Monday, November 24, 2014

A Philosophically Fallacious Meme: The Problem with Philosoraptor

Philosoraptor, the well-known “meme” (image macro series) depicting a velociraptor contemplating philosophy’s deep questions, is an internet-pervading entity, distorting difficult philosophical problems into oversimplified bite-sized chunks of “wisdom.”  Although I must admit that, personally, I think a lot of the Philosoraptor quotes are pretty hilarious, for example: “if they squeeze olives to get olive oil, what do they squeeze to make baby oil;”1 however, there are others that demonstrate gross overgeneralizations, resulting in negative consequences.  The rhetorical devices that have seeped into our natural, plain speech are often misused/misinterpreted, and therefore have no proper place in conducting logical arguments.  I know many people would reject my claim on the grounds that the illustrations are meant to be light-hearted and funny, but these warped thoughts often lead to misconceptions concerning philosophical problems and are better examples of fallacies rather than legitimate statements.
Before the Philosoraptor gained significant popularity as a t-shirt design, it was initially a still frame of a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park with a copy of ‘Plato’s Complete Works’ in her2 hands.  The whole idea of Philosoraptor was originally a clever pun, without any philosophical prompts surrounding it.  According to, the modern-day Philosoraptor is:  
“A philosophical cousin of the Velociraptor…It’s commonly used as an image macro with a picture of the Philosoraptor’s head, one talon poised under its chin, as it ponders the deeper questions of the universe.  It is generally accompanied by a riddle, pronoun or philosophical issue, or a parody of one of these, that the Philosoraptor is currently mulling over.”3
Like most “memes,” or online fads in general, there is no telling exactly who took the Philosoraptor to this next level, but now it is one of the most popular “memes” on the web with over 38,000 “thoughts” on 12 different templates- an astounding amount of deep, Paleolithic thought.
The idea, or movement perhaps, of the Philosoraptor has obviously become viral, but is this a good thing?  Undoubtedly, the Philosoraptor is a positive addition to the interwebz in that she drives people into the mindset of inquiring into these philosophical concepts and encouraging them to challenge established conventions; however, they are not to be seen as legitimate claims.  As silly as it may seem for anyone to take philosophical advice from an extinct reptile, I have actually seen the Philosoraptor cited as if she were a genuine scholar from Oxford or some nonsense like that, and her thoughts used as an authentic premise/conclusion within a philosophical argument.  This is where the trouble lies:  people do not understand that if the Philosoraptor were truly an Oxford graduate and a fine intellectual, there would not be an obvious fallacy in most of her thoughts, and, ironically, applying her thoughts as something valid is a fallacy in and of itself (that of appealing to false authority/experts).
This brings to the forefront another root of this concern: that of authorship.  It is important for frequent interwebz wanderers to realize that the Philosoraptor is composed of the ideas of thousands of different people, many whom are unnamed, meaning that there is no one source or author, and no reasons are provided for the given conclusions.  The only knowledge Philosoraptor provides are disarrayed stepping-stones for a meandering curiosity, not blocks of an organized, sound philosophical thought.  This is because the people who comprise her are not the geniuses in the ivory-tower we tend to believe author such compelling thoughts, but, more likely, stoners with ‘mind-blowing’ revelations.  Considering Philosoraptor thoughts like “Do we see colors differently?  Is my green your red?  Is my blue your blue?”, it is hard to imagine them being produced anywhere outside of a hazy circle in a college kid’s basement.  To be sure, I am by no means discrediting all thoughts expressed through the Philosoraptor, for some are logical tautologies: “Even if I choose not to decide I have still made a choice;”4 however, most are distorted, oversimplified versions of the authentic ideas of truly great thinkers.  
To be sure, an informal fallacy is properly defined as an illogical conclusion due to false/invalid reasoning, following the general categories of those relating to irrelevance (use premises that are not logically relevant to conclusions, though they appear to be), those involving ambiguity (contain vague words or confuse closely related concepts), and those based off unwarranted assumptions (contain premises that, in the context, require further support).  It is important to note that many fallacies, within the scope of writing, outline various regularly-used rhetorical strategies such as analogy, synecdoche, and eponym; however, taken within the scope of philosophical argumentation, these devices can be respectively construed as the ‘Straw Man’ fallacy, that of composition/division, and ad hominum.  As much as I love using rhetorical devises to add pizzazz to my own writings, they have no proper place within argumentation.  Language used in logic needs to be as clear and straightforward as possible (which tends to be more mathematical than natural or plain), and the rhetorical tactics commonly used in natural speech intentionally alter the typical meanings of words and their construction within sentences, but more on that later.
As previously stated, the fallacy of oversimplification is quite common amongst the Philosoraptor’s thoughts.  For example, “if money is the root of all evil, why do they ask for it in church,” though an intriguing question at face-value, is an obvious instance of the fallacy of loaded questions (a derivative of the fallacy of oversimplification) in which the given question is based off assumptions that have not been properly justified.  The above question assumes a pre-established belief that money is, indeed, the root of all evil; that churches, indeed, petition for it; and that, perhaps most controversially and fundamentally, the Bible is, indeed, true as well.  Ergo, it becomes necessary for these implied assumptions to be logically accepted as true before the purported question can be properly answered, and, considering the prerequisites for the statement above, this is not a question that can be easily answered.
Such a fallacy can be avoided if the “harder” question hidden within the statement is instead asserted as part of the argument.  A reformulation of the previous claim using proper logic techniques would then go as such:  “‘Money is the root of all evil’ is true if and only if the Bible is true; if the Bible is true, then it is not right for Churches to ask for money; ergo, if money is the root of all evil, then it is not right for Churches to ask for money.”5  Unfortunately, such a transcription would not fit onto the typical Philosoraptor format, and, more importantly, would not be as groundbreaking (or as humorous in some cases) of an assertion.  
Consider the Philosoraptor’s use of analogy (in philosophy, ‘Straw Man’) in the following argument: “if guns don’t kill people, people do, then do toasters not toast toast, but toast toasts toast?”  Such a clever reptile you are, Philosoraptor, however this is a clear example of the ‘Straw Man’ fallacy, in that she is misrepresenting the opponent’s view for the purpose of refuting it.  Though there is obviously no logical connection between guns killing people and toast toasting toast, the way this argument is presented appeals to our natural tendency to desire things that are (seemingly) easily understood through association. In our conditioned plain language use, analogies are regularly used to reveal a common relationship to prove a point, yet we tend to unintentionally ignore the implied ways of how they are not similar.

Now, you may be thinking that I am mistakenly dissing creative language within argumentation, and, instead of dissing plain language in philosophical spheres of communication, am actually favoring it; however (and this is where my point comes in), many of these rhetorical devices have been used so regularly that what is properly deemed as creative has evolved, within natural speech, into what is felt to be plain and simple.  This unconscious conditioning results in such strategies being employed without an understanding of how that alters the statement uttered, and, consequently, how statements are perceived.  The miscommunications and misrepresentations the meme puts forth are then exacerbated by the Philosoraptor’s overwhelming popularity, and the flawed logic within the thoughts are broadcast to the globe, accessible to any and all.  Ergo, it becomes necessary for us, as a reasoning creature, to be able to identify the misleading rhetorical devices we use in our ordinary language and understand their effects within a given context, especially if the context strongly affects our perspective concerning our reality and our relation to the world.  In this way, though the Philosoraptor is a humorous lil’ bugger, she is not to be misconstrued as a fitting philosopher/logician, but rather as a curious starting point for idle chatter.    
-Danielle Watterson

1 Or "If Professor Charles Xavier can control things with his mind, why can't he control his legs?
2 Yes, I will be gendering the Philosoraptor as female for no reason other than the need for more females in philosophy.
4 To be sure, these are actually song lyrics from “Freewill” by Rush; which is a totally awesome song that you should all listen to.
5 In symbolic logic: “1) M ↔ B 

                                   2) B ➔ -C 
                                   C) M ➔ -C”

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