Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All, None and Some: On How the Failure to Distinguish Can Distort Truth

One of the things which irritates me is how the English language gets abused in the pursuit of rhetoric, especially when one seeks to claim a person holds a position he does not.  This all too common.  An individual makes a claim about what Catholics believe.  Someone who is actually a Catholic offers an objection, saying that what is claimed is actually false.  The accuser then makes a rhetorical appeal to indicate the one who is objecting is actually ignorant on what they believe.

Let's look at the root of confusion in some of these errors.

Confusing All, None, Some

One of the common rhetorical statements is that ALL [people of a group] hold [X].  For example, all [pre-reformation clergy] are [corrupt].  The objection is that this claim is not true.  The attacker then accuses the person who objects of holding the opposite: that NO [pre-reformation clergy] are [corrupt].  The attacker then goes on to point out examples which support his case and then claim his opponent is refuted.

There is a problem with that technique.  ALL and NO are contrary to each other, but what contradicts the claim of the accuser is not No [pre-reformation clergy] are [corrupt] but rather SOME [pre-reformation clergy] are NOT [corrupt]

Unfortunately, this tactic is often used.  A universal statement is made.  When the objection is raised to the universality of the claim, the one who objects is accused of being in denial over the fact that in some cases, the case is true.  However, the accuser didn't say SOME.  He said ALL.

How This is Used in Attacks on the Church

Generally speaking this error will take a real problem which was or is present in some parts of the Church.  The Church can be accused of corruption, liberalism, rigidness and so on.  The example of some individuals who behave in this way is then represented to be the view of the entirety whether by action or failure to act.

It overlooks however that in order to be a problem of the Church it needs to be shown that it is one which is held by those who are speaking in the role of authority of the Church, and not an individual within the Church who speaks on his own.

There are unfortunately many who dissent from the teachings of the Church.  However, if they dissent, it indicates there is a teaching which they disagree with.  If they are dissenting from the teaching of the Church, then it is unreasonable to claim ALL of [the Church] holds [the dissenting view].

What the Individual Usually Means

What it usually comes down to is the individual who accuses does not approve of the behavior of SOME within the Church, and uses the rhetoric ALL as an embellishment.  He would be wiser to say "I don't approve of the behavior of what seems to be held by a certain portion of those within the Church."  In such a case then it would need to be determined whether the behavior of that portion was compatible with what the Church teaches or not.

The Part Stands In For the Whole

Another common error which relates to ALL, SOME and NONE is the claim that the part represents the whole.  So, if an atheist argues that because some Christians behave in an ignorant way, it is representative of the whole, this confuses the difference between some and all.  What is the evidence that this is representative?

Usually, the claim is based on the belief that the believers must be ignorant because they believe, which argues in a circle.  Why do Christians believe?  Because they are ignorant.  Why are Christians ignorant?  Because they believe.  One could easily reword this to the following: Why don't atheists believe?  Because they are ignorant.  Why are atheists ignorant?  Because they don't believe.  Same error, different target.

The Hidden Assumption: This belief is correct.  If you disagree you are ignorant.

The problem of course is the establishment of proof that to believe in God is ignorant.  Because science deals only with the natural order, it is completely unable to assess whether or not the supernatural exists.  Yet many seek to invoke Science with a capital 'S' as having disproved religion… invoking the claim that knowledge of science has shown that miracles can't happen and claiming that those who believed in miracles could not know how the natural world really worked.  This continues to make the error of confusing SOME, ALL, and NONE.

CS Lewis once pointed out that Matthew 1:19 shows the flaw in that assumption (He discusses this in God in the Dock which makes good reading).  If St. Joseph had been ignorant about how children come to be, he would not have been considering the quiet divorce of Mary.  Indeed, to believe in miracles, one has to accept that the universe does function in a set way, and the miraculous departs from the normal.

The False Analogy of the Ancient Pagans: We're back to All, None and Some

A false analogy is one where one points to two situations with some similarities while ignoring the differences which make the two situations different.  For example, because ancient Greeks employed the myth that the sun was Helios who travelled across the sky in a fiery chariot to explain sunrise and sunset, Christian belief in God, the Eucharist and the Virgin Birth are also the same type of myth.

The problem of course is that there is no linkage.  The fact that some religious beliefs of pagans were myths, does not mean ALL religious beliefs are.  The claim that science "disproves" religion is not justified, and the attributing the cause of belief in a religion as superstition is a Bulverism.

"No Swans are Black?" Falsifiability and Assertions

The belief that all swans are white (once a belief in the European world which had never seen a black swan… indeed, Europeans only became aware of them in 1697) was extrapolated from the following observations:

  1. All swans I have seen are white
  2. It is most probable then that all swans are white

Now it may be impractical to observe every swan, but if we should ever observe a black swan, we do show the "probable" claim to be a false claim.  The observance of any number of white swans does not prove the universality of the claim, but the observance of one black swan disproves it.  Thus it is not reasonable to conclude a universal solely on the grounds of an observed group.

Yet, the confusing of SOME with ALL or NONE continues in almost every aspect of life.  Stereotypes are based on it ("all of ethnic group X are dishonest".)  Polemics against a different creed makes use of it ("no religious believer is reasonable").  Advocacy of a preferred policy makes use of it ("whoever opposes my plan doesn't care about X").

And of course the Catholic Church is a constant victim of it.  All one needs do is to point to the presence of a thing one dislikes or the absence of a thing one likes within a certain sample of Catholics, then make a claim that ALL Catholics do [the thing disliked] or NO Catholics do [the thing liked] as a reason for rejecting the Church as a whole (in the case of those outside the Church opposed to religion in general or Catholicism in particular,  or in part (in the case of those within the Church, commonly in an area one disagrees with).

When Does Some Speak for All?  Does the Part Represent the Whole?

However, before one can make such a claim, one needs to see whether such a group one uses as a representative sample is in fact representative of the whole.  For example, in America, there are people who are deeply patriotic and people who are deeply opposed to the actions of their nation.  There are people authorized to act in the name of the nation and those who are not.  Now, let us suppose some subgroup in America does something which causes harm to another nation.  Is it just to say "America did this?"

It could be.  In the case of the nation going to war, the lawfully elected leader would have the authority to carry out a policy, and one could correctly say "America went to war with X" even if some individuals in America oppose the policy.  The groups in opposition would be Americans but would not represent the actual policy of America.

Likewise, if a naturalized US citizen and former CIA operative fired a bazooka at a Polish freighter in Miami harbor in 1968 (to use a bizarre real life example), that is not an action of "America" even if American courts give the individual in question a sentence lighter than they ought.


Now, how do we apply this principle to the Catholic Church?

Before saying "All clergy are corrupt" or "The Catholic Church permits abuse" or "The Church is anti-woman" or any number of similar accusations from Left or Right, one needs to ask some questions, such as:

  1. Does the part act as the official representation of the whole?
  2. Do their actions reflect the official position?
  3. Am I rightly assessing what the official position IS?
  4. Am I drawing the right conclusion?
  5. Does my statement reflect what is? 

There are of course more to ask, but if one can't answer "Yes" to these questions and demonstrate the basis for the claim, such an individual is confusing ALL/NONE with SOME.

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