ERRORS INVOLVING CAUSATION

Assigning wrong causes to events and inventing "facts" that agree with the speaker's belief as to causation.

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Temporal sequence/causation fallacies

Uniform experience fallacy

Fallacies of oversimplification of causes

Temporal Sequence/Causation Fallacies

This is a related group of fallacies which either draw incorrect causal inferences from the temporal order of events or draw incorrect inferences about the order in which events occurred by applying a known causal rule to incomplete facts. The simplest of these erroneous inferences is simply that, because A preceded B or occurred shortly before B, A must have caused B. To be sure, there are situations in which repeated observation of one event always following another will support an inference that one caused the other, at least in the absence of contrary observations. This is the way science is done. Our knowledge of natural "laws" as rules of causation derives from repeated, uncontradicted observations. However, it is not generally true that any isolated event which follows soon after another event was caused by that event. Just because I had catsup on my scrambled eggs at breakfast on the morning in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, does not imply that the First Persian Gulf War was caused by my questionable taste in food.

Another form of the causation fallacy relies upon an established rule of causation, an observed effect and incomplete information about the relevant circumstances to draw an inference about the cause of the effect. Thus, given the causal law of gravity, it would generally be thought correct to infer that a man seen dropping a brick off a building was the cause of the observation of a brick shattering on the pavement several seconds later. However, at least one critical fact has been omitted from the statement of the question — and simply assumed by most readers — the relative location of the two events involved. If the man dropped the brick off of a building ten miles from where a brick was observed to shatter, causation is an unlikely inference. It is much more likely that there were two different bricks.

Still another form of this fallacy infers temporal sequence, and, sometimes, even whole supposed causative events, from an effect, a rule of causation which is presumed to have created the effect, and incomplete information about the relevant circumstances. This can create some very strange results when, for example, only one of several possible causative mechanisms is chosen and historical events are rewritten to contain the appropriate "causes" for the observed effects. Certain secular historiographies are guilty of this to an absurd degree — for instance, the Marxist-Leninist and Nazi interpretations of history. All three of these temporal sequence/ causation fallacies are also, unfortunately, found in widely-held Christian interpretations of the events of the Bible, world history and predictive prophecy... Return to the top of this page

Uniform Experience Fallacy

The Uniform Experience Fallacy is the error committed by a person who observes that he was saved while praying standing on his head in a full baptistery, further observes that the scriptures associate baptism with salvation, and concludes from these observations that the only way anyone may be saved is by praying while standing on their head in a full baptistery. Church history teaches that this person may then go about teaching the new doctrine and building his or her own following, which may ultimately resolve itself into the Inverse Baptist Convention and refuse to recognize fellowship with any "so-called Christian" who has not received baptism by inversion according to that denomination's traditional ritual. While this example is quite fanciful, it is certain that the reader can think of real examples of unwarranted insistence on a uniform Christian experience drawn from the teachings of various groups of which the reader is not a member. Of course, all of the experiential demands of the reader's own denomination are scriptural and fully justified!

Because this fallacy involves the inference of incorrect causal mechanisms through application of fallacious generalizations and generalizations drawn from repeated occurrences, the conclusions drawn from it are invalidated by even a single unexplained contrary occurrence. Therefore, the Uniform Experience Fallacy is often associated with applications of the Proof Text Fallacies and the Organizational and Monolithic Fallacies. A "proof text" approach to the scriptures is used to explain contrary occurrences in scriptures or to permit them to be ignored, while believers (usually members of other organizations) whose experiences don't appear to fit the uniform pattern are labeled "non-Christian," "unpiritual," spiritually "immature," or "deceived."... Return to the top of this page

Fallacies of Oversimplification of Causes

In the real world, an event usually doesn't have a single, simple cause, and attempting to simplify an explanation to only a single cause which is relevant to the discussion at hand may lead to error. Three different general types of errors are possible here. The first involves choosing from among several concurrent causes of an event only one cause, which was a contributing factor but not a principal cause, and labeling it "the" cause of the event. This error is very common in politics, where legislators whose only role in enacting a popular piece of legislation was to cast a single vote for it nevertheless have a great tendency to return to their districts and take sole credit for it. But this error is also found in the Church.

The second error involves choosing an obvious immediate cause of an event and using that choice to deny the possibility of another cause which underlay the selected cause. Take the case of a man who falls off the top of a tall building to his death. Even if it is easy to determine the obvious "immediate" cause — i.e., whether he slipped, jumped or was pushed — there will be many other causal questions which will have to be answered for practical reasons, most likely by the legal system. If he jumped, why did he jump? Was he suicidal or did he think he could fly? If he was pushed, who did it and why? If he slipped, why was he on top of the building, what factors contributed to his slip and would better security or better barriers on the top of the building have prevented the accident? The legal system generally will not permit a building owner who could have taken reasonable steps to prevent such an accident to defend a lawsuit by asserting only "he slipped and I had nothing to do with it." This is generally recognized to be an oversimplification.

Of course, many in the church have an even more oversimplified explanation for the death of the man who fell off the building: either "God took him home!," "He died because he didn't have enough faith!" or "It was a judgment on his sins!" This is presented as a complete explanation — depending on the speaker's theological persuasion, either it happened simply because God willed it or it was entirely the victim's fault. Yes, God is one of many indirect causes, in that God instituted the law of gravity which caused the victim to hit the pavement at high speed seconds after he departed the top of the building and failed to suspend that law for his benefit after he fell. But for most purposes the most relevant cause of the incident is something on the human side — murder, suicide, mental illness or carelessness — not God maliciously deciding to use natural law to kill (see the Divine Ogre Fallacy, explained elsewhere). Nor will the cause usually be assignable solely to the victim of a tragedy. Causes are usually complex... Return to the top of this page

©2000, 2005 by Ian B. Johnson

Common Divisive Fallacies site index

Other fallacies referenced above

Proof Text Fallacies

Organizational Fallacy

Monolithic Fallacy

Divine Ogre Fallacy