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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label fallacies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fallacies. Show all posts

Monday, May 23, 2016

What's the One Question No Christian Can Answer?

Remember that cliffhanger on Friends where Rachel sees Joey on one knee with a ring in his hand and tells him she would marry him? As fans of the show would know, the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. Joey bent down to pick up an engagement ring that had fallen out of Ross's jacket. Even though Joey never actually asked her to marry him, it was because Rachel had it in her mind that she was going to be alone that she reacted so quickly to his posture.

Sitcoms have made a trope out of friends misunderstanding one another. The seventies sitcom Three's Company seemed to drive almost every episode on some kind of farcical misunderstanding. However, in the real world misunderstandings are usually not so funny nor so easily resolved. Yet, we live in an age where in-person conversations have given way to digital exchanges and misunderstanding someone else is easier than ever.

Real conversations between people allow the participants to see each other's body language, facial expressions, and their level of attentiveness. Their voice inflection, cadence, and speed help our understanding of the words they use and what they mean. But all of that is lost in the digital world of texts and social media comments.

How does this affect me and my witness?

Perhaps you've followed me to this point and are currently thinking, "Well, yeah. Everyone has had an experience when our text or comment was received differently than intended. But what's your point?" My point is simple, as Christians who engage with others both in person and on social media, we must be extra diligent to make sure we really understand the other person before we comment in any way.

Unfortunately, I see the opposite over and over again, especially on boards that focus on defending the faith. One particularly grievous pattern that I've observed is people commenting on the title of an article that has been shared or posted without actually bothering to read the article itself. Just like the distracted Rachel who's a bit wrapped up in her own needs, these folks are responding to something that many times hasn't been said. Yet we complain whenever an atheist or news report provides a caricature of a Christian position, many times without ever asking a Christian what it is he or she believes.

This can happen in face to face conversations when you're too busy thinking about what your next "killer comeback" is going to be instead of really listening to the other person. But I've shown that taking a vested interest in the other person and their beliefs can radically change the nature and direction of the conversation. Online, it happens even more frequently, and results in driving people apart more than helping them see the truth of the Gospel.

Did you answer this article's title before you got here?

Even in my own writings, I often title my articles in the form of a question (just as this one is). When I post them on Facebook, I receive several responses. The people don't interact with the article and its ideas, but they simply answer the question in the article's title! Sometimes they even get the topic the question raises wrong. This should never happen.

Christians need to care enough about those with whom we interact to find out what it is they're saying before we rush headlong into our "silver bullet" answer. We cannot allow ourselves to create straw men.  When the issues are important, proper communication and understanding become even more crucial. Don't rely on second hand accounts of what you think an expert said, read the expert yourself. You may be surprised to find a more nuanced view than you were lead to believe. Don't snap to a judgement on a post because the first sentence sounds like a common view. It may or may not be. Ask the author some questions and see if you can understand what is behind the comment. By asking questions, you may even be able to show the inconsistency of the other person's view.

What's the one question no Christian can answer? It the one they never bothered to hear in the first place.

Image courtesy Lourdes S. (Day 14: I Don't Know ANY of This!) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tips for Sharing Your Faith #5 - Look for Logical Fallacies

When I was in sixth grade, some of my friends and I played an elaborate hoax on the second graders in our neighborhood. We took some ViewMaster projector and some slides of the Apollo missions, a sound effects record, an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and some flashing Christmas lights that we taped t the back of a panel and convinced these kids we were taking them up in space. We tried to think of everything; we even sewed some dime-store space patches on our clothing to simulate uniforms.

I don't know just how much the little kids really bought, but they sure seemed to swallow the story hook, line, and sinker. The main reason was we had all the trappings right. It looked and sounded like a space launch in their limited experience.

When you are talking about faith and opposing worldviews, many Christians can be just as gullible as the second graders in my story above. They will hear an objection or an argument and because it sounds like a real objection, they assume it is a serious issue. However, the mature Christian will be able to identify what are known as logical fallacies. Fallacies are not real arguments. They're smoke-and mirrors tricks that are not evidence of someone's position. I've reviewed a couple of these before, but I'd like to quickly go through some of the more common ones below.

1. Genetic Fallacy

The genetic fallacy is any argument that draws a conclusion due to an irrelevant aspect of the source. An example I've often used is of an elementary school teacher who taught children their multiplication tables. Imagine that later this teacher was convicted of perjury. Since the teacher is a proven liar, does that mean the children should now not believe that 2x2=4? Just because the source of that fact has been shown to be flawed, it doesn't mean that the particular point you are arguing is flawed, too. Here are some examples of the genetic fallacy:
  • "You are a Christian because you were raised in a Christian country."
  • "Because the Bible is an ancient document, it can't be relevant to today."
  • "Too many Christian hypocrites have told me the same thing that you're saying."

2. Argumentum ad Populum

Argumentum ad Populum, or arguing to the people is saying because an opinion or position is the popular one, it should therefore be believed. However, the popularity of a position doesn't make the position true. Slavery was accepted in the early period of the United States, but that doesn't mean it was right or moral. Here are some examples of argumentum ad populum:
  • "Everyone believes evolution is true."
  • "The vast majority of scientists don't believe in God."

3. Argumentum ad Hominem

Argumentum ad Hominem means arguing to the man, and it happens when a person attacks the person for some inconsequential reason.  While the most well-known version of the fallacy would include an insult ("You're too stupid for me to believe that!"), many times the ad Hominem argument is more subtle. For example, a Democrat that rejects any statement offered by a Republican because of his party affiliation is committing a type of the ad Hominem fallacy. Here are a couple more:
  • "I can't listen to you about abortion. How can you possibly know how a woman feels since you're a man?"
  • "Christianity can't be believed. I mean, look at what the Christians did in the Crusades!"

4. False Dilemma

A false dilemma is when you are offered two choices as the only two possibilities, while more really exist.
  • "Either you accept outdated beliefs or you hold to reason."
  • "I would rather place my trust in science than faith."

5. Straw Man

Sometimes people will either oversimplify Christian beliefs or completely misstate what Christians believe. Just as a scarecrow stuffed with straw is easier to knock over than a real man, some will construct a straw man of the Christian's beliefs just to more easily knock them down.  (For a fuller explanation of a straw man, see this.) Here are a few straw men that you may recognize:
  • "All you Bible-believing nuts want to be slain in the spirit and protest against homosexuals"
  • "Everything needs a cause. God is a thing, so what caused him?"

6. Appeal to Pity

Appeals to pity are simply trying to not argue on the reasons for a position but rather on making someone feel bad. It tries to play on people's emotions rather than the facts of the matter. You can see this used all the time in political campaigns, where candidates will offer one or two anecdotes of a person who is in a tough spot and then argue that certain policies need to be adopted "to help her out of this difficult time." It's a tug on the heartstrings instead of looking at the argument itself. Here are some more examples:
  • "If abortion is not legalized, then only the rich will be able to get abortions."
  • "Accepting Christianity would mean that there are more people in Hell than in Heaven. That's a monstrous belief."
To see all the posts in this series, click here.
Photo courtesy edgeplot and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beware of Straw Men!

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger was originally cast to play the part of the Tin Man instead of the Scarecrow. According to Wikipedia, he longed for the part, though. Luckily, he was recast as the straw-filled character movie audiences have come to know and love. Bolger's character is someone you would want to embrace, a true friend who can sing and dance his way into your heart.

However, many times I find people much too easily embracing another type of straw man, one that should be avoided at all costs. I'm referring to the straw man constructed by those arguing for one particular position over another. I've discussed some of the different ways to argue about a position. I don't mean a fight, but the rational exchange of ideas. Sometimes when building their argument, people make mistakes. These are known in logic as fallacies and the straw man is a classic fallacy. Basically, one constructs a straw man when they argue against a position that the other person doesn't hold, or they mischaracterize the other person's position. Usually, this kind of mischaracterization is used so that, like a straw-filled sparring dummy, the person's argument is easier to knock down.

Examples of Straw-Man Arguments

Some examples of straw-man arguments are easy to see. In their book The Fallacy Detective, Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn use the following example of a straw man:

POLITICAL CANDIDATE A: Due to this year's budget problems, I think our state should decrease the amount of money going to the schools. This would solve the problem. We could bring the amount of money back to normal next year.

POLITICAL CANDIDATE B: My fellow citizens, is this what you want in a candidate? Someone who is against our schools, against our children's education, and against our futures?

As you can see, Candidate B does not talk about the question that Candidate A is focusing on: solutions to a budget problem. Instead, Candidate B misrepresents Candidate A's position to make it sound as if he is seeking to cut school funding because he doesn't want schools to succeed. It's much easier to win an argument in the minds of the people when you create a faulty position and then turn around and argue against a position that the other person never took. That's why the Bluedorns classify a straw man as an attempt to avoid the real question.

When defending one's faith, this kind of switch happens far too frequently. Here are some classic examples:

CHRISTIAN: Without a wholly good God, there is no way to ground moral values. Therefore atheism cannot hold to objective morality.

ATHEIST: How dare you Christians say that because I'm an atheist I cannot understand what it means to be moral!

In the above exchange, you can see that the Christian wasn't discussing whether the atheist could recognize or comprehend what it means to be moral. That's a knowledge question. Rather, he was making the claim that there is no logical basis for believing such morals, even though they are recognized, should carry authority over someone's actions. This is known as the moral grounding problem.

ATHEIST: Science is based on reason while religion is only based on faith.
In such a statement, there are really two straw men. The one easier to identify is that religion (usually meaning Christianity) is only based on faith. This simply isn't true as Christianity from its very beginnings have relied on the evidence of the eyewitnesses and the empty tomb (ref Acts 2:32, Acts 3:15, 1 Cor 15:3-8). Even so far as appeal to the crowd with phrases such as "as you yourselves know."

Secondly, the statement mischaracterizes science as somehow being completely devoid of passion or bias. The history of science argues otherwise, with huge fights breaking out over various positions. Because money and position are now a part of the scientific process (most on the university campus has heard the canard "publish or perish") it is easier for people to inadvertently become biased in their research. In fact, that's what this recent article in the science journal Nature warns. They noted within the field of pharmaceutical development "Science's internal controls on bias were failing, and bias and error were trending in the same direction — towards the pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positive results." This doesn't mean that every scientific discovery is biased, but it does demonstrate that science is not somehow immune from bias any more than any other field of study.

Imposing a straw-man fallacy during an argument is not playing fair. It judges another person for a view that he or she doesn't hold and then pretends to make the perpetrators seem more intelligent than they are. If we are going to engage others, we must make sure that we properly understand their specific position. Tomorrow I will talk more about that.
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