Tag Archives: Logic

Dawkins’ Relevance Fallacy

Mohammed_Flying_HorseTheists reflexively don’t like Richard Dawkins, but can upset Atheists too when he speaks on religion. Personally, I think Dawkins’ atheist efforts have had a very good impact. Yet I am sympathetic with some of the objections people have toward him.  For unlike Dawkins, I am not an all-religion-is-bad atheist. But even with objections, I think Dawkins offers us a lot. Heck, I am sympathetic with peoples’ objections about me too, and yet I still like myself. 🙂

When people make objections about Dawkins, I prefer they make careful objections. But a large number of objections I hear about Dawkins are irrational. Today I will explore one of Dawkins’ bad argument classes — one I hear him make often.  Then I will show how ironically, a criticism of Dawkins consists of the same sort of fallacy: a relevance fallacy.

István Aranyosi (a philosophy professor at a Turkish University but possibly Romanian or Bulgarian) wrote a fascinating article in Boston Review, discussing this issue. Below I will only discuss the section on the Fallacy of Relevance.

Dawkin apparently tweeted:

“Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.”

AF_RelevanceThis tweet implies a fallacy of relevance that I often see among atheists. As Aranyosi says, “Hasan’s religious beliefs are irrelevant to his journalistic activities. It is what we call a “fallacy of relevance” in informal logic.”  In my jargon, the reason it is a fallacy is because we have multiple selves and/or our minds are partitioned, thus even brilliant people can hold ridiculous beliefs which don’t necessarily interfere with other areas of their lives.

Here is how I would formalize the logic in Dawkins’ tweet:

(1) If someone believes any ridiculous thing, they can’t be a good journalist
(2) Hasan believes a horse once flew
(3) Believing a horse once flew is a silly thing
:: therefore, Hasan can’t be a good journalist

Aranyosi calls this a fallacy of relevance.  The Relevance Fallacy is a broad category within the category of Informal Fallacies — those lying within the premises.  The fallacy of relevance is also called Ignoratio elenchi or irrelevant conclusion — See here for a list of such fallacies. In that list, however, I can not find this fallacy. Instead, I think this is the “Black-or-White Fallacy” (see the Fallacy Files explanation here).

FallaciesSo in my formalization above, the error lies in the first premises — the second and third premise are true and the conclusion flows from the first three premises.  But the first premise is false because it is has a “Black-or-White Fallacy” buried within it which says something like this:

“If someone believes even one ridiculous thing,
then they will believe many ridiculous things
and thus inevitably be bad at everything they do.”

The general form of Dawkin’s claim is then:

(1) If X believes even one ridiculous thing,
then X can’t be good at any job requiring reason
(2) Y believes Z
(3) Z is a ridiculous belief
:: therefore, Y can’t can be good at any job requiring reason

This Black-or-White Fallacy is a common one I see among atheists when they generalize about religion.

In Aranyosi’s article he points out how anti-Dawkins folks create the same fallacy of relevance by saying his argument (his tweet) is evidence that he is an anti-Muslim bigot. But just because Dawkin’s feels that a ridiculous belief (like a winged-horse) stops good journalism does not point to his bigotry, because Dawkins makes this sort of illogical claim against many religious and even non-religious folks.  It is not enough to use this to claim that Dawkins has pan-anti-Islamic bigotry.  Just because he dislikes one religious belief, does not mean he is bigoted agains Muslims.  He may be, but this is not evidence for such a claim.

Question for Readers:  Do you think my formalization of Dawkin’s tweet is accurate.  Do you think the fallacy classifications are accurate?  (Please note, I really don’t want to discuss Dawkins — instead, this is an exercise in logic.)


Footnote:  Mohammed’s horse’s name is Burāq, which means “lightning”.  On hearing that name I thought Buraq may be the origin of Barack Obama’s first name.  But apparently, “Barack” is an African name meaning “blessed” which itself comes from of the Hebrew word ‘Baruch’ meaning the same [ as does the Arabic name ‘Mubarak’].  Googling shows that many people wrongly wondered as I have.  Some maintain their view because it feeds position that Obama is a secret Muslim.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Demons & Classifying Fallacies

Stomping_TaxonomiesAs I have written before, I love taxonomies.  In fact, one of the strongest arguments against an all-loving, all-powerful, intervening, immaterial spirit or god is that everything in the world is not easy to classify and that diagrams can’t capture all useful truth. Well, that argument carries similar weight to the observation that cocaine is bad for you.

Maybe all of this is simply evidence that the world is controlled by an large-footed evil demon. Either way, in this godless, demonic world I will continue to futilely try and capture reality in charts and taxonomies.

Rhetorical tricks and mistakes have been noted from antiquity and putting them into taxonomies has a long history too.  However there is no agreement on fallacy names or their proper taxonomy.  Instead, we have overlapping names and categories. The Great Demon again laughs at our anthropocentric mental arrogance.


Nonetheless, one of the most useful taxonomies I have found is the fallacy files which uses the basic taxonomy to the right. If you look at the link, you will see that this taxonomy has layers of subtlety including some overlapping and many sub-categories.

When I think of why arguments fail, I like to include “cognitive mistakes” as a category.  So below is a 3-category model which I find helpful. Appropriately, I make the three areas overlap to give me lots of wiggle room. I will use this taxonomy later, but wanted to introduce it in a short post.


Question to readers:  What is your favorite taxonomy for fallacies?  Do you have a favorite webpage?


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Where Fallacies Live

FallaciesAn argument consists of premises and a conclusion.  Argumentation can consist of chained, supportive arguments.  Argumentation contains three places wherein mistakes, tricks or fallacies live.  The diagram to the right show the first two:

  1. Within a premises: these are called “informal fallacies”
  2. In the logic which connects the premises to the conclusion: these are called “formal fallacies”.

For a fantastic hyperlinked diagram of formal and informal fallacies, see “The Fallacy Files“.

Even if an argument does not have any informal or formal fallacies, a listener could rightfully demand “proof” (or an argument) for any of the premises which they feel is unsupported.  This is fine and good, but unless eventually the arguer and the listener come to some agreed premises, the argument chain could go on forever. This dilemma is called “The Skeptical Regress”.  See the diagram below.


Like formal and informal fallacies, the Skeptical Regress and it’s fallacies have been known from antiquity. The first false solution to the dilemma (a fallacy) is to just accept the infinite regress.  The second Regress Fallacy is called a circular argument. See below:


The circular argument turns the infinite chain upon itself — like an Ourobus. This method brings back premises to be wrongly dependent upon the original argument’s conclusion.

Double_OuroborosIn summary, here is my classification of argument fallacies:

  1. Informal Fallacies
  2. Formal Fallacies
  3. Regress Fallacies
    1. Infinite Regress
    2. Circular Argument

Question to Readers:  Any corrections or suggestions?


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Laying out an Argument

In my “How to Reason and Argue” course (week 2 of 12 — still time to join), Walter (our professor) is setting out by defining terms. And indeed, agreed definitions are crucial for effective communication.

“The beginning of wisdom, is the definition of terms.”
Socrates (quoted in my sidebar)

Contrary to a common illusion, words do not have “fixed” definitions — see my “Myth of Definitions“.  Instead, words have many varied uses and depend not only on context but also on the idiolect of the speaker.  Thus, “definitions” are merely a temporary, unwritten, and often unrecognized, explicit ‘contract’ between speakers. So, if the words used in a conversation aren’t working, then to make progress the two speakers are wise to acknowledge the unfixed nature of definitions and temporarily agree on some shared use of the words in their conversation and Walter is pre-empting this issue.

Levels of LanguageWalter wants us to agree on the word “argument“.  He wants us to understand, first, what sort of word it is and so starts the course describing different “Levels of Language” where “arguments” lie in that scheme (to the right).

Briefly, here are short definitions of the terms in his chart (no need to discuss them further, though):

  • Linguistic Act: a meaningful utterance
  • Speech Act: a linguistic act intended to bring about an effect
  • Conversation Act: a speech act that actually has a desired effect
  • Arguments: a certain type of conversation act.  See below.

Arguments have many uses. Our professor, building his definition of “argument” tells us that the main uses of arguments are to persuade, justify and explain — with any argument possibly fulfilling more than one of these at a time.  In another post, I will discuss this, but for now, those are fine. Remember, “argument” is used many ways in English and Walter is prescribing how he demands it is used in his course.  And for the most part, its seems, for his specific purposes, his definition is largely uncontroversial.

Arguments occur in everyday conversation, in newspapers, journal and blogs. But most arguments are not always obvious or  laid out clearly. To remedy this, Walter gives us the basic form that all arguments should take and I link it to his definition below:


On blogs it is often helpful to pause and agree on definitions. Further, taking time to dissect an argument and lay it out formally can prove to be the next important step. When dissected and formalized, the problems with an argument become much more clear. If our goal is mere persuasion, then such an exercise may actually be counter-productive, for that Machiavellian goal, hiding our weaknesses can be much more effective. But for the purpose of building understanding and growing knowledge, outlining an argument’s form is helpful.

So, let’s try to formalize my argument in the last paragraph:

(1) Arguments are a type of conversation
(2) Arguments are often not explicit
(3) You can make an argument explicit using the form above
(4) Once explicit, an argument’s vulnerabilities are more clear
(5) Making vulnerabilities more clear aids in the growth of knowledge though it may harm if one’s sole intent is to persuade.

 Spelling out an argument’s form aids growing knowledge

So if you disagree with my last paragraph, hopefully after formalizing it, you can now more easily engage in discussing your disagreement.

Exercise for readers: Write a short paragraph making some claim, then rewrite it using the form above (“formalize it”).

Note: to use the ∴ symbol, you may need to put it in a text file and then copy into WordPress or Blogger.  For more on the symbol, see here.  However, since that takes a lot of effort, I will be using two colons (::) to make my mark and then follow it by a “therefore” type word.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Logical Fallacies & Rhetorical Tricks

We intuitively know when an argument sounds wrong or tricky. Philosophers have for centuries labelled and classified these errors in argument. Embarrassingly, I have only learned many of these names for fallacies since I started blogging. But heck, it is never too late to learn.  Knowing these convenient names for fallacies can save us from long-winded explanations as we try to see through our own manipulative, tricky, deceptive arguments (and those of others).

This is an index post where I will slowly list my writings on fallacies.  The above taxonomy for fallacies is from my favorite source: http://www.fallacyfiles.org . I will use it (and may change it) to illustrate future posts.  If you have other resources for fallacy education or suggestions, please let me know in the comments.

Fallacy Posts:


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The Burden of the “Burden of Proof”

“Burden of Proof” is a common rhetorical persuasion tool used by atheists. I have used it myself in the past.  But I have come to think that the atheist’s sacred “burden of proof” has some real burdens of its own: political, economic and rhetorical.

“Proof” is a game and as such takes place in an arena defined by rules, boundaries, penalties, scoring and players.  The arena for ideas is always some market.  But don’t get me wrong, I am fanatically fond of the scientific method.  But it is only one tool in one arena amidst the vast realm of human markets.

In human markets, an idea wins if it has followers.  The number of followers only matters to the seller depending on what the seller values.  A small number of buyers, for instance, may offer the seller enough sustenance in terms of status, pleasure, finances or any number of other benefits  so that seller to consider themselves a winner.

To the seller the only ‘proof’ lies in the market.  And when they are satisfied, they will feel no “burden”.  But if the customers are deciding based on some other proof-method, the seller may decide to care.  Thus, the person making a claim will only enter the scientific realm if they feel winning in that realm will win more followers than they have presently and if the cost of trying to enlarge their market is worth it.

The person selling snake oil or some religious hoccus-pocus may not agree with the “burden of proof” argument because he/she knows that the burden-of-proof that matters is the market, not scientific proof.

You see, they understand that humans are not build to understand truth.  Humans are built to consume and control and multiply.  The market is a means to these fundamental mechanisms.  Truth is a very weak contender.

Science’s burden is to show the profitability (in terms of safety, happiness, finances, health, status) of their idea.  The real arena is the market — that is where the burden is decided.   That is the difficulty behind all dialogue.  Screaming “burden of proof” can show a certain naivety about the nature of human decisions and actions.  It may be useful rhetoric, but it is only rhetoric to those who already agree.  But with out an audience, it is of no use.

For more on “Burden of Proof” try searching for it in this Atheist Search Engine.  I invite your corrections in the errors of my thinking.


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Hyperbole – word study

We all know what it means to exaggerate.  The word comes from Latin:
ex= “thoroughly” +
aggerare “heap, up” [ad– “toward” + gerere “carry”].

But like many concepts in English we also have a Greek derived word with similar meaning:  “Hyperbole”:  Gk huperbole,  huper, “above” + bole, “throw”.

But “hyperbole” is sometimes just used to mean the same as exaggeration, it is often used to identify an intentional literary or speech device which is not meant to be taken literally.  Thus here are the common definitions of “hyperbole”:

  1. Exaggeration
  2. Intentional Exaggeration
  3. Intentional Exaggeration not intended to be taken literally

As a communication tool, hyperbole can be used in the following ways:

  • To grab attention
  • To emphasize a contrast
  • To deceive

A hyperbole is effective at contrasting one idea against another — it makes their differences clear albeit with gross exaggeration.  This can wake up the listener and help them realize that the speaker is introducing a new paradigm.  Whereas if a speaker uses slow, careful, caveat-laden comparisons and descriptions to contrast two concepts, a listener may not really get their point or may get tired of listening.  “Hyperbole” is a great rhetorical tool.  It makes the contrasting idea easy to remember and often easy to apply.  Such is the simple nature of the human mind.

Well that is all great for the mind ready to be moved.  Nonetheless, if the listener has no desire to be swayed, they may point out the exaggeration of the hyperbole and focus only on its inaccuracies.  They may not forgive the rhetoric.  Hyperbole is a rhetoric tool but it disobeys all sorts of logic rules.   But when the goal of the communication is victory and not truth, a competitor will choose their weapon appropriately.

Finally, some geometry to explain the picture used in this post.  As I said, the etymology of “hyperbole” is:

“Hyperbole”:  Gk huperbole . to huper, “above” + bole, “throw”.

When we throw an object, it follows a certain geometric shape — a parabola which is related to a hyperbola.   “Hyperbola” has the exact same etymology as hyperbole.  While reviewing the definitions of hyperbola and parabola, I found that they and circles and ellipses were simply sections of a cone.  But none of the definitions I found were elegant — none put explained the differences in these shapes in clear, yet concise terms.  So I will offer Sabio’s elegant definition of Conic Sections below:

Four geometric figures are determined by the intersection of a (non-vertex) plane with the sides (nappes) of a cone.  The figure types are determined by the acute angle formed by the plane and the cone’s axis.

Hyperbola = 0 degrees (parallel axis) to degree of Nappe Angle
Parabola = degree of Nappe Angle
Ellipse =  degree of Nappe Angle to 90 degrees
Circle = 90 degrees (perpendicular to axis)

Note: for simplicity I limited to planes which do not include the vertex of the cone.  Otherwises Lines and a Point must be included as possible conic sections.

Math folks, please help me if I have erred.   Others, if you have read this far, let me know what you think about the literary tool of hyperbole.

See other “Word!” posts, here.


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