The Legitimacy of Argumentum ad Hominem

Will Wilkinson and Crispin Sartwell consider the satisfactions of environmental soothsaying:

As I’ve said, the insane jackup of rhetoric with regard to global warming, “the greatest crisis the species has ever faced,” the death of the planet, etc, is the secular humanist liberal apocalypse. It’s a sheer competition for who’s most dire, most obsessed, and who’s more unanimous than whom. It’s the flood, complete with the reasons: our moral culpability. I predict this: when Obama is elected, liberals will feel better about themselves and the probable verdict of cosmic judgment, and they’ll tone down the eschatology, the ranting cant.

(“Ranting Cant,” The Fly Bottle, 2 August 2008; untitled, Eye of the Storm, 2 August 2008; respectively)

For my part, I imagine there is something to this argument. Every faction has its share of less than completely rational members. But if it is the contention of Messrs. Wilkinson and Sartwell that the behavior of some of the advocates of anthropogenic climate change bears one iota of relevance on the soundness of the theory itself, then this is a picture perfect instance of the falicy of argumentum ad hominem. The emotional satisfaction that someone takes in holding a particular position would seem irrelevant to the ultimate adjudication of said position.

Some time ago when I originally made the formal cognition post (1 January 2008) K.S. said that he didn’t see the point. What was my advocacy of formal cognition meant to achieve? I couldn’t quite answer him at the time, but Mr. Wilkinson’s post really clarifies the matter for me. I’m an advocate of formal cognition against rhetoric generally, but most especially against some of its more pernitious tactics of Freudianism broadly construed as an interpretive style, sociobiology in its normative aspect (an epistemological relative of Freudianism), and secularization thesis.

For every purportedly empirical statement out there, there is built up a detritus of extraneous belief. There is the psychological baggage of the proposition: the advocacy or denial of an opinion is motivated. Cui bono? Or advocacy or denial becomes a part of one’s identity. People build an emotional complex around certain beliefs. Certain propositions become tropes mapping us into desired cultural categories. A proposition becomes cornerstone to an elaborate worldview into which their constructors invest vast amounts of intellectual energy. These people tend to become conservative about such propositions all out of proportion to the weight that the casual observer might assign to such beliefs.

It’s really easy to succumb to the desire to set aside the mater per se and argue the detritus. It’s certainly more emotionally satisfying. The purpose of a catalogue of validated logic and methodologies is to determine the soundness of a proposition and cast out the irrelevant considerations in a systematic way.

So, for example, the scientific veracity of anthropogenic climate change is within range of rational risk assessment. The systems concepts of a tipping point and self-reinforcing, accelerating change are legitimate and the potential implications of these concepts applied here are alarming. The perennial libertarian Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” worldview has its own short fallings, namely that disasters are plausible and occasionally systemic.

On the other hand, there is no proposition beyond the proposing hominid. I’m not so sure that the distinction between rhetoric and formal decidability is tenable, especially once one admits the scientific method into the corpus of formal cognition. Given that induction is logically and experientially unsound, the scientific method becomes merely a highly stylized rhetoric, a rhetoric whose admissible tactics are more narrowly circumscribed. It is most certainly a rhetoric that is more reliable than others, but it nonetheless exists with other rhetorics along a continuum of variably reliable tactics, rather than being cordoned off in a privileged category all its own.

If nothing else, the absolute prohibition against argumentum ad hominem seems incompatible with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Is it even possible for the behavior, psychology, constellation of attendant beliefs and rhetorical strategies of the advocates for a proposition to be irrelevant to the acceptance or rejection of the proposition? I think that once one dispenses with the notion of truth or falsity of a proposition in any strong sense in favor mere acceptance or rejection (the sociology of knowledge), then these previously considered extraneous factors become relevant. They are real channels by which information and belief are transmitted throughout society. They are part of the practice of acceptance and rejection as they actually happen. Argumentum ad hominem seeks to make explicit and disrupt these channels. It reduces their efficacy through ridicule.

(This is not to deny the truth or falsity of out beliefs in some ultimate sense. The truth is out there — it just doesn’t intervene in our deliberations in any radical way. Prima facie, incomplete beliefs about the world can be made workable.)