Debating Skill Tip: Equivocation/Conflation


I’ve seen both sides use this as intentional rhetoric, in error, and also mistaking the terms when attempting to call someone out on committing the fallacies related to these terms.

We first need to understand what the terms mean and signify. They are close in meaning, but not identical.

Equivocation occurs when a person employs a word that has several meanings depending on context, and interchanges or combines those meanings in error, or as intentional rhetoric.

Anecdote: a self-proclaimed master of debate, Alan Darley (master’s degree in theology, has a web program for Christian Apologetics; do a web search and check him out) posed the following argument <simplified>:
Premise 1: without god, there is no meaning. (Used here, the term “meaning” is “purpose” in the philosophical sense).
Premise 2: Science says there is no god. (Fallacy, methodological naturalism, the basis of science, doesn’t approach the question of god; I’ve heard both theists and atheists commit this fallacy)
Conclusion: science is self-defeating because without god there is no meaning and without meaning there is no science.

My rebuttal (paraphrased): science does not approach the question of “why”, as that implies forethought and motive, which nature is not known to possess. So “meaning” is currently of no consequence to scientific method.

Alan Darley’s Response: Science cannot function without meaning, how would anyone know what anything is? (I’m still not sure if this was intentional rhetoric or ignorance. I hope the former but would not be surprised by the latter).

This is the point where equivocation occurred. In order to maintain his argument, he equivocated two of the definitions of meaning, where meaning in the sense of philosophical purpose was interchangeable with meaning in the sense of definition. These two senses of the word are contextual fallacies when interchanged, and they are distinct in that neither definition is subsumed (contextually reliant upon) the other definition.

Though Alan Darley’s argument was fully refuted, he maintained the validity of it, which is typical of apologists whose arguments are fully and demonstrably refuted. He refused to concede, but it was apparent to anyone watching that though his argument was posed in valid form, it contained assumed premises, and a conclusion that required equivocation fallacy in order to follow the premises.

The irony? A person arguing about meaning who must fallaciously equivocate the meanings of the word meaning to maintain his argument.

In order to definitively route his tactic, I accepted his argument arguendo and posed a simple question: What is the meaning of radioactive decay? He was obviously not capable of providing it in a way that was not absurd considering how the terms were initially equivocated.

Conflation is slightly different. Conflation occurs when many ideas, or various elements of those ideas are are mixed up either unintentionally as a result of a lack of knowledge of the subject(s), or intentionally as a rhetorical device to change a losing subject using a non sequitur fallacy of the red herring variety. In some cases, it is done intentionally as a result of poor intellectual integrity.

Anecdote: this is done so often by theists, and often enough by atheists that I will give a general description of how it occurs in general.

The anti-science theist:
Einstein was wrong about the fixed universe (true, evidence proved otherwise and he accepted it), astronomers could not predict the meteorite that hit Russia (true, because it is beyond our current technological limitations to predict/track/observe the paths of each of an enormous number meteors that cross our path constantly), and evolution says that life came from nothing (untrue, evolution is a theory of observations of adaption, mutation, and speciation of life, and does not posit any notions of origin) and we are descended from monkeys, which is stupid because there are still monkeys (untrue, we have a common ancestry). Science is wrong all the time (true, and it is always “science” that figures it out) and that is why I follow the bible, because it is the truth.

In this example, the theist combines some oversimplified truths about science with some obvious mistakes to conclude that science is untrustworthy, and the bible is not.
Different fields of science are conflated as one idea, “science”, and errors by scientists or due to limitations of knowledge and technology in one field are applied to all other fields. The theist also equates the idea of infallibility of the bible to the infallibility of science, which is not an idea that science holds. Science is self correcting in method, and confirmed through experimentation, prediction, and peer review. It gives the best explanation given our current knowledge, and if new evidence is uncovered, it adds that knowledge to what currently exists to paint an ever more clear picture of the reality in which we live. Scientific method contains within it a mechanism that includes for error, new information, and correction. It does not stick to fundamentals, but the theist conflates their own fundamentalism with a science to argue against a scientific fundamentalism that fails to exist.

The atheist:

The atheist often conflates the ideas of many different religions into something that typically results in arguing with every theist as if that theist is an anti-gay, anti-science, pro-life/anti-abortion, fundamentalist, young earth creationist. These same types preach logic and rationality, but enter into arguments with theists under false and oversimplified pretenses. This is nothing but self-serving, because a person who legitimately applies logic and reason would engage in arguments regarding the actual beliefs of the person and not a “straw person” version of those beliefs. This behavior is hypocritical, devoid of intellectual integrity, tactless, and lazy. It represents us poorly, and is completely non-persuasive outside of the echo chamber. Pathos, ethos, and logos are cast aside, and these atheists take up a meaningless soap box to attack all theists for what some theists believe, and mirror those theists they detest. This method has an inefficacy about it regarding persuasion that sets us back as a whole, and separates us from potential new members of unsure/questioning theists, or theists who side with us and our complaints in general.

Things to remember:
1. Equivocation is the misuse of definitions of words or the context in which those definitions apply.
2. Conflation is the combination or confusion of distinct ideas either unintentionally as a result of limited knowledge, or intentionally as rhetoric, through laziness, or lack of intellectual integrity.
3. All of us can mistakenly identify these fallacies, or even commit them ourselves.
4. To avoid showing our basic position in a bad light to those who may wish to become atheist but are unsure or dislike the “stigma”, or theists who are on our side, follow one simple rule. ASK what a person believes before assuming and arguing on a false assumption.


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