Logical Theology

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Archive for the tag “critical thinking”

The Gambler’s Fallacy Part 2

Now that we better understand the Gambler’s fallacy, let us see how this fallacy can be committed within Christian discourse:

Example 1:

Carissa says, “Our church is about to hire a new pastor and he is going to be just the person our church needs.”

Peter asks, “How do you know that he will be the right pastor for our church? Does his character, beliefs, and personal life demonstrate that he will be a good, responsible and successful pastor?”

Carissa replies, “I do not know anything about his personal beliefs. However, our church’s last three pastors were all dismissed for personal misconduct. After having chosen three unsuitable pastors in a row, it is very likely that our new pastor will be a good one.”

Peter responds, “But how can you be sure the choice will good?”

Carissa responds, “Because our church has surely learned its lesson and will get it right this time.”

If only this were always the case. Often, people and churches continue to make the same mistakes because they do not correct the problems that caused them in the first place. For example, suppose the reason the church has hired poor pastors the last three times is because they are only looking at the doctrine the individual believes. They are not evaluating his personal life at all or only superficially. If only superficially, they will not be spending enough time to allow them to evaluate what kind of an individual the person actually is. Therefore, the fact that the church got its last three choices wrong does not automatically mean their next choice will be right. To think otherwise is to assume that making multiple wrong choices necessarily makes a right choice more likely, which is fallacious. Upon hearing this, Carissa might say that she was not talking about the church’s ability to select a good individual, but rather, she was arguing that probability-wise, after three bad pastors, the odds of getting a good one are greater.  However, this is also a Gambler’s fallacy, as the fact that the three last pastors were bad does not make it more likely that the fourth pastor will be good.

Now consider another example which shows how easy it is to commit the Gambler’s fallacy:

Example 2:

Michael says, “My friend Gloria has been going to school for a few semesters and has had to change a number of her beliefs in response to what she has been learning. It has been a difficult process for her, but I believe it to be good.”

Rachel says, “While I agree that learning new material is very good, how do you know that what the school is teaching her is correct?”

Michael responds, “There are two reasons I know this: First, the school has had a number of problems which it needed to overcome. In the past, the school used to teach many unscriptural doctrines, but they appear to have repudiated them.  In addition, the past leaders of the school said and did some very reprehensible things, but, they now have new leadership. Secondly, the school is accredited and gets very good reviews from former students.”

Rachel replies, “I heard that the school lost its accreditation status a few times in the past due to the odd things it was teaching. Considering the school’s checkered past, how do we know that it really has changed and is not just pretending to have changed so that it gets its accredited status back? After all, perhaps the people who run the school still believe the same things, but keep it under the radar to avoid criticism.”

Michael responds, “That really cannot be the case. Since the school has lost its accreditation status multiple times, it is unreasonable to think that they could keep their beliefs hidden. After all, given everything that has happened, they surely will not make the same mistakes again.”

Michael’s responses might seem good, but in reality he has committed the Gambler’s fallacy. It would be a mistake to think that because the school has gone through many problems and many bad leaders, it is more likely to correct its mistakes. It may well be that the school will take positive action. However, this would be because the school’s leadership saw the error of their ways and decided to change. It would not be solely because they made bad choices. Making multiple bad choices and decisions does not automatically mean that one is more likely to make a subsequent right choice, as there are multiple other factors to consider.

Thinking otherwise is to commit the Gambler’s fallacy. For example, if the school’s leaders are not open to change, then they will continue to make the same mistakes. Being willing to change is a necessary factor and not everyone is willing.  So considering the school’s history, the question of whether or not the university really is open to change is a valid question.

In addition, assuming that after losing their accreditation status multiple times, the school is due to get it right and keep it this time is also a Gambler’s fallacy. It may well be that the school will keep their status. However, this would be due to the school either really changing or being able to hide their beliefs and cover up their mistakes. It would not be because of the number of times the school lost it in the past. That fact alone does not necessarily increase the likelihood that the school will keep its accredited status this time.

The Bottom Line: A run of seemingly unlikely negative or positive, or lucky/unlucky events does not automatically mean that the opposite event is more likely to occur. Believing otherwise is a logical fallacy.

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The Gambler’s Fallacy

When people gamble at a casino, they often make the mistake of assuming that some event is due to happen because of past events. Suppose that a coin is tossed 8 times, and all 8 times the coin lands tails. The probability of this occurring is 1/256 (one chance in 256 tosses). Ask yourself this question: if the coin is not fixed, is heads or tails more likely to come up?

The answer is that the odds of either heads or tails are 50/50.

The fact that the previous 8 tosses resulted in tails does not make it more likely that the next toss will be heads, assuming the coin is fair (having two different sides and equally weighted).  To think that heads is more likely to occur than tails is to commit the gambler’s fallacy.

In fact, if a coin is flipped 8 times, whatever combination of heads and tails comes up, the odds of that combination are still 1/256. It is true that if the coin is fair, the number of heads and tails will approach 50/50. However, the fact that heads came up 8 times in a row does not increase the odds of the next throw being tails. Thus, the gambler’s fallacy is committed when someone believes that after a number of lucky or unlucky events, the opposite outcome is more likely or due to occur. This overlooks the fact that there may be other factors which go into the situation. If an event is truly random, claiming that an unlikely event (good or bad, lucky or unlucky) will make a future event more likely is a fallacy.

Let’s consider the following examples:

Example 1:

Jack says, “I am going to win that 10 million-dollar lotto this month.”

Jill replies, “How do you know you will win?”

Jack responds, “Because I have been playing the lotto for twenty years straight.”

Jill replies, “You have been playing the lottery for over 20 years and have never won. Why would you be more likely to win this time?”

Jack responds, “Because after playing for so long, my odds of winning are much higher than they were in the past.”

What Jack fails to realize is that his odds of winning the lotto are exactly the same every time he plays. In essence, he believes that because he has been playing the lotto for twenty years, his chances of winning it this time are greater than those before. This is clearly not the case.  In reality, his chances of winning the lotto with a single ticket are just as small as they were every other time he played. The fact that he played for the last twenty years does not increase his chances in the present lottery.  Therefore, Jack has committed the gambler’s fallacy.

Gamblers commit this fallacy all the time. They assume that because the probabilities of something happening are low, they are going to place their bets against it happening. Thus, they assume that they are more likely to win a dice game because they have lost the previous six times. They might also assume that a roulette wheel will land on a different color because it has landed on red the previous dozen times. However, in thinking this, they have succumbed to the gambler’s fallacy. A throw of the dice is random. No matter how many times the dice are thrown, the fact that you lost six times does not increase the odds of having a favorable throw. No matter how many times the roulette wheel is spun, the odds of it landing on one color as opposed to the other are exactly the same for each spin. If it keeps landing on red, the logical conclusion is that the wheel is fixed, not that black is more likely.

Though the gambler’s fallacy gets its name from the gamblers who commit it, the gambler’s fallacy is not restricted to dice games and roulette. Many people in non-gambling situations can commit this fallacy as well.

Let’s consider another example.

Example 2:

Michael says, “I believe that the odds of the Mars rover landing on Mars are very good.”

Gloria says, “Why do you think that?”

Michael says, “Because we have lost the last 4 probes we sent there. Probability-wise, our odds are therefore greater that our mission will be successful.”

It may well be that the odds are better for this mission as opposed to the last one; however, this would be due to better science, technology, favorable conditions, and planning. While scientists can and do attempt to correct any errors and give their space missions the best chance of succeeding, if the odds of future Mars missions were increased, it would not be due to the fact that the last four missions were failures. The odds of success are not magically increased just because there have been numerous past failures. Unless technology improves, the odds for each mission’s success are exactly the same or nearly so. The fact that the last four probes were lost is not a factor in how likely it is that the current mission will succeed.

Consider one final example.

Example 3:

Jennifer says, “I do not think that you need to worry about purchasing that car.”

Florence responds, “Why not? I heard from five of my friends who bought past cars from the same company that their radiators overheated.”

Jennifer replies, “That is my point. After those failed car designs, the company is surely going to produce a good car.”

No, that is not necessarily the case. It may well be that the company has fixed the design flaws of their past car models. However, after manufacturing faulty car designs, Jennifer should insist on being given proof that the company’s current car design is not flawed.  Florence’s suggestion that because of past failures, the company is due to produce a good car design is an example of the gambler’s fallacy. The fact that the company has failed in the past does not automatically mean that are going to succeed now.

The Bottom Line: Believing that repeated lucky or unlucky events make the opposite event more likely to occur is a logical fallacy.

Straw Man Fallacy Part 2

 

Let us now consider how the straw man fallacy can be committed within Christian dialogue. Consider the following examples:

 

Example 1:

Keith says, “Personally, as a four-point Calvinist, I believe that Calvinism offers the best explanation of why people do not accept Jesus.”

Marilyn responds, “I disagree. I don’t see how anyone could possibly believe people do not have free will and are just robots under the command of God, and yet also believe that God is righteous in predetermining people to go to hell.”

Marilyn is essentially arguing that it seems very difficult to reconcile the belief that people do not have free will with the belief that God is just in choosing who will be saved and who will be damned.  While this is a real problem for those who hold both views, and those who believe these views need to offer a response to this criticism, Marilyn has not demonstrated that this is in fact what Keith believes. Modern Calvinists do not all agree on the same beliefs. There are many different groups within Calvinism, and they do not all agree on everything. Though Keith should have been clearer about his beliefs, unless Marilyn can demonstrate that her comments accurately reflect Keith’s beliefs, she has committed the straw man fallacy.  Marilyn should have asked Keith to more clearly explain his beliefs before she judged them. Had she given him an opportunity to elaborate on his statement, she would have been able to offer a better response to Keith’s beliefs.

Example 2:

Nate says, “In my opinion, Church X is overly concerned with secondary issues. They are right to hold some beliefs strongly, but I believe they are wrong not to allow any dissent on a great number of minor issues.”

Bob replies, “I disagree. Church X is right to take a strong stand against those who hold wrong beliefs.  People need to be taught the truth and not allowed to spread falsehoods.”

Taking a strong stand against the teaching of falsehood and insisting that people are taught the truth is a good thing. However, while what Bob said is true, he did not address Nate’s position. Nate was arguing that Church X was overly “concerned with secondary issues” and needed to allow people to hold different views on subjects which are not essential beliefs.  Nate even said that he felt it is right to hold some beliefs strongly.  Bob ignored Nate’s position, and decided to talk about taking a strong stand against the teaching of falsehoods, implying that everything Church X teaches is an essential doctrine.  But even if he could demonstrate this, which he did not, he would not have offered a proper response to Nate’s argument. Nate was talking about non-essential beliefs, not those beliefs which are essential to the Church.  Arguing that all of the church’s beliefs are essential does not refute the argument that there needs to be room for dissent and disagreement over secondary issues.  Since Bob said he disagreed with Nate’s position, he needs to provide a response to it. Instead of properly responding to Nate, Bob only set up and knocked down a straw man.

THE BOTTOM LINE: While straw man arguments can adequately refute the position they actually address, using them against an argument they do not refute is a logical fallacy.

 

Straw Man Fallacy

When someone is engaged in a debate with another person, it is important for both to fairly represent each other’s positions. When an opponent’s position is misrepresented and then rejected, the straw man fallacy has been committed.  This fallacy gets its name from the fact that just as a straw man is easier to knock down than a real human, a misrepresented argument is easier to reject than a strong argument. This fallacy can be committed in a variety of ways, including distorting an opponent’s argument and quoting someone out of context.  However the fallacy is committed, it essentially involves substituting a weaker argument in place of the initial argument, refuting the weaker argument, and then concluding that the initial argument has been refuted.  The reality is that only the weaker, distorted argument was refuted.  Consider the following examples:

Example 1: 

Rebecca says, “I think our current tax system is messed up and needs to be changed. The current system is supposed to require the wealthy to pay more in taxes than the poor.  However, the ultra rich have ways to get around these laws, and as a result, they can avoid paying higher taxes.  So in reality, our tax system is one in which both the ultra rich and the poor pay low taxes while the middle class is heavily taxed.  Because of this, I think we need a better tax system.”

Sarah responds, “How can you say that?!!  Any alternative taxation method will cause the poor to suffer a much higher tax rate.”

There are multiple fallacies in Sarah’s response, but for now let’s just address the straw man fallacy.  Rebecca was not arguing that the current tax system needs to be jettisoned and replaced with a different tax system.  All that Rebecca was arguing was that the current tax system had serious problems and needed to be changed. By using the phrase “alternative taxation method” Sarah has distorted Rebecca’s argument and set up a straw man. What if Rebecca actually favored taxing the wealthy more than the poor, and wanted the current tax system to be changed so that the ultra rich couldn’t escape having to pay taxes and the middle class ended up paying less?

Example 2:

Robert says, “I think that we should legalize marijuana and heavily regulate and tax it like alcohol and tobacco.” 

Kyle says, “Yes I agree, let’s legalize dangerous drugs, give people easy access to them, allow the criminals to win and drugs to proliferate through our society, as they surely will if pot is legalized.”

As with Example 1, there are multiple mistakes in logic here, which is to be expected when dealing with straw man fallacies.  In fact, there are two straw man fallacies in Kyle’s response.

First, the straw man fallacy is committed by Kyle using the phrase “dangerous drugs.” This distorts and rewords Roberts’s argument that marijuana should be legalized, taxed, and regulated, so that it is easier to refute. It is illogical because Robert was only talking about legalizing marijuana, not all drugs. In addition, Kyle has misrepresented Roberts argument by stating that legalizing marijuana would “give people easy access to them.”  However, Robert was arguing for the opposite – that marijuana should be heavily regulated.

To better see why Kyle’s statement is fallacious, let us change the example in the following way:

Robert says, “I think that we should legalize alcohol and end prohibition. Alcohol should not be illegal. Rather, it should be heavily taxed and regulated, like tobacco.”

Kyle says, “Yes I agree, let’s legalize this dangerous substance, allow criminals like Al Capone to win, and allow alcohol to proliferate through our society and lead to moral decline.”

In this case, the straw man would be committed by labeling alcohol a “dangerous substance”, thus distorting and rewording Roberts’s argument and making it easier to reject. After all, it is more difficult to defend legalizing a “dangerous substance” than legalizing alcohol.

Example 3:

Gloria says, “I personally think that people should not be required to get marriage licenses. A license is a permission slip to do something. Why should people have to get the government’s permission to marry whomever they wish? Marriage is a natural right that all human beings share. Our government used to prohibit inter-racial marriages. Wouldn’t it be better for people to have the freedom to marry whomever they want without governmental interference?”

Jason says, “That is a ridiculous idea!!! If the government was not involved in marriage, priests could refuse to marry people of other religions and lifestyles. We need the government’s involvement to prevent that from happening.”

Jason has distorted Gloria’s position from people not being required to get marriage licenses to the government not being involved in marriage at all.  Gloria didn’t say anything about the government not having anything to do with marriage whatsoever.  She was only arguing that people should not need the government’s permission in order to marry, because in her opinion, marriage is a natural right and also because past governments have abused their authority over marriage. She was not arguing that governments should not have anything to do with marriage, such as having different tax laws concerning married couples. Therefore, Jason has committed the straw man fallacy.

In addition, one wonders whether Jason is fully aware of the implications of his statement. He essentially said that the government should be able to force priests to marry people, even if it is against their moral beliefs. While many would agree that it would be wrong for a priest to refuse to marry a Buddhist couple, would they say the same thing about a priest refusing to marry an adult to a child? Should the government be able to force priests and pastors to marry adults to children? I think not. So then, perhaps it would be wiser to not give the government such power.

Keep in mind that straw man fallacies can be committed unintentionally. Many times people are not even aware that they are committing the straw man fallacy. This can be caused by people using an argument that they heard someone else use, without critically evaluating the argument. 

The bottom line:

We need to be discerning and critically evaluate the arguments that we and others make, so that we can avoid this common fallacy.

 

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.

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.


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.


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