the devil's in the details: The need for logic for a rational defense
by bERNARD JAMES MAUSER, Ph.D.
I've been teaching logic for the last few weeks and found an article that attacks the Christian apologetics ministry for University students called Ratio Christi. The article was interesting as it committed so many of the fallacies I'd be teaching my students. I suppose there are some that wonder what need there is for an organization like Ratio Christi. After all, the local church should be equipping people to ‘give a reason for the hope that you have’ and preparing people to ‘demolish arguments and every thought that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.’[i] Why then is there a need for a campus organization that does what the church is to do? For the most part I suspect those that ask the question are those that think the ideas taught on the university campus are pretty neutral. The heart of Ratio Christi is to provide a place on a college campus that offers reasons to believe Christianity is true. This is especially important in the hostile environments which make up most university campuses. Here is the official link for those that want to read it for themselves: http://ratiochristi.org/about-us/challenge-mission-vision.
To believe that most universities are neutral in relation to Christianity is a delusion. The resources provided by Ratio Christi are of incredible value for those seeking for truth. The organization can bolster the faith of people that are Christians along with providing evidence for those that want to know why Christianity is true. With such an evident need for Ratio Christi, why does the question even need to be asked?
The question has recently been raised in a pseudo-response to a chapter of Ratio Christi which asked why there is a need for this organization. The author that asked this question was upset that a chapter director, Adam Tucker, responded to an event at UNC Greensboro which was a panel discussion on Sex and Faith. You can read his response here: http://ratiochristi.org/uncg/blog/post/sex-faith-and-utter-confusion/3068#.VBc_TBY8pCr
Mr. Tucker presented reasons to believe that there are objective moral norms which the panel unwittingly acknowledged even while simultaneously denying them- an evident contradiction. Mr. Tucker also presented powerful arguments- including biological and metaphysical evidence- to uphold his contention (namely, that there are objective moral norms).
The reaction to these arguments illustrates the need for Ratio Christi. The reply- which I have called a pseudo-response- was basically a hit piece filled with bullying tactics, contradiction, and logical fallacies. You don’t just have to take my word for it as we can look at the text together. The author says that he will not address ANY of the arguments by Mr. Tucker (thus the appropriate label pseudo-response). Thus, what is written never really addresses anything Mr. Tucker has said and cannot constitute a rebuttal of his position.
What was written in the response to Mr. Tucker (titled Ir-Ratio Christi) I have thought to use in future logic classes to illustrate how material fallacies are used every day to try to persuade people. I advise my students to learn logic to help them on many levels. There are so many examples in this reply to Mr. Tucker that it can serve as a useful tool to teach people how to spot logical fallacies. Let’s look at several of the fallacies as they appear in the blog.
BULLYING TACTICS, POISONING THE WELL and AD HOMINEM
Although those that deny the teachings of Scripture like to point out that Christians need to be tolerant, pay attention to how this response to Mr. Tucker is not only intolerant, but also filled with bullying tactics. These tactics do not permit civil or rational dialogue (interestingly, the title ‘Ir-ratio’ may constitute a strange foreshadowing of what we are about to read). In a schoolyard a bully does not want a reasoned debate, but simply wants to humiliate others. The form this takes in argument is overwhelming an opponent’s position with a great number of assertions that amount to character assassination, misleading information, logical fallacies, and slanting the debate. This strategy is promoted in order to keep the opponent on the defensive and allows you to avoid addressing the actual argument. Keep this in mind as we work through the response to Mr. Tucker (we will call this the LR for liberal response going forward) to see whether these are indeed the tactics employed.
Let’s assess the second paragraph of the LR:
The selling of snake oil was a practice of using inflated claims with medical-like language to sell cure-all, first made with snake oil, to unknowing populations in cities and towns across the U.S. When these con artists presented near-magical promises of healing all woes, many were swept away by their pretty promises. Those who were educated knew better than to be duped by the hucksters’ claims, but some were less familiar with medical knowledge of the time.
The reason for this inclusion is to provide more than just historical information. The paragraph is to provide an interpretive lens through which to view the claims (which will not be addressed admittedly) of Mr. Tucker. This is a classic example of the fallacy known as poisoning the well. The purpose here is to taint anything that the opponent says and falsely label it. The LR asks that you identify Mr. Tucker as a snake-oil salesman and huckster. This is also an ad hominem which essentially just calls the person names instead of addressing his argument. The ad hominem goes hand-in-hand with the bullying tactics previously mentioned. None are surprised that a bully calls a person names especially when being unable to answer arguments.
SLANTING, BEGGING THE QUESTION, and RED HERRING
The next three fallacies we will examine are so common in major media outlets that perhaps the author is unaware that they are fallacious. Poisoning the well is a type of slanting, so let’s see if you can spot the slant in the LR:
This campus has incredible opportunities to learn real philosophy and be exposed to natural law theory, natural rights theory and dozens of other moral theories. Our religious studies department is staffed by incredible academics, versed in multiple areas of faith and theology, charged with present unbiased views of faiths and constructions of God. From Heather Gert to Eugene Rogers, we have some of the most talented philosophy and religious studies academics in the Southeast, teaching day in and day out on our campus. Two of our philosophy professors are in fact contributors to the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics.
Did you pick up the slant in the first sentence? If you want to learn ‘real’ philosophy you can with the incredible number of opportunities on campus. What the author is trying to imply, of course, is that what Ratio Christi presents is NOT real philosophy. This not only slants what constitutes real philosophy, it commits the error of begging the question. To the question, “What constitutes real philosophy?” You get the LR, “Real philosophy is that which is taught at UNC-Greensboro.” However, this is the very point of contention that is under consideration. I highly doubt there is anyone in the philosophy or religious studies department that would say that either they or even other professional philosophers believe that UNC-Greensboro professors have a corner on truth inaccessible to all other people.
In addition, a person must ignore the fact that what is taught at Ratio Christi provides another opportunity for its students to learn real philosophy (and theology) from some of the leading academics from all over the world to make this argument.
The red herring is simply an irrelevant point to divert attention from the substance of what is being addressed. Although this entire pseudo-response may be a giant red herring, there is little benefit to the argument in pointing out the publishing merits of some of those in the university. The reason for this is that authorities (those with Ph.D.’s in philosophy and theology) who disagree on fundamental metaphysical questions have all published in major journals. The relevance of the fact THAT they published is less significant than the arguments they offer in WHAT (i.e., the arguments) they have written. To emphasize the former rather than the latter is a red-herring. I urge you to read Mr. Tucker to explore his emphasis on the latter.
AD POPULUM, CONSENSUS GENTIUM, AB ANNIS (CHRONOLOGICAL SNOBBERY), AD VERECUNDIAM, FALSE ANALOGY
The more you learn about logical fallacies the easier it becomes to spot them and see how they are related. For this section I’ll explain what the fallacies are first to help you spot them in the text.
First, the ad populum fallacy says something is true because it is popular and the consensus gentium (or appeal to majority) says something is true because the majority believe it. If the majority of people believe something it is also the most popular, but just because something is the most popular it doesn’t mean that the majority believe it. For example, if 40% vote for Norris, 30% for Cruz, and 30% for Clinton then Norris has the popular vote (but the majority- 60%- do not vote for him).
The ab annis says that because an idea is new or old it must be true. It appeals to age as indicative of truth irrespective of the arguments.
The ad verecundiam is also known as the illegitimate appeal to authority. It basically says to believe a claim because an authority has said something is true. This is an illegitimate way to argue in two primary ways. First, if the claim is contested (meaning experts disagree about the subject), then you actually have to look at the competing arguments. This is how almost all philosophical claims operate. Second, if the person is not qualified to speak in the area they are affirming (e.g., Lebron James weighing in on medical claims), then you should not believe it.
The faulty analogy (or false analogy) simply presents an analogy that is irrelevant to the argument in any significant way. It uses this analogy AS IF it is significant to demonstrate a point it wants to make as part of the argument.
Here is the next paragraph in the LR:
One might ask, why then does Ratio Christi exist in such an environment where real religious studies education, sound biblical history courses, wonderful classes in ethics, metaphysics and moral theory class are taught by PhD-holding experts in their area? I believe it is because they use philosophic-like language and arguments claiming rationality to sell the snake oil of evangelical fundamentalism. Paradigmatic Natural Law has not held wide sway in Philosophy for hundreds of years, and it is irresponsible to present it as though it does. And it is alarming to me that some cannot track the similarities between natural law arguments made in defense of slavery and Jim Crow, and today’s amazingly similar arguments brought to focus largely on gays, lesbians, intersexed, transgendered and women.
Here we see the bullying tactic on full display in addition to the aforementioned fallacies. While bullies have historically tried to beat people into submission by force, the author of the LR desires the annihilation of the existence Ratio Christi. If you can’t argue with a position, the game plan here is to take them out.
One unfortunate absence in the recommendations of the philosophy classes people should take in the LR is a logic class. I'd encourage all people to do so. Perhaps after doing so return to the LR propaganda (am I slanting my sentence if it really is propaganda you may ask) against Ratio Christi and assess its true value.
The false analogy between defenses of slavery and the arguments Mr. Tucker makes fails at the most relevant point. Part of Mr. Tucker’s argument is that some things are really objectively wrong (like slavery). However, the underlying assumption of much of the initial discussion is that all views are really equal (excepting the one that says all views are not equal). Another problem with arguments for slavery is that they incorrectly make significant accidental features of humans (whether they be their skin color, lineage, intelligence, or abilities), whereas Mr. Tucker says the arguments about what is good in sexual morality are rooted in human nature. If this distinction is correct (which I think it is), then we have the false analogy illustrated perfectly with the comparison of slavery to that of sexual behavior. Everyone recognizes that people cannot control their race. The real question is whether and how people ought to control their own behavior. The dismissal of natural law as old (ab annis), not holding wide sway (ad populum and consensus gentium), and evangelical fundamentalism snake-oil dispenser (misnomer, ad hominem) smacks of ignorance at many levels. You’ll see from Mr. Tucker’s writing his reasoning from metaphysics and philosophy of human nature (and a surprising lack of arguments from the Bible), along with references to some contemporary scholars that promote the natural law (most of whom are Roman Catholic). I’d suggest that labeling these as Evangelical Fundamentalism is meant to be a slur, but one can question whether what is written is different from the Roman Catholic teaching on these matters.
Admittedly the classical Christian position has been to ground morality in the natural law that Paul writes about in Romans 2. Due to such a prominent position in Romans, it should come as no surprise that many of the different Christian traditions have built their moral theory upon a natural law basis. Contrary to what is insinuated in the LR, you’ll find great natural law thinkers in the Roman Catholic tradition and in some of the different Protestant traditions. Also, people should realize that natural law as an ethical theory is by no means only Christian (as stoics such as Cicero and even atheists like Philippa Foot have argued for natural law).
As we near the end of the LR we won’t be surprised to find a straw man. In this fallacy if you cannot actually answer the opponents argument you set up a misrepresentation of his argument that is easy to knock down. Here it takes the form of likening Ratio Christi with Answers in Genesis. The LR says:
This is not a new trick. The Creation Museum and its director Ken Ham have for years been selling pseudo-science in place of actual science to those who do not know any better. Extreme fundamentalism has learned how to adapt language to be a cover for this broken world view that leaves so much damage in its wake.
Rational arguments that have been offered throughout history are summarily dismissed as ‘extreme fundamentalism’ and likened to ‘pseudo-science’ entering the academy. Regardless of whether Answers in Genesis promotes pseudoscience, the thrust of Mr. Tucker’s article is primarily philosophical, not scientific. It is pretty clear that by shifting the foundation for debate the LR tries to create a straw man that can be easy to knock down. The article in question says nothing at all about the age of the earth (a point essential to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis).
One need not point out the obvious ad hominem in the next section, but allow me to introduce the psychoanalysis fallacy. This fallacy essentially says that you can get into the mind of the author without actually listening to or reading anything the author has said. It essentially judges the motives without any corresponding text (either written or verbal) to justify its assertions. From the LR:
Mr. Tucker and his organization have no true interest in learning or having honest dialog or entering into an actual philosophic conversation any more than the street preacher in the library circle will be swayed by the arguments of students who stop to watch him as he screams. I will not dignify the snake oil claims with philosophic arguments because to do so is to give validation to smoke and mirrors as real philosophy.
Here the LR judges Mr. Tucker and Ratio Christi independently of providing any evidence. The author seems to ‘know’ the motives without needing any reason to believe as he does. The LR has seen into the minds of all those associated with Ratio Christi and (without feeling responsible to share a single shred of documentation) pronounces judgment about the motives of the organization. In reality, the heart of Ratio Christi involves teaching, learning, and dialogue.
I suggest allowing Mr. Tucker a seat at the table. This will allow for an honest dialogue of competing worldviews that allows for a genuine clarification as to what each position entails. Taking this action will also prove that Mr. Tucker is interested in dialogue while he represents the traditional position held by most Christians in the history of the church.