A Word on Using Logic

One of the main topics dealt with on this blog is Religion, and especially Christianity. Now, I do not expect all (or even most) of my readers to agree with me on this topic. It’s a highly debated one. That said, I have noticed a disturbing trend when it comes to this topic as its debated on the internet.

Among some factions, it has become almost axiomatic that religious people are irrational. From this assumption, they then leap to the (unfounded) conclusion that because they are not religious, they are automatically more rational than a religious person. This further leads to a further unfounded leap that such means that an irreligious person thus automatically understands both formal and informal logic better than a religious person, and especially a conservative Christian religious person. This leads these same people to lecture them on how their arguments are illogical using logical terms of art, often incorrectly.

Now, I am not saying that irreligious people always do this, but it is clear that some irreligious people do, and for some reason I seem to usually get them writing me posts about how I am falling into a “no true scotsman fallacy” or how my argument is “non-sequential” at 6:30 in the morning when I haven’t had my coffee, and am already irritable.

This is the reason for the rule that you explain yourself when you use a term of art (and I consider logic terms, terms of art because in normal conversation eyes glaze over when I use the terms). This serves two major purposes. 1) It keeps all reasonably educated readers in the loop of the conversation even if they haven’t taken a course in logic and 2) it keeps misuses of the terms to a minimum.

When I say “explain yourself”, I mean that you should first define the term of art you’re using, and then show how the argument in question fits that definition. This makes it easier for us conservative Christian religious people to check the logic textbooks on our desks to see if we can learn something here. It also means that you will have to do the work of linking the argument to your accusation, and in my experience, not all accusations survive that process. As examples, I offer the following three terms of art, with an explanation:

“non sequiter” – Often best tested for by using the question “so what?”, it’s a fallacy involved in giving information or arguments unrelated to the argument being discussed. For example:  When pro-life advocates say that a foetus in the womb is a person deserving of full legal protection as such, the response that a woman has a right to choose what happens to her own body is a non-sequiter. The question is the moral status of the infant. After that point, the rights balancing can be done, but not before dealing with the claim at hand (that a foetus is a person deserving of legal protection).

“ad hominium” – This is a form of a non-sequiter. I also call this the “yeah, well, you have cooties” fallacy. It is frighteningly common in most debates, despite its illogicality. It is essentially when a person is attacked directly rather than attacking their arguments. An example is when an atheist makes the statement that there is no positive proof for the existence of God, and a theist responds with: yeah, but you atheists are immoral. Besides not necessarily being true, it really doesn’t speak to the claim being made. Now, this is not happening when the conversation moves to the moral (positive) argument for the existence of God, and the theist makes the different claim that atheism has no account for objective morality (a claim which does not impugn the atheists’ morals, just consistency of the underlying reason for those good morals).

“straw man” – This is the argumentative tactic of redefining your opponent’s position in such a way as to make it easier to attack when the redefinition does not actually express the ideas of the opponent. One example is when a person says that there is evidence for the existence for the Christian god, and an opponent begins to attack faith in a teapot orbiting the sun, flying spaghetti monsters, or invisible pink unicorns. The latter are far easier to attack, but they are conceptually different (none of the latter examples can be defended by the ontological argument, for instance).

In any event, the upshot is that when you want to use any of these things, think it through and do the hard work of applying your ideas.

Author: Stephen Dawe

Steve is a part-time vocational elder Calvary Baptist Church, St. John's as well as a full-time student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in the Religious Studies Department.