The Heap Fallacy

The nature of truth can be confusing, and rarely is it more confusing than in the metaphysical distinction of groups and members. Is a chorus nothing more than the individual tones? Or a symphony nothing more than the individual notes? On some level, we must answer how could it be anything more? And yet the relationships between tones and notes seem to play a relevant role, and relationships do not exist when considering everything individually. What I take from this and will examine in this brief post is that sometimes a general truth means something entirely different from the particular truths from which it is abstracted. For example, it is true to say all living humans require food to remain alive, but it is not necessarily true to say they need apples or oranges or grapes or meat or cheese or bread or pizza or pork belly and sauerkraut sandwiches, etc. Thus, there is no particular food that humans need to eat. But it does not follow from this that human beings do not need to eat any food. Food is still required.

I have often encountered arguments of this type, particularly in political economic debates. They go in both directions. One variety says, the needs of the group cannot be determined and so individual needs are indeterminable. The other variety says, the contributions of individuals cannot be calculated and so the value of their combined inputs are indeterminable. Arguments of these types are often invoked both in support and condemnation of markets. But both of them are in fact heap fallacies, which turn on a conceptualization problem. Heap fallacies exploit ambiguity and are all too common in philosophy, politics, and economics.

The heap fallacy is related to the “sorites paradox” and is sometimes called the “continuum fallacy”. The fallacy works by rejecting a claim based on the vagueness of the terms used in the claim. For example, imagine I lay a single straw on the ground. This surely does not constitute a “heap” of straw. Now let me lay another on top of it. Still, we would not call it a heap of straw. And if I were to lay a third, still no. The fallacy would be then to conclude that since no single straw could be responsible for the change from a non-heap to a “heap” of straw, there is no heap of straw. The problem in this example is the term “heap” itself, which is arbitrary. However, in this case, its arbitrary nature is not logically relevant. We can draw the line anywhere, and so we can refine our definition of “heap” to anything. Perhaps three straws are a heap, or three-hundred, or three thousand… the point is the fact that we can draw a line anywhere does not mean that the line does not constitute a real distinction.

This type of argument which holds that if specifics are not given then a thing must be false is rarely recognized as fallacious. Generalities are not necessarily vague as this fallacy contends. As in the example above, to require that food be required is not the same as to say that this or that particular kind of food is required. Still, “food” as a generality is required for life despite our apparent inability to specify particularly which food-stuffs. It is all too easy to play with this distinction between the general and the specific. One can accuse any generality of being abstract, metaphysical nonsense. And to make matters worse, sometimes generalities can be just that! A group of strangers could be assembled in any made-up category, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it has any greater significance.

At the same time, one can accuse those who focus narrowly on the specifics of missing the “big picture”. As with the food example. Again, this is not always the case, some times a generality is simply arbitrarily applied. More interesting still are the cases in which something entirely arbitrary, that is a made up category, comes to take the properties of a real distinction. For example, consider human “races”. On the one hand, it seems like “race” is an arbitrary and made-up distinction in which no clear line could be drawn. In this situation, “race” is merely a fantasy of Immanuel Kant’s devising, denoting no real distinctions. On the other hand, that would render “racism” a fictitious action. No one could be racist if “race” itself was not a real thing. And what would it mean to say things like, “sickle-cell anemia affects black populations almost exclusively”? The statement seems to convey some medical information, but if “black populations” is not a real category then it is an empty statement. Based on the heap fallacy, it would seem race is a real thing, but an arbitrary one.

Our only recourse to avoid the heap fallacy is to be aware of the poverty of such rhetoric and guard against its use. We are condemned to constant vigilance. It is all too easy to treat all arbitrary categories as though they were not real, but this is a mistake. Arbitrariness is not an indication of a lack of realness. Some very real things are arbitrary.