Avoid the Fallacy of Assuming False Causes

For Lord’s Day, January 3, 2021

Dear Saints,

A few weeks ago I was reminded of the logical fallacy of false causes, otherwise referred to in Latin as non causa pro causa. It is the illogical connecting of some thing or event as the cause of another thing or event simply because the one preceded the other in time.  One example or “sub category” is referred to as Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: “after this therefore because of this”. 

I think we make these false reasonings all the time.  I know I do.  And it’s risky business, frankly.

Here are some amusing things that happened all in one night that illustrate what I’m talking about and why I’m talking about it.

When I tried to start one of our vans to back out of the garage for a birthday piñata party, it was nearly dead.  I assumed it was the battery.  But I tried to clean the connections before I bought a new one to check because I learned a little while ago with the other van while being rescued by a tow truck worker that sometimes if the connections are dirty the battery won’t start even though it is fine (a bad conduction of electricity).  The battery did NOT need to be replaced.  In this case, there was an extra component to the red (positive) cable connection, and this included a metal shimmy to keep the connection tight (see the adjacent photo).  Well that shimmy had with age been beaten down and loose so the cable actually would come off even though the screw and clamp were tightened all the way.  And that was the problem—I bent the clamp with a wrench to tighten the connection and test it, and the van started right up!  So thankfully, a quick trip to the auto parts store with a new shimmy offered a quick fix for only a few dollars!  I was delighted it wasn’t a new battery (not only because of the cost savings, but time savings as it was nearing the Sabbath eve).

That same night, we kept hearing a beep in the hallway between the bedrooms.  We had taken down a bad smoke detector a week or so before and the others had been put in at the same time.  So one by one I took them all down and into the garage sure that they were all gone bad.  But the beep in the hallway continued!  We started to get a little spooked!  Partly because there was also a strange plastic burning smell in the garage.  Surely then the detectors were responding to that smell and maybe something was unsafe?  Yet they didn’t beep in the garage when I brought them there, and the beep continued in the hallway by the bedrooms! But no smoke detectors on the ceilings to account for.  Arrrghhhh! 

Then, we finally found the culprit of the incessant beeping!  It was an old smoke detector that had been placed in a hallway closet.  So I took that out, took the old battery out, and ahhhhhh, no more beeping!

So what accounted for the bad smell in the garage? It turned out there was no connection to the smoke detectors (which weren’t actually beeping after all).  It turns out, while working on the van’s battery a nerf gun bullet somehow flew into the engine area and I couldn’t get it out.  I had gone back and forth to the auto store afterward and I think the plastic melted and caused an odor until completely annihilated by the heat.  But it had nothing to do with the beeping.  Nor did the smoke detectors we took down.  And the battery was actually fine!

The point is, there are so many different variables happening before something else does, but our lack of omniscience can mistakenly identify something as the reason something else happened.  And frankly, that error can have its own disastrous effects.  It was important to do some sleuthing and and deduce away the various possibilities rather than presume a certainty.

In this case, it was just humorous in the end.  But it did remind me of the warning of the logical fallacy of false causesWe have to be careful not to make assumptions that can wrongly lead to unnecessary blame and paranoia because we couldn’t be bothered to check ourselves and our own limited ability to observe and analyze.  One thing does not necessary follow from another thing simply because of its proximity in space and time even very immediately before.

It reminds me to have the wisdom of the Proverbs.  Such as …

Proverbs 18:17: He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.

Proverbs 14:29: He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.

Proverbs 21:5: The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that ishasty only to want.

Proverbs 25:8:Go not forth hastily to strive, lest thou know not what to do in the end thereof, when thy neighbour hath put thee to shame.

Thus, … my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: (James 1:19).

Now don’t be too impressed with my use of Latin.  It does not logically follow that because I have been using it here that therefore I was trained in it (not at all: I looked this stuff up on line to remember and share with you).  

More importantly, may we be careful of jumping to conclusions that will prove us to be illogical, rash, and unwise.  God helping us.

Semper Reformanda,

Pastor Grant