Friday, January 29, 2010

The Personal Attack and Internet Debate

Ever noticed how on the internet there is a tendency for certain individuals to substitute personal attacks for reasoned argument when it comes to expressing disapproval?  It's not just the forums (though Xanga does seem to draw a lot of this sort of commentary), but even on customer reviews of products.  Labels like "Mindless propaganda" and the dismissal of an idea solely on the grounds of the beliefs of the one who thinks it.

Unfortunately this is what has replaced rational discussion in many incidents nowadays.  The sad thing of it all is such behavior blocks attempts to really understand a position before attacking it.  Vitriol often replaces civil discourse until it seems we have nothing more than armed camps who don't discuss but rather fight.

Imagine if this sort of behavior took place in the 13th century…

Thomas Aquinas: …I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways.

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it…

Modern Internet Commenter: OMFG… You people are teh suck with your mindless drivel.  WTF??? DIAF you [String of expletives]

An exaggeration to be sure, but sadly not much of one (I've certainly deleted comments along this line).  Because an argument comes from a religious authority (for example) it is often rejected and savaged by people who believe there can be no validity to what they disagree with.  However, such an attack does absolutely nothing to demonstrate the argument from an individual is actually wrong.


As usual, the examples used do not mean that I claim all members of the internet forums behave this way against Christians.  Nor does it mean no Christians behave this way towards their opponents either (at the end of the article you'll see me say we should NOT make use of these tactics ourselves).  Keep in mind that the examples used in this article are directed towards helping my fellow Christians be aware of these logical errors when directed against them and makes no statements about "Only group [X] uses these errors."

It is unfortunate that some comments on the internet blogs are not grounded in reasoned discourse, but in attempts to intimidate the authors of blog sites through verbal attacks, and this article seeks to inform that such attacks and the hostility which usually accompanies such tactics on the internet have no grounding in logic.

If the reader does not use these fallacies, then the article is not directed at them.

Four Fallacies

I find there are four popular fallacies often employed to attack the Christian faith on the internet without actually needing to study what it actually believes and on what basis.  These are:

  1. The Genetic Fallacy
  2. The Poisoning the Well fallacy
  3. The Tu Quoque fallacy.
  4. The Ad Hominem fallacy

Let's Look at these fallacies.

The Genetic Fallacy

The Genetic Fallacy is to attack an idea because of the source of the idea.  It presupposes an idea must be wrong because the source of the idea can't be right in general.  It works like this:

  1. Idea [X] comes from group [Y]
  2. Therefore Idea [X] is wrong.

Except that is no basis of whether an idea is true or not.

One of the most notorious examples of this sort of thinking came about in Nazi Germany when the Germans put an emphasis on German science, German art, German philosophy and so on.  It corresponded with a disdain for things like Jewish science, Jewish philosophy and so on.  This kind of thinking tended to create a disdain for things which had an origin in Jewish scientists.  It has been reported that such thinking tended to lead the Germans to disdain the atomic sciences… which hindered the Germans in the "race for the atomic bomb" in World War II.  Just because the Nazis disdained the scientific advances discovered by individuals who were Jewish did not make those advances wrong.

We see this in modern dialogue as well.  How often have we heard things like "You must get all your news from FOX" as a dismissal for a position?  The implication being that if it comes from FOX News, it can't be true.

I can recall seeing several internet discussions on evolution, where some interesting questions (at least to me) were raised by some individuals about evolution and problems with the Darwinian theory.  I recall evolutionists in that forum refusing to answer the questions, merely replying "You must be a creationist."  Now perhaps there were legitimate scientific answers to the questions being asked which showed the questions had a false understanding at the root, but the questions were never given answers.  They were rejected as unworthy of answering merely because they were associated with the idea of Intelligent Design and therefore deemed without merit because of this association.

The Genetic Fallacy is generally a way to avoid thinking.  A person or an idea [X] is labeled as a part of group [Y] with the indication that one can reject thinking about it because it comes from this source.  But the source has no bearing on whether or not it is true.

Now of course, not all actions of considering the source are the Genetic fallacy.  If for example, someone tells me that Father Harry Tick has said that one can contracept and still be a good Catholic, one can research what he has said in the past.  In the case of this example, if we see that Fr. Harry Tick has had similar ideas condemned by the Vatican in the past, we can consider it probable that he is not an accurate source if he has not retracted his views.  However this is applying scrutiny based on considering the credibility of the source, not rejecting it simply because of the source.

The Poisoning the Well Fallacy

The Poisoning the Well fallacy is an attempt to discredit an idea before it is even presented.  Certain words are used to make it seem that the view being presented is automatically wrong or at least suspect.  The fallacy runs along these lines:

  1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person [A] is presented.
  2. Therefore any claims person [A] makes will be false.

This kind of argument is often employed against the Catholic Church on teachings of sexual morality and their opposition to abortion.  Something to the effect of "The Catholic Church is run by celibate old men and exclude women from the priesthood, so whatever they might say about the issue is obviously misinformed."

The fact that priests are celibate is introduced to discredit the Church teaching on sexual morality before the Catholic view is even presented.  The attempt is to preemptively taint whatever the Church says as coming from "celibate old men who don't understand sex."

This is nonsense of course.  One does not have to engage in sexual acts to know that some of them are harmful any more than one has to experiment personally with narcotics to learn some are always harmful and some are harmful when used outside of the proper intent.

Many of the "One star" reviews I have seen of the books on Amazon defending Christian beliefs against atheism also used this form of attack.  Labels of "mindless dogma" and "irrational thinking" are often used to lead the potential reader a negative view of what the author says before he says it.

However, as we saw above from the Genetic Fallacy, just because one disapproves of the beliefs of source [X] does not mean the things said by source [X] are not true.

Disapproval does not mean the statement is disproved.

The Tu Quoque Fallacy

The Tu Quoque fallacy (Latin for "and you too") seeks to answer a charge with a counter charge with the intention of distracting the individual from the original challenge and put him on the defensive.  This often happens between Christians vs. Atheists and Catholics vs. Protestants over the "body count" debates about who has the "worst" record.

The argument runs as follows:

  1. Person [A] Makes Argument [X]
  2. Person [B] Makes unfavorable statement about Person [A] to indicate Argument [X] is not consistent with the behavior of Person [A]
  3. Therefore Argument [X] is not valid

The problem is that while hypocrisy or bad behavior may reflect badly on individual [A]'s judgment on a certain issue, it does not mean that Argument [X] is automatically wrong.  Nor does it mean everything Individual [A] is associated with is automatically wrong.

The common attack can be summed up in this dialogue:

Father: You shouldn't smoke!  It's bad for you!

Teenage Daughter: Whatever… you smoke!

The fact that the Father smokes has nothing to do with whether or not smoking is bad for you.

When employed in debates between theists and atheists or Catholics and Protestants, the attack is generally used to avoid thinking about whether the argument is true by arguing that because a religion did certain things in the past does not mean that the argument they make NOW must be false.

Now of course at certain times, the introduction to a counter claim can be valid.  If someone argues:

  1. All [A] is [B]
  2. All [B] is [C]
  3. Therefore All [A] is [C]

it can be refuted if someone can demonstrate that Some [A] is not [B], or Some [B] is not [C].  So if someone argues that "Islam is a religion of peace" the counter example of Islam sanctioning violence could be admissible if it could be established that this was official teaching and not some fringe group of heretics or some repudiated writing.  However, if someone said "Islam is looking to peacefully coexist with the world" and I responded, "Rubbish!  What about their forced conversions in the 8th century?" this would be a tu quoque attack.

Likewise, in a Catholic vs. Protestant debate about the "body count" of the Reformation era, it would be wrong to say in response to a challenge "Catholics did terrible things" that "So did Protestants."  THAT'S a Tu quoque.  However, if the assertion was that Only Catholic nations did these things, then counter example of Protestant nations doing the same thing refutes (validly) the claim that "only" Catholics did these things.

The Ad Hominem Argument

I find this is usually the last resort of a person losing an argument.  Ad hominem (Latin for "against the person") makes no attempt to refute an argument, but instead makes an attack against the individual who makes the argument as an attempt to undermine the argument through "guilt by association."

So, as an example, a lawyer claiming that a mob informer cannot be trusted to give information against his client because the informant is a criminal is an example of the ad hominem.  Another example would be along the lines of:

Person A: I think experimentation on animals is cruel

Person B: You would say that… you're a Vegan.

(The implication is that because person B is a Vegan, she is not being objective on the issue of animal experimentation).

The form of the fallacy usually takes this form:

  1. Person [A] makes Argument [X]
  2. Person [B] makes a personal attack on Person [A]
  3. Therefore Argument [X] need not be considered.

Of course the personal attack on Person [A] has nothing at all to do with whether argument [X] is true.  In the example above, it is possible person [A] bases the objections from the philosophy of being a Vegan.  However it is also possible that Person [A] has some reliable information about some appalling practices which she opposes on grounds of compassion.

Unfortunately this tactic is common on internet debates.  Calling a Christian a "mindless sheep" because he rejects an argument (implying that if he would "think for himself" he wouldn't be a Christian) is an example of the ad hominem.  So too "Right Wing" "Left Wing" "Homophobic" and so on are slung about seeking to smear the individual with the implication that it somehow means the argument "can't" be true.

The problem is that the personal attack on the person making an argument is not a refutation of the argument.

It can be easy to fall into this argument.  One recent example was in dealing with Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews.  Some individuals sought to bring up the fact that as a boy, he grew up in Nazi Germany and therefore he must be hostile to the Jews in certain actions he did as Pope.  That he did grow up in Nazi Germany is true, but it is irrelevant.  (For example, he describes his father as a strong influence who was anti-Nazi).  So to reject the Pope's actions as being influenced by the fact he grew up in Germany in the 1930s and 40s is an ad hominem attack.

Now the ad hominem is NOT the same as personal insults, though on the internet it often devolves into them as an attacker grows more frustrated.  The ad hominem generally demonstrates a contempt for the beliefs or circumstances of an individual making the assertion, with the result that when the individual is frustrated enough the response is to lash out.

Usually once the person is reduced to name-calling it is a good sign the individual making use of them have no more to say and out of frustration or contempt.  (Once an individual reaches this stage, I find further dialogue is useless and banning them from my site is the best way to handle it).

The Christian Consideration: Don't Commit Those Errors

As Christians blogging, we often see these fallacies used against us.  However, as Christians who believe in the existence of Truth and who believe that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us we need to make sure that we do not fall into the trap of using these fallacies ourselves.

It is unfortunate that some Christians have made use of these fallacies as well.  Just as logic is a tool which can be used by any group to evaluate the truth, so too fallacies are not the property of only one group of people.  Any individual can fall into these errors.

If we as Christians seek to "practice what we preach," it means we can't use the Genetic fallacy to reject an idea just because a non-Christian proposes it.  We can't Poison the Well and present an argument in such a way as to turn the readers against it before they even hear it.  We can't use the Tu Quoque and reply to a charge with a counter charge, and we may not use the ad hominem and cast aspersions on our opponent because holds a view and think we have refuted our opponent's argument.

If we do these things, we can lead those who witness our writings to think we are illogical.

Now it is easy to slip into fallacy by forgetting the purpose of the argument we wish to make is to show Truth.  NOT "to win."  So while putting on a "literary beatdown" may be fun, this sort of behavior does not impress people who are searching for truth.  If we believe the Christian faith is true, we need to show why it is true and not to merely distract and intimidate. 

We've all done it I know.  For example, it's easy to think "Hah, this clown writes for National Catholic Distorter Reporter.  The position must be a load of garbage" as opposed to "Because this newspaper has a tendency to advocate certain views in contradiction to Catholic teaching, the positions it advocates needs to be scrutinized to be sure it is not doing the same here."

It's easy to write off all Protestant/Catholic views because their view is not Catholic/Protestant (or atheist/theist views because the view is not theist/atheist).  However this is not a reason in itself to dismiss the arguments made.

Ultimately we are all called to be just and compassionate in what we do or say.  If we resent tactics like this used against us, let us do our best not to make use of them ourselves.


Of course this does not mean we must be indifferent about religion or think that truth is relative.  If a thing is true, we need to defend that truth against error.  However the use of a logical error does not prove a position.  A logical error of the types described in the article may put one on the defensive and may be popular with the people who agree with you, but it is nothing more than a cheap tactic to intimidate, and makes no valid attack against the argument made.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thoughts on the So-called New Atheism

Atheism has, of course, long been with us and given the nature of Free Will, there will always be those people who deny the existence of what we Christians place our faith in.

However, there has been recently a rise of what has been termed (perhaps pejoratively) the "New Atheism."  Championed by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and PZ Myers have come to the forefront with their attacks on religious belief, and particularly Christianity.

Looking at the "New Atheism"

The New Atheism movement has gained notoriety on account of certain individuals who have sought to attack the arguments in favor of the existence of God.  This is an important distinction.  Belief in the Divine is still rejected by these individuals, but the focus is on attacking the Christian belief as illogical, stating directly that those who believe are ignorant, foolish and so on (this is the ad hominem argument, by the way).

These individuals who champion the movement are not philosophers however.  Dawkins is a Biological Scientist.  Harris has a degree in Neuroscience.  Hitchens is a journalist.  Myers is a Biology professor.  They may be quite competent in their fields of course, but what they are doing is to attack something outside of their field of knowledge.

This is important to remember.  If I wished to attack certain assertions of Einstein for example, people would (justly) want to know on what authority I could speak on science.  Since I do not have a degree in science, people would be justified in wondering whether the problem was due to my misunderstanding of the topic.  Indeed, in such a case, people would find it more probable that my ideas were based on error and not those of the best minds in science.

The Fallacy of Irrelevant Appeal to Authority

However this works both ways.  When someone who is an expert in a field speaks on a topic outside of their expertise, the appeal to their expertise is an irrelevant appeal to authority.  A biologist may be quite schooled in biology, but is no more qualified than any other untrained individual when it comes to speaking outside the area of expertise.

When it comes to the champions of the New Atheism, their expertise is likewise irrelevant when speaking on something beyond their field of expertise.  In dealing with something which is not physical in nature, the investigation requires something other than a physical science.

They confuse their expertise in a subject with understanding all that is necessary to deny the existence of God.  Such a view overlooks the possibility that if the required area of knowledge is outside their specialty, their specialty is inadequate to judge things.

This doesn't mean that science is worthless of course.  Just that, when applied to things which are not physical, it is like using a microscope to study astronomy.

The Flaws of the Attack

With this fallacy of Irrelevant authority going unchecked, the champions of atheism seek to attack the philosophical basis of the existence of God, counting on their expertise to allow them to understand the arguments in favor of God and thus refute them.

The problem is, if they err in their understanding of the argument, or fail to consider all the authoritative arguments (that is, arguments made by the considered experts in the field) made on behalf of a subject, the attempt to refute the argument is more often than not going to be a straw man argument.

For example, Richard Dawkins takes Thomas Aquinas' "Five Ways" from the Summa Theologica and attempts to rebut it.  The problem is, the version found in the Summa Theologica is more of a summary of the arguments found in the Summa Contra Gentiles, where it is handled in greater depth.  By failing to understand what it is that Thomas Aquinas is saying, his attempts at rebuttal must necessarily fail to prove their point.

Just as an individual who is an expert in biology is not, because of that fact, qualified to practice medicine (because the disciplines are different), so too the scientist, who is an expert in a certain field, is not qualified to take on an argument based on philosophical knowledge outside their field.

The Error of the Undistributed Middle

Another error (this one tends to be championed by Sam Harris) is to reject all religious claims on the basis of one religion's errors.  Such a view has an unspoken premise that all religions are equally valid or invalid.  The pointing out of the errors in one religion (in Harris' case, Islamic extremism is invoked) is used to lead to the conclusion that all religions are bad.

The form I have read in Harris' writings or in transcripts of recorded addresses tend to go this way:

  1. All [Islam] is a [Religion] (All [A] is [B])
  2. All [Islam] is [Violent] (All [A] is [C])
  3. Therefore All [Religion] is [Violent] (Therefore All [B] is [C])

The problem is, just because [Islam] may be a part of both groups (though I think that before the minor premise can be asserted to be true, one needs to prove that mainstream Islam embraces the actions of the extremists), it does not prove that [Religion] is a part of the group [That which is violent].  If there is any part of [B] (religion) which is not a part of [C] [That which is violent], then it cannot be said that ALL religion is violent.

This refutation can also be used to show that, just because one religion is false it does not prove all religions are false, by changing what [A], [B] and [C] stand for:

  1. All [Scientology] is a [Religion] (All [A] is [B])
  2. All [Scientology] is [Manmade] (All [A] is [C])
  3. Therefore All [Religion] is [Manmade] (Therefore All [B] is [C])

No matter how many [manmade] [religions] there are, it does not prove that ALL religions are manmade.  Just because [A] is a part of [B] and [C], does not prove that because [D] is a part of [B] that [D] must be a part of [C].

You can't get an "All [B] is [C]" conclusion from the premises "All [A] is [B], All [B] is [C]" because even if it is proven that All [A] is both a part of [B] and [C] (which it isn't, by the way) does not mean that everything in [B] is also in [C].  This can be demonstrated in figure 1.


(Figure 1: If [A] is both [B] and [C], does it mean all [B] is [C]?)

The diagram shows that even if [A] is both [B] and [C], it does not prove all [B] is [C].  This is the fallacy of the Undistributed Middle.

In figure 2, any group which is colored are areas where this sort of argument by new atheists would not prove the conclusion:


(Figure 2: Colored portion shows conditions where attacking all religion on the basis of one is false)

The Practical Problems With the New Atheism

If this form of Atheism was merely limited to the person following it saying "I don't believe in God" then the only problems would be regarding that individual's belief and refuting that individual.  However, when the application of this aggressive form of atheism seems aimed at actively attacking religion (such as PZ Myers' attack on what Catholics hold most sacred) and seeking to strip rights away from groups which hold religious beliefs on the basis of assuming their belief is truth and seeking to impose their views on others (which is what they accuse religions of doing).

If one says it is wrong to impose a "religious" belief on others (the term "religious" is usually invoked as an appeal to fear fallacy), then it follows that it is wrong to impose other beliefs as well.  So if it is wrong, because it is imposing a "religious" belief, to teach a possibility of Intelligent Design (for example), it seems to follow that it is wrong also to teach a form of evolution which actively denies the role of an outside agent as well.

In the case of the New Atheists (and this seems to be the main part of how they differ from the so-called "classical" atheists) are projecting on to religion what they themselves practice: Intolerance based on their personal beliefs.

Practicing What One Preaches

If the New Atheists believe that religion ought not to be imposed on others, it requires that they not impose their beliefs on others either.  Yet that doesn't happen.  PZ Myers desecrated what he claimed was a consecrated Eucharistic Host publically.  If true, this was an attack on what Catholics hold to be sacred, and even if one does not believe what Catholics do, it is still would be an attack against the religious freedom of Catholics to practice what they believe unmolested.

Since PZ Myers' action was based on what he believed to be true (If I recall correctly, he wrote "it's a fracking cracker"), and his belief imposed itself on others who did not believe what he did, it follows that his actions denied the religious freedom others practice.

Let's look at it another way.  I don't believe Mormonism is true, or Islam is true but I would not attempt to force my way into the Mormon Temple in Utah (only a Mormon may enter if I understand it right), nor would I attempt to force my way into Mecca (only Moslems may enter if I understand it right) because such an action would be forcing my views on another.

This is basic human respect, to not violate the boundaries another has set.

Now, this is not to say there cannot be a debate about what is true.  The entire idea of disputing between agnosticism and knowledge; atheism and theism, monotheism and paganism and so on is over establishing what is true.  Clearly the different systems of belief or unbelief need to present their claims for evaluation.

However, we also need to remember that thinking one set of arguments does not convince does not mean the opposite is automatically true.  These discussions must all remember that all human persons have rights which another may not take away, and just because person A thinks the Christian beliefs are unconvincing does not give them the right to deprive the Christian of his rights as a person.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant: How It Is Misapplied to Religion

The Parable to Consider

"Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.

"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

"Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

"It is like a solid pipe," Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said."

"Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.

The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree too. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, "Maybe you have your reasons." This way we don’t get in arguments. In Jainism, it is explained that truth can be stated in seven different ways. So, you can see how broad our religion is. It teaches us to be tolerant towards others for their viewpoints. This allows us to live in harmony with the people of different thinking."

— Source:

This kind of story is often invoked to justify religious indifferentism.  It claims no religion has a monopoly on the truth and each one has only a partial truth which limits them.  Is such a view accurate however?

The Parable is a Misunderstanding of Issues

I am inclined to think no, this is a false view of what religious disputes are about.  This Jainist parable looks at it as if religions are saying "The elephant only is like a pillar" or "The elephant is only like a rope" or so on.  This is inaccurate.

The dispute between religions is not over whether "the elephant" is like a pillar or a rope.  It is more like a dispute over whether the concept of "elephant" has a trunk or does not have a trunk.  If the elephant has a trunk, those who claim it does not err.  If the elephant normally (as opposed to a birth defect or accident) does not have a trunk, then those who claim it has a trunk err.

The elephant cannot both have a trunk and not have a trunk however.

So even if the truth "can be stated in seven different ways" as the parable says, there is still the case of speaking truth or falsehood.  No matter how many ways one speaks truth, falsehood is not truth.  This is the source of dispute over religion in all forms.

True or False?

When it comes to religious claims, there are several divisions which require an answer one way or another (This set of divisions inspired by Peter Kreeft's "Socratic Logic 3E"):

  1. "Is there any hope of finding the truth about religion?"  Agnostics/skeptics answer no.  All others answer yes.
  2. "Is there any type of God or supernatural reality which justifies the attitude of piety?"  Atheists answer no.  All others answer yes
  3. "Is there an ultimate oneness to this reality?"  Polytheism answers no.  All others answer yes.
  4. "Is this reality distinct from the universe and human consciousness?"  Pantheism answers no.  All others answer yes.
  5. "Is this reality a person rather than a force or principle?  An 'I AM'?" Vague Philosophical Theism says no.  All others answer yes.
  6. "Did this 'I AM' reveal Himself?"  Non-Religious Philosophical Theism says no.  All others answer yes.
  7. "Did this 'I AM' send any Prophet greater than Moses?"  Judaism says no.  All others answer yes.
  8. "Is the greatest prophet Jesus?"  Islam says no.  All others answer yes.
  9. "Is Jesus a divine person as well as a human person, and is God a Trinity rather than one?"  Unitarianism says no.  Trinitarian Christianity answers yes.
  10. "Did Jesus establish a single visible infallible Church with the authority to teach in His name?"  Protestantism says no.  All others answer yes.
  11. "Is the Pope in Rome the present universal head of this Church?" Eastern Orthodoxy says no.  Catholicism answer yes.

These divisions (wherever one may find themselves in it) show the flaw with the Jainist argument given at the beginning of this article.  Either there is hope of finding the truth about religion or there is not.  If the skeptics are right, then all others are wrong.  Either there is some kind of God or there isn't.  If atheists are right, then all others are wrong.  Either the supernatural is one or it is not.  If polytheists are right, all others are wrong.  Either God is distinct from the universe or is not.  If pantheistic religions are right, all others are wrong… and so on.

"What IS" is The Issue of Dispute

The point is, arguing over whether the elephant is a trunk or a leg or a tail is not what religions dispute.  It is over issues over whether a thing is or is not.  It cannot be both in the same context, so people who hold one necessarily must deny the other.

I think this set of divisions also shows the nature of the dispute between different groups.  If a Christian debates an agnostic, the ground of dispute is not over Christian doctrines but over whether we can know truth about religion.  When Christians and Eastern practitioners debate, it is over whether or not God is distinct from the universe.  When the Christian debates the Moslem, the dispute is over whether the greatest revelation is from Christ or not.  When Catholics and Protestants debate, the debate is over whether God intended one authoritative Church to teach in His name.

Obviously we can't believe that we can both know and not know the truth of religion, as these are contradictory.

Because of this, I really don't think this Jainist Parable is valid in approaching the disputes of religion.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Examining an Anti-Catholic Attack

The Usual Disclaimer

Yes I am aware that not all anti-Catholics express beliefs in the same way, and that not all people who believe some of these claims are anti-Catholic.  However the claim I am addressing are real and often get thrown about in Internet debate with the express purpose of attacking the Catholic faith.  Please keep this limiting frame in mind before accusing me of holding a position I am not stating.


One of the common arguments used to attack the Catholic Church is that it "imposed" certain doctrines not found in Scripture.  From this, it is claimed that because they were not found in Scripture, they must have been invented for (insert nefarious reason here).

As this claim circulates, there are certain assumptions which get repeated but, when looked at, don't have a logical basis.

Defining the Difference

Let me make clear here that I do not equate "anti-Catholic" with "Disagrees with the Catholic Church."  One can be civil in disagreement, holding "I believe X is true, so I think Catholics must have the wrong interpretation here," without imputing an evil will to the Catholic Church.  I believe such individuals are wrong when they believe this of course, but hostility to Catholic beliefs does not fuel their claims.

However, the anti-Catholic generally seems to assume that the difference in belief is based on an evil intent from the Church designed to "enslave" people in a religion deliberately calculated to keep people from God.  Such individuals make it their business to "save" Catholics from Hell, often using scare tactics, and sometimes using some rather unethical practices involving the misrepresentation of what Catholics believe.

Of course we can't explore all of these claims as they are numerous indeed (a recommended place to start is Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism), but let's start with a common one which recently showed up again in a retort a person made to me.

The Premise to Be Explored

The common premise to be explored today is: that things which the Catholics believe, which Protestants reject, are Unchristian and not true.  Normally this gets expressed as something similar to the following (which has many forms): "X is a false beliefIf you want me to believe your belief is true, then show me where it says this in the Bible." 

Now this can be expressed in different ways than put here of course.  Some are expressed in ways which are logically valid.  Some are not.  I can't anticipate all of the ways this can be expressed, but since most of the differences are semantics and not real difference in meaning, I will take the form I have often run into above and use this as the basis for the investigation.

Some Initial Problems with this particular argument

This argument normally strikes me as being rather petulant in nature.  It makes a claim ("This belief is unbiblical") but instead of showing whether the claim is true, it actually insists on making the person who disagrees with a claim disprove them.  In logic, this is known as Shifting the Burden of Proof).  This tactic presumes the claim (X is a false belief) is already proven and demands the person who disagrees to disprove the case.

The gut instinct might be to just say "Well, prove your own claim" but I don't recommend this.  This usually gets into a Scripture slinging match which can never end because there is no one authority to determine whose interpretation of Scripture is correct.

The reason this is ineffective is there are three things which are presumed by this demand which need to be established, before we can accept it:

  1. That the Word of God is limited to the Bible alone
  2. That the Protestant canon of Scripture is authoritative.
  3. Who is authorized to judge which interpretation of Scripture is correct.

So first we need to look at what is wrong with the argument by putting it into a valid syllogism.

Putting the challenge in a logical form

The first step is putting the argument into a form which is logically valid.  [That is, if the premises are true then the conclusion is true].  It is true that many of these arguments are expressed in logically invalid ways [even if the premises were true (which I don't grant), the argument cannot prove the conclusion].  However we do need to put it in a valid form to avoid accusations of creating a straw man argument.

So let's try to take this argument, listed in the section "The Premise to be explored," which claims Catholic beliefs are not true because they are not in the Bible.

I think the best way to express what the argument hopes to achieve is to make it a negative statement about what truth involves in relation to scripture instead of a positive statement about Scripture in relation to truth.  Hopefully this phrasing will exclude enough [Such as avoiding side roads about whether things outside of Scripture like math can be true] through definition, to avoid misunderstanding what we mean by "truth" and therefore avoid meaningless quibbles about "that's not what I meant."

Here, we need to recognize the enthymeme (the unspoken but assumed argument), which is essentially that the only truths concerning salvation come from scripture and anything else claiming to involve salvation is false.  So, we can state the syllogism this way:

  1. No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True] (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some [Catholic Teachings] are [Teachings pertaining to salvation not found in the Bible] (Some [C] is [A]
  3. Therefore some [Catholic Teachings] are Not [true] (Therefore Some [C] is not [B])

(Hopefully, the reader, will recognize that this is not an attempt to create a straw man, but is an attempt to make a common anti-Catholic claim fit into a logical form so it is valid.)

If we limit it this much, the logical form is valid (the basic premise is, a thing [C] that is in group [A] is excluded from group [B]), and if the premises are true, then the conclusion can be said to be proven true.  However, if one or both of the premises are false, or cannot be established to be true, then the conclusion cannot be said to be proven true.

So let's look at the premises.

Examining the Major Premise

The first problem is the major premise.  In order for the argument to be proven true, the premise

"No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]"

has to be shown to be true.  The problem is one cannot demonstrate this.  Scripture itself does not claim "No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]."  Nor does Scripture define what books of the Bible are part of the Bible.


  • IF the claim "No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]" is a [teaching pertaining to salvation]
  • AND This claim is [not found in the Bible]
  • THEN logically this claim is not [true]

(In other words, the premise contradicts itself unless it can be shown from Scripture).

I think we can establish that "No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]" is supposed to be true and necessary for salvation (such as Sola Scriptura).  If it weren't, people wouldn't have problems with Catholic beliefs and there would be no concern from some that Catholics are damned for following such beliefs.  So if such a teaching is not found in the Bible, the major premise is not true, and the conclusion (Therefore some [Catholic Teachings] are Not [true]) is not proven.

Moreover, we can point to a few verses of Scripture to show that a Sola Scriptura approach is not held in the Bible.

25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

(John 21:25)

15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thes. 2:15)

The first passage demonstrates that Scripture does not claim to be the exhaustive source of what Jesus did.  The second demonstrates it was not the written documents but the teaching the Apostles gave, regardless of the media used, which were important.

[It should be noted that two common verses used to justify Sola Scriptura, 2 Tim 3:15 and Acts 17:11, do not demonstrate the exclusive nature of "Scripture alone."]

Examining the Minor Premise

So having given some of the reasons I reject the major premise of the argument, let us move on to the minor premise: "Some [Catholic Teachings] are [Teachings pertaining to salvation not found in the Bible]."

There are two problems with the Minor Premise.   The first problem is the disagreement over canon.  The second is over the dispute over meaning of Scriptures.

In the first case, the problem is over canon.  Certainly as far back as the canon of Scripture was defined, it was the Septuagint (LXX) canon for the Old Testament.  It was not until the 16th century that Protestants adopted the canon of the Masoretic text (which does not have the Greek only books of the Old Testament).  So the question is, on which authority is it to be determined that Scripture is based only on the 66 books recognized by Protestants?

If an anti-Catholic wants to attack a belief on being "unbiblical" the questions that must be asked are which version do you call authoritative and under what authority do you insist on such a version?  Until that is settled, the only reason for rejecting beliefs discussed in the deuterocanonical works is merely personal preference.

The second problem is the dispute over meaning.  Catholics do indeed read Scripture, and our beliefs which we hold can be said to not contradict Scripture.  So it is a matter of interpretation.  anti-Catholics hold to one interpretation and claim that Catholic beliefs are "unbiblical" because they do not.  So for the minor premise to be shown to be true, it has to be shown that the Christian teaching excludes the Catholic interpretation and it has to be shown by appealing to an authority which both would accept.

Those I have met who hold Sola Scriptura generally invoke two areas as authority that their teachings are correct:

  1. The "Plain Sense" of Scripture
  2. The "Inspiration of the Holy Spirit" on the Reader.

"Plain Sense" as Authority and "Inspiration of the Holy Spirit"

I believe we can show the problem with the claim of the "plain sense" of Scripture as a source of authority.  We merely need look at how so many teachings of Jesus are disputed as to what the "plain sense" means.  Take the "Bread of Life" discourse in John 6, where those who reject the Catholic view claims Jesus spoke merely symbolically… but usually cannot agree on what the symbol "means."  Or take Jesus' words on Baptism and see the wide dispute on whether it is necessary or merely symbolic.

These contradictions over the "Plain Sense" also shows that the invoking of the Holy Spirit as inspiring the reader to "know" the truth is dubious.  The Holy Spirit, being God, cannot be contradictory.  If, as Christians, we believe in Christ's teachings, we believe they are true for all people.  Not one truth for me and another for you

If the different groups cannot agree on the meaning of the "plain sense," how can it be invoked?  If the Holy Spirit inspires the reader, how do we justify the contradictory beliefs except as "I'm right, you err!" 

In such a case, it claims the individual reader has infallibility in a way far beyond what Catholics believe the Pope possesses.

The Flaw of Inconsistency

There is another flaw as well, which was hinted at in the section "Examining the Major Premise."  If the claim is made that some Catholic claim must be shown explicitly from Scripture if it is to be believed and the idea of indirect allusions to a belief are rejected, then the one who insists this must practice what they preach and show explicitly from the Bible that only the Bible is authoritative.  If the individual claims the right for indirect proof to establish this claim, but denies the Catholic the right to do the same, the charge of "hypocrisy" sticks.

The Flaw of Presuming Too Much

As I said in the section "Some Initial Problems with this particular argument" the problem is the anti-Catholic seeking to argue that Catholic beliefs are manmade and demonic (which is an interesting contradiction as well) presumes too much that needs to be proven.  Before invoking "Show me the word in the Bible," they need to establish that the Word of God is limited to the Bible alone and the books contained in their canon."

The reason this needs to be established is that if the Word of God is not limited to Scripture alone, then it follows that some of the Word of God is outside of Scripture.  If some of the Word of God is outside of Scripture, an appeal to Scripture alone would be imposing artificial limits on the Word of God.


Of course I do not presume to claim that the entire dispute between Catholics and Protestants about teaching authority is ended on account of this article.  However, I do believe that I have shown substantial problems with the "Beliefs not in the Bible are false" argument.

  1. How do we know the Bible alone is the sole source of truth?  (Scripture seems to emphasize the authority of the Church)
  2. Which canon of Scripture is authoritative?
  3. Who is an arbiter in determining whether an interpretation is legitimate or not?

These points need to be proven true before we can accept the premises of "Things outside the Bible are not truths required for salvation," and "Some Catholic teachings are things outside the Bible."

Because the premises cannot be established as true, the argument (even though it follows a valid form) cannot be said to prove the conclusion.

This is because ultimately, the dispute over Scripture is not over whether or not it is true, but over what authority is recognized to interpret it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Verdict That Demands Evidence

When it comes to claims that the Scriptural accounts of the Supernatural show that Scripture cannot be reliable, I am always struck by the "matter of fact" way it is stated by certain individuals, as if it is proven and anyone who says otherwise is clearly "ignorant," "behind the times" or otherwise "not rational."

Yet, when I begin to ask questions about the basis which they use to justify such claims, I find there is in fact no evidence.  Instead, terms come up like "well no, I can't prove it, but it seems more probable."

In other words, we have an assertion which is unproven.  We have a verdict with no evidence to establish it.


[A note for those who do not think this way: Yes I am aware that not all people argue this. However, I am dealing with the argument of those people who do make these assertions]

The Logical Form of the Objection

First of all, lets put the argument into a syllogism. 

While the ways the argument is expressed do vary depending on the speaker, the logical form of the argument tends to be consistent in running as follows:

  1. No [Supernatural] is [True] (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some [Scripture] claims [Supernatural] (Some [C] is [A])
  3. Therefore Some [Scripture] is not [True] (Therefore Some [C] is not [B])

The syllogism is a valid form, so whether or not the conclusion is true depends on whether the premises are true.  The minor premise is indeed true.  While some parts of the Bible do not speak of supernatural things (for example the genealogies) other parts certainly do (God interacting with man for example).  So ultimately whether or not the syllogism proves the conclusion depends on whether the major premise is true.

This is where we run into problems…

Is "No [Supernatural] is [True]" a statement proven true?

I've discussed this before in past blogs, but I think it should be considered here.  To say "No [A] is [B]" requires us to know everything about [B] to be sure that there is no [A] in any part of it. 

[Note: The Euler circles in these diagrams should not be considered drawn to any "scale"]

 euler-circle-1 (Figure 1: If we want to assert this…)

If we do not know all parts of [B], we cannot be sure there is some part of [A] which is inside it.


(Figure 2: …We need to know all about that which is in the section [??] to know there is no [A] in it)

The one who asserts no supernatural is true [Figure 1] needs to be sure that the part of section [B] marked [??] (representing what we do not know) contains no part of [A].  However the nature of something being unknown is we don't know it is.  So a person claiming that something does not exist which falls within the realm of what we do not know is presumptuous to say the least.


Can We Be Sure We Know What is in Section [??]

Probability about the unknown based on what we do know can only go so far.  In some areas knowledge of what we know can lead us to suppose with reason what is most likely to happen.  "The sun rose yesterday, the sun rose today, the sun will rise tomorrow" is a pretty safe bet based on the assumption that there are no conditions that will change to make this statement false.  However, if there is some undetected flaw in the sun which makes it go nova tomorrow, then the statement would be false.

I discussed this in an article on the discovery of the existence of the Americas.  When there was no knowledge of the existence of the American continents, it seemed probable to assume that there was no land between Europe and Asia travelling West.  There was no evidence of any land mass, and a person who assumed that the unknown portion of the globe was more of the same as the known portion of the globe would not have been considered unreasonable.

However, when it came to knowledge of the globe in 1491, the knowledge which was not known [??] showed to be false the assumptions that what was unknown could be deduced from what was known.

The Importance of The Qualifier "IF"

This is why we need to be careful in stating something absolutely when it deals with the unknown.  Physical proof of things are limited.  So long as what we know is accurate, a statement can be made.  However when something we think we know is inaccurate then even if there is no physical evidence which we know of to contradict it, it is still wrong.

This is why, when dealing with the unknown, we need to qualify our statements with IF.  "IF assumption [X] is true, then conclusion [Y] seems to follow from it."  Using IF recognizes that what we think is true follows from what we observe but we do not know whether there is a condition where it could be false.

As an example, it is generally assumed by science [or at least was assumed when I was in college] that nothing can exceed the speed of light.  As I understand it, nothing has been observed to exceed the speed of light [though I understand there is some dispute about tachyons], and Einstein's law is still considered to be true.  So when we say "Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light" we generally have the unspoken condition "assuming there is nothing which exists that disproves this."  We have evidence for it, and so far no evidence against it.

Does the Continual Observance of a Condition Mean There can be no Other Conditions?

Because some things can be discovered which disproves what was understood to be universally true.  In ancient times, "No swans are Black" was once used as an example of what could be universally true… until black swans were discovered.  The problem with the assumption was: No matter how many white swans were seen, this did not prove this was universally true, and the first sighting of a black swan showed this assumption was false.

Remember though that even before the first black swan was spotted, the claim "No swans are black" was false, even if science of the time could not verify it.

Applying this to the Rejection of the Existence of God

Ultimately the invoking of science to say God does not exist is based on the assumption that what we can know from science is all there is to know.  However, if this assumption is false, then even qualifiers like "most likely" are still wrong.  If God does exist, and science cannot detect the existence of God, then it does not matter how many claim that knowledge of science "makes God unnecessary."  We have no evidence for the proposition that "God does not exist." 

So whether or not that claim is true, it cannot be said to be proven true or even "most likely" true from knowledge of science (See the section "Empirical Knowledge and Empiricism" below).


On Scientific Knowledge and its Limits

Science has made numerous advances, and things (such as cells) which were once considered to be completely simple have been shown to be more complex than had been thought in previous centuries.  Atoms which used to be considered the smallest level of unit beyond which it could not be divided again were discovered as possible to split.

Science has also showed that certain things were impossible.  Alchemy was once considered a science, with the desire to transmute lead to gold.  Expanded knowledge of Science showed that this sort of thing was not possible, especially not at the level where those who studied it were attempting to change it. 

So certainly science does have value in showing how the physical world works.  The problem is when one assumes that what we can learn from science is all we can know.

Science and Scientism

While science is defined as:

the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

(Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press).

we need to recognize that what it is qualified to speak on is also what it is limited to speak on.  It can only observe and experiment on things in the physical and natural world.  If anything exists which is not within the physical and natural world, science cannot observe it or experiment on it.  It would be useless to appeal to science if something exists which science cannot now, or in the future, observe.

This is where we need to draw the line between Science and scientism.  The two differ on the grounds that the latter is not science, but a belief that only what can be observed by science exists.

Scientism claims what is shown in Figure 3, that we can [eventually] know from science all things which exist:


(Figure 3: This is what Scientism assumes, but…)

However, if what science can discover is not equal to what exists, then the claims of scientism are false.  If the situation looks like Figure 4, then there are things which Science cannot comment on


(Figure 4… if the situation is more like this, it shows limits to science)

The problem is, since we do not know that the ratio of things which exist to things science can discover is in fact 1:1.  If "All [A] is [B]" is the assertion, any part of [A] which is not part of [B] makes the assertion false…whether we know it is true or not.

So ultimately, claims that Science will eventually explain miracles or show God does not exist assumes that nothing exists which Science cannot discover eventually. 

Empirical Knowledge and Empiricism

However, this assumption begs the question: How do we know only that which is physical/natural exists?  The assumption is that only empirical knowledge exists.  If there is more knowledge than empirical knowledge, then this assumption is false.

Empirical knowledge can be defined as: knowledge based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.  Empiricism is defined as: the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses.  The difference between the two is that the first is in fact a true source of knowledge.  The second is a philosophy which assumes only Empirical knowledge exists.

Flaws with empiricism can be shown in two ways.

First of all, the concept of Empiricism cannot be demonstrated by empirical knowledge alone.

Second of all, there are more ways to gain knowledge than through empirical knowledge.  Consider this scenario:

A friend and I share an apartment with a table and two chairs.  My friend tells me he has invited some guests over, and he is going to get two more chairs so that everybody who will be present will have a chair to sit on, I use reason to show that if there are two of us and two chairs, and he intends to get two more chairs so everyone present will have a chair to sit on, then by use of reason I know that, assuming he spoke accurately, he has invited two guests and there will be four of us.  I don't have to ask my friend how many people are invited to empirically learn this information before I can know it.  This is known as philosophical knowledge, which is based on reason and not on the senses.

Yet Another Form of Knowledge: Revelation

There is a third form of knowledge, which is real, but cannot be known through reason or through observation, but only through being informed by another.

I'm no scientist.  I take the word of the scientist that E=MC2 is correct because I cannot establish the truth or falseness of the claim on my own but the scientist is seen as a reliable witness.  He reveals to me what I could not understand on my own.

Another example could be a man seeks to court a woman and wishes to give her a gift which would be meaningful to her.  He cannot by science or reason deduce what she likes.  However, perhaps the woman's roommate tells the man that the woman would love a single red rose and loves Pachelbel's Canon in D.  If the man rejected the roommate's knowledge based on Empiricism or claimed such information was Irrational he would be ignoring a valid source of knowledge.

All of us depend on another to reveal to us in one way or another knowledge we need but have no way of figuring out on our own.  Doctors examine us when we are ill and tell us we need to change our lifestyle or we could wind up making it worse.  Friend's tell us how to get to "Bill's house."  Things we cannot know by our own resources can be reliably transmitted to us by one who knows.

This kind of knowledge is called Revelation: the revealing of something previously unknown.  We cannot know this on our own, but we believe the one who reveals it to us is trustworthy.


If God exists, and is omniscient, it stands to reason such a being would have knowledge we could not know on our own.  If this being chose to reveal His knowledge to us, we would have to consider whether the source of knowledge was trustworthy, because we would not be able to verify it through observation.

Does this mean we have to hold it on ipse dixit?  No.  When a person tells us a thing, we need to consider the source.  If a person tells us a thing, the question becomes whether the person is a credible witness. 

Lying, Insane or Telling the Truth?

Consider the following [fictional] examples:

Example #1: Mel, the town drunk, claims to have been abducted by aliens.  He claims they did some "things" he can't quite remember.  He can't remember when it happened, but he remembers waking up on the side of the road naked and a medical examination shows he was drunk at the time.  If we know he has often blacked out, confused dreams for reality and has been found passed out on the side of the road in various forms of undress in the past, we might not consider him reliable.

Example #2: Fred is considered a level headed man, a hard worker and a person who speaks the truth and does not lie… a person of integrity in other words.  He claims to have been abducted by aliens and gives an account which seems to be consistent, mentioning the times it had happened.  A medical examination shows him to have been shaken by the event, but he shows no signs of mental impairment or derangement.  In this case we would have to consider some things.

If Fred in this case was considered a reliable person who was honest and ethical, we would have to ask:

  1. How well do we know the universe?
  2. How well do we know Fred?
  3. Is Fred irrational, easily deceived or given to lying?

If we know Fred well, and we don't know the universe well enough to know that aliens can't exist we have to ask which is more logical: Is he lying, insane or telling the truth?  If we can see he was not mentally impaired and we know he does not behave in a dishonest manner, we have to decide what we believe.

A priori Assumptions or Objective Evaluations?

In the example #2 above, we either have to decide that Fred is trustworthy or else we have to base our conclusion on our a priori (based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation) assumption that "aliens can't exist" and therefore he must have been lying or impaired but we couldn't detect it.

This would be a verdict yes, but it would not be an objective evaluation, but based on the belief aliens cannot exist.  Now based on what we know of the universe, extraterrestrial life is not something we can prove exists.  It may be true, but based on the evidence we have we cannot prove it true.  Neither can we prove it does not exist.  We can decide we think it more probable to think they do or do not exist, but we cannot claim it is "scientific" to hold one view.  If someone were to attack the opponent's view, claiming there were no aliens, it may be true or false, but if one wanted to say the other was unscientific, there would be no evidence to justify that. 

Likewise, when it comes to people, like the Apostles, who claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead, the people who reject it do not do so from evidence of lying or of derangement, but from a belief that: the supernatural cannot exist, the Apostles could not have experienced what they claimed, therefore they were lying or insane or deceived.  That's not objective evaluation.  That's ideology.

[In case you're wondering, I hold no beliefs on the existence of aliens.  There is no empirical evidence they exist, and even if they do, given the possibility of vastly different technology levels and the vastness of space, even if they do exist, there is no guarantee we would ever be able to discover them.  I would say however that the absence of empirical evidence is not "proof" they do not exist.]


"Back to the Beginning"

Thus we are back to the beginning: The claim that anything which cannot be discovered by science does not exist [or, more mildly, "most likely does not exist"].  The problem is, such a claim cannot be made as a proven statement because it lacks evidence.  The claim "No [Supernatural] is [True]" is entirely based on the ipse dixit of the person who believes it.

Now, does this mean that both believers and unbelievers are both proclaiming an ipse dixit when it comes to a claim which cannot be verified empirically and we have no way of knowing which is correct?  No.  When a person makes a claim, we have to ask ourselves what they say and whether they are credible.  What is credible may not be determined by empirical knowledge alone

Using the Right Tool for the Job

Christians believe that the witness of those who knew Jesus Christ is credible.  Objections to such claims can be examined.  Claims based on empirical knowledge can be looked into empirically.  Claims based on philosophical knowledge can be studied for logical flaws.  Claims based on revealed knowledge require an analysis of the one who reveals.  But one doesn't evaluate philosophical claims with empirical knowledge.  One uses the right tool for the job, and using the wrong tool means the job fails.

It is one thing to say "I don't believe in the credibility of the witness" (though such a statement would need to be backed by evidence if one wanted to establish it as anything other than a personal opinion).  It is quite another to say things like "God does not exist" or "The Supernatural does not exist" and claim that such a statement has its basis in empirical knowledge.

To make such a claim is to give a verdict that demands evidence… evidence which does not exist and cannot exist due to the nature of empirical knowledge.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Aut Deus Aut Malus Homo revisited


On occasion I find some individuals objecting to CS Lewis' famous Aut Deus aut malus homo ("Either God or a bad man") argument by claiming it does not consider other options.  It seeks to argue that Jesus did not have to be a bad man and still did not have to be God either.  (Actually, Lewis popularized the argument, but it goes back much further).


The problem with the objections is it shows some do not understand the intention of the argument.  They think it falls short because they think it overlooks other options.  So let's go over the main points first.

Aut Deus [which I will use from now on to abbreviate the title] is commonly called a "trilemma" but this is inaccurate.  It's actually a "quadrilemma" but in which one of the four solutions is impossible.

The Basic Argument

CS Lewis described the situation as follows in Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Book II: Chapter 3. Page 52 in my copy)

So to pick and choose what elements of what Christ said is true to call Him a wise man or a moral teacher, while denying the claims He made about His divinity is to choose an option which does not follow.  If He did in fact say these things, then we must either accept Him as God or reject Him.

[For those who deny Christ said what is attributed to Him, this is looked at in PART II in this article]

Establishing the Categories

We need to consider this by establishing two groups of two.

In the first group, we need to divide humanity into two groups:

  1. Those individuals who are considered wise, sagacious men (such as Socrates, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Aristotle etc.)
  2. Those individuals who are not (the rest of us)

[By wise, and sagacious, we generally do not mean technical knowledge, but a person with insights into the condition of the human person.]

In the second group we divide humanity into two groups:

  1. Those who claim to be God
  2. Those who do not (again, most of us)

[Now the second group does not only include Christ.  There are many insane individuals who claim to be God.  Also keep in mind, this is a group where the individual claims to be God… not that the followers later "divinized" a person who did not claim to be God, as some groups have]

With this in mind, we have four groups of people:

  1. Those who are neither considered wise nor claim divinity
  2. Those who are not considered wise and claim divinity
  3. Those who are considered wise and do not claim divinity
  4. Those who are considered wise and do claim divinity.

Those who fall into each group

Now, let us look at who falls into each of these groups.

The individuals who fall into group one are most of us.  We may have more or less intelligence than the norm, but we do not consider ourselves to be one of the great minds of the world.  We do not consider ourselves to be divine either.

Those who are in group two are people who are not considered wise, but do claim to be divine.   The idea of "the divinity complex" falls in here.  They tend to be shallow individuals, monomaniac in nature.  Generally they do not live for others, but others are expected to live for them.  Their "wisdom" tends to be platitudes, not any real insights.

[If you are one of the "new age" types who claim divinity, I recommend reading St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles book I to understand what it means to be "God."]

Those individuals in group three are considered wise men, but do not claim to be divine.  The ancient philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle; or the ancient holy men like Moses are considered to be in this group.  They do have insights into the human condition, but do not consider themselves to be God.

Finally, we have group four, which is made up of those individuals who are considered wise and also claim to be divine.  To be honest, only one historical individual has been considered wise and has also claimed divinity, and that is Jesus Christ.

Since Jesus claimed to be God and He was not considered a bad man, then it seems to follow that either He was God or else one has to establish that He was a bad man or to admit he was God.

What this set of divisions means

Before individuals start accusing me of overlooking other claims [which I will deal with later on in the section "Part II: Challenges to the premises Aut Deus"], let us first finish this point.  CS Lewis and Peter Kreeft have used the Aut Deus argument, not to say "This proves Jesus is God" but to say "You can't say Jesus was merely a wise man if you accept what is in Scripture."

A person who claims he is more than he is is not a good man or a wise man.  To claim to be more than you are is to be arrogant, a liar or insane.  These are character flaws which show that goodness and wisdom is at least deficient.

Getting Personal

If, for example, I claimed to be a great writer and a wise man, I am sure most of you reading this would consider me to be arrogant.  This would be a flaw in me which detracted from what was good in me.

If I claimed I was a greater theologian than Thomas Aquinas, a man wiser than Socrates, I am sure some of you would be wondering if I was insane, and the rest of you would be certain I was an insufferable man of arrogance who grossly overestimated his self worth.  It would be a strong argument against any claim I had to being good.

If I claimed to be God, with all knowledge and power over the universe, with the ability to forgive sins and to pass judgment on the world I am sure ALL of you would think me insane or a liar (or both).

The point is, by claiming to be more than I am, it would show I was not a "good man" or a "wise man."

Aut Deus aut homo malus

This is where the "Either God or a Bad Man" argument comes into play.  Everyone tends to acknowledge that Jesus was a good person and a wise person, but we have these claims He made to be God.  Now a good man and a wise man does not claim to be more than he is, and a man who does claim to be more than he is would generally not be considered good or wise.

So whatever one thinks of Jesus, they cannot consider him to be merely a good man, because men who are good do not consider themselves to be God.  Either He was right to call Himself God, or He was a bad man (morally or intellectually).


For those who were objecting I had not covered all other conclusions, there are two other common options which are sometimes mentioned as a way out of the quadrilemma.

Some people don't like the conclusion which follows from the evidence and seek to change the conditions.  Most of the modern objections do not want to argue Jesus was a bad man.

(In the times of the Roman Empire, some critics of Christianity tried to do exactly this [move Him into group 2: People who were not wise but claimed to be God] but failed to convince even their fellow pagans because there was no credible evidence as to why one should consider Jesus a bad man.  As far as I know, nobody really tries to argue this any more so I am leaving this out.  If you really want me to discuss this, let me know and if there is enough interest I can work on an article).

Now I can't anticipate every objection but the ones I have found tend to fall into two categories in an attempt to move Jesus into group 3 [wise men not claiming to be God]:

  1. Deny Jesus did in fact claim divinity and these claims were added later
  2. Claim that the Disciples misunderstood what Jesus meant.

These two claims have a common root, and take it two different ways.  The common root is the claim that Jesus did not say what Christians believe He said and meant.  The reasoning is, if Jesus did not say what is attributed to Him, then one can safely make him like any other sage (group 3) and can be excluded from group 4.

The divergence on these two claims is over whether the so-called false information was due to malice or ignorance by His followers.

Let us take a look at these two options.

The Denial that Jesus said what was attributed to Him (and it was added later)

in the divisions of Aut Deus, this is an attempt to move Him into group three by saying "He was wise yes, but only later did people think He was God."  In modern times this has been popularized by the wretched novel The Da Vinci Code.  The claim is that Jesus taught wisely, but accounts of His life were edited by unscrupulous people somewhere along the way, adding claims of divinity and accounts of miracles.

The problem is, this is remarkably similar to the Manichean argument that Christians changed scripture because it could be used against the Manicheans.  In such a case, St. Augustine's objection remains valid:

[A]t this time the words of one Helpidius, speaking and disputing face to face against the said Manichaeans, had begun to move me even at Carthage, in that he brought forth things from the Scriptures not easily withstood, to which their answer appeared to me feeble. And this answer they did not give forth publicly, but only to us in private,—when they said that the writings of the New Testament had been tampered with by I know not whom, who were desirous of ingrafting the Jewish law upon the Christian faith; but they themselves did not bring forward any uncorrupted copies. (Confessions.  Book V, Chapter XI Section 21)

In order for a claim of "Scriptures were tampered with" to be considered as a viable theory as opposed to an opinion based on "Well Jesus couldn't have been God" we need to see what sort of proof there is.  Do we have documents to show Jesus denied saying He was God?

We don't.  Now we do have a theory of a "Q" source which is alleged to be the original accounts of what Jesus really said and did, from which the Synoptic gospels were derived.  The problem is, the Q theory is based on the unproven assumption that simpler accounts must come before the complex… which overlooks the literary talents and insights of each author.  If a man with talents which are superior writes before one who has lesser talents, the more complex writing can come first.

There is another problem with the Q theory.  We do have early Patristic writings about the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  We don't have any references to other gospels which they accepted as valid.  There were later gospels written by Gnostics (some 100-200 years after the originals were written), but these were never accepted as valid.  Indeed, reading these false gospels [which are rather dreary and boring] one sees that the "new" material they claim are clearly additions and contradictory not only to the four actual gospels, but with each other as well.  The early Christians rejected them because they came later and because they were written by people pretending to be someone else.

So while someone is free to believe the words were tampered, there is no evidence to justify the theory, and without the evidence this does not work as a rebuttal to Aut Deus.

The Claim that Jesus was Misunderstood

This claim tends to come from those influenced by Eastern mysticism, and claims that Jesus taught in a way which did not intend to say He was divine in the sense that the Jews understood "divine" to be.  The argument claims that Jesus' disciples got it completely wrong and for two thousand years people believed the wrong thing until someone figured out what He really meant.

The attempts to put Jesus into Group Three on this ground.  The problem is, if true, it actually excludes him from this group, because He would have been a poor teacher and therefore not a wise man.

The Scriptures show us that when the Disciples misunderstood Jesus, He corrected their misunderstandings.  He did not leave them in error.  If He had taught using language which was not clear, and did not clear up their misunderstandings, He would have been a poor teacher who failed to teach.

The result would be a personal who could not be considered a wise man or a moral teacher, because what He intended to teach failed to be taught, and the contrary was in fact passed on.

Getting Personal Part 2

If I attended a class for chemistry and stated that the teacher taught me the formula for water was H3O, the teacher would be obligated to correct me to understand that water was in fact H2O.  If he was aware of my error, and allowed me to remain in my error, he failed to teach what he was intending to teach.

The Telephone Game

A variant of this objection uses the analogy of the telephone game.  In this, a person whispers to another and so on until the original message was changed.  They claim that the message of Jesus fell victim of this sort of distortion and what we have now was not what was said then.  St. Augustine's objection remains valid here to ask "On what basis can you say it was distorted?"

The ancient copies we have of the Gospels have been found in diverse places across Europe and the Middle East, and with the exception of a few copyist errors which do not change the meaning of what was said we have a strong consistent set of documents written fairly close to the time of the originals.  So if there was corruption, it had to be passed on from the very beginning (the Apostles misunderstanding Christ) because there was not enough time for this sort of distortion to be happen naturally).

In comparison, copies of secular documents of this time in the Roman Empire we have fewer existing texts which were written far later, yet the concern of "the telephone game" is not used here.  Moreover, the writings of Eastern Philosophers and eastern Religious texts are not given this level of scrutiny either.  Nobody asks whether the Analects of Confucius were really written by Confucius or whether later texts completely changed the meaning of what Confucius really said.

The Underlying Assumption and an analysis of its logic

The assumption of these claims (That Jesus did not claim to be God) is that:

  1. the Supernatural [A] Is Not True [B]. (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some Scripture [C] Says the Supernatural [A] Is True [B]. (Some [C] is [A])
  3. Therefore Some Scripture [C] Is Not true [B]. (Therefore Some [C] Is Not [B])

(This is essentially how the arguments which deny the supernatural aspects of Scripture boil down to).

The logical form is indeed valid.  If No [A] is [B] and Some [C] is [A] then Some [C] is not [B].  So the question here is whether the major premise is true.

Now, if the major premise is true, then the conclusion does follow.  However if we know the major premise is false OR if we do not know whether the major premise is true, then the argument is not sound and the conclusion is not proven.

The problem is the premise "The Supernatural does not exist" is needs to be proven true.  For the conclusion to be true, the Major premise must be shown to be true.  The problem is the first Proposition says There is No [A] in [B].  This requires full knowledge of what is true [B] to know that there is no Supernatural [A] in it.  If we do not know everything about [B] We cannot say there is no [A] in it, and the major premise cannot be proven true.  Because we cannot know the major premise is true, we cannot prove the conclusion from this argument.

Since we cannot prove the major premise [No Supernatural is true], we cannot claim that the conclusion [Scripture which speaks of the supernatural is not true] is proven or reasonable.


I don't claim that this article "proves" Christianity true.  This was not the intent, after all.  Rather it demonstrates why certain objections to Aut Deus (on grounds of Jesus not actually saying what was attributed to Him) do not in fact break the argument down.  One can of course still believe that Jesus never claimed to be divine.  One can claim He was a madman or a liar as well.  But before insisting everyone accept that conclusion, we want some sort of evidence.

We who are Christians believe the testimony passed on is reliable.  Not everyone will agree with us.  However, whether or not this disagreement is anything other than ipse dixit depends on the evidence one can put forward for the claim that Jesus was something other than we believe Him to be.

If there is no evidence to show the testimony we believe in is actually false, Christians are not irrational for believing our faith is true.