Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fallacy of Equivocation

"Nothing is better than a precious diamond.  A cheap rhinestone is better than nothing.  Therefore a cheap rhinestone is better than a precious diamond"

— Classic example of the Equivocation fallacy


One of the problems which can be most frustrating when debating is when people use the same word with different meanings, or else a person describing an argument uses the same word in different contexts.

Words need to stay consistent in meaning if we are to communicate what we mean.  Sometimes we make errors.  At other times, the person seeks to use a word deceptively, quoting out of context or otherwise leading a person to think a misapplied word.

In the example above, the equivocation is the word "nothing."  The word can have multiple meanings.

The first sentence in our example above uses "nothing" in the sense of "The diamond is the best thing to have."  The second sentence uses it in the sense  of "having a rhinestone is better than not having anything."  The conclusion, with this equivocation of meaning, is nonsense.

The way around it is to ask "how do you mean "nothing?"  Or for that matter, ask for clarification on any term.

Applications in Misunderstanding

Generally, equivocations through misunderstanding come from each person assuming their own interpretation is the other one used.  This is why so much of the Socratic dialogues are spent in defining terms.  Both parties can misunderstand the other through good will

There are many instances where words used in Christian teaching are used in ways which can be misinterpreted.  A friend of mine has said that the Church needs to use words which are simple to understand for the laity, and not use words which can be misinterpreted.  I think he is correct when he means the theologians of the Church need to avoid jargon.  Of course some complex ideas can be put into a word, and one has to understand the word to avoid oversimplification.

The question is of course whether the Church makes clear what it means.  Defining terms is always an important part in a logical discussion.  Of course, if the Church does make clear what it means, then the blame for the equivocation falls on the person who assumes a different meaning of a term.

Some Examples of Misunderstanding

Take the term "myth."  Some I know are scandalized that there are theologians who refer to Genesis 1-11 as "myth."  Properly understood, "myth" is derived from the Greek "mythos" meaning "sacred story."  However there is a secondary meaning which is "a widely held but false belief."  If a theologian speaks of Genesis 1-11 as a myth, is he a modernist?  Or is the reader misunderstanding him?

Certainly there are theologians who use the word "myth" in the negative sense and some who use it in the positive sense.  So if we hear a theologian use the term "myth," we need to be aware of how he understands it.

The thing is, Genesis 1-11 is not to be understood as an eyewitness account (there were certainly no eyewitnesses to the creation story) but it does not follow from this that the accounts are false.  It can also mean the accounts are true, but are not eyewitnessed accounts (in contrast, the gospels are the testimony of actual witnesses).  In this sense, it is not wrong to use the term "myth."  However, if one uses the term "myth" to understand the Creation story as having no more authority than Greek tales of their gods, then this would indeed be a false and heretical understanding.

Of course, it is this sort of misunderstanding that would cause me to avoid the term "myth" altogether.  It is a loaded word, and unless everyone is clear on the meaning intended beforehand, it cannot avoid acrimonious debate over a misunderstood term.

Another example is the issue over "evolution."  Is a Christian who believes in the role of God but accepts the idea of evolution a heretic?  Or is the concern over certain Darwinian concepts which he claimed as an idea on how evolution worked? ("natural selection" and the like)  One can accept the idea of God making use of natural means to create the universe without endorsing things such as "chance" or uncontrolled events which God has no control over).

Again, the problem can be cleared up by being sure both parties have the same thing in mind when they debate "Evolution."

In both the "myth" and the "evolution" example, the obligation is to ask "how do you understand the term 'myth'?"  "How do you understand the term 'evolution'?"

Because if we don't have a mutual understanding we can agree on, we cannot communicate our ideas.

Applications in Distortion

The above terms can be confused in good faith.  However others can be deliberately twisted, or else a distorted view is accepted based on one's hostility towards the other side, where one assumes a malicious intent for the group they oppose. 

Some Examples of Distortion

I recall reading the work Why Atheism? by George H. Smith where the author sought to undermine the idea of faith.  He defines it as being entirely apart from reason and concludes that the ignorant person has more "faith" than the person who studies their religious beliefs.  He uses this as a starting point to attack the Christian beliefs as emotional and irrational.

The problem was the author chose to use the word "faith" with an entirely different meaning than the Christian writers he cited (such as Thomas Aquinas).  The result was a straw man argument, with the author attacking something that educated Christians do not believe in the first place.  He interpreted Thomas Aquinas and others by using his own understanding of faith, and not the understanding of Thomas Aquinas.

In doing so, attacking "faith" using a meaning which Christians do not hold to was really a waste of time.  Had he took time to identify the meaning Christians used, he could have saved time and not sought to refute "faith" as he did.  It was an appeal to etymology, which is in this case the fallacy of Irrelevant Authority.  The fact that a word has multiple meanings required Smith to understand an idea by the Christian understanding of a word before challenging the Christian notion of faith.

Another area where a hostile understanding can lead to distortion is the Catholic beliefs on Mary.  The English language is unfortunately much more limited than Greek or Latin, and words in English can have multiple meanings while the Greek and Latin can be much more specific.

Since the Catholic teachings translated into English can seem more ambiguous than the actual Greek or Latin, Catholics have stood accused by some of actually worshipping Mary.  The difference, for the Church is the worship given to God is known as Latreia (literally the state of a hired laborer, also translated as worship in the sense of service to God).  Catholic veneration of the saints is known as dulia, which is honor given to mortals.  Hyperdulia, the devotion to Mary is dulia which recognizes Mary as the highest of the saints… but it does not recognize her as divine.

Unfortunately older works in English use the term "worship."  A modern anti-Catholic might find an old work and conclude "Ah hah!  Catholics worship Mary!"  The problem is, in older works the word "worship" was not as nailed down as it is now.  The Oxford English Dictionary points out that an archaic meaning of "worship" is "honour given in recognition of merit."

In both these cases, who is responsible?  The defendant which is accused of holding a view?  Or the attacker which does not bother to discover what is meant before attacking the argument? 

Truth and Obligation: An example for Modern Times

If one attacks another based on a misunderstanding, whether it is malicious or innocent, the person who fails to understand what the other is saying is responsible for the errors he or she makes in their assumptions.

As an example, I have been asked about whether the Catholic concept of "Social Justice" is in fact a liberal agenda which seeks to hijack Catholicism.

I would say no, it is not.  The Catholic teaching goes back to the Scriptures, and precedes the modern liberal movement (see Rerum novarum as a modern example).  However, I would also say that both the person who distorts the term "Social Justice" as a code word to promote a political agenda and the person who assumes this distortion  is in fact what the teaching authority of the Church holds are both guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.

The questions to consider are: What part of the Church has the authority to speak on Social Justice in a binding way?  Does the Church speak of what it means by social justice?

The answer to the first is: The Pope and the Bishops in communion with him have authority to teach in a binding way.

The answer to the second is yes.  The Catholic Church speaks of Social Justice as:

1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

1929 Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him:

What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.35

1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.36 If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church's role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.

1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity."37 No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a "neighbor," a brother. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

For the Church, Social Justice is the ensuring that every person has what is theirs by right (in the sense of given them by God).  Of course what the Church considers theirs by right are those things which derive from what they are as a human person, and precedes the authority of the state.  The state must correct injustices of course, but the role of the Church is to distinguish of the legitimate rights from false claims.  Legislation cannot undo certain behaviors, yes, though it can eliminate certain injustices which are caused by the state.  However, when the state violates the dignity of the human person, it is contrary to Social Justice (Which is why individuals who say abortion is only "one" issue, and can be set aside, are in fact wrong).

The individual in this case who seeks to hijack the Church teaching of "Social Justice" in favor of a certain political solution is distorting the Church teaching, while the person who assumes that the individual promoting their own agenda is speaking what the Church teaches about "Social Justice" is also responsible for not making an effort to find out what the Church teaches.


The people who are in a debate need to make sure both sides understand each other to ensure communication.  However, when a group of people speak among themselves about an idea, the person from outside who would attack it is responsible to ensure that he or she understands what the group in question means by the term before denouncing it.

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