Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Logical Fallacies

Note to the atheists who read this: While I have referred to "atheists who hold" and the like, please do not consider this a statement that "all atheists hold to all these positions."  I am quite aware there are differences of what is held and how it is expressed.  However the positions I discuss have in fact been made by certain atheists in various places, and so it is valid to discuss what was said as examples.

While I planned to move on to the next topic of assumption made by some atheists, I think I will need to take a brief detour to talk about logic and logical fallacies here in general.

I think the Christian blogger needs to be aware of them for two reasons:

  1. So as not to be fooled by an argument which may sound intimidating but is really nonsense
  2. Not to make the same errors themselves.

Remember, logic is not our tool.  It is not the tool of those who opposes us.  Believers and unbelievers alike can be logical or illogical in how they present their argument.

What is a Logical Argument?

A logical argument requires a Major premise, a Minor premise and a conclusion.  For example, in math, if A=B and B=C, then it follows that therefore A=C.  However there are rules in logic, which one needs to follow if they want to prove their argument to be true.  The conclusion has to be supported by the premises (A=B, B=C, Therefore A=D is not supported by the premises)

What is a Logical Fallacy

A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning which invalidates the argument.  That does not mean the conclusion is automatically false of course (something can be true but the person explaining it botches the job for example), but it does mean the argument itself has not been proven true and cannot be validly used to support a position.

I would now like to look at some of the popular ones employed on the internet

The Straw man argument

The straw man argument is a distortion of the argument made by a person.  The tactic is to attack this distortion giving the illusion of defeating the argument.  The problem is that the straw man is not what the argument actually said, so demolishing it means exactly nothing.

If you find a person misrepresenting you and making comments on what he misrepresents you as saying, this is a straw man.  All you can do is to point out the error of understanding.  If it is an honest mistake, the individual will acknowledge it.  If not, you can expect them to harp on it over and over.

The Ad Hominem

This is Latin for "to the person."  This fallacy does not answer the argument made, but rather makes an attack on the person.  If you've ever been labeled "stupid" or "myopic" or the like, you have been the victim of an ad hominem.  Another version of this is when an atheist responds to an argument made by a Christian by pointing out the actions done by some Christians as evil.  This is also an ad hominem and does not answer the argument (just because some Christians do evil things does not mean Christianity is false)

This has nothing to do with the truth of the argument.  I usually feel least threatened by a person who uses the ad hominem however.  If this is the best they can do, it doesn't speak well for their case.  Generally they have nothing more to say and we are seeing a sort of "blaze of glory" they wish to go out on.  The important thing is not to get angry.  Keep your responses calm, and it will be the attacker who looks bad.

The Argument from Silence

This one runs along this kind of reasoning: A person says "There is no evidence for you (or against me) therefore I am right."  The problem is, this does not mean anything.  A lack of evidence does not mean the contrary is true.  Rather it means  simply that there is no evidence which speaks on the issue one way or the other.

One common Argument from Silence is to say "Science cannot prove God exists, therefore He does not."  The problem is, if science is unqualified to speak on the existence of God, the lack of scientific proof means nothing.  It merely means arguments for and against the existence of God cannot invoke science to prove them, but must use other methods.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

This one is often used by atheists.  Some of them will make an absolute statement, and then when asked to back it up respond by saying "You prove God exists."  This the avoidance of the argument.  Unfortunately some Christians use this one.  When one is challenged to prove God exists, responds with "prove he doesn't."

A sneakier version some atheists I have encountered will use a variant, saying: "The person making the greater claim is the one who needs to prove their point."  This is nonsense.  The person making the claim period is the one who needs to prove their point.  if an atheist says "There is no God," then the atheist is making the claim and the atheist has the burden of proof.  If the Christian says "God exists," then the Christian has the burden of proof.

With this in mind, remember that if you are the one to make an assertion, you will be the one required to back it up.

However, pointing out that an objection has nothing to do with what you said is not a shifting the burden of proof.  If you are arguing topic A, and your opponent introduces point X, and you point out this is irrelevant, you are not shifting the burden of proof if you say it is irrelevant and insist the opponent gets back on topic.

Appeal to Emotion

There are several subsets: pity, fear, etc. to make people accept a view which has no value.  For example one attacking religion makes an appeal to 9/11.  This is irrelevant, because it would only speak about a religion which sanctions it.  The fear of radical Muslims is used to attack all religions.  Never mind the fact that there is a vast difference between Osama Bin Laden and Mother Teresa.  The attack is to appeal to the fear of extremists, then labeling your own opponent as an extremist.

The problem is emotional appeals do not change the truth of the case.  It's like the story of the child who murders his parents and then asks for pity because he is an orphan.  The appeal to a woman infected with AIDS by her husband does not change the issue of whether or not it is licit to use contraceptives.

Tu Quoque

Latin for "And you too."  You'll see this one as a response to many things:

Father: You shouldn't smoke. 

Daughter: Why not?  You do.

The problem is pointing to a bad example of another does not prove something is acceptable.  A person can make a bad example from personal life without invalidating what he says.

Of course not all counter-examples are tu quoque.  One common exchange is an atheist pointing to the Crusades to express the violence of religion compared to the peacefulness of atheism.  The counter example that Nazis and Communists were responsible for more deaths is not being used to justify the bad behavior of Christians, but rather to show that the atheistic premise (religion is more violent than atheism) is not true.

No True Scotsman

This one is used a lot by atheists and unfortunately frequently by a lot of Christians as well.  An atheistic example would be:

Atheist: No scientist believes in God

Theist: What about X, Y and Z?

Atheist: They're not really scientists.  No true scientist believes in God.

A Christian example would be:

Christian: If you are saved, you will not sin

Skeptic: What about Pastor X who was arrested for Y?

Christian: Well, he wasn't really saved.

In both cases the person faced with a counter example tries to negate it by redefining what they hold to exclude things that refute it.

However, the No True Scotsman does not mean a clarification to avoid misunderstanding.  For example:

Christian: Christian faith supports love of fellow men.

Skeptic: What about the Inquisition?

Christian: The inquisition was unfortunate, where people acted in a way contrary to what the faith taught.  I don't condone it of course, but the point is the people who were Christians there did act in a way against the requirements of Christian teaching

This is not a Straw Man argument, but a clarification of what was intended against a misunderstanding.  Of course, we need to "do unto others" when an atheist clarifies too.

These are not the only logical fallacies out there, but they are the ones I have most frequently encountered.

Moving the Goalposts

When a person has refuted a position, sometimes the response is "that doesn't matter, what about X?"  In other words, it doesn't matter how many times you show a claim is false, the person who disagrees with you will reject your proof as "not enough" and insist you address another issue.

This differs from saying "I have several issues, which I would like to discuss," and then moving on from topic to topic in a reasonable manner.

Other Logical Errors

There are some other errors of presentation which need to be addressed as well:

The Universal Negative

Atheist: "God does not exist."

Yes, some atheists do state it this bluntly, so this is no straw man argument to deal with it.  A universal negative requires full knowledge about the objects discussed.

To say God does not exist requires knowledge of everything that exists.  Otherwise, we cannot be sure that God does not exist in a place outside of what we do know.

A classical Greek example was the statement: "No swans are black."  Now, no matter how many white swans one sees, this does not prove the claim.  However the first sighting of a black swan does disprove it.

Now unfortunately Christians do make this error too, so we do need to pick our words with care, because logical truths do not belong to one group alone.  A logical error made by a Christian can be shot down by logic just as much as one by an atheist can.

A variant of this is when your opponent makes a universal negative claim and then demands you to disprove him, on the grounds that "you can't be asked to prove a negative."

Well, yes you can.  If your opponent makes a mistake so foolish as to express his opinion in a universal negative, he has shown impossible grounds to defend.

Of course the Christian should not make a universal negative statement either.  Don't be drawn into a statement requiring you to prove something virtually impossible to prove.

Drawing a Universal Conclusion from a Limited Example

Atheist: 9/11 proves religion is violent

No, it doesn't.  What it proves is a certain subset of one religion is violent.  But when considering the actions of one subset of one religion, even if it establishes that one religion violent (say we hypothetically find 100% of Muslims think 9/11 was a great idea), this says nothing about what Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism says about it.

Basing a conclusion of the whole based on the behavior of a part goes by many names: Racism, Bigotry, etc.

The Double Standard

Some atheists, recognizing the danger of the universal negative, will seek to hedge their bets by saying that No, Science doesn't prove the existence of God, but God is unlikely.  They then go about and say "But Christianity doesn't prove God exists either."

The thing is, if they insist that atheism is reasonable based on probability and the like, the Christian has equal rights to explain their beliefs from the same reasoning.  These atheists are in effect arguing: "I don't have to prove factually what I believe, but you do."

If the case for the reasonableness for atheism involves a lack of proof against it, the atheist can say nothing against a Christian who invokes the same argument without being hypocritical.

This does NOT mean it is acceptable for Christians to use the same logical fallacies that are applied against them of course.  If we are walking in the Light, we are not to use the tools of darkness.

What it does mean is that the atheist either has to apply to himself the measure of proof he applies to other or he becomes hypocritical. 

Of course, Christians need to apply the same standards to atheism they apply to themselves too.  This does not mean we cannot show the error of the double standard the atheist uses by applying his own standards against him (just make sure you avoid the straw man fallacy in doing so).

Remember, They Executed Socrates…

One thing also to be aware of is that people don't like to admit they are wrong.  Logic can show the flaws in an argument, but it doesn't mean it will make you popular.  indeed, if you can show why an argument is false, but a person is unwilling to concede their position, usually hostility will be directed to you.  You'll be called "condescending" and "intolerant" and "narrow minded" when you show that their position is not as strong as they thought.

So don't be surprised by the acrimony you receive.

Also Remember the Command to Love

Certainly in the times of my debating and blogging, I have come across several whom I would be tempted to describe as something uncharitable.  We are human of course.  We do get annoyed and frustrated.  We cannot set aside our emotions, and so certain respondents may anger us.  However, "going off" on the opponent may feel good, but it does not establish the proof of what you say.  Rather it makes your argument seem irrational through association.

Christ tells us to love those who hate us, and so, while we may fall short at times, we are not to choose to behave in a hateful manner.

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