Logical Theology

…considered thoughts and opinions

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Appeal to Nature Fallacy

As people who live in a natural world, we tend to associate “natural” as being good and beneficial and “unnatural” as being bad and harmful. This is clearly the case in some instances; for example, water is more natural and better for you than soda pop. Breathing air is more natural and better for you than breathing laughing gas. However, concluding that something is good or better just because it is natural, or concluding that something is bad because it is unnatural is not an absolute rule. In fact, the cases where such a conclusion holds may be less than one thinks.

To begin with, it can be difficult to define what qualifies as “natural.” We say that drinking water is natural, but is drinking coffee natural? Flying in an airplane seems unnatural, but that does not mean it is bad or harmful. Should we walk as opposed to fly? As can be seen, it is a mistake to conclude that being natural necessarily makes something better, and that being unnatural necessarily makes something bad or harmful. Nevertheless, people will sometimes think otherwise – a fact that motivates many companies to sell their products under the label “natural,” and to use more “natural” ingredients, as opposed to artificial ones. Because many people associate such products with a healthy diet, they will purchase them instead of other products made with “unnatural” ingredients. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to purchase healthier food, thinking that something is better for you because it is “natural” can be fallacious. Consider the following examples:

Example 1:

Jack says, “I always purchase food that has the “all natural” label on it. It is far healthier than foods which do not have such a label on it.”

Jennifer replies, “Why do you think that it is better for you?”

Jack replies, “Because it is “natural” as opposed to being heavily processed. Food that is more the way nature intended it to be is better for you.”

There are two appeal to nature fallacies in Jack’s comments. The first fallacy is committed by Jack’s assumption that foodstuffs which are “all natural” or “natural” are healthier than foodstuffs that are not “natural.” The reason this is fallacious is because Jack’s assumption that “natural” or “all natural” foodstuffs are healthier assumes that there are actually some legal standards that are enforced upon foods which bear the “all natural” label. However, in the United States, the standards that foodstuffs have to meet in order to be labeled as “all natural” is minimal at best. Unlike the label “organic,” the Food and Drug Administration does not have a strict set of guidelines for the term “all natural.” Therefore, Jack has succumbed to clever advertisements designed to compel him to commit the appeal to nature fallacy and to purchase “all natural” products. 

Just because a product, such as a cut of beef, bears the label “all natural,” does not mean the animal was raised, fed and slaughtered without anything artificial, such as chemicals and hormones. Therefore, just because the food is “all natural” does not mean it is good for you, nor does it mean that the manufacturer has not used other unhealthy ingredients.

However, let us assume that there were some guidelines associated with the “all natural” label, guidelines that required such products to be made with few artificial methods, such as the use of pesticides. Though that may make such foods healthier, Jack’s statements would still be fallacious, due to his second appeal to nature fallacy. Jack assumed that simply being natural as opposed to artificial makes something better and healthier for you, for he said that “food that is more the way nature intended it to be is better for you.” Clearly this is not the case. Did nature intend for us to cook our meat as opposed to eating it raw? Is it more “natural” to eat raw meat and raw grains as opposed to cooking meat and eating bread? If someone is in pain, is it better for them to take a pain killer such as Advil or Tylenol, or should they drink plenty of water and just deal with it? Pain killers seem to be fairly “artificial.” Is it healthier for someone to eat a heavily processed can of SPAM, or to eat raw bamboo, tree bark, and grubs? As can be seen, just because something is “natural” does not automatically mean it is better than something that is not natural. To see this even more clearly, consider another example:

Example 2: 

Jill says, “I personally think that it is good for humans to go to sleep strictly according to the day-night cycle, that is, to wake up when the sun rises and to go to bed when the sun goes down.”

Michael replies, “Why do you think humans should do that?”

Jill responds, “Because it is much more natural for humans to do that as opposed to going to bed later after the sun goes down, and getting up either before it rises or after it does so. Many other animals follow the day-night cycle, so I believe it must be healthier for humans to do so as well.”

Michael replies, “I don’t think that is a good reason at all. Animals do a lot of things that humans do not and should not do. It may be more “natural,” but that does not mean humans should practice it.”

Michael is right, of course. Just because many wild animals follow the day-night cycle does not automatically mean humans should follow their example. It may be more “natural” for humans to follow the day-night cycle, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably did, but that does not mean it is better and should be done by us today. Consider the behavior of some animals that humans should not imitate, such as the predatory behavior of some animals. Clearly, just because wild animals behave in a certain way does not warrant concluding that humans should behave in an identical or similar way. In addition, just because past humans acted in certain ways does not mean we should follow their example.

However, while Jill’s statement committed the appeal to nature fallacy, that does not automatically falsify her conclusion that following the day-night cycle is healthier. It just shows that she has not justified such an assumption. It would be different had she attempted to argue that science and research has provided support for such a claim. We could then take her argument more seriously, as it does seem that many aspects of high-tech society can be unhealthy (such as internet and television addiction). However, she did not present any such argument. Rather, she made a fallacious appeal to nature, arguing that humans should follow the day-night cycle because many other animal species do as well.

The Bottom Line: While in some cases, being “natural” is better, it is a fallacy to assume that something is better or healthier only because it is more “natural” than something else.

Cherry Picking Part 2

Now that we have a better understanding of what cherry picking is, let us now turn to how this fallacy can be committed within Christian discourse. Consider the following examples:

Example 1:

Martha says, “Have you heard about Fairbanks Christian University and what they teach?”

Jason replies, “I have heard of them, but I do not know much about what they teach. What have you learned?”

Martha replies, “The university appears to offer many good programs for their students. However, the faculty and leadership do not teach traditional Christian doctrine. In fact, many of the things they teach are so obviously wrong that it amazes me that so many people go to their university. If you would like, I can send you an article detailing their false beliefs.”

Jason responds, “Yes, I would like that. Thank you!”

Jason later receives Martha’s email. As he reads the article, it sound convincing. However, knowing the importance of not uncritically accepting what one is told, he decides to do some research and put Martha’s evidence to the test. After he does his homework, he tells his wife:“Having done all this research, I can say for a fact that Martha’s article was quoting the University’s statements out of context and making it appear that they believed things that they might not really believe. I still don’t know whether or not the University believes orthodox or unorthodox doctrines, but I cannot trust an article that does not quote in context and does not fairly evaluate the University’s statements.”

Is Jason’s response justified? Absolutely. It may well be that the University’s faculty and leaders do believe some unorthodox doctrines. It also may be true that the University’s leaders publicly teach those doctrines. However, it is important to accurately and fairly represent what people are saying and teaching. Selectively looking at only specific fragments of an entire speech, pulling these statements out of context, and basing your conclusion on those statements is fallacious.

When responding to someone, it is important to be sure that you are quoting them accurately and in the correct context. If the article Martha sent Jason was selectively picking and choosing what statements to attack, and not fairly considering them in their correct context and not considering the speech in its entirety, those who wrote the article would be engaging in cherry picking.

It may be that these individuals believe something completely different; however, we would not be able to tell simply by reading a biased article that lifted their quotes out of context.

Example 2:

Bob says, “Matthew, what do you think about the topic of the millennial reign of Christ? Is there a position which you agree with or do you think that we cannot know for sure?”

Matthew replies, “Yes I do have a viewpoint. Having studied the three competing positions—pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, and not trying to explain it because we can’t know for sure, I believe that the pre-millennial view is accurate. I have looked into the arguments for the other two views, and I do not find them nearly as convincing as the arguments in favor of pre-millennialism.”

After Bob and Matthew finish talking, Bob goes back to his house and does some research into the subject himself. He discovers that there are alternative views which Matthew did not address. Bob therefore says, “I need to look at these other views and see what they have to say before I can make a firm decision on this issue.”

Is Bob’s decision the correct one? Yes it is. There are multiple positions which Christians adopt on the subject of Christian Eschatology and the millennial reign of Christ. It is therefore important to look at all points of view before arriving at a conclusion. Matthew attempted to list the positions that Christians take on this subject and provide his reasons for accepting one and rejecting the others. However, he did not take all the positions into account, for example, amillennialism. He therefore has committed the cherry picking fallacy. Though this was probably done unintentionally, the fact that people can neglect to consider all points of view is one reason why we need to look at the evidence for ourselves. It is a mistake to accept someone’s assessment of a topic uncritically, especially when there are multiple interpretations and conclusions which people draw on a subject. Let us consider one more example:

Example 3:

Frank says, “I thank you for your explanation of your beliefs; however, I am not interested in accepting Christianity.”

Mary replies, “Why not? I would really like to know what you base your rejection of Christianity on.”

Frank responds, “I base my rejection on the fact that pastors are charlatans and hypocrites, and almost all Christians are hypocrites as well. I could go on and on about how many pastors are just trying to get their flocks to give them all their money and then use it to satisfy their selfish desires instead of glorifying God, which they claim to do. Then there are all the Christians who claim that God requires people to live a godly and morally good life, and then they turn around and do the exact opposite of what they claim to promote. It is for these reasons that I reject Christianity.”

Many replies, “Well, I don’t see how you can be so sure that all pastors and almost all Christians are hypocrites. It may be that all the ones you have encountered are that way. However, I don’t see how you can say that you have met enough to justify such a broad conclusion.”

Mary’s statements are of course correct. It is an example of the cherry picking fallacy to use a limited pool of information, in this case the limited people Frank has encountered, and then draw a conclusion about the entire whole. There are other fallacies in Frank’s statement, but let’s focus on the cherry picking fallacy. Can Frank honestly say that “all” pastors are charlatans and hypocrites? He did not say that some are. Rather, he just says that “pastors are charlatans and hypocrites,” which implies that they all are that way. Has Frank personally met every pastor and discovered that they are as he sees them to be? Of course not. Therefore, his statement is committing the cherry picking fallacy because he is only considering the examples of bad pastors he has encountered and overlooking all the good ones.

His statement that “almost all Christians are hypocrites as well” commits the cherry picking fallacy for the same reason. Is his pool of information large or small? If small and limited, and if he is refusing to consider the possibility that some might not fit his stereotype, he has indeed committed the cherry picking fallacy. Even if it were true that “almost all Christians” had acted hypocritically at some point in their lives, it hardly follows that “almost all Christians” consistently act that way. If Frank’s argument were true, one wonders why he restricts it to just Christianity, as if Christians are the only hypocrites in the world. However, the fact remains that the personal failings of an individual do not invalidate what they say. To think otherwise is to commit another fallacy, namely the Tu Quoque fallacy.

The Bottom Line: Selectively looking at and only considering the evidence which agrees with your beliefs and ideas, while ignoring evidence and alternative points of view which disagree with your beliefs and ideas is a logical fallacy.

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