Material Fallacies are mistakes in understanding or use of terms. Because these fallacies are about terms, they are errors in 1st act of the mind.
Identifying these fallacies can be incredibly helpful when debating or even reading. Very often someone will make an argument that feels convincing but if we recognize that they are fallacies, we can make sure that we are not taken in by smart sounding words. We can be pledged to the Common Master: Reason.
There are actually 49 Material Fallacies. We will divide them into 7 Categories, with 7 fallacies in each.
- Fallacies of Language
- Equivocation = the same term is sued in more than 1 way in an argument.(e.g. “pen” = ink writing instrument; “pen” = pig enclosure).This can lead to a lot of problems. An example of how this can be used incorrectly in a logical syllogism:-swearing in public is wrong-swearing an oath is done in public (the court)-therefore, swearing an oath is wrong.The solution to this is toa. identify term or phrase with shifting meaning. Thenb. identify the different meanings with different words.
So you can see that the word “swearing” is ambiguous. So replace the words to clarify
-cursing in public is wrong
-swearing an oath is done in public (the court)
-therefore, swearing an oath is wrong.
You can see now that the conclusion does not follow.
- Amphiboly = ambiguous syntax (word order or grammatical structure).Takes this example:“I was thirsty when I was teaching basic party etiquette I taught them drinking.”
Now, was the speaker in that sentence teaching them while drinking or was he teaching them how to drink at parties? To clarify the meaning the person should clarify the syntax.
“While drinking water I taught them.”
- Accent = ambiguity from-voice inflection-ironic or sarcastic tone-facial expression-innuendoThe following examples are taken from Peter Kreeft's book on Socratic Logic:A politician is asked if he is going to run for President. He answers: “I do not choose to run at this time.” But depending on how it was said, especially when highlighting a particular word, the meaning can change.a. “I do not choose to run at this time.” (but perhaps he will.)b. “I do not choose to run at this time.” (I choose not to run)c. “I do not choose to run at this time.” (But I can be forced)d. “I do not choose to run at this time.” (But I can be drafted)e. “I do not choose to run at this time.” (But I may tomorrow)
This is one of the reasons reading emails and texts is so frustrating, because we cannot pick up on the context cues for the word without the help of CAPS or emoticons ;)
The solution is to follow up with a clarifying remark like the ones the parentheses above
- Slanting = describing a thing as good or bad without proving it.This is something that we see in politics all the time. If a leader changes his mind on an issue, his supporters use the word “flexible” while his opponents say “fickle.” Notice that the action is the same, but the word choice is slanted towards a particular feeling. We can see this in the use of propaganda If I am for legalized abortion I say I am pro-choice. If I am against legalized abortion, I say I am pro-life. Just look at recently, the divide between those who use the terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented American.”
The solution is to try as best as possible to find a neutral term. This may not always be possible.
- SlogansThese are not fallacies in and of themselves, but they can become fallacies if they are used in place of an argument.Teacher: “You shouldn't chew gum in class.”Student: “Hey, rules were made to be broken.”Teacher: “What does that mean?”Student: (blank stare) “I don't know.The solution is to take apart the slogan and figure out what is actually being said to test its truth.“You can't hug children with nuclear arms,” was a popular slogan during the Cold War. It means: “We need to care and nurture our children. But the nuclear arms race is draining our country's resources so that we cannot provide the care our children need and in the process we are teaching them violence.” Now, I leave it to you to judge the validity of this, but once it has been “de-sloganized” we can debate it.
- Hyperbole = exaggeration.For example, “My dad will kill me if he finds out I took the car without permission.”This is a common exaggeration for this type of offense (goodness knows it was true in my house), but I was never truly in danger for my life (at least I don't think so). The solution is to replace the exaggerated word with one that is more accurate:“My dad will yell at me, ground me, and force me to paint the garage if he finds out I took the car without permission.”
- “Straw Man” = refuting an unfairly weak, stupid or ridiculous version of opponent’s idea.An example of this would be like saying “Catholic beliefs are wrong because the Gospels differ on the day Jesus gets crucified, so not everything in the Bible is true.”
This is a Straw Man argument because it oversimplifies the Church's teaching and relationship to Scripture to make us sound much more like some fundamentalists.
The solution is to state your opponent’s position in your own words to you opponent’s satisfaction. This is what Socrates did all the time. In the Euthyphro, he asked the title character to define piety. After Euthyphro did, Socrates restated the definition in his own words until he said it in a way that satisfied Euthyphro. It was only after this that Socrates began to attack the definition.
If someone says that they are an atheist, ask them what they mean by “atheism.” What they have in mind may be something like agnosticism (“I don't know if God exists”) rather than materialism (“Only the physical world exists.”) Only by truly understanding your opponent's position, and not dismissing or demonizing it, can you truly refute it. Or if it is true, have your own mind changed.
Next time we will discuss the fallacies of diversion.