Beware the False Dichotomies

One strategy of the enemy in academic argumentation is the false dichotomy: two choices exist, at either end of the spectrum, and you are forced to choose one. But what if neither one is right? Or what if both are right? Consider these examples:

1. Philosophy – empiricist or rationalist?

2. Economics – capitalist or socialist?

3. Psychology – nature or nurture?

“I’d like Both, Please.”


Most academic disciplines have false dichotomies throughout the discipline. Certain topics have existed for years, and you have to take sides… usually to your own detriment. Some topics, such as free will versus determinism, are truly mutually exclusive: the choice of one logically excludes the other. In this case, it is worth searching for an answer. In other cases, the search is a trick because you find yourself needing elements of both, pressured to choose one, and facing penalties for either choice. To avoid the excesses of one extreme, such as empiricism which easily slides into skepticism, you choose rationalism. But then you are labeled unscientific, since all of modern science is based on empiricism. The same occurs with capitalism versus socialism. If you choose capitalism because you believe in laissez-faire, then you can be attacked for being anti-regulation or pro-greed. To the Academy, one choice is loaded. You don’t want to choose socialism, however, because it is a quick slide into communism from there. What do you do?

The easy answer is, you say, “I’d like both, please.” But you can’t really do this. For some reason, academicians love to polarize themselves, and you will have professors separating themselves into little cliques based on which end of the spectrum they choose. There will be very few middle-of-the-roader’s simply because they will be rejected by both endcaps, and because colleagues will argue that they aren’t being logically consistent: if they were, they’d choose a side. The one good thing about having the dichotomy is that it keeps the argument going. And to some extent, it may do it better than if there were multiple, competing factions (i.e. think Democrat versus Republican… very few vote for a third party). But whether or not it is easier does not represent whether it is CORRECT. More accurately, people do fall in the middle of philosophical spectrums. And it is healthier and more interesting to have more parties, more competing hypotheses.

Scratch asking for both… pick the side which has the most truth to it, or the least conformity within, and go there. You can try to distance yourself from the extreme once you’re in.


“I’d like a Third Option, Please.”

Other debates are deceptive because you feel the real “truth” is not represented in either position. The false dichotomy is false because a third option is not represented. Consider these examples:

1. Psychology – dualist or monist?

2. Biology – gradualist or punctuated equilibrium?

3. Anthropology – psychoanalytic or social construction?

As in the previous false dichotomies, you face the chance that one choice is more loaded than the other, or that there are penalties for choosing either side. For example, if you are a psychologist and choose “dualism” over “monism,” then you are ignoring biological psychology’s research concerning the brain’s causal control over behavior. However, if you choose vice-versa, then you are ignoring social psychology’s research concerning behavior causing certain brain states to come about. And it is not a false dichotomy in the sense of logical exclusivity—the two choices are mutually exclusive. But why do only two choices exist? Why isn’t there a third option? Is there anything which dictates that the mind-body connection must be explained by choosing between one entity (the body) or two entities (mind, body)? What if man is a tri-partite being? Or what if something else controls his entities, that is not part of them? What if there is no entity at all? Some philosophers, like Berkeley, thought it was possible for only one entity to exist—but the mind, not the body. So you see that this false dichotomy is very tricky.

A similarly difficult, but very prevalent, dichotomy is Darwinian theory: gradualist or punctuated equilibrium? Currently the two field of evolution (the former headed by Richard Dawkins and the latter headed by the late Stephen Jay Gould) are rivals. Some scientists believe it is possible to reconcile them, but no-one has yet. But the choice obscures that other theories are possible. Some cutting-edge scientists are neo-Lamarckian. And they face almost as much persecution as the creation scientists! There is creation science, which posits no evolution at all. And there is Intelligent Design which precludes macroevolution (stellar, chemical, etc.) And what if there is still other explanations to come? You would think that modern scientists would be open to the idea of a competing (better) theory since that’s what the scientific method exists for. But again, the false dichotomy precludes third options.

In these types of situations, because neither option is redemptive, you will ultimately have to argue for another option. Taking a side is not as beneficial as in the “Both, please” scenario because the choices are mutually exclusive (or almost). So it is hard to stake a “middle of the road” position between the two, nor would you really want to if you believe they are both false. Take some time to resurrect third parties within the academic debate (such as Lamarck, who was tossed out years ago), and find out why. Find out why they were excluded from the table of options, and locate any disciples or skeptics who admit that third options are possible. If you look hard enough, in almost any field, you can find Outsiders. Usually those outsiders are not compatible with themselves, but they were all expelled and thus are fighting the same battle.   As you pursue the third option, you may eventually find yourself outside of the academic debate, however, you should start from within it.  One way to do this is to examine the arguments of those who have previously been “expelled”   They may have data that you need to open the door.

Always, always use the data from the two camps you are disassociating from. Make the point of departure your interpretation of the data, not the data themselves. Try and think of why the reigning paradigm doesn’t address the facts best, or why some facts seem not to fit in at all, and offer something better. As Christians, this is a good chance to pray and see what revelation God will give you. Sometimes it can really be an eye-opener, and a professor who is bold enough to see it will reward you.

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