All terrorists and swans are white

I’m not so good with logic. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it has something to do with the kind of  precise thinking that’s required to be a master logician. I’ll admit I’m not terribly good with thinking with formality and precision. My brain just isn’t rigged to that kind of thinking. If you think about what logic is (philosophically speaking) it seems that it should be easy to master. Logic is defined as:

 a theory of reasoning: the branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of deductive and inductive arguments and aims to distinguish good from bad reasoning.

 I’ll also admit that a lack of precision is not terribly helpful when thinking philosophically.

Anyway, despite the fact that I’m not logically inclined, every-so-often the few logic cells I have in my brain are struck by something so not logical that even I feel the need to speak up.

This is what I saw:

Now, I’m not a person who is inclined to argue with a meme (as the act of arguing with a meme suggests that you’ve already lost the argument), but there’s something kind of fishy about what this particular image says; namely, the image infers that all Muslims are terrorists.

Lets look at this statement from a logical point of view:

The picture is stating two things: 1) not all Muslims are terrorists, and 2) all terrorists are Muslims.

statement 1: not all Muslims are terrorists is true. In fact, the majority of the world’s billion Muslims are not terrorists or inclined to perform acts of violence towards others — for any reason. However, statement 2) but why all terrorists are Muslims is troubling; not only because many people believe it is true (hence the picture), but because the statement is just so false.

I know, some people out there are not convinced that statement 2 is false. They believe that terrorism is a product of anti-American Islamic sentiments towards the West, and that Islam, despite the arguments that it is a “religion of peace”, teaches its adherents that violence is the only means of dealing with those who do not adhere to the teachings of the prophet Mohammed.

There is no doubt that some terrorists are Muslims. The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 were carried out by Islamic terrorists. Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and Abu Sayyaf are all classified as Islamic terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. And one need only watch the evening news to see reports of terrorist attacks by Muslims against the U.S. and other western interests. It’s quite easy to see how someone would conclude that all terrorists are Muslims. But here’s the thing: that conclusion is based on what philosophers (and logicians) call inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning (aka induction) is:

is a kind of reasoning that constructs or evaluates general propositions that are derived from specific examples. (wikipedia)

It’s a fair bet to say that most of our every day knowledge about the world is based on inductive reasoning. I use induction when I assume that the sun will rise tomorrow or that all swans are white. I construct a general statement: the sun will rise tomorrow, from specific examples of the sun rising. Usually induction works (just as a scientist to see if it does). But there’s a problem: induction doesn’t always work. In fact, sometimes induction gets us to answers that are just plain wrong.

* This is the famous problem of induction (see: David Hume,  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).

Our problem with induction is that we just can’t verify every claim that we make. Using our experience or observations to make statement about the way things are or will be works only if nature does not change (nature is uniform). If our claims are based on observation, we must realize that our observation is limited — we, unlike God, can’t see all things. We can’t see all swans. We cannot certainly know that the sun will come up tomorrow. Every terrorist we see on TV may be a Muslim, but we cannot see every terrorist in the world. If we look around, we would see some terrorists look like this:

and like this…

and like this…

and like this:

 We can name dozens of examples of terrorists who are not Muslim. The 1995 serin gas subway attack in Tokyo, Japan was carried out by the doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo. The Ku Klux Klan, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ugandan Lords Resistance Army leader, Joesph Kony are all Christian terrorists. By just naming a few examples we can already see that not all terrorists are Muslims. In fact, based on the prevalence of non-Muslim terrorist activity, we may be hard pressed even to argue that a terrorist is more likely to be a Muslim than not.

But then again, the internet wouldn’t say that all terrorists are Muslims if it wasn’t true, right?


2 thoughts on “All terrorists and swans are white

  1. There has always been this problem with logical reasoning it’s rather like this Monty Python classic.

    Maybe an extreme example but it was that kind of thinking which caused William of Ockham to completely rethink logic. Inductive reasoning is great for set theory but useless for understanding human interaction.

    The very word terrorist is a subjective nightmare, the Mujahideen supported and lauded by Ronald Reagan as freedom fighters and God’s holy warriors were branded terrorists the Soviet Union, it was acts of “terrorism” against the Soviet allied Afghani government that precipitated their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. It was the tactics taught to the Mujahideen by the US military and CIA and the equipment and finance supplied by the USA to the Mujahideen that finally forced the Soviet withdrawal in 1988, ergo the US supported and armed terrorists, well logically that is viable argument. I spent 12 years of my life in the British military, 8 in special forces, in Kosovo we worked with the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) a group branded Islamic terrorists by the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic. Am I a terrorist?

    One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I would suggest that only history makes the determination and logic should steer well clear.

    • An Interesting Aside:

      Wittgenstein once remarked “The limits of my language are limits of my world”

      Therein we have the most cogent example perhaps even logical proof of the limitations of inductive reasoning, if one cannot define objective meaning of word (in this case terrorism) then how can we logically reason who or what constitutes a terrorist or terrorism.

      “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

      For my part, crashing airliners into buildings or suicide bombing people on London Underground are acts of terrorism, I’m wholly unsure about blowing up soldiers occupying a foreign nation? Does this mean that I regard the Taliban as freedom fighters, I think not, but I regard them has something other than terrorists. Yes this is philosophically problematic.

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