Sunday, February 2, 2014

On Self-Refuting Claims: Reductio Ad Absurdum, The Road Runner Tactic, and There Are No Absolutes

When I was a religious believer I would often employ what is known as 'The Road Runner Tactic', as coined by Christian apologist Norman Geisler, who overuses it in his philosophically illiterate book I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.

The Road Runner Tactic is a form of the reductio ad absurdum argument employed as an argument to counter a statement made that is untenable. It is used to show how the statement might yield a nonsensical or absurd result. 

But theists often use it wrong, using it to counter an argument when it isn't actually intended as a contra-argument. Arguments, after all, consist of numerous interelated claims. Even if one claim is untenable, it doesn't mean all the others are. All it means is that the argument needs revision.

Applied absolutely to any claim, 'Road Runner' style tactics will almost always lead to absurd results. But this distortion arises due to a misapplication of the method. Argumentum ad absurdum arguments are meant only to determine the difeasibility of a claim--not act as a competing claim. 

As theists use it, it is typically intended to falsify claims that they frame as absolute. I'll explain why this is problematic later on.

In an online conversation with a theist I has said there are a million to one arguments against God. Needless to say, it was a bit of a rhetorical flourish. Although I think atheism is the more rational position, and is more defensible than theism, that doesn't mean there aren't coherent arguments for the existence of God. My statement merely reflects the fact that, having gone from a devote believer to a nonbeliever, I currently feel that the atheistic position is the better supported and better defended position.

Challenging me on the claim, he responded, "Oh, yeah? A million to one arguments against God? Are you prepared to back up your claims?"

And I was like... it's a rhetorical flourish... don't be so literal.

Later on in the discussion he hit me with the old canard, "There are no absolute claims" is an absolute claim, therefore it is self-refuting, via reductio ad absurdum

This reasoning is wrong, however. It's wrong because it imports an absolute meaning into an otherwise general statement.

I tried to inform him that it only reduces to the absurd and is self-refuting if the grammar or context explicitly specifies for it being an absolute statement. If not, then it should be interpreted as a generalization. 

Let me explain.

We can read "There are no absolute claims" in either one of two ways. 

1) There are probably no absolute claims"


2) There are absolutely no absolute claims"

Is it a probabilistic claim or an absolute claim? Without a conditional sentence, or a clause, we simply cannot know which one is intended. Which is why clauses matter when talking about absolutes. You can't have an absolute without a conditional clause. 

I informed it is a mistake to assume either one is the intended meaning when the comment stated is, itself, a generalization (due to the aforementioned lack of a clause to specify an absolute condition).  This is basic high school level grammar, so it's strange to me that so many apologists seem to get it so wrong.

Generally speaking, it's simply a rule of thumb, unless the context or the grammar (such as from #2) expressly state that it is intended as an absolute (hence requiring a conditional clause). Knowing this, we know it is a mistake to presuppose an absolute statement where there is no conditional clause. Therefore argument from reductio ad absurdum is not valid as a counter to generalizations. 

Even if the apologists gets lucky and the generalization of a claim is rendered untenable (however, not because of their understanding of the grammar--or lack thereof it would seem), this still doesn't mean the whole of the argument is falsified. Although, one would probably have to revise the argument, or the wording, for it to be tenable.

Anyway, I hope this helps any of you if this comes up in online discussions with theists or believers, because it comes up a lot.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist