Tuesday, October 21, 2008

LTD: The Either/Or Fallacy

I read the following comment recently on a website discussing the report that the 2008 General Assembly voted NOT to form a study committee on deaconesses and women in diaconal service, which the Philadelphia Presbytery (and others) had overtured the assembly to do:

I ponder the intention of the Philidelphia Presbytery in bringing this to the GA. Is it women seeking power over men, as was part of the Genesis curse, or is it men cowering from their mandate to lead the church?

Friends, you have before you a classic example of the logical fallacy known as the “Either/Or Fallacy,” the “False Dichotomy Fallacy,” the “False Dilemma Fallacy,” or “Bifurcation.”

In essence, this fallacy asserts that there are only two options to choose from, possible directions to move in, or answers to a question-- AND that both of them have been represented in the argument.

[An aside: the meaning of the prefix “di” is that there are two-- if there are more than two, that would change the prefix. For example, C.S. Lewis famously described a “trilemma” when he talked about the fact that Jesus was either a liar, a crazy person, or who He said He was.]

Now, it’s possible for there to be TRUE dichotomies, dilemmas, and either/or situations. We often face these-- this is one of the reasons why this fallacy so often appears acceptable. But when there is more than two options, it is fallacious to suggest that there are only two. (Thus, such a dichotomy is false.)

Very often, the false dichotomies or fallacious either/ors will be one (or more) of a few types:
  • An over-simplification of a situation, attempting to categorize all of the options or choices into just two (or maybe three) ideas
  • A misunderstanding of the full range of the problem, which leads to falling short of understanding the solutions or answers.
  • A misunderstanding of the full range of the answers or solutions, often because of innocent ignorance or insufficient familiarity with the issues at hand.
  • The result of a substantial bias which blinds the arguer from understanding the problem or issue, the answers or solutions, or both. (See the above example.)
Clearly, all of these can contain some innocence in the situation-- in other words, false dichotomies are not always willful attempts to deceive (though they sometimes are). What it all boils down to is this question: is there an option present that is not contained in the argument?

So, here are some ways to prevent false dichotomies in your own arguments. Ask yourself:
  • Do I have a full understanding of the problem or issue I’m discussing? Self-awareness of the limit of your knowledge-- whether due to a lack of study, a lack of experience, or the presence of bias-- is the best place to start.
  • Have I been fair to the issue at hand? Would an “opponent” in this argument agree that I have dealt with all of the options clearly and fairly?
  • Do I have a full understanding of the options, answers, or solutions to the matter at hand? Like the first question, this gets to the issue of limit of knowledge. This can be a more difficult question to answer, and might require consulting another person to verify your answer.
  • Have I attempted to categorize or group ideas that don’t fit well together? Have I forced one or more options into subordination under another for the sake of my argument?
And here are some responses to the presence of false dichotomies in other peoples’ arguments:
  • Identify what other options are truly present. If you recognize options that aren’t presented, note them to yourself.
  • If possible, draw connections between the missing options and the reason(s) for them. Likely, it will be one of the four types or reasons given above.
  • Present both ideas at the same time. It’s best to do this in a question. For example, someone might say to the person who wrote the false dichotomy about the Philadelphia Presbytery: “You clearly stand on one side of this argument. Is it possible that your determined position has prevented you from seeing other options? It seems to me that the Presbytery might have had other issues that brought the discussion about, such as...”

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