Friday, April 20, 2018

Rhetorical Tricks of the Enemy's Trade [Pt. 4a]



by Hiram R. Diaz III

An Apologetical Reflection on Dialogical Rules of Engagement

Language use varies not only from one group to another, but also from context to context. Academicians, for instance, generally seek to constrain subjective, emotive language as much as possible in order to focus their readers’ attention on the content being argued either for or against. Outside of academic circles, generally most of us employ subjective, emotive language, interestingly, to the same end. Persuasive interpersonal communication, in fact, seems to rest largely on a speaker’s apparent subjectivity and empathy, whereas non-persuasive communication of this kind is deficient in apparent subjectivity and empathy. Within their respective contexts, granting that interlocutors are aware of the context’s rules of engagement (e.g. whether they are engaging in a specialized academic disputation or an informal conversational debate), these modes of communication are not problematic. However, if one is unaware of the rules of engagement, then he is bound to misunderstand the meaning of his interlocutor’s assertions.

For example, the word “all” can function in several different ways in any given informal context. Informal contexts often use the word all hyperbolically, as a means of emphasis. Contextually, assertions of the variety “All x are y!” typically are not quantitatively precise, but serve to emphasize a large quantity of some particular “y.” “All” would mean “most,” not each and every individual x. More precise informal contexts may involve the use of “all” in conjunction with a place, signifying not the entirety of that place’s population, but the entirety of the people representative of that place. The sentence “All New Yorkers are Yankees fans,” for instance, does not mean each and every New Yorker is a fan of the Yankees. Rather, it means that all native New York baseball fans are Yankees fans. The quanitative all here is precise, but it is limited to a subset of the absolute All in the tautologous assertion “All permanent New York residents are New Yorkers.” The precise use of the word all, in other words, is shown to be relative to a particular subset of the complete set of permanent New York residents.

Oftentimes, as has been mentioned already, a failure to properly interpret the informal use of, for instance, the universal quantifier all can lead to much confusion between interlocutors. Informal discourse must be interpreted according to the rules of engagement employed by interlocutors. As regards formal discourse, similarly, the rules of engagement must be understood if proper interpretation is to be achieved. What is key to achieving understanding between interlocutors, then, is both parties understanding the rules of engagement. Are they engaged in informal discourse? Then set-A rules apply. Are they engaged in formal discourse? Then set-B rules apply. The broader categories of formal and informal, moreover, can be further refined so as to ensure that formal scientific discourse, for instance, is not interpreted according to the rules of engagement in formal philosophical, or literary contexts.

To put the matter simply: The words we use typically have several meanings, and these meanings are native to particular contexts. The contexts here refer to (i.)a general dialogical context one is engaging in (e.g. Formal vs. Informal), (ii.)the sub-context of that general context (e.g. Formal-Philosophical vs. Informal-Philosophical), and (iii.)the narrow context between specific interlocutors (e.g. Formal-Philosophical-Ontological vs. Informal-Philosophical-Ontological). With this in mind, we may be able to better articulate our own arguments, as well as better understand which criticisms against our argumentation are legitimate and which are not.

The explicit purpose of this article is to better elucidate and, therefore, understand illegitimate criticisms of theologically sound argumentation, i.e. criticisms that ignore dialogical contexts.

I. Misrepresenting Misrepresentation

A needed corrective, we must note, concerns whether or not x has misrepresented y’s position and/or argument. The commonality of such an accusation has been noted elsewhere by the present author,[1] but here will be given a somewhat more technical assessment. In the first place, it is to be noted that a misrepresentation of another’s position is not always a straw man argument. As Douglas Walton notes, “the straw man fallacy is not simply the misrepresentation of someone's position, but the use of that misrepresentation to refute or criticize that person's argument in a context of disputation.”[2] Commonly, the straw man fallacy is treated as being a subspecies of the ad hominem fallacy. This implies some level of self-consciousness on the part of the one presenting the argument that he is, in fact, misrepresenting his opponent. Thus, in cases where there is no self-consciousness of such misrepresentation, i.e. where misrepresentation is not due to some deliberate intention to deceive, the fallacy accusation does not actually hold up.[3]

Moreover, misrepresentation of another’s position can only be properly assessed from within a particular dialogical context. Informal dialogue, as has been noted above, allows for exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. In such cases, it is the interpreter’s responsibility to interpret universally quantified assertions such as “Everyone knows x!” or “ALL x are y!” not strictly quantitatively but qualitatively, suggesting a very large number. Such statements can be assessed from a formal context only after they have been translated, as it were, into a more formal language. If an interpreter addresses the assertion “Everyone knows x!” as a formal statement regarding the quantity of persons who have knowledge that or of x, then he is addressing a possible meaning of his interlocutor’s assertion, in general, but which does not obtain in an informal context. This renders his criticism of the factuality, soundness, or validity of his interlocutor’s connected argumentation invalid, since he is addressing something his interlocutor did not communicate.

For instance, Walton explains how this can happen if an argument based on an appeal to analogy is too strictly interpreted by one’s interlocutor -

. . .suppose a proponent puts forward an argument based on an appeal to an analogy, and is correctly interpreted as claiming that two situations tend to be similar in certain respects. Suppose the analogy is imperfect, and subject to default, but nevertheless qua argument from analogy, it is a fairly reasonable argument, and not without merit. Seen as an argument based on an analogy then, this argument is rightly interpreted as inherently presumptive and defeasible, open to exceptions and qualifications.

But what if a critic portrays the speaker's way of putting forward the argument, unjustifiably, as one that was meant to be deductively valid. If we accept the assumption that the missing premise in question has to make her argument deductively valid, then we will not find that missing premise in the given text of discourse, and that could seem like a decisive criticism. In the case of an argument from analogy, we would take the argument as claiming that the two situations in question must be exactly equal, in every respect, for the argument to be any good. But this attribution is based on a misinterpretation, and commits a variant of the straw man fallacy by taking the argument in a much stricter way than a charitable interpretation of how it was used in the discourse would support.[4]

The situation here is similar to that which we have observed in the misinterpretation of the quantifiers all and every.

Ia. Interpreting the Informal Formally

Ironically, the accusation of a straw man fallacy can itself be an instance of the straw man fallacy, then, if the accusation rests upon a misrepresentation of his interlocutor’s argument or position.[5]And this is often the case with enemies of the faith who are knowledgeable enough in rhetoric, logic, and argumentation to understand the dialogical contexts in which Christians make arguments for the truth or against falsehood. However, rather than interpreting such arguments according to the relevant rules of engagement, they interpret them according to a different set of rules of engagement. For example, consider the following scenario.

Person A: Everyone in the early church was a Trinitarian.

Person B: Really?
Person A: Yes. Everyone without exception was a Trinitarian.

Person B: How could you possibly know that each and every individual who professed faith in Christ was a Trinitarian?

Person A: That’s not what I meant.

Person B: But it’s what you said. How else am I to interpret your words?

Given that A and B are in an informal dialogical context, the quantifier “everyone” would be understood by most people to mean something along the lines of “everyone of whom we have a written record” or “every early Christian of significance of whom we have a written record,” and not “each and every person who professed faith in Christ.” B is aware of this, but his intention to shake the faith of A, so he draws attention to A’s inability to possess knowledge of what each and every professing Christians believed about the Godhead in the early church. The goal is not to refute what is being said (i.e. All of the notable Christians of the early church, of whom we have a written record, were Trinitarians) but what is not being said (i.e. Each and every person who professed faith in Christ in the early church was a Trinitarian). The context should have shaped B’s responses to A, but B’s intentions are not honest. His wants to cast doubt on what A’s belief actually is (viz. All of the notable Christians, etc) by dismantling what A’s belief is not (viz. Each and every person who professed faith in Christ, etc).

Ib. Interpreting the Formal Informally

Whereas the prior example given shows B taking A’s assertion as a formal declaration about the quantity of professing Christians of the early church and what they believed, when it was really meant to be understood more narrowly, the following example shows the inverse.

Person A: Is it not the case that Scripture says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”? (Romans 3:23)

Person B: Yes. Paul is very clear about that.

Person A: Then upon what Scriptural basis can you justify your belief that Mary was born free from the taint and stain of original sin and, moreover, remained sinless for her entire life?

Person B: Well, Paul is using hyperbole. He doesn’t mean each and every single human being.

Person A: But he literally says “All” within the larger context of humanity as a whole - Jew, Gentile, young, old, male, female, etc.

Person B: Yes, but you are taking that quantifier too strictly. Paul is just using a Jewish idiom.

Here we see A properly interpreting Paul’s use of the word all as signifying the entirety of humanity. In order to avoid the contradiction it poses for his belief in the immaculate conception, and perpetual sinlessness, of Mary, however, B, in contradiction to context of the early chapters of the book of Romans, interprets Paul’s assertion “All have sinned” as an informal colloquialism or idiomatic expression meaning “Most people have sinned” or “You’d be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t sinned.” B’s misinterpretation of the universal quantifier all in Romans 3:23 is a purposeful maneuver that allows for the immaculate conception and perpetual sinlessness of Mary, a doctrine that cannot possibly be maintained if Rom 3:23 is correctly interpreted as a formal declaration that each and every person has sinned (past tense) and falls short of the glory of God (present tense).

Ic. Interpreting the Relative as Absolute

Related to the above purposeful misinterpretation, we find another tactic used by enemies of the faith. Opponents of Christ will at times interpret relative assertions as absolute. Consider the following example, an extension of Ib’s dialogue between A and B.

Person B: Do you really think that Rom 3:23 is a universal statement about each and every individual person?

Person A: Yes. The context demands it.

Person B: Well, if all men are fully corrupt, then would this not include Christ?

Person A: Of course not.
Person B: So now you’re trying to tell me that Paul’s use of the word all is not truly universal?

Does the word all really signify each and every person, as A says the Scriptures clearly teach? Or is B correct in saying that A has abandoned his belief that all really signifies each and every person, in order to make an exception for Christ?

B’s counterargument is deceptive, because in it he purposefully fails to acknowledge that universal quantification is always class specific. When we assert that “All x are y” we are stating that for all x’s, each and every x is y. We must, therefore, determine the particular class of items Scripture is dealing with when it states that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Is the class of items the entirety of all humans born abstractly considered? Or is the class of items the entirety of all humans born under the federal headship of Adam?

The book of Romans makes it clear that when Paul is arguing that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, he is talking about all those who are born under the federal headship of Adam.[6] This, therefore, excludes only one person - the Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Adam. Christ was not born under the federal headship of Adam, and we know this because Christ was born without sin, lived a sinless life, and was vindicated as perfectly righteous by God in his resurrection. Christ, therefore, is necessarily exempt from the class of all men born under the federal headship of Adam. Christ has physically descended from Adam through his mother Mary. However, his federal head was not Adam but God the Father.[7] Whereas B formerly interpreted the universal as non-universal, he is now interpreting the universal as applying in an absolute sense (i.e. Each and every man considered abstractly) rather than in a relative sense (i.e. Each and every man relative to a particular class of men, viz. those men born under the federal headship of Adam).

Id. Interpreting the Absolute as Relative

The inverse of Ic occurs when opponents of the faith purposefully misinterpret the absolute as relative. Consider the following -

Person B: I reject the idea that the wicked will be raised up in a body transformed and prepared thereby for eternal conscious suffering in hell.

Person A: Then what do you make of 1st Corinthians 15?

Person B: That passage is only dealing with the resurrection of the righteous. It nowhere says anything about the resurrection of the wicked.

While it is the case that 1st Cor 15 does not explicitly state that the wicked will be raised with bodies transformed and prepared for eternity, it necessarily implies it. Paul’s argumentation in this chapter is very clear. Paul writes -

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.[8]

Paul explains that men are like seeds, which die and are raised with a body given specifically to them by God. The explicit teaching is dealing with the resurrection and transformation of the righteous. However, death in general is likened to sowing and reaping in general. The seed/man dies and reaches fulfillment in resurrection, coming to possess a body peculiarly formed for him and not another. All who die will be raised from the dead; all who are raised from the dead are raised with a body which God has chosen for them. The righteous will receive glorious bodies. The wicked, however, will receive bodies suited for eternal destruction.

A parallel case of relativizing the absolute can be found in the following dialogue.

Person A: Are the gifts and calling of God irrevocable? (Rom 11:29)

Person B: Paul says so. Yes.

Person A: Then does it not follow that God’s gift of salvation is irrevocable?
Person B: No, because Paul is using that kind of language to talk about God’s gifts in general. Relative to the gift giving of mere mortals, God’s gift giving is to said to be irrevocable.

B’s argument is that not all of God’s gifts are irrevocable, but only those relative Paul’s argument in Romans 11:29. However, this is clearly not the case, as Paul argues that God will not break his promises to save “all of Israel”[9] because his gifts and calling are irrevocable. In every instance, the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. Therefore, the gifts and calling of God toward Israel are irrevocable as well.[10] B wants to deny that God’s gifts and calling are always irrevocable, for such a truth would make render all forms of conditional salvation false.

[Continued in Pt. 4b]


[1] See Diaz, Hiram R. “The ‘Nobody Understands Me!’ Fallacy,” Involuted Speculations, https://involutedgenealogies.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/the-nobody-understands-me-fallacy, Accessed April 19, 2018.
[2] “The Straw Man Fallacy,” in Logic and Argumentation ed. Johan van Bentham, Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, and Frank Veltman. (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1996), 124.
[3] Robert Talisee and Scott F. Aikin have argued for another form of the strawman argument which they identify as a subspecies of the hasty generalization fallacy in their paper “Two Forms of the Straw Man” in Argumentation 20 (2006), 345-352. Similarly, Scott F. Aikin and John Casey argue for three forms of the straw man argument in their paper “Straw Men, Weak Men, and Hollow Men” in Argumentation 25 (2011), 87-105. These proposed forms of the straw man argument, however, differ enough from the straw man argument proper that they are not relevant for our consideration here.
[4] The Straw Man Fallacy, 123.
[5] Walton’s comments here are particularly helpful. Walton -

The straw man fallacy is made even more tricky to pin down in many cases by another factor. In these cases, an arguer's unstated presumptions or nonexplicit premises or conclusions may be the only indications we have of one or more of his commitments. This brings us to the question of enthymemes, or unstated premises. When attributing enthymemes, especially to an opponent, it can be very tempting to exaggerate the opponent's position by filling in a missing premise of the form `Generally things that have property F also have property G, subject to exceptions' with an absolute, or strict generalization, of the form `All things that have property F also have property G, without exception.' This kind of move is a form of the secundum quid fallacy, meaning that qualifications have been ignored. But the same move may also be a case of the straw man fallacy, the tactic of misrepresenting an opponent's position by making it seem stronger, or stricter than it really is, in order to more easily refute it.

The Straw Man Fallacy, 122.
[6] cf. Rom 5:12-21.
[7] cf. 1st Cor 11:3.
[8] 1st Cor 15:35-41.
[9] cf. Rom 11:25-28.
[10] N.B. The irrevocable nature of God’s gifts and calling are a problem not only for any proposed conditionalist soteriology, but conditional immortality as well, as the latter’s proponents identify life and existence as a “gift.” If the conditionalists are right in asserting that life is a gift, then life is irrevocable, and the conditionalists are wrong in asserting that the life of the wicked will be revoked forever by God. If, however, the conditionalists are right in asserting that the life of the wicked will be revoked forever, then they are wrong in stating that life is a gift.

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