Critical Thinking: Fallacies from Relevance

Posted by Hallee on Dec 29, 2009 in Critical Thinking, homeschooling, Parenting |


Fallacies from Relevance

A fallacy from relevance occurs when the response to a conclusion or an argument is not relevant to the conclusion or argument.  These are fallacies that ignore the point at hand and attempt to derail the argument by bringing irrelevancies into the arena of the debate.  In this post, I will discuss two common types of Fallacies from relevance, the Ad Hominem abusive and the Ad Hominem circumstantial.

Argumentum ad Hominem (abusive)

This fallacy takes place when the point or points are ignored, and the premises are dismissed, based on an attack of the speaker, not the point (conclusion) or any of the supporting premises (evidence). In Latin, it means “To the Man” which implies that this fallacy attacks the man, not the point that the man is making. This is fallacious because the truth or substance of a point or conclusion does not hinge upon any other truth that is not relevant to the argument at hand.

Simply calling someone names, while certainly abusive, is not an Ad Hominem fallacy. Calling someone names does not directly undermine the argument that has been put forward. It’s merely childish behavior.

Attacking the person can also sometimes be confusing because a legal practice known as “impeaching a witness” is a relevant action in debate in cases of law. This is because of the difference between reasons for truth and reasons for belief. It is only a fallacy when truth is debated. If a witness “believes” (makes an assertion) that someone is guilty but has no evidence (truth) to support that belief, then they likely have some other motivation for their testimony. In this case, impeaching the witness is relevant. If a witness can offer evidence (truth) that someone is guilty, then impeaching the witness is not relevant, and therefore fallacious.

If a person makes a particular assertion (based purely on belief, not grounded in evidence), and if it can be demonstrated that the person is generally dishonest, it would be perfectly appropriate and relevant to point out that his dishonesty calls into question his credibility on the assertion. While it is true that even this does not disprove the assertion, since a generally dishonest person will sometimes tell the truth, it is still relevant since the honesty of the speaker is relevant in the case of assertions. If the person makes an argument, his or her alleged dishonesty is totally irrelevant to the validity of that argument and an attack on his general honesty is fallacious.

In abusive Ad Hominem, the critic hopes people will believe the claim in question is false simply on the basis that there is something supposedly objectionable about the person making the claim. The critic’s specific objective is to refute the claim itself.

Obviously, denigrating the author of the argument should not minimize the point or the offered evidence. A person’s character (or lack thereof) is logically irrelevant to the validity of the argument. Even if the critic’s negative claims about his opponent are true (e.g., he really is a draft-dodger, or he really did spend time in jail), this has no bearing on the position his opponent is advocating.

An example of an Ad Hominem fallacy might be something like this. Jung states a conclusion [C] based on certain premises [P] and offers it into evidence for debate. Mike offers an Ad Hominem fallacy [F] in reply.

Jung argues that “[C] El Tico is the best Mexican restaurant in town. [P] They make their own tortillas, [P] they only use the freshest organic ingredients, [P] they maintain an A+ rating from the health department, [P] they have a 4 star rating in two respected food guides, and [P] everything I’ve ever had there has been delicious. [P] No other Mexican place in town achieves all of that.”

Mike replies: “[F] Jung is Korean, and so we can ignore all his opinions on Mexican food.”

Mike’s response, obviously, does not address any of the premises Jung has offered for his argument that El Tico is the best Mexican restaurant in town. Mike has only attacked Kim as the source of the claim. Clearly, Jung’s heritage is not relevant to Jung’s argument.

In debating with Darwinists, ad hominem attacks abound. Often, Darwinists tar their opponents with epithets like “Creationist” and “Bible-beater” in order to derail the point.

Jung argues, “[C] The odds of Darwinian evolution having taken place are mathematically impossible by any scale. [P] Borel has calculated the odds of mathematical impossibility at 1 in 1050. [P] Dembski has calculated the odds of mathematical impossibility at 1 in 10150. The odds of the simplest theretical single celled lifeform having evolved in is only 1 chance in 10 119,879 even given 10119,841 years. [P] That is 10119,831 years more than the supposed 15 billion year old universe.”

Mike responds, “[F] Jung is just a Bible-beating Creationist. You can safely ignore any of his opinions on Darwinism.”

Argumentum Ad Hominem Circumstantial (Attack the speaker’s motive)

There are actually two kinds of circumstantial Ad Hominem fallacies. There are the positive and the negative variety.

Argumentum Ad Hominem Circumstantial Positive (carrot and stick): you argue because of your circumstances. Related fallacies are: the Argumentum ad Crumenam, which is the appeal to the purse or to profit. You argue to improve your financial position and; Argumentum ab Inconvenienti, the appeal to hardship or inconvenience. You argue to ease your burdens.

Argumentum Ad Hominem Circumstantial Negative (poisoning the well): you only believe the things you believe because of your self-interest, the benefit you derive from your particular circumstances, or your upbringing. These arguments are the bread and butter of Marxism and related ideologies such as Racism. The entire school of thought on so-called “institutional racism” is based on acceptance of a Negative Ad Hominem Circumstantial fallacy.

Let’s look at the arguments.  A non-Christian might argue:

“Christianity isn’t true. You only believe in Christ because you were raised in a Christian home. If you were brought up under the Islam religion, you would be a Muslim.”

This is the negative circumstantial ad hominem fallacy because the circumstances by which the person became a Christian are not relevant to his or her argument for Christianity. While it may be true that one is much more likely to become a Christian by virtue of being reared in a Christian home, it is utterly irrelevant to whether or not one has a really good logical argument for Christianity. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were raised under the Islam religion and converted to Christianity once they heard the truth of the Gospel message.

By comparison, saying, “You just believe in long division because you were taught it in school!” is equally fallacioius. While it is true that I probably would not have discovered long division without someone teaching it to me, this does not mean that I don’t have some really good reasons to continue to believe it outside of the particular circumstances surrounding the time and place I learned it.

The circumstantial ad hominem fallacy is when a critic simply dismisses a person’s argument based on his opponent’s circumstances.

Darwinists might argue:

“Creation isn’t true. You just believe in creation because you read read the Bible and go to church!”

Although the information learned in church and by reading scripture may have helped people to see the truth of creation, the person’s argument should be evaluated on its own merit, not on how he arrived at the conclusion. To simply dismiss an argument because the Darwinist doesn’t like the source is fallacious. The source is not relevant to the argument’s validity.

The key to detecting this fallacy is to note that there is often a difference between a cause and a reason. What is the cause of a person believing in something? For instance, what might have caused a person to become a Christian? Many factors may have contributed from conversations with family, a sermon, prayers of friends, witnessing Christians following their faith, and ultimately the Holy Spirit.

What is the reason (i.e., the rational justification) for a person to believe in Christ? The reasons are probably very different from the cause since being a Christian in the modern world is a hardship. The reason may be that a person heard the truth, accepted the truth, and now lives the truth as a matter of duty and service to his Creator.

In the above examples, the critic is arbitrarily dismissing the reasons for a position on the basis that he does not like the cause that brought the person to arrive at that position. Such a dismissal is logically unwarranted. It would be comparable to inviting a person over for dinner but then when they arrive by bicycle, you tell them they must leave. The thing that brought them to your home was not the reason they are there.
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Recognizing truth is an essential survival tool for the mind, and ultimately, for the soul.

Teaching our children the ability to recognize fallacies of this type, giving them the intellectual skill to deconstruct these types of arguments, will ensure that the arguments they, themselves, will one day make are at least valid and thoughtfully arrived upon. It will also assist them to investigate more deeply into the conclusions espoused by those in the world whose motives might not come from love and might not have been very carefully arrived at or well researched.


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