Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Logic: The False Alternatives

The logical fallacy of the false alternatives (or bifurcation) occurs in "an argument which presumes that a distinction or classification is exclusive and exhaustive, when other alternatives exist" (With Good Reason). It might also be referred to as the either/or fallacy in that it often is presented in the form of an either/or statement.

For some reason people have a tendency to limit options between two alternatives when in fact there may be other viable solutions. As S. Morris Engel writes in With Good Reason, "Thinking in extremes can be appealing, unfortunately, for it requires less mental energy than exploring all aspects of a problem."

Sometimes in philosophy the term tertium quid is used, meaning "third thing," as another option that would escape the fallacy of the false alternatives, though there may in fact be a third, fourth, fifth, etc. "thing" beyond the two alternatives given.

When faced with the fallacy of the false alternatives, we do not always recognize it. Immediately we begin to weigh the two options before us. But we should first stop and consider not necessarily all the possibilities, for some are no doubt foolish alternatives, but at least the relevant ones beyond the two before us.


Thomas said...

Say we have a set of different theories which purport to solve some problem or explain some phenomenon.

We may subject them to a process of rational criticism.

(This is not criticism in the sense of belittling people.)

During the process the problem will change shape upon being better understood; new arguments will be discovered, new conjectures made, and refinements made to the competing theories. If any of the rivals has empirical content, we might do some experimental testing.

It may be apparent that one theory X solves the problem best, or explains more with fewer assumptions, etc.

(The criteria for comparing theories are themselves subject to an evolutionary process of gradual improvement.)

We are then justified in tentatively holding X to be true, not because we can be certain it is true, but because all *known* rivals have been falsified.

It also means that X provides the rational basis for practical action if need be.

However it doesn't mean that some new theory may not be discovered tomorrow, or a hundred years hence, which is superior to X, or that our original problem may not eventually disappear.

Robert Velarde said...

I merely stated the basic outline of the logical fallacy of the false alternatives. But I believe I understand the rudiments of your point.

As David Kelley writes regarding false alternatives, "The best safeguards against this fallacy are an open mind and a good imagination. No matter how certain we are of our conclusions and our arguments, it is always worthwhile to stop and ask: is there anything I've overlooked? is there some other perspective one might take? When we can't find the solution to a problem, it is often because we're looking at it from some angle, making some assumption, which excludes an alternative approach that might solve the problem. If we are not satisfied with any of the standard positions on a given issue, it may be because they all make some assumptions that should be called in question, thus opening up other possible solutions" (The Art of Reasoning).

Exposed to false alternatives, then, we should explore other options. So, yes, "some new theory" could overturn current options.