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Incorrectly comparing apples and oranges or insisting that a question have as an answer answer "true", "false", "right", "wrong" or a number.

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Fallacious comparison

Fallacious quantification

Fallacious binarization

Fallacious Comparison

This is the familiar fallacy of comparing things which are not comparable — e.g., comparing apples with oranges — and then building an argument around the results of the comparison. Fallacious comparisons often result from asking questions which are either too vague or too broad. Thus, while it makes perfect sense to ask whether apples cost more or less per pound than oranges in a particular market on a particular day, it makes no sense at all to ask simply whether apples are more economical than oranges, a question which is too broad because it fails to specify not only date and market but also the intended use of the fruit. No matter how cheap apples become, they will never become an economical source of orange juice! Similarly, the question "are apples or oranges better" is too vague to yield a single, definite answer, as it appears to ask for a statement of personal opinion in response rather than a statement of fact.

Though it is also found in many other places in Christian discourse, the "apples and oranges" fallacy is particularly common in arguments built from the events of scriptural history in which value comparisons ("good" vs. "bad", "better" vs. "worse," "more" vs. "less") are made between 1) the actions of two different historical personages or nations where the people compared were found in dissimilar situations factually, historically and/or culturally in some way which was relevant to moral value of their actions; 2) God's responses to the actions of people or nations in dissimilar settings, as described above; or 3) comparison of our present behavior to that of a historical personage or nation whose situation was dissimilar to ours in some relevant way. When combined with other fallacies, invalid comparisons can be the source of some very amusing arguments. For instance, some televangelists who build their following through alarm and fear are able to build a following by converting an invalid moral comparison of modern America with ancient Israel, Babylon, Nineveh, Rome or Egypt (usually combined with variants of the territorial, cultural and legalistic fallacies, discussed elsewhere) into an argument that "America is sure to be destroyed soon, unless it repents (and blindly follows ME)." A little calm thought, however, will convince most people that these ancient powers were in a quite different historical and cultural setting than the modern USA — all but Rome met God's judgment before Christ came, and the scriptures were completed before the Roman Empire fell (though Rome is still a great city) and do not clearly state the reasons for its fall... Return to top of page

Fallacious Quantification

Mathematics, as a branch of philosophy, has long taught that any continuous range of values which can be compared (e.g., "more" vs. "less") can also be quantified. Thus, the fallacy of improper comparison already discussed leads naturally to the fallacy of erroneous quantification — i.e., erroneously stating as a number a fact which either cannot be made in to a number or about which neither the statement at issue nor its context suggests a number. This fallacy is, unfortunately, fairly common in some systems that have been published for the interpretation of prophecy, in which numbers from one context are sometimes imported wholesale to fill in real or perceived gaps in the information found in a different scriptural context, and arguments are then built from the imported number as if that number was really authoritatively stated in its new context. The most ridiculous extreme of fallacious quantification occurs when people use numerological or other methods to try to set a date for Jesus' return — a date which the scriptures themselves tell us we cannot know. Acts 1:6-7... Return to top of page

Fallacious Binarization

Fallacious binarization is related to fallacious comparison. Fallacious binarization requires the assignment of a binary value to a statement to which neither of the two allowed choices universally applies. Thus, it is error to insist that a statement like "the present King of France is bald" must be either true or false: because France is no longer a monarchy, the truth of the statement is undefined, neither true nor false. Similarly, it is error to insist that the statement "apples are more economical than oranges," without more, must be either true or false — in this example, the truth of the statement is defined but not universal, in that it depends on the context in which the statement was made. Likewise, it is error to insist that the statement "apples are better than oranges" must universally be either true or false, since this statement covers a broad range of individual judgments that are influenced by individual tastes, social, economic and practical context.

The most common binary values in logical discussion are "true" and "false." However, when binary values are applied (or, all too often, misapplied) to moral or religious discussion, other pairs of binary values are often used, e.g., "good" vs. "evil," "right" vs. "wrong," "holy" vs. "unholy" (or "wicked"), "saved" vs. "lost," or "us" vs. "them." Yet, even when a different binary pair is used, it remains error to first force upon a statement a universal binary value which doesn't fit it, then build arguments to condemn others on the basis of that binarization of the issue. Here is a deliberately far-fetched example: The scriptures speak little about the moral value of the state of nakedness. Clearly, before Adam brought sin into the world, nakedness was no problem. When Adam sinned, he insisted on fig leaves (or possibly Eve did); the idea of hiding from God (an impossibility!) was not God's idea. Since Adam sinned, most of the references to nakedness in Scripture speak of it as an incident of poverty, persecution or captivity, that is, as a result of the curse or of divine judgment rather than as a sin or a cause of judgment. In both Testaments, the direct commands concerning the naked indicate that the faithful should clothe them, not stone them. The Bible nowhere appears unambiguously to forbid nakedness.

Nevertheless, most North Americans reflexively assign the concept of "nakedness" the moral binary value of "sin" or "evil," and certain long-standing church traditions appear to agree with this reflexive assessment of the issue. However, if the views of the North American Christian community as a whole are taken as the standard, the line between "naked" and "modest" (often thought of as an all-inclusive binary pair) is somewhat indistinct, as different denominations, and sometimes even different groups within a single denomination, can draw the line very differently. Some groups take the term "naked" very literally and will permit their members to fellowship while wearing very little clothing. Others require more clothing to come to worship but will tolerate their members wearing much less at home or even in public outside the church walls. On the other hand, many groups insist that their members (and, particularly, their female members, a distinct double standard) must not be found in public anywhere without having most of their bodies covered, but, even here, exactly how much can be uncovered without risking the wrath of the church varies from group to group.

Moreover, most people who call nakedness a sin do not thoroughly binarize the issue, in that almost everyone (even those who insist God usually requires ankle-length dresses) also has a mental list of exceptions to the perceived prohibition — locations such as the shower or the doctor's examining room, in which, in spite of the general rule, nakedness is permitted. But if anyone actually were to make a thorough application of the false binary concept of the absolute "evil" of nakedness, he or she would wear as much clothing as possible and would keep it on at all times, even in the shower, because even there God might see the "evil" of their nakedness and judge them for it. If God is really offended by our bodies, nakedness is absolutely evil under all circumstances, and this concept will tend to push the "line" to the opposite extreme and to eat up all of the exceptions.

While this illustration of the concept is somewhat fanciful, most thoughtful observers will recognize that many divisions in the church arise from real moral issues (such as clothing) which have been falsely divided into "black or white," when there are really gray zones in which the scriptures do not draw an unambiguous or universally valid line. Moreover, many other divisions arise from issues which have been made into "black or white" moral issues when they are really not scriptural moral issues at all, as is true of most matters of individual tastes which churches attempt to control. Furthermore, many other divisions arise because one Christian church or denomination, having once drawn the line between right and wrong for itself on a question to which the scriptures do not speak unambiguously, will then defend the line it has drawn by refusing to recognize its fellowship with any Christian who draws the line in a different place or maintains a different list of exceptions to the rule... Return to top of page

Common Divisive Fallacies site index

Other fallacies referenced above

Territorial (Political) Fallacy.

Cultural Fallacy.

Homopraxic and Homoaesthetic Fallacies, stating that all real Christians will behave in the same way and like the same things.

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Richard Blake's review of the book Our Oneness in Christ by Lauston Stephens and Ian Johnson.

©2000, 2005 by Ian B. Johnson