Monthly Archives: February 2014

Critical Thinking 8: Ad hominem

Ad hominem is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the man’, and it is the label for a particular kind of fallacy in Critical Thinking. Sometimes this is known as “playing the man, not the ball”. It consists in an irrelevant appeal to the nature of a person to either support or dismiss their argument (usually to dismiss it). The following video gives some different types and examples:

The following video gives a great example from a US election campaign.

Here the argument is against Dan Quayle, comparing him unfavourably to Jack Kennedy even though he never claimed to be like Jack Kennedy, but merely compared his degree of experience to that of Kennedy. This is a kind of reversed guilt by association, dismissing Quayle’s argument about his suitability to stand in for the president through an irrelevant personal comparison.Sniper

However, there are some circumstances where it is relevant and appropriate to judge an argument by the character of the arguer. This is obviously the case if that person’s character is the subject of the discussion. So, if, for example, someone boasted in a job interview that they would make a good manager because they used to captain their school football team, it would not be ad hominem to respond that their criminal record undermined this claim by showing other characteristics that would not fit being a good manager. On the other hand, if someone said “The Scots won’t vote for independence: I saw a poll showing the majority were still against it” it would be an irrelevant personal observation to say “You’ve got a criminal record, so I don’t think you can offer any acceptable view of political matters.”

A person’s character may affect their credibility (which I discussed in Critical Thinking 7), but credibility gives an argument incrementally more or less weight. It never justifies the absolute acceptance or dismissal of an argument on the grounds of character. So, to spot an ad hominem, look out for sweeping dismissals (or occasionally, sweeping acceptances) without any incremental engagement with the complex inter-relationship between character and argument.


Are the following fallacious ad hominems, or reasonable and relevant comments on character, or somewhere in between?

1. Harriet Harman has recently been in dispute with the Daily Mail over allegations that her past involvement with the National Council for Civil Liberties, at a time when the Paedophile Information Exchange was an affiliate of NCCL, meant that she was an “apologist for paedophilia”. Harman posted a tweet, in which she included a picture from Mail Online showing three bikini-clad girls (all under 18), and asked: “When it comes to decency and sexualisation of children, would you take lessons from the Daily Mail?”

2. ‘Gentlemen of the jury, because I have justice on my side, I am sure you will not be influenced by this gentleman’s pretended knowledge of the law. Why. he doesn’t even know which side of his shirt ought to be in front!’  Abraham Lincoln

3. David Cameron was elected promising “the greenest government ever”, but the number of international flights taken by the Prime Minister with his entourage is just as high as the number taken by his predecessors.

4. The baby boomer generation, who have benefitted massively from rising property prices without lifting a finger, have no right to tell younger people that they will have to work hard for a decent living.

5. George Osborne has a 2:1 in Modern History from Oxford. That hardly equips him to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post that obviously requires a profound grasp of Economics.

Georgio Morandi. 1890 – 1964. Still Life.

A still life is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, its origins are found in the Middle Ages and ancient Greco-Roman art, it was first seen in Western art in the early 16th. century when the paintings often contained religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted,  we see how these objects lose their domestic purpose to become sculptural objects  ‘that may invite meditation and contemplation’,  we slow down and focus when looking at them.

Morandi solved the problem of ambiguity in meaning, i.e.  domestic objects or motifs in art, reaching an integration that gives the objects new meaning, it is possible to give new meaning to most works of art , some artists are more skillful than others in conveying what they wish to express, some art critics interpret the intention in the work in a way the artist has not. ‘His work ( Morandi) is not about depicting the solidity of objects but rather interpreting them as a metaphor of light, space, body and time’ I think this is so, others may disagree.

Georgio Morandi was born in Bologna, Italy, he spent most of his life  living with his mother and sisters, he had a second home in the Appenines. He studied for six years at the Academia de Belle art in Bologna, He was aware of paintings by Giotto, Massaccio,  Uccelli and Monet and very much admired the work of Cezanne, whose use of geometric shapes, like the cube and cylinder, when painting landscapes and still lifes, was to influence his own work. He knew Futurist painters and writers and exhibited work with them, also Surrealist painters like de Chirico, although he didn’t share their philosophy. He didn’t travel abroad until 1956 and then he did not go to Paris, the hub of artistic creativity at the time.

In this still life which Morandi painted in 1956, he arranged eight objects in two lines, the colours are beautifully muted, he did at times use the earthy colours of his native Bologna. He wrote ‘The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, colour and forms’,  as mentioned earlier, these themes crop up often  when describing his work, he uses these elements to transform what he sees into what he paints, so we see how he places his objects, chooses the colour and creates new shapes, groups of objects create new boundaries. Some critics have been critical of Morandi for using  the objects over and over again while others write that the objects ‘are not there at all.’ His work oscillates between figurative and abstract, it ‘is elusive as well as self revealing’ and as mentioned earlier sometimes his objects overlap or are grouped in blocks, so that a contour becomes a boundary shared by two or more objects.

Looking at his work we can sense a stillness, the groups are an island of calm , the bowl, bottle or pitcher provide their own stability and balance. One art critic wrote ‘In the limitation of Morandi’s motifs appears the abundance of his world.’ He successfully remained focused on very familiar objects for many years just as Cezanne had painted the same mountain time and time again. Space became indistinguishable from the object.  George Lakoff describes it as ‘in betweeness’ that also contains meaning. Looking at more  of Morandi’s work would be of help to see how he creates a variety of shapes gained from the same objects, I enjoy turning his paintings upside down to see the objects/spaces from a new angle. He was an excellent draughtsman and left a large body of work in many media – oils, watercolours, drawings and etchings.




The MWS Podcast: Episode 13, Robert M. Ellis

In this member profile, the chair of the society Robert M. Ellis tells us about his background, the time he spent as a Buddhist, how he first became interested in philosophy and how he came to develop Middle Way Philosophy. He also talks about how the society came about and what vision he has for its future.

MWS Podcast 13: Robert M. Ellis as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_13_Robert_M_Ellis

Previous podcasts:

Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1 : Robert M. Ellis on the skill of critical thinking.

Critical Thinking 7: Authority and Credibility

The Middle Way involves the avoidance of absolute authorities, but also the avoidance of the converse – dismissing all authority. In between we have the idea of justified authority that can be based on experience. Recognised fallacies in Critical Thinking, such as the irrelevant appeal to authority or the genetic fallacy, reinforce this need to avoid dogmatic extremes in thinking about authority. John_Caird_(theologian)Cognitive biases such as the authority bias also reflect psychological evidence of our tendency to uncritically obey authorities, especially reflected in the famous Milgram experiments.

The basic fallacy recognised in Critical Thinking in relation to authority is the irrelevant appeal to authority. This involves the assumption that an authority figure must be correct in whatever they claim, whether or not it is relevant to their particular expertise. Many adverts trade on this by using celebrities to endorse products that they have no particular expertise in. The following US commercial from the 1950’s is a classic example:

Nevertheless, because doctors are probably not a relevant authority to consult on which brand of cigarette to smoke, this does not imply that they do not have any authority. I am likely to rely on my doctor’s authority if he prescribes me a drug for a serious condition – not because I think him/her infallible, but because experience suggests that doctors are the best available source of information. The justification is largely second-hand, but no worse for that: the experience of most other people, that they have communicated to me, is that doctors are the best available guides to the complex field of medicine. To dismiss this authority on the basis of some mistakes made by doctors (even some serious ones) would be to make the reverse fallacy.

Another way of putting this more positively is that doctors have credibility. We are obliged to make judgements of credibility constantly, when deciding which books to read, which experts to consult, whose advice to heed etc, when (as often) we have no direct understanding of the issues. There are various criteria you can consciously apply to reflect on credibility: reputation, ability to gain information, vested interest, expertise, corroborating or conflicting information, and previously-known tendency towards bias. None of these are decisive by themselves, but they can be weighed together to try to reach a justified judgement.

It would be unjustified to give a huge weighting to one way of judging but ignore the others. For example, people often have some kind of vested interest in your acceptance of the information they offer (e.g. now, if you read this blog post, I have some vested interest in the shape of a vague hope that this will encourage you to buy one of my books in future). However, vested interest does not necessarily mean that the information should be treated with suspicion, or that the person’s motives are dominated by it, and if we dismissed everyone with a vested interest, we would never consult any experts about anything. Similarly, we often over-rate the effect of one well-known event on someone’s reputation: but if someone made a mistake or even committed a crime in the past, this might just as well be taken as a sign that they are likely to avoid that mistake in the future than that they will repeat it.

The authority bias, then, is like a single over-rated criterion of credibility. If, as in the Milgram experiments, you’re prepared to give painful electric shocks to others because a man in a white coat tells you to do so, you’re assuming that they have absolute authority because of their apparent expertise, and not considering the possibility of a problem with their moral judgement. Similarly, in a religious context, if you think that the fact that the book of Leviticus forbids homosexuality offers a relevant moral command for today, you are effectively taking the reputation of that religious text within a certain limited group and using this as your sole criterion for its credibility, whilst ignoring the lack of relevant expertise of the people who created the text, and the conflicts with other more recent sources of information.

Appeals to authority at their broadest are genetic fallacies – that is, the assumption that a claim is absolutely right because of where it comes from. This can apply to people, texts, governments, traditions, supposed intuitions and supposed observations. The basic problem is that wherever you think it has come from, you are still responsible for interpreting it and judging that it is justified and credible. If we take responsibility for our own judgements, the authority bias becomes much less likely.


Do the following appear to be justifiable uses of authority? Why/ why not?

1. A father tells his three-year old daughter to stop slapping her sister. When she asks “Why?” he replies “Because I said so.”

2. A traditional Thai Buddhist buys a caged bird and releases it to gain merit. When questioned about this by a Western visitor, he explains that this is supported by Buddhist tradition and obeys the precepts of the Buddha.

3. A Member of Parliament votes against her conscience. When questioned by a constituent she explains that she was pressured by her party whip, and risked being de-selected by her party if she refused to vote with the party.

4. An amendment to the law in Afghanistan restores the right of a husband to use violence against his wife. The amendment is justified with reference to the Qur’an.

5. A disruptive student is told to leave the classroom by a teacher. The student refuses to leave, on the grounds that the teacher “Can’t just boss me around – I’ve got rights”.

6. A doctor gives advice on diet to an obese patient, which the patient refuses to follow. The patient points out that the doctor is overweight himself.

7. A husband had an extra-marital affair which was discovered, apologised for and forgiven a year ago. Since then his relationship with his wife has been good and trust seems to have been restored. However, now she is again suspicious about his fidelity (though the evidence is ambiguous). When the husband protests his innocence, she refuses to believe him, on the grounds that she was deceived before.

Meditation 6: The Inward or the Outward Way


blanket bath

(Nurses learn a practical procedure in the classroom circa 1950 – Google)

Recent posts on meditation and again on mysticism have provided a scaffold on which to arrange my thoughts about both, and appraise them a little.  In Meditation 4 I had something to say about possible alternatives to sitting meditation, including a practice I favour: “Standing Like A Tree”, a kind of yoga.

I shall now briefly address the issue of “introverted attention” and “extroverted attention”, as these terms seem to apply to, and perhaps differentiate, two rather different meditation practices, two different methods of meditating,  perhaps subserving two different purposes and leading to two different outcomes.

“Introverted attention”  or the “inward way” usually occurs within a religious or doctrinal context, the method set out in teachings or texts, follows tradition, and involves a specific decision or a set of decisions, and a commitment to continuing practice.

Methodologically, the meditator goes to a quiet place, adopts a cross sitting legged position, eyes closed or half-closed, and focusses attention on some chosen sense object, usually the breath or some component of breath, such as the sensations at the nostrils.  The starting-out object (and the possible result) is separation from sensuality, the quieting of discursive thought, some tranquillity, and perhaps an experience of pleasure and zest.

“Introverted attention” has as its purpose (if it is deemed to have any purpose) as the ultimate attainment of  “contentless experience” – a state of consciousness totally devoid of sensory input, memory, discursive thought, feeling, emotion etc.  A committed practitioner may attain by increments to a state of ‘contentless experience’ by moving through an ascending scale of states, each of which contains less content than the preceding one.   Perhaps modesty forbids that meditators lay claim to attainment of any position  on the notional scale, I don’t know.  But I do wonder how any such attainment would ‘spin off’ into action that impacted the world, and how we could recognise it, and learn from it.

“Extroverted attention”, again as I understand it, means “going outward” and may be called the “outward way”.   In contrast to the “inward way” it involves much less methodological consistency, and may “grow like Topsy” out of the routine activities of everyday life and workaday situations, without a specific decision  to practice, or any purpose beyond the utilitarian, such as learning a skill necessary to do a job.

Later on in this article I’ve included some nursing notes that – to my mind – conduce incidentally to “extroverted attention”; but I don’t think that they were intended to develop extroverted attention beyond their prosaic remit, and don’t exist within a recognisable religious or philosophical context.  I’m not making any special claim for them, but they may interest and intrigue you, as they do me.

Unlike the techniques of “introverted attention”, the “extroverted attention”practitioner (for want of a word to describe everywoman/everyman at large) has her eyes open, and is open to all her senses and all her immediate experience, including her orientation in space and time, her posture, her movements, and the physical presence of proximate objects and life-forms.  The lens of her experience is widely open, and takes in ‘the big picture’, while able to discriminate detail as well, notice change, and to act appropriately to it.

Paradoxically perhaps, she is relatively free from discursive thought, although she may have internalised a series of mental cues and prompts that operate at a level just below the horizon of conscious awareness, and are accessible as thoughts by a small act of intention, like a voluntary blink.

In “extroverted attention” her personal boundary seems to expand, and to become more and more permeable and blurred, so that the subject-object distinctions lose their valency.  It is, perhaps, in this way that the pianist’s fingers become one with the keys, the seamstress’s fingers with her needle and threads, the surgeon’s with her scalpel and the organ it incises; the jockey with his horse.

Because the aperture of attention is limitless, so the idea of an aperture between observer and observed is (as if) meaningless. The distinction between carer and cared-for is also lost, as is the notion of compassion as something that flows from one vessel to another, as if from an unidirectional nozzle.   Compassion can’t be contrived, but it can be apprehended as a stream of meaning in which both ‘carer’ and ‘cared-for’ are immersed, and in which their reciprocal agency is engaged ‘as one’.

I think there is always a question in the air about which meditation practice is ‘best’, and perhaps that question begs the question “Best for what?”.  For me (and please challenge me on this) I might argue that weighing the “inward way” against the “outward way” is like assessing the relative merits of breathing in and breathing out: the answer does rest/doesn’t rest on what’s the purpose of breathing at all……

Stafford Hospital

PRACTICAL NURSING NOTES (circa 1955) – edited extracts

Performing a blanket bath or bed bath is an important nursing duty, not to be shirked by a nurse on grounds of her seniority, or because she may be called to more pressing duties.  A senior nurse will remind herself of her duty to teach and supervise her junior in the performance of such duties; she will pride herself in passing on her knowledge, skill and especially her dexterity, her economy of movement, and her powers of observation to another, thus kindling her charge’s enthusiasm for excellence in bedside nursing care;  encouraging her devotion to the nursing art; and earning her professional respect.

Aside from its importance in maintaining a level of personal hygiene – vital for health, for self-respect and for dignity, and the prevention of the secondary infections and decubitus ulcers (bedsores) associated with prolonged bed rest – the skilfully administered blanket bath confers a profound feeling of well-being on the patient, and helps him to develop trust and confidence in his nurse. This sense of security is necessary for the confidential exchange of information between patient and nurse, in order that she may build up a picture of his progress, its adequacy in response to his treatment and care, and any hindrances to progress that will need attention by the physician.

Having collected the requisite equipment, lay up a bath-trolley (which should be scrupulously clean) as follows:

Top shelf: enamel bowl, large enamel water jug containing water at 45 degrees Celsius; large receiver or kidney dish containing two body flannels, suitably sized portion of white unperfumed soap, unperfumed talcum powder (the patient’s own talcum powder may be used if he permits its use), surgical spirit in sprinkler bottle, large enamel bowl of coarse tow or brown wool for peri-anal toilet, small receiver or kidney dish containing a nail brush, nail-scissors, a hair brush and comb; small bowl or receiver containing an enamel mug for mouth-wash.

Lower shelf:  Enamel bucket for used water; large enamel water jug containing water at 60 degrees Celsius; bedpan and/or urinal and sanitary cover; toilet tissue; bath thermometer; strong paper bag for disposal of used tow or brown wool; two large bath towels and a face towel; change of night attire or gown;  change of bed linen (normally one draw sheet, one bed sheet and one pillow case); one flannel bath blanket.

Check the contents of the trolley carefully before proceeding to the bedside to prepare the patient and the environment for the procedure.

Inform the patient about what you intend to do and so as to ensure his willing cooperation.  Close the nearby windows to exclude draughts and screen the bed or close the bed-curtains.

Carefully assist the patient in the removal of his night-clothing, taking care to preserve his dignity and privacy.  The nurse’s movements and gestures will be well-considered, economical, unhurried, firm, gentle; they will inspire confidence and they will reassure; nurse will have full attention for any indication in the patient’s response that her support is the occasion of any alarm, discomfort or his unwillingness to proceed.

When washing the upper limbs, begin with the arm distal to the ministering nurse.   Ensure that the proximal arm and chest are covered so as to avoid drips. Wash the exposed arm from the shoulder down its length with a soaped cloth, using long firm strokes from above to the tips of the fingers, giving careful attention to between the fingers, and to skin creases and folds.  Note the condition of the nails and cuticles.  Rinse the wash-cloth and repeat the washing action to remove all suds, then dry the limb and hand carefully and cover with the flannel blanket to prevent chilling.


At the end of a skilfully-performed blanket bath, it is not unusual for the patient to drop into a peaceful sleep, waking refreshed after a short interval.  Nurse will plan her procedure to take this into account, especially if the blanket bath is administered less than hour before a main meal is served.