LTD: The Either/Or Fallacy

I read the following comment recently on a website discussing the report that the 2008 General Assembly voted NOT to form a study committee on deaconesses and women in diaconal service, which the Philadelphia Presbytery (and others) had overtured the assembly to do:

I ponder the intention of the Philidelphia Presbytery in bringing this to the GA. Is it women seeking power over men, as was part of the Genesis curse, or is it men cowering from their mandate to lead the church?

Friends, you have before you a classic example of the logical fallacy known as the “Either/Or Fallacy,” the “False Dichotomy Fallacy,” the “False Dilemma Fallacy,” or “Bifurcation.”

In essence, this fallacy asserts that there are only two options to choose from, possible directions to move in, or answers to a question-- AND that both of them have been represented in the argument.

[An aside: the meaning of the prefix “di” is that there are two-- if there are more than two, that would change the prefix. For example, C.S. Lewis famously described a “trilemma” when he talked about the fact that Jesus was either a liar, a crazy person, or who He said He was.]

Now, it’s possible for there to be TRUE dichotomies, dilemmas, and either/or situations. We often face these-- this is one of the reasons why this fallacy so often appears acceptable. But when there is more than two options, it is fallacious to suggest that there are only two. (Thus, such a dichotomy is false.)

Very often, the false dichotomies or fallacious either/ors will be one (or more) of a few types:
  • An over-simplification of a situation, attempting to categorize all of the options or choices into just two (or maybe three) ideas
  • A misunderstanding of the full range of the problem, which leads to falling short of understanding the solutions or answers.
  • A misunderstanding of the full range of the answers or solutions, often because of innocent ignorance or insufficient familiarity with the issues at hand.
  • The result of a substantial bias which blinds the arguer from understanding the problem or issue, the answers or solutions, or both. (See the above example.)
Clearly, all of these can contain some innocence in the situation-- in other words, false dichotomies are not always willful attempts to deceive (though they sometimes are). What it all boils down to is this question: is there an option present that is not contained in the argument?

So, here are some ways to prevent false dichotomies in your own arguments. Ask yourself:
  • Do I have a full understanding of the problem or issue I’m discussing? Self-awareness of the limit of your knowledge-- whether due to a lack of study, a lack of experience, or the presence of bias-- is the best place to start.
  • Have I been fair to the issue at hand? Would an “opponent” in this argument agree that I have dealt with all of the options clearly and fairly?
  • Do I have a full understanding of the options, answers, or solutions to the matter at hand? Like the first question, this gets to the issue of limit of knowledge. This can be a more difficult question to answer, and might require consulting another person to verify your answer.
  • Have I attempted to categorize or group ideas that don’t fit well together? Have I forced one or more options into subordination under another for the sake of my argument?
And here are some responses to the presence of false dichotomies in other peoples’ arguments:
  • Identify what other options are truly present. If you recognize options that aren’t presented, note them to yourself.
  • If possible, draw connections between the missing options and the reason(s) for them. Likely, it will be one of the four types or reasons given above.
  • Present both ideas at the same time. It’s best to do this in a question. For example, someone might say to the person who wrote the false dichotomy about the Philadelphia Presbytery: “You clearly stand on one side of this argument. Is it possible that your determined position has prevented you from seeing other options? It seems to me that the Presbytery might have had other issues that brought the discussion about, such as...”

Truth and opinion: assertions and logic

This quote was mentioned to me recently, and it brought to mind some important ideas regarding logic-- thus, a continuation of my Logic for Theological Discussion series:

From a profile on CNN anchor Campbell Brown:...when you have Candidate A saying the sky is blue, and Candidate B saying it’s a cloudy day, I look outside and I see, well, it’s a cloudy day. I should be able to tell my viewers, ‘Candidate A is wrong, Candidate B is right.’ And not have to say, ‘Well, you decide.’ Then it would be like I’m an idiot. And I’d be treating the audience like idiots.

The difficulty is that there are different sorts of sentences that a candidate (or anyone else), and the media wants to categorize all of them into the same group when they aren't.

It is possible for a sentence to not be a "statement" or a truth claim. In logic, the term "statement" denotes a sentence that can be said to be true or false. Questions, exclamations, and declarations of opinion are not considered to be statements.

A real statement also can be subcategorized, into what we would call "supported" and "unsupported" statements. Those that need further verification in order to determine their truth value are considered supported, while those that are self-evident are unsupported.

Some sentences appear to be supported statements but are actually matters of opinion. For example, "it is cool in here" is only supported if the temperature is low-- let's say, close to freezing, or below 50 degrees. If it is 65 degrees, I might consider it comfortable while someone else may think it cool-- but it is then a matter of opinion. Meanwhile, some sentences are supported regardless of someone’s preference. For example, “That closet is dark when the light is off” is something that can be verified to be true, and no amount of opinion or preference for darkness will change that.

Furthermore, the difficulty with supported statements is that they are often made with reliance on evidence that itself is often questionable. So, if an expert in the field of economics, say, wages an opinion about the status of our financial crisis, his declaration may be quite credible (since he is an expert) but is nevertheless a matter of opinion. Someone else may offer a true statement about the matter, relying on the word of that expert as the supporting evidence for their statement. But this supported statement is based on expert opinion, which can be scrutinized, challenged, or counter-argued by other experts.

And here's the kicker: by far, most of the statements made by political candidates are either supported statements or declarations of opinions. So, for Campbell Brown (or any other journalist) to complain about whether they are allowed to report on them is spurious. NO journalist can adequately report these things with anything other than verbatim quotes, without becoming something of a wonk. It would simply take too much fact-checking and explanation to accomplish it in a journalistic way that is also reliable.

How does this apply to theology? Because we often do the same thing with theological matters. It is essential to see what claims are unsupported statements, which are supported statements, and which are
not statements at all but simply matters of opinion.

Consider the following:
  • Everyone understands that there is right and wrong. (Unsupported statement)
  • When Paul refers to the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, he means the body of Christ. (Supported statement)
  • The writers of the Westminster Confession would not have seen playing catch on a Sunday as permissible. (Opinion)

All of these are claims that might occur in a given theological discussion. Yet, they must not be treated with the same weight of authority, because they cannot all be taken in the same manner. An unsupported theological statement may be assumed in a way that the supported ones may not. My opinion may be correct, but you must come to that conclusion because of reasons that persuade you of it, not simply because I have said it.

How might we deal with different types of claims and sentences in theological (and other) discussions?
  • Determine which type of sentence(s) you’re being offered-- or, that you’re offering. This alone can be all the difference in recognizing how acutely you need to deal with the truth claims involved.
  • If the claim is an unsupported statement, is it true? This may seem like a simple question at first, but it isn’t. Does everyone really understand that there is right and wrong? Is darkness really dark? At least at a philosophical level, many such truth claims cannot be taken for granted these days. (Perhaps another time we’ll discuss how to address assertions of relative truth.)
  • If the claim is a supported statement, ask yourself, “What evidence and supporting information would be needed to demonstrate the truth of this claim?” Then find out if that evidence and/or information is available. If the claim is yours, can you demonstrate its truth with support? If the claim is someone else’s, ask them key questions that would reveal how well-supported the claim is. In other words, make sure that enough is disclosed to verify the claim being made.
  • If the claim is a statement of opinion, be constantly aware of this. Upon what is that opinion based? How much of an “expert” is the person waging the opinion? How vital is the reliability of this opinion in the overall argument? We place far too much weight on opinion when there is no merit for it; don’t allow this to become the deciding factor for you too easily.
  • Keep this in mind: if you’re dealing with the opinion of someone else, you’re probably not going to change their mind in a single conversation (or maybe ever). Especially if they have arrived at an opinion through some significant consideration, they will remain unmoved for some time. There’s nothing wrong with this-- but you don’t have to share their opinion. By and large, conversations and discussions that boil down to one person’s opinion vs. another’s-- with little evidence or reason involved otherwise-- only bruise relationships. If you want to change their mind, ask if you can discuss the things that led to their opinion, and be willing to do this in small, incremental units.

Pass the salt

Another core idea in Logic-- in general, as well as in logic for theological discussion-- is Consistency.

The fundamental definition of consistency is this: two or more ideas may be true at the same time, in the same context. If two statements can both be said to be true at the same time and in the same context, they are said to be consistent.

All of us are inconsistent. One of my philosophy professors pointed this out in a profound-- and humorous-- manner: “everyone is inconsistent; even a determinist will ask you to pass the salt!”

But our inconsistency matters the most when we attempt discourse and discussion-- particularly when there is disagreement involved. This is because our inconsistencies undermine our more salient points by causing others to question, second-guess, or even outright doubt all of our points.

A couple of recent political events demonstrate inconsistency well. For one, John McCain stood up on Monday, September 15, and declared that our economic system is “fundamentally sound” while addressing the concerns about the Lehman and AIG failures. (He has since backpedaled on that statement, which further underscores the inconsistency.) Meanwhile, Senator Obama (and the rest of the Democrats in congress) have strongly supported a bailout plan approaching $700 billion-- money which will effectively buy off the financial problems of the wealthiest of Americans-- while simultaneously demanding an increase in taxes for the wealthiest Americans. (I guess that is their plan to pay for the bailout.)

Similarly, the entire financial crisis is being blamed largely on the economic policies of President Bush, while President Clinton’s presidency and economic accomplishments have been lauded and praised. But the crisis we are facing now is the fallout of
poor policies of a decade ago, just as a significant amount of the economic prosperity of the Clinton presidency was the fruit of the presidencies that preceded him. It turns out that what we do today actually has impact on tomorrow-- go figure.

A good example from the theological discussion world covers the debates of the past decade or so in the PCA. Back in 2002, the debate du jour was over “good-faith subscription” vs. “strict subscription.” A number of guys opposed the idea of good-faith subscription because, some of them said, it would open the door for too many differing positions on various theological issues. Fast-forward to 2006, and the new debate has turned to a theological view called the “Federal Vision” position-- which was, and is, a variation on the historic position on the prominence of individual salvation. Ironically, many of those who came under fire during the Federal Vision debates, and who took cover under the “good-faith subscription” blanket, were some of the same guys who opposed the passage of the good-faith subscription amendment. In short, many of the same men who would end up benefiting the most from the good-faith subscription vote were those who spoke most vehemently against it.

The difficulty about consistency is that it can’t easily be corrected or improved. Unlike bad argument styles, for example, you cannot simply evaluate arguments by asking a set of questions that will reveal the problems of consistency. To recognize inconsistency in your own arguments, you must begin to learn how to see how ideas connect. You must also develop a memory of what you have said and done, and recognize how those things affect the next thing.

Unlike fallacies, however, defeating inconsistencies doesn’t really require strategies or counter-examples. It simply needs to be pointed out. Once you’ve shown someone to be inconsistent, they will often make things worse by disclaiming, excusing, or digging deeper.

Why stereotypes are treacherous, and other logical puzzles

Continuing my Logic for Theological Discussion thread, here are a couple of fallacies that are very common.

I had lunch with a pastor-friend recently, and he told me of a man in his congregation who has begun to doubt. Specifically, these doubts have focused on the man’s belief in a literal Hell-- the man doesn’t believe that there is literally a place that is Hell as the Scriptures describe.

As a consequence of this, the guy thinks he must abandon the rest of his beliefs in biblical truth as well-- in fact, he is beginning to wonder whether this doubt should compel him to abandon his faith altogether. His rationale is that, because he has serious doubts and even disbelief about one teaching of the Bible, he must abandon his belief in all of the teachings of the Bible.

This man is falling into the trap of the Fallacy of Composition. This fallacy follows a basic and common pattern: what is true of the parts that compose a thing must also be true of the whole thing. The tricky part of this fallacy is that the line of thinking is sometimes true-- but we are inclined to believe that it is true all of the time, because it is true some of the time (which is, itself, a Fallacy of Composition).

So, we reason: every blade of grass in my yard is green (true), therefore my lawn is green (also true). If that is true, then it must also be the case that: taking one pill from the bottle of prescription drugs is not poisonous, therefore, taking all of the pills at the same time would also not be poisonous. Or, every atom that makes up my body is invisible to the naked eye, therefore my body must be invisible to the naked eye.

As you can see from these examples, you cannot rely simply on the pattern of thought processes in the argument to determine whether an argument is sound or not. Therefore, this young man’s fallacy goes like this: I doubt one particular teaching of the Bible, therefore I must doubt all of the teachings of the Bible.

A closely related fallacy to Composition is the Fallacy of Division. It is the converse of the Fallacy of Composition, and follows this line of thought: what is true of the whole of a thing is also true of the parts of that thing.

Once again, because it is sometimes true, we often assume it to be always true. But that is not the case. Consider: An airplane can fly through the air for miles and miles; therefore, this hunk of metal I took off of an airplane can fly through the air for miles and miles. Or, I am able to see my desk without help from magnification, so I ought to be able to see the atoms that compose my desk without magnification.

Clearly, as you see, it doesn’t always hold up. Here’s what is interesting: these fallacies are based on the same kinds of conclusions, or inferences, as stereotypes. In other words, based on what we believe to be true of a whole group, we infer an opinion about the members of that group (Division); OR, based on our observations of members of a group, we infer a general principle about that group (Composition). Sometimes these inferences are true and sound, while at other times they are not. This is what makes stereotypes so dangerous.

So we might reason thusly: Everyone I know who has installed Microsoft Vista thinks it is awful; therefore, Vista must be a bomb. (Fallacy of Composition or not? It depends on how you measure it. On the one hand,
several hundred million copies of Vista have sold, making it an inherent financial success. On the other hand, as of August, Windows XP -- the six year old predecessor to Vista-- was still outselling Vista, and the numbers of people who have switched to the Apple Mac platform have increased substantially.)

Or this: Presbyterian churches are stuffy and dull; so this Sunday’s worship at Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church will probably be stuffy and dull, too. (Fallacy of Division? I hope not. Although it is true that some Presbyterian churches-- and some other churches, as well-- are stuffy and dull, this may be an unfair stereotype. It also may be an inference made out of ignorance: someone who is uninterested in worshiping God might find ANY church worship service dull, and even stuffy.)

So what do we do about the fallacies of Composition and Division? It all comes down to a simple question:

What is the justification for making that inference?

In other words, why do I feel safe in drawing the conclusion I have? What are the unstated factors in the argument? Is there a point of data-- or more than one-- that connects the part and the whole? If so, does that data hold up as good reason to draw the inference I have?

In the Microsoft example, there are points of data that might support the conclusion, but you still might question whether the starting point is the best one.

With the young man who doubts the Bible, the connecting points that are unstated are likely based on someone teaching the guy that he had to believe the whole Bible to be a Christian. While the Bible is the Word of God, and we cannot know the truth about salvation apart from it, attaching a required belief onto the saving grace of the gospel makes it into works salvation. While I want every believer-- and every unbeliever too-- to hear and receive Scripture as God’s Word, I cannot deny others their doubts. In short, one can be a Christian and not believe that everything written in Scripture is true.


Bad argument styles #3: you can't, but we can

When I was in college, I took a public speaking class (didn’t everyone?), and my last assignment was to present a persuasive speech. The topic had to be approved by the professor, and I wrote a proposal to deliver a speech on the topic, “Why we can trust the Bible.”

My professor denied my topic, because, as he said, in order to speak on that topic I would have to appeal to the authority of the Bible, and he wouldn’t allow that. Imagine my surprise when one of the first speeches given by one of my classmates was on the topic, “The Bible is just a bunch of myths and legends.”

(What made it worse was that the guy basically appealed to the fact that the contents of the Bible has been referred to as, “the greatest story ever told,” and we all know that a
story is fiction. Yep, that was the gist of his argument-- persuasive, right? See my forthcoming post on the fallacy of equivocation...)

This is a classic example of what I call the “you can’t, but we can” argument style. The essence of it is this: one party declares a certain topic, appeal, source of authority, term or phrase, or whatever, to be off-limits. The other side agrees. Then the first side proceeds to appeal to that topic, phrase, etc.; but when the other side brings it up, they are reprimanded for speaking on an off-limits topic.

This has plagued the political campaigns this year. Senator Clinton committed it when she castigated others for holding her gender against her, only to turn around and declare that a vote for her is a step of progress for women everywhere. Senator Obama has done something similar with regard to race (and his “youthfulness” as well). Most recently, the McCain/Palin campaign has employed it, first saying that Governor Palin’s pregnant daughter should be “out of bounds” for political discussion, then parlaying it into a mark in her favor as a Pro-Life candidate.

But it happens in the church, too-- and that’s where I’m even more concerned about it. A good example is this excerpt from one of my favorite books on the sacrament of Baptism,
William the Baptist by James M. Chaney. This is a dialogue between William, a devoted Baptist, and his wife’s Presbyterian pastor, on whether immersion is a biblical mode of administering the sacrament (from pp.30-32):

William: ...I cannot express my astonishment to learn that you regard immersion as an unscriptural mode of baptism. You will find but few who will agree with you in that extreme view.

Pastor: Immersionists are zealous in their labors to make such an impression, but it is very erroneous. The ministers of our Church, as a body, agree with me. A few, regarding it as a mere external, look upon it with such supreme indifference that they can scarcely be said to have an opinion on it; and such may sometimes make concessions which our opposers are very quick to catch up and use to their own advantage. I have know a few who would push this question of indifference to such an extreme that, while unhesitatingly declaring immersion unscriptural as a mode of baptism, would yet, on request, administer the rite in that way. The Presbytery of Lafayette, in answer to a memorial, declared by a unanimous vote that, “it is inexpedient and IMPROPER for a Presbyterian minister to administer the rite of baptism by immersion.”

William: Such facts are new to me. But are you not mistaken as to the number of those who make such concessions? I have heard many sermons on the subject by immersionists, and by their quotations and statements they succeeded in making the impression on me that all Pædo-bapists agree in concessions that would seem to render the further discussion of the question unnecessary.

Pastor: Such concessions form the burden of their books and sermons on the subject. Some years ago I put myself to some trouble to hear a Baptist minister, who proposed to discuss the subject purely from a Bible standpoint. I was anxious to know what a man could say in favor of immersion, in three sermons an hour each, who would confine himself to the Bible, and let lexicons and Pædo-baptist concessions alone.
A worthy Baptist minister introduced the services by an earnest prayer, the burden of which was praise to God for His Word, for the clearness of its revelations, and its sufficiency in all things. I was delighted with the prayer: I regarded it as a prelude to a Bible discussion, and thought that a desire, long entertained, to hear such a discussion, was about to be gratified.
A gospel song was sung, and the minister, with only the open Bible before him, began his task. For about fifteen minutes I was charmed with an eloquent eulogy on the Bible. It was in the spirit of the prayer that preceded it. The massive Book, with its pages opened, was held up to our gaze; and “
here,” said the speaker, “not in Creeds and Confessions of Faith, but here, in the Word of God, are we to look and find the mind of the Lord. TO THE LAW and the TESTIMONY if they speak not according to this word, IT IS BECAUSE THERE IS NO LIGHT IN THEM.”
What more could I desire? A Bible discussion of baptism! what I had so longed to hear.
As the sound of the speaker’s voice (in giving the quotation) was dying away, in a most reverent manner he gently closed the sacred volume, and with as much reverence as the case would admit of, he slowly pushed the source of light to his extreme left, taking one step to enable him to get it sufficiently far. The movement was inexplicable. But, in less time than it requires to tell you, the speaker was almost hidden behind books, large and small, which he piled before him, and on his right and left.
And now the Bible discussion!! For
two hours we were treated to a learned dissertation-- by one who knew nothing of the Greek language-- on the meaning of “baptidzo.” Greek lexicons and Pædo-baptist commentators and writers were the sole witnesses. The Bible was wholly ignored. It was not mentioned once. No text was quoted from it!!
If it had been but a human production, I could but pity it on account of such treatment. Sacred volume, lifted so high to fall so low!
My disappointment was great, but I went to hear the second and third discourses, “
et ab uno, disce omnes.” The discussion of the subject, in all, occupied more than five hours, and only at the close, and then only for about fifteen minutes, did the Bible receive any notice, and then all that was done was to quote a few favorite passages, taking it for granted that they were conclusive in favor of immersion, but making no attempt at proof.

William: In all the books I have read on the subject, and in all the discussions to which I have listened, I have noticed that such was their method, and I think it proper. It served to establish me in my views. with such concessions, and the plain teachings of the Bible, I have come to regard the question as removed from any debatable ground, and I cannot express to you my astonishment that you would intimate that a Pædo-baptist would undertake to uphold his views from the Bible alone! Am I correct in drawing the inference that any one would undertake such a task?

Pastor: Do you think any other method legitimate and satisfactory?

William: I certainly thing such a method best; but I see no objection to other aids, especially to the ad hominem arguments to which you have referred.

The gist: the Baptist pastor asserts “no creeds or confessions of faith” are admissible, but “the Word of God alone”-- in other words, “you can’t use your creeds or confessions” (which is convenient, since the Baptist church is ostensibly a “non-creedal” body). Yet, out come the commentators and Baptist resources-- perhaps what we might construe as the confessions of faith for a group that eschews confessions of faith.

So, here are some questions to ask to avoid this argument style:
  • What are the topics, terms, phrases, ideas, appeals to authority, etc., that I consider “off-limits?” Why do I regard them as such?
  • Is my desire for such a limitation an emotional response, or do I have reasons for it? What are the reasons?
  • Is my perspective on these topics, etc., fair and just? Do I consider them “off-limits” because I am trying to cripple my discussion partner? If I allowed them into the discussion, would I simply have more work and research to do, or would I be admitting a harmful element into the debate?
  • Am I willing to subject myself to the same (or similar) limitations? Have I represented my position and/or argument as one that IS subject to the same limitations, but have failed to fulfill that?
  • Is the limitation I am proposing a matter of vital importance, or simply a difference of opinion? Would my discussion partner categorize it in the same way? (And what is suggested by an answer of “no” to that last question?)

LTD: the Slippery Slope Fallacy

Picking up on the discussion about fallacies, let’s talk about a very common one: the Slippery Slope fallacy.

The basic idea behind the Slippery Slope fallacy is that one event is simply a step along the way, and it will lead to another and another and so on until we inevitably arrive at something dire and drastic which no one wants.

Slippery Slopes assume that there is a fixed path in one direction for every choice, and that they first step along that path always and inevitably leads to the end of the path.

A good example from the Deaconess/women in diaconal ministry debate (which has become a good case study for understanding logic-- and logical error-- in theological discussion) is the following argument, which I’ve heard or read a number of times over the last several months:

If we allow women to be ordained as Deacons, it will only be a matter of time before we are ordaining them as Ruling Elders and eventually Pastors!

Now, this argument exhibits more than one fallacy (it also contains a “False Cause” fallacy, which we’ll cover another time), but it is a clear Slippery Slope. I’ll demonstrate why in just a moment.

How do you argue against a Slippery Slope fallacy? There are essentially two ways:
  • By counter-example: a counter-example is an argument that follows the same form or concept of an argument, but arrives at a different conclusion. A good counter-example will expose a Slippery Slope’s error.
  • By severing the link: a Slippery Slope depends on the assumed link between the “steps” down the slope; break that link, and you’ve demonstrated the error of the fallacy.
To illustrate: a counter-example might be, “Both the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) have ordained women as Deacons for decades, and both of these denominations are becoming more conservative in their theology in general, not less.”

Meanwhile, here is a severance of the link: “Your argument assumes that the office of Deacon and the office (or offices) of Ruling and Teaching Elder are essentially the same, and that a Deacon is merely an Elder-in-training or something of that sort. But Scripture makes it clear that one is inherently different from the other-- and that it is
not the case that a Deacon is simply a ‘Junior Elder.’ If the offices are different, then one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.”

LTD: Fallacies and what they do

Continuing my “Logic for Theological Discussion” series (which I will henceforth label “LTD”), I’d like to talk today about fallacies: what they are and how they work.

A fallacy is a part of an argument. Specifically, it is a part that is able to be shown to have a logical problem or flaw. Once that flaw is demonstrated, the whole argument fails. (When this is so, the argument is said to be “fallacious.”)

You would be astonished at how frequently fallacies occur in arguments, from the most casual and conversational to the most articulate, meticulously word-smithed presentation. They are as common as the rain.

When a fallacy occurs, it is usually a subtle, and can be hard to detect at first; this is often because more than one fallacy occurs at the same time, and one masks the other. Fallacies come in the form of matters of relevance, vague or ambiguous use of words or ideas, matters of correlation or cause, or exploiting some sort of emotional element in the listener.

A good (and very common) example of a fallacy is the
Ad Hominem fallacy. There are actually several different forms of an Ad Hominem (which is Latin, meaning “to the person”), but they all amount to something along the same lines: when you cannot strongly attack the argument itself, attack the person doing the arguing.

For example: in the discussions surrounding the issue of women as deacons/deaconesses, something the “pro” side (in other words, they were for some form of diaconal service being open to women) would often say is, “The reason the PCA’s
Book of Church Order is the way it is can be traced back to the reactionary tendencies of the PCA’s founders.”

(Mea Culpa: I’ve said some form of this statement before.)

Let me first point out how this is an Ad Hominem fallacy: rather than addressing the argument-- namely, that the
Book of Church Order as written prohibits any ordination of women to church office-- the response attacks the arguer. In this case, it means either, “The writers of the BCO were wrong because they were reactionaries,” or, “If you agree with the BCO, then you are wrong because, since the writers of the BCO were reactionaries, so are you.”

Neither of these is
relevant to the question of whether the BCO is correct in its interpretation and application of Scripture when it comes to women in diaconal service. Therefore, claiming that the writers were reactionaries has no real bearing on the soundness of the argument.

How do you deal with an Ad Hominem fallacy when one is thrown at you? There are several strategies:
  • Take the higher ground: ignore the fallacy and stick to the facts and real arguments. Give other listeners the benefit of the doubt in being able to recognize the fallacious quality of the argument. (Best when the Ad Hominem is obvious and blatant.)
  • Address it briefly: suggest that there is no reason to get distracted by name-calling, and request that you stick to the subject at hand instead of getting distracted by irrelevant opinions. (Best when the audience is neutral about whether the Ad Hominem is true, and/or when the Ad Hominem is based on a highly opinionated perspective rather than something more factually-based.)
  • Force them to work it out: ask them probing questions about their claim, requiring them to explain the direct relevance of what they have said and gradually exposing their argument as a fallacy. (Best when the audience is favorable toward the fallacious position.)

Bad argument styles #2: using labels that don't work

I once worked for a church where a member of the pastoral staff and I didn’t fully agree on theological matters. He might have defined himself (in comparison to me) as more broadly evangelical, while I might have defined myself (in relation to him) as more traditionally Reformed. But when it came to him defining me, the choice was simple.

He called me a “TR”.

If you’ve never encountered the label “TR” before, it means “Totally Reformed” or “Truly Reformed”. This wasn’t the first time I had encountered the label, but it was the first time I had been called one. (And the last, as far as I know.)

When someone is called a TR, it doesn’t really define a clear meaning of who they are, what they think, or where they stand on a position. Rather, it is a judgment waged entirely on one person’s thoughts relative to another person.

So many will use the label TR as a pejorative term: “He’s such a TR” (meaning, “he’s more ‘Reformed’ than me). Others will use it with a sense of theological hubris: “I’m a TR” (meaning, “I’m more ‘Reformed’ than you”). In neither case is the term helpful.

For years, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have had clear and straightforward associations. Over that time,
they have served as categories that we might safely place ourselves (and others) within, which lends great understanding of what we (and others) think, believe, agree or disagree with, etc.

I believe that time has passed us by. I think these labels, like “TR”, are no longer helpful, but are simply used in either pejorative or haughty ways.

As I recently read a book entitled,
A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church, this idea (that the labels no longer serve a useful purpose) kept coming to mind. It wasn’t unclear what the author meant by it, but it was clear that he supposed that what he described as “theological liberalism” was all that there was to it.

Is it possible that there are liberal ideas and ideals that (so-called) conservatives might also embrace? Or that there are conservative ideas and ideals that (so-called) liberals might embrace? Whether we are discussing theology, politics, social issues, or economics, I think the lines are blurring.

For example, we have any number of people in political office today who are called “conservatives”-- yet these people are not “conservative” in every way: some may be fiscal conservatives, but social moderates and theological liberals. Similarly, there are many who are categorized as “liberals” who are socially and theologically conservative, but are politically liberal.

And, of course, there is the matter of degree. Whether a person assumes the mantle of conservative or liberal, or more or less “Reformed”, they are doing so in comparison to others. And the problem with association by degrees was best articulated by Tim Keller:

No matter what you believe, there will always be someone to your ‘right’, as it were, who thinks you sold out the Gospel.

Keller went on to illustrate by talking about living in community. So you think you know what vulnerable community is? he asks. Look at the Amish-- they blow us away when it comes to living in an intimate community.

But, Keller says, a people-group like the Auca indians (the group that Jim and Elizabeth Elliot sought to reach as missionaries) will look at the Amish and write them off. You think you know intimate community? How can you-- you have walls! It turns out that the Aucas live in dwellings with no walls, and everything that anyone does is announced. When Elizabeth Elliot left her dwelling to go to the bathroom, someone would announce, “the white woman is going down to the river to urinate”.

We have many, many categories and labels that are quite useful-- but we have a good number (more than we should) that aren’t. So, how can we evaluate our labels? Here are a few questions to ask:
  • Am I labeling an idea, or a person? If I am labeling a person, am I being hasty in casting them into a group that they do not deserve to be in?
  • Why do I feel the need to apply a label or category to this person or idea? Will applying a label or category truly help me (and others) understand their point of view?
  • Is my use of labels or categories gracious and kind, giving credit where credit is due? Or is it something that tears another down or builds me up (or both)?
  • Is the label or category I am using an objective qualification of a particular view or idea? Or is it simply a means of comparing myself or someone else to others?
  • Does my use of labels or categories drive myself and others to Christ and to orthodoxy? Is speaking of someone or some idea in this way a credit to the Gospel?
  • Is my use of labels or categories something I would gladly say to the person I am speaking of? Could I say this to them without embarrassment or qualification? Would the feel honored and understood by my use of the label or category I am applying to them?

Bad argument styles #1: The Bait-and-Switch

Closely related to my ongoing discussion on logic is the concept of argument style, which is really a part of rhetoric. As I can, I’ll explore that concept as well. Here’s the first installment.

One of the problems that face us when we’re dealing with arguments and dialogue is that, quite often, one side of the argument has done a good bit more consideration on the topic than the other side. This frequently leads to what I find to be a common problem in theological discussion: the Bait-and-Switch.

The Bait-and-Switch looks like this: Two thinkers walk into a discussion. Thinker one (we’ll call him Tom) is quite familiar with the topic of the discussion, while thinker two (who we shall call Ann) is only vaguely aware of the major points.

In fact, Tom is not only familiar with the topic, but is well-convinced of his position, and has ready access to multiple articles and books that support his view. Ann, on the other hand, has perhaps encountered Tom’s view before; maybe she has even read an article or two. It may be that she has a few reasons to question whether Tom’s perspective is right, but she is, at very least, unwilling to be quick to change her views of what she considers orthodox.

So when Tom encounters Ann, he tosses out a casual question to her that is phrased in such a way as to suggest that the question-- and (here’s the important thing) the
intent of the question-- is objective. Perhaps the question is worded ambiguously, or maybe it contains an asking phrase that requests the opinion of the other in an apparently sincere way.

Ann takes the bait. She answers with a sincere statement of her opinion. She probably shoots from the hip to a fair degree, and she may very well disclaim exactly that. Her answer is brief, but it probably states a good bit (even all) of what she might have to say about the matter.

So Tom sets the hook. If he’s really good at this, he might ask a few follow-up questions that are similarly ambiguous, again appealing for her honest answer. Then he reels her in: she is suddenly blasted with an overwhelming amount of information. It might be in the form of an article cut-and-pasted into an e-mail, or a series of quotes (lots of them-- 15 or more) posted in the comments of a blog post, or the spoken dialogue switches to monologue for a time. The actual form doesn’t really matter-- it’s the result that does.

If Tom gets his fish, then the result is that Ann is sucked into a discussion that she can’t possibly win, and Tom will eventually demonstrate that he is right because his opponent cannot sufficiently out-argue him. (If Ann is smart, she jumps off the hook at the point when the first wave of overwhelming information comes.)

Here’s what is wrong with the above style of argument:
  • It begins with deception. Tom presents himself as sincerely interested in Ann’s opinion, when he is not. He asks a question or makes a statement that is worded to imply objectivity when none is present. Tom has set out to convince someone of his point of view, but acts like he is still arriving at it.
  • From deception it moves to a psychological move on the order of Cialdini: because Ann has invested time and energy into this discussion, she feels obligated to continue. Tom capitalizes on this psychology, binding her into what amounts to a sales pitch.
  • Tom then beats her up and presents her as the defeated foe, which is a straw man fallacy (more on this in a future post). Ann never set out to be his foe, and she never presented herself as a representative for the “other side” of the topic. Yet Tom trumpets the “other side” as defeated because Ann has been defeated.
  • Overall, Tom has forsaken the loving fellowship that he might have with his sister in Christ for the sake of making his point. Deception, head games, and beating her up in argument is not the way to build a friendship, and surely Ann feels like she has been used and abused. Hardly a brotherly model.
I won’t judge Tom’s motives behind this, and I’m sure that what is in the heart of those who frequently employ this approach is not uniform. But I would suggest that one way to counter this instinct is to ask ourselves the following questions:
  • What are my motives in asking the questions I am asking? Have I presented myself as undecided about something that I am actually decided on? If so, why?
  • Am I aware of whether or not my discussion partner(s) are as well-versed on the topic as I am? If they are not, have I graciously extended patience to them as they get up to speed? Have I been careful not to overwhelm them with too many different points of information, or simply too much information?
  • Have I been easy to disagree with? That is, has my spirit been forbearing and gracious toward them, so that they still feel cherished and valued as a fellow believer?
  • Have I represented our discussion as being more than it really is? Have I inappropriately positioned myself or those with whom I am discussing as the final representative of a position or view?
  • Am I willing to be wrong, if I could be shown from Scripture or from other evidence that my perspective is incorrect? If I have succeeded in demonstrating that someone else is wrong, have I been gracious and loving in the way that I exposed error, not lording it over them in a haughty manner?
  • Overall, have I dealt with my discussion partner(s) in a manner that reflects love for a brother or sister in Christ? Would they gladly engage in another discussion with me in the future, even if they knew we disagreed? Would others inside and outside the church consider my manner of dealing with them as a credit to the gospel?

Logic for Theological Discussion (LTD): parts of an argument

One of the fundamental ideas in logic is that in an argument, you have two sorts of ideas (statements) being presented: a conclusion, and one or more premises.

The conclusion ought to be fairly self-evident in definition: that point which the whole of the argument is attempting to demonstrate to be the case.

The premises (and there is almost always more than one) are those phrases or sentences (also known as statements) which are asserted as reasons to believe the conclusion.

Now, let’s talk about truth and what is called “truth value” for a moment. whenever a sentence can be said to be true or false, that sentence has a “truth value”-- and the truth value is whether or not it is true or false. Some sentences cannot be said to be true or false. A question, for example, or an exclamation cannot be disputed as untrue. But a premise MUST be a sentence that can be said to be true or false.

However, it is technically incorrect to say that an argument is “true” or “false”. This is because there is more to whether an argument is a good one or not than simply the truth value of its statements. Rather, an argument can be said to be two things: valid (or invalid), and sound (or unsound).

Validity (whether an argument is valid or not) is based on form alone, not on content. I know what you’re thinking: “is it possible for an argument to have premises that are both true, and a conclusion that is true, and the argument still not be valid?” Good question-- and the answer is yes. In fact, any of the following are possible:
  • A valid argument whose premises are true and conclusion is false.
  • An invalid argument whose premises and conclusion are true.
  • A valid argument whose premises and conclusion are false.
  • A valid argument whose premises are false and conclusion is true.
Of course, it’s also possible to have a valid argument whose premises and conclusion are all true. When that is the case, we say that the argument is “sound.” (All other cases are examples of unsound arguments.)

Validity is a complex thing, and I won’t get into it in detail now. I may dedicate a post or two to it in the future. Let’s assume, for now, that the arguments presented are valid (which is a treacherous assumption in many cases).

The tricky part about soundness in arguments is that there is often one or more premises that are left out-- either because they are implied within the argument, they are unknown factors (either to the arguer or the listener), or because to state them outright would expose the argument as unsound. It is the last case that gets us into the most trouble when it comes to theological discussions.

For example, I overheard a discussion at General Assembly about the meaning of the phrase, “their wives must be women worthy of respect” in 1 Timothy 3:11. Of the two people discussing the matter, one (we’ll call him Fred) was convinced that a naked reading of the English as rendered in the NIV was plain in its meaning-- clearly, thought he, this verse means that the verse is speaking of the wives of Deacons, not women in general. The other fellow (who we’ll call Joe) thought that, since the English is a translation from another language, we must be careful to assume that a naked reading is always accurate; he also felt that the naked reading was problematic because of what is in the original Greek (specifically, that the word translated as “wives” can also mean simply, “women”). The dialogue went something like this:

Fred: Clearly, 1 Timothy doesn’t suggest that a woman may be a Deacon or Deaconess.
Joe: I’m not sure that we can say that with such certainty. Doesn’t that assume a lot of what the translation ought to be?
Fred: Like what?
Joe: Like, what about the fact that the word translated “wives” can also mean just “women”?
Fred: Don’t you think that the Bible is clear?
Joe: Well, I was reading a commentary by a scholar I trust, and he said it wasn’t so cut-and-dried.
Fred: Some have their opinions about what this verse means, but I for one don’t think we should undermine God.

So, here’s the argument as it was stated:

Premise 1: Some people have theories about what 1 Tim. 3:11 means. (Truth value= true)
Premise 2: We shouldn’t undermine God. (Truth value= true)
Conclusion: 1 Timothy does not suggest that a woman may be a Deacon or Deaconess.

So, assuming the argument is valid, is this argument sound, or unsound? Look at the argument in the original dialogue again; is there a missing premise?

I would argue that there is-- though my guess is that even Fred doesn’t realize that it is there. I think the argument really goes like this:

Premise 1: Some people have theories about what 1 Tim. 3:11 means. (Truth value= true)
Missing Premise: My opinion about what it means is the same as God’s opinion about what it means.
Premise 2: We shouldn’t undermine God. (Truth value= true)
Conclusion: 1 Timothy does not suggest that a woman may be a Deacon or Deaconess.

See the problem? Now, this argument (as presented in the “full” version) has lots of problems, including the use of several “fallacies” which we’ll get into next time. But I hope that, even in this brief example, it is becoming clear how arguments work and how the truth can be easily missed or even distorted.

Logic for theological discussion