When I was a kid in the early 90’s there was this movie, “Rock-a-Doodle”. It was the story of a kid named Edmond and a pompadour sporting rooster named Chanticleer who together save the farm from evil owls bent on turning little boys into kittens and eating them whole. (Yeah, the early 90’s produced some really weird children’s movies; anyone else remember “Fern Gully” and “We’re Back”?)
Without going into absolutely needless nostalgic reminiscings, the initial thrust of the plot is that the pompadourian protagonist Chanticleer is responsible for making the sun rise each morning, thanks to the fact that he sings to it right before it comes up. At one point, however, Chanticleer is prevented from/forgets to crow and the sun comes up without his help. The subsequent shame from the realization that he is apparently not everything he was cracked up to be drives the rocking rooster into exile, which then prompts the quest to retrieve him that is the rest of the movie.
What I want to key in on is the idea, held by the animals on the farm, that the crowing crooner actually caused the sun to rise. The idea makes sense: Chanticleer crows and then the sun rises. Cause and effect. Bada-bing, bada-boom.
Except that we know better.
The type of thinking that the animals in “Rock-a-Doodle” are engaged in is a formal logical fallacy known as “post hoc ergo propter hoc”. Or, for my non-Latin speaking readers: “after this, therefore because of this”. It does not deny the rules of cause and effect (i.e. something happens as the result of something preceding or accompanying it), but it does state that one thing cannot be held to be the cause of an effect simply based on order of occurrence.
A rooster crowing before the sun rises has long been my go-to example of this when I’m demonstrating the fallacy for others. Obviously, just because we see that a rooster crows before the sun rises does not rule out other explanations besides a straightforward cause-and effect. There are ultimately 3 options.
1) The rooster is indeed the cause and the sun rising the effect.
2) Both the crowing and the rising could be due to a third factor; mutual effects of some other cause. i.e. The time of day (as dictated by the rotation of the earth).
3) There is no relationship whatsoever – roosters crow all the time independent of the position of the sun or any common denominator.
Based on the observable facts that a rooster is not required to make the sun rise, and that roosters have been known to crow at all times of the day without affecting the sun, I propose it is 2 and 3. Roosters know when the sun is coming up and choose that time to crow the loudest, and (having once lived with roosters for years) you can’t make those dumb birds shut up no matter what time of day it is.
OK, so what?
As Christians, I think we need to be aware of this logical fallacy, lest we make judgements on the world around us in an improper way. I think of Job’s friends, who wanted to insist that his affliction was due to some sin he had committed beforehand when in reality it was his righteousness that made him a target. They knew that every effect has a cause, but they mistakenly identified it in Job’s case.
Let me leave you with one more real life example that is a bit more recent. Several years back, after the Columbine shootings, the assertion was made by some well-meaning Christians that listening to violent music caused those boys to murder their classmates. Well, it could be, but it is not necessarily so – to say otherwise based strictly on the order of occurrence, without hard evidence, would be to violate the post hoc fallacy. It could be that both the music and the shootings were not directly related but shared a third factor as a common denominator (i.e. the boys were predisposed towards anger, and that anger led them both to violent music and toward violent actions). Or it could be that there was no relationship whatsoever. (Full disclosure: I hold to the middle scenario in this instance, but others can make up their own minds)
In any case, just remember to not be hasty in attributing causes to effects, or effects to causes. Look at the big picture and don’t succumb to “the Pompadour Principle” of thinking that just because the fancy rooster crowed before the sun rose, he must have caused it.
Something to think about as you go.