Critical Thinking 10: False Dichotomy

The false dichotomy (also known as false dilemma, or restricting the options) is a recognised fallacy that also has an obvious and close relationship with the Middle Way. A false dichotomy assumes that a judgement that is incremental (shades of grey) is absolute (black and white). However, the issue it raises is that of how we can tell false dichotomies from true ones. Is anything black and white?

Here is an example of a false dichotomy from a US comedy:

The assumption that one is either a good or a bad father is obviously false, and is used here manipulatively. Other examples of false dichotomies include George Bush saying “Either you are with us or you’re with the terrorists”, and the demand made in an Ulster pub, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” Both of these example ignore possible third options that might involve some degree of agreement or disagreement with either side of the dichotomy: I might disapprove both of terrorism and of George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, and I might disagree with both Catholic and Protestant beliefs whilst sharing to some extent the culture of each.

I would argue that the only true dichotomies are abstract. These consist in a merely logical distinction between a quality and its absence. “Are you Canadian or not?” and “Is the answer 1.25 or not?” are both true dichotomies in theory, so long as we are only dealing with the concept of a Canadian or the number 1.25. However, as soon as you apply these terms to experience, any dichotomy you apply becomes false. Stephen Harper may define himself as 100% Canadian, but given that Canada wasn’t settled by people of European origin before the 16th Century, he doubtless has ancestors (as well as other influences) that make that Canadian-ness a matter of degree. The number 1.25 applied to an actual object will also be approximate, depending on measurement that can never be perfectly precise. Any actual object in experience will thus be more or less 1.25 (metres, tons, or whatever).Black and white guinea pigs

In experience, then, all dichotomies are ultimately false. However, there are many that we would do well to accept in practical terms. In practice, either you catch a train or not: you cannot half catch it and remain alive. Iceland is either part of Europe or it isn’t, though the answer may depend on your definition of Europe. Perhaps it’s better to save up our objections to false dichotomies for the ones that really matter. The sort of time when it most seems to matter are when people in a certain group assume that because you’re different in some way you must be “one of them”. For example, scientific naturalists sometimes assume that if you question the ‘truth’ of scientific results, then you must be a dogmatic peddler of the supernatural. This is where it seems most important to make an effort to get across the mere possibility of the Middle Way.

The basic technique to spot a false dichotomy in practice is to ask yourself whether the two opposed qualities you’re dealing with could be translated into one quality and its negation. “Either you’re British or you’re French” is an obvious false dichotomy, whilst “Either you’re British or you’re not” may or may not be a dichotomy in practical terms, depending on how “British” is being defined. If it means possessing a British passport, it is in practice a true dichotomy, but if it is a matter of ethnic, geographical or cultural purity then it isn’t.

Exercise

Are these false dichotomies, either in thorough-going terms or in immediate practical terms?

1. Cats and dogs

2. There is no viable alternative to the company’s current employment policies.

3. Numbers that are not 15 are either larger than 15 or smaller.

4. Photographs are either colour or monochrome.

5. This dog is either dead or it is alive.

6. “The deadline is 12 noon on 15th June. Either meet it or lose your job!”

 

Index to previous Critical Thinking blogs

Photo: not entirely black and white guinea pigs by 4028mdk09 (Wikimedia Commons)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

7 thoughts on “Critical Thinking 10: False Dichotomy

  1. 1. As there is no absolute cat and dog because a cat could be a tiger and a dog a male wolf for example, I think this is a false dichotom?

    2.
    Here there seems to be no compromise, but there is always room for compromise to some degree so a fasle dichotomy?

    3.
    I think this statement is accepted in practical terms, so a true dichotomy?

    4.
    A photograph can be sepia coloured so black or white is a false dichotomy.

    5. Dead or alive is a true dichotomy I think. Even if a creature is in a coma or brain dead, it is still alive, even if helped to breathe by technology.

    6.
    A compromise could be achieved about time, not either/or, so here is a false dichotomy I think.

  2. Applying the basic technique Robert supplied, I tentatively suggest….

    1. Does being a cat preclude being a dog? Yes, genetically it does. This is a true dichotomy, notwithstanding cats and dogs having characteristics in common.

    2. In practice company policies are out of date before the ink is dry on the paper, and viable alternative policies are being formulated meanwhile by managers and others. A false dichotomy.

    3. A false dichotomy. -15 is neither larger nor smaller than 15, but it isn’t 15.

    4. Being monochrome doesn’t preclude colour. Red is monochrome. A false dichotomy.

    5. In practice, dead means categorically ‘not alive’. A true dichotomy.

    6. Meeting the deadline is a practical inevitability if one survives (in employment) until it occurs. So losing the job is ipso facto inevitable. No choice at all. A false dichotomy.

  3. 1. In practical terms this is a true dichotomy although dogs and cats are genetically closely related (more than to a bear for example).

    2. This is a false dichotomy. Here the management appears simply not to be interested in a negotiated solution.

    3. This looks like a true trichotomy?

    4. There are optical impressions that are gradations between colour and monochrome so this is a false dichotomy.

    5. A clear practical true dichotomy.

    6. This is the one I most struggled with. I’m going to say it’s a practical true dichotomy but I can’t put my finger on why!

    1. Having read Peter and Barry’s answer please may I change my mind and agree with them on question 1!
      Still wobbling about question 6.

  4. Here are my answers:
    1. Is a false dichotomy. The opposite of cat is non-cat, not dog. There are also lots of third alternatives, like being a weasel, or a human!
    2. I agree with all the comments here, that this is a false dichotomy. Statements like this usually mean, in practice, that no alternative is being considered!
    3. I thought this was a true dichotomy in abstract theory, though Peter’s challenge is unexpected! But isn’t -15 less than 15?
    4. Depends on definitions. ‘Sepia’ is based on brown colours so could be classified as colour. Any gradations between colour and monochrome might also count as colour. I think in theory this is a true dichotomy, because it could be translated into ‘monochrome or not monochrome’, but when you tried to apply it there might be doubtful cases.
    5. I’d generally agree with Peter here that this is theoretically a true dichotomy. However, applied to experience there may not be a clear cut-off point in every case. I’m sure Peter knows more about this than I do, but my understanding is that dying is a process, and that the exact instant of death is often difficult to assess.
    6. I think I agree with Barry here. In the manager’s judgement at least (presuming he keeps his word), you will either have met the deadline and saved your job, or failed to meet it and lost in. There may be doubts about the exact instant of 12 noon or whether the expected task has been fulfilled by that time, but it’s the manager’s judgement that imposes the dichotomy here. So it’s a practical true dichotomy, rather like catching or not catching a train.

    1. Hi Robert

      I was even more surprised than you were by my own challenge (about -15) and I don’t know from whence it emerged!

      I’m no mathematician, but it occurs to me that -15 is as substantial in mathematical terms (i.e. as an integer) as 15 is. In practical terms, -15 and 15 yield 0. I can’t see how it might be ‘less’ than 15.

      Maybe I’ve missed my vocation (by about 70 years)

      1. This may be mathematically naïve, but I’m thinking of ‘less’ along a scale, counting down from 15 to 0, and then into the minus numbers. If -1 is less than 0, surely -15 is less than 15?

        However, negative numbers are abstract in any case. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were paradoxes involving them, based on the contradictions between experience and negative numbers. I don’t take such paradoxes very seriously (e.g. I don’t think they point to anything profound or important) beyond them being indicators of incompatibility between narrow left-brain perspectives and broader right-brain perspectives. You may remember discussing this kind of thing on http://middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/the-trouble-with-paradox .

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