Reductio Ad Absurdum in Argument

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In argumentation and informal logic, reductio ad absurdum (RAA) is a method of refuting a claim by extending the logic of the opponent's argument to a point of absurdity. Also known as the reductio argument and argumentum ad absurdum.

Similarly, reductio ad absurdum may refer to a type of argument in which something is proved to be true by showing that the opposite is untrue. Also known as indirect proof, proof by contradiction, and classical reductio ad absurdum.

As Morrow and Weston point out in A Workbook for Arguments (2015), arguments developed by reductio ad absurdum are frequently used to prove mathematical theorems. Mathematicians "often call these arguments 'proofs by contradiction.' They use this name because mathematical reductio arguments lead to contradictions--such as the claim that N both is and is not the largest prime number. Since contradictions can't be true, they make for very strong reductio arguments."

Like any argumentative strategy, reductio ad absurdum can be misused and abused, but in itself it is not a form of fallacious reasoning.

Etymology

From the Latin, "reduction to absurdity"

Examples and Observations

  • "The basic idea of the argumentum ad absurdum is that if one can show that a belief leads to an obvious absurdity, then the belief is false. Thus, assume someone believed that being outside with wet hair caused sore throats. You could attack this belief by showing that if it were true that being outside with wet hair caused sore throats, then it would also be true that swimming, which involves getting wet hair, caused sore throats. But since it is absurd to say that swimming causes sore throats, it is false to say that being outside with wet hair causes sore throats."
    (Christopher Biffle, Landscape of WisdomA Guided Tour of Western Philosophy. Mayfield, 1998) 
     
  • Examples of Reductio ad Absurdum Arguments
    - "Reductio ad absurdum. A 'reducing to absurdity' to show the falsity of an argument or position. One might say, for instance that the more sleep one gets the healthier one is, and then, by the logical reductio ad absurdum process, someone would be sure to point out that, on such a premise, one who has sleeping sickness and sleeps for months on end is really in the best of health. The term also refers to a type of reductive-deductive syllogism:
    Major premise: Either A or B is true.
    Minor premise: A is not true.
    Conclusion: B is true."
    (William Harmon and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 10th ed. Pearson, 2006)

    - "This strategy is illustrated in a Dilbert cartoon from April 1995. The pointy-haired boss announces a plan to rank all of the engineers 'from best to worst' so as 'to get rid of the bottom 10%.' Dilbert's co-worker Wally, included in the bottom 10%, responds that the plan is 'logically flawed' and proceeds to extend the range of his boss's argument. Wally asserts that the boss's plan, if made permanent, will mean continual dismissals (there will always be a bottom 10%) until there are fewer than 10 engineers and the boss will 'have to fire body parts instead of whole people.' The boss's logic will, Wally maintains (with a touch of hyperbole), lead to 'torsos and glands wandering around unable to use keyboards . . ., blood and bile everywhere!' These horrendous results will be the consequence of extending the boss's line of argument; hence, the boss's position should be rejected."
    (James Jasinksi, Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Sage, 2001)

    - "Reductio ad absurdum is a good and necessary way to work through the logical implications of a position. Most of Plato's Republic is an account of Socrates' attempts to guide listeners to the logical conclusions of their beliefs about justice, democracy, and friendship, among other concepts, through extended bouts of reductio ad absurdum. The United States Supreme Court also used this technique when it handed down its ruling in the famous 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. . . . While reductio ad absurdum can lead to long and complex arguments, it is often quite simple and practically useful. Take the following conversation as an example:
    Mother (seeing her child take a rock from the Acropolis): You shouldn't do that!
    Child: Why not? It is just one rock!
    Mother: Yes, but if everyone took a rock, it would ruin the site!
    . . . As you can see, reductio ad absurdum can be remarkably effective, whether in complex judicial arguments or in everyday conversations.

    "However, it is easy to move from reductio ad absurdum to what some people call the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope fallacy uses a logic chain similar to that employed in reductio ad absurdum that makes unreasonable logical jumps, many of which involve so-called 'psychological continuums' that are highly unlikely."
    (Joe Carter and John Coleman, How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. Crossway Books, 2009)
     
  • Evaluating a Reductio ad Absurdum Argument
    "[A] reductio ad absurdum argument tries to show that one claim, X, is false because it implies another claim Y, that is absurd. To evaluate such an argument, the following questions should be asked:
    1. Is Y really absurd?
    2. Does X really imply Y?
    3. Can X be modified in some minor way so that it no longer implies Y?
    If either of the first two questions is answered in the negative, then the reductio fails; if the third question receives an affirmative answer, then the reductio is shallow. Otherwise, the reductio ad absurdum argument is both successful and deep."
    (Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic, 8th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)
     
  • Adams Sherman Hill on Reductio ad Absurdum (1895)
    "An argument which can be answered by reductio ad absurdum is said to prove too much--that is, too much for its force as an argument; since, if the conclusion is true, a general proposition which lies behind it and includes it is also true. To show this general proposition in its absurdity is to overthrow the conclusion. The argument carries in itself the means of its own destruction. For example:
    (1) Skill in public speaking is liable to great abuse; it should, therefore, not be cultivated.
    (2) Skill in public speaking is liable to great abuse; but so are the best things in the world--as health, wealth, power, military skill; the best things in the world should, therefore, not be cultivated.
    In this example, the indirect argument under (2) overthrows the direct argument under (1) by bringing into view the general proposition omitted from (1) but implied in it--namely, that nothing which is liable to great abuse should be cultivated. The absurdity of this general proposition is made apparent by the specific instances cited.

    "The argument that games of football should be given up because players sometimes sustain severe injuries may be disposed of in a similar way; for horseback-riders and boating-men are not exempt from danger.

    "In Plato's dialogues, Socrates often applies reductio ad absurdum to the argument of an opponent. Thus, in 'The Republic,' Thrasymachus lays down the principle that justice is the interest of the stronger. This principle he explains by saying that the power in each State is vested in the rulers, and that, therefore, justice demands that which is for the interest of the rulers. Whereupon Socrates makes him admit that it is just for subjects to obey their rulers, and also that rulers, not being infallible, may unintentionally command that which is to their own injury. 'Then justice, according to your argument,' concludes Socrates, 'is not only the interest of the stronger but the reverse.'

    "Another example of reductio ad absurdum is furnished by the reply to the arguments which attempt to prove by means of an alleged cipher that Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakspeare. All the arguments adduced in favor of this proposition may, as its opponents contend, be used to prove that anybody wrote anything."
    (Adams Sherman Hill, The Principles of Rhetoric, rev. edition. American Book Company, 1895)
     
  • The Lighter Side of Reductio ad Absurdum
    Leonard: Penny, if you promise not to chew the flesh off our bones while we sleep, you can stay.
    Penny: What?
    Sheldon: He's engaging in reductio ad absurdum. It's the logical fallacy of extending someone's argument to ridiculous proportions and then criticizing the result. And I do not appreciate it.
    ("The Dumpling Paradox." The Big Bang Theory, 2007)

Pronunciation: ri-DUK-tee-o ad-ab-SUR-dum

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Nordquist, Richard. "Reductio Ad Absurdum in Argument." ThoughtCo, Jun. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/reductio-ad-absurdum-argument-1691903. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, June 8). Reductio Ad Absurdum in Argument. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/reductio-ad-absurdum-argument-1691903 Nordquist, Richard. "Reductio Ad Absurdum in Argument." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/reductio-ad-absurdum-argument-1691903 (accessed January 19, 2018).