From Abracadabra to Zombies
Contrary-to-fact Conditionals & Media Vultures in my Crosshairs
9 Jan 2011. (A conditional statement asserts that if an antecedent condition is true, then a consequent condition will also be true. A contrary-to-fact conditional is a conditional statement whose antecedent condition didn't or couldn't happen. If Jared Lee Loughner had taken my philosophy class, he wouldn't have shot all those people is a contrary-to-fact conditional. He didn't take my philosophy class, so we'll never know what he would or wouldn't have done had he taken the class.)
I heard several pundits yesterday say pretty much the same thing: if we had been more civil in our political discourse, the tragedy that erupted in Arizona yesterday wouldn't have happened. But we weren't civil, so we'll never know what might have been had we framed our contempt of each other in more benign terms. (Nineteen people were shot at a political rally for Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, including the congresswoman. Six have died, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.)
The media vultures, those ready to tear the flesh off their own mothers if they think it will help promote their agendas, were quick to pounce on this story, calling for more gun control, more prayer, better mental health services, a beginning of self-restraint in political speech, no more hunting metaphors when talking about political enemies, less government, fewer taxes, better immigration laws, the dangers of socialized medicine, the end of government-sponsored vaccination programs, and an end to liberal lunatics and atheist immorality. Do I exaggerate? Very well, I exaggerate, but the fact remains: nobody knows why Jared Lee Loughner did what he did, not even Mr. Loughner himself. But many media vultures will seize the opportunity to spread their messages at his expense.
If Loughner had read a different comic strip that morning or seen a different message in his cereal bowl, he might have gone bowling or shot up his philosophy class. We'll never know, because he didn't do things differently. We'll never know if he'd have done what he did had Sarah Palin or any other tough talker never existed or said any of the things they've said about reloading or crosshairs. We'll never know what Loughner would have done had he been taking anti-psychotic medication or, if he was on medication, whether had he been off that medication he wouldn't have acted violently. He might have done the same thing whether he was on or off meds. Either way, the anti-drug vultures would have swooped in for the kill.
A media event such as a mass killing is a opportunity for the media vulture. The agenda is more important than truth or the feelings of anyone involved. Taking advantage of every opportunity to get before the cameras or in print is the priority. The contrary-to-fact conditional is the perfect polemical tool. You can't be proven wrong and you can appear to be a caring individual while you blow off steam or steer people to your side of the street. You don't even have to explicitly assert the conditional to employ it. People will understand it implicitly when you, for example, run your mouth off about prayer or the Ten Commandments or gun control. If only we'd had compulsory prayer or the Ten Commandments posted in his schoolhouse, he wouldn't have turned out this way. If only all those Republicans hadn't used hunting and killing metaphors to describe what they'd like to do to their Democratic opponents, then such violence wouldn't happen. Putting out a map that placed crosshairs on Ms. Giffords’ district proved deadly. Palin's political operation marked 20 Congressional districts with crosshairs. Do the other 19 now need to be extra vigilant? Etc. We'll never know if such a map never existed what would have happened. What if Loughton had eaten Cheerios or Wheaties? Who knows what might have been.
Even the most hateful man in America, Fred Phelps, is taking advantage of the situation. Loughner was just doing God's will. The Phelps clan plans to picket the funeral of 9-year-old Loughner victim, Christina Green.
In Arizona, "Second Amendment remedies" might be a little more frequent than in those states where one can't purchase a Glock 9 mm semiautomatic with a 15 or 33-round magazine without undergoing some sort of background check. Some pundits might blame Gov. Jan Brewer for yesterday's carnage. She signed the legislation that, in her words, "protects" and "restores" the Second Amendment rights of Arizona citizens by allowing them to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Some might blame the author of the law, state Sen. Russell Pearce, who declared that the freedom of every citizen to carry a loaded weapon is "a freedom that poses no threat to the public."
About the only thing we know for sure is that if Loughner hadn't had a loaded gun, he couldn't have done what he did. Whether any laws would have prevented him from getting his hands on a weapon is impossible to say. Laws would have made it a bit more difficult for a disturbed person like Loughner to carry out his plans, but it's impossible to say whether any law would have prevented his violent and deadly outburst.
It's true that people kill people, guns don't kill people; but agitated mentally ill people with easy access to loaded guns are a bit more dangerous than agitated mentally ill people who have to jump through a few hoops before they can get their hands on a loaded weapon.
postscript (maybe I don't exaggerate)
"....this is really a story about mental illness in America, and the roots of this mental illness are undoubtedly partly found in these elements:
• The chemical contamination of our food and water (fluoride, food additives, etc.)
• Widespread nutritional deficiencies that promote mental illness
• The scourge of the psychiatric drug industry and the widespread drugging of teens and children
... and also, quite possibly:
• The "programming" of young males with extremely violent video games which are now also used in the military to desensitize young adults to the violence of killing."
Then, of course, there are the usual media vultures who chomp on the bones of other media vultures. Then there are those who want us to think that they're the victims: Trent Humphries.
11 Jan 2011
I read with interest your item on contrary to fact conditionals. It is an issue which has vexed me in deciding how valid or useful it is to use this form of argument in historical interpretation: essentially in making causal statements. In a statement that historical fact A caused historical event B, there is an implicit contrary to fact statement that if fact A were not the case (but it is) then B would not have occurred. If a contrary to fact argument is always invalid, such statements of causation would seem to be invalid also. I suspect, however, you mean only that contrary to fact arguments should be taken with a degree of caution.
reply: Two things. We should make a distinction between contextual implication and logical implication. In the example you give, there may be a contexual (tacit) implication that if A were not the case, then B would not have occurred, but there is no logical implication (unless A is the only condition under which B could occur). The other thing is that the issue of validity is a distinct logical issue having to do with whether a conclusion logically follows from premises in an argument. My comments on contrary-to-fact conditionals used by media vultures are not pertinent to a discussion of logical validity. I assume by "contrary-to-fact argument" you mean an argument with a contrary-to-fact conditional as one of the premises. I believe all the examples I gave of arguments using a contrary-to-fact conditional as a premise were valid arguments (valid by modus ponens).
At a glance, there seem to be four broad categories of such conditionals:
1. Factual impossibilities – the contrary to fact condition can/could never occur and we therefore need not speculate what might be the case if it did. Interestingly ethical statements of the kind, “if everyone did X, then Y would be the result” seem to fall in this class.
2. Logical necessity – The conditional statement “If the West had not been Christian, the crusades would not have taken place” seems to me to be valid on logical ground because a requirement of Christianity is part of the meaning of crusade.
3. High probability – The statement: “If X had jumped off the building [he didn’t], he would have died,” is of this kind. The inference from the conditional is not a necessary one but highly reasonable and very useful in deciding why it is that X is not dead.
4. Uncertain probability – A statement such as “If Hitler had concentrated on capturing Moscow in 1941, the Soviet Union would have fallen”, seems to be of this order. It is plausible but far from certain. The capture of Moscow may not have been a sufficient cause and one can imagine many others.
reply: Putting aside my concern that your classifications and examples may not be the most felicitous, I would agree that contrary-to-fact conditionals vary considerably in their probability of being true and the range would go from "impossible to know" (e.g., If Loughner had taken my philosophy class, he wouldn't have shot up the political rally) to "true" (e.g., If you had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, you probably wouldn't be asking me these questions).
Regarding the Arizona shootings and the connection with the vitriolic level of political discourse in America, I hold no strong views. The shooter, on initial reports, is mentally ill and for that reason alone, it seems likely that venomous discourse is far from a sufficient condition for what happened. Moreover, given that spree killings are a regular if unhappy feature of American life, it would not seem that such discourse is a necessary condition of such events. The shooter was dangerous – period – and quite possibly would have killed others. However it is surely right to examine the particular expression of his madness? He shot up a political meeting not a school, and this requires some explanation, doesn’t it? My initial thoughts are that the Arizona shootings fall within case 4 above. It is well arguable, though unknowable, that the nature of political discourse was a contributory factor in the shooter choosing this particular outlet for his insanity.
reply: It's arguable that venomous discourse was a contributory factor, but I don't think it's plausible. For all we know, if a shoe salesman had sent him a personal letter a few years ago, thanking him for trying out a new pair of flip-flops, Loughner might have framed the letter and obsessed over the poor writer until he snapped and decided to blow up a mall with a shoe store in it. I have felt strongly about resisting these kinds of causal arguments since studying a First Amendment case years ago that involved a man who was driven to kill women by seeing the moving "Exodus."The arguments put forth before the U.S. Supreme Court convinced me that just about anything could trigger a violent outburst in a deranged mind.
Another Supreme Court ruling put a restriction on using "fighting words" (words likely to evoke an immediate violent reaction against the speaker), justifiably so I believe, though I am much less concerned about people like Fred Phelps who are likely to bring violence upon themselves by their speech and tactics than I am about people in politics who live by vitriolic speech. Such speech defines who these people are and makes them and their followers easy to spot. No limitation on speech, imposed by the government or self-imposed, is likely to have a significant effect on the level of violence in our country. It is wishful thinking to believe otherwise, in my opinion. Political speech has always been ugly and vicious. (Check out the political cartoons of the 18th century.) I see little chance that that is going to change, not that I wouldn't welcome it.
I’m not especially interested in an answer to the Arizona incident. My interest is the general basis for interpreting historical causation. Can you elaborate further and correct me as necessary?
reply: I see no reason not to speculate about what might have happened if historical events had been different. I love programs or books that ask things like "what if we hadn't figured out the Japanese code and hadn't killed Admiral so-and-so?" or "What if we hadn't dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?" "What if Hitler had done this instead of that? Would we all be speaking German now?" "What if Kennedy hadn't sent troops to Vietnam or hadn't invaded Cuba the way he did?"
I don't believe the future is inevitable, i.e., determined to occur according to some sort of fatalistic logos. We can learn from history and speculating about what might have been can not only stimulate the intellect, but can also provide us with some thoughtful talking points regarding the potential consequences of taking or not taking certain actions.