Following up after Standing on the Shoulders of Giants? in this article I would like to open an in-depth critique of the Big Book’s logical fallacies. I have to confess I’m not as sharp as I used to be, so bear with me. Hopefully I get to at least start something, even if I can’t finish it. Please refer to the end notes for resources I have used.
A power greater than myself
The god idea is probably the worst stumbling block for all progress in AA. In part because it is the one thing most insisted upon. In part because it is not necessary, and while I guess it can be of help to folks with a religious inclination, it can be harmful to others by taking away their true empowerment, or even chase non-believers away.
For most of us it appears necessary to accept help, embrace the fellowship, and then start making positive changes in our life. These changes can take many forms, including the steps or not, but what Bill Wilson does is to push the idea that a god is necessary, or else…
This is called a false dichotomy, and it is part of the Big Book’s brilliance that it sells most things as false dichotomies.
A false dichotomy, also called a false dilemma, is:
… a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones (Wikipedia).
The foremost fallacy you will find in the Big Book is here:
Page 53: Either god is everything or else He is nothing. God either is or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?
Page 25: But Bill doesn’t leave us with many options: We had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end… and the other to accept spiritual help.
This could have been simple.
“The doctor” on Page 27 explains quite clearly, and for that matter irreligiously what a spiritual experience is:
They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.
Entirely agreeable for spiritual experiences I would say.
But it takes only a couple of paragraphs before Bill Wilson turns it into that “what seemed at first a flimsy reed has proven to be the loving and powerful hand of god”, and on page 29 it has become “Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his relationship with God” ( NOT “how he recovered”).
Bill Wilson does not operate with any well developed facts on which he bases his theories, other than statistical samples of one, or two.
On page 9 Ebby comes and has been sober for two months. As we all know Ebby never really put together any lasting sobriety – which strictly speaking means that whatever Ebby did, did not really work for Ebby, but Bill takes this statistical sample of one, and runs with it, mostly because he can make a theory about it which enables him to write a book about it. This is a fallacy called hasty generalization.
We’re also dealing with a fallacy called faulty cause: Ebby has found religion, and gotten sober, and it is now presumed that the religion is the cause of his sobriety, though it may very well be something else, co-occurring with the religion, such as plain human help and interest.
Several other kinds of logical fallacies are at work in the Big Book. Here are a few of the more common:
Appeal to Ignorance: attempts to use an opponent’s inability to disprove a conclusion as proof of the validity of the conclusion, i.e. “You can’t prove I’m wrong, so I must be right.”
Appeal to authority: attempts to justify an argument by citing a highly admired or well-known (but not necessarily qualified) figure who supports the conclusion being offered.
Begging the question: entails making an argument, the conclusion of which is based on an unstated or unproven assumption.
Tautology: defining terms or qualifying an argument in such a way that it would be impossible to disprove the argument. Often, the rationale for the argument is merely a restatement of the conclusion in different words.
Straw man: stating an opponent’s argument in an extreme or exaggerated form, or attacking a weaker, irrelevant portion of an opponent’s argument.
Non sequitur: In a general sense any argument which fails to establish a connection between the premises and the conclusion may be called a non-sequitar. In practice, however, the label non-sequitar tends to be reserved for arguments in which irrelevant reasons are offered to support a claim.
Appeal to the stone: Dismissing a claim as absurd without demonstrating proof for its absurdity.
Bill uses this one for instance on page 10 where he says,
I was not an atheist. Few people really are, for that means blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe originated in a cipher and aimlessly rushes nowhere.
Bill puts it upside down: atheists are now the ones characterized particularly by having blind faith. And why is that proposition strange? And is this even the proposition we ought to concern ourselves with?
I imagine as you have read through this list you have nodded, “yes, I have seen that one, and that one”. The Big Book is full of it. This makes it real difficult to make a meaningful critique of it. Once Bill builds an argument on a logical fallacy, and then subsequently treats his conclusion as fact, from that point on everything he says about the subject at hand is essentially nonsense. Thus when early on he builds his case for religion, once he has built it on logical fallacies, and established it as fact to his own satisfaction he then proceeds to talk about what god is and can and does and will do based on these erroneous conclusions, but at this point, such as in chapter 5, or 11, there is no way to relate to it meaningfully, it is simply a “fact”, albeit a false one, and as such can no longer be refuted by application of ordinary civil discourse.
What I will try to do is find those places early on in the Big Book, where he establishes these “facts” by way of logical fallacies, and see what the implications are. Here are two more:
Cherry picking: The act of pointing at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.
Survivorship Bias: When a small number of survivors of a given process are actively promoted while completely ignoring a large number of failures.
The biggest fallacy here of course is that AA works for all, because it works for some of us. We have already looked at how few AA had really worked for, and how poorly, at the time he wrote the book.
But now let’s look at some specific points up through the first chapters where he generates his argument. I will be going through it, and pick out examples of where the problems lie. Long as this article has become, these examples are only a few out of many:
The Doctor’s Opinion
Bill leans heavily on Dr Silkworth and while the dear doctor does express a number of quite humble opinions which do give me considerable respect for the man, Bill tries to make anything he says into a scientific fact. For instance:
One feels that something more than human power is needed to produce the essential psychic change.
Dr Silkworth is of course entitled to feel that, but that does not really fall within the realm of scientifically based medical opinion – except to Bill, of course.
Chapter 1: Bill’s Story
On page 10, what are the “contrary indications”? Should he maybe have had a closer look at those? No, he has “little doubt”, and his very own little doubt is sufficient proof, and sufficient to build a movement on:
Despite contrary indications, I had little doubt that a mighty purpose and rhythm underlay all. How could there be so much of precise and immutable law, and no intelligence?
This is “appeal to ignorance”. Since no final argument can be brought against this question because it lies outside of the verifiable part of reality, he can safely take that as the only argument for the existence of a deity.
I simply had to believe in a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation. But that was as far as I had gone.
With ministers, and the world’s religions, I parted right there. When they talked of a God personal to me, who was love, superhuman strength and direction, I became irritated and my mind snapped shut against such a theory.
He goes on at length. But he is also doing something more insidious: Since he himself is now “saved” he can safely berate his former self, but the real intention is to by association berate anyone else who feels the way he claims to have once felt himself.
And once I have been berated sufficiently and don’t have a leg to stand on, because his appeal to ignorance is bulletproof, I will of course have to accept his idea of a god. But he is not directly attacking me, he is attacking his own former self which is very manipulative, since the motive is obvious.
Enter Ebbie, Bill’s convincing evidence from a statistical sample of one:
Had this power originated in him? Obviously it had not. There had been no more power in him than there was in me at that minute; and this was none at all.
Ebbie’s claim that god did it is the proof that god did it:
That floored me. It began to look as though religious people were right after all.
Now that Bill has been floored, we can upgrade to a statistical sample of two, I suppose.
Ebbie never put together any lasting sobriety, but Ebbie, two months sober is nonetheless enough to build a whole movement on.
He continues with his manipulative tool:
Despite the living example of my friend there remained in me the vestiges of my old prejudice. The word God still aroused a certain antipathy. When the thought was expressed that there might be a God personal to me this feeling was intensified. I didn’t like the idea. I could go for such conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving His sway might be. I have since talked with scores of men who felt the same way.
Those men could be right! But here the statistical sample of “scores of men” apparently do not carry as much weight as the statistical sample of one converted man does.
My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”
That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.
All I can say is it didn’t take much. How could he have been so staunchly against god and suddenly gung ho for?
He does not have to argue at length about, or describe the process, all he has to do is say “Ebby made me do it”. This relieves him of the need for further explanation.
I would certainly call it a “Hasty Generalization”…
Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.
So Ebbie’s suggestion that man make god in his own image is sufficient to convert him. This is the crucial spot. From here on there is no longer any proof needed or discussion about whether there is a god and/or what this god does or can do. He treats his claims as a fact from here on.
Page 13: [At the hospital] There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since.
This is called a non sequitur fallacy: He did these things and has been sober ever since, but there is no evidence that those things were what caused him to get sober, and not some other cause(s) which he failed to look at because he had already made up his mind what did it.
Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements.
Reminds of a question in the article God and Diet Pills by Steve B: Would willingness, honesty and humility alone have done it?
Page 14: Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all.
He’s stepping up the religious rhetoric here, “Father of Light”, but we also have another false dichotomy here, the first indicator that it is either my will or god’s will. And since he has had a vision, the whole issue is outside the realm of scientific scrutiny. And from here on it will be treated as fact.
My friend had emphasized the absolute necessity of demonstrating these principles in all my affairs. Particularly was it imperative to work with others as he had worked with me. Faith without works was dead, he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic!
While this passage has some elements that appear to have been borne out by a much larger statistical sample since 1938 – helping others works – Bill Wilson here treats it as truth based on a statistical sample of one man’s opinion. Could variously be considered “Appeal to authority”, “Begging the question”, or a “Non-sequitur”: An irrelevant reason (that Ebbie says so) is offered to support, or prove, a claim.
Page 16: One poor chap committed suicide in my home. He could not, or would not see our way of life.
Or was the godly life just not going to help him, or did he need more help than what they were able to offer? Here we have one over-simplified explanation given to a complicated issue.
Chapter Two, There Is a Solution
Page 17: We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree.
We know the agreement was far, far from absolute, but saying it makes it true. Hasty generalization – unless we were to call it an outright, deliberate lie, of course.
Aside from this, there are a number of good observations in chapter 2 and 3, Bill is not without writing talent, nor without a sincere desire to help, of course. I’m just mentioning this so the reader knows I’m aware of it, but there is plenty of praise for the Big Book elsewhere. Our purpose here is, obviously, to offer a critique of it.
Page 21: But what about the real alcoholic?
This is the first occurrence of the term “real”. He now proceeds to describe what a real alcoholic is. This automatically creates that distinction, and by default creates another class of alcoholics that are “not real”, or maybe not even alcoholic. Though his descriptions and distinctions in themselves have some validity, he continues with it as if it is now established facts. This has aspects of equivocation, and begging the question.
Page 22: Why does he behave like this? If hundreds of experiences have shown him that one drink means another debacle with all its attendant suffering and humiliation, why is it he takes that one drink? Why can’t he stay on the water wagon? What has become of the common sense and will power that he still sometimes displays with respect to other matters?
Perhaps there never will be a full answer to these questions. Opinions vary considerably as to why the alcoholic reacts differently from normal people. We are not sure why, once a certain point is reached, little can be done for him. We cannot answer the riddle.
From a scientific point of view this would be a very important question. More important than many others he asks, but of course this was one Bill was not able to answer, because he really hardly knew anything at the time he wrote the book. The lack of an answer ought to rouse considerable cause for concern about the validity of the rest of his theorizing, even if in practical terms AA can still to a considerable extent be effective without an answer.
But this of course is only because AA happens to do some things which really do work, all the while giving faulty explanations for why.
Page 23: These observations would be academic and pointless if our friend never took the first drink, thereby setting the terrible cycle in motion. Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.
The validity of the second sentence does not follow from the first sentence, and preceding paragraph. Even if, or maybe because, we still do not know if (2) is right or wrong, it makes it all too obvious how Bill tosses “therefores” around without much support for his statements. But of course, Bill having stated this as a truth, it now becomes truth, and will be used as truth hereafter. Manipulation, pure and simple.
Page 24: When this sort of thinking is fully established in an individual with alcoholic tendencies, he has probably placed himself beyond human aid.
Here he does say probably, but already in the following sentence it becomes a fact: “These stark and ugly facts have been confirmed”, and “But for the grace of God” – He can invoke god out of nowhere here, and out of context, because he has already satisfactorily argued for the necessity and fact of god’s involvement. Here he is just hammering it home. He will do a lot of that.
Page 25: There is a solution. Almost none of us liked the self- searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation. But we saw that it really worked in others, and we had come to believe in the hopelessness and futility of life as we had been living it. When, therefore, we were approached by those in whom the problem had been solved, there was nothing left for us but to pick up the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at out feet.
Here Bill uses the very helpful device of switching himself to be a “third person”, as in “if all these other people could convince me (in reality meaning if he could convince himself, and some others), they surely ought to be able to convince you”.
If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.
The device he uses here is to first say “we believe”, but even before the period is out, he has turned it into a certainty. And again, we have a false dichotomy: either we do this or we do that, but are there no other ways? Many things are said here: We are beyond human aid – this is of course obvious from the fact that he has affirmed it several times before, so by now no further argument for its validity is needed. And if the two only alternatives are to go on to the bitter end as best as we could or accept spiritual help, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?
Page 28: Here was the terrible dilemma in which our friend found himself when he had the extraordinary experience, which as we have already told you, made him a free man.
Yet it appears that Rowland Hazard drank again, even several times before the Big Book was even written, but that doesn’t matter to Bill who is busy making a book. He takes what he can use and leaves the rest.
We, in our turn, sought the same escape with all the desperation of drowning men. What seemed at first a flimsy reed, has proved (where is the proof – this is just bill’s unfounded assertion, now treated as fact) to be the loving and powerful hand of God. A new life has been given us or, if you prefer, “a design for living” that really works.
The distinguished American psychologist, William James, in his book “Varieties of Religious Experience,” (one of the three books Bill read before he found himself entirely qualified to write the BB) indicates a multitude of ways in which men have discovered God. We have no desire to convince anyone that there is only one way by which faith can be acquired. (But it is understood that faith is the essential, unavoidable component) If what we have learned and felt and seen means anything at all, it means that all of us, (an Ad Populum logical fallacy, appealing to the listener’s ability to believe that the sample quoted is indeed much larger than it is, and therefore represents an unquestioningly large and convincing sample) whatever our race, creed, or color are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing and honest enough to try.
Here it is getting too hard to swallow, so let’s wrap up for now with the end of the next chapter.
Chapter 3: More About Alcoholism
Page 43: Once more: The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.
Anyway, with the need for a higher power firmly established, I will wrap it up.
In chapter 4 Bill reels completely out of control. Basically there you will find Straw Man and Non Sequitur arguments.
And of course the rest of the book is more of the same.
There are Big Book study meetings all over the country, where people cling to every word as if it were the truth. The objections to the Big Book as briefly presented herein should be obvious to anyone who doesn’t check their brain by the door, but as we know, it isn’t.
I can’t deny that there are things of value in it, but I’m coming away with the conclusion that more in it is downright detrimental. We need to stop using it. I know World Service depends on sales of it to keep their whole operation going, which does not bode well for change. But all we can do is chip away at it one day at a time.
Here are some of the sources I have referred to:
• Common Fallacies in Reasoning
• Fallacies (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
• Fallacies (University of North Carolina)
• Fallacies (Changing Minds)
• Logical Fallacies or Fallacies in Argumentation
• Logical Fallacies (Purdue Online Writing Lab)
The most exhaustive of all, because it is linked and linked seemingly unendingly:
And, finally, an area which I did not even touch upon, but it is rampant in there as well, cognitive biases:
life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA.
As part of this mission, life-j has written a number of articles on AA Agnostica over the past several years and these are:
- My Path in AA (June 30, 2013). Also published, mildly edited, on January 12, 2016, as a chapter in the book, Do Tell!
- Our new chat room! (February 2, 2014). This chat room was closed after several months.
- Yet Another Intergroup Fight (March 2, 2014)
- A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics (September 7, 2014)
- Wounded Warriors (August 5, 2015)
- The Jellinek Curve (August 22, 2015)
- Science may one day accomplish this… (May 12, 2016)
- Open-Minded (September 22, 2016). This is a reprint of the article published in the October 2016 issue of AA Grapevine.
- The Secular AA 2016 Austin Convention (November 17, 2016). This is also a chapter in the book, A History of Agnostics in AA.
- The Daily Reflections (January 19, 2017)
- Back to Basics and Other Religionists (July 6, 2017). Another chapter in the book, A History of Agnostics in AA.
- Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (November 23, 2017)
To date, he has also written three articles for a wonderful website for we agnostics in Alcoholics Anonymous, AA Beyond Belief:
- The Sinclair Method (November 22, 2015)
- Don’t Fix It If It Ain’t Broke (April 9, 2017)
- About Being Here (July 2, 2017)
All of these articles are available in a book put together by life-j. Here is part of his intro to the book: “…the doctors have given me one to two years to live. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m taking a lot of time to write, while I can. A couple of other articles are in the pipeline already, and as things are published I will add them….”
You can read and/or download the book as a PDF right here: My Collected Published AA Stories.
life-j has spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in art work and writing. He is now semi-retired on a five acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.
Thank you, life-j.