Topics: Empiricism, Science, Empirical Pages: 6 (1684 words) Published: April 8, 2014
I have a standard deal with my students that if they recommend a book to me, I will read it. One of my students recommended Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, which turned out to be my least favorite book ever.

After the first half, I jotted down some of the reasons why. Here is a list of problems I have with the book, most of which are either logical fallacies or just rhetorical stunts that annoy me.

replacing the progress fallacy with the doomsday fallacy
Quinn argues against the assumption that things are necessarily getting better, but he commits the opposite error, the assumption that things are necessarily getting worse.

It is almost certain that some things are getting better and some worse. If Quinn wants to make the argument that we are headed for an environmental doomsday, he has to make the argument empirically.

poisoning the well
Pointing out the influence of culture on our thinking, Quinn sets up a ready answer for anyone who disagrees with him: the opponent is blinded by culture!

Of course it is important to be skeptical of conventional wisdom, but we are no better off rejecting blindly what "Mother Culture" tells us than we would be accepting it blindly.

the meta fallacy
When someone produces a meta-x, they often pretend it is not, itself, an x. For example, when a news story gets hyped out of proportion, some reporters start covering the hype as if it were a story. They think their meta-hype is better than the hype, but it's not.

Similarly, Quinn tries to place himself outside culture in order to create meta-culture, but he can't. He is just as much a victim of "Mother Culture" as the rest of us, and his book is just another piece of it.

In fact, this kind of work has become a genre! Another book in the category is "Mutant Message from Down Under," in which the author uses the rhetorical device of being kidnapped by Australian aborigines to give herself a voice apparently outside the culture of civilization. Quinn uses a telepathic gorilla, but its the same device with the same deceptive intent.

the naturalist fallacy
There aren't many ideas in philosophy that are universally accepted. The one that comes the closest is the maxim that you can't get "ought" from "is." In other words, you can't derive an ethical system from empirical observation.

Historically, there have been lots of people that tried, and the results have been universally disastrous.

Quinn attacks this view straight on, arguing that there is a law that all species (except humans) follow, and that we can figure out what this law is empirically.

He fails on two fronts: the law he presents is empirically false, and even if it were true, it still wouldn't make it possible to know what we should do. At best, it would help us predict the consequences of our actions, but that is not sufficient to derive an ethical system.

Why do I say his law is empirically false? Well, one counterexample is trees. Trees are engaged in a internecine competition for sunlight in which they squander resources on preposterously long trunks, deprive other species of their food source, and poison their environments to eliminate competitors. Ever look at the floor of a dense pine forest? Nothing but pine needles.

the Lorax fallacy
Quoth the Lorax, "I am the Lorax, and I speak for the trees!" To which I reply (1) what makes you think you know what the trees want, and (2) what makes the trees so special?

It is probably wrong to assume that nature has intent, but in any case it is ridiculous to presume that we know what its intent is. To see how ridiculous this is, consider the unpublished first draft of "The Lorax," in which another irritating troll appears and shouts, "I am the Borax, and I speak for the grass, and I say, chop down those trees -- they're blocking all the sun."

Then, "Wait! I am the Snorax, and I speak for the dung beetles, and I say, please breed enormous numbers of cattle."

Then, "I am the Thorax, and I speak...
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