments totally ignore the topic, and instead focus on attacking the credibility of the people that say such things?

I think that at some point, a person can become so used to needing authoritative sources for things that they lose sight of how easily they can be kicked out from under them. They become so entrenched that they stop thinking beyond certain bounds, and those not like them begin to terrify them. When you have everything to lose from changing your mind, you simply do not change it, and defining something, like a ghost, in such a way that it cannot be disproven by anything meaningful makes this even more possible. One's faith becomes unassailable, and the people that don't have it just end up beyond their understanding. They may even begin to shove those people into categories that they already have, and make claims regarding their lack of faith being a type of faith itself. Perhaps, people that are used to having this sort of faith will even create a rudimentarily tribal system that functions in much the same way, building off of authority and credibility, and end up confirming these suspicions.

How messed up would this all be? I'm just making it up, I must be a madman.