White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Logic, Listening, and Liars: Thinking Like a Christian

Published Tuesday, September 29, 2020 By Matthew Everhard

I can almost guarantee that at some point in the last six months, you nearly threw the remote through your flat screen and blurted out, “What are they thinking?!” I might be able to answer that question:

They weren’t.

When you nearly launched your remote and asked that question, it was partly exasperation, and partly a serious inquiry. You are honestly aghast at someone else’s opinions. You cannot reasonably trace back the same line of inferences and “reverse engineer” their thought pattern. Their conclusions seem strange, contorted, and weird, yet somehow frustratingly predictable.

You independently thought through the same set of data, and came to the opposite conclusion. Perhaps the controversy that led you to nearly needing a new television was centered on the wearing of masks, or the meta-data surrounding the dangers of COVID-19. Or maybe you cannot reasonably understand just how people viewed the riots so diametrically opposed to the way you did. Just maybe, it might have to do with the way that your neighbors intend to vote, as suggested not-so-subtly by their enormous yard sign.

What is Logic?

Thinking is hard. It requires sustained attention, and demands more than just the surrender to hunches, nudges, and “the feels.” Thinking well is certainly not just following the heart, whatever that means. Thinking requires information gathering, rational processing, and objective assessment.

As Christians, we are called to listen and think carefully. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” (1 Cor 14:20, emphasis added). In fact, one of the reasons that Christians ought to think differently from the unbelieving world is that unbelievers have, as it were, a veil over their eyes (2 Cor. 3:14). They do not have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 2).

Having been given the Spirit of Christ, however, does not necessarily entail that we always think as clearly as we should. Regeneration and conversion begin a new life in us, along with a new mode of thinking, but they do not immediately perfect our natural capacities. We must learn to think well. As Bible-believing Christians, we desire to please the Lord through the ways that we mentally process information, especially in the midst of such times of controversy. With that in mind, let us reintroduce ourselves to the concepts of logic.

The rules of logic are not necessarily laid down in Scripture, although I believe that they do help us to think more clearly about all kinds of matters, including the Bible. Actually, the basic principles of logic were first articulated through the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Just as the rules of physics and mathematics hold whether or not one is converted and baptized, so too do the rules of logic avail for all reasonable thinkers, since logic is sort of like algebra with ideas. To say it another way, you don’t have to be saved to use the Pythagorean theorem or to apply the law of non-contradiction.

Since debate season is heavy upon us, we should familiarize ourselves with some simple concepts that will help us reason with ideas themselves as such, and avoid being duped so easily by the clever rhetoric of politicians and political action committees.

Formal Fallacies

A major part of logic—at least so far as we can consider this topic in a short article—is the ability to discern or identify fallacies (or failed arguments). We should be aware that there are two basic kinds of failed arguments, formal fallacies and informal fallacies.

A formal fallacy contains an argument that breaks down structurally. The math doesn’t work. Its premises do not support the conclusion at all. The classic example of a good, water-tight argument is this one: (a) All men are mortal (b) Socrates is a man (c) therefore, Socrates is a mortal. In this case, the two premises “a” and “b” both entail the conclusion “c.” If we somehow concluded that Socrates was immortal, we would have an obvious formal fallacy!

The problem is simply this, most political speeches and debates aren’t anywhere close to working this way anymore. It used to be the case that statesmen built their ideas carefully and tested them rigorously. An argument was a long, drawn out syllogism with each section resting necessarily upon the previous, driving towards an inevitable conclusion. Good sermons are still built this way. But now political slogans, memes, and sound-bites, are far more common than complex, steadily built civil arguments.

We live in the dark ages of Twitter.

For this reason, we will have to center most of our attention here on informal fallacies. These do not necessarily include formal or structural flaws, but can be all the more deadly just the same. In informal fallacies, we are alerted to deceptive lines of argumentation based on the clever, sleight-of-hand word tricks that politicians often use.

Informal Fallacies

Let’s go through a few of the most common informal fallacies so that you can be prepared to identify them when you hear them in the debates this fall. 

(1) Straw Man Fallacy: The straw man fallacy is present in almost every debate, even political commercials. It sets the opponent’s position up so simply and feebly, that it makes anyone seem immediately foolish who would hold such a cardboard view. It does not consider any of the positions’ actual merits or rationale. It purposefully makes the opponent look like a dullard. Then, like a birthday party pinata, it simply smashes it down with force and fury.

Example: Candidate A is against mail-in balloting because he really doesn’t want you to vote at all. He wants to take away your right to participate in this democracy. In actuality, it is possible that Candidate A is against mail-in ballots, but not for the reasons stated. Perhaps he views them as unreliable compared to in-person voting. We notice how the argument was framed dishonestly on purpose. One of the greatest rules of logic is that we always try to state our opponent’s position to their own satisfaction. If we cannot do that, we either don’t fully understand their argument, or we aren’t being honest.

(2) False Alternatives Fallacy: Also called the “False Dilemma,” this fallacy tries to claim that there are really only two options available, and that everyone must choose one. When the listener steps into that trap, he is attacked for choosing either side. It cleverly ignores the fact that there may be many more options available, even moderating positions in between. I recently heard one candidate claim that voting for the other would result in a totalitarian regime and a total loss of religious freedom. The choice seemed clear enough, vote for me, or total disaster! Obviously this is a false dilemma.

Example: You only have two choices in this election, the Federal Party or the Liberty Party! In reality, it is possible to vote for third party candidates, or perhaps a mix of both parties, write-in candidates, or possibly to not even vote at all. There are almost always more than two choices in any given situation, including politics.

(3) Ad Populum Fallacy: An ad populum fallacy comes from the Latin “towards the popular” and simply attempts to use the majority’s opinion as leverage of persuasion. After all, there is some tendency towards herd mentality in most of us; we feel more comfortable with others surrounding us. Very often the masses are right, and there is safety in numbers. But this is an informal fallacy because sometimes the majority is dead wrong. Ad populum fallacies are often posed in the form of political polls. If it can be shown that the majority of Americans feel a certain way, that majority has the potential to pull us inward like a tractor beam.

Example: Most people accept homosexual marriage today; since Candidate B is in favor of traditional marriage, he should be considered an extremist and his platform rejected. In point of fact, morality is not determined by popular vote but by the teaching of Scripture. No matter how many people feel that homosexual marriage is acceptable today, it is not sanctioned in the Bible.

(4) Tu Quoque (You too) Fallacy: This fallacy comes from the Latin meaning “you too!” and evidences the same juvenility of most common playground arguments. Sadly, many politicians never grow beyond the incessant desire to simply clap back, “So what! You did it too!” Sometimes this fallacy is used to show that both candidates have questionable backgrounds. Or that the previous administration did the same thing as the current leader. For instance, in this current Presidential election, both candidates have been accused of some form of sexual predation. Both parties use the other’s history as a justifying excuse. At other times the tu quoque fallacy is used to point out what is called “flip flopping,” or changing one’s mind. This is often viewed as a weakness, though it may actually be a strength IF the candidate moves from a weaker position to a greater one.

Example: Oh sure, Candidate C says he is pro-life now, but back in 1980 he supported the Roe vs. Wade decision. In this case, changing one’s mind would actually be a good thing, and does not indicate any weakness in character. In fact, recognizing an error and making a course correction is actually a credit towards one’s rationality.

(5) Guilt by Association Fallacy: As the name suggests, this argument holds that an idea should be tossed out based on the proponent’s known acquaintances and past relationships. If it can be proven that an individual once shared a business, a friendship, or even a handshake with a person who has now been “cancelled,” then that person too should be rejected. It is common in political theater to show a dark photo of a current candidate arm to arm with a discredited individual, as though their views were one and the same. But does this hold water? Usually not.

Example: Mr. R hosted an extremist on his podcast last year who has since been cancelled. Since Candidate D also went on Mr. R’s podcast, he too should be “cancelled.” In truth, we all hold many relationships with a number of people of various kinds and stripes. Each person’s ideas should be considered on their own merits, distinguished from those of others, even those of his closest associates.

(6) Fruit of the Poisoned Tree: This fallacy works by the same manner as the above, but tends to throw out entire groups of people and swaths of ideas. It suggests that if a particular party can be considered “bad,” every single idea or argument they ever pose is bad too.

Example: I’ve never supported the Candidate D’s Party. Everything they ever do is wrong. If that’s the position that they hold on wearing masks, I will do exactly the opposite. We may disagree with many, even fundamental, things of a specific party, but that does not mean that every position they hold is unreasonable. Each idea should be weighed independently and objectively, even the ideas of our staunchest opponents.

(7) Circular Reasoning Fallacy: Circular reasoning is evident in arguments in which the conclusions and the premises are really the same. A circular argument assumes the very thing it seeks to prove. These arguments are technically formal fallacies, but commonly occur informally as well.

Example: Candidate M is the most honest politician we have had in awhile. We know this because he told us so recently in his campaign rally. In this simple but very ubiquitous example — sadly found in almost every political stump speech — the conclusion is assumed in the premises. These arguments should be rejected out of hand.

(8) Ad Hominem Fallacy: Finally, we come to the most common manifestation of informal fallacy. As the name suggests in the Latin, these arguments directly attack the opponent, the man himself. They seek to make no other truth claim than that the opponent is bad, evil, stupid, ugly, incompetent etc. Sadly, it is almost impossible to find any political rhetoric these days in the American political scene that is not heavily salted with ad hominem attacks. These should be easily recognized and ignored.

Example: Governor P is so disgusting I can’t even look at her anymore. Everything she said in the debate last night was dumb. Politics is frustrating. But we should keep in mind that even some bad politicians occasionally have good ideas. They probably have some talented colleagues and cabinet members. These ideas should be independently weighed and considered for the good of the country, no matter how ugly, brazen, or ignorant the politician herself may otherwise seem in our eyes.

There are several more informal fallacies that also should be considered. Interested readers may do some independent research on the No True Scotsman, the Ad Baculum, the Confirmation Bias, and the hilariously titled, Invincible Ignorance fallacies. In any case, Christian thinking should be clear, reasonable, objective, and as charitable to our opponents and their ideas as possible, with the help of God’s Spirit.

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, a reformed church just north of Pittsburgh, PA. He is a Jonathan Edwards scholar, and has written several books and articles.

Blog Banner Image:
Photo on left: White House Coronavirus Update Briefing, photo taken April 14, 2020. Public Domain {{PD-US}}, resized by MR.
Photo on right: Joe Biden, photo by Gage Skidmore, taken August 10, 2019. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic {{CC BY-SA 2.0}}, resized by MR.

  • Matthew Everhard