This week I thought I would raise the rather contentious issue of the reductio ad absurdum argument (also known as argumentum ad absurdum). This is the ancient form of logical argument that seeks to demonstrate that an argument or idea is nonsense by showing that a false, ludicrous, absurd result follows from its acceptance, or alternatively that an argument is sound as a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its denial.
The nature of this argument has venerable roots and it is well documented as a form of logic in ancient Greece, used by such luminaries as Xenophranes, Socrates, and Plato . However, in modern academia there seem to be rather polarized views on it. 1) that it trivializes an argument and belittles the person taking a particular position or 2) that is is a valid and reasonable way of demonstrating that an idea is unsound. There also seems to be a cultural aspect in that I have found it used more frequently in Europe, whereas in North America it is somewhat frowned upon in many academic circles.
Naturally, as Rog and I are somewhat subversive and agitative academics (I use the term loosly) we are in full support of it, and to this end have just published a paper in Nursing Inquiry using exactly this form of argument to challenge the established wisdom of a specific postmodern argument for alternative ways of knowing. This paper was based on an earlier blogpost on this very blog site. Here, we use the ad absurdum argument to note that the principles used to support Carper’s four ways of knowing can equally well be used to support a more creative typology (in this case including, arcane knowing, and lupine knowing).
Naturally, as with any form of intellectual rationale the argument is only as good as the fundamental data and facts it is based upon. Therefore, an ad absurdium argument can be misused, or poorly constructed. It is also often used erroneously as a Straw Man argument.
Considering what is absurd and what isn’t is a tricky thing for anyone, and particularly problematic in science. For example, many Victorian scientists scoffed at the thought of powered flight, and even Einstein had issues with the notion of black-holes. Therefore, identifying absurdity is not something easily undertaken, as it may simply be the ideas presented are highly original or unconventional. The bacteria Helicobacter Pylori being suggested as a cause of gastric ulceration is a good example, as this theory was not readily accepted by the medical community for several years, despite good evidence.
Also, this is not the same as absurdity as used in common parlance. Commonly absurd positions are seen as ridiculous, or foolhardy, but an argument ad absurdum does not suggest the person making the argument should be ridiculed or lampooned. After all, we have all believed ridiculous things at one time or another; for western children the notion that Santa Clause brings all the children in the world toys on one night a year is a case in point! For the purpose of scientific thinking, for something to be demonstrated as absurd here we really need to see that there is inconsistency in the arguments presented. An absurd position may be considered one that is contrary to reason, irrational, or ludicrous to follow due to the practical implications of believing it. Unfortunately, several concepts now accepted and used in modern science arose in exactly this fashion: Quantum physics for example. However, repeated scientific observation and empirical data have proved quantum theory correct. So, paradigms change with time and we should be cautious about suggesting any position is ridiculous.
From a pragmatic position, I would argue an argument that can be demonstrated as fallacious by analysing its components, and demonstrating inconsistencies, or that you can demonstrate by accepting it you are also supporting associated positions that make no sense and have no practical value, then an ad absurdum position can be used effectively to demonstrate these weaknesses.
At the end of the day the sensitivities invoked by this form of argument are worth considering, and it is a form of rationale that is not easy to develop effectively. However, as long as the use of it involves demonstrating the nonsense an idea or position presents, rather than attacking the person making the argument, I would suggest it is a useful form of analysis. As a scientist if you are prepared to make any case, hypothesis or argument, you should be prepared to have it challenged and debated, and defend it. If the position is sound it will survive this critique, and win through. That is what good science is all about, but to make sound ad absurdum arguments you have to have a good working knowledge of the logical fallacies to start with. They can also be a lot of fun too, and if this form was good enough for Socrates…
Carper B.A. (1978), “Fundamental Patterns of Knowing in Nursing”, Advances in Nursing Science 1(1), 13–24
Garrett B.M. & Cutting R.L. (2014) Ways of knowing: realism, non-realism, nominalism and a typology revisited with a counter perspective for nursing science. Nursing Inquiry. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
Rescher N. (2009) Reductio ad absurdum. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 21 May 2014.