The False Analogy June 4, 2012Posted by Alex in Skepticism and atheism.
I am a Professor of English, and though that means that I get to teach literature, creative writing, and even an occasional course in public speaking, my bread and butter is first year composition (i.e. English 101 at most colleges/universities). The thing I emphasize most in composition courses is critical thinking. It’s more important than perfect grammar, good organization, and even a strong thesis. Thinking critically is what allows one to write effectively. It’s far and better to struggle to find the proper words for one’s excellent thoughts than to express vapid ideas quickly and easily, even if they’re expressed eloquently. On this I assume we can all agree.
One of my favorite lessons in critical thinking is the lesson on logos, pathos, and ethos. A key part of that lesson involves identifying logical fallacies. I suspect that I’ll talk often about logical fallacies in this blog, since they’re not only one of my personal areas of interest (and frequent perturbation) but are ubiquitous in our mass culture. One of the most common logical fallacies is the false analogy. A good analogy, of course, compares two similar things, usually using “like” or “as,” and the comparison is often striking, thought-provoking, or entertaining. A false analogy fails because it purports to compare two similar things but does not adequately consider their dissimilarity/ies.
I recently came across this image on my Facebook feed:
I think the logical first question is: how is faith like WiFi? The image claims that they’re both “invisible” but that they have “the power to connect you to what you need.” Is that so? Let’s break this down.
We should probably start by examining the word “invisible.” WiFi is invisible in the sense that we can’t actually see radio waves move through the air. Faith is a subjective state of mind, so we cannot fairly say it is visible to the naked eye (perhaps we could quibble about whether evidence of subjective states is literally visible via something like a FMRI scan, but I’ll concede the point here). But I’m not sure “not perceptible by the eye” is the best definition of “invisible” in the context of this slogan. More likely, its author meant “withdrawn from sight,” or perhaps even “not perceptible or discernible by the mind.” But that’s where the analogy begins to fail. WiFi is not imperceptible/discernible by the mind. We know exactly how it works. We can’t actually see it working (in a manner of speaking), but it’s not mysterious in any way. Faith, by definition, is a belief in something unknown. We don’t have to believe in WiFi. It simply exists.
In addition, there are ways in which faith is very visible. Outside of an atheism convention or meetup, one would be hard pressed to find a room full of people who did not show their faith outwardly. Christians wear crosses around their necks, some Jews wear yarmulkes, some Muslims wear the hijab, etc. WiFi can also hardly be said to be invisible. When was the last time you were in a public place that didn’t advertise a nearby WiFi hot spot?
But the second part of the slogan is equally fallacious. I suppose if we “need” the internet–would it be hypocritical of me to post on a blog about our use of the web as a want rather than a need?–WiFi connects us to something we need. But even that is probably giving the WiFi too much agency. We connect to what we need. WiFi is just a mode of obtaining that access.
In what way, then, does faith connect us to “what we need”? In the context of this slogan, it’s a hard question to answer because the referent of “what we need” is absent. I think we’re meant to assume that some sort of god is what we need. But does faith connect us to that god? I don’t see how it does. Faith might be said to allow us to conceptualize the notion of a god/gods, but believing in something (or someone) doesn’t actually connect us to it. If we assume that the deity of the Abrahamic religions exists, and if we assume that the scriptural texts of those religions are true, we could argue that Yahweh/Allah/Jesus/etc. demand that we have faith in them in order for us to get to heaven. Getting to heaven would be one way to connect with the deity. If that’s how we’re meant to interpret the slogan, though, we have another problem: it begs the question (which is a logical fallacy for another blog post).
In short, then, WiFi may be invisible and aids in our connecting to something we want, but faith is often visible and only connects us to something we need if we make a ton of assumptions. It’s actually a pretty awful analogy, pithy though it may seem at first blush.
Now you may wonder why I’d spend so many words (approaching 1000) on a silly internet image. The typical reader/viewer would probably have a quick reaction (positive or, as I did, negative) and move on. The slogan is certainly not meant to invite deep analysis. But that’s precisely why we must examine it deeply. Often the things that resonate the most with us are the things that seem to be “simple” common sense. We respond quickly/viscerally when a new idea/image either slots easily into an existing schema or confounds us by not fitting anywhere into our existing way/s of thinking. We must resist the temptation to put new ideas into either category too hastily. That’s the only way for us to do the hard work of separating propaganda and dogma from ideas that are worthy of debate and serious consideration. It also allows us to see new ideas in all their nuance and complexity, when those things are present.