Logical Theology

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Archive for the tag “logical fallacies”

Logical Fallacy: Circumstantial Ad Hominem Part 1

The Circumstantial Ad Hominem fallacy occurs when someone rejects an argument simply because of a perceived bias on that person’s part.

This is a mistake in logic because even if the arguer is biased towards accepting or rejecting an argument, that does not necessarily invalidate the argument itself. While it is true that in some cases, bias can discredit someone, that does not mean the argument itself has been refuted.

To better understand this common mistake, lets consider a few examples:

              Example 1:

  •  John argues, “Michael Jordan appeared in a commercial endorsing Wheaties breakfast cereal. Since he is a famous athlete, it is safe to conclude that he is endorsing Wheaties because he was paid a large sum of money to endorse the product. Therefore, the product is worthless because famous people would not be recommending products unless they were being paid to do so.”

Understanding John’s mistake:

Michael Jordan may well have said what he did about Wheaties only because he was paid to say it;  however, that does not mean he doesn’t eat Wheaties and enjoy them every day for breakfast.  It simply means that people should not accept Michael Jordan’s endorsement uncritically.

It is safe to assume that product advertisements are not usually going to give you logical reasons to purchase the product. In most cases they will attempt to motivate your emotional desires, wants, and needs, often using appeals to authority to close the sale. However, that fact alone does not prove that their products are “good” or bad for that matter.

Therefore, John’s argument must be seen as fallacious.

Example 2:

  •  Todd says, “I don’t believe that the gods of any of the world’s religions exist.”
  • Mary responds, “You disbelieve in any deities because, as president of the University Atheists Association, you are required to say that. Therefore, I am not listening to anything you have to say on this subject.”

Understanding Mary’s mistake:

Even if Todd was required to be an atheist in order to be the president of the University Atheists Association (as opposed merely to being non-religious or agnostic), would that automatically make him unable to provide an unbiased and reliable defense of atheism? Not any more than being the president of a Jewish university means that all your arguments in support of Judaism are unreliable. Just because someone is required to believe something in order to hold their position does not make their arguments invalid.

Example 3:

  • Steve says, “I just finished interviewing Bob, and he seems to be the perfect man for the job. What do you think?”
  • Sarah responds, “I think hiring him would be a big mistake. He claims to be a very honest and hard-working man. However, did he tell you that he was fired from his last three jobs for being disrespectful to his bosses? I think you should find someone else because he deliberately neglected to be honest about his past experiences.”

Did Sarah commit a Circumstantial Ad Hominem? 

No, she did not. In this case, the situation does affect Bob’s arguments. Bob argued that he is an honest, hard-working man; however, the reality is that his bad attitude got him fired three times already. Therefore, unless new information can be given which shows a change in Bob’s character, Steve would be justified in not hiring him. Thus, arguing that the situation rebuts an individual’s statements is not always fallacious, but because it can be, you must always think before you speak and make sure that the situation truly does rebut someone’s argument.

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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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