Friday, February 11, 2005

The "name one" fallacy.

When I was in the navy, this guy walked up to me and said, “I can prove that anything you do is selfish.” My curiosity piqued, I said, “Okay, go ahead.” He said, “Try to think of something that’s not selfish, and I’ll show you that it’s selfish.” I began talking about acts of self-sacrifice and things like that, and with each example I gave him, he was able to construe it in such a way that it appeared to be a selfish act. I told him about this time I let some girl take advantage of me. I’d do anything for her, and she treated me badly. He told me I was a masochist, and I liked being treated badly, so I was really acting selfishly in fulfilling my masochistic desires. I lost the debate, because I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t turn out to be selfish by his construal.

If I could go back in time, I would’ve handled the situation a lot differently. Hopefully, it would’ve gone something like this:

Egoist: I can prove that everything you do is selfish.

Sam: Okay, go ahead.

Egoist: Try to think of something that’s not selfish.

Sam: I can’t think of anything.

Egoist: See? That proves everything you do is selfish.

Sam: No, that just proves that I can’t think of anything. How does it follow that just because I can’t think of an example of an unselfish act that there therefore are no unselfish acts?

It doesn’t follow. The fact that I can’t think of an unselfish act only says something about my state of knowledge. It doesn’t say anything at all about the existence of unselfish acts. At best, all he proved was that I was ignorant.

This is just one example of a particular kind of argument people use. I call it the “Name one” argument. It’s where you claim that a certain kind of thing exists, and the other person says, “Name one.” If you can’t name one, then they think they’ve won the debate.

A few examples off the top of my head include unselfish acts, objective moral values, and a good reason for God to create a world with evil (see earlier blog). That’s not to say that you couldn’t think of examples of each, because I think you can. My point is that even if you couldn’t, it wouldn’t follow that no such things existed.

The “name one” argument is a fallacy, because it doesn’t follow that just because I can’t name one that there therefore isn’t one. This fallacy falls under a broader fallacy known as the red herring fallacy. A red herring fallacy is basically where you change the subject in such a subtle way that it isn’t obvious you changed the subject. It seems to work on a lot of people, because the new subject is harder to deal with than the first, and if the victim of the red herring can’t solve the second subject, it makes it look like he can’t solve the first.

The change in subject with the “name one” fallacy is from “The existence of a particular kind of thing,” to “Your knowledge of examples of a particular kind of thing.” It’s possible to know that there are members of a particular kind of thing without necessarily being able to name of them. For example, I know there are people who live in Paraguay, but I can’t name a single one of them. Just because I can’t name any people in Paraguay doesn’t mean there are no people in Paraguay, or even that I’m not justified in believing there are.


At 2/11/2005 6:27 AM , Blogger Kelly said...

Yes, the "name one" arguments are a joke. Like you said, it only proves the questionee's ignorance (or lack of long term memory).

I happen to think a good Biblical argument can be made that every act we do is selfish. But I tend to lean toward the Calvinistic side of Christianity, so that's to be expected.

At 2/11/2005 6:49 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


Have you ever read The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards? He makes the case in that book that we always act according to our strongest motivation. I'm going to say a little more about psycholgical egoism in another blog at another time, and I hope when I do that you'll come back and post some comments. I'd like to hear your Biblical argument for egoism. I'm a Calvinist myself, and I don't see that it requires me to believe my strongest motivation in every act is self-interest. But I'll say more about that when I get to the blog about psychological egoism. Thanks again for your comments.


At 2/11/2005 11:57 AM , Blogger Kelly said...

I started reading Edwards' book several years ago, but never finished and now forget what I read. I need to go back to it.

I notice that my comment is misleading. I'm not saying we don't do any selfless acts. I'm just saying that those acts are not us but Christ through us.

I look forward to your future post on this subject.

At 2/11/2005 12:07 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Kelly, that does clear things up. Thanks.


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