Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Fallacy of Either/Or

Among the logical fallacies identifiable in an argument is the fallacy of either/or. This fallacy assumes that there are only two possible positions, usually polar opposites of each other. In fact, this fallacy assumes that the world is divided into such polar opposites. The fallacy assumes the world to be A or Z, no other choices available.

Plain common sense should show up the fallacious reasoning in the either/or construction. On a really simple level, look at the alphabet; it does not contain only an A or only a Z. Those may be the outside parameters but there are lots of other letters in between A and Z. We talk about things being clearly black or white, but there is a whole rainbow of colors and shades between "pure" black and "pure" white. Even "yes" and "no" can be mediated by "maybe" or "perhaps" or "not now but later."

Even with less clearly definable things either/or is a problem. Take the idea of "good" and "bad." Are they the only two choices? Is the situation truly that you are either good or you must be bad? Aren't good and bad points on a sliding scale? And don't good and bad, and all the permutations between these polar points, also depend on a number of other outside factors? Good and bad for whom? When? Where? Under what circumstances? In conjunction with what else? For how long?

Possibly the most used drug in the world is the simple aspirin. The discovery of acetylsalicilic acid and its synthesis into easily ingested tablets was considered a true blessing for mankind. So aspirin is good? Well yes, and no. Like virtually every other discovery and invention of mankind, aspirin has its pluses and its minuses, its good points and its bad points. Where aspirin falls on the scale of good for you or bad for you is influenced by a multitude of factors. When it comes to aspirin and other medications, scientists and health professionals don't buy into the either/or fallacy; they recognize a number of points along the scale. And they recognize that those points on the scale can change in response to other, outside factors.

A recent article in the Jewish Press, "Are Blogs Good for the Jews?," by Rabbi Gil Student, brought to mind this either/or fallacy. Blogs, and the Internet in general, seem to be problematic for many in the frum world. The words "good" and "bad" are the preferred terms to describe blogs and the Internet, as are "necessary" and "unnecessary." And it is the rare, rare article that doesn't look at blogs and the Internet from an either/or position. There is almost no objectivity when discussing blogs and the Internet, no attempt at dis-interested analysis.

Here's how I see it. First, using Rabbi Student's title (and the title is a question that many others are asking) let's leave aside the question of good or bad for a moment. Instead, let's look at the word Jews. It's my feeling that the word that was needed was not "Jews" but 'Judaism." A great deal of the article, and others as well, deals with how the use of blogs and the Internet may contravene halachic requirements, may lead to aveiros, may prevent people from observing Judaism correctly and fully. One concern is the issue of loshon ho'rah. Rabbi Student does point out that there are a few positive things the Internet and blogs can be used for that can enhance Judaic observance; nonetheless, blogs and the Internet come off as far more bad than good.

Why distinguish between Jews and Judaism? Judaism is the term for a belief system, for a modus operendi for organizing life. Practitioners/believers of Judaism go by the term "Jew" to recognize their membership in the group that practices and believes in the tenets of Judaism. But.... Jews, in addition to Judaism, are also human beings with shared characteristics with other human beings. They live in the same world with others who are not Jewish. They engage in many of the same activities that those who are not Jewish engage in. They do so mostly out of necessity. We don't have our own planet, completely cut off from contact with other "worlds." We work, shop and live in neighborhoods peopled by those outside of Judaism. While Judaism may organize our spiritual lives and determine our actions for day to day living, we also live under the authority of secular governments, with their requirements. We exist in a secular world that we must participate in. And in participating in this secular world we need to have the tools that allow us to participate as equals and to take advantage of the benefits possible for us in that world.

The Internet is already a vital and necessary part of modern life. It is only becoming more and more necessary as time goes on. In a very short while anyone not connected to the Internet is going to be living in the "dark ages," literally, not figuratively. Those who frame the discussion about the Internet in terms of necessary/unnecessary, a real either/or depiction, are missing the point that the discussion has already moved beyond this and is squarely in the necessary camp. And talking about the Internet in terms of good/bad also misses the point. Good for whom? When? Under what circumstances? The Internet is shades of grey, no black or white at all.

If there are elements of the Internet that are problematic for Judaic observance, address those specific elements, not the Internet in general. Put into place safeguards for those problem areas. Teach people about them, rather than preach abstinence completely. Let's stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


Allen said...

I agree that the time for arguing about whether the Internet is necessary or not is long over--it's necessary.

I see the problem as being that many (most?) of those who are saying the Internet is bad and who are banning its use completely are the ones who know the least about what the Internet really is, how it functions, its place in today's world. What information they do have is gotten from others, most of whom have a personal agenda or are themselves poorly informed.

If it is pornography that is being worried about there are dozens of tools available today to protect people from even accidentally stumbling on it. Saying that those tools can be circumvented doesn't take into consideration that those with a taivoh for this type of material have ALWAYS found a way to access it, even before the Internet.

Yes, the Internet is not an either-or item and those who publicly and loudly label it bad and unnecessary don't know the facts and thus don't know what they are talking about.

Anonymous said...

There is no aspect of my family life that doesn't have a connection to the internet in some way. I telecommute to work, being able to be there for my kids during the hours they are home. I pay bills, I shop, I get information necessary to run my house efficiently, I get health information, all thanks to the internet. I keep up in real time with the lives of family and friends around the world. I find out important community information, posted on my shul's website. Yes, I can attend shiurim that I physically could not get to. I can find entertainment on the internet (please, get your minds out of the gutter). My kids can get information for school without our having to shlep out in bad weather or when the libraries are closed or when we just don't have the time to go out.

Just what benefit is there to klal in talking about the internet as bad for the most part? What is so bad about what I just wrote about?

Lion of Zion said...

" When it comes to aspirin and other medications, scientists and health professionals don't buy into the either/or fallacy; they recognize a number of points along the scale."

a pharmacology professor of mine was fond of saying that every medication is toxic . . . it's just a matter of how much you ingest before it becomes toxic.

ProfK said...

You could make that same point about a lot of non-medicine substances. Just about anything you ingest can kill you under certain circumstances.

Back when my kids were younger researchers put out a stern warning against feeding babies with skim milk. A little bit wasn't the problem: two quarts a day could kill an infant or cause terrible damage, damage that won't happen with an adult.

Dave said...

Just look at the risks of dihydrous monoxide.

Capable of eating through steel, found in every known form of cancer, and in gaseous form can cause terrible burns.

ProfK said...

LOL Dave, you picked one of my all time favorite websites with the DHMO. I use it in class as a teaching tool.