Tag Archives: Special Pleading

Evidence Explained (or, Why Apologetics Fail)

Webster’s defines “evidence” as – : something which shows that something else exists or is true, : a visible sign of something, : material that is presented to a court of law to help find the truth about something.  To put things in more scientific terms, evidence is that which can be demonstrated, tested, verified, and falsified.

This would seem to be a pretty straight forward idea, and to most people about most things, it is.  However, a strange thing happens when people hold to ideas which can’t be demonstrated to be true with evidence.  Suddenly the definition of what constitutes “evidence” changes or broadens to encompass any arguments or claims they can muster that seem to lend credibility to their position.  This widened criteriaa, however, is only applicable to their own strongly held belief and does not extend to beliefs that other people hold that they disagree with.  More on this later.

Apologetics is defined as – reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.  Bible.org gives the simpler definition as “the defense of the Christian faith”.

When I was a Christian, I was big into apologetics, and spent many hours reading books and watching debates from such notable personalities as Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and others.  After becoming more familiar with the philosophy of critical thinking, logical fallacies, and the scientific method, I soon realized that there was something strangely missing from all apologetic works, both novice and professional: evidence.  Demonstrable, verifiable, empirical evidence.  Despite the common Christian claim that there is an abundance of evidence for their beliefs, I soon realized that this evidence is strangely absent from any work of apologetics I had ever come across.  What I did see over and over where justifications being substituted and passed of as “evidence”.  That’s what I want to talk about here; common apologetic tactics which are not “evidence” and should not be taken as such.

Arguments

Several years ago I served on a  jury.  Before the trial started the judge went over the rules and guidelines for how we determine a verdict.  One of the points that he made was that the opening and closing statements could not be used in out determination of a verdict.  There’s a very good reason for this – arguments (or argumentation), no mater how compelling, well thought out, or convincing, are not evidence. 

Apologists love their arguments.  The Cosmological Argument, Argument from Morality, Argument from Design, Ontological Argument, Pascals Wager, etc.  There are some problems with this however.

First, arguments can be used to show the plausibility of almost anything.  I’ve heard very convincing arguments for the existence of Bigfoot and the Yeti.  I’ve watched documentaries on how aliens are the only explanation for the how the pyramids of Egypt were built.  Many people are convinced that Hitler escaped Berlin at the end of WWII.  Does this mean that Bigfoot is real, Hitler is alive, or that aliens are responsible for one of the great wonders of the Earth?  Of course not.  Yet this same logic applies to apologetics – just because you can come up with a convincing argument for the existence of something does not mean it is “proof” of its existence.

Second, if arguments are not evidence, then fallacious arguments are even less so.  I’ve yet to encounter an apologist give an argument that wasn’t some form of a logical fallacy.   To use the example listed above, the Cosmological Argument is a classic “God of the Gaps” fallacy as is the Argument from Morality.  The Argument from Design suffers from many fallacies, most notably the Weak Analogy fallacy.   The Ontological Argument is a form of Circular Reasoning and Pascals Wager is an example of Begging the Question.  If anyone can find me a work of apologetics that doesn’t contain logical fallacies, I’ll buy you dinner.

Anecdotes/Personal Testimony

Christians love their personal testimonies.  Whether it’s at church, on social media, at music festivals, or in personal conversations, every Christian has a story about how God answered some prayer,  worked in their lives, or performed a miracle.  For many people, these personal experiences are the main reason for their belief in God.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a Christian claim,”I’ve experienced him working in my life” as their “evidence” of God’s existence…

Personal experiences and anecdotes are not evidence, no matter how real or convincing they may seem to people.  There are several reasons for this.

First, when people use anecdotes as evidence, they are usually committing a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (post hoc for short).  The Latin translates to “after this, therefore because of this,” and it occurs whenever an argument takes the following form:

  • X happened before Y
  • Therefore, X caused Y

The reason that post hoc arguments are invalid should be obvious: the fact that Y happened after X does not mean that X caused Y.

Anytime someone claims that God answered a prayer, they are committing a post hoc fallacy.  When someone gives an emotional testimony about how they were an addict, criminal, all around shitty person, and then God miraculously changed their lives, they make the mistake of assuming that since they got better after accepting Jesus into their lives, that it was Jesus who changed them around.

Second, if one is going to admit anecdotes as evidence, then you have to admit all personal stories as equally credible.  That means that the personal stories of Muslims is proof of Allah, anecdotes by Scientologists are proof that their religion is true, and thousands of accounts of alien encounters are proof of aliens.  It is not hard to find very convincing stories by very credible witnesses who claim to have been abducted by aliens.  These people are so convinced of this that they are able to pass polygraph tests when questioned about their encounters.  Is this hard evidence that aliens are visiting earth and kidnapping people?  Most theists would say no, yet they would like to claim that their own stories are “evidence” of God’s existence.  This double standard is known as special pleading –  applying standards, principles, and/or rules to other people or circumstances, while making oneself or certain circumstances exempt from the same critical criteria, without providing adequate justification.  You can’t attempt to argue that your experiences constitute as evidence and then try to discredit the experiences of other believers who disagree with you.

Lastly, anecdotes that affirm a position often ignore anecdotal evidence that contradicts the same position.  Theists can claim that prayer works only by ignoring all the times that it didn’t work.  You can claim that God got you out of addiction, but what about all the people who also reached out to God and are still addicts?  This is confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing view points, and subsequently ignore information that goes against them, both positive and negative.

Luciano Gonzalez over at Patheos sums it up nicely:

“Your experiences are AT BEST reasons for you to believe. They are not (or at least they shouldn’t be) compelling evidence for other people that you want to convince you are right. If you are arguing that your experiences are compelling evidence, I want to know what separates your experiences from the experiences of others that somehow their experiences are not as convincing as yours, or are somehow inferior to yours in such a way that you know your experiences are true while knowing or believing that theirs are not (in cases when you share your experiences with people who disagree with you).”

*(For a more in-depth look at why anecdotes aren’t evidence, check out this article over at The Logic of Science blog)

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The Supernatural/Miracles

In a recent debate between Matt Dillahunty and Blake Giunta on the topic of the Resurrection of Jesus, Guinta made the argument that the most plausible explanation for the testimonies found in the Bible, and other sources of people encountering Jesus after his death, was that he had miraculously risen from the dead after three days.  He claims that the actual, physical resurrection is the only plausible explanation for how so many people could have had such similar and lucid encounters.  Remember how we talked earlier about alien abductions?

Miracles, by definition, are a violation or suspension of the laws of nature, thus making them supernatural.  David Hume characterized them as “a transgression of the law of nature” and were thereforethe least likely event possible“.  Yet, miracles abound in apologetics.  In fact, much of the foundation of the Christian faith, such as the Resurrection, prayer, and the divine inspiration of scripture, depend on the supernatural being a very real and active agent in this world.  Contrary to what many apologists think, science can test supernatural claims, and since the scientific revolution four centuries ago, we have learned that there is no supernatural realm.  Natural explanations have been found for that which was previously thought to have supernatural origins in every case that it has been studied.

Occam’s Razor states that when there exist two explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one is usually better.  Another way of saying it is; the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.  When it comes to the “evidence” produced by apologists for the existence of God, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always going to be more likely than a supernatural one.  Back to the debate mentioned earlier, when it comes to an explanation for all the witnesses who claim to have seen Jesus after he arose, there are many natural explanations – mass hallucinations, shared psychotic disorder, groupthink, legendary accretion, mistaken identity, false memories, etc.  No matter how implausible some of these explanations may be, they are far more plausible than the supernatural explanation of a bodily resurrection.  You cannot claim that the most likely explanation is the least likely event possible; a miracle.

One final note, the use of the supernatural by apologetics is another good example of special pleading.  If you are going to accept that the supernatural is real then you must also accept the supernatural claims made by other religions.

Awe and Wonder

“The evidence for God is all around us.  Just go outside and look around!”  Sadly, his kind of thinking abounds within Christianity –   people believing that the natural world is somehow evidence for their particular god-claims.  The Bible claims that God reveals himself through nature (Rom 1:20) and many take that to heart.  When asked for evidence of God, some have claimed that He  is “self-evident” in nature and that is all the “proof” they need.

This is similar to what we discussed above about anecdotes.  Personal experiences, including awe and wonder, are not evidence.  They are nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brain that give some of us a pleasurable sensation when enjoying nature.  I say “some” because this is not universal.  Not everyone has the same feelings or experiences when being outdoors.

Also, the thing about nature is that it is natural and we have natural explanations for why it’s there, where it came from, etc.  No supernatural explanation needed.  A neighbor said to me the other day, “How can people look up at the stars and not believe in a God?”  My answer was, “Study cosmology”.  This isn’t to say that there can’t be mystery in the universe, but you don’t get to fill in your ignorance of the natural world with “God” and then credit that as evidence.

A common logical fallacy that falls under this category is an appeal to emotions – the use emotion in place of reason in order to attempt to win the argument.  This happens when someone attempts to manipulates peoples’ emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true.  This one is easy to spot; anytime someone makes of “feeling God in their heart”, or knowing that “the Holy Spirit is at work”, or feeling some sort of positive emotion and correlating them to a deity.

Absence of Evidence

This one presents itself in a couple of ways.  The most obvious is the classic argument from ignorance – when a proposition is considered true from the fact that it is not known to be false.  It’s common for people to argue that since you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, then he likely exists.  This line of reasoning could be used to support almost any claim: aliens, vampires, fairies, other gods, or a teapot orbiting the sun.  Ignorance about something says nothing about its existence or non-existence.

Another common argument is that, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.  The basic idea being that we can’t be sure something doesn’t exist just because we haven’t seen it yet.  First of all; this isn’t entirely correct.  But more importantly, most situations which make very specific claims can test for evidence.  In these cases, a lack of evidence is evidence of absence.  Put simply – the absence of evidence, when evidence should be present, is evidence of absence.

Apologists often claim the “historical reliability of the Bible” as evidence for their God.  Yet, we’ve seen over and over that when evidence for very specific events, such as the Exodus and Israels’ forty years of wandering are investigated, no historical or archaeological can be found.  It is therefore more likely that these events never took place.  Many apologists would like to claim that just because evidence hasn’t been found, that these events could still have taken place, and we just haven’t found the evidence yet.  This is not rational thinking.  As Matt Dillahunty is fond of saying, “The time to believe in something is after evidence presents itself, not before.”  This goes for aliens, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, and deities.  It’s completely reasonable to lack a belief in something as extraordinary as a deity if you know of no evidence to support such a claim being reflective of reality.  It is unreasonable to lack extraordinary evidence and still have an extraordinary belief.

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People will go to great lengths to justify unsubstantiated beliefs.  When these beliefs are challenged, things like “evidence” and “proof” suddenly take on a different meaning than they would in a normal, day-to-day, situation.  A good rule of thumb when debating an apologist is this – would this kind of reasoning hold up in a court of law or a science lab?  If not, then they are likely trying to substitute something else for real evidence, and have no solid case.  And as Hitchens famously said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  

Hope this was helpful.  Thanks for reading.

Critical Thinking: Even More Logical Fallacies

Over the last several months I have engaged in or witnessed a number of debates, both political and religious, in which faulty arguments were used.  I realized that some of them were fallacies I hadn’t covered in my previous Logical Fallacies posts (here and here).

Just to recap,  a logical fallacy is an error in reasoning.  This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts.  To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support.  So, here’s another installment to my Critical Thinking series.

Ad Hoc Argument

Very often, we desperately want to be right and hold on to certain beliefs, despite any evidence presented to the contrary.  As a result, we begin to make up excuses as to why our belief could still be true, and is still true, despite the fact that we have no real evidence for what we are making up.  Ad Hoc arguments, simply put, are the fallacy of “Making Shit Up”.

They occur when someone is faced with an argument that discredits their position, and they respond by making something up that serves no purpose except to patch the hole in their view.  Here is a simple way to tell if an ad hoc fallacy has been committed; ask yourself the following three questions.

  1. Did they just make something up?
  2. Is their claim based on evidence/is there a good reason to accept this claim other than that it solves the problem in their argument?
  3. Would someone who wasn’t already convinced of their view accept that claim?

When pointing out to theists the numerous studies that have been done that show the inefficacy of prayer, a common response is something along the lines of, “God can’t be tested.  The studies didn’t work because God knew it was a test.” This is clearly a made up on-the-spot response, with no evidence to back it up, and only makes sense to those who already believe in the power of prayer.

Another common ad hoc argument is the use of “sin” to explain away things that don’t make sense in a world supposedly created and run by an all-knowing, all-powerful God, such as why there is so much suffering in the world or why there are so many design flaws in human anatomy.

Any argument involving magic, miracles, or the supernatural could also be considered ad hoc arguments.  Conspiracy Theories are also a hot bed for made-up arguments devoid of evidence.

“God of the Gaps” fallacy

This is a variation on the Argument from Ignorance fallacy.  This argument generally takes the following form:

  1. Scientists don’t have an explanation for A
  2. Therefore God caused A

Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) rely heavily on this fallacy, as does apologetics. A common example of this is what is sometimes referred to as the  Cosmological Argument.  Simply put, it looks like this:

  1. The universe began to exist at the Big Bang
  2. Something apart from the universe caused this
  3. Therefore, a creator exists

Just because something can’t currently be explained doesn’t mean that an explanation doesn’t exist, nor that you can simply assume that “God did it”. There is a long history of the “gaps” in our understanding being filled by scientific explanations and the “god gaps” thus getting smaller and smaller.

Another form of this fallacy that I see often is the Argument from Incredulity when someone decides that something did not happen because they cannot personally understand how it could happen.  This fallacy comes up often when discussing “spiritual experiences”; people have a profound experience that they cannot explain, so they automatically assign an explanation to God, the Holy Spirit, etc.

Weak Analogy

Many arguments rely on an analogy between two or more objects, ideas, or situations. If the two things that are being compared aren’t really alike in the relevant aspects, the analogy is a weak one.  It’s most commonly referred to as an “apples and oranges” argument.

For example, William Paley’s argument from design suggests that a watch and the universe are similar (both display order and complexity), and therefore infers from the fact that watches are the product of intelligent design that the universe must be a product of intelligent design too.  The argument fails because of the many differences between a watch and anything found in nature. Watches are not caused naturally, whereas the universe could have a natural cause.

The weak analogy fallacy is often used by pro-life advocates who compare embryo’s to fully developed, adult human beings, and then argue that treatment that would violate the rights of an adult human being also violates the rights of fetuses.

Equivocation Fallacy

The fallacy of equivocation is committed when a term is used in two or more different senses within a single argument.  For an argument to work, words must have the same meaning each time they appear in its premises or conclusion.  Arguments that switch between different meanings of words equivocate, and don’t work. This is because the change in meaning introduces a change in subject. If the words in the premises and the conclusion mean different things, then the premises and the conclusion are about different things, and so the former cannot support the latter.

A good example of this is seen when Creationists claim that evolution is “just a theory”, failing to understand the difference between the common use of the word the word “theory”, and the scientific use of the word.

Another example of this can be found in the common apologetics argument for “laws of nature” that I covered in a previous post.  The author states that, “the fact that our solar system is called a system is because there is a methodology & a harmony to how our solar system works and exists.”  He fails to understand the difference between a word that is prescriptive versus one that is descriptive.  We give such titles to help us make sense of the natural world, it does not mean that there is an outside agent that assigns these titles.

Sharpshooter Fallacy

Also known as”confirmation bias“, this fallacy gets its name from an illustration that demonstrates how it works: Imagine that someone fired an arrow or bullet at the side of a barn. Then, after firing, they painted a bull’s eye around whatever spot they happened to hit and proceed to proclaim that they were a “sharpshooter.” Obviously they weren’t a sharpshooter, they simply created the illusion of accuracy by painting the target after firing the shot

In actual debates, this fallacy typically occurs as a form of cherry-picking data where you present an isolated result or relationship and proclaim that it is what would be expected if they were right, when, in fact, there are other results that discredit your position.

Theist will claim that prayer works by sighting examples of prayers being “answered”, yet fail to mention all the times that a particular prayer was not answered.  After natural disasters, people are often quick to point out the “miracles” of people surviving, yet ignore all the other lives lost.  These are examples of the Sharpshooter fallacy.

Special Pleading

Special pleading occurs when people fail to apply the same standards of critical analysis to their own views as they do to other views. This fallacious argument involves an attempt to cite something as an exception to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exception.  Special pleading is often a result of strong emotional beliefs that interfere with reason.

Special pleading  comes up often in religion.  Christians will dismiss the supernatural claims made by other religions, while believing in the claims made by their own.  They will claim that the Bible is the only true “Word of God”, while criticizing other sacred texts.  When pointing out the similarities between the story of Jesus’s Resurrection and other legends of deities rising from the dead, they will insist that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but the other stories are just myths.

Another good example comes from the previously mentioned Cosmological Argument.  Its proponents will insist that something cannot come from nothing, therefore God must have caused it.  Yet, when the question is raised, “Then who caused God?”, proponents will insist that he is the exception to the rule.


In my next post we will be talking about how these, and other types of faulty arguments are often used in apologetics in lieu of actual evidence.  If you haven’t already, please go and read my previous post on logical fallacies (here and here) and critical thinking, as it will help to understand why arguments are not evidence, especially fallacious ones.  Thanks for reading