Logical Theology

…considered thoughts and opinions

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Tu Quoque Fallacy Part 1

A Tu Quoque (Latin for “you, also”) argument is an Ad Hominem which is committed when someone attempts to refute another person’s argument by pointing out that the person is being inconsistent with something he/she said or did, either recently or in the past.  In short, the fallacy is committed by wrongly arguing that a person’s hypocrisy invalidates their argument.

Hypocrisy can, in some limited cases, rebut someone’s argument, such as when a hyocritical and lying individual insists that they are a morally upright person.  However, when hypocrisy does not refute the argument being made, dismissing the argument solely because of the speaker’s hypocrisy is a logical fallacy. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: 

Bob says, “You really need to stop spending so much time playing video games. Your personal life is suffering because of it.” 

Tom replies, “No offense, but you play video games for eight hours a day, which is more than twice the amount of time that I play. There is nothing harmful with spending four hours a day playing video games and I will continue to do it, regardless of your opinion.”

Question: Does Tom’s response prove that spending great amounts of time playing video games is perfectly fine?

Answer: No, it does not.  Tom only accused Bob of hypocrisy. He did not present an argument in favor of his opinion. In addition, even if Bob is being hypocritical, that does not mean his argument can be dismissed. In fact, considering how much time Bob himself spends playing games, he might have just been warning Tom to not get so addicted to games because he knows from personal experience that it is unhealthy. If that is the case, then Bob would not be unreliable or hypocritical. Rather, it would mean that he wanted to help Tom avoid making the same mistake. However, even if Bob was being hypocritical, that does not disprove his argument.

Example 2:

Susan says, “I heard Mr. Smith say that we need to pass legislation that would require farming and meat companies to raise their animals in more humane ways. However, Mr. Smith used to work on the board of directors for a major meat producing company that has always kept its animals in appalling conditions.  Mr. Smith is a hypocrite, and we should not listen to anything he says.”

Question: Has Susan given us a good argument?

Answer: No. Susan’s argument was that because the past actions of Mr. Smith are inconsistent with his current statements, then Mr. Smith’s arguments should be dismissed.  This is fallacious for two reasons:

    1. Mr. Smith may have genuinely changed his mind. Not to allow someone to change their mind and to insist that people will perpetually believe and act the same is fallacious.
    2. As with the previous example, hypocrisy does not refute the argument being presented.

Now consider the following example which is not a logical fallacy:

Example 3:

Jason says, “Dorothy claims that she is a fine example of what it means to care for other people and to help the poor,  for she donates considerable money to the poor and works in a soup kitchen once a week.”

Gloria says, “While that is true, Dorothy also is the CEO of a major technology company which manufactures most of its goods and wares in Chinese factories. The working conditions at these factories are appalling, leading to many deaths.  In addition, the workers are paid so little, worked so hard, and treated so mercilessly that there have even been riots in these factories. Frankly, Dorothy’s acts of kindness to the poor are just a cover for who she really is–a greedy and selfish woman who abuses and takes advantage of the poor to enrich herself.”

Question: Is this an Ad Hominem Tu Quoque fallacy? 

Answer: No, it is not. The argument under consideration is not whether it is good to help the poor and to work in a soup kitchen. The argument was that Dorothy is a good example of what caring for the poor should look like.  However, as Gloria correctly pointed out, Dorothy’s other actions contradict her image as an caring person. Thus, Dorothy may appear to be a good example of what it means to care for the poor, but when we see her for who she truly is, she is a bad example indeed.

THE BOTTOM LINE: It is a mistake to think that hypocrisy automatically refutes a person’s argument. Hypocrisy can, in some cases, does discredit a person, make them unreliable, and possibly refute their claims. However, when hypocrisy does not refute the argument being made, to claim that it does, is a logical fallacy.

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Openness Part 2

Now that we understand the importance of being teachable, let us consider how this works within Christianity. Should Christians be open to changing their minds?

My answer is absolutely yes.

Keep in mind that no one Christian or Christian denomination has perfect doctrine in every area. Even the Apostle Paul said that “all our knowledge is fragmentary” and “I know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). In light of this, it follows that Christians could believe things that are mistaken.  Therefore they should be open to considering the opinions of others and accepting them if they can be proven true.

This should not come as a shock, because theology itself is a human endeavor to properly interpret the Bible.  Since humans make mistakes, it follows that Christian beliefs and doctrines can also be mistaken. Because of this, Christians should willingly subject their beliefs to scrutiny and testing, and accept that which can stand up under testing (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to do this. Consider the following two examples:

Example 1: 

Robert says, “Personally, I believe that suffering can in fact be beneficial and that the more recent Christian interpretations on suffering are mistaken.” 

Rachel responds, “I have read many books from many authors defending your position, and all their arguments have been exhaustively refuted. In addition, this position would seem to imply many negative things about the character of God. Therefore, I am not interested in hearing another defense of your position.”

There are multiple problems with Rachel’s statement. First, she wrongly assumes that Robert can not add anything new to the discussion because of the fact that (in her opinion) many authors have not succeeded in defending Robert’s position. She is also committing the appeal to consequences fallacy, which is committed when someone assumes that the positive or negative consequences of a belief render it true or false.  In this case, Rachel is saying that Robert’s position is false because, if it were true, it would imply that God possess negative characteristics. This is a fallacy because simply stating that negative consequences would result from a belief being true does not, in and of itself, refute the belief.  As can be seen, Rachel’s unwillingness to consider Robert’s position has resulted in logical fallacies. One wonders whether Rachel really did fairly consider the arguments of the many authors which she claims to have read. If she did not, it doesn’t necessarily make her position false, but it does mean that she does not know how to give an adequate response to those who disagree with her position.

Example 2:

Bob says, “Personally, I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, for I don’t believe in the possibility of miracles.  In my opinion, God cannot violate the fixed laws of nature, making miracles impossible. I further believe that my position is supported by strong evidence. Are you interested in hearing why I believe this?”

Susan responds, “While I respect your right to believe what you do, I do not wish to hear your case. I have already made up my mind about what to believe. The Bible says that Jesus was resurrected, and that is good enough for me.”

While we can give Susan credit for being blunt and honest, as opposed to trying to hide her beliefs, the fact remains that she has not presented a strong argument for her position. Susan did not present a specific response to Bob’s argument, nor was she willing to do so.  It can be tempting for Christians to refuse to look at arguments that challenges their core beliefs. However, when someone presents an argument against your beliefs, your response should not be to refuse to evaluate the argument.  Rather, you should take your beliefs, and the beliefs of those who disagree with you, and test them.  If you refuse to do so and insist that you do not need to look at what challenges you, then you are implying that it is impossible or unnecessary to test your beliefs.  If Christian beliefs are untestable, then how can that be reconciled with 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which says, “Test everything that is said and hold on to the good.” This obviously implies that we should test our interpretations of the Bible. 

If you believe that Christian doctrine does not need to be subjected to testing, then you are essentially saying that people should accept without examination the opinions of  “authorities.”  This point of view is why Susan did not bother to respond to Bob’s arguments. On the other hand, if you attempt to respond to skeptics or those with different doctrinal positions, you are assuming that Christianity can be tested and confirmed. And if Christian beliefs can be confirmed, then it is possible that they can be disproved.

The Bottom Line:  Christians should be willing to look at other points of view, put their beliefs to the test, and learn how to effectively respond to those who disagree with them.

 

Openness Part 1

At this point, let’s take a break from the list of logical fallacies and spend a little time talking about why people commit them.

Granted, many people have not been taught how to think critically. It is far more difficult to avoid fallacious reasoning and logical fallacies if you are not even aware of what they are and the need to avoid them. This problem can be corrected through education. However, there is another more significant problem which can not be eliminated by education alone.

This problem occurs when one is simply not teachable.

Everyone has their opinions and believes that they have good reasons for the opinions they hold. Yet while some are open to considering differing points of view, there are others that simply are not. When someone is not open to changing their mind, it can often result in that individual not taking their opponent’s argument seriously.

After all, if someone has already made up his mind and will not consider changing it, he may not go to the trouble of offering good reasons for rejecting someone else’s position.  It is important to give good reasons for one’s beliefs and opinions. If a person won’t consider the possibility that he could be wrong, that person may not even be motivated to learn how to defend his own beliefs.  Being overly-confident in one’s position therefore could lead to logical fallacies.  On the other hand, someone who is open to changing their mind will be willing to look at what challenges them. 

Most people are not going to state bluntly that they won’t even consider the possibility that they could be mistaken, and more often, they will make statements that imply that they are not willing to change their minds. Consider the following two examples:

Example 1: 

Sara says, “I think that Tom has a good argument in favor of limited government as opposed to big government. We need to listen to and evaluate what Tom says.” 

Jack responds, “Look, Tom is a Republican. We are Democrats and have always been Democrats, as were our parents and grandparents. What could we possibly learn from the Republicans?”

In this example, it is apparent that Jack believes he has nothing to learn from Republicans. Jack’s statement is another way of saying that he is not open to considering the possibility that a Republican may believe something correct, and that he himself might believe something that is incorrect.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that his statement is a classical appeal to tradition fallacy—that is, saying something is true because many have always believed it to be true.

To see this how this works in religious circles, substitute Catholics for Republicans and Baptists for Democrats. In this case, Jack would be saying that Baptists have already got the correct beliefs and that those beliefs have passed the test of time to the point that Baptists have nothing at all to learn from Catholics. Not being willing to change one’s mind indeed can make one more likely to commit logical fallacies.

Example 2:

Mitch says, “I think there are good philosophical and scientific arguments in support of the theory that there are multiple universes. I know those who believe otherwise have their reasons, but I think the philosophical and scientific arguments in support of multiple universes are much more powerful.” 

Barbara says, “I don’t want to discuss this. I have heard all of these arguments before, and they have all been rebutted. I certainly am not very interested in hearing them again.”

The problem here is that Barbara mistakenly thinks that because the previous arguments in favor of multiple universes have been rebutted, she does not need to take give the theory any more consideration. Barbara seems to have closed her mind to new input. However, the fact remains that history has shown that many scientific theories initially were not accepted but later were embraced.

Take heliocentrism and continental drift as two examples. In the time of Plato, it was a given that geocentrism was true. Likewise, scientists at one point believed that the theory of continental drift was incredible. Nevertheless, both heliocentrism and continental drift were later proven true. So is it a mistake to refuse to look at and consider new scientific data because past arguments for a theory have been refuted. The same can be said for philosophical arguments.

Ultimately, being closed to new input is a mistake because if someone holds a belief that is, in fact, true, then their belief can always survive criticism and scrutiny. When someone is unwilling to subject their beliefs to scrutiny and to consider the possibility that they could be mistaken, it is difficult to have an open dialogue with them.

The bottom line here is that we must all be open to changing our minds.


Poisoning the Well Part 2

Now that we better understand the Poisoning the Well fallacy, let us consider how this fallacy can be committed in Christian dialogue:

Example 1: Teresa says, “In a moment, Job will be here to talk to us about the theological subject of free will and God’s sovereignty. Job has been a teacher for 20 years at Fairbanks College, which is a very small Christian school in the small town of Ely.”

Why did Teresa need to mention that the college Job works at is small and that the town the college is in is also a small town?  Why not just say that Job has taught for 20 years at Fairbanks College in the town of Ely?  Could it be that Teresa is trying to imply that Job does not have the credentials to competently discuss the subject of free will and God’s sovereignty? Even if this was not Teresa’s intention, her statements could still be taken to imply that Job is somehow not qualified to talk about the subject under discussion because he’s from a small town college. Therefore, Teresa is poisoning the well against Job.  For all we know Job may have graduated from Oxford and just because he teaches at a small college in a small town does not necessarily mean that he had not received a quality education and/or that he can not competently discuss the issue.

Example 2: Linda says, “Tomorrow, Gloria is going to come to our church and give the sermon. She will be speaking about what the Bible says concerning baptism and what history teaches us about how the ancient Jews practiced baptism. Do you all remember what we talked about last week? Gloria is from Mission church down in the city of Greenwood. Keep that in mind when you listen to what she has to say.”

This can be an example of poisoning the well; however, it does not have to be. If Linda was reminding the people that Gloria was from a trusted and credible church and was calling to remembrance what the people had learned about baptism last week, then Linda’s statements are not an example of poisoning the well.  In this case, she was just stating that Gloria’s speech will be a continuation of what they had previously heard. However, what if the people at Linda’s church strongly disagree with the doctrine of Mission church, which is possible if Mission church is affiliated with another denomination.  If that is the case, then Linda was preparing her congregation to be very skeptical when Gloria arrives.

Someone may rightly ask, “what is wrong with being skeptical when someone advances a position different than your own?” Absolutely nothing!  People should judge and evaluate what other people say and not accept it uncritically. However, the problem with what Linda said is not that she wanted her people to critically evaluate Gloria’s argument, though that may have been her intention. The problem is that her statements were worded in such a way that it could bias her congregation against Gloria’s sermon so they would then not fairly consider and judge her message.

Even if Mission Church teaches error, it is still a mistake bias a crowd of people before a speaker has a chance to present his/her argument. You must allow someone to completely and freely present their argument before judging it. Therefore, Linda was poisoning the well against Gloria. Biasing a group of people against someone does not refute what the individual is going to say because, since they have not presented their argument, who can know specifically what they are going to present.  So how can it be judged beforehand?

In conclusion, arguments should be fairly evaluated based on the evidence for or against them. Attempting to poison the well before someone speaks does not negate their arguments, it only results in people being less likely to fairly evaluate them.


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