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Archive for the ‘dormitive explanation’ Category

I first heard about the concept of dormitive explanation in university. Ever since, it’s been one of my basic tools for errors in logic and thinking more clearly.

The concept has been articulated several times in the last few centuries, but, so far as I can tell, the person who named it was system theorist Gregory Bateson. The name comes from Moliére’s play The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac), in which a doctor claims that opium puts people to sleep “because there is a dormitive principle in it.”

In other words, opium puts people to sleeve because it puts people to sleep. When the statement is reworded, the circular cause and effect is obvious, but an essential part of a dormitive explanation is that the circularity is hidden by changing the word being used. Often, as in Moliére’s play, the change in word involves using a word with a Latin word rather than a Germanic one, or, at the very least, a more impressive, mufti-syllabic word. In any case, the effect is to leave the impression that something has been explained when it has only been renamed.
Or, to explain the concept another way, dormitive explanation is a fallacy, an indicator of an illogical argument that the classical Greek and Roman studies of rhetoric somehow missed.

Dormitive explanations rarely exist in the hard sciences, although at first they might appear to. Explanatory principles like “gravity” or “mass” might act like dormitive explanations for the semi-trained – for example, things fall because of gravity, which is the tendency for things to fall – but the fact that they can be used to calculate other behaviors indicates that they are more than circular causality hidden by a change in terminology.
However, on the fringes of science, dormitive explanation becomes more common.. For instance, consciousness is often described as the capacity for self-awareness. Often, words like “syndrome” or “complex” or “effect” are used, so that feelings of inadequacy become “impostor syndrome”with no attempt to classify symptoms systematically.

Similarly, in many New Age philosophies, explanations are give in terms of “energy,” which – since the term obviously does not refer to any sort of energy recognized by physics – amounts to just another name for a dormitive principle.

In some ways, dormitive explanation can become an appeal to authority, either to the authority of the explainer, or to the force or principle evoked as an explanation. For example, if you say that men have evolved to be better at mathematics than women, not only are you suggesting an evolutionary tendency whose existence is unproved, but you are mentioning evolution in the hopes of presenting an argument that others cannot challenge.

In fact, dormitive explanation is all about authority. It makes the person who gives it sound authoritative, and, if accepted, gives listeners a sense that something that concerns them has been explained. In practice, no explanation has been given at all, but unless the listeners can analyze while someone else speaks, they are unlikely to recognize what is happening until later.

Many, of course, never recognize it all, and have no desire to do so. After all, which would you rather do: suffer from joint pain, or have arthritis? The problem is not that arthritis doesn’t exist, but that it is a generic term that covers dozens of different conditions. That means that being told you have arthritis actually does people little good. Yet, having a scientific-sounding name for their condition is reassuring for many people, even if the name does little to suggest treatment or prognosis.

What makes the concept of dormitive explanation so important to me is the fact that it is generally unrecognized and used to assert authority and give false reassurance. By contrast, by being aware of the concept, you can learn to notice it when you encounter it, and reject the lack of logic behind it. The result can be not only clearer thinking, but a clearer sense of what to do next.

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Having recently developed an anti-harassment policy, Linux.conf.au had to enforce it last week when a key note presentation included slides depicting bondage and a pig and a duck having sex. Both the organizers and the speaker apologized, and those involved describe both the conference’s actions and the apologies as what should have happened. I don’t question that description, but I can’t help making a few random comments and observations about the incident and some of the discussion surrounding it on the conference mailing list:

  • What is somebody thinking when they deliver an unnecessarily sexualized presentation? Even if a conference has no anti-harassment policy, common sense should be enough to make them realize that the result is going to be controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with the talk itself. Do they think it edgy and daring? That any attention is worth having? If so, the motivations strike me as less than professional.
  • During the mailing list discussion, most people who supported the policy said that the slides added nothing to the discussion, while those who opposed it said that they made it more effective. Both these responses strike me as intellectually dishonest, because in both opinion is overwhelming critical judgment. Actually, the policy violation and the quality of the talk are two separate issues, although only a few people on either side were capable of making the distinction.
  • At least one commenter insisted that bondage was not sexual. Unless I lack imagination, I think that the only way that you can make this statement is by selective literal-mindedness. It’s true that the bondage slides did not depict an act of sex, and that bondage (I’m told) does not always include sex, but nobody else thinks of that range of behavior as anything but sexual in nature.
  • The same commenter said that the presentation’s contents was not sexual but “adult.” Aside from the fact that “adult” usually seems to mean “adolescent,” this is an excellent example of what Gregory Bateson called “dormitive explanation” (The reference is to a scene in Moliere in which a doctoral candidate says that opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle). In other words, it pretends to explain or make a distinction when all it really does is rename.
  • Inevitably, charges of censorship were made during the mailing list discussion, describing the atmosphere as part of “New Salem.” Given the Internet, this argument always seems disingenuous. So one venue prevents you from a form of expression – what does that leave you? A few billion alternatives? People who are organizing and paying for a venue have every right to set the conditions they choose, and anyone who dislikes those conditions is free to go elsewhere. Anyway, the policy only dictates how subject matter is presented, not the subject matter itself.
  • Another defense was that what is offensive is subjective. In some cases, that may be true, but I noticed that this defense was made in the abstract. That was probably because the slides themselves were not a borderline case. They were in no way comparable to, for example, a slide showing a relevant female authority that, because of the angle of the shot or the lighting, was more revealing than intended.

If these observations add up to anything, I guess it’s the fact that – surprise! – the topic of anti-harassment policies generates a lot of special pleading and intellectually questionable arguments. If someone hasn’t already, they could easily create an anti-harassment policy bingo card, like the ones developed for anti-feminism or rape. I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of these types of responses in the coming months.

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