Friday, April 27, 2012

Ad hominem fallacy

The idea of ad hominem is this. A person says they believe something, and then give you a reason for believing it. Now, if they expect you to believe it because they said so, then who they are is important. But if they give you a reason, then you have to assess not them, but the reason they give for believing something. So, if someone offers a reason for rejecting the death penalty, it doesn't matter if, say, they are an inmate on death row. If they argue The focus shifts from them to the argument they offer. To focus back on the person when they have offered a reason for what they believe is to commit the "ad hominem" (to the man), fallacy.

William Lane Craig argues as follows:

1. Whatever begins to exist, must have a cause of its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

Craig offers arguments in defense of each of the premises.

What that means, is that it is ad hominem to reject the argument by pointing out that he would believe in God, because of what he takes to be the  testimony of the Holy Spirit, even if other arguments were bad. It is ad hominem to argue that he had an emotional conversion to Christianity. It is ad hominem to say that he wants to believe in God, so he will produce whatever arguments he needs in order to believe. Since he has given an argument, critiquing any thing other than the argument is irrelevant.

29 comments:

Anthony Fleming said...

Very well put. I am well familiar with the ad-hominem and try my best not to deploy it. This had some good insight though! Thanks.

I really think if we could get rid of ad-hominems and horse laughs/arguments from ridicule the world of debate and discussion would be a much better place. The media and politics would be a much better place as well!

After those the straw man, begging the question, and the naturalistic fallacy are the most common ones I see or hear.

I actually think it would be great if more high schools taught critical thinking and logic.

Payton said...

This is certainly a relevant observation. I see atheists and theists alike resorting to all kinds of journalistic and normative arguments, and the dangers of this are perfectly clear to anyone who values knowledge and rational discourse.

That tends to happen a lot in the comments on here too, I might add. It seems like most of the time nobody's actually debating philosophy, but debating about debating philosophy.

I agree with Anthony. High schools definitely need to teach critical thinking and logic. But I think it would be best to avoid the usual practice of teaching long lists of formally named fallacies. There's nothing quite like a high school internet troll who limits their debates to exclamations of "Straw man!" and "Composition fallacy!", without much in the way of explanation. It's usually more productive to point out that your opponent has attacked a parody of your own argument, and show how this leaves his criticism lacking, or to point out which premises in the argument don't follow and why.

BeingItself said...

William Lane Craig frequently employs the ad hominem fallacy. In debates with atheists and in speeches, he will say that atheism is not the result of honest intellectual investigation. Rather, atheism is a moral failure on the part of the atheist.

mhssu said...

BeingItself, Craig commits the ad hominem fallacy if he uses it to imply that the atheist's arguments are specious. I've never seen him do that. Typically, he'll dismantle his opponent's arguments directly. If he says that atheism is intellectually dishonest or whatever (and maybe some of his comments can be construed as such, I dunno), that's never used as a refutation of particular arguments.

BeingItself said...

mhssu,

Suppose I'm arguing with Craig, and give my reasons why I think the first premise of Kalam is false. At the end of the debate I add that Craig's real reason for believing in God have nothing to do with Kalam, but rather because he cannot emotionally deal with death. That would be an ad hominem.

So one can do both: argue against the argument, and argue against the man.

This is what Craig does, over and over and over.

Anthony Fleming said...

Being, Craig normally does a pretty good job picking out fallacies. Could your provide a particular debate that backs up your claim?

I think your taking two different things he said and putting them together and then charging him with a fallacy. I think that may be fallacious :)

Payton, I agree! I think it would be cool to show high school people media snippets that deploy these arguments.

Also, I actually hope I can work someday on picking out a curriculum that could work with regular high schools. I rarely get into a discussion with any individual without hearing or seeing a fallacy. It doesn't mean that someone still can't make a good point, it just may help the overall dialog in our diverse and politically separated country.

___________________________ said...

Is critiquing any thing other than the argument actually irrelevant? Let's say that I think that William Lane Craig uses argument spam. Couldn't I, based upon that belief, reason like this:
1) WLC spams people with specious arguments, so if I see one of his arguments it is likely specious.
2) WLC presents me the KCA.
3) Therefore the KCA he presents is likely specious.

You may resist this kind of mentality, however, I would think it would be necessary. After all, if we have limited knowledge/research abilities/cognitive capacity, and are thus practically unable to evaluate every single arguments on it's own grounds, wouldn't a rational epistemic actor use considerations about the source of an argument as a shortcut to discriminate what is worth more costly evaluation?

Anthony Fleming said...

If WLC's arguments were commonly specious then it would raise suspicion but would not be a defeater of the KCA.

If someone has done bad math in the past it would not mean their current mathematical proofs are flawed.

If WLC made some fallacious arguments it would not mean his argument is "likely" fallacious. You can't operate on fallacious probability to label an argument as fallacious. At most you could simply say it is worth suspicion. The fallacious reasoning if figured out logically, not from probability, like in math.

Besides, in the case of WLC, I really don't think the fallacious reasoning is "likely" anyway which makes your first premise difficult.

Matt DeStefano said...

"Since he has given an argument, critiquing any thing other than the argument is irrelevant."

Imagine an Obama birther who gives us an argument as to why we should think the birth certificate is false. However, before you begin to examine the evidence, he also says "Even if the evidence in our current historical position doesn't reflect my conclusion, I will simply accept that if I had a fuller picture of the actual evidence, I would be able to confirm that Obama is not a United States citizen."

Why should I engage this person intellectually? If they have already given away the game, there's no point in delineating further. If they are willing to go against the overwhelming evidence or arguments of our time in the hopes that eventually their belief will be vindicated, what's the point?

This is what Craig is doing here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4538185102301600532&q=william+lane+craig , and I don't see how this isn't relevant.

Victor Reppert said...

No, my view is that we must follow the argument where it leads, and we can't be too concerned about how it would affect someone who is persuaded by our argument. The fact is, that in spite of affirmations on the part of Craig or anyone else as to how a re-evaluation of certain evidence would affect them, we don't really know how someone is going to react until we actually present the evidence. Given Flew's overall previous views in the philosophy of religion, I wouldn't know of any particular single argument that would result in his becoming a theist, and yet, he did so. I place a high value on the evaluation of arguments and of setting aside any major concern about how getting someone to accept my evaluation of an argument is going to affect someone else's belief system. I think there is value in showing an Obama birther that their arguments for birtherism are bad even if doing so would not necessarily convince them to give up birtherism. Besides, there are other people in the audience as well.

If the Kalam argument is good or bad, that is worth trying to ascertain regardless of what Bill Craig would do if he were to discover the argument wasn't good. He does have considerable skill in making and developing that argument. Even if he continued to be a believer if you convinced him the argument was bad, if it is bad, and you could show it, that would have considerable value. He doesn't ask anyone to accept his argument because he is such an authority. He offers up reasons for why you should believe it, arguments that do not lose or gain strength because of his own personal intellectual predilections.

When we argue, what we evaluate are arguments. There is a personal dimension to what causes conversions or failures to convert, especially where religion is concerned. What is publicly accessible, however, is argument. That we have access to.

How someone would be affected by a sea change in their evaluation of evidence is probably not even open to introspection, much less open to observation by others. You have to just evaluate arguments and let the devil take the hindmost. You have to value the process over the result, otherwise you are just a propagandist.

Payton said...

Well, Matt, I think if Craig said that in a debate, or as part of an argument, then yes, that would be very bad. But it looks here like he's speaking in a ministerial capacity. He's just advising ignorant college students as to how to deal with what may seem to them for the moment to be incontrovertible evidence against their position.

Now - contrary to Craig, and I think in line with Victor and C S Lewis - I define faith in the exact opposite way. Faith is not trusting in what your heart has decided even when later your reason decides against it, but trusting in what your reason has decided even if later your heart's just not in it.

For the record, since I've seen a lot of semantical bickering about faith on here, if someone chooses to define faith differently, I will be fine saying I have no faith. I lose nothing from that.

On the other hand, Matt, you ask why you have a duty to engage such a person intellectually. You don't. I don't think you have a duty to engage any person intellectually. Our intellectual duty is not to people, but to facts, and to arguments. To refuse to engage an argument because of who is arguing it is the whole point of ad hominem.

If we are to be honest thinkers, we must always remember Roland Barthes: "L'auteur est mort!" The author is dead. We do not care what he means. We do not care who he was. There is only the argument, and our duty to assess it.

Matt DeStefano said...

"How someone would be affected by a sea change in their evaluation of evidence is probably not even open to introspection, much less open to observation by others. You have to just evaluate arguments and let the devil take the hindmost. You have to value the process over the result, otherwise you are just a propagandist."

I agree about it presumably not being open to introspection and outside observation, but I think that according to your last line, we have to assume Craig is a propagandist. He doesn't care about the process at all, he's explicitly acknowledged that the result is the only important part of debate and that he's really not interested in giving both sides a fair shake.

AFAIK, Flew never said "Even if evidence indicates otherwise, I would hold on to my atheism, and simply assume that we hadn't uncovered all of it yet."

There are plenty of theists that do want to engage in honest, genuine debate. Why not leave the sophists to preach to the choir and focus on them instead?

I think this is akin to debating some Young Earth Creationists. By engaging Craig, everyone involved is implicitly admitting that it is an acceptable position to ignore evidence and arguments which don't confirm what you already believe.

"Well, Matt, I think if Craig said that in a debate, or as part of an argument, then yes, that would be very bad. But it looks here like he's speaking in a ministerial capacity. He's just advising ignorant college students as to how to deal with what may seem to them for the moment to be incontrovertible evidence against their position."

Perhaps you think this makes it less wrong somehow, but in my mind it makes it an even greater sin. To infuse people who are being educated with the idea that arguments and evidence don't matter in the spite of contrary beliefs is nothing short of brainwashing. (Of course, that's how most of the church youth groups I've attended operated.)

How is a position like that even remotely defensible?

Payton said...

Oh, I don't think he was trying to convince them that arguments don't matter, Matt. To my knowledge, he was offering perfectly reasonable advice, which I might even give to atheist students. It's true that the truth should be the only important goal of our rational enquiry, and that all discussion should be driven toward that end. However, our ability to reason is not infallible, and it is not always wise to flip sides at the first sight of an argument you cannot counter.

It is always possible that we are mistaken, or overestimating the strength of our opposition, or even inadvertently allowing our emotions to cloud our judgment. Needless to say, a great part of rationality consists in holding out on questions until you have reasoned them out to an appropriate depth. This takes time. I would not be very impressed with an atheist who turned sides every five-minute span of time he had not yet come up with a rebuttal to some theistic argument.

Our minds may be better judges of the truth than our hearts, yes. But our minds have their limitations too. They can be trusted more, but not completely. Good thinkers reserve their judgment until they are reasonably compelled by the truth. They do not let their convictions flap around like a flag in the breeze, tied to the whims of their fallible minds.

This is especially if you are a Christian, because you will believe that your beliefs are vitally important to your salvation. In that case, it would be irrational to risk so much on a faculty you know to be not completely trustworthy. We are easily confused, and any student of philosophy knows that debates and disputes can span years, if not decades. There is rarely any good reason to change your religious affiliation because of your scary philosophy professors in your freshman year. Proper and serious engagement with the truth demands rigour and conviction.

BenYachov said...

>To infuse people who are being educated with the idea that arguments and evidence don't matter in the spite of contrary beliefs is nothing short of brainwashing.

So you have never ever in your life encountered an argument you had no immediate answer too?

And if you did you would immediately on the spur of the moment change your beliefs?

Seriously?

Matt DeStefano said...

"Needless to say, a great part of rationality consists in holding out on questions until you have reasoned them out to an appropriate depth."

But he's not "holding out", he's already decided. Not by argument or evidence, but by an internal conviction of the Holy Spirit. He's encouraging students to do the same - if you find arguments and evidence counter to your beliefs, holdfast and simply wait until they are vindicated. That's pure sophistry.

"So you have never ever in your life encountered an argument you had no immediate answer too? "

Huh? You might have missed something, Ben... I'd watch the video. Being agnostic on a question you don't have a response to is a respectable position. But that's not what Craig is advocating in the interview.

Payton said...

I did not say we should be agnostic until we are certain. We are almost never certain.

What I meant when I said to reserve judgment is not that you should set aside all claims to knowledge, but that you should be slow and careful to change your mind when presented with arguments opposed to your view. It is worth following out your own objections and seeing what they entail before switching sides. Far reaching questions demand a great amount of consideration, and smaller questions require somewhat less. This is part of what it means to exercise good judgment.

Clearly Craig has this in mind. He uses the witness of the Holy Spirit as an example, but the principle at stake works just as well in secular cases. The process of changing ones mind ought to be slow, serious, and considered. This is especially sound advice to college students.

---

I might also add that being agnostic on a question you don't have a response to is not always a respectable position. Not only does it not do justice to the argument at hand, but it requires just as much, if not more, proof and evidence than a yes or no position in itself.

If you say yes, you need proof. If you say no, you need proof. If you say you don't know either way, why? Which premise is uncertain? If one argument is uncertain, accept the negation. If both are uncertain, what is the cause of the uncertainty in each of them? The affirmative position need only provide evidence for itself, and the negative position need only provide evidence against the affirmative. The agnostic needs to show why both are lacking, and this is a lot of work. Agnosticism must never be thoughtless, otherwise it is just a refusal to engage.

BeingItself said...

I love this video of Craig. Should he as a Christian ever be persuaded by arguments or evidence against what he believes? Of course not! The strong inner feeling he has trumps everything.

But ask Craig this: What about the Muslim who likewise has a strong inner feeling that Islam is true? Well, in that case says Craig, the Muslim should change his mind when presented with counter evidence.

William Lane Craig is a hypocritical clown.

Walter said...

But ask Craig this: What about the Muslim who likewise has a strong inner feeling that Islam is true? Well, in that case says Craig, the Muslim should change his mind when presented with counter evidence.

William Lane Craig is a hypocritical clown.


WLC is convinced that the burning bosom of a Mormon or the warm fuzzy feeling a Muslim gets when praying towards Mecca are not veridical experiences given to them by the third person of the Trinity. Only when the feeling of assurance is experienced by a Christian is it supposedly a true feeling given to them by the Holy Ghost. I wouldn't necessarily consider him to be a hypocritic, but I would like to know how he can have certainty that he is not the one being deceived by a self-generated feeling of assurance that he is mistakenly crediting to an invisible and intangible external agent? Anyhow, I agree that we should engage the argument regardless of whether the person has bad reasons for believing them.

Payton said...

Being, I think Craig's point is that the witness of the Holy Spirit gives him a priori reason to believe that the facts and evidence, in the end, always turn out to support and prove Christianity. His arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection also serve this role. In combination with the recognition that his rational faculties are not infallible, he will nearly always be hesitant to change his mind until these a priori reasons to interpret the evidence a particular way disappear. But the belief that the facts must turn out to be a certain way does not in any way compromise his obligation to them. He still ponders and reasons and investigates every question he hasn't yet answered.

You will notice that the atheist also has such arguments at his disposal. If you believe the problem of evil is a good argument, or believe there can be no supernatural entities, and I make a convincing presentation of some argument for the resurrection of Jesus, you will have two options. You can reject your previous arguments a priori, because if my argument is right, yours must have gone wrong somewhere. Or you can reject my argument, because if your arguments are right, mine must have gone wrong somewhere.

Craig's point about the experience of the Holy Spirit is one argument among many. He believes, as I do, that a fully sufficient case for Christianity can be made on other grounds; grounds which you do not find so objectionable. As we all know, he does in fact present such a case nearly every time we hear him speak.

Payton said...

It is more than a little bit premature that we should all carry on here debating whether or not we have an obligation to engage with William Lane Craig. In fact, almost none of us ever have or ever will do any such thing.

I have engaged with him once, myself. He answered a question I submitted to his Q&A column. I was very pleased. Apart from that, I have had no interaction with the man, only his arguments. I am willing to bet that the same is true for many of you.

If that is correct, then all this talk about whether Craig is worth talking to boils down to one thing: "Craig has said X, Y, and Z ridiculous things. Therefore Craig is a ridiculous man. I need not bother with the arguments of a ridiculous man."

And what could this be but the ad hominem fallacy this thread is about? I say there is no William Lane Craig. There is only his packet of five arguments for Christian theism, his talk about Molinism, his theories of time, and a mountain of other things that are worth listening to.

They are not worth listening to because Craig is worth listening to, but worth listening to for their own sake.

B. Prokop said...

This is similar to how most people react to politicians. Say you don't care for politician X. In such a case, even when X says something that sounds reasonable, or even if he appears to agree with you on an issue, most people react by assuming:

1) X has a hidden agenda
2) X is pandering to a voting bloc he needs, but will betray them once elected
3) X might be using the right language, but he interprets the words completely differently than you do
4) X is lying (similar to #2, but more cynically)

Victor Reppert said...

But once he gives a n argument, the issue is the argument, not him. It's that simple. He could have all sorts of bad belief-producing methods with respect to some things, but he has done serious work on his central arguments.

If these sorts of arguments were good, then the fact that Darwin talks about superior races eliminating inferior races would be a problem for him. It isn't.


So long as Craig is getting you to believe something in his own authority, all of these considerations are relevant. Once he puts evidence and argumentation into public space, then we have to follow the argument, not him. Jonathan Wells is a Moonie. He also has arguments concerning the icons of evolution (the peppered moth story, etc.) I am sure the Unification Church makes false claims. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with peppered moths. Nothing. He could be wrong about the peppered moths, too, but that is an independent issue from the issue of the Unification Church.

Does Craig's Holy Spirit epistemology, which I find troubling in various ways, have anything at all to do with whether there is good reason to believe that whatever beings to exist must have a cause of its existence, or anything at all to do with whether the universe did, in fact, begin to exist. Craig offers reasons for both of these claims. Those have a life independent of Craig himself, and can be presented and defended by anyone.

Tony Hoffman said...

I agree with Victor here. I think that Craig is disturbing in many regards, and that assessment is related to the arguments he chooses and his style, but I take his arguments as distinct from him; after all, he is not the argument.

I think the ad hominem and genetic fallacies are maybe the fuzziest of the informal fallacies. I don't think it's improper, for instance, to point out that someone's stated beliefs or commitments may affect their judgment, especially when that judgment is deemed expert. In other words, I think ad hominem is indeed fallacious when it is response to an argument, but I think that one can correctly question a person's assessment based on their known prior commitments, and in that case we are not talking about an ad hominem fallacy.

BeingItself said...

I have made two points about WLC, neither of which should be misconstrued to mean that we ought not engage his arguments.

1. WLC regularly employs the ad hominem fallacy.

2. WLC is a hypocrite because he walls-off his own beliefs from any potential argument or evidence, but is unwilling to allow others to make the same sort of immunizing move.

B.L.T. said...

A few major errors in reasoning I've noticed here; 1) If someone gives an argument against another's position and then proceeds to insult them it is still ad-hominem. 2) WLC claims that nothing could convince him to reject his Christianity. and 3)if people are unwilling to change their beliefs their arguments shouldn't be engaged with. 1) When WLC states that atheists do not often exhibit a high level of intelligence in their arguments, that isn't ad-hominem, he is saying this argument fails miserably for these reasons, which makes me wonder whether or not person x did his homework. The added insult is commentary and not an argument. 2) WLC claims that he would believe in God even if his arguments were refuted, that isn't to say he wouldn't change his mind if additional arguments were made against Christianity and discredited his testimony. 3) Even if someone like WLC did claim 2 we should still be willing to engage his arguments, our goal in discussions is to gain understanding, not prove people wrong.

Payton said...

B.L.T., excellent point. I think that's exactly what's going on here.

Being, for your first point, I do not think Craig ever argues ad hominem. Perhaps he attacks and questions his opponents ad hominem, but that is not the same as argumentum ad hominem, which is the fallacy. The fallacy is the use of an insult as an argument. There is no fallacy in the use of insults per se. Does it make you a dick? Yeah. But it isn't a logical fallacy if it isn't a part of your logic.

For your second point, I have given plenty of reasons to believe that the kind of intellectual practice Craig is advocating in that video is actually at the heart of what we call good judgment. Rigour and seriousness cannot exist without conviction, and these are necessary for proper engagement with the truth.

Everyone must have some means of resisting the temptation of a compelling argument, because our minds are fallible, and the argument may not be what it seems. Of course we must not resolve to keep quiet about everything until we are certain. That is extreme. We must simply use a bit of restraint. Whether that takes the form of beliefs about the Holy Spirit, the endless advance of natural science, the burning bosom of the Mormon, or the oppressed consciousness of the proletarian, it hardly matters. They are all good for tying down your beliefs a little, so they don't wander and flap about in the wind. That kind of security is necessary both for proper debate, and proper learning.

More experienced thinkers may have less need for such advice, I do not know. I do not think Craig is beyond convincing; B.L.T. is right. But Craig is talking to impressionable college students with scary professors, besieged by a million influences everywhere they turn. They certainly need it.

Papalinton said...

B.L.T.
" 2) WLC claims that he would believe in God even if his arguments were refuted, that isn't to say he wouldn't change his mind if additional arguments were made against Christianity and discredited his testimony."

This is bunkum. Craig has explicitly stated that no matter how strong and compelling the argument that refutes christianity, he would still believe in the 'Spirit within'. There is no changing his mind, period. The reason? Regardless of the size of the mountain of evidence against the existence of a god and the extent of any scholarly discrediting of his testimony, Craig's response would be [is] that he would only admit to not being up to the challenge, intellectually, and that he failed in his mission to provide the proofs.

From Craig's book, Reasonable Faith, ...
"We know Christianity to be true by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit."
What does he mean by this?

"I mean that the witness, or testimony, of the Holy Spirit is its own proof; it is unmistakable; it does not need other proofs to back it up; it is self-evident and attests to its own truth."
Its own proof to whom? Self-evident? Ask that of a Wikkan.

"The testimony of the Holy Spirit trumps all other evidence."

And this little pearl...

"A believer who is too uninformed or ill-equipped to refute anti-Christian arguments is rational in believing on the grounds of the witness of the Spirit in his heart even in the face of such unrefuted objections. Even such a person confronted with what are for him unanswerable objections to Christian theism is, because of the work of the Holy Spirit, within his epistemic rights—nay, under epistemic obligation—to believe in God.”

Simply delusional and stupid. And no ad hominem. All his own words.

B.L.T. said...

Papalinton

Lets assume you're correct and Craig does believe that no matter what arguments are thrown against Christianity he would still believe. So what? How does that impact the rationality of Christianity? But what Craig is saying is that those who don't understand philosophy or logic, they are justified in believing their experience despite objections to Christianity. This doesn't mean that people are rational in believing their experience if Christianity was shown to be logically incoherent and they knew it. Its a similar principle to when ancient peoples attributed natural phenomena they didn't understand to divine action, would anyone claim they were irrational for doing so?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Those quotes do paint craig as an oddball for sure, but they do not refute the arguments he does give!

There seems to be an equivocation on universe nowadays. Is there one universe, by definition, or can there be more than one universe? It seems the meaning has changed. So perhaps we should change from definite to indefinite article in the argument in the OP.