Dealing With Insults

I’ve noticed a growing resistance among some people to engage in rational discussion on certain topics online. For instance, I once claimed that human morality seems objective throughout human history and so points to God as its author. Someone asked me to justify my claim in an argument. While I was presenting my rational argument to them in support of my claim, what I got back was not so much counter argument. It was angry sounding and abusive words against me as a person. For example:

 

“you not only have a problem, you are one.”

“you … diminish humanity.”

“perhaps you have a basic lack or dysfunction.”

“you are deluded”

 

Now – a good argument is always about an issue, never about a person. When you make the argument about the person (e.g. you are stupid for presenting that argument), this ceases to be a good and constructive argument and instead just becomes logically fallacious and pointless.

 

In logical terms, when one person proposes an argument for an issue (like the moral argument for or against God), and the other person replies with personal insults, this is an example of the Argumentum ad Hominem. It’s an informal fallacy of relevance where the reply shows a “connection between premises and conclusion [which] is emotional.”[1] The argument ceases to be about a point of view, and it begins to be “an argument against the person”[2] who is having his character impugned.

You come across three varieties of this logical fallacy in the wild:

1 – ad hominem abusive

The responder decides to attack the person rather than the substance of their argument. Or, tries to bolster a weak counter argument with a personal attack. Either way, his response is largely irrelevant to the discussion, “the argument attacking him is fallacious.”[3]

2 – ad hominem circumstantial

Rather than abuse the other party, the responder attempts to discredit him in an attempt to show that “the opponent is predisposed to argue the way he or she does … and should not be taken seriously.”[4]

3 – tu quoque

This is the response which basically claims that the other party is a hypocrite because of their lifestyle. But again, “the details of … personal life are irrelevant to whether his premises support his conclusions”[5] in a discussion (a trial in a courtroom is a different setting with different rules, so life style may very well be relevant in that setting).

 

This logical fallacy is a powerful strategy in an argument because it is designed to raise emotion in the debate with the purpose of shutting the debate down. Hey – it works brilliantly. I’ve been in a situation with someone where I’ve tried to logically lay out an argument, yet when their abuses start to fly my way, my mind goes into a whirl and I lose the ability to think straight. I start to wrestle with thoughts like, “Why are they being so mean? Is it my fault? Am I a bad person? I hate that they are shouting at me. Are they right – am I a problem to society?” I stop thinking about my argument, and start dwelling on how hurt I feel. Hey – it’s a great tactic. But you don’t win argument that way. You just shut the argument down. And perhaps risk losing friendships in the process.

 

So – what do we do when we receive ad hominem’s in our discussions with people?

1 – Remember it’s a sign that your opponent probably does not have a good counter to your argument. Lets face it, when people are on the ropes, they have nothing to lose and end up just flailing at you with whatever they have got left. Personal attacks are just this – the argumentation version of flailing. You aren’t failing here in this argument. They are.

2 – Reflect on the reason for their attack. It’s not happening because there’s something wrong with you or you are a bad person. Rather, it’s because you are presenting your opponent with a persuasive argument they do not want to follow. You aren’t doing a bad job here. Quite the opposite!

3 – Resist the urge to insult them back. Why? Well, to trade insult with insult just undoes all the good you’ve achieved so far from this discussion. Your argument has been persuasive up to this point. That’s why they are swinging for your character. Don’t go and spoil things by cursing them back.

Perhaps it’s time to step back from them and give them space. They may have hurt your feelings. Well, you’ve given them something important to think about once they have calmed down. As Koukl says, you have put a stone in their shoe.

4 – If you are a Christian who receives ad hominems, pray for your opponent. I’m assuming your argument would be a helpful one if they will only just accept it? They are clearly in a battle over the argument you are proposing to them. They need your prayers.

5 – If you are a Christian who is guilty of using ad hominems in your arguments, stop it. You are not being persuasive and you are undermining the (hopefully) good point you are trying to make! And – it is dishonouring to Christ.

 

 

 

[1] Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 11th Edition, (Wadsworth: Cengage Learning, 2012), 122.

[2] Hurley, 126.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hurley, 127.

 

Photo by Cashino NDT on Unsplash

Our Knowledge Crisis

“There is no truth,” he barked authoritatively.

“That’s interesting,” I replied. “It sounds to me like you are making a claim here that you think is true.”

“What do you mean?”

I shifted in my seat. “Well, you just said it is true to say…that there is no truth. Right? Sounds like you are making a truth claim here.”

He blinked at me for a moment.

I continued. “So, where does that leave us? Well – it sounds like your statement ‘There is no truth’ is actually self-refuting. Clearly you do think there IS truth. If you didn’t…you wouldn’t be trying to convince me of the truth of your statement!”

There was a pause.  “Not really,” he shrugged. And our conversation ended.

 

The Knowledge Crisis Explained

This conversation…and many more like it…happen all the time. People live in a daily crisis of confidence in what they can actually know and rely on. There is – a crisis of knowledge playing out in our lives.

Listen to people’s growing scepticism of authority, the continual claims of “fake news” in media, and consider our tendency to throw up our hands and claim, “I give up. There is no truth.”

Look – don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think it’s our fault that we’re in this mess, and I don’t think we are being stupid. I think there are good reasons why we have ended up in this confusing time, and it’s not all down to wrong choices. Though it is the result of wrong beliefs. I think we are standing on the shoulders of people who have brought confusion and who have undermined our ability to “know” things.

Yet I also think there is hope for the future. Let me explain why.

 

What does it mean to Know?

If there really is a crisis of knowledge, then you might be asking, “what is knowledge anyway?”

To answer this question, let’s go back to Plato, who described knowledge as “true belief with account.”[1] For him, to know something is to have true belief and reasons to justify our belief.

Knowledge is often described today as a stool with three legs. If a claim lacks any one of these legs, it cannot be claimed to be knowledge.

The knowledge legs are, “belief, truth and justification.”

Belief:

Perhaps I believe that 2+2=4, or lying is wrong or God exists.

Truth:

Truth is what corresponds with reality. So a true belief about the world describes something about how the world actually is.

Justification:

Justification is the reason and evidence that supports my belief.

 

Do you agree that’s a good description of what “knowing” something is all about? Well, these three legs have received a beating over the years. So much so, that our ability to objectively sit on the stool and know things has become diminished.

How has this happened?

 

Grounding of Knowledge

Prior to 1650, the pre-modern’s grounded their knowledge in a transcendent source (or God) who exists beyond human knowing. When Plato expressed knowledge about a horse, for example, he said this immaterial equine idea has been made real in the world. So – people could see horses in the real world and know they were seeing them. For Augustine, these ideas existed first in the mind of God.

However, something happened after 1650 which began to erode people’s ability to know. Thinkers stopped grounding knowledge in a transcendent source. Rather than bother with God, Enlightenment philosophers decided that human reason alone was sufficient to ground knowledge. No God required. Before the Enlightenment, people looked beyond themselves to ground knowledge. At the Enlightenment, people began to stop doing that and instead they began looking inside themselves instead to ground knowledge.

So – how successful was this new epistemological project? How enlightened was it?

Not very.

 

Unsuccessful Grounding of Knowledge

Descartes claimed that knowledge could be grounded in human reason alone. We can only believe what cannot be rationally doubted. He said, “conviction … remains [with] some reason which might lead us to doubt, but KNOWLEDGE is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can NEVER BE SHAKEN.”[2] Yet, he had a problem. His claim did not only reject false beliefs, it also rejected many things we DO know about the world. Worse, Descartes claim even rejected itself because his claim wasn’t self-evident and immune from possible doubt. Even so, his ideas began to erode people’s ability to know.

David Hume then tried to regain certainty by proposing a different idea. He said we can have knowledge, but only about things we can experience with our five senses. All ideas are products of impressions (sensation).[3] If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I only believe what I can see or touch,” then that’s Hume’s approach to knowledge. But – this approach also fails. Why? Well, if knowledge is only about what we can sense, then this eliminates much in life that we do know but not through our senses. For example, mathematics, the laws of logic, cause and effect and the assumption that the future will be consistent with the past. Hume’s ideas lead to scepticism about the world, just like Descartes.

Kant was the third modern who tried to ground knowledge inside human reason. His radical approach was to suggest the following. Previously, people have assumed that the world shapes how people think. But what if it’s the other way round and our minds…shape the world? In that case, we construct reality for ourselves. “Kant’s philosophy is human autonomy … [which] means giving the law to oneself.”[4] But – there’s a problem. This approach doesn’t help us account for what we intuitively know. Kant’s ideas suggest we all construct our own reality, so that if he’s right there are therefore no universal truths. But I think there are universal truths that all cultures agree on. For example, think of moral issues. It’s never honourable to double cross your friends, show cowardice or hurt children. These are always wrong in every human culture. But if Kant is right, this should not be the case.

These three great thinkers claimed that human reason could explain everything we know about the world, and by implication they tried to say we have no need of a transcendent influence on our lives. We don’t need God to explain our knowledge about the world. But – their ideas failed to account for what we know about the world. Their ideas don’t help us. Instead…they undermine our confidence in what we can know.

 

Scientific Revolution

While all THAT was going on, the scientific revolution was also happening. The scientific method develops in the West and starts to give answers, succeeding in breaking down nature so that it can be rationally understood. People started to wonder, “perhaps science does what Descartes, Hume and Kant failed to do? Perhaps science gives us the certain knowledge we want? Perhaps all we can really know is what science tells us?”

I’m a big fan of science. I love it. But however much I benefit from the application of science today, to say that “only science gives us knowledge,” is just a false statement. Why?

First – the claim is self-refuting again. To say that only science provides true knowledge is a statement that undercuts itself because the statement itself is not the result of science, but an assertion of our opinion. If we are right in our statement, then clearly science is NOT the only source of knowledge!

Second – there are other areas of life that help us know things that are not related to the scientific disciplines. This about the historical method for understanding the past, or mathematics and logic, or the study of ethics and the observation of beauty. Again, we find that this rational scientific approach to knowledge fails to account for the knowledge we have about the world.

So where does this leave us? Well, since the Enlightenment, we have struggled to really know many immaterial things that we intuitively know are part of our universe. This makes us increasingly sceptical about life.

 

Post Modernism

Post modernism has risen in response to the undermining of certainty and knowledge in the Enlightenment period.

People are increasingly suspicious of all truth claims. And you can understand why! We’ve lost the certainty that we can really know. There is no real truth, so only power remains. The ones that assert most power get their way in the world. No wonder people spend their lives in Twitter arguments and outbursts of outrage. The only truth is how I feel and what I know. And you either agree with me and submit to my power…or you effuse to submit and therefore are a problem to me! So – we stay in our little social network communities with people who we seem to agree with. At least we can know that we agree together, right?

There is Hope

Sometimes, we stop doing things in life not because they don’t work, but because they have just gone out of fashion.

Grounding knowledge in God is unfashionable for many people these days. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. All the alternative approaches we have attempted since the Enlightenment are seriously problematic. But we can always stop, turn around, and choose to pursue knowledge as grounded in God.

Hey – why not? This worked for centuries! Let’s recover it. It doesn’t mean we need to loose ANY of our scientific prowess or advancement. But it probably will mean that our lives begin to be marked by hope, rather than despair.

“Skilled living gets its start in the Fear-of-God, insight into life from knowing a Holy God.” Proverbs 9:10, The Message.

[1] Plato, Theaetetus (201c-d).

[2]Descartes Epistemology, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-epistemology/#InteJust, accessed 25th June 2019.

[3] David Hume: Causation, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, IEP, https://www.iep.utm.edu/hume-cau/, accessed 25th June 2019.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/#KanCopRev, accessed 25th June, 2019.

Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

Discussing the Moral Argument for God

dylan-gillis-533818-unsplash

When you open Twitter these days…it doesn’t take long till you notice someone who is full of moral outrage about something or other. They are often indignant at words someone has spoken, actions taken/not taken,  or simply the state of the world. But – hang on. Isn’t it interesting that we can do this? Express moral outrage to each other in this way? If you think about it, we can do it because there is a moral standard that people all share. We might disagree what the right or wrong thing is in some situations…but we DO agree that a moral standard exists which imposes a big “ought” on all of us all the time. Things ought not to be like they are…that person ought not to have done what they did.

C S Lewis said it this way. The natural law of gravity tells you what stones do when you drop them. The moral law tells you what humans ought to do…but they don’t because they often do the wrong thing. In nature, you just have facts. In human nature, you have facts, and you also have how we OUGHT to have behaved but didn’t. And if you’ve ever shouted at someone and wished you hadn’t, cut someone up in the car or been dishonest in some way…you know exactly what I mean.[1]

If you think about it…that’s weird. Particularly if there is no God, and humanity is simply an accident of nature, biologically evolved from the primordial soup that swilled around when planet Earth was new.

I’ve pointed out the strangeness of this moral “ought” to people and commented on how unusual it is. And I tend to get two basic responses from people:

 

1 – Society has evolved moral standards. But, they change from time to time. It’s just what an evolving society does.

Usually the person will point to an example. Perhaps, how society is changing in its attitudes to homosexuality. This is true. They are right that cultural mores do grow and change. But cultural mores and the moral law are not the same thing. Cultural mores describe how humans behave…but they are not moral standards that we often will struggle to live up to.

What are moral standards? Certain things have always been right and wrong at every time and every culture. For example:

  • It’s always morally wrong to torture little children for fun. Ancient societies that practiced child sacrifice have always been abhorrent and people who abuse little children always criminals. Child abuse is OBJECTIVELY wrong. We absolutely OUGHT not to do it.
  • It’s always morally right to respect your elders. Now, some societies have very different ideas about what “respecting elders” looks like. But – we always OUGHT to do it in a way our culture accepts as correct.

But are these standards just how society has evolved?

I’m sure society does evolve in its understanding. But that says nothing about where our moral standards COME FROM. It just concedes that over time, our understanding of moral standards is evolving and improving.

 

 

Other people responded differently when I pointed to the moral “ought” that presses in on each of us.

2 – Yes. There are objective moral standards. But – these standards come from human beings.

Now – if you think about it, this idea is strange.

They are saying some behaviours are objectively wrong. But – humanity has set those objective moral standards itself. Because we are moral beings, we decide what is right and wrong. But – hang on – the question is – “why are we moral?” We can’t answer this question by saying, “Because we are moral.” This is a logical fallacy called, “begging the question,” or circular reasoning.

Here’s are some problems with this idea.

First – if moral obligations and duties come from society, then why is it that every society agrees on THE SAME objective moral standards (two examples above)? What are the chances of that?

Second – If people give me a set of standards to live up to, why should I care about your moral standards if I have my own? Just because you have an opinion about what I ought to do…why should your opinion influence me? You cannot describe a behaviour as objectively wrong – unless we can both point to an EXTERNAL moral standard which comes from an external source outside of ourselves. If people set this moral standard themselves, then these are subjective “ought’s”…what someone or some group of people think I should do. Why should I care? This is just someone’s personal taste … like which side of the road should we drive on, for example.

Third – behaving immorally has real weight attached to it. The point is that the moral law is different. These laws are objective, they press in on all people in every time and place. And – when we behave immorally – this has real weight attached to it. It’s not just breaking the speeding limit…immoral behaviours are sometimes referred to as “being evil.”

Fourth – If the moral law comes from humanity, why didn’t we make this standard easier to follow? If we recognise a personal struggle in behaving morally, then we have also experienced the other-worldly source to moral obligations.

Someone might respond, if I claim an external source for this moral standard, does this lessen humanity? Does it make people out to be less? Well – why would it? I’m just pointing to a difference between SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE standards of human behaviour. Subjective rules do not morally bind on all people everywhere. Objective moral standards do. Also – this is a moral standard that people aren’t very good at living up to! So that suggests it comes from somewhere or someone else.

 

 

So where does this moral standard come from?

I think I’ve observed that deep down…people just know that some things are always wrong…evil…objectively so. Child abuse is a good example of this. So the question remains – why is that?

 

The only way I think we can make sense of this state of affairs is for there to be a greater being who is of consistently good character, who embeds morality in the people he makes. He defines what is objectively right and wrong, and he imposes this standard on each person. The greatness of this being…results in the weight that lands on us when we behave in an immoral way.

This greater being must be:

  • external to humanity, and so can set a good, objective standard on us.
  • not subject to changing human cultural tastes and mores because we are different from him.
  • powerful enough to create the universe and the people within it.
  • someone we are personally accountable to for our moral behaviour.

 

This greater being sounds a lot like Christianity’s idea of a good and loving God.

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: William Collins, 1952), 17.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash