Monday, May 11, 2009

A Bad Argument is a Bad Argument

I recently collaborated on a piece recently posted by Ben Douglass entitled Unsound Sticks, or, Arguments Catholics Shouldn't Use. The early response to the piece has been interesting. Protestant apologist James White found the piece "refreshing" but, rather disappointingly, has sought to make more hay over the list than I think is warranted, alleging that:

posting something like this, given that it would decimate the arsenal of the most popular Roman Catholic apologists on the web and on radio today, can't make Mr. Douglass and his associates the most popular Roman Catholics around, but you have to give them a lot of credit for honestly recognizing these issues (issues I have been raising for many years). So kudos to Mr. Douglass and his associates! And a word of advice to Mr. Douglass: put on your asbestos booties and gloves before opening the resultant e-mails from the likes of Dave Armstrong and all the others who are so dependent upon these very arguments.
I know there are very sincere folks manning the fort over on the far side of the Tiber. I noted Ben Douglass' article on bad arguments that are heard with the drumbeat of regularity coming from Steve Ray, Tim Staples, John Martignoni, Patrick Madrid, Art Sippo and the rest of the pop Roman Catholic crowd. I appreciate that a small minority of those defenders actually listen to what we are saying and can set aside enough of their bias to actually hear a sound argument when it is presented.

White overstates his case here. It is true that certain Catholic apologists, even "mainstream" ones, have used one or more of the arguments in the list. It has even happened that some of these arguments have been used to "lead" in a discussion, perhaps giving the impression that they were really the best that could be offered, and that is unfortunate. But I personally consider many (most) of these arguments to be thoroughly peripheral. And certainly none of these arguments need serve as the foundation of anybody's "arsenal". Catholics can and do regularly deploy much better; as Ben notes, "There are so many good arguments for Catholicism that the religion will do just fine without the arguments on this list." Of course, one can only shake one's head at White's gratuitous accusation that only "a small minority" of Catholic apologists are capable of setting aside their bias enough to "actually listen." Pot, kettle, and all that.

Much more disappointing than the swagger from James White was the unfortunate blast from Catholic apologist Dr. Art Sippo, who took such affront at the list that he decided to excommunicate the lot of us:

You know, I wish that alleged "Catholics" would stop doing the work of the enemies of the Church and telling us what we should not do. I find the list puerile and frankly
Hoo boy, speaking of a lack of charity (see point #3).......Sancte Hieronyme, ora pro eis.

Much better was the contribution from Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong who, despite White's expectations to the contrary, agrees in the main with the list. Dave expresses significant reservation on only two of the points, #2 and #8. On #2, whether it's a good idea to use the term "anti-Catholic", I don't think there's much actual disagreement; the point states that the term should be avoided, not necessarily eschewed altogether. And it makes a distinction that I think Dave agrees with, namely, that the label should only be applied to individuals who have demonstrated a personal bigotry and should not be willy-nilly deployed against Protestants and others who merely have a theological opposition to Catholicism.

On point #8 Dave had a particularly good rebuttal, I thought. He presented a number of Catholic exegetes and two Popes who uphold the interpretation that the piece suggests ought to be avoided. I would counter, however (and Dave comes close to expressing this himself) that the interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20-21 which the point warns against is a secondary implication from the text and not its primary meaning. Dave rightly points out that there is a better text close at hand: 2 Pet 3:15-16.

Perhaps not so good was Dave's retitling of the article as "Dumb Catholic Apologetic Arguments". We never said the arguments were "dumb" and it gives an unhelpful, contentious, and pejorative twist to whole thing. I'd respectfully point out the obvious: that when one puts quotation marks around something it usually conveys that the words were used verbatim. So here's my unsound argument (or at least unsound practice) #19:

19. Don't deploy a paraphrase of your opponent's argument with quotation marks around it, suggesting that those are his exact words. If you quote him verbatim, use quotation marks. If you paraphrase, don't use quotation marks. And when you paraphrase, do so accurately; if your opponent would not agree with your paraphrase then you have not accurately represented his argument.

Shawn McElhinney also addressed the list. I have no comment on his criticisms of the apologetics community in general, not having enough knowledge of the specifics of the incidents to which he alludes to have a valid opinion. I would note that Shawn, like Dave, agrees in the main with the points we presented. Even on a few with which he ostensibly disagrees, I think he hasn't quite understood the exact thrust of the point and so I'm not convinced that he actually disagrees as much as he thinks.

Moving back over to the Protestant camp, I confess that I had to laugh at the contribution posted at the blog of Protestant apologist "TurretinFan" (and, again disappointingly, at James White's blog). Instead of presenting a list of unsound arguments, he presented a list of arguments that he considers to be sound but should nonetheless be avoided: So yes, the Pope really may be the Antichrist, but it's too hard for people to swallow nowadays, especially when the last two have been "relatively decent human beings." And yes, sexual molestation of children really may be "the necessary and natural outworking" of celibacy, but it's not a central issue, so probably best to skip it. Sheesh.

TurretinFan did advance one excellent point, on the matter of humility:

Avoid arrogance. If you make a mistake, don't be afraid to admit that you erred and to correct your mistake. This will, of course, damage the patina of perfection that you had going for you, but it is the better course of action.

I'm not saying you have to grovel, but simply admit your mistakes and move on. Learn from the experience, and remember that you are merely a human being who can and does err. Maybe your honesty will win over your opponent, maybe it will lead him to mock you. You cannot control that, but you can maintain your own integrity by correcting your mistakes.
Absolutely right. We all on occasion deploy bad arguments, even if in support of good cases. And I think it is safe to say that those who feel called to the field of apologetics are particularly vulnerable to temptations to intellectual pride. But again, it's really not about us, it's about the truth.

To that end and to his credit, Protestant blogger Steve Hays actually provides a short list of arguments from the other side that he considers unsound. Rather humorous that one he explicitly lists as a bad argument (as opposed to simply imprudent) is: "Don’t equate the pope with the Antichrist." I appreciate his desire to show good will with some reciprocation.

Rather troubling are the comments by Kevin Davis, another Protestant commentator:

Actually, I couldn’t think of much for an evangelical list. If we exclude the fringe (e.g. Chick tracts), the mainstream evangelical apologists dealing with Catholics are pretty decent. The problem with Catholic apologetics is not the fringe, it’s the mainstream apologists.
I don’t have a lot of confidence in the moral acumen of most current Catholic apologists, but maybe the next generation will start caring more about truth and basic facts, instead of just winning as many converts as possible and keeping financially afloat.

As for fodder for the "evangelical list", a couple come to mind immediately. How about admitting that pretty much every attempt to support the denial that St. Peter is the "rock" of Matt 16:18 involves the abandonment of fundamental rules of grammatico-historical exegesis (see e.g. here)? Note that I am not wed to modern grammatico-historical exegesis as the only valid approach to the biblical text; but many of our opponents are and it is not too much to expect consistency, especially when we're being charged with intractable bias.

Or how about the Mother of all Bad Arguments (which became the central thesis in a putative doctoral dissertation, no less), the claim that there was a semantic shift in the meaning of the Greek phrase heos hou that excludes seeing the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin in Matt 1:25? (See my contributions toward debunking that whopper here, here, and here.) Certainly the list could be extended and I would welcome the endeavor from the Protestant side; believe me, not all bad arguments against the Catholic faith are found in Jack Chick comics.

I do want to emphasize that I did not participate in formulating our list in order to cast aspersions on the moral integrity (or intelligence) of any Catholic apologist, much less the Catholic apologetics "enterprise" in general. Mr. Davis' spin struck a particularly sour note, I think, given the spirit of what we were trying to accomplish. Shall I now unpack many of the disagreeable and sometimes downright disgusting exchanges I have had with certain "mainstream" Protestant apologists? No, I shall not because that is not what this is about.

The bottom line here is that we are all prone to deploy and sometimes cling tenaciously to bad arguments in support of our beliefs. But a bad argument is a bad argument, no matter who uses it; and a bad argument deployed in support of a true position is a real travesty. If we love the truth, if we have humility, we need to let them go.


Kevin Davis said...

Mr. Palm,

I appreciate your concerns about my "spin," but I assure you that it comes from years of witness of, and occasional engagement with, Catholic apologists. I have little respect for the dominant ethos and methods of the bulk of these men.

I've decided that I have to stick with actual scholarship, whether Protestant or Catholic, instead of wasting my time and intellectual energies on pop apologetics. With that, I will continue to love and appreciate Newman and von Balthasar, Calvin and Barth, Paul and Irenaeus,...and all the unsung historians and exegetes that check and balance our claims.

I've come to realize that Catholic apologists and I live in different worlds, with different means and methods for judgment. The Greek of "until" is only an issue because the Catholic Church decided upon Mary's ever-virginity. Whether "you are the rock" is in reference to Peter is obvious, but whether it is in reference to Peter's person as a type and successor of future bishops of Rome -- this is only an issue because the (Roman) Catholic Church decided upon this interpretation. I don't doubt that the apologist can make scripture congenial to Roman Catholic claims. Of course he can. But the more fundamental issue is why the Church developed as she has. What philosophical and theological issues, and what historical pressures, resulted in Mary's "privileges" or the pope's universal jurisdiction and infallibility. I'll get a far better answer from Catholic scholars and secular historians than I will from epologists.

M. Forrest said...

David –

I appreciated the original piece and your follow-up here. It seems that some of our separated brethren and brother Catholics were unfortunately unable (or unwilling) to join in and/or appreciate the spirit of what you were trying to accomplish. I’m hopeful that others will respond more humbly and charitably than the first commenter above.

God bless.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi David,

Excellent piece, and big step in the direction of damage control, given how your article has been interpreted in a twisted fashion by several critics of Catholicism, with my own name figuring prominently (and predictably) in two of the more notoriously cynical and inaccurate treatments.
But I was very proud to be up there in the Hall of Shame with my good friends Pat Madrid, Steve Ray, and John Martignoni. It's truly a greater honor to be smeared alongside them (for all the wrong, deluded, self-interested reasons) than it is to be praised.

Thus, I appreciate your clarification on a personal level, but I am infinitely more concerned for the Catholic apologetics movement as a whole. I don't care all that much, ultimately, if I am personally attacked, but I care a great deal about the success of the Catholic apologetics enterprise.

It is attacked and derided precisely because it has been rather remarkably successful in the last 15-20 years. That threatens some folks, and if they lack arguments (which they often do!), they go right to personal attack and smearing tactics. YAWN.

I freely grant and concede your point about my use of quotation marks in my title. I didn't intend to convey an impression that I was quoting you (and technically, in grammatical terms, I don't think that this necessarily follows). I was going for the catchy, flashy title, and mildly self-deprecating humor. An unsound argument is a dumb one, in my book. And it is certainly dumb to use a dumb, fallacious, or irrelevant argument.

To abide by your expressed wishes, however, I'll remove the quotation marks from my title.

Kudos again for the fine job on this post. Whether it has the desired effect remains to be seen. At the very least, there should be retractions or at least editing in some quarters. I'll be pleasantly shocked if that happens, but not surprised at all if it doesn't.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

If you study ch. 13 of Summa Contra Gentes, St THomas uses geocentrism or, more directly, the movement of the sun, taken at face value, as one argument. Do you consider it as having become since then a bad argument when back then it was a good one?

ThePalmHQ said...

Hmmmm. I'm a little confused. The sun does move, so it was a good argument then I suppose it's a good argument now. (I didn't go out and read the whole section from St. Thomas.)

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

The sun does move ...

... daily?


... unspecified time around galaxy?

Because the former is what we see and what St Thomas Aquinas took as an argument.

ThePalmHQ said...

He doesn't say one way or the other (at least on in Summa Contra Gentiles 13), does he ?

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

well, the only one of these movements, each in its theory, that is apparent to the senses (confer the quote) is ... the daily one, the one agreeing with geocentrism

ThePalmHQ said...

All movements of the heavenly bodies are "apparent to the senses", else we would not perceive them as movements. St. Thomas may very well have been convinced that the movements were a certain way, but it does not detract from his argument if they are found to be different.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

But the supposed movement of the Sun around a very far off center of galaxy and around a very far off center of universe are NOT perceived as movements.

They are deduced, by heliocentrics. Deduced, not perceived.

The movement we perceive daily, is precisely Sun going up in East and down in West. Or hiding and reappearing behind and object other than horizon during the day.

The movement we "perceive" yearly is not perceived but deduced, but from sensory fact that now this and now that part of Zodiak is hidden by the sun.