Truth And Pride: How To Respond To Logical Fallacies in A Debate

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Pride is a funny thing. The more of it someone has, the less inclined they are to admit they have it. Even if you suppose you have conquered your pride by admitting to it, watch for it to pop back up again. Once you start to feel you have defeated your pride, you will soon find that it has stuck around or snuck back in disguised as humility.

Humility is the opposite of pride. But what is humility anyway? Some years ago I read a book titled Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership by John Dickson. It was a great read, and not very long. And in its pages I found a remarkable idea. Though very different in many ways, the great people of history have traditionally had one combination of traits in common. They possessed both great confidence and great humility at the same time.

Without confidence, they would not have been able to inspire others to follow them or take their ideas seriously. Without confidence, they would never have taken the bold steps they did which changed the course of history. Yet it was also their humility which made the critical difference. With humility, these men and women kept learning and growing. Humility enabled them to admit they didn’t know everything and that they had growing to do. And it was that humility which also led others to follow them, since that humility inspired trust and respect which made their confidence palatable.

To The Man

In the years since I’ve read Humilitas, I cannot say I have encountered anything to contradict this assertion. I think there is something to it. Indeed, this idea is Biblical where God is concerned. James 4:6 says “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (ESV)

Yet just as surely, this is not always so in the world. Often confidence is mistaken for arrogance, and false humility accepted for the real thing. We should not suppose God is deceived, since he sees our hearts and reads thoughts and intentions which no man can see, and which we may even conceal from ourselves.

Just so, it has been my experience that accusations of arrogance come often when someone dislikes confidence they see in someone else for one reason or another.

For instance, I have observed and experienced many a debate where the losing side, at a loss for any more substantive points or counterpoints, decides to get personal. Argumentum ad hominem – Latin for “to the man” – is an extremely common logical and argumentative fallacy reached for by those desperate to not lose face, particularly in public settings.

But what does one say to disprove an ad hominem attack – the second lowest type of argument in a disagreement, according to Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement – which levels as its chief claim that one is proud and arrogant and refuses to be wrong?

If persisting in believing a thing is taken as stubbornness, and if refusing to admit one is wrong is proof of arrogance, the person making the accusation will often take for proof of their claim either agreement with the charge, or, better and more likely, a contradiction of the charge.

“See? You even argue with that!”

 

“I just find it very difficult to operate from the opposite premise.”

Micah recently wrote an article about confirmation bias and our need to guard against it. And he is right.

Especially where accusations of arrogance are leveled at someone because they are confident, I have found often that proof of the charge is claimed by the very fact that those who are accused argue for their own innocence.

However, it is entirely reasonable that someone accused of arrogance or stubbornly insisting on being right all the time should have the chance to defend themselves.

There is a scene in the television show House, M.D. which illustrates this perfectly. Cuddy, the hospital administrator accuses House, the show’s brilliant Sherlock Holmes-esque main character of always assuming he’s right. To this House replies, “Nonsense. I just find it very difficult to operate from the opposite premise.”

This should be self-evident, yet ceases to be sometimes when we get flustered in a disagreement. Proving our ability to admit we are wrong is a poor reason to give up our position.

We should not want those who disagree with us to go around in uncertainty all the time on the off chance they might challenge us again at some point. And we should not want only those who agree with us in everything to be the ones whose judgment we praise and value.

And what is to be made if we trust and praise someone for being brilliant only so long as they say all the things we agree with, then dismiss them as crackpots once they contradict us on some point? An eventuality of that sort should tell us we ourselves have fallen into the deadly trap of confirmation bias, embracing what agrees with our foregone conclusions while finding a way to reject whatever sources and persons disagree with us.

 

‘To The People’

Indeed, another trap I have found people fall into routinely is employing argumentum ad populum logical fallacies when they have run out of answers to hard questions.

Argumentum ad populum is an appeal to the masses. It is pointing to the crowd and saying, “See? They agree with me. Your argument is invalid.”

Confirmation bias often takes comfort if the status quo in a group, organization, or community supports their assertions. Nobody resting on this line of reasoning wants to have to respond to your appeals to reason or universal truth directly. No, they should rather dismiss the notion out of hand that you as a lone individual could arrive at the truth when a group of people – some or many of whom are probably very smart individually themselves – have come to a different conclusion.

Yet this line of reasoning leads to people saying things like it does not matter if abortion is wrong according to your religion so long as 51% of Americans support keeping it legal.

When it comes to getting at objective truth, sometimes groups can be powerful forces for obtaining information. Yet groups can also quickly and easily work against the truth when conformity to expectations, a fear of contradicting, and the comfort of diffuse responsibility within the group leads to what is known as group-think, a condition where individual conclusions are discouraged in favor of the perceived collective will.

I have said it before, and even a casual glance at history and current events proves this true. Mobs can be monstrously irrational. And sometimes the majority opinion just means all the idiots are on the same side. The truth is not something to take votes about in order to figure out.

 

‘Arguments from Authority’

Another trap I have found that people fall into is relying on argumentum ad verecundiam – Latin for “argument from authority.” In this, an authority figure is referred to who takes an opposing position to yours, and always invariably in support of the person who is referring to said authority. And this is supposed to mean that you are wrong because that authority over there disagrees with you.

This scenario oftentimes involves confirmation bias, but not always.

For instance, someone may only accept the authority of those who agree with them. If you are arguing in favor of a given position, it is terribly convenient to only refer to the authority figures who agree with you, and to reject the authority of anyone who disagrees. Of course, no one who disagrees with your position should be regarded as authoritative. Where might that lead us?

Yet a man might also fall into this trap accidentally. Suppose all the people you find authoritative have expertise and trustworthiness in other areas, and are only nominally familiar in this one topic about which you are trying to argue. And if you can find a quote from one of them where they gave their brief impressions, and if that quote supports your view, you may think it entirely reasonable that their judgment was trustworthy in other matters, therefore it will be trustworthy in this matter.

Yet confirmation bias would be to reject someone’s authority and judgment which you have affirmed repeatedly in many areas simply because you find you disagree with them on one thing or another.

Surely, however, we are all better off thinking for ourselves and being independent-minded as much as possible. The potential and practicality of this will vary from person to person. Yet honest, independent thinking is surely a good thing.

 

Pride and Logical Fallacies

Every time I have encountered logical fallacies in a debate or disagreement, someone was trying to save face. That is to say, pride is always prioritized over truth when someone employs logical fallacies in a debate. If you can think of an exception, please let me know. But that is what I must conclude from my observations and experience.

Similar to what Micah wrote in his recent article, 9 Practical Ways To Avoid Confirmation Bias, we should also be on our guard for the damage pride and reliance on logical fallacies can do to our relationships and testimonies.

There is no reason to suppose either that disagreement and debate is inherently un-Christian or unloving. However, very often in disagreement tempers flare, and pride is tested. It is not a matter of if, but rather when we will find ourselves disagreeing with someone. Engage in the marketplace of ideas. Try to express the mind of Christ on controversial social and political issues. Try to share your opinion on weighty matters in good faith. You can be sure there will be disagreement and debate aplenty to challenge you, early and often.

Does it therefore honor Christ for us to fall silent and say nothing? Then we should say nothing. And I will give up this blog and social media.

But if we should instead speak, we should not compromise honesty for the sake of soothing the vanity of others. Nor should we give weight to logical fallacies meant to bar the way to substantive discussion or reasoned and civil discourse.

If someone would malign us for disagreeing, may God grant us the humility to take that in stride. Suppose they appeal to the crowd or their favorite authorities. May God grant us the confidence to stand fast for something more substantive.

 

Closing Thoughts

  1. We know that the perfect love God calls us to in Christ is not arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful, but rejoices with the truth. This knowledge should guide us in the midst of a disagreement.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV)

  1. We know that God places a very high value on truth. Jesus is “The Truth.” That truth sets us free from bondage to sin and folly. Therefore, we should be very careful in our treatment of the truth – all truth, not simply that which we typically think of as pertaining directly to the gospel.

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:31b-32 (ESV)

  1. Confidence is not the opposite of humility. Rather, we should emulate both Christ’s confidence and his humility. Jesus was not only humble, he was also bold. So too, we are called to boldness.

“The wicked flee when no one pursues,

but the righteous are bold as a lion.”

Proverbs 28:1 (ESV)

  1. A critical part of our testimony and honorable service to God is that we are honest.

“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.”

Romans 12:17 (KJV)

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to six kids - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.