Taylor: A twist on the laws of discourse

Last ditch argument should spell defeat for the one who resorts to it.

When I was in school, we learned certain invariable laws of the universe. The Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy, for example.

Most of those “laws” assumed a universe that operated like well-oiled gears meshing mechanically. They couldn’t envision a universe composed of indefinable fragments of energy like quarks, photons and bosons.

We were also capable of getting the laws wrong. For instance, I recall Newton’s First Law of Motion as: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s actually Newton’s Third Law. Engineering friends at university invented their own Second Law: You can’t push a rope.

Other laws have appeared over the years. Perhaps you remember Parkinson’s Law, that work expands to fill the time available. Or Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will. And it will choose the worst possible time to do it.

I once took a writing course from Raymond Hull, co-author of  The Peter Principle, which states that people in organizations get promoted to their level of incompetence.

Just recently, I became aware of a law I hadn’t heard about before. Godwin’s Law (first formulated in 1990) states that: As any online discussion grows longer [and I would add, more heated], the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches certainty.

Or, as Wikipedia explains, “given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.”

Obviously, Wikipedia adds, Godwin’s Law would not apply if the discussion were actually about Hitler and the Nazis, or about their policies of genocide, eugenics, or racial inferiority.

A supplementary notation caught my eye: “The law is sometimes invoked to mark the end of a discussion when a Nazi analogy is made, with the writer who made the analogy being considered to have lost the argument.”

Oh, yes!

I would love to apply that principle to situations where one party quotes an obscure biblical text as final justification for his (or her) point. By resorting to what they consider an unassailable authority, such speakers tacitly acknowledge that all their other arguments have failed.

As with Godwin’s Law, this principle would not apply if the discussion itself were about the Bible. Or about Christian or Jewish theology. But it would apply to debates over Buddhism or Hinduism, where the Bible holds no privileged status. Or, for that matter, disputes about evolution or economics, child rearing or climate change.

I don’t understand why one would want to rely on words written at least 1900 years ago, by a writer who could not have even imagined the implications of iPads, space stations, nuclear bombs and ice hockey, as if that writer’s uninformed opinions should settle the question, whatever the question is.

That’s like inviting a relic from a civilization that hadn’t yet discovered the concept of zero to teach you binary code.

It would be so satisfying to feel that dragging the Bible into an argument, that is not about the Bible itself, automatically constitutes an admission of defeat.