Over the last several months I have engaged in or witnessed a number of debates, both political and religious, in which faulty arguments were used. I realized that some of them were fallacies I hadn’t covered in my previous Logical Fallacies posts (here and here).
Just to recap, a logical fallacy is an error in reasoning. This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts. To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support. So, here’s another installment to my Critical Thinking series.
Ad Hoc Argument
Very often, we desperately want to be right and hold on to certain beliefs, despite any evidence presented to the contrary. As a result, we begin to make up excuses as to why our belief could still be true, and is still true, despite the fact that we have no real evidence for what we are making up. Ad Hoc arguments, simply put, are the fallacy of “Making Shit Up”.
They occur when someone is faced with an argument that discredits their position, and they respond by making something up that serves no purpose except to patch the hole in their view. Here is a simple way to tell if an ad hoc fallacy has been committed; ask yourself the following three questions.
- Did they just make something up?
- Is their claim based on evidence/is there a good reason to accept this claim other than that it solves the problem in their argument?
- Would someone who wasn’t already convinced of their view accept that claim?
When pointing out to theists the numerous studies that have been done that show the inefficacy of prayer, a common response is something along the lines of, “God can’t be tested. The studies didn’t work because God knew it was a test.” This is clearly a made up on-the-spot response, with no evidence to back it up, and only makes sense to those who already believe in the power of prayer.
Another common ad hoc argument is the use of “sin” to explain away things that don’t make sense in a world supposedly created and run by an all-knowing, all-powerful God, such as why there is so much suffering in the world or why there are so many design flaws in human anatomy.
Any argument involving magic, miracles, or the supernatural could also be considered ad hoc arguments. Conspiracy Theories are also a hot bed for made-up arguments devoid of evidence.
“God of the Gaps” fallacy
This is a variation on the Argument from Ignorance fallacy. This argument generally takes the following form:
- Scientists don’t have an explanation for A
- Therefore God caused A
Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) rely heavily on this fallacy, as does apologetics. A common example of this is what is sometimes referred to as the Cosmological Argument. Simply put, it looks like this:
- The universe began to exist at the Big Bang
- Something apart from the universe caused this
- Therefore, a creator exists
Just because something can’t currently be explained doesn’t mean that an explanation doesn’t exist, nor that you can simply assume that “God did it”. There is a long history of the “gaps” in our understanding being filled by scientific explanations and the “god gaps” thus getting smaller and smaller.
Another form of this fallacy that I see often is the Argument from Incredulity – when someone decides that something did not happen because they cannot personally understand how it could happen. This fallacy comes up often when discussing “spiritual experiences”; people have a profound experience that they cannot explain, so they automatically assign an explanation to God, the Holy Spirit, etc.
Many arguments rely on an analogy between two or more objects, ideas, or situations. If the two things that are being compared aren’t really alike in the relevant aspects, the analogy is a weak one. It’s most commonly referred to as an “apples and oranges” argument.
For example, William Paley’s argument from design suggests that a watch and the universe are similar (both display order and complexity), and therefore infers from the fact that watches are the product of intelligent design that the universe must be a product of intelligent design too. The argument fails because of the many differences between a watch and anything found in nature. Watches are not caused naturally, whereas the universe could have a natural cause.
The weak analogy fallacy is often used by pro-life advocates who compare embryo’s to fully developed, adult human beings, and then argue that treatment that would violate the rights of an adult human being also violates the rights of fetuses.
The fallacy of equivocation is committed when a term is used in two or more different senses within a single argument. For an argument to work, words must have the same meaning each time they appear in its premises or conclusion. Arguments that switch between different meanings of words equivocate, and don’t work. This is because the change in meaning introduces a change in subject. If the words in the premises and the conclusion mean different things, then the premises and the conclusion are about different things, and so the former cannot support the latter.
A good example of this is seen when Creationists claim that evolution is “just a theory”, failing to understand the difference between the common use of the word the word “theory”, and the scientific use of the word.
Another example of this can be found in the common apologetics argument for “laws of nature” that I covered in a previous post. The author states that, “the fact that our solar system is called a ‘system‘ is because there is a methodology & a harmony to how our solar system works and exists.” He fails to understand the difference between a word that is prescriptive versus one that is descriptive. We give such titles to help us make sense of the natural world, it does not mean that there is an outside agent that assigns these titles.
Also known as”confirmation bias“, this fallacy gets its name from an illustration that demonstrates how it works: Imagine that someone fired an arrow or bullet at the side of a barn. Then, after firing, they painted a bull’s eye around whatever spot they happened to hit and proceed to proclaim that they were a “sharpshooter.” Obviously they weren’t a sharpshooter, they simply created the illusion of accuracy by painting the target after firing the shot
In actual debates, this fallacy typically occurs as a form of cherry-picking data where you present an isolated result or relationship and proclaim that it is what would be expected if they were right, when, in fact, there are other results that discredit your position.
Theist will claim that prayer works by sighting examples of prayers being “answered”, yet fail to mention all the times that a particular prayer was not answered. After natural disasters, people are often quick to point out the “miracles” of people surviving, yet ignore all the other lives lost. These are examples of the Sharpshooter fallacy.
Special pleading occurs when people fail to apply the same standards of critical analysis to their own views as they do to other views. This fallacious argument involves an attempt to cite something as an exception to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exception. Special pleading is often a result of strong emotional beliefs that interfere with reason.
Special pleading comes up often in religion. Christians will dismiss the supernatural claims made by other religions, while believing in the claims made by their own. They will claim that the Bible is the only true “Word of God”, while criticizing other sacred texts. When pointing out the similarities between the story of Jesus’s Resurrection and other legends of deities rising from the dead, they will insist that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but the other stories are just myths.
Another good example comes from the previously mentioned Cosmological Argument. Its proponents will insist that something cannot come from nothing, therefore God must have caused it. Yet, when the question is raised, “Then who caused God?”, proponents will insist that he is the exception to the rule.
In my next post we will be talking about how these, and other types of faulty arguments are often used in apologetics in lieu of actual evidence. If you haven’t already, please go and read my previous post on logical fallacies (here and here) and critical thinking, as it will help to understand why arguments are not evidence, especially fallacious ones. Thanks for reading