Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ipse Dixit and Illogic

Ipse dixit: an assertion made but not proved


One of the interesting things I have noticed about the attacks on Christianity in general are the claims which are made without proof.  Things get repeated over and over, but when the claims are investigated, there is no valid proof for the claim.

Indeed, it appears that often instead of a proof for an unsubstantiated charge, instead an evasion is employed to put the burden on those they disagree with.

I'd like to discuss some of these tactics which commonly appear on the internet debates.

The Double Standard

Christianity of course has proofs for its claims, under the proper understanding of the term (demonstrate by evidence or argument the truth or existence of.)  Not all may accept the arguments in favor of the Christian view of course.  However, when one limits "proof" to scientific evidence, and argues therefore Christianity cannot be proven true, how is one to respond?

The Double Standard is important to remember here.  If one argues that Scientific evidence can't establish the existence of God, therefore it is probable God does not exist, one is justified in applying the same standard to the atheistic claim: Can we establish the claims of atheism to be true by scientific evidence?

I've found in general that the atheist will then be forced to admit that their argument is not based on scientific evidence, but on arguments which they believe demonstrates what they believe.

The problem is twofold:

  1. If the claims of Christianity are to be held to scientific evaluation, then so must those of atheism… and we remain at the level of neither claim being established.  Therefore atheism cannot be established as being "true" or "most probable" Ipse dixit.
  2. If atheism rests on the claim of arguments of probability and argued propositions, then Christianity must also be evaluated by the same standard.  Can the claims of atheism be established as proven?  If not, then ipse dixit applies again.

The problem is, the double standard in attacking Christianity demands scientific proof to establish the existence of God, but declines to provide such for the truth of atheism.  This is a double standard.

Ipse dixit in this case is the claim that "there is no proof for God, therefore atheism is more probable."  It is claimed, but it is not proven.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

This is a popular fallacy in internet debate.  The general strategy works this way:

  1. Debater makes a claim ("God does not exist")
  2. Another person questions the claim ("On what basis can you claim this?")
  3. Debater insists that questioner prove their point ("Well, then prove God does exist.")

The reason this is not a valid tactic is that the debater in this case is not offering any proofs for the claim (ipse dixit), but is demanding the person questioning it disprove them.

Some of the cheap ways used to shift the burden of proof are:

  • "You can't ask someone to prove a negative."  (Answer: If you are so foolish to state a universal negative, that is your problem.  You've still made a claim which needs to be proven.)
  • "The person making the greater claim has the burden of proof." (Answer: Really.  So if you argue we need to kill a million people, and I say we need only maim 500,000 people, only you have to prove your point, and not I?)
  • "You can't prove what you believe either." (Answer: You made the assertion, so it is the reasons for your claim that are immediately relevant.)

Statements like these abound on the internet to be sure.  The problem is they are used as an evasion of providing proof.  This leads us to the next area of fallacy.

The Red Herring

The Red Herring is the introduction of material which seeks to derail the topic of the debate by introducing a claim and demanding it be dealt with, even though it is not the topic of the debate to begin with.

For example, if we are discussing Stalinist persecution of Christians, and someone chimes in with "What about the inquisition?" the answer is "what relevance does this have to the topic?"  If we are debating the problem with the policy of the Stalinist state, an event which took place 400 years prior is not relevant.  It could be relevant if we were debating whether or not the state had the right to restrict religious freedom in general, but if this was not the topic, the introduction of the new claim is merely a distracting tactic.

Of course not all counter examples are indeed Red Herrings. 

The topic of religious persecution is a popular one on the internet.  It does require paying attention to what is the topic.  If someone is discussing the Spanish Inquisition and I respond with "What about Stalin?" that is indeed a red herring and a tu quoque, because whatever Stalin did has no bearing on whether or not the Inquisition was a thing which should have been done. 

However, if someone says "Religion is the cause of the most death and destruction in history," using the Crusades and the Inquisition as examples, and I counter with the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Stalinist purges, Mao's actions in China and so on as examples of bloodshed done for secular motivations, I am not using either the Red Herring or the tu quoque, as I am responding to the thesis ("Religion is the cause of the most death and destruction in history,") with valid counter claims (secular wars and persecutions) which challenge the accuracy of the thesis.

The person employing the Red Herring is in fact seeking to evade the question of the debate by misdirecting it.  So when we are considering an example, we ought to consider first of all whether it is relevant to the topic at hand.

The tu quoque fallacy

Often used with the Red Herring, the tu quoque seeks to shift the blame or the focus by claiming that the other person is being hypocritical.  It differs from the double standard when it is has no bearing on the discussion.  For example:

Father (To teenage daughter): You shouldn't smoke

Daughter: Why not?  You do!

Whether or not the Father smokes is not relevant to whether or not one should smoke.  For all we know the Father is hopelessly addicted and doesn't want his daughter to go through the same problems he has.  Even if there is a case of hypocrisy, this doesn't change the issue in question of whether or not it is true.  Even if a person in question is hypocritical (a member of the clergy speaking of chastity while keeping a mistress) it does not affect the validity of what he is promoting or denouncing.

You'll often see the Spanish Inquisition invoked on the discussion of religions being persecuted by the secular state for example.  The Spanish Inquisition was indeed a blot on history, and there is no need to defend it (though it is important to refute claims about it which are false). However, the existence of the Inquisition is irrelevant to whether the secular state has authority to restrict religion.

(If you're arguing that the Inquisition is bad then it isn't a counterexample to the claim that state interference with the Church is bad.  It actually says either both are wrong or both are right.  However, one can condemn Stalinist oppression of religion without saying the churchmen involved with the Spanish Inquisition were right).

The tu quoque proves nothing, and is merely a cheap tactic to distract.

The Ad Hominem

The ad hominem can be blatant ("you are a tool," "you are narrow minded," you're a fascist!" and so on) or it can be more subtle, attacking the person because of the position he holds ("David Berlinski must be a fundamentalist because he supports Intelligent Design"  [Berlinski is actually a self-professed "agnostic Jew"]) but the tu quoque essentially ignores the argument and attacks the person making it.

It is popular of course.  Political columnists like Molly Ivans, Maureen Dowd and Ann Coulter have employed it to mock those who disagree with their views (humorous to the person who agrees, annoying to the one who does not).  The problem is, when you recognize the ad hominem in their writings, it still may be funny (again, it depends on your preferences), but it proves exactly nothing.

I find that when people get to the ad hominem attack, even if they may sound impressive or intimidating, have merely demonstrated they have no answer for your argument.  The ad hominem refutes nothing and proves nothing.  It merely demonstrates the person's hostility to a position, and depending on the level of extremity shows the character of the one making the attack.

Conclusion: The Emperor Has No Clothes

When one strips away the logical fallacies like this, the ipse dixit becomes clear.  They are employed as a distraction away from the claim which is made, but not proven.  The claim is made repeatedly, but never proven.  Distractions are made to put those who object on the defensive.  Over time it becomes widely accepted.  Even so, "The emperor has no clothes" and the statement remains unsupported.

As GK Chesterton once said, "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions."  If it is popular to attack fundamentalists, for example, this does not make the attacks on the claims of fundamentalists "right."  If a movement which favors homosexual marriage labels those who oppose as "homophobic" it is still an ipse dixit making a statement without backing it up.

Of course we who are Christians need to be careful not to make use of these errors ourselves against those we debate.  It is emotionally satisfying to apply a sarcastic ad hominem.  It feels satisfying to remind the atheist of Stalin when he goes on a tirade against Christianity.  But, if we apply logical errors to attack others rather than to establish what we believe we are not proving our own point.  Instead we are causing scandal by making it appear that we have no basis for our beliefs.

Unfortunately it is easy to fall into the traps of illogic.  We are not only people of intellect, but also of emotion.  Nobody wants to look foolish.  So we can respond in annoyance, in anger.  We can misunderstand the subject of the argument and fall off track.

However, we need to remember that when we defend Christianity, using errors like these fail to show the truth of what we believe.  We can appear as petty and vindictive as those who use them to attack our faith.  We should remember the wisdom of CS Lewis and his "Apologist's Prayer"

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seem to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity
Thou, who wouldst give no other sign, deliver me
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all me thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle's eye,
Take me from all my trumpery lest I die.

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