The Part-Whole Dilemma
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The Part-Whole Dilemma • Posted: Jun 14, 2009 15:55:00Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

It is not unusual for humans to reason falsely. Most of us do it daily. What's so peculiar is we are nearly oblivious to our errors. We are oblivious because more often than not we are pleased with the results. In other words, we suffer no adverse consequences and our comfortable preconceptions seem ratified and reinforced. "Error?", we say. "What error?"

One logical device we commonly employ in our error prone thinking is inductive inference using part-whole relationships. We sense a part of something and quickly infer the whole of something. The error comes in thusly: we correctly reason there is no possibility for error if we begin with a whole thing, such as an automobile, then break it down into parts, such as screws and bolts, seats and steering wheel. However, the possibility for error is legion when we reason the other way round and take something as ambiguous as a screw to infer an automobile. Even something less ambiguous like a steering wheel does not reliably imply the specific vehicle brand or model it originally came from. Dismissing those kinds of ambiguity is what makes our daily part-whole inferences potentially false.

Thinking in stereotypes is commonly pointed to as error prone for exactly the same reason a screw does not reliably imply an automobile. Similar false logic is being employed by critics of the Obama administration when they point to his efforts at collectively solving problems as evidence of desire to abandon individual freedoms in favor of centrally controlled regimentation. One such critic this week accused Obama of behaving like Putin, hoping to suggest the U.S. was headed toward government in the style of the former Soviet Union.

The sad part is so many of us are so quick to buy into that kind of false logic. So many, in fact, the entire U.S. economy has been fueled by such susceptibility for most of the last 50 years, ever since advertising took over mass media and placed a picture of a sexy lady next to a product, thereby seducing millions into the false conclusion they too could have more "fun" in their lives if only they purchased that product.

It is also abundantly true religious faith is more often than not based on similar false logic. Be honest and ask yourself how often fortuitous circumstance is interpreted as divine intervention or evidence of the supernatural.

When, if ever, will we begin to suspect there might be errors in our thinking?

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009