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False Dichotomy (aka False Dilemma, either-or fallacy)

False Dichotomy (aka False Dilemma, either-or fallacy)

The false dichotomy plagues conversations in every sphere, not least in scholarship, theology, and politics! Not a day goes by where I do not encounter it even in prominent peer-reviewed publications. I suspect I am guilty of it more often than I realize, but I am watching out for it as much as possible in my own work and thinking.

A false dichotomy is the presentation (or implication) of two options or conclusions, either this or that, when in reality many other conclusions may be reached based on available evidence. A few examples from politics and biblical studies:

EITHER you enable laziness and remove incentives for work OR you stop food stamp programs for low-income families.

EITHER you support the Affordable Care Act OR you want to deny millions affordable health care.

EITHER “Christ” in Pauline lit. is a title OR “Christ” is a proper name. (Cf. Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs, who argues it is rather an honorific).

EITHER an NT book is pseudonymous OR it is penned by the putative author.

False dichotomies are often implicit in an argument and in our own thinking and difficult to detect. What is worse, sometimes the rejected option itself is a kind of straw-man and does not truly represent any person or argument.

Related to this error, we sometimes limit options to only a few (though more than two). For example, most discussions of the synoptic problem do not consider Matthean Posteriority but only Farrer, Farmer, and Two-Source. This, like other issues, is partly due to scholarly consensus(es) that can have a blinding effect.

5 Responses to False Dichotomy (aka False Dilemma, either-or fallacy)

  1. Yes, commentators often distinguish between “names” and “titles”, but I have come across no evidence that the ancients thought in terms of those categories. Even birth names could carry significant meanings, and titles could often replace birth names in their function. It is meaningless, for example, to debate whether Caesar or Christ was a name or a title until we define those terms.

    • A helpful point you make, Richard, which reminds us of the ease of anachronism, too!

      I should add that Novenson is aware of this, and summarizes his third chapter as follows: “Because the discussion of Χριστός in Paul has often come down to the question whether it is a name or a title, chapter 3 asks what onomastic possibilities would have been available to ancient users of messiah language, that is, what categories of name-like words they might have had” (pp. 10–11).

  2. Good reminder. Often I have to ask myself whether or not the either-or I am entertaining might be a both-and or at least nuanced in such a way that is less black-and-white than I might desire.

    • Yes, when presented with an either-or, a few questions to ask: (1) Are these mutual exclusive (e.g., can it be ‘both-and’ to some extent)? (2) Are these the only two options? (3) Do I understand the options and have I articulated them accurately? (4) What kind of evidence is necessary to overturn one or the other, or provide more options?

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