“Genuineness” by Association
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy. It goes something like this:
“All Scotsmen enjoy haggis,” says Mike.
“My father’s Scottish, though, and he hates haggis!” objects Julia.
“Then your father,” replies Mike, “is not a true Scotsman.”
Instead of “true,” Mike could have said “genuine” or “real,” but the fallacy remains: he is, on the fly, stipulating a persuasive definition in order to defend his original claim against the clear rebuttal.
Let’s look at another version of the above exchange for a moment.
“All Scotsmen hate haggis,” says Mike.
“My brother’s Scottish, though, and he loves haggis,” objects Julia.
“Then your brother,” replies Mike, “is not a true Scotsman.”
This exchange is much more absurd, isn’t it?
Why is that?
Even though Mike’s original claims in both situations are false, and even though Mike’s replies in both situations are fallacious, his second reply is zanier because there is indeed an association between being from Scotland and enjoying traditional Scottish food, like haggis.
It’s one thing to fashion a stereotype along a vector of strong association; it’s quite another to fashion a stereotype completely against that association.
I think you’ll agree that this is pretty basic stuff so far.
But it turns out that these odd exchanges can go a long way toward helping us think about theology and philosophy.
Step 1: The Red Flag
Any time someone prepends the qualifiers “true,” “genuine,” or “real” in front of a relatively familiar concept, it should serve as a red flag to you that a persuasive definition might be at play.
Often times, such persuasive definitions aren’t employed as dirty tricks as with the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but as sincerely felt foundations for various theological claims.
So when you see those words, your brain should tell you, “Shields up!”
Step 2: Recognize the Association
Remember that most persuasive definitions — “true _______,” “genuine _______,” “real _______,” etc. — subsist upon stereotyping a strong association.
(I say “most” because, sometimes, a theologian or philosopher really is attempting to advance a new, bizarre, idiosyncratic definition in order to provoke a dopamine-exciting response. These maneuvers are usually recognized easily, without need for shields or red alerts.)
So step 2 is to recognize that association.
For example, Fred might say, “Risk is innate to love. Without risk, there cannot be genuine love.”
The association here is clear: In some of the most loving relationships and loving actions we can take, there’s something about that relationship or action that can be correctly described as “risky.”
Furthermore, risk multiplies against evaluation. I may value something, but if the work necessary to acquire or reaquire that thing is very intense — particularly if it is something that cannot be reaquired if I lose it — it does a number on our prospect-seeking and our loss-aversive neurotransmitter activity.
This is why the evil “Art of Seduction” fad involves emotionally abusing a partner into being afraid you’ll leave and uncertain about your ultimate intentions. This makes unsuspecting partners fall in love way earlier than is healthy, “cheating” people into love using the “hack” of perceptive risk cultivation.
That’s the “dark side” of risk.
The “light side” includes when I have awful dreams about being married to someone else, I wake up feeling a buzz of thankfulness that I’m with my wife. My imagination races to the numerous possible worlds in which I missed out on this blessing in my life. The overwhelming gratitude I feel in being fortunate to be her husband, when so many things could have gone wrong, and when so many disasters may befall us in the future, multiplies against the natural satisfaction I have enjoying her company and interacting with her every day.
And thus, for emotions to escalate into being “in love,” it often takes the perceptive value-multiplier of risk.
There is a very, very strong association here.
Step 3: Search for Decoupling Corner-Cases
So the question here is, “Is X merely strongly associated with Y, or is X absolutely necessary for ‘true’ Y?”
To put it in terms of our example, “Is risk merely strongly associated with love, or is risk absolutely necessary for ‘true’ love?”
To answer this question, we can go through the exercise of searching for “decoupling corner-cases.” This are the uncommon instances in which there is Y without X — e.g., a Scotsman without the affinity for haggis.
In terms of our example, we’d be searching for situations in which there is love expressed — which everyone would describe as genuine, true, and real — but in which there is very low, even zero risk.
One corner case might be the love a (particular, loving) new mother has for her newborn. There is no risk of the newborn defying her or rebelling against her, and yet the love toward the baby is genuine.
Down the road, the baby will inevitably leave the mother, and there are thoughts about the child’s path in life and destination, and this multiplies against the perceptive value. But this risk is not a predicate. The mother need not appeal to some future risk in order to genuinely love her child.
(Neither must the mother have a measure of unreliability to express such! Good gravy!)
The next corner case is much less heartfelt, but shows how affinity is a product of interest resonance independent of any risk-driven “multipliers.”
Over the last 20 years, I’ve written many simulations of deterministic automata. These are virtual worlds in which little, simplistic virtual organisms go about their business.
The following is from a schema called “Durdle Dwarves.”
Even though these virtual units act deterministically, they find themselves in all sorts of situations.
In the following, two units chase one another in an endless race in the larger cell on the right. On the left, a unique condition is changing mindless rock into a mobile unit and he fumbles about before turning back into stone.
But there are many less-stable patterns as well. These “dwarves,” like the stalwart dwarf adventurers from Lord of the Rings, dig walls, build bridges, carve mines, push minecarts, collect rocks from one location and deposit them in others, and more.
When I watch one unit chase another, or watch a unit build a long bridge, I know exactly what he’s going to do. The delight for me isn’t in the “riskiness” of his endeavor — after all, these are all deterministic. Rather, I delight simply because they are doing things that resonate with me. These aren’t real-life bridges or minecarts or rocks, but the patterns are so analogous that I like watching them. (I used the pronoun “he” in this paragraph — did you notice that, or did the word feel acceptably natural?)
None of this is to imply that we are much akin to the “Durdle Dwarves.” We’re much more complicated, for one. We also make decisions, through a neural process called “decisionmaking,” in which we measure and select an action according to an evaluation of imaginary opportunities.
This is only meant to show that I can “enjoy” or “have affinity for” things that literally cannot defy my foreknowledge.
I can imagine a world in which I’ve created a hyper-complicated automata with extremely human-like units, and genuinely love and feel for them as my creations even if I know exactly what they’re going to do, just as I genuinely love and feel for my dog even though his behavior is almost completely predictable — and as that predictability increases, my love continues fully and ever onward, unscathed.
That isn’t a stretch to me. To me, this is a valid demonstration of the “decoupling” of affinity from risk and, eventually, given a sufficient increase in resonance and affinity, genuine love and care.
In the Abstract
This 3-step process should be our modus operandi whenever we see someone making a persuasive argument using a “limited” sense of “true _______,” “genuine _______,” or “real _______.”
“Genuine love” isn’t the only word finding itself used in this persuasive, stipulative manner.
As you engage in theological and philosophical discussions, you’ll see all sorts of terms like this:
- “Real freedom”
- “Genuine choice”
- “True Christians”
- “Real value”
- “Genuine altruism”
- “True justice”
- “Real spirituality”
- “Genuine possibility”
- “Truly rational”
Each of these probably trigger a few mental images and concepts. You might even feel a sense of what the author might be intending.
But is that the same sense the author intended?
Remember that I’m the author, here…
… And I didn’t intend anything by any of them!
I have no idea what those stipulative “reals/genuines/trues” are doing to those words. They could be doing anything! (Thank goodness they’re not being employed toward some rhetorical strategy right now! They’d be really dangerous if they were!)
And that’s why those words should always prompt “shields up” as part of that slow, “boring,” critical, 3-step evaluation.
Where have you seen these kinds of phrases being used?