Rev Andrew Schmidt explains how the nothing-buttery fallacy impacts our lives.
Rev Andrew Schmidt explains how the nothing-buttery fallacy impacts our lives.

The nothing-buttery fallacy drives problems

Have you heard of the nothing-buttery fallacy?

I hadn't until recently, but you have to appreciate the name if nothing else.

What could it possibly refer to? How is butter related to a fallacy? Is there a margarine equivalent? There are so many questions.

Nothing buttery refers to the idea that something complex is described as "nothing but …" (e.g., the brain is nothing but a machine).

The other name for the fallacy, which is far less fun sounding, but perhaps a better description, is greedy reductionism.

There is a beautiful example of it in the book Wintersmith, by Sir Terry Pratchett. In the book the spirit of Winter is attempting to become a man, and upon hearing a poem he assembles himself a 'man' The poem goes:

Iron enough to make a nail,

Lime enough to paint a wall,

Water enough to drown a dog,

Sulphur enough to stop the fleas,

Potash enough to wash a shirt,

Gold enough to buy a bean,

Silver enough to coat a pin,

Lead enough to ballast a bird,

Phosphor enough to light the town,

Poison enough to kill a cow,

Strength enough to build a home,

Time enough to hold a child,

Love enough to break a heart.

But Winter hears only the first part; and falls into the fallacy of thinking a person is nothing but the component parts, and misses the spiritual components of strength, time, and love.

This same fallacy, unexpressed, often drives many of the great social, economic and environmental problems we face today.

Families desperately seeking refuge are nothing but illegal immigrants, the homeless are nothing but slackers who should get a job, or the environment is nothing but an economic resource.

In accepting the nothing-buttery fallacy we shut ourselves off from the spiritual call to see the whole, and to live into that same call.

 

• Andrew Schmidt is the priest at Good Sherpherd Anglican Church.



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