The Fallacy Of Single Explanations

I must confess that once upon a time, I was a firm believer in a conspiracy in the assassination of JFK. I was quite skeptical, mind you, of theories implicating the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, or any other notorious set of initials. But I was convinced that Oswald could not have acted alone. Not because I was prone to believe in conspiracy theories in general, but because I just couldn’t get around that seemingly impassable roadblock of the “magic bullet”. Therefore, I concluded that since magic bullets don’t exist, there must have been at least one more shooter. And whenever you have two or more people involved, you have by definition a conspiracy.

I had fallen prey to a type of fallacy that I call the fallacy of single explanations: the rush to a conclusion based on the assumption that just because a particular explanation is the only one you can conceive of under the circumstances, it must be the only explanation possible. You also could call it the fallacy of incomplete data, since these faulty conclusions result from trying to bridge the gap when there is missing information.

The “magic bullet theory”, like many other single explanation fallacies, depends on the presumption that normal conditions apply (when in fact “normal” conditions are largely a myth). But there is one little fact about that fateful day that many people do not consider, a fact involving the seats in the presidential limo ; and it makes all the difference.

The president was seated in the rear on the passenger side. And the seat in front of him was occupied by Texas governor John Connally. The latter stood 6’2″, and would have somewhat blocked the crowd’s view of the president under “normal” circumstances. Fortunately, the governor was seated in a folding jump seat that was offset from the president’s seat and also sat down lower.

Moreover, neither Kennedy nor Connally simply sat staring straight ahead like crash test dummies; both were turned in various directions, waving to the crowd and talking to their wives and each other. (Just before the bullets were fired, Texas First Lady Nellie Connally turned to the president and said, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you”, to which he replied, “No, you certainly can’t” — his final words.) Add up all of this, and we see that it was indeed possible for a single bullet traveling in a straight line to do the damage it did to both men. This, mind you, does not conclusively disprove a conspiracy; but it does mean it’s at least possible that Oswald was the only gunman.

There’s also, as you no doubt are aware, a widespread theory that the moon landing was faked. And one bit of key evidence the theorists often cite is a peculiarity in certain photos taken on the moon. In some of these, the flag appears to be waving in the breeze — and there would be no breeze on the moon. Voila! Clearly a fraudulent landing, right? It never seems to have occurred to the conspiracy theorists that NASA would be bloody well aware there is no wind on the lunar surface. It strains credibility just a bit to think that a large consortium of scientists and technicians who are sharp enough to put men on the moon (or fake it) are also so stupid that they would try to pass off a laughably staged photograph. So there just might be some other explanation for the way the Star-Spangled Banner appears. And indeed there is.

Being aware that there is no wind on the moon, NASA knew that planting a flag there would just cause the flag to hang in a rather limp and uninspiring fashion. So they rigged up a support for it that would make it stand out. When the moonwalkers planted the flag, the brace initially wobbled and jittered before gradually settling down to its final rigid position; by then the astronauts had already snapped photos of it, appearing to flutter in a nonexistent gust of air. (It should be apparent if you look at the photo closely that there is a rod on top of the flag.)

Another photo the conspiracists brandish shows the reflection of one astronaut in the helmet of the other, and neither is holding a camera in his hands. Therefore there must be someone else taking a photo, right? Maybe a guy standing on the grassy knoll. Since the third astronaut stayed inside the capsule, they must not have been on the moon at all. Talk about one giant leap in logic for a man (or woman).

But all you have to do is look at the photo a little more closely. See the camera attached to his chest? That’s where the cameras were positioned — not in the astronauts’ hands.

All kinds of conspiracy theories are spawned from the fallacy of single explanations, including, alas, holocaust denial. One such line of “thinking” is based on some flawed calculations about the land area of Germany, and the number of holocaust victims, and the subsequent conclusion that the nation simply would not be big enough to contain so many graves. Therefore, the holocaust must be a hoax!

This bizarre argument overlooks quite a number of facts. For one thing, not all of the deaths or burials took place in Germany. Some of the major concentration camps, for instance, were located in Poland. Second, the Nazis were not particularly fussy about giving their victims respectable burials in private graves; they instead just dumped a mass of bodies into a pit — sometimes an extremely huge pit. Third, a great many of the victims were later exhumed from their makeshift graves and the bodies were burned and the bones ground up to conceal the evidence of the genocide. Fourth, lest anyone forget, there were the notorious ovens that disposed of many, many, many of the holocaust victims.

Sometimes the fallacy of single explanations is practiced in a different way — not so much in ignoring alternate explanations as in ignoring alternate premises on which the explanation is based. (While it is not the same as the fallacy of the single cause, the two can work together.) The classic example is the “prime mover” argument that’s supposed to “prove” the existence of God. It’s a fallacy that even some of the greatest thinkers have fallen for. It goes something like this: everything that exists or happens must have a cause; therefore there must be something that sets the initial cause into motion. There must be, in other words, a prime mover, or God.

Aside from the fact that this argument is self-contradictory — it declares that everything must have a cause, and therefore, there must be something that doesn’t– it’s based on a premise that is not only unproven but patently false: namely, that everything has only a single cause. In fact, everything has an untold number of causes. Furthermore, as we now know from modern physics, time is not a linear process; it would make just as much sense to say that the “effect” is really the cause of the “cause” as vice versa.

In short, the fallacy of single explanations is what happens when reductionism runs amok. Occam’s Razor is a useful tool, but only if you use it properly — if you flash the razor around willy-nilly, somebody might get hurt. Occam’s Razor, as articulated by William of Occam (or Ockham), states that “pluralities should not be posited without necessity” — in other words, things shouldn’t be made any more complicated than they have to be. (Even Einstein reportedly emphasized this point.) Thus, given two competing theories, the simpler one is generally to be preferred.

This presupposes, however, that all of the relevant facts are available. Occam’s Razor is not a valid excuse to discard information. Furthermore, note that the above examples violate the principle by opting for the more complicated explanations. Positing the existence of a Supreme Being as the explanation for the existence of the universe presents us with the problem of having to explain the existence of the Supreme Being, which is at least as difficult. (It’s ironic that William Of Occam was a champion of the simplicity principle, since he was a theologian, and religion often goes against the grain of such a concept.) And the possibility of a large, well-organized, secretive conspiracy to deceive the public is much trickier than the propositions that NASA landed men on the moon, and a solitary wacko murdered the president. (According to one survey, most of the people who believe the moon landing was faked also believe extraterrestrials have visited earth. Evidently they think it’s easier to travel untold millions or billions of miles than to travel 240 thousand miles.)

Before we jump to a conclusion about the likelihood (or, as is generally the case in today’s world, the absolute infallibility) of a certain explanation, we would do well to make certain we dig for all the relevant facts; and that we aren’t offering an explanation that is needlessly complicated in comparison to the alternative(s).

3 comments

  1. Sometimes with head injuries there are short term memory problems. Sometimes with any accident memories don’t have time to go from short term memory to long term memory and the memory of the accident, and events just before the accident are missing.
    People with gaps in their memories make stuff up to fill in the gap. Sometimes the made up parts make sense, sometimes not. However they can still get accepted as actual memories even when they make very little sense.

  2. I believe I was quickly aware that the flag on the moon was wired or somehow had its appearance modified so that it could simulate the look of being blown by wind. Whomever the journalist was, (perhaps Walter Cronkite) who covered the moon landings, made that clear on day one of the Apollo missions televised coverage. But I do remember thinking that the behavior of the bullets shot at JFK’s motorcade could not do what they did without more than just one shooter. I actually read the Warren Commission report, or at least read many parts of it. And I also pretty much found several points in it thought provoking. I also saw the movie (called JFK)?– years later which elaborated on many of those points. One line I remember was delivered by Kevin Costner who played the lawyer who eventually made the case publicly. He said something like, (You can prove that an elephant can hang over the edge of a cliff gripping a daisy with his tail, and never fall, depending on how you use facts). But The Warren report also found little evidence that the usual characters we always suspect, (like the FBI, the CIA, Republicans, the Pentagon etc.) were not really considered to have concocted such sinister assassination conspiracies or that Oswald acted pretty much alone. But Jack Ruby’s assassination of Oswald certainly added some red meat for the press to chew on.

    About where the universe came from, I don’t belive there are any singular reasons that can explain it, and for that very reason, one cannot dismiss the idea of creationism arbitrarily.

    https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2020/cosmic-skeptic-interview

    Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.(discussing comments made by Alex, another writer on the website).

    “Escaping the Causal Premise via Mereological Nihilism. The dialectical background to this question is the skeptic’s assertion, in response to the argument’s second premise that The universe began to exist, that in fact nothing, including the universe, ever begins to exist. Why? Because the material constituents out of which a thing is composed existed before it. The irrelevance of this claim is made evident by offering an explication of “begins to exist” that does not depend on something’s coming into existence without a material cause:”

    Craig also says:

    “The next move in the dialectic is a desperate one: in order to defend his assertion that nothing ever really begins to exist, the skeptic says that no composite material objects exist and therefore never begin to exist. If they never exist, then they never began to exist. This is the doctrine of mereological nihilism: there are no composite objects. Now, as I explained to Alex, we already begin to discern the high intellectual price tag exacted by the skeptic’s line. Do you really think, Fieonne,(I don’t know who Fieonne is), that there are no people, no tables and chairs, no planets, etc., that you have no parents? But it gets even worse: you have to deny that you yourself exist. But this is mad; as Descartes rightly saw, the one indubitable datum is one’s own existence. So composite material objects undeniably exist.”

    I agree that the idea of the Universe being created does not need to be justified with the assumption that something must have existed which caused it to exist i.e. If God created everything, then who or what created god? But in Craig’s response, he uses some pretty indefensible points which are not truly related to the subject at hand; the first one is also missed by Alex whose point Craig is questioning; To prove his point Craig points to an assumption made by Alex that fundamental particles must first exist for anything else to exist.

    But when we are talking about creation, are we limited to material particles, or simply the existence of energy that becomes manifest and determines how those particles function? Of course not! When we discuss only “energy” there is no need to wonder if a chair had to exist before it was made, or if we could exist without parents. Yes these are physical things that are formed from the fundamental particles they are composed of, but where did those particles come from?

    Craig rejects Alex’s points because they involve pre-existing particles, But he doesn’t mention the fact that perhaps energy can exist without any previous cause. So if Craig admits that energy exists, can he explain how energy itself, just “arose” spontaneously from no energy at all i.e. can something really exist unless it arose from something that already existed?

    When the argument revolves around being or nothingness, can Craig claim that energy is not something, and that it does not need to exist previously, because it can just arise spontaneously from nothing? If so, what is that nothing? If it doesn’t previously exist, how can physical matter come from it?

    Alex is mistaken because his arguments are based on the idea of pre-existing matter, but Craig seems to be suggesting that energy itself has not always existed because it “arose spontaneously.” But what did it arise from? If something comes into being without any cause, to me that something could be defined as God or a Supreme being. You can call it anything you want, but how can matter, composed of energy, not exist without the pre-existing energy it’s composed of?

    I don’t know the answer, but I think the question is a fair one, even if it’s not provable with scientific or philosophical reasoning. Our very language is composed of past, present and future tense words which would be meaningless without the existence of a beginning point, or even the existence of time itself.

    Still, the Buddhists ask, “What is the first word in the dictionary?” What’s the answer?—none of them! Simply because words are used to define every word in the dictionary which in turn, are then defined by still others!

    The word “spiritual,” need not be limited to physical or scientific definitions, because implies that there is something beyond the world of physical cause and effect. It’s meaning is also not dependent on one true religion or any religion at all! But to me the words of Jesus—“Before Abraham was I am,” are pretty much consistent with something that’s not limited by time, or which must to be created by something else.

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