Is a Whale a Fish?

And Other Examples of the Pre/Trans Fallacy

Is a whale a fish? Someone might say “Well yes, of course it’s a fish.” Another person might interject with “It’s actually a mammal, not a fish.” Yet a third might come in with “A whale is a fish, but it used to be a land mammal.” Now we’ve come full circle.

This is an example of the Pre/Trans Fallacy, first coined by Ken Wilber. The point is that people often mistake what’s pre-conventional (an earlier stage of development) for what’s post- or trans-conventional (a later stage of development), because neither sound like the conventional idea.

In our example:

  1. A whale is a fish (pre)

  2. A whale is a mammal (conventional)

  3. A whale is a fish (trans)

Another example might be:

  1. Religion is true because God says so (pre)

  2. Religion is superstition (conventional)

  3. Religion is true because it survived for a long time / is a meta-myth / keeps violence at bay via scapegoating / etc (trans)

The common theme here is that each successive version of the argument builds on all of the previous versions. So if you start with a thesis (a whale is a fish), you’re met with an antithesis (a whale is a mammal) that takes the thesis into account, and the two are further formed into a synthesis (a whale is a fish that used to be a land mammal).

What’s cool is that you don’t have to stop at 3 takes — you can create Pre/Trans chains of arbitrary length, like this big brain meme:

Some Related Ideas

The Double Island Rules

This originally comes from Eric Weinstein I believe. The Double Island Rules state:

  1. A smart person saying something obvious should be assumed to be saying something subtle, unless proven otherwise.

  2. A smart person saying something that is wrong should be assumed to be saying something that is counterintuitive, unless proven otherwise.

In other words, when someone says something that sounds pre, assume trans unless proven otherwise.

Principle of Charity

“The principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.” (Wikipedia)


“The steel man argument (or steelmanning) is the exact opposite of the straw man argument. The idea is to find the best form of the opponent’s argument to test opposing opinions.” (Wikipedia)

Higher Dimensional Thinking

Daniel Schmachtenberger has a post that elaborates on this idea of Thesis →Antithesis → Synthesis.

A few guidelines that tend to support the quality of dialogue’ is also extremely helpful.