Hume, The Watchmaker, Islam and The Gaters — Argument From Analogy
I’ve come across the Argument From Analogy all too often and most recently I’ve see it in the form of, “if X is not responsible for the actions of a subset of X, then Y shouldn’t be responsible for the actions of a subset of Y.” A classic Argument From Analogy — the idea being, of course, that there’s some general principle that can be inferred from one case that will apply to another case. In this particular example, X and Y share two analogical properties for the purposes of the argument — both are defined as a group in some way and both have a subset of members acting out of accordance with the majority. To be specific, X is the religion of Islam and Y is “Gamergate.” I’m loathed to have to explain Gamergate, but a summation for the purposes of this piece might be: “A collection of people online who say they campaign for ethics in games journalism but also have associations to people who are directly threatening some female game developers and female commentators with rape, violence, misogyny and various other types of abuse.” The Gamergaters argue from analogy when they say that if one doesn’t hold the entirety of Islam responsible for the acts of terror perpetrated by a tiny minority, then one ought not hold them responsible for the acts of terror perpetrated by what they say is a tiny minority of their population.
Now that we have some basics laid out, let’s step back a bit and just look at the Argument From Analogy and see how it can be problematic. I think a good way to do this is to look at the critique of the Argument From Design (also known as “The Teleological Argument,” and more recently as “Intelligent Design”). The Argument From Design posits the existence of a creator (god) through an Argument From Analogy — some may be familiar with the notion of the watch and watchmaker. The argument goes: when we see a watch, in all its intricate complexity, we infer that this watch has not come to be by accident — it has clearly been designed to function in a particular way. And in understanding that it has been designed, we then must also infer that it has had a designer. The watch is then used in an analogy comparing it to the universe and it is argued the universe displays at least as much intricate complexity as a watch does, so it follows by analogy that the universe has been designed and has a designer (god).
Scottish philosopher David Hume famously attacked the Argument From Design on a number of fronts, but the one we are interested in is the strength of the Argument From Analogy. Wikipedia has an adequate enough piece on this:
He points out that for an argument from analogy to be successful, the two things that are being compared have to have an adequate number of similarities that are relevant to the respect you are analogizing them with. For example, a kitten and a lion may be very similar in many respects, however just because a lion makes a “roar” it would not be correct to infer a kitten also made a “roar”, because the similarities between the two objects are not similar enough and the degree of relevance to what sound they make is not relevant enough. Hume then argues that the universe and a watch also do not have enough relevant or close similarities to infer that they were both created the same way. For example, the universe is made of organic natural material however the watch is made of artificial mechanic materials.
This is known as the logical fallacy of the Argument From Weak Analogy. As the Fallacy Files piece points out, no analogy is perfect because in order to be so the two things being compared need to be so similar as to be indistinguishable — that is, a perfect analogy ceases to be an analogy and instead becomes a matter of identity (A = A). So, no Argument From Analogy can be perfect, however, some may be adequate enough to sustain the point being argued. Furthermore, even the most dissimilar things can likely be found to share some characteristics — however esoteric that connection might be.
Now, the question for the case of the Argument From Analogy put forward by the Gamergaters is: how strong is the analogy between the religion of Islam with its 1.5 billion adherents and Gamergaters and their few thousand (at best?) advocates? The answer is — not very strong at all. So weak, in fact, that the argument can not be sustained. For one, there’s a great deal of difference between someone’s religious identity and someone’s identity as a “Gamergater” — to pretend that the two are of equal import to the individual is disingenuous. The notion that someone might leave their religion because of the actions of a small percentage of adherents is unrealistic, but the notion that one might disassociate one’s self from a relatively small campaigning group because of the actions of a supposedly small percentage is not. Personally, if I was associated with a group seeking a goal and that group’s existence engendered extremely bad behavior in some, then I would certainly consider disassociating myself with said group if no means were forthcoming to negate that effect. Second, the scale is completely different in the two cases — it’s unrealistic to hold 1.5 billion responsible for thousands, but it’s far more realistic to hold thousands responsible for the actions of dozens or hundreds. That is, policing a community of 1.5 billion for extreme actions is far more difficult than policing a community of a few thousand for extreme actions. The complexity of the notion of a religious identity and the complexity of policing a community of 1.5 billion people are reduced to simplistic terms in order to make the comparison with the Gamergate identity and the Gamergate community seem reasonable.
Furthermore, there are a great number of differences between the undesirable element in Islam and the undesirable element in Gamergate. In Islam, there is an entire history behind the creation, nurturing and outward promotion of a sect known as Wahhabism by, primarily, the Saudis. There is a great deal of financing and other support by the Saudis that goes into this world view. In contrast, the undesirable element of Gamergate has no similar historical context of support by a powerful benefactor. That is, there are causes in relation to Islam that are, at least, partly responsible for the presence of this undesirable element that have no analogous counterparts in Gamergate. To expect the same level of responsibility to exist within both communities does not follow — powerful forces are at work with regard to that particular aspect of Islam, but that is not so for Gamergate. In short, the “foe” is of an all together different nature in the two cases, so one might reasonably expect that Gamergaters have the power to do something about their bad element while not expecting the same of Islam.
Also, there’s a historical divide in Islam between the Sunni and the Shia. This deep divide helps fuel factional behavior that stokes the fires of the more radical element. Gamergate has no analogous fundamental ideological divide, thus their more radical element is not fueled in this way. To suggest, as the Argument From Analogy employed by Gamergate does, that the two elements are on par ignores the current reality of Islam as well as its historical context. To posit that the difficulty Gamergater’s have in dealing with their undesirable element is on par with the similar issue Islam has to deal with is nonsensical and blind to the wider context.
So, there are far too many fundamental differences between the two communities (size and the nature of the kind of identity each represents) as well as other historical and power relationships that make the analogy too weak to sustain the overall argument. How someone views the relationship between Islam and its undesirable elements can not constrain or inform on how one can view Gamergate’s relationship to its undesirable elements.
Arguments From Analogy are very dangerous — they have a high degree of rhetorical punch. That is, humans like to compare things and see similarities — extract general principles from specifics and then import them into different situations. One could even say we are hard wired to do so. This is a valuable trait much of the time, but it is also a trap waiting to corrupt our reason. Analogies are wonderful descriptive devices — they are excellent to use as a “hook” into a subject in order to get someone to understand the gist of a concept or new idea. However, as a prescriptive device (an argument for something) they can easily misfire logically but still maintain that high degree of rhetorical punch — that is, when wrong they can quite often still be convincing to a large number of people. I try to avoid using analogies as arguments. Descriptors, explanatory tools, etc. — yes, but not as standalone arguments. If your only argument is from analogy, then it would be wise to first see if you can find another argument. If not, then it will warrant immediate and close scrutiny to ensure you are not committing the fallacy of Argument From A Weak Analogy. The world doesn’t need another illusory watchmaker.