Cutting Through the ...

The notion that true arguments require empirical data as a basis is, I believe, one of the distinctions between science and philosophy. Science ultimately seeks a data driven basis for claims while philosophy does not require it.

This should not be news to anyone claiming sophistication in thought and logic since the notion of validity versus soundness is something taught in that oft-mentioned philosophy 101 course.

Valid vs sound, as used to describe logic, is a critical distinction. It’s also a huge part of why apologists can clog the Internets with an endless stream of drivel. It’s a lot easier to create valid arguments than to create sound ones.

Valid arguments are those that follow logically from the initial claims. As example, ‘If A and B, then C’, makes a claim. The claim is valid, if C really is a logical outcome of A and B. If not, the argument is invalid.

This is arguably the basis for almost all apologetics. A claim is made that can only be answered by the existence of deity x. Ergo, the apologist shouts triumph.

“Not so fast”, should be the response.

Important to the truth of the claim, is whether the argument is not just valid, but also sound. Sound arguments are those that are based upon true assumptions. That's the key.

For example let’s return to, ‘If A and B, then C’, but substitute the following for A, B, and C.

A- “All dogs are alien lifeforms.”
B- ”Rex is a dog.”
C- Therefore, Rex is an alien lifeform.

This is a valid argument. If all dogs are aliens, and Rex is a dog, it follows logically, that Rex is an alien.

Of course, we recognize this as (logical) nonsense because the claim A, “all dogs are alien lifeforms’, is untrue. Therefore, the argument for claim C is unsound because one of it's dependencies is false.

It's important to note that an argument can be made that Claim C is valid based upon the logic of A and B. But the argument is unsound because the basis of one or more of its claims is silly. This is really key: a logical argument can be valid and at the same time, be unsound. Understanding that distinction can save you a lot of time and energy sorting through arguments.

Confronted with such an argument, at least four responses are possible:
  1. “Oh, wow! I didn’t know that! Tell me more.”
  2. Slowly back away because this person is obviously delusional.
  3. “Oh, let’s talk about this argument of yours, which differs from my own understanding thusly...”
  4. “Don’t bother me again, you twit, until you have proof that all dogs are aliens.”
Response 1 suggests that the respondent is an idiot; 2, rational; 3, misguided or deluded into thinking this can be a rational discussion, and 4, rational, blunt, and bigger than the claimant.

This example is pretty easy to see through. Even if the advocate of the claim insisted that you were dumb or ignorant because you didn’t believe the claim, I doubt you’d lose sleep over it. (It's interesting that we use the word delusional to describe valid but unsound arguments in those with mental illness, but it gets called sophisticated theology in other contexts.)

Other equally unsound claims may appear, on the surface, more difficult.

What if claim A were something like, ‘All things require a cause’. It’s easy to create all kinds of B’s and therefore C’s in combination with this, but the claimant must never be allowed to focus his or her slight of hand to the validity of the argument until the soundness of the assumptions is proven or strongly supported. That's how apologetics work - the apologist makes a claim then gets the reader bogged down in the details of the logic argument which may be valid within the context of the presented claims. But if the underlying assumptions for the claim are untrue, it's a form of slight of hand- the illusion of substance.

The wiser move may be to simply return to the assumptions (claims) and demand the apologist provide support for the soundness, the foundation of truth, to the claims since logical arguments can be valid, and unsound. There is no reason to argue about validity, unless the argument is sound in the first place. It also sidesteps another apologetic tactic - fashioning an argument so as to require the respondent to prove a negative (something we can’t do). Examining the assumptions (initial claims) for soundness puts the onus on the apologist to prove the positive for the assumptions that form the basis of their arguments. This is how science approaches these discussions. Of all candidates for determining whether or not a claim is factual, empirical data is probably the best means to determine the soundness of an assumption.

Going back to the ‘all things require a cause’ claim the facts of radioactive decay and the appearance of virtual particles negates this claim, period. These are empirical data that prove that the claim is false. So any argument using this claim is unsound - period. It's hard to argue with repeatable data.

A rational respondent may legitimately ignore any arguments using this claim as a basis. They cannot be sound (no matter how valid sounding) since one claim is false. That's the proper response to the apologist who may fire back that you need to read all the literature on the subject before you render judgement. Hardly, once a claim is proven false, there is never any rational need to dig further. One’s time will be better spent elsewhere. Arguments about truth are a house of cards. They are negated when any claim is proven unsound. Anyone who insists otherwise is either ignorant of the need to support claims with evidence, or has an agenda other than truth.

That takes us back to one of the fundamental differences between science and philosophy. Science spends a great deal of time on testing the soundness of claims through experimentation. Philosophy, not so much.


mac said...

Philosophy, on it's own, can be interesting. When one tries to use it to trump science is when philosophy runs into trouble.

Even if statement A and B are correct, C is necessarily true...

A) Penguins are Black and White
B)Some Old TV Shows are Black and White.
C) Therefore, Some Penguins are Old TV Shows.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Well Mac, that is certainly true of the 'Flying Nun' ;)

Harvey said...

That "apologist" on the other blog will either ignore your cogent arguments or contend that the statement "everything has a cause" is, in his opinion, "more strongly supported than not". He will never agree that religious/philosophical arguments must be supported in fact, since that which he wishes to "prove" can only be a matter of belief.

Saint Brian the Godless said...

I liked this post, Pliny.

It casts apologetic arguments in a new light for me.

I see better now how they construct their arguments upon false premises. I always told them that they construct huge impressive edifices of logic on shifting sands, and now you've shown me more precisely just what that means, how they accomplish that. I never even thought for instance, of the *fact* that we already know that the statement 'all things have a cause' is not true, and yet I was still trying to argue within that framework. This explains why Aquinas' ways are totally fallacious. I mean, I already knew that they were, that they had to be, but this is the exact reason why, and I appreciate that little bit of education. Thanks you. It will serve me well I think in future discourse.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Thanks B. I really do think we can avoid a lot of nonsensical arguments by just looking at the assumptions first.

Norma said...


Harry C Pharisee said...

Yes! And my favorite part, "But the argument is unsound because the basis of one or more of its claims is silly."

No Plinys are ruffled grouses.
All hedgehogs with stds are ruffled grouses.
No hedgehogs with stds are Plinys.

Valid but unsound.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

True Harry, but some Pliny's are ruffled grouches...