Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Fallacy of the Shortcut

There is a fallacy currently going around that seems to be very popular.  It takes a few different forms, and pops up in different areas, but there is a similar theme in each instance.  I call it the Fallacy of the Shortcut.  Basically, the fallacy amounts to an attempt to convince someone to accept a certain position on the basis that if he does so, he will be able to escape the difficult, painful, and apparently futile quest to think through issues and sift through evidence in order to find out what is true.  There is a promise that if a certain route is followed, it will allow one to avoid this tedious and difficult process and arrive more quickly at a secure truth.  Let me illustrate this fallacy with a few prominent modern examples.

Modern American culture, and I think western culture in general today to a great degree, is Agnostic.  That is, to varying degrees, it is a common opinion that while we can know what is true in matters pertaining to the natural world, we cannot know what is true in matters beyond the natural world.  That is, we can know objective truths about giraffes, plants, stars, humans (at least as biological entities), grass, electrons, etc., but not about things like God, spirits, revelation from a divine source, the true religion, etc.

Agnostics love the Fallacy of the Shortcut.  It is one of their favorite rhetorical devices to make Agnosticism look appealing.  The Agnostic version of the fallacy goes basically like this:  "Do you see all of those squabbling people in the world, arguing back and forth endlessly with one another over questions like Does God exist?, What is the true religion?, Is the Bible really from God?, What is God's will for how we are to live?, etc.?  Do you see how hopeless it is that there will ever be any conclusion or consensus reached in these kinds of conversations?  After all, people have been arguing about these kinds of things for thousands of years, at least, and we are no closer to reaching a consensus now than we were thousands of years ago.  It's obvious from all this continuing disagreement that we simply cannot know what is true in these matters.  Therefore, we should be agnostic on these kinds of issues.  That is obviously the right way to go."

You see how it works?  Are you tired of constantly having to figure out what is really true while dealing with all of these different points of view and arguments, having to sift through all of the evidence, etc.?  Well, here's a way out!  You don't have to do it anymore!  Just look around at all the disagreement, and declare that since there is disagreement it is obvious that no one really knows, and then just embrace Agnosticism and forget about it.  Agnosticism is presented as being above the fray of all the squabbling, conflicting positions down below which are getting nowhere and working really hard at it

The problem with this way of looking at things, of course, is that it is an illusion.  The Agnostic position is not above the fray.  It is simply another of the squabbling, disagreeing positions in the fray.  It is not as though Christianity is a distinct position that must be argued for, and Judaism is another such position, and Buddhism another, etc., while Agnosticism is somehow a neutral party in the controversy who gets to win by default.  Agnosticism is simply one more distinct position, and it has to be established by good reasons just as much as any other view does.  It is true that it can be difficult to maintain a justified position on a controversial matter.  One has to deal with arguments from other positions, respond to objections, present evidence weighed against the alleged evidence of other claims, etc.  But taking an Agnostic position does not exempt one from having to go through this process.  A person taking the Agnostic position must deal with arguments from non-Agnostic points of view, respond to objections, and present evidence weighed against the alleged evidence of other claims as well.  In order to establish Agnosticism as a justified opinion, one has to have reasons to reject the alleged evidences and the arguments coming from all the non-Agnostic worldviews.  Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Hindus, and people of all viewpoints, present arguments for their positions.  If I am a Christian, and I want to know that my Christian position is justified, I must know why these other viewpoints are not justified, and that involves knowing where and why their arguments fail.  Similarly, if I am an Agnostic, and I want to know that my Agnostic position is justified, I must know why all the non-Agnostic positions are not justified, and that involves knowing where and why their arguments fail.  Agnosticism claims to provide a shortcut around this required process of thinking and weighing arguments, but it does not.

(I call this Agnostic version of the fallacy also the Good and Intelligent People Disagree argument, for obvious reasons, and in this aspect you can find more evaluation of it in the first chapter of my book, Why Christianity is True, as well as here.)

Another place I often hear the Fallacy of the Shortcut come up is in conversations between Roman Catholics and Protestants and also between Eastern Orthodox and Protestants.  To illustrate this, let me quote from a chapter of a book called Surprised by Truth (San Diego: Basilica Press, 1994).  It is a Romanist apologetics book that contains the testimonies of a number of people who have converted to the Roman Catholic Church.  This is from the chapter by Bob Sungenis:

"The more I thought about it the more I began to see that the theory of sola scriptura had done untold damage to Christendom.  The most obvious evidence of this damage was Protestantism itself: a huge mass of conflicting, bickering denominations, causing, by its very nature of 'protest' and 'defiance,' an endless proliferation of chaos and controversy" (p. 118-119).

"God has given the protesters what they wanted--and much more: one long, continuous line of protesters: protesters protesting against the Catholic Church and protesters protesting against their fellow protesters.  This plague of 'protestantism' has spawned thousands of quarreling sects.  Time itself has shown that Protestantism is not God's plan for his Church, but rather, is a dismal failure. . . . As a Catholic, I am now at peace, away from the roiling controversies of Protestantism, secure in the consolation of the truth" (p. 132).

Sungenis, by joining the Roman church, is now above the fray, "away from the roiling controversies of Protestantism."  The problem is that the Roman church is not above the fray of disagreeing denominations at all; it is simply one option among many in the fray.  I am a Presbyterian.  How did I come to these convictions?  I examined the available evidence, weighed the numerous conflicting claims, and came to a conclusion as to what I thought was right.  How did Sungenis decide that Romanism is correct?  How could he have?  Assuming he chose it for rational reasons (which I certainly do not assume), he must have followed the same basic methodology I used to arrive at Presbyterianism.  Becoming Romanist does not exempt one from having to examine conflicting claims, weigh arguments and evidence, and then come to a conclusion based on one's best analysis of the state of the evidence.  Sungenis is no more above the fray than I am.  We've both come through the very same fray to embrace our different conclusions.

Sungenis cites the many different Protestant denominations that exist as proof that the Bible is too unclear to use to come to a clear conclusion.  Thus, he says, we should just give up listening to the Bible and believe what the Roman church says instead.  It's a shortcut!  You don't have to spend all that time and effort wading through conflicting biblical interpretations; you can just believe whatever Rome says and be done with it!  But this is an illusion, for if we are to be rational, we must have some reason to think that Rome is trustworthy.  Not everyone thinks it is, including that mass of Protestant denominations, as well as myriads of other religions and worldviews.  If the existence of differing Protestant denominations implies that my conclusion from the biblical evidence that Presbyterianism is true is unreliable, then why doesn't the existence of differing religions imply that Sungenis's conclusion from the evidence that Romanism is true is unreliable as well?  That's what the Agnostics would claim, as we saw earlier.  Sungenis is doing the same thing that the Agnostics do, except he's using the fallacy to get him to Romanism instead of to Agnosticism.  But it's the same line of reasoning, with the same fallaciousness.  In order to be justified in concluding that Prebyterianism is true, I had to go right through the fray of disagreements, examine the evidence and the conflicting arguments, and on the basis of this evaluation decide what is really true.  Sungenis must do exactly the same thing to establish Romanism, and the Agnostics must do exactly the same thing to establish Agnosticism.  There is no shortcut!

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints loves this fallacy as well.  It is also one of their key arguments, going all the way back to their founder, Joseph Smith.  Listen to Joseph recount part of his experience that led him to found the LDS Church:

"9 My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. 10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? 11 While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. 12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible" (

Does this sound familiar?  "Look at all the mass of differing denominations!", says Smith.   "Obviously, this disagreement proves that it is impossible to understand the Bible."  So what was Joseph's way out of the fray?  He went out to the woods and asked God which sect was true, and according to him, God and Christ appeared to him and told him that none of the sects were true and that he needed to start a new church (which would restore the true Church of Christ).  But how do we know that Joseph didn't just make all of this up, or that he wasn't himself deceived in some way?  Certainly not by studying the Bible!  That would bring us back into the ever-to-be-feared fray!  No, the way we are supposed to find out is by praying about it and then trusting the positive feelings that we get telling us that it's all true.  But can't feelings be deceptive?  Stop asking questions!  You're bringing us back into the fray!  Just stop questioning and believe!  Are you tired of having to go through the laborious process of weighing evidence and conflicting arguments?  Have no fear!  The LDS Church has yet another shortcut to offer.  But there's the same catch we've seen before.  Mormonism is not really above the fray; it is yet one more option in the fray.  And the only shortcut to get to it, like all the other shortcuts offered in these matters, requires the abandonment of one's reason.

We see this fallacy often in evangelical Christian circles as well.  How often do we hear something like this?:  "There are some people who think that infants ought to be baptized.  There are some people who think they should not be.  Obviously, since there is disagreement here, the right answer is to say that both sides are equally acceptable!  You can baptize or refrain from baptizing, and it's all OK!"  Those who think both sides are OK try to present themselves as neutral, as above the fray.  But really this opinion is nothing other than merely a third option in the fray, and it must establish itself by weighing evidence and conflicting arguments just as much as any other side.  Whether the Bible requires infants to be baptized, forbids infants to be baptized, or considers it OK to baptize or refrain from baptizing infants, the true position can only be established by the painstaking duty of actually examining what the Bible says and weighing contrasting arguments, rather than declaring one point of view victor by default.  There is no more reason to simply default to the view that the Bible allows both baptizing and not baptizing infants than there is to default to the view that the Bible requires or forbids infant baptism.  None of these positions is any more likely or unlikely a priori.  Any conclusion reached here requires an examination of the actual evidence.  There is no shortcut!

I think you get the idea.

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