Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Nominal Fallacy

The nominal fallacy is the mistake of assuming that because we have given a name to something, therefore we have explained it.
Therapist A: "I just don't care about my patient anymore. I don't pay attention to what they say. I show up late for sessions. I don't care if they show up. I ask them if they'd rather we just use the session playing a game of tennis or sharing a cup of coffee. I don't keep records."
Therapist B: "You have a classic case of burn-out!"
Therapist A: "But why am I doing all these things?"
Therapist B: "Because you're burned out."

I commit this fallacy all the time, I'm realizing!  Why does water fall from the sky?  Rain.  Why do some kids fail to pay attention and focus?  Because they have ADD.  I often confuse a label for an explanation or cause.  I think Nathan put it well:

"A man named Norman came along and asked the scientists what they were studying. They said, “Children with Down syndrome.”
Norman asked, “What’s Down syndrome?”
They told him, “It’s when a person has learning difficulties, slanted eyes, and heart defects”
Norman nodded. “I see. So children who have those characteristics have Down syndrome?”
“Correct. We’re trying to understand why they have these characteristics.”
Norman replied, “Well, that’s simple. It’s because they have Down syndrome.”
The scientists blinked. “Well, what we mean is, we want to know what causes these characteristics.”
Norman shook his head patiently. “Down syndrome causes it, silly.”
Some scientists smiled politely while others just looked confused. Norman walked away shaking his head.
“I don’t see why these scientists get so many research grants when their question has already been answered. We know perfectly well what causes those characteristics—Down syndrome does.”

I think most words are instances of nominal fallacies.  We operate on loosely shared constructions of what individual nouns and words mean.  Take the noun "chair."  What exactly is it?  Must it have a backing?  Does a stool count?  How about a seat and back but no legs?  What about a cloud with a chair-ish shape?  You could likely conceive of several additional examples where reasonable people would disagree as to whether a given object is a chair.  Words such as "biology," "publish," and "technology," as well as most verbs or nouns you can think of, are similarly fuzzy.  Because words are truly mere approximations, but masquerade as concrete constructs, they constitute fallacies.  My buddy Seth Melling said in his Learning in Zion: Learning His Truth, His Way, for His Purposes: A Pocket Guide for the Budding LDS Scholar:  "Since the loss of the Adamic language we have struggled with linguistic limitations... Frustrated by linguistic limitations, Joseph Smith once prayed, 'Lord, deliver us from a broken, corrupt, scattered and imperfect language, a dark narrow little prison as it were.'”

Language is a stumbling block sometimes for understanding and applying revelation recorded in scripture.

I claim nominal fallacies are also an obstacle to fully rational thinking, as its limitations must be acknowledged before confidence in dialogue, research, and conclusions which rely on words can be merited.

1 comment:

  1. I love that Joseph Smith quote. I've noticed that most of the "arguments" I've had with people have been the result of semantic misunderstandings. It would be nice to be able to communicate more perfectly.

    Also, the first nominal fallacy that came to my mind was the blanket term "gay", as if it is supposed to explain everything about so many unique individuals, circumstances, and situations.


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