Three Arguments That Get a Bad Rap

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

There are a few types of arguments many people seem to automatically assume are non-sequiter, or logically flawed, without realizing there is another side to each. The careless debater will often cry fallacy, missing the fact that there is a valid form of each argument. I’ve seen the recurrence of three in particular.

circular-reasoning1CIRCULAR REASONING

A circular argument, also known as begging the question, or petitio principii (“assuming the initial point”), is one that assumes what it is trying to approve.

Example: “Why am I the boss? Because I’m in charge here.”

When is it fallacious? A circular argument is fallacious when there are greater evidences to appeal to and the arguer does not use them. In the example above, there are probably stronger, more fundamental reasons why he is the boss, but the arguer is not making those available. Most arguments in general are not about properly basic truths, but propositions that depend on other truths, so circular reasoning is fallacious most of the time.

When does it work? The circular argument I’ve been accused of numerous times and I readily admit to using is a defense of Christianity or the Bible using Christianity or the Bible. In this case, as in the case of any ultimate proposition, there is nothing higher to appeal to than God and His word, so we are not able to offer anything greater than God or His word to support the existence of God or His word. For a Christian, there is no higher authority to appeal to, so the proposition is a priori, properly basic, and axiomatic to the argument.

This isn’t limited to religious arguments. Any argument for an a priori, properly basic, axiom cannot appeal to anything more fundamental than itself. This makes circular logic not only justifiable but unavoidable. Try defending logic without a circular appeal to logic, or argue for reason without using reason. Can you say the brain is the most important organ without using your brain? It can’t be done. Absent God or some other transcendent source for them, these presupposed invisible laws of logic or rules of thought are the highest intellectual commitments available. A Christian presupposes God as the first cause or proper basis of logic. Christian, atheist, or anyone in between will find themselves arguing in a circle if they are asked to defend their deepest beliefs, which means that absolutely everyone ultimately employs faith in their most important personal convictions. This is a key component of Presuppositional apologetics.

tuquoqueAPPEAL TO HYPOCRISY

This device, also called Tu Quoque (“You also” or “you, too”) is an an attempt to defend a certain position by claiming that the other party is guilty of the same position. It tries to show that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it—answering criticism with criticism.

Example: “You say smoking is bad for people, but YOU ALSO smoke.”

When is it fallacious? When it’s used as a diversionary device. Whether the accuser is a smoker too is irrelevant to the argument that smoking is unhealthy, so it’s merely an attempt to dodge the argument at hand.

When does it work? I had an online debate with an atheist who claimed that the Christian idea of faith and his idea of trust were different. My counterargument was that faith is an inevitable and inseparable part of trusting our deepest convictions, whatever they may be (see Circular Argument example above). In effect, I was saying “You too” because an atheist cannot prove his ultimate convictions either, and so has to rely on faith to undergird what he claims to know.

In the above example, my assertion that the atheist who called faith inferior also held the same position was absolutely true and supported my argument, which was that faith is universal and necessary to believe anything. Saying (and demonstrating) “you too” was not a diversion, rather it proved the point.

Homemade-Slip-n-Slide-3SLIPPERY SLOPE

A slippery slope is an assertion that some event will follow from another, much like an object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom.

When is it fallacious? When slippery slope is argued without any rational or demonstrable mechanism for the inevitability of the event in question—when it is stated that a certain event MUST follow from another.

When does it work? When the event purported to follow is LIKELY to EVENTUALLY follow, not that it necessary WILL IMMEDIATELY follow, this also looks like a slippery slope argument. In many cases, the slope expected is rational and demonstrable and has occurred as expected.

Such is the case for gay marriage, for example. Even before the federal man-woman definition of marriage was struck down in the Supreme Court 2013 Windsor decision, many claimed that it would open the door to appeals from advocates of other forms of marital arrangements, such as polygamy. Since a removal of a definition logically leaves a new definition wide open, the logic of this slippery slope argument is sound. Its reality is demonstrated in the movements of advocates of various types of “group marriage” (polygamy and polyamory). These groups are still on the fringe, but so was gay marriage a couple decades ago. This is not to say that other forms of marriage absolutely WILL be legalized, but the logic allows that it is LIKELY that further redefinition will occur as we see others waiting in line.

A reasonable slippery slope claim involves a stepwise regression. It would be presumptuous and therefore fallacious to insist that something like child marriage or bestiality is next to follow after gay marriage. Moral degradation is typically gradual. Legalized polygamy is the likelier next step, because it still falls within the arbitrary boundary of “consenting adults”—and it’s already unfolding (see Utah’s pro-polygamy ruling). If secular culture abandons the “consenting adult” limitation, the kind of shift that often occurs in relativist moral worldviews, then more extreme “marriage” arrangements may start to show up, again, most likely in a stepwise fashion.

A theoretical slippery slope argument against marriage redefinition might look like this, shown as a stepwise elimination of boundaries:

1. Marriage = One man, one woman, two consenting adults
2. Gay marriage = One man, one woman, two consenting adults
3. Polygamy = One man one woman, two consenting adults
4. Child marriage = One man, one woman, two(?) consenting(?) adults
5. Bestiality = One man, one woman, two consenting adults

I don’t think it’s a very sound argument to prophesy the whole scenario and conclude that “anything goes” when we are in between steps 2 and 3. But it’s very reasonable to say that one step should serve as a warning for the next, the way paved by the removal of the time-honored definition of marriage given by its Creator.

BOTTOM LINE

If you’re in a debate and you hear the objection of circular reasoning, an appeal to hypocrisy or  “Hey, that’s a slippery slope argument”, don’t automatically assume you’re in error. These lines of reasoning, and others, come with a right way and a wrong way. (Use the right way)

The Danger of Being ‘Too Good’ at Apologetics

March 6, 2013 § 8 Comments

It’s the commission of every believer to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15) Apologists exercise a particular desire to engage in rational debate in an effort to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor. 10:5) We of course feel obligated to be good at it, but that doesn’t guarantee the acceptance of Christianity by skeptics.

A good argument is often rationally ignored in a debate. Since Genesis 3, the fallen heart of man is bent toward self-deceit(1), and as Romans 1:25 says, is more than willing to trade the “truth for a lie.” Only the Holy Spirit can open eyes to the truth of Christianity and the Gospel and bring a soul to see past the obstacles.

Boxing080905_photoshopSometimes though, I think apologists can put forth a logically impenetrable defense and actually become one of the obstacles. An impregnable argument can be a complete turn-off, and that’s actually not what we want. We want to demolish arguments, but not the human spirit in the process. As the mantra goes, the Christian’s goal is to win souls, not arguments. In thinking about past debates (and I’m sure others have seen this) there are times when an argument really comes together, as the result of the Spirit’s guidance, and practice, and by the humble discovery of the validity of Christianity’s deepest foundations. But it comes together as such a solid, air-tight case that the unbelieving opponent simply checks out of the conversation. And still in unbelief. Many times I’ve experienced an online debate ending without an atheist’s response, just when it was getting really ‘good’. I somehow delivered a debate-ender. By having the last word I would feel accomplished in demolishing their arguments and faithfully defending Christianity—then perform a self-check for pride. But now I wonder if I demolished any spirit they had to continue to seek the truth from me, or any believer. Winning the debate can mean losing the debate when the opportunity to win someone for Christ is lost or shortened.

I suddenly feel the urge to re-write some previous posts and re-do some previous debates (Oops… too late for that last one).

Brick_wall_in_León,_Guanajuato,_2010-06-13So going forward, how do we keep such a wall from going up? Colossians 4:6 gives us an answer: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Show grace in your defense. Grace is, after all, what we preach, why and how we are in a position to preach, and the desired result of it all: Sinners coming to terms with God’s grace through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8,9). Do we show grace by intentionally presenting weak arguments to keep an unbeliever coming back? I don’t think so. I suppose it will take on different forms for different apologists, but we don’t want to compromise the truth just to make it taste better, but maybe our form. Here are three ways.

1. USE QUESTIONS

The Bible provides the only rational basis for objective truth, rooted in the nature of God, and no other worldview offers this.

Christians claim the Bible as the only rational basis for objective truth, rooted in the nature of God. Can you think of another worldview that does this?

7539d0d8b0751c7ab85ba408bc2b88c1.media.240x240The two propositions above are saying the same thing. Which one feels more open and friendly? The one ending in a question, doesn’t it? The objective truth of the Bible feels like it needs to be stated firmly as a stone wall. Could what you’re stating also be put in question form? Questions invite further dialog, as long as they are not snide or obviously rhetorical. Ask questions that should logically lead them to the same conclusion that you were planning to assert with a firm statement. Invite them to get there using their own cognitive abilities rather than forcing your conclusions on them. They need to know that you still want to discuss it.

2. USE GENTLENESS AND RESPECT

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 8.04.36 PMGrace comes in other forms too, from the admonition of 1 Peter 3:15 to give a defense “with gentleness and respect.” Concede good points made whenever they appear, and let your opponent know that you appreciate their time and that you’ve learned a lot from what they’ve offered (this is always true for me; I learn something about my opponent’s worldview at every encounter). At least in written correspondence, mood and temperament is often not clear, so clarify a gentle and respectful demeanor in debate forums with fewer ALL-CAPS and exclamation marks, and more happy emoticons. You may sacrifice professionalism there, between it’s a small sacrifice. Note the difference between PLEASE! and Please. 🙂

3. KEEP IT SIMPLE

Be brief, if you can. A lengthy post can be daunting and discourage response. Don’t launch every point in a single comment or post, unless you’re responding to series of points. I’ve found that the more stripped down my dialog is, the shorter the response, unless you’re met with a lot of extra rhetorical or emotional fluff—which you are free to ignore. Try to be succinct, yet thorough.

These approaches may seem like we are depending on and playing off of an opponent’s emotional responses to keep the discussion going. I’ve debated with many unbelievers who rely heavily on emotion to make their points, so the approach is fitting. When right reasoning is corrupt by sin, we resort to emotions. Those who challenge our faith are God’s human creation.

381px-Avocado_SeedlingUltimately we are only playing a part in leading others to Christ—God opens eyes and turns hearts. But God uses Christians and our apologetics, so the part we play shouldn’t drive seekers away, but keep them seeking. All debates must end, but may they not end because an opponent feels cornered and utterly beaten. If we are rejected, let it not be because skeptics don’t feel as though we want to listen and learn their position. Let skeptics reject the Gospel of salvation when it’s graciously presented in truth and love. Even if rejected, our apologia can be a seed that will, Lord willing, take root.

[Here is a debate of mine where I think grace was effectively applied: A Doubter Challenges Christianity.
And here is one where I think I lacked in it, effectively driving home the argument but shutting down the discussion, really before any clear presentation of the Gospel on my part: Evidence for God in the Laws of Logic.]

1) The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics, by Dr. Greg Bahnsen

The Logical Failure of Moral Evolution

December 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Logic shows that the universal applicability of moral obligations makes it impossible for them to have developed through Naturalistic Evolution.

1. Some humans hold that moral obligations evolve.
2. Moral obligations that evolved in humans should only be applied to humans.
3. Humans apply moral obligations to humans and also to intelligent beings in the universe including God, whether real or imaginary.
4. Humans do not apply moral obligations exclusively to humans.
5. Therefore, humans who hold that moral obligations evolved are inconsistent.

Put in a more Aristotelian way…

Major premise: Moral obligations are universal.
Minor premise: Moral obligations produced by Evolution cannot be universal.
Conclusion: Evolution did not produce moral obligations.

Deductive reasoning also demonstrates that Evolution could not have turned non-moral action into moral action.

1. Humans had a beginning.
2. Humans are moral beings, performing moral good.
3. A first morally good act performed by humans must have existed.
4. The first morally good act was morally good by a pre-existing standard.
5. Therefore, moral good must have existed before the first human moral act.

For more on these lines of reasoning, see Proof of an External Source for Human Morality.

Non Ad Hominem

December 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Thankfully, man is not the sum total of of his ideas. The call to love and respect the people God created doesn’t apply to the ideas they may come by, which, whenever presented, are always open for scrutiny, challenge, and reasoned debate. And they may stand or fall by the same.

Logical Fallacy Poster

November 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Logical Fallacy Poster

I would say this poster is reliable because it comes from people who know a lot about logical fallacies. But that argument commits the Genetic Fallacy, judging something good or bad on the basis of where it comes from, or from whom it comes. However, I still do recommend ordering a printed poster or downloading a free PDF of this handy, helpful, and well-designed poster defining common logical fallacies from YourLogicalFallacyIs.com!

“…make a right judgment.” (John 7:24)

From Circular Reasoning to the Gospel

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Presuppositional apologetics acknowledges that its arguments (and ultimately every argument) are circular. At its most basic and foundational level, every belief is taken on faith. Starting with this fact, here’s how a defense of Christianity might move on to account for the “preconditions of intelligibility” while exposing that contrary worldviews cannot, and then lead into an evangelistic opportunity.

——————————-

Skeptic: Any argument for the truth of Christianity is a circular argument. Instead of appealing to reason, you are appealing to your own conclusion as your premise. You are saying the Bible is true because the Bible is true.

Believer: Arguing for the existence of God is a circular argument, that much is true. But any argument for ultimate commitment is circular.

Skeptic: But I argue using reason.

Believer: So do I, but reason is your ultimate commitment. Your defense of reason by reason is circular. You and I both hold to circular arguments in supporting our ultimate commitments. The difference is that Christianity provides a basis for the reason we both use in the argument. The eternal and all-knowing God described in the Bible is a God of reason, who created man in His image. We can reason because God endowed us with it and invites us to use it. But without appealing to God, you can’t account for your use of reason.

Skeptic: I can account for reason by the fact that there is knowledge.

Believer: If the universe is basically matter in motion, how can your worldview account for knowledge? If knowledge is your ultimate commitment, your ultimate authority, then your use of knowledge to explain knowledge is still circular. What can knowledge appeal to? God has a mind and we’re made in His image, according to the Bible. Christians can actually make sense of knowledge.

Skeptic: I don’t have to explain why there is knowledge and reason. There are plenty of phenomenon left for us to discover, but it will be discovered through science, not religion.

Believer: In order to do science, we presuppose predictability and uniformity in nature. Why do you assume that you can expect certain results from experiments based on what happened in the past? There’s no scientific basis for uniformity that other than past experience of uniformity, but the Bible explains uniformity and predictability (for example, see Genesis 8:22).

Skeptic: That is simply a bad explanation. Science is and always has been the right way to figure out the universe.

Believer: When you talk about good and bad and the right and wrong way to do something, you are presupposing universal and objective moral absolutes that determine good and bad, and right and wrong. Moral sensibilities can’t be accounted for on any belief system that excludes a moral law giver. All that can be said is that rightness is justified on the virtue of rightness. (or “Be good because it’s good to be good.”) The God of the Bible is a moral Being, and “good” is a part of His very nature. His moral law is written on the hearts of His creation (Romans 2:15), and He offers a solution for our falling short of the requirements of the law in the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

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