Deception of Singular Argument

Recently, I watched a lecture from Christopher Hitchens & Richard Dawkins with title, “We'd be better off without religion.” *1 At the beginning of the talk, I noticed something that really bothered me at the time, so this article, in some way, is an explanation of the underlying cause of my intellectual unease.

The part of the lecture that bothered me the most was when Hitchens tried to draw the conclusion that, in all major cities where war broke in the last 20 years or so, the main cause was that some radical religious factions were the reason for those wars. Therefore, he draws a parallel that religions were the cause of all wars, and we would be better off without them, as, according to him, without religions, we would not have any wars on this planet.

Now, this is obviously a simplification of a complex issue, and, as it is coming from a person credited as a prominent journalist, it significantly undermines his credibility.

Rarely is there a war that begins and then continues just because of one single thing. Usually, if not always, multiple things at the same time are the cause of wars. Land, resources (oil, minerals, food, etc.), power, slavery, dominance, ideology, religion, war industry, nationalism, drugs, politics, global economy, strategic position, race, ethnic differences, and many others usually work in combination, and with different intensity, in order to spark — and later on fuel — the war.

If multiple things are causes of wars, and if this should be something widely accepted and known, why did Hitchens single out one thing, in order to draw what is obviously a wrong conclusion?

He has used what we can call the “singular argument,” in order to draw a “singular conclusion,” by showing an example of one thing and continuing in the same manner. Hitchens was syllogistically able to blame one single thing (in this case, religion), supporting the main topic of discussion that “we'd be better off without religion.”

The same display of using the “singular argument” is possible to see in the current USA 2016 presidential debates, of course, if we ignore the significant amount of time presidential candidates spend blaming each other, instead focusing on issues they need to solve.

That raises a question: why do people so often use that type of argument, if we know that it is misleading?

There are multiple reasons, but let’s start with the underlying cause of our psychology and linguistics.

The first cause is the specific way we transmit information and communicate with each other by using our vocal cords; this has dominated for the last 100,000 years or more.

Speech, sign language, writing systems, and also body language all have the same issue: they are linear; in order to receive or transmit certain concepts, we need to hear or read (apprehend) smaller concepts one by one, in sequence (as a series of information across a period of time). Also, that means that, when something is received in sequence, we have to have a certain capacity that will hold all of that information in one place, so we can understand (process) the larger concepts. That capacity for storage, in our case, is our short-term memory.

Imagine that we need to receive a photo divided into equal 2 x 2 squares (4) but, instead of getting and retaining all of them, we will be presented with each square one at the time for a short period of time. In order to understand the whole photo, we need to receive them at a certain speed. The images have to be displayed long enough to remember them but, again, not long enough that we forget the previous images, and pauses between displayed pieces need to be of a certain length. This rhythm of “communicating” these ideas is actually the rhythm of our own brains.

On the other hand, the size of the memory and the ability to retain information for longer periods can determine our ability for how large and complex are the ideas we can comprehend and process. Therefore, the larger the short (temporary) memory is, combined with a good ability to quickly combine those concepts in a number of different ways, will determine our intelligence.

That being said, let’s go back to politicians, indoctrinators, and other brainwashers and the reason why they use the “singular argument.” The reason behind the usage is because these arguments are very easy to chew. The story and the moral (conclusion) in the “singular argument” are not far apart; therefore, they do not require a lot of mental effort or challenge from the listener. Within the boundaries of the raised argument, they look logical and self-explaining, but the truth is that, most of the time, they are just plain wrong and misleading, and being partially true makes them all the more deceptive.

What is the alternative?

If we go back to that image, we can raise the question of what is the highest amount of pieces we could divide that photo into and still have the ability to recreate the photo in our minds and understand the meaning of it.

Is it 3x3, 5x5, 10x10, or maybe 20x20, or even more? Can we memorise a puzzle of 1000 pieces or more, and, if not, how can we create more meaningful debates?

To have good intellectual debate or to raise awareness about something, it is necessary to develop more complex arguments with multiple branches (“plural argument”). The issue with this type of storytelling is that it requires more patience from the listener (avoiding interruption), the listener needs to have a good memory, and the listener also must have the ability to memorise points that do not support the main argument strongly — or points raised to defeat counterarguments — so that, later, all issues can be raised and questioned. Also, the “plural or network argument” does not mean that one weak branch can bring down the entire tree, so it requires from both the lecturer and listener to engage into debate on a deeper level.

Memory is the key component for a good debate. The better the memory the lecturer has, the more he/she will be able to develop a complex argument, and the better memory the listener has, the more he/she will be able to recreate a complex picture from unwinding the story.

The way to overcome this memory issue is to decrease the number of concepts that will be transmitted; that is a good reason for the “singular argument,” along with abstraction and generalisation that serve the purpose of compressing data. The problem with data compression is that, unlike with computers, we lose details, and, with loss of details, the concepts we are trying to convey become vague and deceptive.

Probably, at least once, while having trouble explaining to people what you really mean, you had a thought that it would be a good idea if you could somehow just transmit your mental images into their brains, almost wishing that they could read your mind.

Until we get to the evolutionary or technological stage where we could use some kind of advanced neural relay or telepathy, in order to communicate our thoughts all at once, we can use one other concept.

The idiom “A picture is worth a thousand words” is the answer to our problem. Maybe our debates should be supported by drawings, images, and mind maps. Before we even start speaking, image maps should be there to explain the narrative of the story or the argument we are trying to present.

Original photo source: "How to Mind Map" by Pietro Zanarini 

In that way, it would be easier to follow an argument, and we would have important memory points already outlined for us. At the same time, that would mean that those debating need to “prepare”/draw maps of narratives before they start speaking. Apart from being awkwardly strange, especially during live debates, that would have the potential to make our debates richer, more understandable, and more fruitful.

Notes & References:

1. Christopher Hitchens & Richard Dawkins - We'd be better off without religion