Not Circular Reasoning

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Jonathan Sarfati, of CMI, in the September 2008 issue of CMI's Creation magazine, made an attempt to argue his way out of the circle pictured below. In typical Sarfati style, what he writes is so off the wall that it is not even wrong. In this side-by-side, we examine the article in its entirety.

Sarfati is stuck on this loop.
CMI   RationalWiki
Creation Ministries International is well known for accepting the Bible as God’s written Word, and thus without error and the ultimate authority on whatever it teaches. But a common objection is, ‘You believe the Bible to be God’s Word because it says so. This is arguing in a circle.’ There are two major points in answering this: the role of starting assumptions, and breaking the circle.   If Sarfati were actually able to "break the circle," he could settle this in short order by simply stating which of the propositions in the circle he accepts purely on faith, as Kevin D. Vogts of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has done.[1] But it seems that he is stuck in the circle, and hence has to ramble on and on in a semi-coherent manner.

[edit] Starting assumptions

All philosophical systems start with axioms (presuppositions), or non-provable propositions accepted as true, and deduce theorems from them.   This is true. However, the world-view utilized by scientists has only one axiom: that the operation of the scientific method is the best way of knowing things about the natural universe. If creationists claim also to hold this axiom, they have no business criticizing scientists for holding it; if they repudiate it, they should mark the words of Stephen Jay Gould: "Pray tell, Dr. Gish ... what then is 'scientific' creationism?"[2]
Therefore Christians should not be faulted for having axioms as well, which are the propositions of Scripture   This is also true; there is nothing wrong with using a different set of axioms. However, it must be noted that the axiom "the Bible is literally true" is a "stronger" axiom than "the operation of the scientific method is the best way of knowing things about the natural universe." More conclusions can be deduced from stronger axioms; however, weaker axioms allow for a broader application of inductive reasoning in arguments, and since these arguments do not have to assume the truth of the stronger axiom, they have much more universal applicability. In fact, the axiom "the Bible is literally true" is a theory under the system defined by the axiom "the operation of the scientific method is the best way of knowing things about the natural universe." It is theoretically possible to prove, under that axiom, that the Bible is literally true; if that could be proven, all of 'scientific' creationism would follow under the axiom of the scientific method, with no need to presuppose the truth of the Bible.
(a proposition is a fact about a thing, e.g. God is love).   Quite the rigorous logical definition there!

In reality, a proposition is a statement that can be true or false; and while "God is love" is certainly a proposition, a Fact about a Thing it ain't. Unless you mean "fact" in the sense of Facts in the Prolog programming language, which are statements assumed to be true within the scope of the program they appear unless retracted.

So the question for any axiomatic system is whether it is self-consistent and is consistent with the real world.   Note here how Sarfati conflates formal and informal logic. The "self-consistency" is a formal property of the formal axiomatic system or "theory," and is called simply consistency. On the other hand the "consistency with the real world" is altogether informal.

[edit] Self-consistency

This means that the axioms don’t contradict each other. Indeed, allegedly circular reasoning at least demonstrates the internal consistency of the Bible’s claims it makes about itself. If the Bible had actually disclaimed divine inspiration, it would indeed be illogical to defend it.   This is true. If one proposition in a circular argument is proven by independent means, all the propositions used in the argument are thus proven.

However, this entire section ignores the question it is supposed to address: Is the Bible internally consistent, or not? A literal reading of the Bible would tend to suggest blatant internal contradictions; see our article on problems with biblical inerrancy for more background.

This is one argument that the Apocrypha was not inspired—1 Maccabees 9:27 and 2 Macc. 15:37–39 explicitly disclaim divine inspiration.   1 Maccabees 9:27 says, "So was there a great affliction in Israel, the like whereof was not since the time that a prophet was not seen among them."

2 Maccabees 15:37-39 says: "Thus went it with Nicanor: and from that time forth the Hebrews had the city in their power. And here will I make an end. And if I have done well, and as is fitting the story, it is that which I desired: but if slenderly and meanly, it is that which I could attain unto. For as it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone; and as wine mingled with water is pleasant, and delighteth the taste: even so speech finely framed delighteth the ears of them that read the story. And here shall be an end."

We will let the reader judge whether or not those verses actually say anything about divine inspiration. However, both books are accepted by the Catholic and Orthodox churches as part of the (divinely inspired) Biblical canon.

[edit] Consistent with the real world

Christian axioms provide the basis for a coherent worldview, i.e. a thought map that can guide us throughout all aspects of life. Non-Christian axioms fail these tests, as do the axioms of other ‘holy books’.   This statement is so far out as to be orbiting the Moon. One need only cite the colossal counterexamples of numerous functioning, prosperous societies that were/are not Christian, and indeed are more functioning and prosperous than many Christian societies. The Bible, held to be inerrant, itself records such a counterexample: pre-Christian Israel.

In keeping with the not even wrong nature of this statement, the entire section following it has very little to do with the circular argument that is supposed to be the topic of the article.

1. Biblical axioms logically and historically provided the basis for modern science. A major one is that the universe is orderly, because it was made by a God of order, not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).   The groundwork for science was laid in ancient Greece, before Christianity even began[3], and modern science began with the rediscovery of this ancient Greek science. Said rediscovery was instigated, not by the Protestant Reformation, but by the fall of Constantinople, which brought Greek scholars flooding into the West.

Also, if one believes in the occurrence of miracles, it entails a belief that the laws of physics can be violated. This is not any sort of solid groundwork for modern science, as both the reproducibility requirement and methodological naturalism are violated.

But why should the universe be orderly if there were no God, or if Zeus and his gang were in charge, or if the universe were one big Thought, as Eastern religions teach? It could change Its mind!   In Greek mythology, "Zeus and his gang" brought order to the universe when they overthrew the Titans. But this point is a moot one, since the universe has shown itself to operate by certain orderly rules; this was recognized in pre-Christian times.

It is also apropos to repeat the point about miracles here. If God can work a miracle at any time, it completely breaks this idea of orderliness, making the Christian universe potentially less orderly than the strong-rationalist version where nothing but the laws of physics are operating.

2. Also very importantly, the Christian axioms provide a basis for objective right and wrong. Note, it’s important to understand the point here—not that atheists can’t be moral but that they have no objective basis for this morality from within their own system. The fanatical atheistic evolutionist, Clinton Richard Dawkins, admits that our ‘best impulses have no basis in nature,’ and another atheist, William Provine, said that evolution means that ‘There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.’ So Dawkins makes a leap of faith to say that we should be ‘anti-Darwinian when it comes to morality’, that we should ‘rebel’ against our selfish genes, etc. But his own philosophy can’t justify the ‘shoulds’.   If axioms are the source of objective morality, then there is nothing preventing Prof. Dawkins or any other Fanatical Atheistic Evolutionist from having axioms that provide a code of morality as objective as the one the Christian axioms provide.
3. Christian axioms also provide a basis for voluntary choice, since we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). But evolutionists believe that we are just machines and that our thoughts are really motions of atoms in our brains, which are just ‘computers made of meat’.   The idea that people's thoughts are dependent on anything other than the motions of atoms in their brains is flat-out contradicted by all post-Dark Ages medicine.

But in any event, it is hotly disputed whether Christianity teaches free will. The Calvinists flatly reject it, believing that God chose, before the world began, who was going to heaven and who was going to hell (the "double predestination").

But then they realize that we can’t function in the everyday world like this. Science is supposed to be about predictability, yet an evolutionist can far more easily predict behaviour if he treats his wife as a free agent with desires and dislikes. For example, if he brings her flowers, then he will make her happy, i.e. for all practical purposes, his wife is a free agent who likes flowers. Nothing is gained in the practical world by treating her as an automaton with certain olfactory responses programmed by genes that in turn produce certain brain chemistry. So evolutionists claim that free will is a ‘useful illusion’.   Is this an article about a priori philosophy or creepy ramblings about how atheists treat their wives like automata?

In any case, this claim is blatantly incorrect - if the scientist had a precise and accurate model of his wife's brain, he could predict her actions far better than if he treated her as if she had free will.

We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true. —Theodore Dalrymple   Of course no one is claiming that specific beliefs are the products of evolution; although the capacity to have them is, and the tendency to have correct ones is as well.
We must also wonder why atheists call themselves ‘freethinkers’ if they believe thoughts are the results of atomic motion in the brain obeying the fixed laws of chemistry. By their own philosophy, they can’t help what they believe!   As everyone else knows, the "free" in "freethinkers" does not refer to freedom from natural law, but freedom from the strictures placed on rational thought by the Church and society.

[edit] Breaking the circle

1. It is not circular to use Matthew to prove Genesis (Matthew 19:3–6, cf. Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:24), Paul to prove Luke (1 Timothy 5:18, cf. Luke 10:7) or Peter to prove Paul (2 Peter 3:15–16).   Perhaps not. However, since Sarfati offers no independent reason to believe Matthew in particular, such proofs are of no effect.
2. It is also not circular to use Jesus’ clear statements to prove the Bible. His statements such as, ‘Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35) and the repeated ‘It is written … ’ show that for Jesus, what Scripture said is what God said. Indeed, Jesus defended many of the doctrines that skeptics love to scoff at.   This is a textbook example of circularity; all of "Jesus' clear statements" are in the Bible[4], so using Jesus' clear statements to prove the Bible is using the Bible to prove the Bible.
Even without accepting Scripture as the authority, many liberal theologians believe that there is overwhelming historical evidence that Christ affirmed biblical inerrancy, although they disagree with Him. Yet Jesus proved His credentials beyond doubt by rising from the dead (cf. Acts 17:31). This independent historical evidence breaks the circle.   "Independent historical evidence"? Is CMI perhaps in possession of a time machine, or at least CCTV footage of Jesus' tomb that shows him rising from the dead? Or did someone catch him on cell-phone camera as he went for a stroll up into heaven?

[edit] How evolutionary reasoning undercuts itself

Social commentator Dr Theodore Dalrymple, no Christian himself, commented on the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett:

‘Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms—for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.

‘For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.’

  None of this, of course, has any bearing on whether evolution theory is actually true or not; it merely shows that Sarfati and crew are willing to deny reality unless they be suitably convinced it came from God.

The argument laid out here by Dr Dalrymple goes something like this: Man has a belief in religion. This belief is a de facto argument in favor of religion. Dennett apparently refutes this "argument", but his refutation is challenged as an ad hominem logical fallacy because he in fact targets the source of the argument, rather than the argument itself. Lastly, Dennett's argument is dismissed as contradictory by saying that his belief in evolution must also be attributed to evolution and therefore, by own own argument, cannot be known to be true.

Right off the bat, Sarfati pulls his own weak version of an ad hominem fallacy by pointing out that Dr. Dalrymple is "no Christian himself," as though this should give his argument more weight. Of course in logic, the source of the argument is immaterial to whether the argument is sound or not, which, ironically, is essentially the crux of Dalrymple's argument against Dennett.

Dalrymple's argument begins by taking humanity's widespread belief in religion (which, notably, predates humanity's foray into logical argumentation) as an argument for its truth, which Dennett is alleged to be refuting. In fact, Dennett's evolutionary explanation for a belief in religion is not an argument against that belief being true, it is simply one possible explanation for its existence, more than likely made in response to someone attempting to argue that belief in God can only come from the existence of God. Thus Dennett's explanation is simply a counterexample, not an argument.

Dalrymple has performed a rather bizarre example of the straw man fallacy: instead of inventing and attacking a weak argument in place of a stronger one, he has invented and attacked a weak argument where there in fact is no argument at all. Specifically, he comes out with the gem that "all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true," apparently attributing this to Dennett. But again, Dennett's point does not make this argument, it simply offers a counterexample to the idea that religious belief can only be explained by religion.

Lastly, Dalrymple implies that Dennett's own belief (either his belief in evolution, or his belief that a belief in religion may have arisen from evolution, it is not clear which) is a product of evolution. This is true only in that Dennett himself, and hence his beliefs, is a product of evolution. Dennett's example illustrates how one particular belief might arise out of evolutionary pressure to survive in an environment which was not sufficiently understood, but in no way asserts that all beliefs are the direct result of evolutionary pressure. So even if Dennett did argue that a belief which arose in that manner was necessarily false (and it is not at all clear that he made any such claim), his belief in that argument (or in evolution as the case may be) is not automatically included in that class unless Dalrymple can show that this belief arose out of a necessity to survive.

The crux of Dennett's example is simply that there are reasonable ways in which a belief may arise independent of logic, but that does not necessarily mean it is true, or that it is false. The crux of Sarfati's inclusion of this fatally flawed argument by Dr Dalrymple is that he is happy to use logic (even flawed logic) when he believes it benefits him, and discard it when it does not.

[edit] Jesus affirmed Scripture!

Jesus affirmed the reality (historicity) of the following people and events, often the targets of most skeptical and liberal mockery:   CMI's exegesis is fairly bad here, but again, "proving the Bible" by citing Bible verses relating what Jesus said is the most obvious sort of circular reasoning.

[edit] Conclusion

Creationists are thus not guilty of circular reasoning.   Non sequitur much?
Also, accepting the biblical presuppositions is not a matter of blind faith. Biblical faith is not blind; rather, it is belief, and trust and loyalty, for sound reasons. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to give a reason for the hope that we have.   Sarfati is quote-mining the Bible here. 1 Peter 3:15 says, "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."

The First Epistle of Peter was written to persecuted churches in Asia Minor; the verse occurs in the context of a paragraph on "suffering for doing what is right." In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter is saying that Christians should not be afraid to proclaim their belief in the resurrection of Jesus -- not that they need to give reasons for said belief.

Sarfati is also flying in the face of orthodox Protestant theology, which holds that faith is a gift from God rather than the result of any human process, such as reason.

Furthermore, we are not merely asking opponents to consider biblical presuppositions as an alternative way of looking at the evidence. Nor are we merely saying that they are ‘nicer’, nor even that they provide a superior framework that better explains the data (although both of these are true as well). Rather, the claim is even stronger: that the biblical framework is the only one that provides the foundation for science, voluntary will, logic and morality.   Here Sarfati is pitching reason right out the window: all arguments that do not assume any arbitrary point in Sarfati's theology as unquestionably true are categorically invalid. Needless to say, this is not how the classical Christian apologists operated, and it is not how evolution supporters operate, either: we do not have to rule out certain classes of arguments as categorically invalid in order to falsify creationism.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. http://www.confessionallutherans.org/papers/vogts.html
  2. http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/speakout/gould.html
  3. One might argue that since the Old testament is included in the Bible, Judaism is technically part of the development. The response to that is please correctly label the religion in the argument.
  4. At the very least, they have yet to find one such statement authentically outside the Bible.
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