Do Christians Commit the Fallacy of Composition?

When I debate atheists, from time to time I point out when they commit some of the standard logical fallacies.  The genetic fallacy probably comes up as often as any other.  This occurs when you incorrectly assume that by proving the origin of a belief, you have thereby disproven the validity of that belief.  For example, atheists often claim that morality is merely the byproduct of evolutionary processes.  Even if true, however, at best this may show how people arrived at their individual sense of morality.  It does nothing one way or the other to demonstrate whether objective morality actually exists independent of our perceptions.

In fairness, though, if the theist is entitled to point out logical fallacies committed by the atheist, they should be permitted to do the same in return.  One favorite tactic of many is to claim that in advancing the kalam cosmological argument, Christian apologists like myself commit the “fallacy of composition.”

Before I get into the nature of this fallacy, let me begin by outlining the kalam argument for anyone who may be unfamiliar with it.  It deals with the origin of the universe and claims to provide at least some evidence for the existence of God:

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause;
(2) The universe began to exist;
Therefore,
(3) The universe has a cause.

In support of premise (1), the theist points out that in every conceivable example from our experience of something coming into existence, a cause of some sort was required.  A clock requires a clock-maker.  A luscious dessert requires a pastry chef, etc.  But this is precisely where some atheists invoke the fallacy of composition.

Wikipedia actually provides a good definition of this fallacy.  “The fallacy of composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_composition.

Imagine if I was holding a group of 50 chopsticks all bundled together.  Now it is certainly true that I could snap each one of those chopsticks individually with my bare hands.  Does that mean, however, that I could break the entire bundle all at once in the same way?  Not likely, at least not without some major martial arts training.  This is an example of the fallacy of composition.

According to the skeptic, an apologist may be correct in saying that each individual element in our universe required a cause, but that does not necessarily mean that the universe as a whole required a cause.  The universe is a collection of chopsticks, and what is true of each individual chopstick still may not be true of the entire bundle.

On the surface this argument seems to have a lot of appeal.  But there are at least two problems with it that I can see.

First, it appears to me that the skeptic commits a category error of sorts in even invoking the notion of composition in this scenario.  “Composition” suggests the existence of one “big” thing made up of a bunch of “smaller” things.  That is certainly the way our universe appears now.  It is made up of planets, stars, energy, space, dark matter, particles, waves, etc.  But the kalam argument is not based on how the universe appears now.  It speaks to the universe at the time of its origin, a time when all time, space and matter was compressed into one single thing called a “singularity.”  Only after the Big Bang do we start to see the universe expand and begin to have constituent parts.  Really, the theist is arguing that because any one thing must have a cause, this particular one thing (i.e., the singularity) must also have a cause.  The notion of “composition” as applied to the universe does not even seem to come into play until after the Big Bang, which forms the basis for the kalam argument.

More importantly, though, the so-called fallacy of composition is not universal.  Most true logical fallacies render a line of reasoning false regardless of the content of the argument.  Take ad hominem, for example.  That fallacy refers to launching an attack against a person and somehow believing that by doing so you have attacked the merits of his or her argument.  “Einstein’s theory of general relativity cannot be correct because Einstein failed French in school.”  That is a personal attack against Einstein, but it does not get us even one step closer toward evaluating whether general relativity accurately describes our universe.

You can feel free to substitute any individual for Einstein and any personal attack for “he failed French” and get the same result.  An ad hominem attack will never address the merits of a claim regardless of its content.  Its form alone renders the argument technique invalid.

The same cannot be said for matters of composition, however.  Sometimes it is entirely proper to conclude something that is true of each constituent part of a thing is also true of the thing as a whole.  For example, “each and every part of Ryan Stiles’ shoe is entirely blue.  Therefore, his entire shoe is blue.”  When dealing with matters of color, it is absolutely appropriate to draw this type of conclusion.  It is impossible for each part of Mr. Stiles’ shoe to be entirely blue but for the entirety of his shoe to be any color other than blue.

When dealing with matters of composition, it is not enough to merely throw out the fallacy of composition and assume you have made your case.  Unlike ad hominem, whether this fallacy is appropriate depends upon the content of the proposition being advanced.  We must ask whether the quality being discussed (e.g., breakability, color, etc.) is the type of quality in which drawing general conclusions about the whole is proper.

In matters of causation, the need for a cause is more in line with color than with breakability.  Properties that can be ascribed to the whole (such as color) are called “expansive” properties.  One requirement for a property to be expansive is for it to be absolute, not relative.  A property is absolute if it does not depend upon a relationship to other things.  Breakability of the chopsticks, for example, depends upon my personal strength.  While I personally cannot break 50 bundled chopsticks, Michael Clarke Duncan probably could.  The property “blue” however, does not depend on anything or anyone else for its existence.

Causation also appears to be absolute, not relative in this sense.  Things do not sometimes require a cause to come into existence and other times spontaneously pop in front of us out of thin air.  In fact, to even speak of a property as being relative would by necessity be to concede the existence of a cause for that property.  The relationship to something else would be the very cause you are trying to prove does not exist!  Thus, it is impossible to speak of causation as being relative in the sense required for the fallacy of composition to apply.

Another requirement for a property to be expansive is for it to be “structure-independent.”  In the case of the shoe, all of the parts can be described as “blue” even if they have yet to be sewn or tacked together into the shape of a shoe.  Even while all the leather pieces and laces are still sitting on the cobbler’s table, they are already blue.  The form they ultimately take is irrelevant to their possession of that property.

In regard to breakability, however, the form is critical.  It is precisely because those chopsticks have been formed into a thick bundle that I am now incapable of breaking them with my bare hands.  Therefore, this property is not expansive.

Regardless of how the component parts of the universe are comprised, they all still required a cause.  It just so happens that Venus is closer to the Sun than Mars.  But even if their positions had been reversed, that would not somehow remove the need for an explanation for their existence.  Astronomers would not somehow stop seeking an explanation for how matter forms into planets if the planets in our galaxy happened to be arranged in a different configuration!

Therefore, when an atheist claims the apologist has committed the fallacy of composition, they fail to recognize that the so-called fallacy is not universal.  They must delve deeper into the nature of the property being discussed to see whether it is justifiably considered to be expansive.  In the case of the need for causation, it is just that.  Therefore, the fallacy of composition does not apply.

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About Ken Coughlan

Ken Coughlan founded Ten Minas Ministries, a Christian apologetics ministry, in January, 2006. He is now a Director with Ratio Christi. In addition to these ministries, Ken is a practicing attorney, earning his Juris Doctor from the College of William & Mary in 1998. He is currently licensed in four different jurisdictions.

You can contact Ken via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kencoughlan.ratiochristi.