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Friday, December 29, 2006

False Dichotomy

In the past I've made a couple of posts on the topic of logical fallacies. They had fun little Latin names like "Tu Quoque" and "Post hoc ergo procter hoc". This one doesn't (and many shed a sigh of relief). It's simply the concept of the false dichotomy.

In the false dichotomy, you are typically given two choices: "Either this or that." Unfortunately, rarely does life offer you merely two choices. But you are often presented with either an obviously good choice or a clearly bad choice and you are "free" to choose which one. Sometimes your are given no good choice ... choose.

The fun example is the classic courtroom scene. The attorney asks, "Yes or no ... Mr. Jones, have you stopped beating your wife?" Now, poor Mr. Jones can say "yes" to indicate he is not beating his wife to which the lawyer cries, "So! You used to beat your wife, but no longer!" No, no, that's not the right answer. How about "no"? "So! You admit that you still beat your wife!!" Obviously there is a third alternative: "I never beat my wife."

We find ourselves often facing false dichotomies. We must either agree with his theological point or be heretics or, at best, obviously ignore Scripture. We must either agree with her view on how to act in this situation or we are obviously uncompassionate. You cannot, for instance, recognize sin without being "judgmental" or agree with a creed without being "outdated" and "narrow-minded". You can't stand on a biblical truth without being unloving and harsh. I recently visited a website that argued in favor of Universalism. The position offered was this: Either all people are saved, or God failed. These are all false dichotomies.

False dichotomies are very effective. In the fun example above, the attorney gives the witness choices. He's not forcing anything, right? I mean, how fair can he be? The false dichotomy appears to offer options, to be "open-minded", to be fair. But by narrowing the options to two, it carefully redirects your attention from the truth. The argument is like a magician who gets you to watch over here while he manipulates something over there and ... poof! ... it's magic! The argument says, "Look, here are the choices," and if you agree to the premise you will not see the world of options outside of the question.

One of these false dichotomies that has been used so effectively these days is in the arena of the argument of homosexual behavior. Many Christians have eased off the biblical position that homosexual behavior is sin because of these false dichotomy arguments. Someone points to Leviticus and says, "If a man lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death" (Lev. 20:13). The response is, "So, are you saying we need to follow the Old Testament law? Do you think we should do away with pork? Should we eliminate football?" (I actually heard this argument made on The West Wing.) This is a false dichotomy. "We either follow all the Old Testament Law or we follow none of it." Of course, the sweeping argument against the biblical Christian is far more prevalent and combines more than one fallacy, but includes this false dichotomy. They simply say, "If you claim that homosexual behavior is a sin, you are a bigot, a homophobe." It's a false dichotomy. Either you agree that homosexual behavior is normal, acceptable, right, or you are a bigot, scared of homosexuals. There are other options, of course. It could be that one is not bigoted or homophobic, but simply intent on following the clear teaching of Scripture. But in order to avoid the accusation, many have decided to leave the clear teaching of Scripture and stand on the other side.

Unfortunately, the argument about homosexual sin is only a hint of the numbers of false dichotomies we face. You are either conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, a hawk or a dove. As a Christian you are either concerned about biblical truth or concerned about the needs of people. Love, in fact, seems to present a host of these dichotomies. You can't love and ... many things. You can't love and tell the honest truth. You can't love and punish. You can't love and believe doctrine. You can't love and recognize sin. This false dichotomy has put God in an awful box. It is not possible to love and send people to Hell. Fortunately, all of these are false dichotomies. These are all part of the False Dilemma, Bogus Dilemma, Bifurcation, Black-and-White Fallacy, Either-Or Fallacy. They are all premised on the belief that there are only two options. They are all logical fallacies.

A bad argument in favor of a good idea is possibly more harmful than a good argument in favor of a bad idea. We need to be careful of the approaches we take when supporting truth. We need to avoid the false dichotomy. If there really are only two possibilities, we must first demonstrate it before we argue it. Otherwise, we must avoid the manipulation. And when we face the argument, we should be aware of it and recognize it and call it what it is rather than caving in to bad arguments and faulty conclusions. Check the options given and see if there aren't more available. Rarely are there only two. Let's think, Christians.

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