Logical Theology

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Cherry Picking Part 2

Now that we have a better understanding of what cherry picking is, let us now turn to how this fallacy can be committed within Christian discourse. Consider the following examples:

Example 1:

Martha says, “Have you heard about Fairbanks Christian University and what they teach?”

Jason replies, “I have heard of them, but I do not know much about what they teach. What have you learned?”

Martha replies, “The university appears to offer many good programs for their students. However, the faculty and leadership do not teach traditional Christian doctrine. In fact, many of the things they teach are so obviously wrong that it amazes me that so many people go to their university. If you would like, I can send you an article detailing their false beliefs.”

Jason responds, “Yes, I would like that. Thank you!”

Jason later receives Martha’s email. As he reads the article, it sound convincing. However, knowing the importance of not uncritically accepting what one is told, he decides to do some research and put Martha’s evidence to the test. After he does his homework, he tells his wife:“Having done all this research, I can say for a fact that Martha’s article was quoting the University’s statements out of context and making it appear that they believed things that they might not really believe. I still don’t know whether or not the University believes orthodox or unorthodox doctrines, but I cannot trust an article that does not quote in context and does not fairly evaluate the University’s statements.”

Is Jason’s response justified? Absolutely. It may well be that the University’s faculty and leaders do believe some unorthodox doctrines. It also may be true that the University’s leaders publicly teach those doctrines. However, it is important to accurately and fairly represent what people are saying and teaching. Selectively looking at only specific fragments of an entire speech, pulling these statements out of context, and basing your conclusion on those statements is fallacious.

When responding to someone, it is important to be sure that you are quoting them accurately and in the correct context. If the article Martha sent Jason was selectively picking and choosing what statements to attack, and not fairly considering them in their correct context and not considering the speech in its entirety, those who wrote the article would be engaging in cherry picking.

It may be that these individuals believe something completely different; however, we would not be able to tell simply by reading a biased article that lifted their quotes out of context.

Example 2:

Bob says, “Matthew, what do you think about the topic of the millennial reign of Christ? Is there a position which you agree with or do you think that we cannot know for sure?”

Matthew replies, “Yes I do have a viewpoint. Having studied the three competing positions—pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, and not trying to explain it because we can’t know for sure, I believe that the pre-millennial view is accurate. I have looked into the arguments for the other two views, and I do not find them nearly as convincing as the arguments in favor of pre-millennialism.”

After Bob and Matthew finish talking, Bob goes back to his house and does some research into the subject himself. He discovers that there are alternative views which Matthew did not address. Bob therefore says, “I need to look at these other views and see what they have to say before I can make a firm decision on this issue.”

Is Bob’s decision the correct one? Yes it is. There are multiple positions which Christians adopt on the subject of Christian Eschatology and the millennial reign of Christ. It is therefore important to look at all points of view before arriving at a conclusion. Matthew attempted to list the positions that Christians take on this subject and provide his reasons for accepting one and rejecting the others. However, he did not take all the positions into account, for example, amillennialism. He therefore has committed the cherry picking fallacy. Though this was probably done unintentionally, the fact that people can neglect to consider all points of view is one reason why we need to look at the evidence for ourselves. It is a mistake to accept someone’s assessment of a topic uncritically, especially when there are multiple interpretations and conclusions which people draw on a subject. Let us consider one more example:

Example 3:

Frank says, “I thank you for your explanation of your beliefs; however, I am not interested in accepting Christianity.”

Mary replies, “Why not? I would really like to know what you base your rejection of Christianity on.”

Frank responds, “I base my rejection on the fact that pastors are charlatans and hypocrites, and almost all Christians are hypocrites as well. I could go on and on about how many pastors are just trying to get their flocks to give them all their money and then use it to satisfy their selfish desires instead of glorifying God, which they claim to do. Then there are all the Christians who claim that God requires people to live a godly and morally good life, and then they turn around and do the exact opposite of what they claim to promote. It is for these reasons that I reject Christianity.”

Many replies, “Well, I don’t see how you can be so sure that all pastors and almost all Christians are hypocrites. It may be that all the ones you have encountered are that way. However, I don’t see how you can say that you have met enough to justify such a broad conclusion.”

Mary’s statements are of course correct. It is an example of the cherry picking fallacy to use a limited pool of information, in this case the limited people Frank has encountered, and then draw a conclusion about the entire whole. There are other fallacies in Frank’s statement, but let’s focus on the cherry picking fallacy. Can Frank honestly say that “all” pastors are charlatans and hypocrites? He did not say that some are. Rather, he just says that “pastors are charlatans and hypocrites,” which implies that they all are that way. Has Frank personally met every pastor and discovered that they are as he sees them to be? Of course not. Therefore, his statement is committing the cherry picking fallacy because he is only considering the examples of bad pastors he has encountered and overlooking all the good ones.

His statement that “almost all Christians are hypocrites as well” commits the cherry picking fallacy for the same reason. Is his pool of information large or small? If small and limited, and if he is refusing to consider the possibility that some might not fit his stereotype, he has indeed committed the cherry picking fallacy. Even if it were true that “almost all Christians” had acted hypocritically at some point in their lives, it hardly follows that “almost all Christians” consistently act that way. If Frank’s argument were true, one wonders why he restricts it to just Christianity, as if Christians are the only hypocrites in the world. However, the fact remains that the personal failings of an individual do not invalidate what they say. To think otherwise is to commit another fallacy, namely the Tu Quoque fallacy.

The Bottom Line: Selectively looking at and only considering the evidence which agrees with your beliefs and ideas, while ignoring evidence and alternative points of view which disagree with your beliefs and ideas is a logical fallacy.

Cherry Picking

Cherry picking is a logical fallacy in which an individual presents a one-sided argument, overlooking and possibly ignoring competing arguments, in a situation where objectivity should be required.

There are certain cases in which it is perfectly fine to present a one-sided argument, such as in advertising. In advertising a product, a company does not need to discuss the competing products.  All they need to do is to present you with the reasons why you should purchase and consume their product. However, in many situations, it is fallacious to present a one-sided argument.  This is particularly true in matters of science, news, personal faith and beliefs.  If you are attempting to convince someone that something they believe is mistaken and that what you believe is correct, you need to fairly evaluate the arguments on all sides of the debate.  Neglecting or refusing to do so is fallacious.

To better see how someone can commit this particular fallacy, consider the following examples:

Example 1:

Bob says, “In my opinion, Libertarians have some serious problems with their beliefs.”

Jason replies, “What do you find problematic with their beliefs?”

Bob responds, “For starters, they support legalizing drugs including pot.  In my opinion, anyone who would want to completely legalize all drugs does not realize the dangers that would pose to society.”

How has Bob committed the cherry picking fallacy?  His response assumes two things about Libertarians: 1) that they all want to legalize marijuana and 2) that they all support legalization of “all drugs.”  This is in fact false.  It may be that the Libertarian Party itself supports the legalization of marijuana and other drugs.  However, Bob did not direct his statements to the Libertarian Party but to “Libertarians.”  The problem here is that not all Libertarians agree on the same issues; for example, some only support the legalization of marijuana but not other drugs. Therefore, Bob’s argument is overlooking important evidence that has resulted in him committing the cherry picking fallacy.  It is important to make sure that we are considering all the available evidence before we draw our conclusions.  Bob probably was not aware that he was committing this fallacy, which shows that the fallacy can be committed inadvertently.  All the more reason to be sure we have taken all the available evidence into consideration.  Consider another example of this fallacy:

Example 2:

Jennifer says, “A few days ago there was a protest that got very violent.  Cars were burned, windows were broken, and the police were assaulted by the protestors.  The police rightly responded by arresting over two hundred protestors and putting an end to the disorder.  Frankly, I am tired of these protestors behaving this way and something needs to be done to stop it.”

Jill replies, “I think you are overlooking something important.  Virtually all of the protestors were nonviolent and were not causing any trouble.  It was only a select few individuals who broke windows, burned cars, and assaulted the police.  Instead of arresting these few individuals, the police used the incident to arrest hundreds of innocent protestors en masse and disperse the rest.  So the police grossly over-responded to the few acts of violence. You really need to have all the information before you make your statements.”

If what Jill said is true, Jennifer’s statements were hasty and demonstrated a lack of information about the subject under discussion.  It is very important to possess all the relevant information before drawing a conclusion.  Perhaps Jennifer made her mistake because she watched a slanted news program or read a biased news article about the protest.  This is why it is important to seek out more than one single source of information and to rely on trusted sources to give you an unbiased presentation of the evidence.  Not doing so can cause you to accidentally commit the cherry picking fallacy.  Cherry picking fallacies can be committed deliberately, as with the news reports that Jennifer possibly read.  To better see this, consider another example:

Example 3:

Mitch has published a paper in a scientific journal about the number of people who believe that advanced alien life exists on other planets.  In the paper, Mitch says, “Our scientific survey has demonstrated that over 35% of people within the United States believe that advanced alien life exists on other planets.”

When Jason reads Mitch’s article, he turns to his wife and says, “I am a good friend with someone who worked on Mitch’s team.  She told me that Mitch only polled 200 individuals and that most of them were science fiction fans.  Therefore, I think that Mitch’s results are clearly biased.”

If what Jason says is true, then Mitch’s finding are suspect and do not provide enough evidence to support his conclusion.  The fact that he polled mostly science fiction fans means that  his results are more likely to be biased, due to the fact that science fiction fans probably believe in advanced alien life more than the average person.  Even if he did not poll mostly science fiction fans, the pool was limited to only 200 people.  Are the opinions of 200 people really enough to determine what the range of opinion is within the entire United States?  Obviously, Mitch’s article has committed the cherry picking fallacy.

The Bottom Line: Selectively looking at and considering only one side of an argument, or selectively considering only the data that agrees with your opinion, while failing to recognize and evaluate competing points of view, is a logical fallacy.  The fallacy may be committed either deliberately or accidentally, but it is the same mistake either way.

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.

 

Poisoning the Well Part 1

Poisoning the Well is a fallacy which occurs when someone presents unfavorable information about another in order to influence people not to believe or not to take seriously what the person is about to say.

The reason this is fallacious is because negative facts about an individual do not necessarily disprove any arguments that the individual makes. Whether the presented information is true or false, preemptively using it to cause an audience not to take a speaker’s argument seriously is very often fallacious.

Let us consider a few examples to better understand this fallacy:

Example 1: Jack says, “Before we welcome Michael onto the show to discuss the proposed Senate bill, let us take a moment and remember that this individual is a convicted felon and perjurer.”

Notice how Jack is using the fact that Michael is a convicted felon and perjurer to bias us against anything he would say. This is fallacious because any argument Michael makes needs to be evaluated based on the evidence for or against it. While it is not good that Michael committed the crimes he did, it should have no bearing on the argument he will be making.

In some cases, negative information does have bearing on a person’s credibility. However, that depends on the argument being made. If Michael was arguing that he is a trustworthy man who would never lie, the fact that he was a perjurer and felon would naturally make us think otherwise. On the other hand, if Michael was arguing for the earth being round, his crimes have no bearing on that argument. Presenting the negative information before the individual presents their argument is still unacceptable because it is a mistake to dismiss someone’s argument before they even have an opportunity to let you know what it is and to present it.

Example 2: Rose says, “In a moment, Todd is going to present his argument in favor of position X.  However, let us remember that all arguments for position X have been proven false.”

Rose’s statement implies that because all previous arguments in favor of position X have been defeated, no strong argument can be given for position X. This is a fallacious statement because even if it were true that all the arguments in support of position X have been proven false, that does not mean one is justified in automatically rejecting what Todd has to say. If Todd is going to present a new argument in favor of position X, his argument will have to be tested on the basis of the evidence for and against it. The fact that all previous arguments for position X have failed does not automatically negate Todd’s argument. This is easily seen if one imagines that Todd is living during the time of Plato and Aristotle and is arguing for the heliocentric model as opposed to the geocentric model. Just because all previous arguments for heliocentrism have been defeated does not mean Todd can not give a good argument in favor of it.

In conclusion, attempting to bias an audience against what a speaker is about to say is a logical fallacy. When someone is going to present an argument, it is important to allow them to make their argument before you judge it. 


Logical Fallacy: Circumstantial Ad Hominem Part 2

Now that we better understand the Circumstantial Ad Hominem, let us consider how this fallacy can be committed within a Christian setting:

Example 1:

Mitch says, “In my opinion, position X provides the best framework from which to accurately interpret the Bible. I believe this to be true because of the large amount of evidence that supports position X.”

Rebecca replies, “It is not surprising that you accept position X, because you are employed at a Bible college which requires its faculty to accept that position.  Therefore, because you are simply saying what you are required to say, I will look for an unbiased presentation of position X before I decide whether or not to accept it.”

Understanding Rebecca’s mistake:

See how Rebecca is not rejecting position X but is in fact, rejecting Mitch’s presentation of it due to her perception of Mitch’s motives. As already stated, just because someone is required to believe something in order to hold their position, that does not make their arguments invalid, nor does it excuse you from having to look at and consider their argument. It is true that in some cases, we are justified in seeking an unbiased source, as in the case of Michael Jordan being paid to endorse Wheaties.  However, it is still fallacious to completely dismiss what someone is saying because of bias on their part. Refusing to consider an argument even if you know the speaker is biased, can be faulty logic as well.

Let us now see what specifically was wrong with Rebecca’s statement:

Just because Mitch is required to hold to a particular world-view in order to keep his position, this does not necessarily mean that he is biased and therefore can’t be trusted to give a fair analysis of the evidence for and against position X.  After all, it is a stereotype to think that people who attend groups and colleges with doctrinal statement can not be trusted to fairly present both sides of an argument. This stereotype is false because people can be required to accept a belief and still be fair in their analysis of the evidence. They can also be willing to change if shown to be wrong.

Example 2: 

Kimberly says, “I believe that the leadership of the Catholic Church is making some mistakes in how they govern their churches. For example…”

Kate interrupts: “You would think and say that, for your denomination disagrees strongly with what the Catholic Church teaches.”

Understanding Kate’s mistake:

Kate’s reply assumes that Kimberly’s denomination is teaching its people to think and talk negatively about the Catholic Church. In Kate’s mind, this negates what Kimberly is saying. This is a logical mistake because even if Kimberly’s denomination is teaching its people to view the Catholic Church negatively, that does not rebut Kimberly’s statement. It could very well be that Kimberly’s statement about the Catholic Church is true. If this in fact is the case, then her negative view of the Catholic Church is irrelevant.

Notice also how Kate rudely interrupted Kimberly and dismissed her argument before giving her a chance to defend herself. This too is fallacious.

In conclusion, it is a mistake to dismiss an individual’s argument simply because of perceived bias on their part.  Don’t interrupt them.  Give them a chance to present what could be a good argument. While you may prefer to hear it from an unbiased source, even the fact that someone is biased does not automatically mean you have a good reason to reject what they have to say.


Logical Fallacy: Ad Hominem Part 2

Now that we understand what the Ad Hominem fallacy is, let us consider how the Ad Hominem fallacy can appear in Christian discourse. Consider the following example:

Example 1:  Thomas says, “I am not sure I agree with that denomination’s theology. I favor the belief that the Bible teaches ‘X’.”  Barbara responds, “So you don’t accept the plain teaching of the Bible?! Well, I don’t need to listen to anything you have to say about the scriptures!”

It would be a mistake to think that Barbara’s response provides a valid reason to reject what Thomas said. All Barbara did was to use a blatant Ad Hominem insult. Even if Thomas was rejecting what seems to be the plainest interpretation of the Bible, Barbara’s attitude was dismissive and rude. In essence, Barbara was stating that because Thomas does not interpret all the Scriptures in the same way as she does, none of his beliefs need to be given serious consideration.

This is BIG mistake for the following reasons:

  • Barbara has not offered a defense of her belief that the Scriptures always need to be interpreted in the plainest way. Because many theologians disagree with such an opinion, Barbara must offer a defense of this belief, which she did not.
  • Even if Barbara could convincingly demonstrate that her method of interpreting the Bible is best, she was rude and insulting. It is always a mistake not to take your opponent’s views seriously simply because you do not agree with them.
  • Even if Thomas’ acceptance of doctrine X is mistaken, it hardly follows that Thomas is unreliable in whatever else he says about the Bible.

Unfortunately, Ad Hominems are often used as a substitute for presenting a good argument because the individual using them does not want to deal with something that challenges his beliefs or forces him to question his own world view.  An insult is all too often used to shut down conversation because it’s much more convenient than actually evaluating and presenting a logical argument. You see this all the time when people resort to name-calling in religious discourse, using offensive labels such as “Papists,” “Legalists,” “Compromisers,” “Holy Rollers,” “Bible-Thumpers” and so on.

In conclusion, using Ad Hominems as a substitute for providing a good argument for your position is unacceptable; furthermore, an insulting and dismissive attitude does not promote open discussion.

Remember, if you sincerely respect your opponent’s arguments, it is much more likely that they will, in turn, respect (and be open to) yours.  


Logical Fallacy: Ad Hominem Part 1

The Abusive Ad Hominem is a very common logical fallacy. In essence, it is committed when someone wrongly argues that a personal fault or failing rebuts what an individual is saying. In other words, you are directing your argument against the person’s character instead of against their actual position.

It is fallacious to argue that a personal fault of someone defeats their argument when that is not the case. In the event that the personal character of someone actually does invalidate their argument, you have not committed this fallacy. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: Person A asks, “What do you think about Mr. X’s beliefs regarding the economy?”  Person B replies, “Mr. X is a liberal, pro-choice idiot. I wouldn’t listen to anything he has to say.”

The problem with this is that Person B is obviously dismissing Mr. X’s position on the basis of his perception of Mr. X’s character.  However, Mr. X can say true things despite his support for abortion.  What if Mr. X said that “The President of the United States is Barack Obama.”  This is in fact a true statement; however, Person B’s argument is wrong because he assumed that a perceived character flaw in Mr. X makes him unreliable in everything he says.  As you can see, Person B has substituted an insult for a good argument. Likewise, he presented no argument against Mr. X’s beliefs. He did not even demonstrate that he understood what those beliefs were.

Example 2: Person A states, “I believe that all those who support position Y are racists. Therefore, position Y is wrong.”

There are multiple fallacies with this statement, but let’s focus only on the Ad Hominem aspect of it.  The problem with this example is threefold:

  • First, Person A has not explained why people who believe in position Y are racists. He has simply asserted it as fact.
  • Secondly, the assumption that a group’s moral deficiency invalidates everything they believe is a mistake. This is easily seen if you make position Y the belief that the earth is round.
  • Thirdly, Person A gave no argument against position Y whatsoever. Rather, he used an insult to dismiss position Y, thereby delivering him from having to give an argument against the position.

Let us now consider an example that is not an Ad Hominem fallacy:

Example 3: Person A states, “Mr. X stated that he is a very honest man who can be trusted with the job. This is an outright lie. Mr. X is a habitual liar. He even spent five months in jail for perjury. Therefore, it would be a mistake to trust him with the job.”

If Person A is telling the truth about Mr. X’s character and actions, then it certainly would be a mistake to trust him. When the moral deficiency does rebut an individual’s claim or argument, the Ad Hominem fallacy has not been committed.

A moral deficiency or character flaw (real or perceived) in someone or some group does not necessarily make everything that they say or do false.  Usually these sorts of Ad Hominems are used to win arguments without having to provide a good basis for one’s position. Unfortunately, they are often very successful, partially due to the fact that many people are not schooled in logic and critical thinking and are easily led astray by bad arguments.

If your position is indeed correct, it can (and should) withstand the most intense scrutiny and testing. Therefore, let it be tested—tested with good arguments as opposed to bad ones.

One final thought…

Insulting someone, rather than discussing the issues, is often an easier way to win an argument. However, once you know what to look for, it becomes very easy to spot Ad Hominem arguments. When you do notice them, recognize them for what they are, and politely point out that you have not been given a good reason for rejecting someone’s position.

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