Fallacy Files

Fallacy Files #4: False Dichotomy in the Baptism Debate

The informal fallacy of false dichotomy (or false dilemma) is committed when two options are mistakenly or misleadingly presented as the only two possible or viable options. George W. Bush famously declared after 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Whatever the rhetorical merits of his statement, it was, strictly speaking, an example of false dichotomy. There was no obvious logical inconsistency in adopting a position that neither supported nor hindered the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies. (Bush’s statement echoed Jesus’ even more provocative claim, but I would argue that in Jesus’ case there was no false dichotomy. As analytic philosophers would say, with typical understatement, George W. Bush and Jesus are “relevantly different”.)

Fallacy Files #3: Confused Conditionals

One common logical fallacy is known as ‘affirming the consequent’. Arguments that commit this fallacy have this general form:

If P then Q.


Therefore P.

(In technical terminology, P is the antecedent of the first, conditional premise and Q is the consequent of that premise. The second premise of the argument affirms the consequent of the first premise rather than its antecedent; hence the fallacy of ‘affirming the consequent’.)

It isn’t difficult to see that such arguments are fallacious, as this example makes plain:

If Bob lives in Chicago then Bob lives in America.

Bob lives in America.

Therefore Bob lives in Chicago.

Fallacy Files #2: Dawkins on Religion and Evil

Logicians routinely distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. If X is a necessary condition for Y, then wherever there is Y there is also X; but the reverse may not be true (there may be X without Y). If X is a sufficient condition for Y, then wherever there is X there is also Y; but the reverse may not be true (there may be Y without X). Clearly it’s important to distinguish necessary conditions and sufficient conditions, since the one does not imply the other, and failure to distinguish them leads to fallacious inferences.

In a previous post, I remarked that Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion is a rich source of examples of logical fallacies. I pointed out a rather blatant instance of petitio principii (begging the question) in chapter 3. It seems to me, however, that the prolific professor doesn’t even make it past the first page of the book without committing an error in reasoning.

Fallacy Files #1: Dawkins on “The Argument From Beauty”

The God Delusion was one of my favourite reads in 2006. It’s a fantastic book, although not for the reasons the author intended. For not only does it illustrate in glorious technicolour the intellectual superficiality of modern atheistic apologetics, it’s also a treasure trove of fallacies for anyone seeking case studies for a course in logic. Abusive ad hominem, argumentum ad populum, ignoratio elenchi, equivocation — the attentive reader can find all these and more.

Here’s a particularly blatant example of petitio principii — that is, begging the question — from chapter 3. Dawkins is attempting to knock down one by one what he takes to be the most influential or popular arguments for the existence of God (understood in the classical theistic sense). What follows is his pocket-sized refutation of “the argument from beauty”:

I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: ‘How do you account for Shakespeare, then?’ (Substitute Shubert, Michelangelo, etc. to taste.) The argument will be so familiar, I needn’t document it further. But the logic behind it is never spelled out, and the more you think about it the more vacuous you realize it to be. Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare. (p. 86)

Now, leave aside the fact that Dawkins’ only source for this argument is anecdotal. It’s reasonably clear that the argument he has in mind runs along these lines:

  1. Beethoven’s quartets, Shakespeare’s sonnets, etc., are beautiful.
  2. If there were no God, then there would be no beauty (and thus no beautiful things).
  3. Therefore, there is a God.

Clearly the premise enlisted to do the heavy lifting in this argument is the conditional (2). One might explore why anyone would believe (2) to be true; indeed, that would be the most obvious route to discrediting the argument. A few promising lines of support for (2) spring to mind (for example, one might reason that metaphysical naturalism is the most consistent alternative to classical theism, but also conclude that there is no place for abstract entities, or objective aesthetic norms, or mental states such as perception, within a strictly naturalistic ontology). In any case, surely a responsible evaluation of “the argument from beauty” ought to probe a little deeper; it ought to ask why the argument is so common (if indeed it is) and what sort of reasoning typically lies behind it. At a minimum, it ought to try to present the most credible version of the argument. (If there’s no credible version of the argument, why waste ink on it?)

But the world’s leading public intellectual of 2004 has a far more streamlined refutation up his sleeve. Here, in essence, is his counter to the Beethoven/Shakespeare argument:

“They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t.”

Yes, that’s it, folks. Dawkins’ refutation of the notion that beauty point us to God is merely to assert, without any argument, that beauty doesn’t depend on God. In other words, to beg the question entirely.