No true Scotsman

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No true Scotsman, or the self-sealing fallacy, is a logical fallacy where the meaning of a term is ad hoc redefined to tautologically make a desired assertion about it true.

It was advanced by philosopher Antony Flew in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking – or do I sincerely want to be right?.[1]


[edit] Fallacy

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again." Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing." The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, "No true Scotsman would do such a thing."

Antony FlewThinking about Thinking (1975)

In putting forward the above rebuttal one is equivocating in an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. The proposer initially treats the definition of "Scotsman" (i.e., a man of Scottish ancestry and connection) as fixed, and says that there exists no predicated case that falls within that definition. When one such case is found, the proposer shifts to treat the case as fixed, and rather treats the boundary as debatable. The proposer could therefore be seen prejudicially not to desire an exact agreement on either the scope of the definition or the position of the case, but solely to keep the definition and case separate. One reason to do this would be to avoid giving the positive connotations of the definition ("Scotsman") to the negative case ("sex offender") or vice versa.

[edit] Reason people fall into the fallacy

The truth of a proposition depends on its adequacy to its object ("Is the drawing a true likeness of Antony Flew?"). The truth of an object depends on its adequacy to its concept ("Is the figure drawn on the paper a true triangle?"). Problems arise when the definition of the concept has no generally accepted form, for example when it is vague or contested.

"A true Scotsman" (a concept) is not on the same level as "a true triangle" (a concept) never mind "the true Antony Flew" (a concrete existing object). The formal similarity, "true X", and the corresponding feeling that the concepts should be on the same level, in some sense must be on the same level (even perhaps all exist as objects), motivates the fallacy. It is a short step from that feeling to treating one's own definition, however arbitrary, of a "true Scotsman" (who else's?) as having the same objectivity as that of a geometrical figure or an existing individual, and then attempting to make the world agree.[2]

[edit] Errors in usage

In situations where the subject's status is previously determined by specific behaviors, the fallacy does not apply. For example, it is perfectly justified to say, "No true vegetarian eats meat," because not eating meat is the single thing that precisely defines a person as a vegetarian.

[edit] Example

A: Faith is permanent. Once a Christian, you cannot lose your faith.
B: But Mark used to go to church, and then lost faith in Jesus.
A: Yes, but Mark was never a true Christian in the first place.

This example deals with the Perseverance of the Saints vs. Conditional Preservation of the Saints debate in Calvinism and Arminianism respectively i.e. whether one can subsequently fall into a state in which one cannot gain salvation after having entered a state in which one will gain salvation. A concludes, probably erroneously, that B takes the view that all churchgoing people are true Christians. When B provides a counterexample for A's assertion, A redefines "Christian" to mean "someone who is genuinely converted", tautologically satisfying his initial assertion.[3]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Flew, Antony (1975), written at London, Thinking About Thinking – or do I sincerely want to be right?, Collins Fontana
  2. ^ Stove, David (1991), The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, Wiley
  3. ^
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