Fallacious Arguments #1: The Fallacy of Composition

If the human civilization continues to populate the earth in any sort of meaningful way, no doubt centuries from now, historians will comment much about the 21st century’s failure to think and speak clearly. One of the plagues of this modern era is that ambiguity, and its resulting confusion, often stands as a roadblock in the way of healthy progress and the resolution to conflict. There are many guilty parties which have served to create this dilemma, but one which should be noted and not overlooked is the logical fallacy of Composition. Understanding this fallacious way of reasoning is one of the first steps in overcoming the error of ambiguity, whether it is being presented accidentally or intentionally.

By way of definition, the Fallacy of Composition is the error of assuming that the characteristics of the part are also characteristics of the whole. An easy way to remember this fallacy is by its sister name, the Part-to-Whole Fallacy. What this means is that when traits of the individual parts are observed, the conclusion is made by way of ambiguous assumption, that the whole must be composed of identical traits. This faulty way of thinking gives birth to the ever greater error of stereotype, whereby a widely oversimplified conclusion based on a minimum of evidence is made about someone or something.

As an example of this logical fallacy, consider a person who eats at a Chinese restaurant for the first time. Their experience was very negative. The food was undercooked and as a result they became sick from food poisoning. As a result of their bad experience, they arrive at the conclusion that all Chinese restaurants will result in food poisoning and vow to never eat Chinese food again. This is an example of the Fallacy of Composition; an observation of the part concludes in an assumption of the whole.

Here are some more examples:

  1. I met a person from California who was a Democrat. Therefore, everyone from California is a Democrat.
  2. Her car was rear-ended by an underage driver. Therefore, all underage drivers cause accidents.
  3. His parents divorced after years of marriage. Therefore, all marriages will eventually fail.

From these examples, the error of thinking can be easily seen in the characteristics of the part being assumed upon the characteristics of the whole. There may be rare times when this is true and right, but more times than not, thinking this way is merely a poor way of generalization caused by a laziness to examine all of the evidence. It is also usually motivated by a negative bias, which can be equally devastating to clear, rational thinking.

To take this fallacy and apply it within the context of matters of faith, it should be easily recognized as the one fallacy which many non-Christians use as an argument of justification against attending Church. For example, a person may have attended as a child or was possibly invited to Christmas service once. During their attendance, they observed something which to them seemed hypocritical, fake, and wrong. Therefore, they left vowing to never again attend another Church service because they had come to the conclusion that all Christians are hypocrites and fakes. Now, for the sake of argument, possibly that person did observe or experience something that was truly hypocritical. But the error of their reasoning is in their assumption that this must inevitably characterize the whole; that therefore all people who attend Church and claim to be Christians are hypocrites. Instead, in order to think fairly and rationally about the whole, that person must take into consideration all of the evidence, some of which would be:

  1. The Church is a much larger organism than merely one local body of people. It consists of individuals who are geographically (by location) and temporally (by time) diverse. One expression observed at a local gathering of people in the 21st century is hardly sufficient evidence to condemn a worldwide gathering of diverse people for the last two thousand years.
  2. Only God truly knows the heart of a person ignorer to truly weigh their actions. The best that man can do is look upon the outer appearance of people, which means human perception may be misinformed.
  3. Jesus Himself taught the principle that among His true children, false children would be present similar to tares among wheat. This condition will continue to be a reality until the Second Coming when the deceptive tares will be separated from the wheat according to God’s perfect justice. Therefore, just because someone claims to be wheat, looks like wheat, and maybe even at times will act like wheat, it does not necessarily mean they are true representatives of the kingdom.

The Fallacy of Composition commits the logical error of ambiguity, further contributing to the confusion and irrational arguments of this modern time. It is found in many different discussions and dialogues surrounding any number of topics. Furthermore, it carries with it the error of stereotype, making a person not only guilty of irrational thinking but also of lazy, narrow-minded thinking. If the perception of future historians are to be altered, this fallacy must be recognized, avoided, and replaced with solid, well-thought out reasoning which seeks to consider all of the evidence.

“Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”  

Matthew 13:30 (NASB95)

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