As humans made in the image
and likeness of God, we have a built-in desire to know what’s really going on
and to trace all the little discoveries of what is really going on right back
to the source, who is Truth Himself.
We all live out Augustine’s reality in that God has made us for himself
and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.
The problem is, as sinners,
we also have a very powerful urge to do what Adam and Eve did: hide from Truth
when he starts calling our name, since Truthfor fallen creaturesinvolves
death by crucifixion. We know this because when Truth was made flesh and dwelt
among us, that is what we did to him.
Our tendency to be leery of Truth in that weird love/hate way is what the
Church calls “concupiscence”, a three dollar word that refers to the weakened
will, disordered appetites and, most especially, a darkened intellect that
afflict us. It’s that last point
that concerns us here, because it means that sin makes us stupid.
Sin makes us stupid in two
ways. It does so passively, by
immersing us in lies and age-old “structures of sin” that cause us to take a
ridiculously long time to figure out obvious moral intuitions and do something
about them. Take slavery. It’s
easy for us today to say, “Slavery is bad.” But for approximately the first, oh, forever of human
existence on Planet Earth it was not at all obvious that slavery was that
bad. It took two thousand years of
kneading Christianity and its vision of the dignity of the human person
Western culture before slavery could become unthinkable and seen as the
evil it always was. Why so
long? Because our darkened
intellects make us stupid and we take a long time to figure things out
when the mission of Moses is all about leading slaves out of bondage,
Isaiah praises the work of the Messiah as one of striking off chains and
freeing slaves, and Jesus speaks of the truth setting us free and Paul
that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Sin makes us slow
on the uptake. So we had to argue (and fight) it out before the obvious
evil of slavery could be (precariously) driven from western
This brings us to our second
point: sin also makes us fight the light as well. As
C.S. Lewis says of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, “Now the trouble about
trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often
succeed.” And so history is chockablock with “active stupidity”. Perhaps the archetypal example is when
Jesus cast out demons and the only thing the Pharisees could say was that he
was acting by the power of Satan.
This is active stupidity of such wilful malice that Jesus actually warns
the Pharisees they risk committing the only sin in the universe that cannot be
forgiven. In short, not all
intellectual mistakes are innocent.
We can enlist our intellects to make war on Truth.
And so we
argue, partly because we want truth, partly because we grope in darkness,
partly because we are terrified of what we will find and partly because we are
intensely curious about what we will find.
Some people imagine arguing
is bad or the same thing as fighting. “Let’s not bicker and argue! Let’s agree to disagree!” says the
intellectual coward. But argument
is not bickering and agreeing to disagree is typically what the wolf proposes
to the lamb on the question of what to have for dinner.
Argument is the friend of
the lamb, because it gives power to Truth and not merely to Force. “Argue” comes from the Latin word that
means “to clarify”. A good
argument is the opposite of a power struggle because in a good argument, the
point is not to defeat and destroy an enemy, but to work together to get at the
truth of a thing.
Some people imagine that
there was some golden age when people did not argue. But this is not
quite true. Argument is what makes an age golden. When you get rid of
argument, you don’t
have peace. You have raw struggles
for power. Argument is what
happens when rational people try to live in peace and truth. St. Thomas
Aquinas pretty much nails it
when he says, “For true and false will in no better way be revealed and
uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction.'' Certainly the authors of
Scripture understood this. The
people that gave us the proverb “Two Jews, three opinions” also gave us a Holy
Book that records tons of arguments.
That’s pretty much all the prophets did: argue with Israel about their
need to stay faithful to the law of Moses. And in response, a grateful nation threw them down wells and
sawed them in two, because the powerful didn’t want to argue, but to murder
people who stood in their way with quibbles about truth and justice.
In the end, the prophets were
vindicated (typically after their violent deaths) by reality, which has a way
of imposing itself on the most determined denialist. That’s why their writings wound up being canonized as part
of Scripture by a chastened nation that said to itself “If only we had listened
to these guys. Let’s not make that
the heirs to the prophets are the apostles and the Church, since the main thing
the prophets were arguing for was that Israel should stay faithful to the Mosaic
covenant till God established his new and everlasting covenant through
Messiah. When Messiah came, he
basically spent three years arguing with people about everything (thus proving
he was Jewish) and concluded his career by being martyred (thus proving he was
a prophet). But unlike previous
prophets, Jesus did not stay dead.
And so a whole new field of argument--Catholic apologeticswas born on
Pentecost and Peter’s “Hey! We’re
not drunk! It’s only nine o’clock
in the morning!” became the first in a long line of arguments for the Holy
Spirit, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the authority of the apostles, the
saving power of faith and baptism and all the rest of Catholic teaching.
Catholics have continued to argue to this daybecause they are still persuading
the world (and each other) to have faith in Jesus Christ. And to this day, we have to struggle
with the same concupiscence that has always messed up the thought process. So we live (and participate) in a
culture that tends to be prone to making certain blunders in logic. In particular, three errors seem to me
to be particularly popular in our culture:
Ad hominem (Arguing Against the Arguer Instead of
Against the Argument),
Genetic Fallacy (Arguing that Something Must be False Because of
Consequentialism (Arguing that Good Ends Justify Evil
related by the fact that, increasingly, our culture does its moral
decision-making based on things like image, personal relationship, tribal ties
and subjectivism and less on the idea of a moral law that transcends these
In the world,
this is to be expected as our culture re-paganizes, since paganism is all about
worshipping the creature instead of the transcendent Creator and the power of
narcissism, family, kindred, friend and tribe are already potent. Less
excusable is that Christians can easily fall prey to these errors too. So over the next few issues, let’s take
a look at them in order to learn to avoid them.
Ad hominem means “argument against the
man”. A quick and dirty
illustration of ad hominem is seen in the politician who says that
nobody as ugly as his opponent could be right about Tariff Reform. In other words, ad hominem distracts us from the
substance of an opponent’s argument by attacking something about the Arguer
instead of the Argument: his appearance, voice, hair, clothes, economic status,
race, religion, etc.
thing about ad hominem is that sometimes the personal details of
an opponent’s life really do bear on his argument. So, for instance, it really does matter if a man who is
arguing for, say, school segregation is also the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux
Klan. It matters if the person
arguing for abortion is making two million dollars a year from his abortion
clinic. We very sensibly take such
things into account when we are evaluating why somebody might make the
arguments they do, just as we evaluate motive in trying to investigate a
suspect in a murder.
alone does not prove or disprove a case.
So just as somebody in an Agatha Christie novel may have had plenty of
reason to want the deceased dead, and yet not be the killer, so a person may
have all sorts of personal baggage about a particular argumentand yet the
argument they present is, in fact, solid and sound and correct. If our response to “2+2=4” is “You say
that because you are a math teacher” we are engaging in ad hominem and failing to engage the
then, is to attend first to the argument, not to the person making it. That can be hard when we know for a
fact that the person making an argument is an unscrupulous criminal, or is
sticking out their tongue at us when other people are not looking. It can be really easy to divert from
addressing the question of, say, evidence for the Resurrection and move
straight to “Why my opponent is an abrasive jerk that no decent person should
listen to.” But tempting as that
is, strangers watching the debate are not interested in your dislike of your
opponent, nor is truth really going to be served even if you persuade them to
reject his argument based on that.
Because, of course, it just may be that even though Galileo is an
irascible pain in the neck, he is still right.
Conversely, people will
sometimes claim an argument is ad hominem when it is really only observant of a fact. So when Jesus calls the Pharisees
“blind guides” that is not ad hominem. It is a description of the truth he has
already established by argument: they are teachers who have no business
teaching. Likewise, if you catch
somebody in a documentable lie it is not ad hominem to say they are lying.
However, it is ad hominem to
conclude that, because they lied about X, all their arguments for Y are
Bottom line: attend to the
argument first, not the arguer.
That will have everything to do with tackling our next intellectual
blunder: the Genetic Fallacy.