Reductio ad Absurdum is Absurd

Reductio ad Absurdum is a form of argument that looks like “But if we accept X, then we also have to accept Y, which is clearly wrong/crazy/absurd/ so therefore X can;t be true.” Now there are possible times when this argument is perfectly valid, both for deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoing it is called modus tollens and looks like:

If A then B
Not B
Therefore, not A

The inductive form is also valid (although of course induction can only be used to give probabilistic arguments):

“If A then B, but observations X Y and Z all make B seem very unlikely, therefore probably not A”

But there is a third type of Reductio ad Absurdum where the conclusion is not ruled out by logical rules or by observational evidence, but my seeming absurd. “If A then B, but B is crazy/absurd, so obviously not A” This clearly seems like invalid reasoning to me. Absurdity is in the Map not the Territory. No where in reality will you find absurdity particles floating around, it is only a part of our model of reality where we label come things absurd and others regular.

It seems like absurdity is just what something disagreeing with your fundamental beliefs feel like from the inside? To someone who believes in god, the idea that when people die they just stop existing, and that this has happened to every person who has ever died would probably seem really absurd. To someone who is is not a consequentalist/utilitarian, the idea that every single action that a person makes is morally required to be the best possible action they could make at the time probably seems absurd (one of the main objections to utilitarianism is that it “requires too much” unlike deontology which says “don’t do a bunch off obviously bad things like murder and rape” and virtue ethics which says “try to be a nice person”).

To illustrate this further imagine how many scientific discoveries must have seemed absurd at the time they were a being debated. “If your theory is true, then the sun would have to be a million times larger than earth, that is absurd, so you must be wrong.”

Again remember I’m only talking about the feeling of absurdity not the apparent logical contradiction of incompatibility with other observations. But based on the fact that a false belief that contradicts your true belief and a true belief that contradicts your false belief, will both produce the feeling of absurdity, that sense of absurdity can not be used as evidence for the truth of either of those beliefs.
Another separate form of argument is Appeal to Hypocrisy, and is in the form of:

“Group A says X, but based on there reasoning for X, they should also believe in Y, but they don’t; believe in Y so they are hypocritical/are not following  there assumptions to their logical conclusions. therefore they are wre wrong about X”

Put in this form it seems like an obvious mistake, so to make sure no readers think they would not do this im going to use an example of when i used this line of reasoning a few years ago, it still seems very wrong to present!Nick but hopefully it will be a tad more subtle

“Vegetarians/Vegans are against animals suffering in factory farms. But if that is a bad thing then all animal suffering must be a bad thing, any moral framework that says its ok when other animals hurt each other but not when humans hurt each other would be even more removed from my own then a vegan moral framework. So vegans should also care about suffering of animals in the wild. predation stands out as a horrible animal death, I would have to do some math but it’s probably worse than factory farming. But vegans don’t focus on that at all (none that I’ve met anyway) and many I’ve talked to actively justify it. This is absurd. Vegans don’t even have a consistent morality. Therefore eating meat is morally okay”

Now that I am a a Veg*n (still consume some dairy products but in the process of cutting back) and as someone who care s about wild animals suffering this argument seems obviously wrong to me. Carin about animals welfare does imply caring about wild animal suffering, so what? There is no logical contradiction or observational evidence that contradicts caring about animals suffering. So the fact that at the time it seemed absurd that there could be this giant problem that even people who should care about it don’t wasn’t evidence it wasn’t a problem. And now that i have accepted both the disvalue of animals suffering in factory farms and the animal suffering in the wild, the fact that the majority of other Veg*ns doesn’t matter, they just happen to be wrong about this area. Unfortunately, getting one question right doesn’t mean you are able to get them all right. This argument from hypocrisy is also a subclass of trying to Reverse Stupidity to get Intelligence.

So based on my experience using Reductio ad Absurdum and argument from hypocrisy before and being wrong, it makes me more skeptical of these types of arguments in the future. So i tried to think about arguments that i currently reject for reasons that could be the same as the above:

  • Simulation argument
  • Doomsday Argument
  • Theories of consciousness that imply that all things including steam engines and rocks are in some way conscious
  • Modal Realism

All of the above I think still have problems (except the simulation argument which i will talk about more in a future post) but i think part of the reason i don’t believe them is a incorrect use of Reductio ad Absurdum, so while writing this i attempted to increase my subjective probability of these being true (but like I said, I still don’t believe them.)

3 thoughts on “Reductio ad Absurdum is Absurd

  1. Me

    I feel the need to point something out in reference to your animal rights example. Here goes: it may not be an argument against worrying about the suffering of animals but there is a paradox in the example you provide. Animals that must eat meat need to eat herbivores to survive. Thus, if you prevent them from doing so, you are hurting them in the long run. But alleviating the suffering of wild herbivores requires saving them from being prayed upon. I hope you’re not suggesting this approach as it sounds highly destructive from an ecological stand point.

  2. hopefullythishelps Post author

    So first off I want to point out that my beliefs in this area are only held by a very small minority of vegans/animal rights advocates so if what i am about to say seems irrational to you then don’t assume i am speaking for all vegans. That being said i believe the lives of predators generally have negative value due to the suffering they cause to their prey outweighing the happiness/pleasure they get from eating them.

    A good metaphor is to imagine a gene that causes humans carriers to require human flesh to survive. They must eat about one human per month or there metabolism will shut down. In this situation, if we don’t have the option of growing human meat in a lab or another solution that doesn’t require murder, it seems clear to me that it would be better if carriers of this gene were not born. If there was a way to eliminate this gene from the gene pool I think that would be the right thing to do. Do you agree?

    So back to animals, if we assume that animal lives have value and that the suffering/pain experienced by animals is bad and something we want to minimize, i see no reason why the suffering caused to animals in factory farms is different to the suffering caused to an elephant when a pack of lions kill it. The experience from the animals perspective is the same.

    Now clearly after we reach this conclusion the question of what to do becomes very complicated. It seems unfeasible to remove predators from nature without having large negative impacts on the econ system. So i don’t know what can be done and there are no charities that i know of that are directly trying to reduce wild animal suffering. But i would have a strong preference for in a few hundred years when we have reached a technological sophistication to be in complete control of our environment, that we try to prevent as much wild animal suffering as possible

    For more information i recommend this video:


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