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Reification / Hypostatization

Fallacies of Ambiguity

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Falacy Name:

Alternative Names:

Fallacy of Ambiguity

This is very similar to the Equivocation Fallacy, except that instead of using one word and changing its meaning through the argument, it takes a word with a normal usage and gives it an invalid usage. Specifically, it involves ascribing substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts. When human-like qualities are attributed as well, we also have anthropomorphization.

Examples and Discussion:
Here are some ways in which the fallacy of Reification can occur in various arguments:

1. The government has a hand in everybody's business and another in every person's pocket. By limiting such governmental pickpocketing, we can limit its incursions on our freedom.

2. I can't believe that the universe would allow humans and human achievement just to fade away, therefore there must be a God and an afterlife where all will be preserved.

In both of these arguments, we can see use of reification in two different ways. In the first, the concept of "government" is assumed to have attributes like desire which more properly belong to volitional creatures, like people. There is an unstated premise that it is wrong for a person to put their hands in your pocket and it is concluded that it is also immoral for the government to do the same.

What is ignored is the fact that "goverment" is simply a collection of people, not a person itself - it has no hands, therefore it cannot pickpocket. If the government's taxing of the people is wrong, it must be wrong for reasons other than a too-literal association with pickpocketing.

In the second example above, the attributes being used are more human, thus indicating that this example of reification is also anthropomorphization. There is no reason to think that the "universe," as such, really cares about anything - us included. If it is not capable of caring, then the fact that it does not care is not a good reason to believe that it will miss us after we are gone. Thus, it is invalid to construct a logical argument which relies upon the assumption that the universe does care.

Sometimes atheists create an argument using this fallacy which is similar to example #1, but which involves religion:

3. Religion attempts to destroy our liberty and is therefore immoral.

Once again, religion has no volition - it is not a person. No human-created belief system can "try" to either destroy or build anything. Various religious doctrines are certainly problematic, and it is true that many religious people attempt to undermine liberty, but it is muddled thinking to confuse the two.

Of course, it should be noted that hypostatization is really just the use of metaphor - but, as a fallacy, it is metaphor which has been taken too far. It can be very useful to employ metaphors and abstractions in what we write, but they carry a danger in that we can begin to believe, without realizing it, that our abstract entities have the concrete attributes we metaphorically ascribe to them.

How we describe a thing has a great influence on what we believe about it, which means that our impression of reality is often structured by the language we use to describe reality. Thus, this fallacy teaches us to be careful in how we describe things, lest we begin to imagine that our description has an objective essence beyond the language itself.

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