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Tuesday, 10 May 2005


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What I think is new about the article, Bill, is that we have something less qualified than last year’s “hinting at the abandonment of naturalism.” Now we know that Flew “made the move to deism” in early 2004. The high marks he gives Christian philosophers Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, et al. are also of interest, I think. But charging Jay Leno with the genetic fallacy is rather like accusing Henny Youngman of having committed the fallacy of amphiboly every time he implored, “Take my wife . . . please.” Holding joke-telling to the standards of reasoned discourse might itself qualify as the fallacy of abstraction. You were right, however to hold Flew’s interviewer, who studied philosophy under him, to those standards: he should not have suggested that we may place more confidence in Flew’s deism because it is independent of any belief in post mortem existence. That Flew is mulling over C. S. Lewis on that topic, however, is newsworthy. Tony

Bill Vallicella

But you have to understand, Tony, I'm a serious man! (As serious as cancer, some would say.) For me, humor is no joke! Everything is fodder for analysis. And it is not clear to me that Leno was joking in that remark. Not everything a comedian says is a joke. The contemptible Al Franken, for example, makes serious points and then attempts to evade taking responsibility for them by hiding behind his comedic persona. To be fair, however, Ann Coulter does something similar. Besides, it was not Leno alone, but certain unnamed agnostics who committed the fallacy in question. Please tell us about this fallacy of abstraction. There is also the philosophy of humor question about what makes a joke funny. I have toyed with the idea that the funniness of some jokes derives from logico-conceptual incoherence.


Bill, I appreciate the clarification of your context, which is to my point. Not everything a comedian says is a joke, but I will assume that Leno was joking. (He’s not an Al Franken.) I grant that the joke, if it was a joke, traded on a fallacy. To accuse Leno of committing a fallacy, however, is to suggest that in that context he was falling short of a standard to which he was obliged to adhere. This I deny. (Take my Henny Youngman example . . . please!) And then I wondered whether or not to hold him to it was itself fallacious – to be serious when seriousness is inappropriate – and the term that approximates what I was getting at was Abstraction. http://www.fallacyfiles.org I may be wrong about the term, but if I am, then I still need one to express the logical discord that disturbs me. I'm more interested in that than in charging you with committing a fallacy. Also, in retrospect, I’m not sure that you were fair to Beverley. His “irrelevant” comment may indeed incline a reader to believe that Flew's hereafter-skepticism somehow adds credibility to his deism. That is, Beverley may have aided and abetted the commission of the genetic fallacy by others. But that falls short of committing it himself. I agree with you that the basis of much humor is incongruity. Tony

John Gallagher

While it is true that explaining someone's motivation for making a claim does not in itself refute the validity of the claim, it may nonetheless be worthwhile to "consider the source". Is it be a mistake, for example, to look with a jaundiced eye on research financed by the tobacco industry claiming that the dangers of smoking are exaggerated? How about research financed by Exxon claiming that global warming is unproven? I think it is common sense to be less trusting of claims made by those who have an ax to grind or a financial interest at stake. When I lack the scientific expertise to readily examine the validity of a claim for myself, I am more likely to trust experts whose research is not being paid for by an industry with a financial interest in the results. Am I then guilty of committing the genetic fallacy?

Bill Vallicella

It is reasonable to be sceptical of research funded by the tobacco industry. So far, no fallacy. The fallacy comes in were you to dismiss the results of the research just because an interested party had funded it. The other side of the coin is that one ought to be sceptical of the anti-tobacco forces since they too often have an axe to grind. For some the opposition is rooted in an anti-corporate and anti-capitalist attitude.

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