People like having things cut and dried for them, as a result we tend make things deceptively simple, & miss possibilities we should be seeing. This often happens with “either or reasoning” or the fallacy of the false alternative. When people offer two options in a situation where they are not the only two possibilities in that situation, like the media in the presidential election “Obama or Romney.” The debates that surround religion are plagued by many of these situations, & people frequently fall for them.
One of the most common and most obvious is found in Creation versus Evolution debates. While proving a young earth (which you probably can’t do) would no doubt rule out evolution & point towards special creation, it doesn’t work the other way around. Evidence of an old earth doesn’t mean that micro organisms evolved into all the creatures we see today, but it does cast a young earth into question. Furthermore, evolution itself could have been the result of special creation, as many liberal churches teach. Simply put, this isn’t an either or situation, proving evolution would not disprove intelligent design, & disproving evolution wouldn’t prove special creation, since it is conceivable that we haven’t worked out other possibilities that are closer to what really happened.
Possibly the most common argument that falls into this fallacy is found in debates between well respected people who should know better. Various atheists and Christian apologists get to debate each year about the existence of God. If you haven’t immediately spotted the problem, let me rephrase the argument: The existence of deity, since it is the existence of any god, not the Judeo-Christian God often referred to by God as a proper noun, not god as a common noun, that atheists are disputing. This argument is invalid, if the apologist is wrong, then the atheist is not by default right (although their fans always claim a victory, which is ironic), so the Atheist can’t win this debate, because s/he isn’t arguing what s/he believes, and have therefore not made a case that is good enough to compel one to atheism (unless atheists are willing to concede that the Judeo-Christian God is the most probable 😉 )
But, the apologists make the same mistake by using various arguments that don’t confirm the Judeo-Christian God, but just some kind of deity. The cosmological; teleological (design); biogenetic, & some other arguments don’t compel one to believe anything beyond some kind of deity, not a specific kind of deity. The cosmological argument probably shouldn’t compel you to believe much, but that is a discussion for another day. Even moral arguments wouldn’t be capable of pointing to God exclusively, but could point to any deity that had some interest in human affairs.
There are probably many other examples, the argument from biogenesis is possibly ruined by one, but I’ll discuss that in a future post. Mean time, when you hear people debating, or are in a debate, and you hear the words, “either…or” ask yourself if there may be other possibilities, you may be surprised.