Assumptions and ad Hominem

Assumptions and ad Hominem



B: Before I get started on my monologue, I’m going to have to set up a few ground rules.

A (irritably confused): Why would you need rules for a monologue?!

B: Chill, buddy.  It’s because, of course, you’re going to disagree with me from time to time.  We could probably save ourselves a bunch of headaches, knocks, and blows if we set up the rules ahead of time.

A: Great.  Rules.  Such as?

B: Well, first, what assumptions we’re going to make.  If we don’t list ‘em explicitly, let me reiterate that we’ll probably run into some stalemates.  Think about all the conflicts this world has ever known, big, small, or between individuals.  How many of those could have been averted had there been an understanding about their respective assumptions?  I would go so far as to say, and neglect to try to prove, that all of the major conflicts this world has ever known have been based on misunderstandings of basic assumptions.

People are plenty able to make logical deductions from one point to another, but if they aren’t starting in the same place, it’s no wonder they end up butting heads.  Your opponent in the argument – you know, the one you call an “idiot” – isn’t necessarily “idiotic” at all; you only describe him thus because you can’t understand how he got to his conclusion based on your assumptions.

A: Don’t you mean –

B: Buddy, I meant exactly what I said: you can’t understand how he got to his conclusion based on your assumptions.  Gahh!  I was on a roll!

A: My bad!

B (rolling his eyes): Anyway.  Suppose, instead, that you knew his original assumptions, followed by his line of reasoning (which may include other assumptions, of course).  You would be more likely, then, to see how he got to his point of view.  That’s not to say that the other guy is correct – but at least his argument has become understandable, and you can politely pick out where you disagree, which is likely in his assumptions.  In general, if you ever have difficulty agreeing with someone, try to compare the basic assumptions upon which your respective arguments rest.

A: Buddy, are you going to tell me these grand assumptions of yours already?

B: Well, truth be told, I won’t actually give them to you now –

(A sighs impatiently)

B: – I think I’d rather give ‘em to you as I go along, for the most part.  Hopefully I’ll remember to clarify them specifically.  But what I want to clarify now is what makes a solid argument.  Or rather, some examples of things that don’t make a solid argument.  First off: “ad hominem,” a Latin phrase which means “to the man.”

A: Which means…?

B: “To the man.”

A: No, I mean –

B (clearing his throat, loudly): Would you like an example?

A: Sure.

B: Let’s suppose you want to know or to learn something, whether it’s about science, economics, business, technology, the weather, sports, how to do something, etc. – just about anything at all.  How do you find out about it?

A: What, look it up?

B: Exactly.  In a book, on the Internet, or maybe just ask a friend or a professed expert on the subject.  What you will get is some person’s advice or opinion about it.  Now how do you know that what you find out about it is actually true?

A: Uh…I dunno.

B: Exactly again.  You don’t know, because you don’t know how that person found out about it, or why it’s true, or a bunch of other possible reasons.  To have absolute certainty concerning its truth, you’d have to find out yourself somehow.  But let’s have a more specific example.  Suppose you were to take (a living) Albert Einstein and some randomly-chosen 8-year-old kid, give them a simple two-digit multiplication problem to work out, and they get two different answers.  They can’t both be right, can they?  Which one would you think has the correct one, if any?

A: Einstein, of course.

B: Why?

A: Because he’s a genius.

B: What does his being a genius have to do with anything?  Is the multiplication problem going to recognize who’s trying to do it, and just bow out of reverence to him, and complete itself?  If the multiplication problem could talk, imagine it saying, “oh my goodness, I’m actually being calculated by Albert Einstein!  I’ve dreamed of this moment my whole life!  I don’t want to blow it!  Better make sure I’m done correctly!”  Pure silliness.  Whereas it is possible, even for Einstein, to make a mistake on the calculation of, say, 36 x 53, it is just as possible that the 8-year-old is able to determine that it’s…uh…let’s see here…1,898.  Did it in my head.

A (reading off his phone): It’s 1,908, ya goob.  You might do better with one of these.  Have you heard of ‘em?  They’re called “calculators.”

B: And people like you are called “goobs.”  See?  That proves my point perfectly.  Even a math nerdbag like me can mess up an easy multiplication problem.  Especially if he tries to show off and do it in his head.

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