The Finality Fallacy

11 January 2014


fallacy taxonomy

One of my pet peeves is when a matter is treated as though settled and final when there is in fact no finality at all in a given formulation or in the circumstances that the formulation seeks to capture. I am going to call this attribution of finality to matters remaining unsettled the “finality fallacy” (it would more accurate to call this the “false finality fallacy” but this is too long and alliterative to boot). This is an informal rather than a formal fallacy, so an individual might be impeccable in their logic while still committing the finality fallacy. Another way to understand informal fallacies is that they concern the premisses of reasoning rather than the reasoning itself (another term for this is material fallacy), and it is one of the premisses of any finality fallacy that a given matter is closed to discussion and nothing more need be said.

Like many fallacies, the finality fallacy is related to recognized fallacies, although it is difficult to classify exactly. One could compare the finality fallacy to ignoratio elenchi or begging the question or the moralistic fallacy — all of these are present in some degree or other in the finality fallacy in its various manifestations.

Preparing for a cosmic journey -- but one trip settles nothing.

Preparing for a cosmic journey — but one trip settles nothing.

Allow me to begin with an example from popular culture. Although it has been several years since I have seen the film Contact (written by Carl Sagan and loosely based on the life of Jill Tartar, famous for her work in SETI) I can remember how irritated I was by the ending, which treated the celestial journey made by the main character as a unique, one-off effort, despite the fact that an enormous apparatus was built to make the journey possible. If I had made the film I would have finished with a waiting line of people queued up to use the machine next, to make it clear that nothing is finished by the fact of a disputed first journey.

It is routine for films to end with a false sense of finality, as filmmakers assume that the audience requires resolution, or “closure.” We hear a lot about closure, but it is rare to see a clear definition of what exactly constitutes closure. Perhaps it is the desire for closure, generally speaking, that is the primary motivation for the finality fallacy. When the psychological need for closure leaks over into an intellectual need for closure, then we find rationalizations of a false finality; perhaps it would be better to call the finality fallacy a cognitive bias rather, or this might be the point at which material fallacy overlaps with cognitive bias.

Closure sign

The cultivation of a false finality is also prevalent among contemporary Marxists, especially those who focus on Marx’s economic doctrines rather than his wider social and philosophical critique. Marx’s economics was already antiquated by the time he published Das Kapital, but because of Marx’s influence, and because of the ongoing revolutionary tradition that rightly claims Marx as a founding father, Marx’s dictates on the labor theory of value are taken as final by Marxists, who must now, more than 150 years later, pretend as though no advances had been made in economics in the meantime. Strangely, this attitude is also taken for granted among ideological foes of Darwin, who, again more then 150 years later, continue to raise the same objections as though nothing had happened in biology since before 1859. This carefully studied ignorance takes a particular development in intellectual history and treats it as final, as the last word, as definitive, as Gospel.

Wherever there is a dogma, there is a finality fallacy waiting to be committed when the adherents of the dogma in question treat that dogma as final and must thereafter perpetuate the ruse that nothing essential changes after the dogma establishes the last word. In Islam, we have the notorious historical development of ‘closing the gate of ijtihad’ — ijtihad being individual rational inquiry. This is now a contested idea — i.e., whether there ever was a closing of the gate of ijtihad — as there seems to have been no official proclamation or definitive text, but there can be no question that the idea of closing the gate of ijtihad played an important role is Islamic civilization in discouraging inquiry and independent thought (what we would today call a “chilling” effect, much like the condemnations of 1277 in Western history).

Bertrand Russell evinced a certain irritation when his eponymous paradox was dismissed or treated as final before any satisfactory treatment had been formulated.

Bertrand Russell evinced a certain irritation when his eponymous paradox was dismissed or treated as final before any satisfactory treatment had been formulated.

Bertrand Russell evinced an obvious irritation and impatience with the response to his paradox, which reveals an attitude not unlike my impatience with false finality:

“Poincaré, who disliked mathematical logic and had accused it of being sterile, exclaimed with glee, ‘it is no longer sterile, it begets contradiction’. This was all very well, but it did nothing towards the solution of the problem. Some other mathematicians, who disapproved of Georg Cantor, adopted the March Hare’s solution: ‘I’m tired of this. Let’s change the subject.’ This, also, appeared to me inadequate.”

Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development, Chapter VII, “Principia Mathematica: Philosophical Aspects”

Russell knew that nothing was settled by dismissing mathematical logic, as Poincaré did, or by simply changing the subject, as others were content to do. But some were satisfied with these evasions; Russell would have none of it, and persisted until he satisfied himself with a solution (which was his theory of types). Most mathematicians rejected Russell’s solution, and it was Zermelo’s axiomatization of set theory that ultimately became the consensus choice among mathematicians for employing set theory without running into the contradiction discovered by Russell.

Now I will turn to the contemporary example that prompted this post — as I said above, the finality fallacy is a pet peeve, but this particular instance was the trigger for this particular post — in the work of contemporary philosopher John Gray.

John Gray is not a philosopher who writes intentionally inflammatory pieces in order to grab headlines. He regularly has short essays on the BBC (I have commented on his A Point Of View: Leaving Gormenghast; his A Point of View: Two cheers for human rights also appeared on the BBC). He has written a sober book on Mill’s On Liberty, Mill on Liberty: A Defence, and a study of the thought of Isaiah Berlin (Isaiah Berlin) — in no sense radical topics for a contemporary philosopher.


Among Gray’s many books is The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, in which we find the following:

“Echoing the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, there are some who think humans should escape the planet they have gutted by migrating into outer space. Happily, there is no prospect of the human animal extending its destructive career in this way. The cost of sending a single human being to another planet is prohibitive, and planets in the solar system are more inhospitable than the desolated Earth from which humans would be escaping.”

John Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 212

There is a lot going on in this brief passage, and I would like to try to gloss some of this implicit content. Gray is here counting on his reader nodding along with him, since human beings have indeed had a destructive career on Earth, and I can easily imagine someone agreeing to this also agreeing to the undesirability of this destructive career being extended beyond the Earth. Gray also throws in a sense of gross irresponsibility by speaking of human beings having “gutted” the planet, and presumably moving on to “gut” the next one, with the clear implication that this would be worse than arresting the destructive career of human beings on their homeworld. Then Gray moves on to the expense of space travel at the present moment and the inhospitableness of other planets in our solar system. He treats as though final the present expense of space travel and the need to live on the surface of a planet, but more importantly he does so in a moral context that is intended to give the impression that any attempt to go beyond the Earth is unspeakable folly and morally disastrous.

Eunapius and Philostratus

This may sound like a stretch, but I am reminded of a passage from Eunapius (b. 347 A.D.), where Eunapius described the kind of atmosphere that made the condemnation of Socrates possible in Athens:

“…no one of all the Athenians, even though they were a democracy, would have ventured on that accusation and indictment of one whom all the Athenians regarded as a walking image of wisdom, had it not been that in the drunkenness, insanity, and license of the Dionysia and the night festival, when light laughter and careless and dangerous emotions are discovered among men, Aristophanes first introduced ridicule into their corrupted minds, and by setting dances upon the stage won over the audience to his views…”

Philostratus and Eunapius, Lives of the Sophists, Cambridge and London: Harvard, 1921, p. 381

Though a sober philosopher in his own right, Gray here trades upon the light laughter and careless and dangerous emotions when he engages in the ridicule of a human future beyond the Earth, which he implies is not only unlikely (if not impossible) but also morally wrong. But to demonstrate his intellectual sobriety he next turns serious and has this to say on the next page:

“The pursuit of immortality through science is only incidentally a project aiming to defeat death. At bottom it is an attempt to escape contingency and mystery. Contingency means humans will always be subject to fate and chance, mystery that they will always be surrounded by the unknowable. For many this state of affairs is intolerable, even unthinkable. Using advancing knowledge, they insist, the human animal can transcend the human condition.”

John Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 213

Gray’s certainty and confidence of expression here mask the sheer absurdity of his claims; the expansion of a scientific civilization will by no means prejudice our relationship to contingency and mystery. On the contrary, it is a scientific understanding of the world that reminds us of contingency on levels that far exceed human capacity. The universe itself is a contingency, and all that it holds is contingency; science reminds us of this at every turn, and for the same reason, no matter how distantly human civilization travels beyond Earth, scientific mystery will be there to remind us of all that we still do not know.

But this is not my topic today (though it makes me angry to read it, and that is why I have quoted it). It is the previously quoted passage from Gray that truly bothers me because of its pose of finality in his pithy remarks about the human future beyond Earth. Gray is utterly dismissive of such prospects, and it is ultimately the dismissiveness that is the problem, not the view he holds.

I don’t mean to single out John Gray as especially guilty in this respect, though as a philosopher he is more guilty than others because he ought to know better, just as Russell knew better when it came to his paradox. In fact, there is some similarity here, because both mathematicians and philosophers were dismissive either of Russell’s paradox or of the formal methods that led to the paradox. We should not be dismissive. We need to confront these problems on their merits, and not turn it into a joke or an excuse to condemn human folly. We recall that a great many dismissed Cantor’s work as folly — after all, how can human beings know the infinite? — and Russell’s extension of Cantor’s work drew similar judgments. This, again, is closely connected to what we are talking about here, because the idea that human beings, finite as they are, can never know anything of the infinite (i.e., human beings cannot escape their legacy of intellectual finitude) is closely related to the idea that human beings can never escape their biological legacy of finitude, which is the topic of Gray’s book.

Hermann Weyl said that we live in an open world.

Hermann Weyl said that we live in an open world.

Anyone who views the world as an ongoing process of natural history, as I do, must see it as an open world. That the world is open, that it is neither closed nor final, neither finished nor complete, means that unprecedented events occur and that there always remains the possibility of evolution, by which we transcend a previous form of being and attain to a new form of being. The world’s openness is an idea that Hermann Weyl took as the title of three lectures from 1932, which end on this note:

“We reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man, both in the atheistic form of obdurate finiteness which is so alluringly represented today in Germany by the Freiburg philosopher Heidegger, and in the theistic, specifically Lutheran-Protestant form, where it serves as a background for the violent drama of contrition, revelation, and grace. On the contrary, mind is freedom within the limitations of existence; it is open toward the infinite. Indeed, God as the completed infinite cannot and will not be comprehended by it; neither can God penetrate into man by revelation, nor man penetrate to him by mystical perception. The completed infinite we can only represent in symbols. From this relationship every creative act of man receives its deep consecration and dignity. But only in mathematics and physics, as far as I can see, has symbolical-theoretical construction acquired sufficient solidity to be convincing for everyone whose mind is open to these sciences.”

Hermann Weyl, Mind and Nature: Selected Writings on Philosophy, Mathematics, and Physics, edited by Peter Pesic, Princeton University Press, 2009, Chapter 4, “The Open World: Three Lectures on the Metaphysical Implications of Science,” 1932

Weyl gave his own peculiar theological and constructivist spin to the conception of an open world — Weyl, in fact, represents one of those mathematicians “who disapproved of Georg Cantor” about which I quoted Bertrand Russell above — but in the main I am in agreement with Weyl, and Weyl and Russell could have agreed on the openness of the world. To commit the finality fallacy is to presume some aspect of the world closed, and if the world is indeed open, it is a fallacy to represent it as being closed.

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