Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reflections on Drive By Proselytism and False Claims About Christ

The internet being what it is, there are inevitably bizarre claims made by somebody about the "real nature" of Jesus, claiming that Christianity had it wrong for 2,000 years while they had it right.  Thus we hear claims that Jesus was merely a human who kept the Torah perfectly, or was a teacher enlightened in India or that Jesus was merely a "mask" of God, or some other (heretical) claims which seek to deny both the Scripture and the consistent interpretation of it for 2,000 years.

They point to certain verses in the Bible to bolster their claims, yet whatever runs counter to their beliefs are negated as being "added later" or "being misunderstood."

The Problems with the So-called "Real Jesus" which run against Scripture and Tradition

It seems to me that St. Augustine's comments on the Manicheans seem to fit these sort of claims.  Recalling when he was a Manichean and encountered Christians who showed the group he followed was against Scripture and Tradition:

[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)

Given that the testimony of Scripture and the Church speaks of Jesus are all that exists as evidence of the historical person of Jesus, any "alternate" account must exaggerate one aspect and suppress another.  The question is, of course, "on what basis can one make claims about this other view?"

One could certainly pull quotes from Scripture to claim anything.  Do you want to use Scripture to claim Christ is an alien?  Sure, how about John 18:36, which says:

Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”

If World is another word for Planet, then it follows that Jesus is saying that He came from another planet, and anyone who thinks He was God clearly did not understand alien technology.  Prove me wrong.

[I suspect nobody would buy this argument of course.]

Anything which ran afoul of this view was "obviously" contradictory or added later to this sort of claim.  This is how they defend their beliefs.

The Response

Anyone who would seek to make claims about the "Real Jesus" which runs counter to the Christian faith needs to not only show Scripture which seems on the surface to support their view, but they need to establish that this was the faith of the Apostles.  We have the testimony of the early Christians in the writings called "the Patristics."  We have testimony of these writings which show how the Christian faith was understood from the earliest centuries.  Anyone who wishes to claim that this testimony is false must show us the testimony they claim is true.

Usually they won't however.  They'll use a variant of what the Manicheans said to Augustine: The originals were tampered with, the originals were burned, the originals were misunderstood and so on.

The problem is, this means that for 2,000 years everybody missed the point, including the Apostles who believed Jesus had risen from the dead and was God, and only now did someone figure out what he really meant.  This is of course asinine.

Moreover, it means they have no evidence unless they can (as St. Augustine pointed out) produce the "uncorrupted copies."

The term for this is ipse dixit.  (An unproven statement which is based entirely on the "say-so" of the speaker).  Of course if the speaker cannot produce proof of the authority he possesses to speak authoritatively, there is no reason to accept it when there is no evidence for it, and much evidence to the contrary as to what Christians believed.

Ultimately people who believe in and promote these claims have no basis for establishing they do speak for the "Real Jesus."  Whether it is something famous like Dan Brown's pro-Gnostic Da Vinci Code or something obscure nobody has heard of until they post it on a blog site, they say a thing ipse dixit and expect one to swallow it by making themselves an authority who cannot be questioned.

Those of us who know the truth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will not be swayed of course.  But there are those out there who are not confident in their knowledge, and can be bullied into thinking they might be wrong because such a person sounds so "authoritative."

So when these believers of false claims come to challenge the Christian faith, there are two questions they must answer to our satisfaction:

  1. What proof do you have for your claims?
  2. What authority do you have to tell us your interpretation is superior to the testimony of the first Christians?

(Recommended Reading: Between Heaven and Hell)

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Importance of Remembering the Sequence of Events

Source: The Catholic Key Blog: USCCB Reaffirms Opposition to Senate Bill, Commends Senator Nelson

I'm sure certain Catholics will treat the actions of Senator Nelson, and the USCCB praising his efforts as a certain cause-effect, in order to paint it as Catholics supporting abortion.  However this would be dishonest.

The Catholic document showing Cardinal DiNardo praising Nelson, shows the cardinal's statement, was dated 12/18/09, and seems to be based on facts listed in the Cardinal's 12/14/09 letter.  Nelson's sell-out happened late on 12/19/09.  So in terms of sequence, the praising of Nelson took place before his unacceptable compromise… a compromise Cardinal DiNardo and the USCCB could not know it happened.

The USCCB has stated that the Health Care bill is unacceptable as it exists now.   So both liberals who want to argue that it is ok to be pro-abortion and Catholic, as well as the conservatives who wish to argue the Bishops are "heretical", would be misrepresenting the position of the Church.

One hopes the USCCB does come out with a strong statement now… it is certainly needed.  However, let us not blame them for something which they did not do.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reflections on Anti-Catholic Claims

Preliminary Note on Terms

[The reader should note when I speak of "certain Protestants" I make this qualification because there are differences in beliefs.  Not all hold the same beliefs on things like "Once Saved Always Saved" for example.  The Protestant reader who does not hold to the issues discussed should be aware that I am not making a blanket statement of all Protestants.  I do know of several Protestants who, while I disagree with them, I do not consider anti-Catholic, and I am certain there are many I do not know who share the charitable attitudes of those I do know.]

The Issue to Consider

It is always interesting to see the claims of the anti-Catholics out there.  They seem determined to save us and to show us our "errors."

The problem is, the "errors" they want to save us from are errors the Catholic Church does not even hold.  It is always a distortion of what we believe or else something which is entirely false.

What Is "Anti-Catholic"?

That Protestants disagree with Catholics is not, of itself, an act of anti-Catholicism.  What makes a person anti-Catholic is not that he believes differently than the Catholic Church, but that he believes he must attack the Catholic Church, and often justifies uncharitable behavior on the grounds that he is "saving" us from damnation.

The Wisdom Of Fulton J. Sheen

I think Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said it best when he said in 1938:

“There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is of course a different thing.  These millions can hardly be blamed for hating Catholics because Catholics "adore statues"; because they "put the Blessed Mother on the same level as God"; because they say "Indulgence is a permission to commit capital sin"; because the Pope "is a fascist"; because the "Church is the defender of Capitalism."  If the Church taught or believed any one of these things it should be hated, but the fact is the Church does not believe nor teach any one of them.  It follows then that the hatred of the millions is directed against error and not against truth.  As a matter of fact, if we Catholics believed all of the untruths and lies which were said against the Church, we probably would hate the Church a thousand times more than they do.”

This is an important distinction.  The Church is not hated for what she believes, but is hated for what she is falsely accused of believing.

Distinguishing between Dispute and False Charges

That Catholics and Protestants disagree on certain issues is an unfortunate reality.  There have been close to 500 years of separation which causes misunderstanding, and sadly even hostility among certain members.  With those 500 years, rifts have been built up, which will take reliance on God and prayer to take down.  This is a dispute.  Some of these Protestants may misunderstand Catholic beliefs, but they do not behave in a hostile manner to us.

In such cases, explanation helps the two of us to understand each other, even when we disagree with each other.

However, certain Protestants [Yes, anti-Catholics come from sources other than Protestant, but in America the largest amount of attacks come from certain groups of fundamentalist Protestants] attack the Catholic Church with accusations of idolatry and "spiritual bondage" which is not a case of a mere misunderstanding.  These are false charges, whether the individual repeating them believes them or not.

If Catholics are to be denounced for what they believe, one should make every effort to understand what Catholics believe, and not make false accusations against the Church, because it is unjust to accuse us of what we do not believe.  The accuser should be certain that the error is not on their part.

"Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness"

The 10 Commandments condemn the bearing of false witness.  False witness can take two forms:

  1. Either I can Lie about an issue
  2. or I can repeat a false claim without verifying it is true.

In the first case the false witness is guilty of what he or she has directly done.  In the second case, he or she has not done: checking to see if a thing is true before repeating it.

In the first case, it is on the conscience of the liar.  We who are Catholic can refute them of course, but the individual is deliberately seeking to make a claim to mislead.

In the second case, there is still fault in failing to do what we ought.  Many people may believe that a false accusation is true, but we are not free to believe that just because it is repeated.  If someone relates to me that in the famous tale of Luther flinging an inkpot at the Devil was actually about Luther flinging excrement [which someone once claimed], I would be obligated to research such a claim before repeating it as true.  Otherwise I assist in passing on a falsehood, whether I believed it or not.  (To the best of my research, this "excrement" claim has no basis, and I do not believe it to be true, but is rather a malicious rumor).

Getting the Truth From the Source

If the Church is accused of holding a position, then justice requires finding out what the Church actually teaches and not what one who is hostile to the Church claims it teaches.  Jack Chick, for example, claims that the Catholic Church is secretly a paganization of Christianity, seeking to introduce teachings from Babylon.

The thing is, in all of Chick's tracts, all the sources he claims come from his own publishing, and no serious historian believes that "The Vatican" sought to create Islam as a plot to control the Holy Land.  No serious historian believes that the Catholic Church was established by Constantine.  Anyone who studies the history of Christianity will see that there was no "original Church" supplanted by the Catholic Church.  Claims which are asserted need to be researched.

Likewise, when someone accuses the Catholic Church of "inventing a doctrine" it is obligatory to show the source of the claim that it may be verified.  If someone claims Pope Leo XIII said the Death Penalty was good for keeping the heretics in line, the source for such a quote needs to be given.  It is not enough to say "This guy's book had the quote in it."  The question is, which document of the Church was it said in?  Where?  When? 

(It is interesting to note that most so-called Papal quotes which are cited by Anti-Catholics either come from documents which do not exist… meaning the person citing is merely parroting from another source, or else when the document is found, the quote is taken out of context).

If the Church "imposed" a belief (as it is often accused of doing), where did the belief begin?  Where is the evidence of so-called "real Christians" objecting?  (It is interesting to note that here the common claim is "The Church burned the evidence," which is an admission of no evidence).  We can identify real heresies, and who started them.  We know who led the fight against them.  Why does no similar evidence exist when the Church is accused of inventing beliefs?

What Does the Church actually say?

Anyone who wants to attack what the Church teaches is obligated to research what the Church teaches instead of taking the word of one hostile to the Church, to make sure that what is said is in fact true.  

For example, if I wanted to take issue with Luther's famous comment that he could commit fornication a hundred times a day and not have it affect his salvation, I would be obliged to look up what he in fact said (from what I have read, it seems more that he was using an extreme exaggeration to bring home a point, and it did not mean it was ok to sin freely.  The statement he made is full of all kinds of problems to be sure, but it is often taken out of context).

Likewise, when the Catholic Church stands accused of worshipping Mary, one is obligated to see what the Church itself says, and not what Jack Chick says (that it is secretly a Babylonian deity).

I've never once seen an attack on the Catholic Church where the accuser had an accurate understanding of the Catholic teaching.  This is a problem because what is attributed to us is false, and to falsely accuse someone is bearing false witness.

The Issue of Authority to Interpret

Some attacks against the Church are not rooted in malice of course, but in the issue of authoritative interpretation.  Some anti-Catholics argue along the lines of:

  • The Bible teaches X is condemned
  • The Catholic Church teaches X
  • Therefore the Catholic Church teaches what the Bible condemns.

There are two potential problems which need to be examined before such a claim can be considered true.  Each deals with one of the premises.  If the premise is false, the argument cannot be shown to be true.  Both premises have to be true for the condemnation of the Church to be proven true:

  1. Does the Catholic Church teach X?
  2. Is the Bible properly understood by the accuser?

Point #1 has been briefly discussed above.  If the Catholic Church does not teach X, then the syllogism is untrue.

The second point is what I wish to discuss now: Is the Bible properly understood?

Historical Conflicts and "The Bible Alone"

One of the problems with the idea of sola scriptura is the view that everyone can freely read and comment on Scripture influenced by the Holy Spirit.  The problem is, when people come up with contradictory opinions, they can't both be true.  If the Bible teaches Baptism is necessary, it can't be merely a symbol and vice versa.  If the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, it can't also be "merely a symbol" and vice versa.  If God is a trinity, He cannot also be only a monad.

Now we know these disputes exist.  Luther and Zwingli disagreed on the nature of the Eucharist.  Anabaptists and Calvinists disputed the nature of Baptism.  Trinitarian Christians and "Oneness Pentecostals"  dispute the nature of God.

The problem is all of them claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and claim the other is in error.  So who do we believe?  Who do we appeal to to make the decision?

This isn't even merely a "Protestant" issue.  We have the Sabellians of the early Church who denied that there was a Trinity, claiming "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" were merely masks worn by the One God.  We have the Arians who denied that Jesus was God, but claimed instead that Jesus was created by God as an archon (essentially God's greatest creation… but still a creature).  These individuals pointed to Scripture and claimed they understood it while the Church did not.

The Authority to Interpret

So how were the Arians and the Sabellians rejected, while the disputes over the Eucharist, Baptism and the nature of God are still disputed among certain Protestants?  In the early Church, the idea of Sola Scriptura did not exist.  It was the successors of the Apostles (the Bishops) in communion with the successor of Peter (the Pope) who were considered as having the authority.  Bishops who belonged to heretical groups were not considered having the authority to teach on Scripture… not just any man who came along.

The understanding of Scripture had to be consistent even when understanding deepened.  So with the Church long understanding the teaching of the apostles to believe Jesus was God, a person who came along claiming "Jesus was man" held a view which was not in keeping with the Apostles.  If a view came along which was contrary to what was always taught, it was rejected.

[EXCURSUS: This is why the accusation of "The Church invented X" has no real basis.  When heresies came along, the Church fought them hard as being counterfeit, and one of the things they would reject a heretical idea under is whether it was new.  It stands to reason that if the Catholic Church made heretical changes, the real Christians would denounce it.  Yet the real Christians (the Patristic authors) not only did not denounce the Catholic beliefs… they held the Catholic beliefs.  Which means that essentially if the Catholic Church was wrong, it was wrong all the way back to the time of the Apostles.  The person who argues the Catholic Church supplanted the "true" Church needs to explain where the "true" Christians went when these "errors" were introduced.]

The Problem With Sola Scriptura

Once you deny the authority of the Church however, the issue of interpretation becomes more muddy.  The issue isn't with Scripture.  We all accept the authority of Scripture (yes, even we Catholics), but if one denies an authority who can interpret, the interpretation becomes nothing more than "I said so.  If you don't like it, then leave."

All of such individuals claim the Holy Spirit guides them, but God cannot contradict God.  So if two of such people claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and they contradict, who is right?

This is why, when confronted with anti-Catholicism [as opposed to simple error in understanding what the Church teaches], I try to get the person to come out and explain why they feel they have the authority to interpret Scripture in a way which they deny to the Church.  Usually it comes down to "It's the plain sense!" [Meaning "It's how I read it."]

The Catholic View

We Catholics accept the authority of the magisterium, not because they say so, but because we believe CHRIST says so,  The Catholic Church trusts in the promises of Christ to be with the Church until the end of the world, and the gates of Hell will not triumph over it, and it shall have the authority to bind and loose (Matt 16:18-19; Matt 18:18).  Christ equates hearing the Church with hearing Him (Luke 10:16), and if one will not heed the Church, they are to be treated as an outcast (Matt 18:17).  We believe that Christ has given the Church the authority to teach in His name (Matt 28:18-20).

If we did not believe that Church was not given authority by Christ to carry out His work, we would not be Catholics.  We believe the εκκλεσια mentioned by Christ was the Catholic Church, from whom others broke away.

To be sure other churches may claim that the Catholics broke away, but the question is: on what basis can they establish this to be?  Where is this so-called Church that existed before AD 313, given that Christ promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church?

The Conclusion

Anti-Catholics often assume we are ignorant of Scripture and of Church history and they hold the truth which we need to accept to avoid Hell.  For those of us who hear and reject their arguments, we are often labeled as "reprobate."

Yet the reason we refuse to accept their claims is because we do know what the Church teaches and we know our accusers speak falsely.

If we are in agreement that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the light, speaking falsely cannot be considered a work in keeping with Christ.

If one hears horrible things about what Catholics are to believe, let them ask an educated Catholic who believes the teachings of the Church if the charges are true, and not ask one whose hatred for the Church is well known.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reflections on Faith in General and in Relation to Christian Obligation


One of the problems with the word faith is it has different meanings, and intending on the meaning one uses, the term can be used in a positive sense or in a pejorative sense:

1 complete trust or confidence.

2 strong belief in a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

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

Which Definition Do We Mean?

The common tactic used to attack religious belief is to use the second definition, making it out to seem as if the religious believer follows out of an irrational superstition.  But is it right to consider it to be this way?  Or can we consider faith, in the sense the Church uses it, to mean something different.

I think the first definition, while inadequate, comes closer to the mark.  We put our confidence in one one who is considered trustworthy.  If a person tells us a thing, and there is not a way to verify it from a different source, we have to either accept it or reject it based on the trustworthiness of the individual who makes the claim.  If we accept it, we are putting our faith in the fact that the person who has made the statement is trustworthy.

Is Faith Only Religious?

In this sense of understanding, faith is more widespread than one might believe.  People who are not skilled in medicine put their faith in their doctors to help them get well.  People who are not scientists put their faith in the claims of scientists to make judgments on various things.

If we cannot prove E=mc^2 for ourselves, we either have to accept or reject the credibility of the claim based on the trustworthiness of the one who makes the statement.

Of course in the real world there are consequences for not accepting certain things on faith.  If I deny the formula E=mc^2, people are going to want to know on what basis I make such a claim.  In other words, they want to know what makes me trustworthy to be a source of authority to reject the formula.

Even atheism is a "faith" in one of the two senses.  Either they found influential people whose arguments seemed reasoned or reasoned based on what they observed.  They may hold to it based on what they consider trustworthy sources, or they may hold on to it on personal conviction without reason.  [I've encountered both kinds].

Likewise, some Christians believe in God from sources which are trustworthy and some who believe from reasons which seem weak and likely to collapse under pressure.

Considering Faith in God… Or Lack Thereof

Ultimately I think faith in God or lack of faith comes down to this.  Philosophical arguments about the nature of God are quite valuable in understanding what it means to say God is omnipotent for example.  However, philosophical arguments alone can only tell us certain things about God.  However, if God reveals Himself to us, we have to make a decision: Is the source of the revelation trustworthy?  If we do believe He is trustworthy, people will no doubt ask us reasons for our faith.  If one does not, it is not unreasonable to ask an account of why they hold their view.

Personally, I believe the reasons for faith are quite valid.  I may not always be able to articulate my reasons for faith particularly well, but this does not mean they do not exist.

The other side of the coin however is when people not only deny the reasons, but instead claim the opposite.  If a person claims no God, the question is on what reasoning they can provide: Do they have credible reasons for denying the existence of God?  Or is it merely a "because I say so" response?

The "Because I say so" argument, whether used by a theist or an atheist, is an argument based on the second definition of faith.  There is no reason for it.  It is merely an expression of this is how we think the universe should work.

Do Our Perceptions of Another's Faith Match What He Believes?

Of course, we need to be certain that we are properly assessing the reasons for a person's faith.  It's no secret to the regular visitor here that I reject the idea of atheism.  In various works of apologetics here and elsewhere, I have encountered many who seem to hold "knee jerk" atheism, where quotes from Bertrand Russell or Sam Harris are thrown about, but when questioned, the person quoting them does not understand the significance of what is meant.

Now, does this mean all atheists hold "faith" in the second definition of the word?

No, it doesn't.  This would be trying to draw a universal conclusion from a limited sample.  Some atheists are reasoned people.  I believe they err in their basic assumptions, and I think the philosophers they consider reliable are in error as well but aside from that, they seem to believe what they hold sincerely.  Not all atheists are nasty, not all of them are bigots.

However this works the other way as well.  A person who has met a good number of believers who believe the old circular argument "The Bible is good because it comes from God, and God is good because the Bible says so" would be wrong to assume all believers think this way.  Saints like Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas believed very strongly in reason and asked hard questions, finding answers they find satisfactory.

There seems to be a common problem shared by both certain Christians and certain atheists, where the person is judged because he holds a creed.  One judges another's arguments to be untrustworthy and unreasoned simply because they hold a view the person judging disagrees with.

This is not to be understood as Indifferentism

I don't say the above with the view of saying "as long as you're sincere, that's enough."  It is important to recognize there can be very real errors about the nature of what is.  The person who thinks 2+2=5 holds a fundamental error which will throw off all his abilities to do math.  A society which believes humanity is nothing more than a talking animal will probably treat humanity like nothing more than an animal.

Certain ideas are wrong and must be challenged.  But how we take on this challenge will shape how fruitful our efforts are.

PART II: The Christian Obligation in Sharing the Faith

If we who are Christians believe that our faith comes from One who is trustworthy, it is important to recognize that we have an obligation to give an account for our faith.  We also have a duty to carry out this account in a way which is not arrogant.  How we act will be a representing of how the Faith is being seen by others.  (It is unfortunate that in nations once colonized by the West, the Faith is seen as a byproduct of the colonization and not for what it is.  This is an example of badly representing the faith by actions).

Now, we're all human.  We've all had to deal with someone who, through ignorance or through malice has attacked us or things we hold important.  We've all lost our temper, or been sarcastic or rude.  Hopefully all of us will remember those failings in ourselves when facing another who behaves in such a way to us.  As Christ has told us in Matthew 7: 1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

I think this is important.  If we get offended with those who consider us irrational zealots, let us not behave as if those we deal with are irrational zealots.

"Turn the Other Cheek" Does Not Mean "Be A Doormat."

Of course this can only be taken so far.  We should deal with others who do not share our faith in a way which is charitable, and if we fall, seek to change our behavior.  However, when we do come to people who come with the intent to mock or distort or deceive, we have to be firm, and not allow them to have their way.  "It is not charitable to be silent when truth requires us to speak" as one of the saints put it.

We should be prudent though.  If we see an attack on our Faith, and we sense we are shaking with rage, it is prudent to wait until we are calm before responding.  Just as an enraged warrior makes errors a cool swordsman can exploit to dispatch his opponent, an angry response can be exploited by a calm opponent to make you and what you believe look foolish.  [Yes, unfortunately I do speak from experience over the past several years, where I allowed myself to be baited]

Be Knowledgeable

Now those of us who profess the Christian faith are not at the same place, or have the same call.  Some may be people with a university degree.  Some may be housewives or laborers.   Some may be single with much time to devote.  Some might have many responsibilities which draw on their time.  But we should be knowledgeable in what we believe, and in dealing with those who do not believe, we should seek to recognize how they consider their faith to be based on what they deem trustworthy.

Be Centered In Christ

No person was ever argued into the Christian faith.  Our reason and intellect is a gift from God which we use to carry out His will.  We can use these gifts to expose errors and to explain where the proper knowledge is understanding. However, we cannot use these gifts to "make someone believe."  Only God can provide faith.  We can merely use our gifts to remove stumbling blocks to the faith.

If I write the most brilliant treatise on why we should believe in God, but my trust is in myself, I am doomed to fail.  We need to remember Christ is the Lord of our life, and we seek to serve Him, not win glory for ourselves.  Where God makes use of us, we need to serve, but we must not treat it as our work where God assists us.

Because of this, prayer is the most important thing we can do.  We need to remember that without Him we can do nothing

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Truth and Errors on Truth

37 Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

There is a certain group of people who deny we can know any objective truths.  They claim all knowledge is subjective in relation to us.  Then they take the religious believer to task for being "illogical, when they say truth is objective."

There is a certain irony to such a claim of course: The use of logic requires the existence of objective truth.  If [A] = [B] is true, and [B] = [C] is true, then it follows that [C] = [A] is also true.   However, if we deny that we can know that [A] = [B] and [B] = [C], then we cannot logically establish that [C] = [A].  Why?  Because if we cannot know that [A] = [B] is true, then we have nothing to use as a basis to discover the relation between [A], [B] and [C].

By denying one can know objective truth, the person making the claim is in fact denying the use of logic and reason.

What IS Truth

The best definition of truth comes from Aristotle.  To say of a thing that is, that it is, or to say of something that is not, that it is not, speaks the truth.  To say of a thing that is, that it is not, or to say of a thing that it is not, that it is, does not speak the truth.

In the quest for truth, it is in fact speaking of the reality of what is and rejecting what is not.

Now if something IS, then what it is cannot be said to be true only in relation to something else.  If a dog is a canine, it is always a canine, even if someone does not know that fact.

"All Truth is Subjective" Is A Paradoxical Statement

One of the unfortunate modern assumptions is that all truth is subjective.  The irony is this statement is in itself an objective statement, and if it is true, it must be false.  Why? 

We can demonstrate this as follows:

Statement: All truth is subjective

Now, is this true for all people or in all conditions?  If it is, this means it is objectively true, and the statement is contradiction, because if something is objectively true, it cannot be subjectively true.

However, for it to be subjectively true, it means that it is true in relation to some conditions, but not to others.  However, this means that the term "All" is false.

It's like saying "This statement is a lie."  is this statement true or false?  If this statement is true, it cannot be a lie, but the statement says it is a lie.

See what a mess it becomes when a belief contradicts itself?

The only way one could salvage the idea is to change it to "Some Truth is Subjective."  The problem is, to say "Some truth is subjective" means some truth is not subjective, but objective.

Truth: Subjective and Objective

Objective and Subjective are words which can be equivocations because each one has different meanings.  So to be precise, we should look at these different meanings.

Objective can be commonly understood to mean either

  1. not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
  2. not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.

Subjective can be commonly understood to mean either

  1. based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
  2. dependent on the mind for existence.

In both cases, definition #1 is often used.  However in terms of logic, it is definition #2 which is properly used and this is how these terms are understood by the Church.

Unfortunately Objective is often misunderstood to mean "known by all" or "believed by all."  However, even if 100% of a population believes a lie, it is still a lie.  Nor does it mean "publicly known."  If [hypothetically] only I know where a million dollars is hidden, the location of where it is hidden is true even if I should meet with an unfortunate accident and die before revealing this information.

In terms of logic, Objective and Subjective demonstrate two different states.  Something is objectively true when it is true always and exists independently of the mind or experience.  It is subjectively true when it depends entirely on experience to be known.

"I itch" is a subjective truth.  The itch does not exist independently of the individual suffering from it.

"I ought to follow my conscience whether I want to or not" is an objective truth, because it is true whether people believe it or reject it.

Can We Know Objective Truth?

This is the next topic.  Some people claim "OK, so objective truth can exist.  But we can't know truth objectively, only subjectively.  Therefore what we know is only subjective truth."  This was brought to the foreground by Immanuel Kant, who called the concept "the Copernican Revolution in philosophy."  He argued we could not know "things in themselves" but only know things as they relate to the mind.

The problem is this is again contradictory.  If objective truth can exist but we can only know truth subjectively is true, it is in itself an objective truth, not a subjective truth.  If we know we can only know things in relation to the mind, you have an endless paradox.

There is a half truth in this.  It is true that we do use our senses to see some things (eyes for sight, ears for hearing and so on), but these things we sense are objective to begin with.  It has to be received by the senses before it can be evaluated by the senses.  If I read that the Statue of Liberty is 151 feet tall, it is not subjectively 151 feet tall on account of the fact that I learned this from using my eyes to read.  The truth of its height was objective, not subject to my knowing it.

An Exercise to Consider

Let us consider something.  The idea that "We ought to always follow our conscience and never act against it."  Let's set aside (for now) what individual religions understand our duties to be.  Even defined in a secular manner, conscience can be taken to mean "a person’s moral sense of right and wrong." Is this idea Objective or Subjective?

  • Is this something which is true only for me? [Subjective]  Or are others required to do this as well? [Objective]
  • Is it possible that tomorrow it would be acceptable act in a way against my conscience [Subjective] OR Is this something which is always true for me? [Objective]?
  • Is it true only if I believe this? [Subjective]  Or is it something which is true even if I claim not to know it or refuse to follow it? [Objective]

If we claim we can only know truth subjectively (whether we claim truth is only subjective or whether we claim that even if objective truth exists, we cannot know it objectively), we cannot claim to know that a person who does not follow their conscience is wrong in doing so.

This may seem too abstract, so let's make it more concrete.  Consider the evils of Nazi Germany, where the state has called for some quite horrific acts.  A young soldier has to consider whether to obey what the state says and participate in the extermination of Jews or whether to defy the state and follow his conscience, even if it means he will suffer for it.  Others around him are following the state.  Let us consider the following:

  1. Is the conscience of the young soldier objective or subjective which tells him to defy the state?
  2. Are the soldiers around him who are following the state doing something which is good for them?

If truth is subjective, how can the young soldier know he is right to disobey an order to kill Jews?  After all, if his conscience tells him this, but others tell him his conscience is unimportant and truth is subjective, then it means that we cannot know absolutely it is wrong to take part in genocide.  In such a view we can say we think it is wrong to do this, but we cannot say objectively "This is Wrong!"  After all, you might think it is wrong, but if truth is only subjective or if truth can only be known subjectively, then we cannot say that the Nazis were wrong… only that we think they were wrong.

Only if truth is objective, we can appeal to it when confronting an evil.  If we say racism or sexism is wrong, for example, then either we mean "I don't like it" [which is what subjectivism can tell us] or else we mean "This is something which is always to be condemned and never tolerated" [Which is what objectivism tells us].

What It All Means

The denial of objective truth is one of those things which is commonly cited as a means to deny the Christian truth, especially in the area of morality, as binding.  If objective truth is binding, and is something which places obligations on us, we either must follow it or be hypocritical.  However, because so many things which contradict the truth are popular, it is easier to tell us that what Christianity teaches is "subjective," an "opinion" and so on.

The equivocation of meaning is then introduced.  "Depending on the mind" is replaced with "formed by emotion and opinion."  From this, we get the idea that "truth is subjective" or "truth is relative" and anyone who believes in objective truth is being emotional, but not rational or logical, while the person who denies objective truth is considered rational and logical.

Yet (as we stated in the beginning) if we want to believe in reason and logic, we have to believe in objective truth, because both assume there are things which we can know objectively.  Logic works as follows (using a classic syllogism]:

  • All [Men] are [Mortal] (All [A] is part of [B])
  • [Socrates] is a [Man] ([C] is part of [A])
  • Therefore [Socrates] is [Mortal] (Therefore [C] is part of [B])

If the major and minor premise are true, we can see the conclusion is true

However If the premises are not objectively true, we get:

  • It seems that All [Men] might be [Mortal], but we can't know that for certain
  • [Socrates] could be [a man], but since we can't know this objectively, this might be wrong.
  • Therefore, it isn't impossible that [Socrates] is [Mortal] unless we're wrong about [A] and [B].

If the premises are not clear, we cannot get to a clear conclusion.  If we don't know the premises are true, we cannot know if the conclusion is true

The first example is logical and rational.  The second example is neither.  The first example is logical and rational.  The second example is neither.  The first example is Objective.  The second is Subjective.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fallacy of Equivocation

"Nothing is better than a precious diamond.  A cheap rhinestone is better than nothing.  Therefore a cheap rhinestone is better than a precious diamond"

— Classic example of the Equivocation fallacy


One of the problems which can be most frustrating when debating is when people use the same word with different meanings, or else a person describing an argument uses the same word in different contexts.

Words need to stay consistent in meaning if we are to communicate what we mean.  Sometimes we make errors.  At other times, the person seeks to use a word deceptively, quoting out of context or otherwise leading a person to think a misapplied word.

In the example above, the equivocation is the word "nothing."  The word can have multiple meanings.

The first sentence in our example above uses "nothing" in the sense of "The diamond is the best thing to have."  The second sentence uses it in the sense  of "having a rhinestone is better than not having anything."  The conclusion, with this equivocation of meaning, is nonsense.

The way around it is to ask "how do you mean "nothing?"  Or for that matter, ask for clarification on any term.

Applications in Misunderstanding

Generally, equivocations through misunderstanding come from each person assuming their own interpretation is the other one used.  This is why so much of the Socratic dialogues are spent in defining terms.  Both parties can misunderstand the other through good will

There are many instances where words used in Christian teaching are used in ways which can be misinterpreted.  A friend of mine has said that the Church needs to use words which are simple to understand for the laity, and not use words which can be misinterpreted.  I think he is correct when he means the theologians of the Church need to avoid jargon.  Of course some complex ideas can be put into a word, and one has to understand the word to avoid oversimplification.

The question is of course whether the Church makes clear what it means.  Defining terms is always an important part in a logical discussion.  Of course, if the Church does make clear what it means, then the blame for the equivocation falls on the person who assumes a different meaning of a term.

Some Examples of Misunderstanding

Take the term "myth."  Some I know are scandalized that there are theologians who refer to Genesis 1-11 as "myth."  Properly understood, "myth" is derived from the Greek "mythos" meaning "sacred story."  However there is a secondary meaning which is "a widely held but false belief."  If a theologian speaks of Genesis 1-11 as a myth, is he a modernist?  Or is the reader misunderstanding him?

Certainly there are theologians who use the word "myth" in the negative sense and some who use it in the positive sense.  So if we hear a theologian use the term "myth," we need to be aware of how he understands it.

The thing is, Genesis 1-11 is not to be understood as an eyewitness account (there were certainly no eyewitnesses to the creation story) but it does not follow from this that the accounts are false.  It can also mean the accounts are true, but are not eyewitnessed accounts (in contrast, the gospels are the testimony of actual witnesses).  In this sense, it is not wrong to use the term "myth."  However, if one uses the term "myth" to understand the Creation story as having no more authority than Greek tales of their gods, then this would indeed be a false and heretical understanding.

Of course, it is this sort of misunderstanding that would cause me to avoid the term "myth" altogether.  It is a loaded word, and unless everyone is clear on the meaning intended beforehand, it cannot avoid acrimonious debate over a misunderstood term.

Another example is the issue over "evolution."  Is a Christian who believes in the role of God but accepts the idea of evolution a heretic?  Or is the concern over certain Darwinian concepts which he claimed as an idea on how evolution worked? ("natural selection" and the like)  One can accept the idea of God making use of natural means to create the universe without endorsing things such as "chance" or uncontrolled events which God has no control over).

Again, the problem can be cleared up by being sure both parties have the same thing in mind when they debate "Evolution."

In both the "myth" and the "evolution" example, the obligation is to ask "how do you understand the term 'myth'?"  "How do you understand the term 'evolution'?"

Because if we don't have a mutual understanding we can agree on, we cannot communicate our ideas.

Applications in Distortion

The above terms can be confused in good faith.  However others can be deliberately twisted, or else a distorted view is accepted based on one's hostility towards the other side, where one assumes a malicious intent for the group they oppose. 

Some Examples of Distortion

I recall reading the work Why Atheism? by George H. Smith where the author sought to undermine the idea of faith.  He defines it as being entirely apart from reason and concludes that the ignorant person has more "faith" than the person who studies their religious beliefs.  He uses this as a starting point to attack the Christian beliefs as emotional and irrational.

The problem was the author chose to use the word "faith" with an entirely different meaning than the Christian writers he cited (such as Thomas Aquinas).  The result was a straw man argument, with the author attacking something that educated Christians do not believe in the first place.  He interpreted Thomas Aquinas and others by using his own understanding of faith, and not the understanding of Thomas Aquinas.

In doing so, attacking "faith" using a meaning which Christians do not hold to was really a waste of time.  Had he took time to identify the meaning Christians used, he could have saved time and not sought to refute "faith" as he did.  It was an appeal to etymology, which is in this case the fallacy of Irrelevant Authority.  The fact that a word has multiple meanings required Smith to understand an idea by the Christian understanding of a word before challenging the Christian notion of faith.

Another area where a hostile understanding can lead to distortion is the Catholic beliefs on Mary.  The English language is unfortunately much more limited than Greek or Latin, and words in English can have multiple meanings while the Greek and Latin can be much more specific.

Since the Catholic teachings translated into English can seem more ambiguous than the actual Greek or Latin, Catholics have stood accused by some of actually worshipping Mary.  The difference, for the Church is the worship given to God is known as Latreia (literally the state of a hired laborer, also translated as worship in the sense of service to God).  Catholic veneration of the saints is known as dulia, which is honor given to mortals.  Hyperdulia, the devotion to Mary is dulia which recognizes Mary as the highest of the saints… but it does not recognize her as divine.

Unfortunately older works in English use the term "worship."  A modern anti-Catholic might find an old work and conclude "Ah hah!  Catholics worship Mary!"  The problem is, in older works the word "worship" was not as nailed down as it is now.  The Oxford English Dictionary points out that an archaic meaning of "worship" is "honour given in recognition of merit."

In both these cases, who is responsible?  The defendant which is accused of holding a view?  Or the attacker which does not bother to discover what is meant before attacking the argument? 

Truth and Obligation: An example for Modern Times

If one attacks another based on a misunderstanding, whether it is malicious or innocent, the person who fails to understand what the other is saying is responsible for the errors he or she makes in their assumptions.

As an example, I have been asked about whether the Catholic concept of "Social Justice" is in fact a liberal agenda which seeks to hijack Catholicism.

I would say no, it is not.  The Catholic teaching goes back to the Scriptures, and precedes the modern liberal movement (see Rerum novarum as a modern example).  However, I would also say that both the person who distorts the term "Social Justice" as a code word to promote a political agenda and the person who assumes this distortion  is in fact what the teaching authority of the Church holds are both guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.

The questions to consider are: What part of the Church has the authority to speak on Social Justice in a binding way?  Does the Church speak of what it means by social justice?

The answer to the first is: The Pope and the Bishops in communion with him have authority to teach in a binding way.

The answer to the second is yes.  The Catholic Church speaks of Social Justice as:

1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

1929 Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him:

What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.35

1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.36 If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church's role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.

1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity."37 No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a "neighbor," a brother. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

For the Church, Social Justice is the ensuring that every person has what is theirs by right (in the sense of given them by God).  Of course what the Church considers theirs by right are those things which derive from what they are as a human person, and precedes the authority of the state.  The state must correct injustices of course, but the role of the Church is to distinguish of the legitimate rights from false claims.  Legislation cannot undo certain behaviors, yes, though it can eliminate certain injustices which are caused by the state.  However, when the state violates the dignity of the human person, it is contrary to Social Justice (Which is why individuals who say abortion is only "one" issue, and can be set aside, are in fact wrong).

The individual in this case who seeks to hijack the Church teaching of "Social Justice" in favor of a certain political solution is distorting the Church teaching, while the person who assumes that the individual promoting their own agenda is speaking what the Church teaches about "Social Justice" is also responsible for not making an effort to find out what the Church teaches.


The people who are in a debate need to make sure both sides understand each other to ensure communication.  However, when a group of people speak among themselves about an idea, the person from outside who would attack it is responsible to ensure that he or she understands what the group in question means by the term before denouncing it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

On Probability, AD 1491, and The Relation Between What We Know and What Is

I've on occasion run across an atheist who has argued that, while yes there is no proof that there is no God, it is the "more likely" conclusion that God does not exist.

The argument is an interesting one, but the problem is, it is based on assuming what we do not know in relation to what is.  If we assume we know 95% of everything that is, then there is a danger of assuming that the 5% we think we don't know is going to be more of the same.

Yet, if we don't know what is in that unknown portion, we have no idea whether what we don't know is 5% or 50% or 99.9% of what is.  Nor do we know what is in that unknown portion.  Perhaps it is the knowledge which will cure AIDS.  On the other hand it could be the knowledge that an AIDS cure is as false as the idea of alchemy.  Some of these things can be known over time.  Other things we probably will never be able to discover.

The Example of Columbus' Errors

Christopher Columbus for example assumed that the distance of Eurasia covered 225 degrees of the globe, leaving only about 135 degrees of the globe to cover.  He calculated the circumference of the Earth to be the equivalent of 22,500 kilometers (13,980 miles) based on what he knew (the estimated length of the Eurasian land mass) and assumed he only had to travel the equivalent of 2300 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan.

However, the size of the ocean between Europe and Asia was in fact about 8.5 times longer than Columbus had estimated (19,600 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan).  The circumference of the globe was about 40,000 km (about 25,000 miles).  So we can see here that Columbus made an error based on assuming that what he knew in relation to what he did not know.  (Columbus' critics actually recognized that with a distance of over 19,000 miles to Japan [using Ptolemy's accurate estimate], no ship of the era could reach Asia from the West without the crew starving to death).  This is an example of an error based on erroneous scientific calculations assuming they were correct.

There was a second error which was something they could not know.  The educated people of the time, even those who accepted the ideas of Ptolemy (who more accurately estimated Eurasia to be about 180 degrees of the globe, not 225 degrees)  believed that it was one massive ocean between Europe and Asia.  What they could not know was there was another landmass between Europe and Asia going west.  This is an example of an error based on assuming that what we do not know will be in keeping with what we do know.

One couldn't prove or hypothesize the existence of the Americas from the knowledge of European sciences.  The Americas existed, even though prior to 1492 there was no reason to believe they did.

Teacups Around Pluto and "I don't believe America exists…"

The people who might deny the existence of another land mass ("A-americanists" to coin a non existing phrase) would have seemed quite reasonable in 1491.  Sure there were some reports of a Viking "Vinland" which was believed to be an island like Greenland, and sure there are some dubious reports of the Chinese reaching it in 1421, but from what Science could know in 1491, anyone claiming the existence of another continent could be greeted with a 15th century equivalent of Jeffery Stingerstein's "Teacup argument," which runs as follows:

"I can no more prove that heaven does not exist than I can prove that there is not a miniature teacup orbiting the planet Pluto, but it does not make it ridiculous for me to say that there is no such teacup in orbit"

and not be seen as unreasonable… in 1491.  However, once it became clear that this landmass was not Asia, but a new continent (Vespucci first argued this in works published in 1504 and it was accepted by 1507), such an argument would be demonstrably false.

How this is Relevant

I am sure some atheists would object at this point saying that the example of Columbus is invalid… after all, America was discovered and verified, but if what the Christians say about God is true, the existence of God cannot be discovered in that way.

This would be to miss the point however.  Based on what was known in 1491, one could theoretically take an atheistic attitude directed towards the existence of another landmass and such an attitude would not be able to be rebutted.  In this hypothetical case, a person who claimed to have knowledge through revelation of this landmass could be ridiculed for his "mindless faith."

Yet the knowledge which one had in 1491 would be inadequate to make the claim that a landmass between Europe and Asia did not exist, or even that it was "most likely" that such a landmass did not exist.  Knowledge in 1507 showed this assumption was false, but even before 1492 this knowledge was false.

Recognizing the Difference Between "IF" and "IS"

Likewise the claim that what we know of science makes it "most likely" that God does not exist is equally foolish.  What we do not know, we cannot make assumptions on.  We can indeed make predictions based on the premise of "if this is true…" or "if my calculations are correct…" but these predictions have to recognize that IF is not the same as IS.  Because if what we think is correct turns out to be false, what we assume will turn out to be false.

Much of what is unknown may possibly be something which logically follows from what we do know.  However, we cannot say that there is no "unknown continent" out there which may show that what we think we know is actually false.  We can only say that, based on science alone, there are certain things which cannot be answered.  [From this admission, one can investigate whether or not one can know things outside of empirical knowledge, but that is outside of the scope of this article].

The Inevitable Objection and the Reply

Some will object here, claiming that we are applying a double standard, that if they cannot disprove the existence of God, neither can we prove it and therefore what I have written applies to Christians too.  The reason this objection is not valid is because Christians do not attempt to prove the existence of God based solely on what we know from science, but the atheist who invokes the "most likely" argument does.

The atheists I have discussed the issue of "more likely" with tend to base their argument solely on science without considering whether the claims of science even permits the assertions they make.  To claim "God does not exist" is to claim knowledge about what Science does not have and cannot prove.  To make the milder claim that it is "more likely" that God does not exist is to make the only slightly less unlikely claim that what we do not know is nothing more than an extension of what we do know.


Ultimately, the argument that God does not exist, or even that it is "more likely" that God does not exist cannot be supported by science.  If we let 'A' be that which we can know scientifically and let 'B' be things which are, and A (is less than) B, one can neither argue rationally that God does not exist nor that it is "more likely" that God does not exist based on science.  This doesn't mean science is useless.  It means we are not to invoke it for things it cannot speak on.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

On Hard Cases: Appeals to Pity, Appeals to Fear

One of the attacks against the teachings of the Church involve not the use of reason and logic, but of exploiting emotion.  Generally, the teaching of the Church is given, a sad case is presented as a counterpoint, and the conclusion is that the Church teaching must be bad because of this case.

The problem with these appeals is that they have no bearing on whether what the Church teaches is true and just.  There will always be cases where a person winds up on the wrong side of a law.  However a law can only be changed if two circumstances exist:

  1. The law is in itself unjust.
  2. The people asked to change the law have the authority to make such a change.

Is a Law Unjust?

Catholics believe God is infinitely just and merciful.  Therefore, if God reveals to us His will, this will is not to be considered unjust.  We may not understand some teachings which are revealed, but this reflects a personal failure, and not evil on the part of God.

Unlike Euthyphro, where Socrates asked whether a thing was good because gods loved it or whether things were loved by gods because they were good (making the gods either arbitrary or less than the good they were bound to), the Christian believes good reflects what is God's nature in itself: An unchanging God does not change morality over time (though under the idea of Divine Accommodation, over time, God may increase our understanding to turn away from some evils).

So for the Christian, if God reveals to us and we trust God is perfect goodness, it follows that we must hold that what God reveals is just and good.

Does the Church have the authority to make a change?

The understanding of the Catholic Church is that certain things, taught by Christ can never be overturned.  Yes we do believe that Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 indicates the Church is given the authority by Christ to bind and to loose.  However, we also believe that this authority does not give the magisterium the authority to contradict what God has declared.

Thus, you will never see the Church declare fornication is allowed.  You will never see the Church permit remarriage after a divorce, unless the marriage was in fact invalid from the beginning. You will never see the Church permit homosexual "marriages" or female priests.

There are certain practices within the Church which are binding, but not doctrine.  We believe these fall under the authority to bind and to loose.  At times the Church may bind to prevent an abuse or to loose to prevent a misunderstanding.  These things are carried out for the good of the Church, and can be changed.

For example, the Church can tighten or loosen rules on fasting.  The Church can decree that the laity can receive from the chalice or deny the chalice to the laity.  (She has, at different times, ordered one or the other to clarify a point necessary for the people of the times).

The point to consider here is, when the Church does follow the teaching of Christ, she does not have the authority to loose, even if the values of society demand that she does so.

With this in mind, I would like to look at the fallacies of Appeal to Pity and Appeal to Fear, how they are applied against the Church in two issues (abortion and remarriage after divorce) and why we cannot accept it as a valid reasoning to overturn the Church teaching.

The Appeal to Pity

The extreme example of what is wrong with the appeal to pity is the apocryphal case of the person who murders his parents and then appeals to the court for clemency because he is an orphan.  The reason this appeal is fallacious is because the reason the person appeals for pity is on account of the fact he is suffering the consequences for the act of evil.

This often comes into play when the issue of legalized abortion is discussed.  The slogan invoked is the so-called back alley abortion and women dying from them.  The appeal to pity is made: If abortion was legal then, these women wouldn't have died.

There is a problem with this however.  It has no bearing on whether or not abortion should be legal.  If something is illegal for a good reason (like for example, the fetus being a living human person), then the person who makes use of the illegal abortion is suffering the consequences for breaking a just law. 

Now it could be considered just to say that a society which outlaws abortion has the obligation to help women who become pregnant (certainly I believe we need to practice what we preach here) so they did not feel the need to consider a need to perform an illegal act, but even if such a society did not, it does not change the fact that if abortion is killing a human life, it cannot be tolerated, and a person who dies from an illegal abortion is not an innocent victim, but a person who has died because they have sought to break a just law.

Does this seem harsh?  Perhaps it does.  However, given that we believe God has condemned sexuality outside of marriage, and that we believe that abortion is the killing of an innocent human life, it follows that the person who violates the requirement of chastity and then seeks to kill the resulting child has done a great wrong.

St. Jerome described this in the 4th century in his Letter XXII, To Eustochium:

You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: “‘Unto the pure all things are pure;’ my conscience is sufficient guide for me. A pure heart is what God looks for.

The example of cases such as rape and incest are also employed, and quite effectively.  The image of a woman forcibly violated and then forced to bear the rapist's child is one which is disturbing to most people.  We do need to remember something here.  The evil done was by the rapist.  Not the unborn child.  So, the principle remains here: Do we have the right to kill an innocent person?  We do not.  It is indeed a terrible trial for the woman to be sure, but we as Catholics must believe that the ends do not justify the means, and we cannot choose an evil means to reach a good end.

Is that hard?  Of course.  Is it a trauma for the woman in question?  Undeniably.  But is it just to kill an innocent life?  Never.  It would be responding to evil with evil.

Finally, there is the case of "what if the child is mentally or physically deformed?"  No person wants their child to be unhealthy.  However, the Church believes that human life is sacred in itself, and not based on the functionality of the person.  So because the child is not in perfect health does not give one leave to take his or her life.

Another appeal to pity is the attack on the Church teaching on divorce and remarriage.  The popular case is to present a woman mistreated by her spouse, claiming that if she remarries she is cast out of a "cold and heartless" Church for the crime of finding love again.  Or, the Church is condemned for keeping such a woman alone for the rest of her life.  This too is an appeal to pity.

The argument often presented takes this form:

  1. God is not cruel
  2. The Church teaching on divorce is cruel because if forces a wronged spouse to remain alone for the rest of his or her life
  3. Therefore the teaching on divorce is not from God.

However, If we understand Christ's teaching on divorce properly, we see He did not sanction divorce and remarriage while both partners remain alive.  Even the so-called Matthew Exception in 5:32 does not sanction remarriage for a spouse whose partner has been sexually unfaithful.

St. John Chrysostom for example has taught (Sermon XVII on Mathew):

And observe Him everywhere addressing His discourse to the man. Thus, “He that putteth away his wife,” saith He, “causeth her to commit adultery, and he that marrieth a woman put away, committeth adultery.” That is, the former, though he take not another wife, by that act alone hath made himself liable to blame, having made the first an adulteress; the latter again is become an adulterer by taking her who is another’s. For tell me not this, “the other hath cast her out;” nay, for when cast out she continues to be the wife of him that expelled her.

The 2nd century text, The Shepherd of Hermas also shows how the early Church understood the teaching of Christ (The Fourth Commandment, Chapter I)  [the "vicious practices" referred to in the text here is speaking of a faithful man with an adulterous wife.  "vicious" is to be understood as "performing vice," and not "brutality"]:

And I said to him, “What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices? ”And he said, “The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.” And I said to him, “What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband? ”And he said to me, “Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented.

From these examples (and there are many more), we can see that the teaching of the Catholic Church was not arbitrarily decided on, but rather from the beginning this was seen as the faithful application of Christ's teaching.

So the appeal to pity in the case of the person who marries a person in good faith but that person turns out to harm her does not change the fact that the Catholic Church feels bound to the teaching of Christ.  Where the marriage is valid, there can be no remarriage while both partners live.  [This is why the Catholic practice of annulment is an investigation into whether the marriage was invalid.  If it is invalid, there is no marriage.  If it is valid, no authority can break what God has joined.]

In both of these examples, the appeal to pity is seeking to use an example for the overturning of a just teaching.  For those who appeal to mercy, we need to remember that while mercy does indeed require the seeking to help others as much as possible (in opposition to a cold bureaucratic legalism), mercy cannot overturn justice… or it is no longer mercy, but merely false compassion.

The Appeal to Fear

The appeal to Fear often is similar to the scenarios presented in the appeal to pity mentioned above.  However, instead of presenting a hypothetical situation, it appeals to the fear of "what if it happens to you?"  Let's face it.  No woman wants to be sexually assaulted and become pregnant.  No man would want his spouse, or relatives or friends to suffer this either.  Nobody wants their child to be born deformed.  No person wants to have a spouse be unfaithful in a binding marriage.

However, we need to realize that such a (valid) horror of such a thing happening does not make it permissible to set the just law aside.  That would be arbitrariness.  If the unborn child is indeed a human life, then we are not permitted to kill it out of expedience.  If the marriage is valid and binding in the eyes of God, we cannot call "Mulligan" if it turns sour.  If we promise to marry for better or for worse, and it turns out "worse," the marriage still exists even if we must "put our spouse away" to protect ourselves from evil, and so we would not be free to remarry.

Justice, Mercy and the Requirements of Catholic Faith

Such things may seem cruel to those outside the Church who do not accept what we believe, or to those within the Church who either do not understand or else reject the teachings of the Church.  However, if one believes that God has required certain things of us, then we must obey these things and not clamor for the Church to change that which she cannot change.  If we believe that Christ has given the Church the authority to bind and to loose, and protects her from error, then we must accept that when the Church teaches, it acts with an interest in our salvation and not from "insensitivity" or "power" or "control."

If God is perfectly Just and Merciful, it stands to reason that His Justice will not be merciless, yes.  But it also stands to reason that His Mercy will not set aside justice either.

We who are sinners may at times fail to see things as God wills them.  This does not make God, nor the Church who seeks to follow Him, unjust or merciless when hard cases arise.  It does mean at times we are called to unite our sufferings to His, offering up he pain in our lives to Him, trusting He will sustain us, even when life seems impossible.

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.