Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

How to Spot Fuzzy Thinking—Part II

“If a thing’s worth doing,” G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “it’s worth doing badly.” That’s exactly how I feel about this little guide to logical fallacies, which began in last month’s cover story.

I can’t claim that it is either excellent or exhaustive, only that it was “worth doing” (even if only badly) because I knew of nothing in print which blew the whistle on the ways people are bamboozled into accepting illegitimate inferences.

Nor can I claim never to have slipped on these intellectual banana peels myself. I wrote as much for my own benefit as for anybody else’s. I was summoning us all to a standard I too fall short of from time to time.

But I felt it better to set the standard high, even if that meant reminding myself of my own lapses in logic, than to cheat the reader by only mentioning those fallacies I was sure I’d never committed. Samuel Butler once said, “Logic is like the sword—those who appeal to it shall perish by it.” So be it: And if in fact what perishes is our presumption that we are perfect logicians, so much the better.

Last month, after some opening remarks on the importance of clear thinking and careful argumentation in matters of religion, I discussed arguments that err by being either ad hominem , ad populum , ad ignorantiam , or “by the beard.” The present essay picks up where the previous one left off.

Bad Analogy

Reasoning by analogy is one of the oldest and most effective ways to reason, but we need to be sure the analogy is an actual and not only an apparent one. To equate two things when there exists only a superficial similarity between them is to reason by bad analogy.

Fundamentalists frequently accuse Catholics of borrowing their practices from paganism, on the ground of some perceived parallel. They see Catholics bowing before statues, they know pagans bowed before statues, so they conclude that when Catholics bow before statues they are engaging in a pagan practice.

One could answer the above argument by reductio ad absurdum (refuting an argument by showing that if one were to extend its line of reasoning, one would arrive at a patently absurd inference).

One could argue that if Catholics engage in pagan worship simply because they bow, then so do people when they bow to kings and queens, butlers when they bow to their masters, Orientals when they bow to one another in greeting, and square dancers when they bow to their partners.

Another way to use reductio ad absurdum would be to provide, as a parody of the argument, an anti-Fundamentalist version of it. You could point out that (1) Fundamentalists often kneel when they pray, (2) pagans often kneel when they pray, and therefore (3) when Fundamentalists kneel in prayer, they are engaging in an act of pagan worship.

Begging the Question

A fundamentalist, in arguing for the truth of Fundamentalism and the falsity of Catholicism, may claim that “no Fundamentalist would ever become a Catholic.” When I informed such a Fundamentalist that I have several friends who were Fundamentalists and became Catholics, he retorted, “Well, then they couldn’t have been real Fundamentalists.”

What’s going on here? The person is really arguing in a circle. He is saying “A Fundamentalist (and by `Fundamentalist’ I mean someone who would never become a Catholic) would never become a Catholic.” This tautological statement is true by definition and therefore offers no argument at all.

An argument, strictly speaking, proceeds from one truth to another by inference. When a conclusion isn’t arrived at but is already present in the opening premises (perhaps in disguised form), you have that particular form of circular reasoning known as petitio principii , “begging the question.”

I encounter question begging with disconcerting regularity when I debate Protestants on sola scriptura . Protestants mean by this slogan that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice; Catholics also accept the Bible as God’s inspired, inerrant Word but say that Scripture, far from claiming to be the only depository of the Word of God, encourages us to hear that Word as well in Sacred Tradition and the magisterium of the Church.

The Protestant generally seeks to prove his point with biblical prooftexts which assert that “the Word of God” is to be our only authority. This is question begging, pure and simple: The Protestant reads into those verses his “conclusion” that Scripture could be the only “Word of God” being talked about. But that’s what the argument is all about! If the Catholic is correct that in Scripture the phrase “the Word of God” isn’t always reducible to Scripture alone, then verses which say “the Word of God” do not prove the Protestant notion of sola scriptura at all.

Burden-of-Proof Shifting

In argumentation and debate, the burden of proof is always on the one who asserts. It’s up to him to prove his assertion, and he doesn’t win by default if his opponent can’t disprove it or can’t prove the contrary.

Debates on sola scriptura often provide good examples not only of question-begging, but of burden-of-proof shifting as well. When I debated a well-known Evangelical scholar on the question “Does Scripture teach sola scriptura ?” the burden of proof was on him, since he took the affirmative, to prove Scripture in fact taught such a thing.

When I pointed out he was repeatedly failing to do so, he turned around and said the burden of proof was on me to show, if sola scriptura were not what Scripture taught, what in fact it did teach. Though I was glad to show the audience what Scripture did teach on the matter, I was not strictly obliged to do so. Don’t let someone shift the burden of proof onto you if it’s on him; he may try to do so, particularly if it’s crushing him.

Chronological Snobbery

This phrase was coined by C.S. Lewis to describe the shabby reasoning by which someone discounts or discredits an idea simply because it’s an old idea. Such a person may use temporal terms such as “Victorian,” “medieval,” “primitive,” “antediluvian,” or “Neanderthal” to characterize the concept he is attacking.

Some “progressive” Catholics arch their eyebrows if you confess a belief in the Real Presence and transubstantiation. They’ll accuse you of holding to a “medieval” view of the Eucharist and argue that “transsignification” is a more up-to-date concept. But it hardly follows that because people believed something in the Middle Ages (if in fact that’s as far back as the concept of transubstantiation goes, which isn’t the case) we should therefore no longer believe it now. Even if one held a radically evolutionistic view of truth, this wouldn’t follow.

Scripture shows us that truth and error both go back to antiquity (Gen. 3). In the attempt to determine the correctness of a concept, therefore, the concept’s age is irrelevant.

Cliche Thinking

“There is no expedient,” Edison once quipped, “to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

One such expedient can be called “cliche thinking.” Cliches and truisms substitute for sound thinking; they can be the lazy man’s guide to truth. Rather than think for himself, he parrots the platitude and the proverb.

Don’t misunderstand: Maxims and aphorisms have their places. They add sparkle to our speech and express our thought in a nutshell. But they cannot substantiate our points of view.

In any discussion of papal infallibility, the incident at Antioch will come up. There Peter didn’t act in accord with his own belief that the Mosaic works of the Law were no longer in force, and he had to be rebuked by Paul for his hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14). When the Catholic points out that he doesn’t believe in papal impeccability (the inability of a pope to sin) but in papal infallibility (the inability of a pope to teach doctrinal error officially), the Protestant may respond with the cliche, “Actions speak louder than words.”

This may be true, but it hardly helps the discussion here, where a very legitimate distinction is being made between teaching and behavior.

The Catholic should point out to his Protestant friend that the cliche could backfire by undermining a conviction they both share, namely that the apostles possessed the gift of infallibility and could therefore write authoritative Scripture.

Any attempt to use Peter’s sin to sabotage his infallibility would apply equally to any of the apostles, all of whom were sinners, and ultimately would sabotage the infallibility of Scripture.

False Antithesis

The fallacy of false antithesis (also known as faulty dilemma or false dichotomy) is almost the opposite of the argument of the beard, which we discussed last month. Whereas the latter argues that the extremes don’t exist by virtue of all the in-betweens, the fallacy of the faulty dilemma assumes there are two opposing options, when that may not be the case. There may be in-betweens, or the only two options may not really be opposites but rather two.aspects of a single truth.

In a recent debate on salvation I pointed out that the New Testament teaches baptism is essential to salvation (Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). My opponent’s response was an example of a false antithesis. He read aloud 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” which proved, he said, that the baptism essential to salvation was baptism by the Spirit, not by water.

This was a purely gratuitous assumption on his part and a self-serving one at that. Even if my opponent were correct in supposing there were two baptisms to be distinguished in Scripture—one (Spirit baptism) necessary for salvation and one (water baptism) not—1 Corinthians 12:13 hardly supports that distinction: It merely states there is a baptism by the Spirit into the body of Christ.

The problem here is the either-or mentality Protestants bring to such texts. A baptism, they feel, is either baptism by water or a baptism by the Spirit; it couldn’t be one baptism (as Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:5) with two aspects, a material aspect and a spiritual.aspect, which is after all what Jesus says in John 3:5.

This foible arises from a philosophical perspective which Protestantism inherited from William of Occam. Occam saw a radical disjunction between nature and grace, a disjunction Protestant theology still largely operates with, as Louis Bouyer, himself a convert from Protestantism, so ably demonstrates in his book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism .

As a result, Protestants assume that if the essential baptism is Spirit baptism, then it can’t be water baptism. Likewise, if the Holy Spirit is the Vicar of Christ, then the pope can’t be. On and on it goes. We’re justified by faith (Rom. 5:1) and so not by good works—contrary to James 2:24. (When Paul says in Romans 3:28 and Galatians 2:15 that we’re justified by faith and not by the works of the Law, he is speaking of Mosaic ceremonial observances such as circumcision, not good works in the proper sense).

Hypothesis Contrary to Fact

People love to speculate. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (though we need to keep in mind what Samuel Johnson said: “When speculation has done its worst, two and two still make four”).

One of the things people like to speculate about is “what might have been,” and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that either. It’s all right to give our imagination a stretch once in a while. But it hardly belongs in an argument as a proof. We may cherish the fancy that “If A had happened, then B would have (or, would never have) happened.” But we can hardly include such a “what if” as a premise in a serious argument.

Two days before I became a Catholic, some of my fellow ministers, together with some scholars from a well-known Calvinistic seminary, met with me at the request of the denomination in which I was an ordained minister. It was to be a last-ditch effort to talk me out of converting. At one point in the discussion, because I was citing Augustine as an early witness to certain Catholic doctrines, one of the ministers jumped up, pounded the table with his fist, and loudly declaimed, “If Augustine were alive today, I know which church he’d belong to!”

He meant, of course, that Augustine would have been a minister in that Presbyterian denomination and not a bishop in the Catholic Church. He would have been a Calvinist, not a Catholic. Augustine was only a Catholic by default because he had the rotten luck to be born B.C. (Before Calvin), before the Reformation, which could have given him another option, had happened.

What struck me was not the superficiality of the minister’s understanding of Augustine that prompted him to assert Augustine would have jumped at the chance to be a modern Protestant. What struck me was that he proceeded, based upon this speculative hypothesis, to plead with me, since I held Augustine in such high esteem, to “stay in the church Augustine would have belonged to.”

Misuse of Authority

The above anecdote also serves as an example of the misuse of authority (the authority misused was a hypothetically-reconstructed Augustine). It is valid to cite authorities in an argument, but they must be used properly. The Romans called a misuse of authority argumentum ad verecundiam , “argument to modesty” or “to bashfulness,” apparently because the person was hiding behind some authority rather than standing forth where the cogency of his own reasoning could be evaluated.

Because the Catholic Church uses in its apologetics a proper appeal to authority (the authority of the Church, for example—after that has been duly established), Protestants sometimes seek, in debating Catholics, to employ the principle to their own advantage. This usually ends up backfiring, since they more often than not misunderstand how the appeal works.

In a recent debate with me on the papacy, a pastor of my former denomination cited Augustine against the Catholic teaching that the rock upon which Christ said he would build his Church was Peter. He thought that because Augustine was a major doctor of the Church he had thereby weakened the case for the Catholic position.

He overlooked the fact that the Church looks to no individual Father as an infallible authority on all matters. Even Thomas Aquinas, the “Common Doctor” of the Church, was wrong on a point here and there, and so was Augustine (though my opponent was actually misrepresenting Augustine in stating he rejected the view that Peter was the rock).

Later in the debate my opponent claimed that 68 of the early Church Fathers held that the rock in Matthew 16:18 was not Peter, and he claimed only 17 said it was Peter. This was another misuse of authority. Even if these figures had been accurate (they were not), they would have betrayed a fatal misunderstanding of the proper use of patristic authority, which is not a matter of counting noses to arrive at the truth.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Remember the old joke that asks what happens when you submerge a body entirely in water? (Answer: The phone rings.) No one really believes that getting into a bathtub makes the phone ring, of course: It’s just an inconvenient coincidence.

But if someone were to argue such a thing, he would be guilty of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”), which says that because B happened after A, B was caused by A.

Shortly after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Sensationalistic anti-Catholic writers such as Charles Chiniquy immediately claimed Lincoln was done in by Jesuit agents. (This view is promoted today by Jack Chick and Alberto Rivera.) A was followed by B, so A caused B. Simple, isn’t it?

You will sometimes hear that countries which became Protestant at the time of the Reformation subsequently experienced economic expansion and that Reformation theology was responsible. Since Protestantism brings prosperity, it would be good for all countries to become Protestant.

Even if this were so, should economic prosperity be our measure of theological truth? Should I join the church that tells me “God wants me to be rich” and promises that if I tithe to that church I’ll soon be a millionaire? More importantly, historians increasingly point out that the cause of any one country’s prosperity is an extremely complex matter which can hardly be attributed to the adoption of a creed.

Special Pleading

When we present the facts in a matter and shape those facts (including statistics) to make our side look better, we are guilty of “special pleading.” The classic example is the joke about the international car race that ended up having only two entrants: the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. won the race. The next day the item in the Soviet paper said, “In the international auto race yesterday, the Soviet car came in second, while the American finished next to last.”

We engage in special pleading when we stack the deck in our favor by citing only the evidence favoring our position and ignoring or hiding any troublesome to it. Intellectual honesty obliges us to discuss all the relevant data—not only the favorable facts, but also those that seem contrary to our position—and indicate how they fit into the picture.

The person who uses prooftexts from the Bible is particularly susceptible to this danger. Naturally he is going to memorize and quote those verses which seem to support his position. Why do Fundamentalists, in their zeal to argue that the early Church taught one became a member of the Church by faith alone, cite Acts 16:31 but ignore, say, Acts 2:38?

The same goes for “prooftexts” from history. Sometimes ardent Catholics feel there’s something wrong with quoting non-Catholics or “bad Catholics” and quote only those they deem to have been “pillars of the Church.” They thereby foster the impression that Catholicism can only be supported by special pleading.

I taught theology at a Catholic college where some students seemed to be affected by this unfortunate obscurantism. They found it suspect that I would cite Protestants to support certain Catholic teachings. “Why do we need their testimony,” they felt, “when we can cite a good, solid Catholic?” (Note, by the way, the ad hominem implication that if someone is a Protestant he is totally unreliable as a source of truth.)

What such people fail to see is that a quotation from a non-Catholic, who is hardly biased in favor of our faith, might be for that very reason far more effective. Sometimes for the sake of sheer impact we ought to quote, not a “pillar of the Church,” but a “flying buttress”: someone who supports the Church from the outside!

Straw Men

Straw men are the flip side of special pleading; both involve misrepresentation. When we favorably misrepresent our position, that’s special pleading. When we unfavorably misrepresent our opponent’s position, that’s known as building and attacking a straw man, so called because he’s easy to knock down.

Even intelligent people ask Catholics, “How can you let an old man in Rome do all your thinking for you?” Is that an accurate description of papal authority? Of course not; it’s a straw man.

The idea of letting an old man in Rome do your thinking for you is self-evidently absurd and easy to demolish, but the person trampling on this straw man is mistaken if he thinks he’s thereby refuting papal authority. He has attacked something easy to attack, but to what purpose, since he isn’t engaging with the view Catholics really hold?

What do all the logical fallacies we’ve looked at have in common? They are all examples of non sequitur reasoning. Non sequitur is Latin for “it does not follow.” A non sequitur is any conclusion which does not follow from one’s premises. It doesn’t follow that if a man is bad his argument is bad (ad hominem ), or that if a belief is old it’s therefore outdated (chronological snobbery), or that if you’re saved by faith then you’re not saved by works (false antithesis).

Watch for the non sequitur in the other person’s argument. When Jimmy Swaggart says none of the “apocryphal” (i.e. deuterocanonical) books should be deemed canonical because none of them claims divine inspiration (Questions and Answers , p. 321), ask yourself, “Is this a non sequitur?” In this case it is: From the fact that a book doesn’t claim to be inspired it doesn’t follow that it isn’t inspired. In fact, many of the books in Jimmy Swaggart’s canon don’t claim to be inspired (e.g. Esther). Why doesn’t he conclude they aren’t canonical?

There are other examples of illogic we could analyze: ipse dixit , reductive fallacies, sweeping generalizations, to name three. But these are certainly enough for now. As we ponder these examples we need to remember that, however adept we become at avoiding fuzzy thinking and spotting it in others, communicating our Catholic faith entails more than just being logical.

We need to avoid the logical—and ontological—fallacy of reductionism in thinking that we are merely logic machines. There are all sorts of brilliant but cold hearted people who can sniff out a logical weakness a mile away, mercilessly pounce upon the person perpetrating it, and flay their fallible opponent alive, holding him up to public ridicule.

Such fallacy ferreters, if they lack love, are not men but monstrosities, apologetical freaks with overdeveloped heads but underdeveloped hearts. We ought not to emulate them; God help us if we do.

We need to advance not only in logic, but in love as well. After all, we have it on good authority that knowledge, even knowledge of the principles of sound reasoning, can puff up, but love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1). When we learn both to think well and to love well, then perhaps it will be able to be truthfully said of our arguments that they are neither ad hominem nor ad populum, but ad maiorem Dei gloriam—to the greater glory of God.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!