Category Archives: faulty reasoning

“…people do this for a living today.”

Ah, the job market. This statement pairs well with my student’s claim that Shakespeare expressed himself well in poetry because it was his job.

This passage concerns quite a different kind of job, though, and quite a different logical context. Here’s the whole comment, concerning the Salem witch trials:

“Another incident involves a woman Margaret Rule who was levitated. The phenomenon of levitation is practiced today by men who perform magic tricks. This disproves that Margaret Rule was possessed because people do this for a living today.”

I’m not sure one “practices” a “phenomenon,” but let that go.

The reasoning process bears a superficial resemblance to an Aristotelian syllogism. But it has some pretty shaky premises; and while its conclusion that Margaret Rule was not possessed is probably accurate, it isn’t logically proven here.

To legitimize the “middle”—people doing something for a living—we have to assume that doing something for a living negates any chance of demonic agency (and, looking at some of today’s movers and shakers, I’m not sure I’m willing to make that assumption). We also have to equate being levitated with causing levitation—or, alternatively, find someone who is levitated as his or her job. Well, I guess a magician’s assistant might qualify there. “Men who perform magic tricks” are, presumably, magicians, the ones who “do this for a living,” rather than just drunks in bars who like to pull quarters out of people’s ears or force innocent bystanders to “pick a card.”

And then there’s the essential assumption that being able to do something in a certain way indicates that that is the only way it can be done: thus, showing that someone can be levitated as a magic trick proves that no one can be levitated except by magic trickery. It’s nice to think that when my former next-door neighbor was earning spending money as a teenager by doing magic tricks at birthday parties, he was proving that Satan and his minions do not exercise their power on this earth, or at least in the presence of cake.

My student may or may not be making that claim. Or perhaps he’s demonstrating that the exception proves the rule (I can’t avoid the appearance of a pun here!): If we have assumed that levitation is always evidence of demonic possession, then an instance of levitation NOT caused by demonic possession must challenge that assumption. Very good. But an exception may lead to a qualifying of the rule (Levitation is frequently evidence of demonic possession, or Levitation can be evidence of demonic possession, or Levitation has several causes, one of which is demonic possession); it doesn’t necessarily entirely negate the original idea, as my student seems to think. In Doctor Faustus Kit Marlowe juxtaposes serious and comic scenes: Mephistopheles achieves by satanic power effects that Faustus’ clownish servants then manage by earthly practical jokes. Marlowe isn’t saying that the latter disproves the former, though—the ending of the play demonstrates the dreadful reality of hell and the devil. Rather, he’s showing the triviality of Faustus’ imagination once he’s sold his soul.

I think the word that really trips up the passage is “because,” a word that seems to get students into conceptual trouble a lot. He’s right that if professional magicians routinely create the illusion of levitation, we have to entertain the possibility that the levitation of Margaret Rule was an illusion of the lookers-on, not an actual event, especially since the only evidence of levitation in the Rule case was the assertion of supposed eye-witnesses (which, we have finally learned, is inherently untrustworthy).  But he’s wrong that because professional magicians seem to levitate people, one individual more than four hundred years ago could not have been levitated by any other means.

The fact that I view the Salem witch trials, and other witch trials in New England, as hysteria cynically manipulated for very human purposes makes me sympathetic with the student’s conclusion, but it has nothing to do with how I view the quality of his reasoning.

And as a general rule, I do think it’s healthy to acknowledge, with Hamlet, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy—regardless of what people do for a living.