ERRORS INVOLVING GENERALIZATIONS

Argument forms (some classical) which draw invalid generalizations or improper conclusions from them

Page Contents

You may read through this page in the order it was written or follow the links below to the topic of most interest to you.

Fallacious generalization

Circular generalization fallacy

False analogy fallacy

Fallacy of the undistributed middle

Fallacy of the four terms

Fallacious modal uses of generalizations

Accident/converse accident fallacies

Ahistoric (Pigeon-hole) fallacy

Monolithic fallacy

Caricature fallacy

Fallacious Generalization

All logical forms have one thing in common: the truth or falsity of the arguments which are fed to them must arise from outside of logic. Logic provides only reasoning forms, not the substance of the truth. Thus, in the classical syllogism previously stated, the argument "All men are mortal" came not from the forms of logic, but from the experience of some philosophers. These philosophers observed that death was a universal experience and that all of the dead they knew of remained dead, and therefore believed it correct to generalize that "all men are mortal." Of course, these philosophers had never met Jesus.

Fallacious generalization — relying upon incomplete or inaccurate information to form a generalization which is then relied upon even when contradicted by evidence — is a source of many errors and many divisions in the Body of Christ. To perceive this, one need only think of the number of statements one sees in popular and denominational religious literature of the type "No X are true Christians," "No X are saved" or "All X are going to hell" (where "X" is the name of a denomination)...Return to top of page

Circular Generalization Fallacy

This is the fallacy of assuming that observations which appear to be exceptions to a proposed general rule actually followed it, then using those observations as a part of the proof of the rule. The Pentecostal movement (of which the author is a part) provides a perfect example. Pentecostals like to make the generalization that every instance of Holy Spirit baptism in the New Testament was accompanied by speaking in tongues. The problem is that, in Acts 8:14-24, the Samaritans are explicitly stated to have received the Holy Spirit without tongues being mentioned. One standard Pentecostal explanation of this is that, because we know that tongues is the invariable evidence of Spirit baptism and the passage doesn't say that the Samaritans didn't speak in tongues, they must also have spoken in tongues. The apparent exception is thereby converted into an instance of the rule. An alternate explanation states that, since tongues are not mentioned, the Samaritans must have received only some other anointing of the Holy Spirit, not Spirit baptism, so that this passage is properly excluded from the set of all instances of Spirit baptism on Acts. The rule is, by this explanation, used to exclude an apparent counterexample from the universe of observations from which the rule itself is generalized. Unfortunately, both of these approaches render circular and fallacious the generalization that "all" instances of Spirit baptism in the New Testament were accompanied by speaking in tongues...Return to top of page

False Analogy Fallacy

A False Analogy draws from the observation that A has a property C the conclusion that B must also have that same property, when a relevant difference exists between A and B which is being ignored. For example, this is a False Analogy: "God is good. Therefore, Satan must also be good."...Return to top of page

Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle

The Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle term is the error of inferring that, because two groups share a common characteristic, the two groups are the same, thus: "All Christians are monotheists. All Islamic people are also monotheists. Therefore, all Christians are Islamic." It is an important component of the Monolithic and Caricature fallacies discussed below...Return to top of page

Fallacy of the Four Terms

A syllogism has only three terms. When a fourth is inserted, error may result, thus: "All snakes are animals. All cats are mammals. Therefore, all snakes are mammals." Note that this argument implies an unstated, false, third premise, "All animals are mammals." This error also often enters into formation of caricatures...Return to top of page

Fallacious Modal Uses of Generalizations

This fallacy involves invalid application of generalizations in the context of minor arguments which also contain modal particles like "all," "many," "some," "few," "no" or "none". One example of this would be "All men are mortal. Some men are Greek. Therefore, all mortals are Greek." This example is not as far-fetched as it appears. If followed up with a single inverted syllogism, the other variant of this fallacious argument from "all" and "some" can be converted into something which looks very much like a modern racist's argument for the non-humanity of the "inferior" race: "1. All men are mortal. Some men are Greek. Therefore, all Greeks are men. 2. All Greeks are men. Spaniards are not Greek. Therefore, Spaniards are not men." The divisive potential of such arguments, in the Church and in the world outside the Church, is obvious...Return to top of page

The Accident/ Converse Accident Fallacies

An Accident occurs when a generalization is applied when an exception to the generalization should be applied instead. An example of this which has already been used would be to apply the generalization "all men are mortal" to Jesus. For the generalization itself to remain valid, an exception must be stated — "All men except the Son of God are mortal." A Converse Accident occurs when an exception is applied where the generalization should have been applied...Return to top of page

Ahistoric (Pigeon-Hole) Fallacy

This is the fallacy of assuming that any person or group which holds some particular doctrine or practice must also hold all of the other doctrines and practices associated with it by some other group (usually either the speaker's own group or a group opposed by the speaker), regardless of how that person or group arrived at it. It is a fallacious generalization drawn from personal association or organizational affiliation. The fallacy ignores the history — personal or organizational — of the idea, and denies the concept that people coming from different directions intellectually can arrive at some of the same conclusions without arriving at all of the same conclusions. One modern example is as follows: it is common for people on both sides of the tongues issue to assume that anyone who claims to speak in tongues must also hold all of the other Pentecostal core doctrines, including the doctrine that the baptism of the Holy Spirit invariably comes "with evidence of speaking in tongues." However, I speak in tongues but do not believe that this gift was given to be evidence of anything. Indeed, I believe that all of the gifts were given as tools for the ministry of individual believers and the Body of Christ. I believe that the gift of tongues was no more intended to be evidence of superiority than were the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, mercy, administration or giving. All of the gifts are tools; nothing more. I have in the past associated with Pentecostal churches, still participate in some of their activities, and for fellowship and administrative purposes was even a member of one for more than 15 years. However, I came from a background that was far removed from the Pentecostal movement, and I did not first speak in a tongue because someone around me insisted that I must do so in order to prove Spirit baptism. Thus, the assumption that I believe all core Pentecostal doctrines because I speak in tongues would be false...Return to top of page

Monolithic Fallacy

The Monolithic Fallacy is, in essence, an organization's application of the Organizational and Pigeon-Hole Fallacies to groups of "so-called Christians" which it rejects. It holds that categories of Christians which the organization has labeled "heretical" are also monolithic — i.e., that all of the members of these "dangerous" groups have identical beliefs and practices on all relevant points. Of course, there are some groups which most mainstream Christians would readily identify as heretical — for instance, the Jehovah's Witnesses — which are, in fact, controlled by organizations which exercise strict discipline over their members and which are, at least, very close to being truly monolithic. On the other hand, throughout Christian history there have been movements which have been falsely identified by their enemies as representing a monolithic threat even though they were, in fact, quite diverse in their beliefs, practices, leadership and organizations. Some of these falsely-identified "monolithic" movements were the Bogomils of the medieval Eastern Orthodox church, the Albigenses (against whom a crusade was fought), the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, and, more recently, the Pentecostal Movement...Return to top of page

Caricature Fallacy

The Caricature Fallacy goes a step beyond the Monolithic Fallacy by ascribing to all members of a "dangerous" heretical movement beliefs and practices which are caricatures of the most extreme positions taken by anyone in the movement attacked. One example of this which is outdated enough to be safe to mention is the treatment of the Anabaptists during the Reformation period. What set all of the Anabaptists (literally interpreted, "re-baptizers") apart from others, was their belief that baptism should only be performed upon believers, not upon infants too young to personally believe in Jesus. The Anabaptists disagreed among themselves about many other things. Some, but not all, Anabaptists also taught that baptism as a believer is essential to salvation, while others followed the position of the Swiss reformers that baptism is only symbolic of salvation and not a cause of it. Nevertheless, they were uniformly caricatured by the official Catholic and Lutheran churches in the German states as teaching that anyone who had received baptism as an infant was doomed to hell unless re-baptized. This, of course, caused great fear and anger among Catholics and Lutherans who had been baptized as infants. Similarly, a few radical Anabaptists practiced the commonality of marriage — that is, all of the men in an Anabaptist community sharing all of their wives among each other. The great majority of Anabaptists rejected this teaching. Nevertheless, as a result of the practices of the small minority, all Anabaptists were caricatured as grossly immoral people who taught their religion in order to gain access to other men's wives. Of course, this public image aroused widespread and violent persecution...Return to top of page

© 2000, 2003 by Ian B. Johnson

Common Divisive Fallacies site index


Other fallacies mentioned above

Organizational Fallacy

Discussions on other sites

Is tongues present every time someone is baptized in the Spirit in Acts?

The purpose of tongues


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