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Meditation 718
Fallacies, Felicities, Fact and Fantasy

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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“Mary had a little lamb ....”

Okay, so what? Well, it all depends on what comes to mind – on what associations one makes. If you happen to be a person familiar with – because you have been indoctrinated in – a certain old nursery rhyme, then you will almost certainly think you know the “facts” about this lamb and insist that “its fleece was white as snow.” On the other hand, if your poetic education has been sorely lacking and you are therefore culturally ignorant of this rhyme but are instead steeped in Christian mythology, you might think this refers to the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus – the “Lamb of God.” Or perhaps you are neither of these but are of culinary bent and upon hearing that “Mary had a little lamb,” you begin to wonder if she might have had some peas and carrots too or whether she seasoned it with mint?

Using language is tricky business[1] and nowhere more so than in attempting to communicate about things moral and spiritual (i.e, “religious”), especially when they are confused with things descriptive and factual (i.e., “scientific”). Confusing the two is itself a fallacy[2] brought on by another fallacy[3] and almost certainly leading to still more.[4] For example, by committing fallacies based upon the different meanings[5] of “lamb” above we might be lead to conclude such things as “Jesus’ hair was white as snow” or “Holy Communion is best accompanied by mint sauce” and then go on to try to defended these fallacious conclusions by still others such as “I know this is true because I read it here and this site would never print anything that wasn’t true”[6] or “it has to be true because he’s an expert”[7] or even worse, “and he’s bigger than you are!”[8] Then of course we could all attack each others’ positions by misrepresenting them, because we insist upon understanding everything our own way and not the way someone else might, and say something stupid like “No matter how much mint sauce you put on it, I am not going to eat fleece.”[9] All these and more can be found in the “dialogue and debate” among and between believers and not. And so we become “like ships passing in the night” – closed off to and ignorant of each other and of the truth, never really communicating but rather only broadcasting – wanting only to be sure we signal our own position but not really listening for or to those of anyone else.

It has been said that common sense is unfortunately not very common, still less so, it seems, is rational thinking. I sometimes think that conclusion jumping should be an Olympic sport, so many people seem to practice it. Education in the principles of clear and logical thinking should be the first thing we teach our children, not the last[10] because committing logical fallacies is not just a matter of bad reasoning, it does harm to the soul[11] – it can actually affect one’s mental health.[12] This is not to say that entertaining fantasies[13] is tantamount to insanity but if one does not realize and acknowledge what is fantasy and what is not in one’s beliefs, one may ultimately be driven to it. Nor is this to say that fantasies cannot sometimes be the bearers of truth; moral and spiritual truths are often communicated in this way.[14] But if one commits the fallacy of confusing the moral and spiritual with the descriptive and factual,[15] then the truths of both will be lost and we will all become like the fellow who went out on his veranda on the fourth of July to watch the fireworks go up in his shorts[16] – entertained for a while perhaps, but ultimately burned in the end![17]


  1. See: Plato, The Seventh Letter
  2. A Category Mistake
  3. These can be from any number of Informal fallacies (those based upon some error of semantics) of a specific type under the broader categories of Fallacies of Ambiguity, Relevance or Presumption or from some Formal fallacy having to do with the syntax of an argument such as the Fallacy of Denying the Antecedent or the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent. Committing any one of any kind of these is enough to render any argument, conclusion, or position as illogical and irrational.
  4. The chain of possible fallacies is potentially endless. Once any fallacy is detected, there is little if any point in going on because it is a logical truth that anything follows from a logical falsehood.
  5. The Fallacy of Equivocation, a type of Fallacy of Ambiguity
  6. The Fallacy of Presupposing the Conclusion – or Circular Argument (Principio Principi), a type of Fallacy of Presumption.
  7. The Fallacy of Appeal to Authority, a type of Fallacy of Relevance.
  8. The Fallacy of Appeal to Force (Ad Baculum), a type of Fallacy of Relevance.
  9. The Straw-man Argument Fallacy, a type of Fallacy of Relevance.
  10. The first thing we should do is learn them ourselves. Contrary to popular belief, children can be quite logical. In fact, they (we) are born with the capacity but quickly seem to lose it through bad example and bad habit. Even my dog “understands” the formal principles of “Modus Ponens” and “Modus Tollens” in avoiding punishment and seeking rewards. It is an empirical fallacy that children cannot learn some actually fairly sophisticated principles of logic until after they become adults. I once taught logic to both university sophomores and to fourth graders in the same semester. The only difference was the “age appropriate” examples I choose to use to illustrate various logical principles. The fourth graders did much better as a whole than did my university class. It seems that years of practicing fallacious thinking takes its toll and it is hard to overcome years of training to literally think illogically. Any normal child over the age of seven (when they begin to become capable of “abstract operational thinking”) is capable of learning about the perils of informal fallacies. Children even younger than that can be reinforced in the most basic principles of formal logic (e.g., Modus Ponens, Modus Tollens, Hypothetical Syllogisms) but unfortunately, they can also be “trained” to think fallaciously as well. Woe to anyone who would lead such little ones astray!
  11. See Socrates’ comment to Crito just before Socrates’ execution, as related in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.
  12. The principles and practices of “modern” “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” are based upon the recognition and correction of such “illogical thinking” which “therapy” was borrowed from the insights of the Ancient Stoics (principally Epectitus) who were in-turn inspired by Socrates (see note 11 above).
  13. Fantasies can indeed be entertaining but the question is: Are you entertaining fantasies or are your fantasies entertaining you?
  14. I intend to say more about this in a subsequent “Meditation.” For now, suffice it to say that a “story” can be “morally true” yet “factually false.” For example, there need not be nor ever have been a “boy that cried wolf” in order for the “moral” of that fable to be true.
  15. A Fallacious Category Mistake
  16. An Amphibole, a type of Fallacy of Ambiguity which are frequently amusing.
  17. This too is subject to many interpretations leading to various Fallacies of Ambiguity and other kinds of fallacies ad infinitum. No doubt some “Hell-fire and Brimstone Christian” will say “Amen,” thinking it means we “unbelievers” will, in the end, burn in hell. But then it could also be taken literally to mean simply that we will all have parched posteriors. Its intended meaning, however, is simply to be felicitous given the “moral” of the fallacy it follows and to suggest that if we don’t strive to be more logical and rational in our thinking, then we are likely to “get burned” as in “to be put at a disadvantage by having been fooled.” As the old saying goes: There’s no fool like he who fools himself!