Necessary, sufficient and probabilistic causes; or, bad reasoning in the real world part 8

The Roger Meyers jr objection

The Roger Meyers jr objection

Here is a meme from the usually very funny ‘nerds do it better’ facebook page. They present here what we might call the crusades objection, or, as I’d prefer the Roger Meyers Jr objection, to the thesis that some modern media be it games or cartoons cause violence. The objection is simply that violence existed before video games and so video games cannot be a cause of violence. This nice bit of silliness is so poorly reasoned that it is no surprise that John Swartzwelder places it in Meyers’ voice. Yet here, nerds do it better seem to be taking the objection seriously.

What exactly is wrong with the Meyers’ objection? Well, it confuses three distinct claims. If we claim that video games cause violence we could be making two claims: the first is that video games are necessary for violence to occur. To say one thing is necessary for a second thing to occur means that only if the first thing occurs does the second. This reading (i.e. the worst of the three) of the claim the video games cause violence hypothesis seems to be behind the Meyers objection as presented by nerds do it better. Video games, the meme suggests, can’t be causes of violence because violence occurs even when video games could not possibly have been present. If this is an objection to anything it is surely not an objection to the claim that video games cause violence because no one, anywhere, ever, would claim that video games are the only cause of violence. That is, it would be silly to suppose that games are a necessary cause of violence.

There are two more, rather more sensible, readings of the claim that video games cause violence. Suppose we didn’t claim that video games were necessary for violence, but rather, that they were sufficient. This would mean that whenever video games are played, violence ensues. Now such a claim wouldn’t be subject to the Meyers objection, but neither would it be true. All that is needed to show this is false is a single instance of someone playing a video game and not becoming violent. It is very unlikely then that anyone is claiming that video games are a sufficeint cause of violence, and even if they were to they’d be easily corrected. So what is the claim being made by those who state that video games cause violence?

The third and more sensible reading of the hypothesis that video games cause violence understands ’cause’ to refer to a probabilistic relation. Rather then being all that is needed for violence (a sufficient cause) or being required for violence (a necessary cause) we are to understand that video games simply make it more likely that violence will occur. If this were true then if we were to find a large group of people who had never played video games before and have half of them play games and half of them not (say they play only non-violent games), then those who played the violent games would committ more acts of violence. But it would not have to be the case that only those who played violent games became violent (as would be the case if games were a necessary cause) nor would it be the case that everyone who played the violent games became violent (as would be the case if games were a sufficient cause).

All in all then the Meyers objection is just a bit silly, based as it is on a confusion between necessary and probabilistic causes. It is fine, of course, to disagree with the hypothesis that video games cause violence but in doing so one should disagree with the claim as intended by the authors of the claim and not a bizarre caraciture of the position that Roger Meyers jr would manipulate us into believing.

Roger Meyers Jr, presenting his famous objection.

Roger Meyers Jr, presenting his famous objection.

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