Friday, July 01, 2011

Boxing Ourselves In with Category Errors

by Gary Berg-Cross

In April I wrote about the “Binary Thinking” Habit. The habit is illustrated by the phenomena of asking seemingly simple questions framed so they evoke up or down/yes or no responses. Beyond yes or no this style of forcing answers into 2 possible responses is institutionalized in cultures through dichotomous language labels like “liberal” and “conservative”. But it also finds it way into philosophical discussions. A popular example of a binary framed question is- can machines/computers be conscious? Yes or no seems to be the positions. Speaking of positions, since American politics is organized around a 2 party political system we often get discussions with left-right orientations. These are collapsed into polar opposite positions and people are expected to line up on one side or the other.

In June Edd Doerr followed up on this by further “ruminating” on the topic of binary (i.e. two-valued, either/or, black/white) thinking. He noted that the real world is far more complicated than is allowed for in religious frames, but also for some freethinkers' frames which contrast "god-believer" as dumb while "god-unbeliever" are smart or "bright". We all have to avoid pigeon holing things into binary bins.

I had some drive by examples of conservative framing of the abortion issue in life and death terms, government vs. public funded schools and the label of Obamacare in my Framing Arguments: You say Flaming Atheists and I Say Non-Confrontational Humanist. This evoked some Anonymous conservative comments on the complexity of the issue. which in turn stirred a bit of a debate. A bottom line on this issue is that the majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal, but handled delicately and not in a binary, adversarial fashion. Beyond that I wanted to respond to a portion of this debate.

First, I find that vocal parts of the anti-abortion side ignore grey-area nuances in their debate. They wish the issue to be debated as an absolutist, true-false way. They frame the act as immoral and not subject to nuanced decisions by the family. These allow a range of considered options, including the right to decide on an abortion. This is not the flexibility of an emotion-targeted moralist position which sees the act as immoral and therefore illegal (by the law of God). Details of this type of argument framing are discussed by clinical psychologist Drew Westen in his book Political Brain. He notes:

The political brain is an emotional brain,” he said. “It prefers conclusions that are emotionally satisfying rather than conclusions that match the data.”

Westen discusses how Frank Luntz-style wordsmithing of negative ads and talking points about abortion has stirred deeply felt passions that immobilize reasoning about the topic. An issue like abortion cannot simply be treated in the blank/white terms. It is more a nuanced issue that involves at least two complex issues:

1. The competing rights between the mother's rights to bodily integrity (and in the extreme the right to her life) and the fetus's right not to be killed.

2. At what point (or beyond this point) does the fetus become entitled to become a person and have rights ascribed to it?

Both issues come with nuance and many degrees of graduation on concepts like rights, personhood and tradeoffs. The first involves the issue of whether the mother/family decides the tradeoffs with medical advice or whether the state and religion has a say in rights and decision. That is there is conceptual analysis required rather than absolute assertions such as the idea that a soul (élan vital?) enters fetal cells at conception – an un-testable hypothesis. And you see where we can get into trouble if we involve God in the decision making. The hypothesized God is an omnipotent creation, while humans are not. We have 2 different category of beings with two completely different knowledge and decision making abilities. God is also given rule the giving and taking of life while the individual is not. This is all part of a conceptual analysis.

In Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics the philosopher Simon Blackburn addressed the 2nd issue this way, "...the biological fact is that foetal development is gradual. The one cell starting point is a different kettle of fish from the baby about to be born. The complexity arrives gradually, hour by hour, day by day".

I think that complex topics like this not only suffer from binary thinking that excludes a range of positions, it also shows examples of what logicians call category errors or category mistakes. Simply stated a category mistake/error, is a semantic or ontological error in which a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. A category error occurs when you think about what in the real world is close to a continuum/ spectrum as if it were clearly broken out into a small series of discrete, boxlike categories. A classic case involves color labels. You and I may disagree about whether to call something like a flower blue or purple. It is better to think of blue and purple are occupying nearby area on a continuous spectrum of colors. So if we disagree about whether something is blue or purple, we can both be right or wrong. There may be a convention to guide us about the fuzzy boundary where purple shades into blue. As with binary bins, category errors are often built into the very structure of our language. Our category words feel like boxes with hard (non-fuzzy) edges: blue, purple, short, intelligent. But like colors, most of terms really point to directions or suggest someone’s idea of vague zones on a continuous spectrum. This side of culture there’s no objective foundation for saying “Warren is short,” unless we just mean “Warren is shorten than most people I see, know or hear about.” “Short” as a concept is not such a rigid box; as much as a convention for range or direction on a spectrum of possible heights. We sort of learn this growing up and don’t call a 3 year old short when they are the tallest in pre-school. Simple ideas like color, height or position rarely causes trouble, but the more complex and social concepts of “fat” or “smart” do. These involve emotions and so does a decision like abortion.

We see the possibility of a category error as discussed earlier by Blackburn on gradual cell development. Anti-abortionists place a fertilized human cell in the category of person, but there is no fuzzy boundary for them. There is a more complex boundary for other camps and having the women/family decide is a way to handle the complexity with advice from medical specialists. That is just more nuanced than what I hear from the soul-based moralist. Any activity to abort the fetal clump of fertilized cells is labeled murder. They are drawing rigid boxes where some degree of uncertainly exists.

1 comment:

Edd.Doerr said...

Gary Berg-Cross's essay is excellent. Binary thinking is all too common in opinion polling, especially on issues that do not lend themselves to binary responses, such as the abortion rights matter. Though there is one rather binary question that could be but rarely is used on abortion rights: Who should make decisions on abortion, the government or the individual pregnant woman?