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The Fallacy of Equivocation

Have you ever considered how strange language is? Think about it. If I move my mouth in certain complex, well-coordinated and well-recognized ways, I communicate meaning. Why is it that certain orderings of my mouth with the appropriate air, producing sound at a certain pitch and resonance, communicates such complex things as human emotion, opinions, and great ideas and philosophies? Consider the words of James 3:3-5 (NASB):

"Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their whole body as well. Look at the ships too: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are nevertheless directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot determines. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things."

The tongue is able to express the most profound ideas and worship the Lord of all creation. It can also tear down and demean. Language is a powerful tool of human beings that no other creature has ever been able to use.

Why begin with a discussion of language in a post about a logical fallacy? The reason for this comes from the type of fallacy I'm discussing: equivocation. Equivocation is a fallacy based on the fact that one word can have different meanings. Consider this interesting fact about the Greek word soteria (or σωτηρία), which in English means "salvation" or "deliverance." For Christians, the word "salvation" carries profound meaning and is used as a technical theological term that denotes what happens to the one who entrusts his soul to Jesus Christ. Salvation, in this context, expresses deliverance from one's sins and reconciliation to a holy, just, and loving God.

But the Greco-Roman world surrounding first-century Christianity did not use soteria in this way. In fact, in general, the word denoted relatively mundane, secular instances of deliverance. What is soteria? If someone is in danger, and another person rescues him, that is soteria. In a religious context, one might refer to being "saved" or "delivered" by Zeus, but this doesn't mean what Christians mean when they say that God saved them. In the first century, Christians, trying to describe what had happened to them because of Jesus Christ, adopted soteria in order to express. Thus, over time, the usage of the word was transformed. And, too, the world that inherited that Christian usage of the word as a technical term.

The fallacy of equivocation is a fallacy in which one word is used in more than one way. When there is ambiguity about the meaning of a word, it can be used in multiple senses to derive a conclusion that wouldn't have otherwise been derived. Here is an example of equivocation in an argument (taken and modified from a list of examples here):

  1. If there is a law, then there is a lawgiver.

  2. There are natural laws.

  3. Therefore, there is a cosmic lawgiver.

This argument is ambiguous in more than one way. For instance, speaking technically, it is not quite clear what form the argument ought to take. It may look like a straightforward instance of modus ponens (i.e., p ->q; p; therefore q), but (2) in the argument looks like it denotes a member of a class established in (1). Thus, this argument could be an instance of universal predicate logic. But I digress.

What's more important for our purposes is the ambiguity of the word "law." This argument is attractive at first glance for Christians because it carries some intuitive force. We know that in order for laws to exist in society, there must be human beings present to make laws. Why wouldn't it be the same for natural laws? The problem, however, is that the use of "law" is different in both cases. When we refer to laws in society, such as traffic laws, these are something like rules. They set out conditions for humans to get along with one another, with an implicit claim of censure (e.g., a speeding ticket) if the law is not followed.

Natural laws, on the other hand, are expressions of certain regularities in the universe. (This understanding of a natural law is controversial among philosophers of science, but it works for our purposes.) If some physical event were to "violate" the Law of Conservation of Energy (i.e., energy is neither created nor destroyed), this violation is not like breaking some traffic law. In fact, such a physical event would merely be an exception (or refutation) of the regularity expressed in the natural law. If a natural law is seen according to its own usage of the word "law," the comparison of natural law with laws in a society is no longer clear. Perhaps natural laws don't require a lawgiver in the same way as a law in society. Therefore, because of this ambiguity, the argument above is guilty of equivocation and thereby commits a fallacy.

Equivocation, however, is not seen only in argumentation and logic. It is commonly used in comedy. In Homer's epic, the Odyssey (Book IX), Odysseus, the main character, and his crew encounter a group of cyclopes in a cave. The cunning Odysseus gets one of the cyclopes drunk and, as is about to fall asleep, tells the cyclops that his name is "Noman." Then the cyclops falls asleep, and Odysseus and his crew plunges a burning wood beam into his eye, blinding him. As the cyclops screams in agony, he awakes the others, who ask him what is wrong. The interaction (which can be found here) goes like this:

"What ails you, Polyphemus," said [the other Cyclopes], "that you make such a noise, breaking the stillness of the night, and preventing us from being able to sleep? Surely no man is carrying off your sheep? Surely no man is trying to kill you either by fraud or by force?" "But Polyphemus shouted to them from inside the cave, "Noman is killing me by fraud; no man is killing me by force." "Then," said they, "if no man is attacking you, you must be ill; when Jove makes people ill, there is no help for it, and you had better pray to your father Neptune."

What makes this interaction funny is that, by telling the cyclops that his name was Noman, Odysseus confuses the other cyclopes, who now wonder why Polyphemus is screaming in pain. This joke equivocates on the use of "no man," in the first case as a name (Noman) and in the second as a term of universal negation (i.e., not any man).

And jokes like these have been used for thousands of years since the time of Homer. One of the most famous comedy bits in history is Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First":

This brilliant routine uses multiple equivocations and plays them against each other. A manager of a baseball team is introducing a new player to the team. Here are the name of the basemen:

  • First Base: Who

  • Second Base: What

  • Third Base: I Don't Know

When the new player asks the names of the players, he's shocked by the incompetence of the manager! Hence, the hilarious sequence that repeats itself in the bit:

"What's the name of the guy on first base?" "No, What's on second." "I'm not asking you who's on second." "No, Who's on first." "I don't know." "He's on third. We're not talking about him."

The equivocation, here being used for laughs, is similar as with Noman in the Odyssey. Common phrases, which usually express a different meaning, are being used as names, which causes confusion and much laughter.

The point is that we're familiar with equivocation in other contexts. Why is it important to be able to spot this fallacy? First, it's common in theology. As Christians, we want to be sure that our theology is right. We want to avoid heresy and be able to present the Christian faith precisely and correctly. But, unfortunately, a lot of theological discussion is ambiguous. For instance, what does it mean to be Reformed? I might call myself Reformed because I affirm and defend the five Solas, but for many people, being Reformed means that you're Calvinistic in your soteriology. To cite another example, these days there's a lot of rancor over the word "racism." Many arguments dealing with that term are guilty of equivocation because the term is used ambiguously in our culture today.

Second, recognizing equivocation helps us to become better speakers and communicators. The precise use of language is important for good argumentation, and therefore it will help us both with each other and as apologists. For instance, what does it mean to be an atheist? Historically, that word has denoted a person who doesn't believe that God exists. But these days, many atheists have used the term to denote a person who lacks belief in God. These are very different meanings, and it's important that we push for a definition of that word from atheists with whom we interact so that we can better understand what they believe. All in all, understanding equivocation will make us more effective communicators, speakers, and apologists.

That's it for this post! These posts are intended to very short and easy to read. I want them to a helpful resource for reference and an introductory resource for people who haven't been exposed to these concepts. I hope that the content will be edifying to you. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!


For the sake of full disclosure, this is the main resource that I will be using for this series. This is an excellent textbook and worth checking into if you want more information on the subject:

Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

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