Tag Archive | Fallacies

Project Logicality: The X of the gaps fallacy

Getting reliable knowledge can be tricky. But contriving explanations for what we don’t know with what’s itself unknown is slippery. We humans are naturally disposed to see patterns and intentional agency in nature. It comes quickly and easily to us.

But the best explanations we’ve found for things in our experience have consistently and reliably been natural, rarely obvious, and almost never simple. Each and every time. Never has any successful inquiry undertaken ever uncovered any explanatory agents outside, apart from, or in any way above nature.

As our knowledge improves, this gives whatever such agencies we invoke ever-shrinking responsibilities, them being reduced to what Neil deGrasse Tyson has called “an ever-receding pocket of ignorance.” However it’s used to explain things not currently understood, it’s often called the God of the gaps fallacy, for, so the argument goes, wherever there are gaps in our knowledge, there lies God…or any other sort of extraordinary entity we might give a name to.

From here on, I’ll call this the X of the gaps fallacy, with X standing in for any concept we choose as our unknown causal agent.

It’s the same argument when we use any sort of extraordinary or otherwise unknown or unknowable entity; witches*, wizards, demons, angels, ghosts, psionic abilities, aliens, faeries, cloud nymphs, computer pixies, evil secret conspirators, quasi-evil conspirators, pseudo-evil conspirators, diet cola of evil conspirators, such elusive things as souls and free will***, and the list goes on.

A few examples of this argument follow:

  • This study has produced statistical results that appear to rule out chance.
  • So something other than chance must be at work.
  • I don’t know what that something might be apart from psi.
  • So that something must be psi.

 


  • Witches cause all kinds of misfortune with their evil spells.
  • My milk got curdled, my best ram died after eating them funny-looking weeds, a hailstorm wiped out my crops, and all my cats have hairballs again.
  • So witches must be responsible for all of this!

 


  • We do not know, to an arbitrary level of detail, the exact naturalistic mechanisms giving rise to the origin of life, its diversity, or the origins of the universe.**
  • No one is smart enough to figure out the answer.
  • So the Intelligent Designer™ must have done it all, in ways we know not at all, for the Designer’s ways are Mysterious™.

While there’s no absolute guarantee that our knowledge will continue to progress as it has, it does us no good to invoke things we don’t really know or understand to explain other unknowns based only on our own subjective or even collective ignorance.

After all, why not just be honest with ourselves and admit that when we don’t know, we just don’t know. It’s better, more effective and more rational to make a real effort to look for answers instead of making them up, and either convincing ourselves that we have all the answers or throwing up our hands and declaring that we if don’t know something now then we’ll never understand.

That is simply intellectual laziness.

That’s no judgment on anyone’s persons, but an observation of the sort of thinking process at play.

Lazy thinking leads to fuzzy understanding and unreliable knowledge claims that don’t stand up to the test of reality, and we all do it, both we ordinary mortals and those Sophisticated Theologians™ alike.

*This does not include Wiccans, but only those now stereotypical witches and warlocks imagined during the European witch hunts, and the modern witch hunts going on in African nations, many of which horrifically involve the old and the helpless, like young children.

**It should go without saying that these involve different branches of science, but Creationists and many Intelligent Design proponentsists (sic) tend to treat them as though they were the same.

***thanks to Benjamin Steele for mentioning that last. It had slipped my mind in the original writing of this post, so I’m adding it in this edit.

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Project Logicality | Slippery Slopes & False Continua

Are chains of causation inexorable and dire? Does a continuum between extremes mean that neither extreme differs, or that one of those extremes doesn’t exist?

Here, we’ll discuss the Slippery Slope, and the two False Continua, similar arguments though representing causal and semantic versions respectively.

But first I’ll deal with its causal version, the Fallacy of the Beard, also the Camel’s Nose fallacy. The first name comes from an analogy with the greying of a man’s beard, in which the amount of grey is small at first, but inevitably progresses until the entire beard is grey. The second name comes from a fable in which a camel is permitted by its owner to stick its nose in the tent for warmth from the cold desert night air, quickly followed by the entire camel, who crowds its owner out of the tent and into the cold.

The slippery slope asserts that a position or claim is unacceptable because if accepted, its worst extreme must inevitably follow, without sound reasons as to how or why this must be.

It’s a fallacy that’s both committed and labels itself as an argument strategy at the same time, with the use of such opening phrases as “It’s a slippery slope if…” or “It sets a bad precedent when…” and so on.

A superficially similar form of argument can be a strong line of reasoning when the chain of inference is laid out and each link logically follows, but the fallacy refers to the specious usage, as below:

The public teaching of comparative religion leads to awareness of religious diversity, then to religious doubt, then to agnosticism, then to atheism, then to anti-theism, then to nihilism, then to moral degeneracy, then inevitably to the disintegration of a society in total anarchy, so we don’t want comparative religion courses taught in our public schools.

Beside the fact that the evidence just doesn’t bear this ridiculous chain of consequences out, note here that no supporting reasons or other justification are ever provided as to why this chain must be true.

The Vagueness, or False Continuum, is below, used in two ways:

One version attempts to argue that concepts B and E shade into each other along a continuum without any fine dividing line between them, so they are the same thing, that no distinction exists.

But it just doesn’t follow that:

There is no difference between blue light and yellow light, despite no sharp dividing point in wavelengths in the visible spectrum.

Nor does it follow that:

There is no separation between humid or dry weather when the moisture in the air at any one time and place varies in degree from high to low.

The second variant is used to argue that concept B differs so little from concept E with no fine line between them, that concept E simply doesn’t exist. As for this one, it doesn’t follow that:

Truth doesn’t exist because of the continuum between truth and falsehood. The concept of truth is without any objective reference. It’s all falsehood, and we don’t know a thing!

These two fallacies, causal and semantic, are distinct, but they are mentioned together here as the use of the semantic version can and does often lead to the commission of the causal version. Their joint use implies that a slip from position or claim B to E is inevitable because of the lack of a fine point of separation between them.

The tricky thing about fallacies like these, often used by postmodernists and political buffs with conspiratorial leanings, is that they are common in social discourse, especially in academic settings like the Humanities, and oddly hard to recognize as specious while committing them oneself.

Learn to note them, and picking them out reliably becomes easier with practice, even to avoiding the temptation to use them in your own arguments, which is always a plus.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | False Choice Fallacies

Here, we discuss a common error in reasoning, the False Choice, also known as the False Dichotomy, the Bifurcation fallacy, the Either-Or fallacy, the Fallacy of Negation, the False Dilemma, and for a common variant with only three options, the False Trichotomy.

This uses informal, or language-grounded, logic, and takes the form of a Dilemma, a class of argumentation that takes its effectiveness from resemblance to a formal argument known as a Disjunction.

A Dilemma, false or not, unlike a Disjunction, has a conclusion that follows only to a degree of probability, not necessarily or with complete certainty.

As a fallacy, this argument uses a misleadingly simple choice of two or otherwise too few options, one assumed as true to the negation, discredit, or rejection of all alternatives. In all variants, this falsely constrained selection of options are presented as though they were the only ones.

It generally takes the following form:

Either X or Y.

Not X.

So Y.

In any realistic choice there is often a much greater selection of options to take than rhetorically suit the purposes of those who like to use this argument strategy.

On occasion, however there are exceptions, when there do exist a restricted selection of options, as when a prediction made by a scientific hypothesis is either provisionally validated or falsified, or with the argument against theistic moral theories from the dialogues of Plato, Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Sets of choices that reflect realistic limits would not count as a commission of this fallacy.

I’ll provide a few of examples of the False Choice below:

Either young-Earth creationism is true or we came about through blind evolution. But I declare evolution to be false as it contradicts the literal truth of scripture, which I know to be true. Since evolution is false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

You either worship my God, or you worship the Evil One. You don’t worship my God, and since everyone worships something, you must worship the Evil One.

If these are redone as false trichotomies, we get:

Either young-Earth creationism, Intelligent design, or Darwinism is true, and since Darwinism and Intelligent design are false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

This argument completely ignores the vast variety of theological systems and creation myths of all the world’s cultures, past and present, misleadingly presenting an anachronistic 19th century caricature of modern evolutionary science, the creation myths from Genesis (Both of them!) as interpreted by biblical literalists, and Intelligent design as the only possible options.

There is also:

You either worship my concept of God, the Evil One, or the fleshy gods of materialistic science.

This ignores the fact that one may in fact worship nothing at all, no gods, no masters, no devils, no objects of worship of any kind, as is usually the case with atheists.

The rest are simple (and of course, simplistic) dichotomies…

You’re either a believer and a theist, or you’re a skeptic and an atheist.

Two words suffice to refute this: Martin Gardner. Look him up.

Anyone who doesn’t support the Patriot Act supports terrorists!

Either the girl broke her ex-boyfriend’s jaw with that slugger, or it started flying around and fractured his jaw by itself!

Either your cat stole my burrito or maybe a psychic just teleported in and grabbed it? Suuure…

If you are not with us, you are against us.

You’re either pro-choice or pro-life. There’s no middle ground!

Note that realistically, not all imaginable options in a set of alternatives need to be considered, only those options that are somehow meaningfully testable, as with the rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor, or the principle of theoretical economy.

Also, there is at least one other reason that this argument is not always a fallacy, such as when it is used to further the goal of advancing a critical discussion, and not merely block further consideration or thwart attempts to resolve a controversy.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017/06/06)

 

Project Logicality | The Argument from Ignorance

One of the first things to discover when adopting a skeptical viewpoint is how vastly ignorant we all are of much of what there is to know. But ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s oblivion. And it’s evil twin, the illusion of knowledge, is downright dangerous.

Here we deal with a common mistake in thinking that exploits ignorance, trying to make it seem like knowledge, the Argument from Ignorance, also the Appeal to Ignorance or in Latin, ad ignorantiam.
Using this argument does not imply that one is ignorant in any demeaning sense, merely that the one using it isn’t making a valid argument or a reliable claim.

It attempts to make a definite claim to understanding by using what is not known rather than what is. It often takes the general form of:

I don’t know X, so I know Y.

Or put differently it goes something like this:

No one has proven X false (or true), so X must be true (or false).

Or perhaps:

I can’t explain X, so I can explain X.

A few examples follow:

No one has proven that Godzilla doesn’t exist, so Godzilla is real.

 

I’ve never seen any real, absolute, rock-solid proof that the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, so the Apollo missions were a hoax.

There’s no fallacy committed when there’s knowledge of missing evidence that should likely be found, and it’s known what the expected evidence should be. Absence of evidence in the right context is indeed evidence of absence when its lack is glaringly obvious, even if it’s not absolute proof of absence!

There’s no fallacy committed in and of itself when acting upon incomplete data for precautionary purposes, such as the threat of terrorists, who can be expected to operate in secret until they strike, if and when they do, or acting upon the threat of global warming in the absence of total certainty.

The following is a valid argument:

All of the scheduled openings of this library are listed. I don’t see a listing of it opening at this hour of the day. So it must be that the library is closed until two hours from now.

This, however, is not:

I see a strange light in the sky. I can’t think of an explanation for it off the top of my head, so it must be the aliens from Independence Day!

Or this:

There are gaps in the fossil record. I do not know of a plausible explanation as to why there are such gaps. So it must be that a Intelligent Designer has created or interceded in the creation of life.

A variation of this is Confusing the Unexplained with the Unexplainable, which is fallacious because it assumes implicitly that the current state of knowledge represents the ultimate limits of the knowable, which is just wrong on so many levels.

There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote floating about of a patent clerk in the late 19th or early 20th century who quit his job, because he thought that everything important had already been invented.

There’s also the silly claim, still circulated, that it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly because science can’t explain it, therefore it’s magic. Well, science has explained it, and it deals with the mechanics of a bumblebee’s wings and the physics of fluid dynamics.

This is understandable, even from perfectly normal, intelligent, sane, and sincere people. It’s reasoning from psychologically available information rather than an examination of more complex and difficult data that may not come as quickly or easily to mind.

It just so happens that supernatural or paranormal explanations are among the easiest to conceive of on the spur of the moment. They are more immediately available, and we are more prone to them through the biases and mental shortcuts we take in our default thinking under whatever narrative influences our brains at any given moment, to paraphrase Dr. Steven Novella.

In informal argumentation the fallacious use of the argument from ignorance is not a violation of logical form as much as an attempt to subvert efforts toward getting at sound explanations for our claims.

It’s important not to confuse a lack of evidence for its presence, though absence of evidence can indeed be evidence for absence in the case of demonstrating the existence of entities in the real world. If the data you logically expect to see as a consequence of a phenomenon just isn’t where is should be found, that’s a good sign that it’s not real.

The prudent position, the conservative one, is to abstain from postulating unobserved and unobservable things, or those which can and should be observed but tellingly are not.

Otherwise, belief in such entities comes down to a matter of faith, and that is entirely one’s own choice to make.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update 2017.06.06)