"He who will not reason," William Drummond once said, "is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not is a slave."
Having no overpowering urge to appear either a bigot, a fool, or a slave, the average man makes a casual attempt to reason a little now and then, as time permits. He doesn't suppose it can do him any real harm, and anyway, it's free, it's non-fattening, and, who knows, it occasionally might be fun. He may also have read somewhere that the ability to reason also have read somewhere that the ability to reason--to use his mind to arrive at truth (that is, to think) and to communicate that truth to others (that is, to argue)--is what sets him above the animals, and he has no wish to be confused with a cat or a cuttlefish.
But sooner or later he may discover that reasoning (both the thinking part as well as the arguing part) can be done well or poorly--and that doing it well requires effort. He learns, as Henry Ford observed, that "thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it."
He becomes aware, through bloodying experience, that there is a wrong way to reason and a right way. He slowly realizes that reasoning, like life in general, has rules, which men call logic, and that these rules must be known and followed for his thinking to be correct and his arguments to be cogent and credible.
He comes to see that when men violate these rules, either because they don't know them or because they disregard them, they engage in fuzzy thinking and arrive at unsound conclusions. And when they employ their fuzzy thinking to convert others to their conclusions, they only compound the fracture.
At Catholic Answers we encounter fuzzy thinking all the time. We wish it weren't so. There's nothing more disappointing, more downright depressing, than wanting to discuss the truth or falsity of the Catholic faith in a clear, cool, logical manner, only to find the other person lapsing into fallacious logic.
Maybe you too encounter (or even occasionally engage in) fuzzy thinking and find it frustrating. What can we do about it? One thing we can all do is learn to identify the tell-tale signs of fuzzy thinking so we can avoid it ourselves and can help those with whom we talk to avoid it.
This article and its sequel are a guide to fuzzy thinking. They list the varied ways one can stray from the path of proper reasoning. The names for many of these deductive detours and dead-ends are as old as the (seven) hills (of Rome): Roman philosophers (like the Greeks before them) liked to catalogue not only the rules of sound reasoning, but also the most common transgressions thereof.
Some of the names they came up with have stuck, so a lot of the entries in this lexicon of logical lapses are in Latin (with an English equivalent always added). Other errors have acquired English labels, some of long standing, others of rather recent minting, and one or two I've even coined myself. Each entry is illustrated by at least one example drawn from real-life letters, conversations, and debates we've had with a wide spectrum of heterodox Catholics, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, cult members, New Agers, atheists, and secular humanists.
This encyclopediette of errors is not exhaustive. There is no discussion of argumentum ad crumenam (the appeal to self-interest; literally, "to the purse") or of obscurum per obscurius (the explanation of something obscure by something even more obscure); these are not arguments likely to be advanced by critics of Catholicism. But there is enough of a sampling to get your feet wet.
If, in addition to wetting your feet, I succeed in whetting your appetite for a more in-depth look at logic, I'll be most grateful. The day is long overdue for logic to be reintroduced as a requirement into the curriculum of our schools. The ability to think critically and logically should be considered as basic a skill as reading, writing, and arithmetic--in fact, more basic, since one needs to think in order to engage in any of these activities.
Christians have an even higher motive to master the laws of logic, since logic is nothing less than the light of Christ himself (the Logos of God), desiring to illuminate the mind of every man (John 1:1, 9). Christians are called to "have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16) and thus "think God's thoughts after him." The force of many of the arguments that Christ and his apostles (especially Paul) employ are lost on the reader who has no g.asp of the elementary principles of logic. We need to equip ourselves intellectually so we can respond fully to the gracious summons of God, "Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord" (Isa. 1:18).
Have you ever heard a politician or a preacher attack someone's person when he ought to have been attacking his position? If so, then you've heard argumentum ad hominem, which in Latin means arguing "to the man" (as opposed to arguing ad rem, "to the point"). Ad hominem can take a variety of forms. It might consist of name-calling: calling a Catholic a "papist," a Fundamentalist a "Bible-thumper," a charismatic a "snake-handler," a political conservative a "fascist," or a liberal a "communist." If you don't happen to suffer from the "Call-me-a-name-and-I'll-crumble" syndrome, this sort of ad hominem attack isn't going to ruin your day.
Ad hominem might also take the form I call "let's-play-amateur-psychoanalyst." This would-be reader of the tea leaves of your mind volunteers the Earth-shattering insight that "You're a Catholic because you're insecure and you need some strong authority to look up to." Non-Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others would do well to avoid using this "argument," since it could backfire on them: Freud, in The Future of An Illusion, used this very reasoning to "disprove" theism itself.
Another sort of ad hominem casts aspersions not on someone's mental health, but on his moral character. First of all, this is generally irrelevant. The person's character isn't necessarily connected to the cogency of his case. Even if you prove the person you're arguing with is the Devil himself, you still haven't answered his argument!
Notice I said "generally irrelevant." I don't want to fall into a logical fallacy myself here: Just because there's no necessary connection, in a particular case, between a person's character and his position doesn't mean that his character is always irrelevant. In some cases your opponent's character may be a legitimate issue (if, for example, a pedophile were arguing for the legalization of child pornography).
I once talked for six hours with a Presbyterian elder who ended up suggesting, out of the blue and without supportive evidence, that I had become a Catholic because Catholicism made fewer moral demands on me than Calvinism had. Not only was this an unwarranted ad hominem slur, it also confirmed my sense that this individual didn't have an accurate notion of Catholicism.
Sometimes the ad hominem arguer asserts that everything his opponent says is suspect because of his supposed bad character--even his protestations of innocence. This particular form of ad hominem is known as "poisoning the wells."
The phrase comes from a famous religious controversy of the nineteenth century, when Charles Kingsley attacked the character of John Henry Newman, an Anglican who had converted to Catholicism. Kingsley stated a Catholic priest was trained to have no regard for telling the truth. When Newman denied this was so, Kingsley in effect replied, "Well, what do you expect a liar to say?"
Newman pointed out this put him in a no-win situation in the mind of anyone who took Kingsley's charge seriously: He couldn't even attempt to argue that he wasn't a liar, without seeming to be one. Kingsley had "poisoned the well" at the outset to disqualify Newman as a reliable source of truth on any matter, even on the matter of truth.
A feminist friend once committed this fallacy in my hearing when arguing with another friend about women priests. When she couldn't make any apparent dent in his defense of an all-male priesthood, she said in e.asperation, "Well, you just can't see it because you're a man!" Whatever the merits of her own arguments, at that point she resorted to "poisoning the well"--disqualifying her opponent, in this case on the basis of gender, from having any objectivity on the subject.
Ad hominem argumentation sometimes takes the form of "guilt by association." Occasionally we hear someone say something like, "Adolf Hitler was a Catholic. You don't expect me to have any respect for the views of a person who belongs to the same Church as Hitler did, do you?"
Soon I will be debating an Assemblies of God minister in Philadelphia on sola scriptura, the Protestant theory that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. As he argues for his view, should I seek to refute him by loudly stating, "Jimmy Swaggart, who was found guilty of visiting a prostitute, was an Assemblies of God minister! You don't expect me to have any respect for the views of a person who belongs to the same Church as Jimmy Swaggart did, do you?" Of course not. The moral character of Jimmy Swaggart is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the notion of sola scriptura.
Catholics expect to be granted the same consideration. The truth of any Catholic doctrine is not undermined by the moral lapses of individual Catholics. This is even true when the doctrine in question is papal infallibility and the moral lapses in question are those of certain Renaissance popes, since infallibility (the inability to teach error officially) is not the same as impeccability (the inability to sin).
When someone who knows the difference, and understands that Catholics don't assert papal impeccability, insists on bringing up the "bad popes" anyway (as an ex-Catholic Presbyterian minister did who debated me recently), he is engaging in ad hominem argument.
When someone seeks to take advantage of an audience's ignorance (or what he hopes is the audience's ignorance) of a field of knowledge by supposedly basing his conclusions on data from that field, that person is arguing ad ignorantiam (appealing "to the ignorance" of the opponent or audience).
I still remember the first time a Jehovah's Witness looked me in my teenage eye and told me that if only I knew Greek, I'd see that the New Testament (John 1:1, for example) really doesn't teach that Christ is God.
When I invited him in and got out my Greek New Testament, Greek grammar books, Greek lexicon, and Greek concordance, told him I was majoring in classical, New Testament, and patristic Greek at college, and proceeded to demonstrate that the Greek did not support his Arian Christology, his argumentum ad ignorantiam faded as rapidly as the smile from his face.
I also remember one of the first Masses my wife and I went to, shortly after we'd joined the Catholic Church. We were in a small New England town on summer vacation and went to a Mass where the priest felt a divine mandate to rewrite the liturgy from head to toe. He not only insisted on saying "The Lord is with you" every time the rubric called for "The Lord be with you," he devoted the homily to telling us why.
"You see," quoth he, "what many people don't realize is that archaic English didn't have an indicative mood [he actually said "tense"]. The only way they had of saying 'The Lord is with you' was to say 'The Lord be with you.' Now we have the indicative mood, so it's more accurate to say 'The Lord is with you.' Because, let's face it, the Lord already is with you!"
Edified by this uplifting meditation on grammar, we proceeded to worship the Lord who already was with us. After the Mass I thanked the priest for his ministrations and confessed that, as a senior English teacher at a Jesuit preparatory school, I had always thought English possessed both an indicative as well as a subjunctive mood, both in Elizabethan days and in our own, and that the difference between the two statements had nothing to do with the passage of time.
"Well," he said, shifting his feet and his ground, "it's really not a question of English. I only said that because the people would understand a reference to English. Actually, it's a question of the original Greek."
"Well, Father," I said, "I majored in Greek and I teach Greek, and I seem to recall that the Greek language has both a subjunctive and an indicative mood, no less than English, and the two are translated quite differently."
"Well, young man," he said, nervously licking his lips, "it's not so clear in the Greek. You see, you have to get back of the Greek to the original Hebrew. If you only knew Hebrew, you'd see my point."
"Well, Father," I said embarrasedly, "the school where I teach Greek is a seminary, where I'm getting a Ph.D. in biblical studies, and I have to know Hebrew fluently. And, with all due respect, Hebrew doesn't help you out here any more than the Greek or English."
"Well," he said, sponging his brow with his sleeve (it was a warm day), "what I really know well is Chinese (you don't by any chance know Chinese, do you?), because I used to be a missionary in China, and in old Chinese, the only way you could say 'the Lord is with you' is by saying 'The Lord be with you.'<|>"
"But, Father," I asked, "even if that were true, what relevance would it have for changing the wording of the English liturgy? Isn't the issue ultimately one of theology, not language? If a priest believed he had from Christ the ability to impart a blessing, a deepening of grace and therefore of God's presence to his people, couldn't he properly say, 'The Lord be with you'?
"If instead his theology told him Christ was homogeneously present everywhere, in one undifferentiated sense, and that no one could augment or diminish that presence, wouldn't he prefer to say simply, 'The Lord is with you'?"
"Well, yes," the good father replied, smiling again, "that's exactly the point. I didn't say that because I don't like to go too deep into theology, you know, in the homily; a point like that would be way over the people's heads. But you're right: The issue is really a more correct theological understanding of the Lord's presence. This was one of the things changed at Vatican II."
"Really, Father? Hmm. I carefully studied all the documents of Vatican II. You see, I used to be a Protestant minister and theologian and only recently converted to Catholicism as a result of years of study. I don't recall the Second Vatican Council anywhere revoking the teaching that there are different degrees or senses in which the Lord is present to his people."
His upper lip beading with sweat again, he said, "Well, it wouldn't come out in the documents. You'd have to have been there. I was at the Council."
"Wow, Father, you were a peritus at the Council?"
"No, I didn't mean I was a theological advisor. I just observed."
"You were an invited observer? Were you there for all the sessions?"
"No, I didn't exactly say I was an invited observer. I . . . I was a tourist in Rome at the time, and the guide took a group of us in, and we got to stand in the back for about ten minutes."
"What were they talking about during the ten minutes you got to be there, Father?"
"I don't remember."
The moral of the story is never to argue ad ignorantiam --especially if you are also arguing ex ignorantia at the same time.
Sometimes a debater descends to the level of demagoguery, whether or not he launches into ad hominem attacks upon his opponent, by rhetorically seeking to sway the audience to his side without actually demonstrating the truth of his position. This is known as argumentum ad populum ("appeal to the people")--telling the people what they want to hear, whether or not it's true.
When it is a case of playing to the passions of the audience, whether by pumping up their patriotism or partisanship, or by feeding their fears and confirming their worst suspicions (easily done), it is known as argumentum ad captandum vulgas ("appeal to the emotions of the crowd").
When it's a matter of fanning the flames of their prejudices, it's known as argumentum ad individium ("appeal to prejudice").
When the speaker seeks to align the audience's affections with himself by playing on their heartstrings and appealing to their pity, he is arguing ad misericordiam ("appeal to sympathy").
Professional anti-Catholic Alberto Rivera, whose story is featured in a series of garish, full-color comic books published by Jack Chick, is a master of all the above varieties of ad populum.
One minute he's marketing mass paranoia by "informing" his Fundamentalist readers that their names are recorded on a mainframe computer named "the Beast" housed in the bowels of the Vatican so that, when the Pope takes over the world as the Antichrist, they can all be systematically stabbed in their sleep by the Jesuits (ad captandum vulgas).
The next minute he's heightening their horror of Catholicism by claiming it created all their favorite foes--including communism, Islam, and Freemasonry (ad individium).
Then he seeks sympathy (and thereby credibility) by casting himself in the role of the persecuted faithful witness, fearlessly continuing to expose the evils of Romanism despite numerous assassination attempts by Vatican agents who want to silence him. Not only that: The night he left the priesthood, knowing the shock waves would sweep through the Vatican, galvanizing its army of assassins into instant action, he grabbed the last flight out of Spain "with only 40 cents in my pocket." How much more apostolic could one's sufferings be (ad misericordiam)?
Argument of the Beard
How many hairs would a man's chin have to sprout before we could say he sported a beard? One? Clearly not. Two? No, but now we begin to worry: Which hair (the twentieth? the hundredth?) will constitute a beard? Once we agree the man has a beard, if we pluck one hair, wouldn't the fellow still have a beard? Could the loss of one hair mean the loss of a beard?
It would be rather perverse, not to mention radically skeptical, to argue that if you can't tell exactly how many hairs it takes to make a beard, then you can never say a man is bearded or clean-shaven. Yet that is what "arguments of the beard" assert: If one can conceive a gradual continuum between two extremes, there is no real difference between the extremes.
When I was a college professor, students were always seeking to employ the argument of the beard with reference to their grades. If I gave Ernest Erudite an A for getting a 93 on a paper, why not give Greta Goodheart one for her 92? But if her, then why not Bertha Borderline for her 91, or Harry Hopeful for his 90? Eventually I'd have to conclude there's no difference between a 93 and a 33, simply because each increment is such a slight degree. If I gave Ernest an A, I'd have to give everybody an A.
A Presbyterian minister who debated me on salvation attacked the Catholic classification of sin into "venial" and "mortal" on just these grounds. He had asked another Catholic apologist if stealing five hundred dollars were a mortal sin. Certainly, the Catholic replied. What about two dollars? No, that would be a venial sin. Well, he concluded triumphantly, where was the dividing line? What about two hundred and forty-nine dollars and fifty cents?
Just because there is a constructible continuum between mortal sin and venial sin, and just because we may not know where to fix the dividing line, does not mean that there is no difference between a mortal sin and a venial sin, any more than it means there is no difference between a bearded man and a clean-shaven one.
[To be continued next month.]