In this article you’ll learn:
- Why you shouldn’t wait for the perfect idea
- Why: “If you don’t like it, you can leave!” is bullshit
- Why evolution is not just “a theory”
- A technique to expose fallacies in logic and reasoning
- The problem with special pleading
- What the burden of proof is and why it’s important
- Why reality is not limited to your understanding, or to what you can believe, conceive of or imagine
7. Nirvana fallacy (aka “perfect solution fallacy”)
“The perfect is the enemy of the good” – Voltaire
The Nirvana fallacy (aka perfect solution fallacy) is when you reject an idea or suggestion simply because it’s not perfect.
If you’re a perfectionist this is definitely a fallacy you’re going to need to watch out for.
The Nirvana fallacy makes the mistake of assuming that a perfect solution exists, or that an idea or solution should be rejected because some part of the problem would still exist after it were implemented, or because an idea could in some way be “better”.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a perfect idea or a perfect solution. Every idea has flaws. If you wait for perfection you’ll be waiting forever.
Nirvana fallacy examples:
Person 1: “We should do something about gun laws”
Person 2: “Bad guys are still going to get their hands on guns no matter what. If it’s not guns it’ll be knifes, bombs, cars etc. you can’t stop evil”
Person 1: “The government should be running anti-drunk driving campaigns”
Person 2: “What’s the point? People are going to drink and drive no matter what”
It’s easy to attack, criticize or reject any idea for it’s flaws. But just because an idea isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good idea, or that it’s not worth doing, or that it wouldn’t be an improvement upon your current situation, or that it isn’t a better idea than the alternatives.
6. Traitorous critic fallacy (aka “ergo decedo”)
Have you ever complained about some bullshit on the job, or in a relationship, and then been told:
“If you don’t like it, you can leave!”
This is the traitorous critic fallacy (aka ergo decedo)
Traitorous critic fallacy example #1
Person A: “Why is there so much crime, corruption and violence in this country?”
Person B: “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to your own country!”
Traitorous critic fallacy example #2
Person A: “Why do we need to work overtime and weekends without extra pay?”
Person B: “If you don’t like it, maybe you should find another job!”
Traitorous critic fallacy example #3
Person A: “I don’t like it when you flirt with other girls”
Person B: “If you don’t trust me, maybe you should find someone else you’re more comfortable with!”
Dismissive comments like these do nothing to address the valid argument/complaint/criticism presented, instead they simply tell the complainer to shut up and accept it or leave, and they question the loyalty and motivations of the person making it.
“Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution” – Mae West
The fallacy of equivocation occurs when a word with more than one meaning switches meaning mid-argument, when it expresses one concept in one premise, and another concept in another premise or in the conclusion, thus making an argument misleading.
Equivocation example #1
P1: Man (human) is rational
P2: No woman is a man
C: Therefore, women are not rational
Equivocation example #2
P1: Nothing is better than being rich
P2: Minimum wage is better than nothing
C: Minimum wage is better than being rich
Equivocation example #3
P1: Socrates was greek
P2: Greek is a language
C: Therefore Socrates was a language
Examples of words used to equivocate:
- Faith (Confidence vs belief)
- Feet (Foot vs distance)
- Fine (Ok vs fee)
- Gay (happy vs homosexual)
- High (Drugs vs height)
- Man (Human vs Man)
- Pounds (Weight vs currency)
- Star (celebrity vs ball of gas)
- Theory (Scientific theory based on facts vs idea)
“Creationists make it sound as though a ‘theory’ is something you dreamt up after being drunk all night.” –
Equivocation is often used in comedy and stand-up, but it’s also used in arguments and debates, so whenever you’re arguing or discussing a topic, it’s important that you pay close attention to the way that words are being defined and used, and if you’re in any doubt ask the person using a term what they mean by that term.
“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 so 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.” – logicalfallacies.info
See also: Definitional retreat
4. Reductio ad Absurdum (aka “proof by contradiction”)
“Reductio ad absurdum is a form of argument that attempts either to disprove a statement by showing it inevitably leads to a ridiculous, absurd, or impractical conclusion, or to prove one by showing that if it were not true, the result would be absurd or impossible.” – Wikipedia
Reductio ad absurdum (aka “proof by contradiction”) is not a fallacy, but a technique used to expose a fallacy, and it works by taking an argument, hypothesis or premise to its extreme logical conclusion, and then pointing out how absurd or ridiculous the consequences would be.
You’re essentially taking an idea to its absolute logical limits in order to point out exceptions to the rule, in order to contradict and disprove an argument.
Anytime someone uses an absolute in a statement such as:
You can probably use reductio ad absurdum to contradict their statement and point out exceptions to the rule.
Reductio ad absurdum examples
Person A: “It’s better to give than to receive”
Person B: “If that’s the case then why not give everything you have? Because then you’d be homeless and living on the street”
Person A: “The Bible says Jesus will give you whatever you ask for in his name”
Person B: “If that’s true, why not pray to Jesus for a cure for AIDS and cancer?” Also: “What if two competing sports teams both pray to God in Jesus name at the same time?”
Person A: “You can’t trust anyone”
Person B: “Okay, then I don’t trust you or that statement”
Person A: “There is no such thing as objective truth”
Person B: “Is that objectively true?”
Person A: “My vote doesn’t count. I’m just one person”
Person B: “But if everyone had that attitude then it would count”
Person A: “All you need is love… Love is all you need…”
Person B: “What about oxygen, food, water, sleep, money, knowledge etc.?”
3. Special pleading (let’s just make one exception in my case)
Special pleading is when you make up an unjustified exception to a rule, simply because without it your argument doesn’t work.
Special pleading examples:
Person A: “The Bible is the inerrant word of God”
Person B: “What about all of the absurdities, contradictions, scientific inaccuracies etc.?
Person A: “Those parts aren’t to be taken literally”
Person A: “God will heal your sickness”
Person B: “It didn’t work”
Person A: “That’s because you didn’t have enough faith”
Other special pleading examples:
“Everything that exists has a cause – except God”
“No one is perfect – except Jesus”
“No one is above the law – except the King”
There can be valid exceptions to a rule
- No animals on airplanes – except blind people can bring their seeing eye Dogs
- Everyone must obey the speed limit – except police officers, firefighters and ambulance responding to emergency calls
Special pleading however refers to an unjustified exception to a rule, and it is frequently used by new age types (e.g. believers in the “Law of Attraction” or “The Secret”) psychics, religious and spiritual believers to protect sacred cows, or to keep a flimsy argument intact.
You need to be aware of special pleading yourself, and you need to be aware of when others do it too.
2. Argument from ignorance (aka “appeal to ignorance” or “negative proof”)
The argument from ignorance can take two forms:
- You can’t prove X is false, therefore X is true
- You can’t prove X is true, therefore X is false
- You can’t prove X doesn’t exist, therefore X does exist
- You can’t prove X does exist, therefore X doesn’t exist
The argument from ignorance is often an attempt to shift the burden of proof from the one making the claim, to the one challenging or questioning the claim. It implies that a claim should automatically be accepted by default until proven false, as opposed to rejected until evidence is provided proving it true.
However that’s not how the burden of proof works.
“That which is asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” – Christopher Hitchens
The burden of proof is always on the one making the claim (e.g. God exists, claims of a miracle, someone is guilty of a crime etc.) not on the one doubting or questioning the claim.
If the burden of proof were reversed it would be madness because no one would need to provide evidence for any assertion or claim, and people would believe anything without evidence until it was proven false (which isn’t always possible) e.g. Imagine if in the court of law everyone accused of a crime was guilty until proven innocent.
Argument from ignorance examples:
“You can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore God does exist”
“You can’t prove Aliens do exist, therefore they don’t exist”
“You can’t prove that Jesus isn’t returning to judge the earth in the next 10 years, therefore he is”
“You can’t prove that Joseph Smith didn’t speak to the Angel Moroni, therefore he did”
The God of the Gaps argument is a famous argument from ignorance. Whenever there is something that scientists can’t (yet) explain e.g. the origin of life, religious people default to “God did it”.
The argument from ignorance is also guilty of black and white thinking, and it’s also a false dichotomy, because there are more possibilities than true or false e.g. partly true and partly false, currently unknown, unknowable etc.
Just because something can’t be proven to be false e.g. Jesus resurrection, Muhammad flying to Heaven on a winged horse, Invisible men living on Jupiter etc. that doesn’t mean that it’s true or that you should automatically believe it by default. There are an infinite number of things we can’t prove, and the answer might also be currently or permanently unknowable.
1. Argument from incredulity (aka “personal incredulity” or “divine fallacy”)
The argument from incredulity can take two forms:
- I can’t imagine how X could be true, therefore X must be false
- I can’t imagine how X could be false, therefore X must be true
However there are lots of things that you and I can’t imagine or comprehend (e.g. infinity, nothing, the size of subatomic particles or the universe) but that doesn’t make them impossible or untrue.
“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; but stranger than we can imagine” – J. B. S. Haldane
Argument from incredulity examples:
“I can’t imagine a world without God… therefore their must be”
“I can’t imagine how human beings could have evolved from single-celled organisms, therefore the theory of evolution must be wrong”
“I can’t imagine how a mother could drown her five children in a bathtub, or burn her 3 week year old baby to death in a microwave, this story can’t be true”
Whether you can believe it not, whether you can conceive of it or not, whether you can imagine it or not, whether you understand it or not, whether you like it or not, has nothing to do with whether it’s actually true or not. The truth is the truth and reality doesn’t care what you believe.
Reality is not limited to your understanding, or to what you and I can believe, conceive of or imagine.