Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Plausible Arguments

This past Sunday (and this coming Sunday, Lord willing) I had the opportunity to fill the pulpit at Riverview.  My text was Colossians 2.1-8, in which Paul warns the Colossians against believing the various false teachings that were circulating in their religious culture.  Paul tells the Colossians that he is struggling for the sake of their doctrinal and practical purity as a church, and he says that he's struggling so that "no one may delude you with plausible arguments" (verse 4).

In the Colossian religious culture there were various false teachers who, more or less, subscribed to traditional Christian ideas and theology.  They just added minor differences or made a twist here and there to add some different teaching that added a little spin to what the Colossians already believed.  The problem is that just a little twist to the doctrine of salvation can lead to heresy quite quickly, and it appears that this is something like what was happening in Colossae: minor twists to core doctrines that were leading the Colossians astray.

The difficult thing about "plausible arguments" is that they are often couched in very reasonable and rational terms.  Or they might be delivered in ways that appeal to emotions so as to persuade the hearer because his or her heart strings are being tugged at.  Furthermore, it's possible that people were arguing very sincerely for their particular slant on orthodox theology, and it's always difficult to argue against someone who sincerely believes what they believe.

But none of the aforementioned ways of arguing for a particular point are objective means of determining truth.  Arguments can seem logical, but be completely fallacious; appealing to emotion is also fallacious.  Just because something tugs on my heart strings doesn't make it true.  Nor does sincerity determine truth.  Someone can sincerely believe what they believe and still be very wrong (such as sincerely believing that 2 + 2 =5).

We can probably appreciate Paul's warning against being deluded by "plausible arguments" after having watched the three presidential and one vice presidential debates.  Each man has an agenda that he spins with every word that comes out of his mouth.  There are plenty of half-truths and distorted facts that serve to support each candidate's position.  Candidates also try to persuade voters by tugging at their heart strings and by conveying to voters the fact that they sincerely believe the thoughts and ideas that they are espousing.  In order to balance out the half-truths espoused by the candidates, the media has seen fit to take upon themselves the position of "fact-checker," although I question even the fact-checkers' ability to determine truth.  They are likewise arguing from an interpretation of the "facts."

Probably the most prominent issue in which I have personally heard people attempting to delude others with "plausible arguments" is in the debate surrounding the gay marriage amendment.  But before I explain further, let me say that I don't believe that people intend to delude, or to espouse "plausible arguments" when they present their case, whatever it may be.  That is, I believe that people actually think what they say, and they truly believe their arguments are based on truth and fact.  I don't think people realize the ways in which they are persuaded by emotion and fallacious logic.  I've covered this before on this blog.  To be sure, this is a problem that everyone has - we all have reasons for believing and thinking the way we do, and some of those we have arrived at objectively, and some are more inherent and based on the ways we have been raised, and our particular worldview.  The challenge, then, is to be able to realize these influences to make our thinking as objective as possible.

When it comes to homosexuality and the same-sex marriage discussion, it is my opinion that both sides appeal to emotion when making their points, and that appeals to emotion are the foundation of why people think the ways they do on this issue.  This is not a good place to argue from for either side.

Case in point: a Facebook friend of mine from high school posted the below this past Sunday (I've removed all names and photos).
As you can see, the post generated quite a stir, producing a total of 39 "likes" and 120 comments as of 10:00 AM this morning.

This is an argument based on emotion, even though the Poster claims that it is not his opinion, but is instead a "fact."  The person who wrote this is appealing to emotion by labeling all those who would support the marriage amendment as being discriminatory.  Whether or not this is true is, at this time, irrelevant.  The fact is, the foundation for his argument an attempt to shame people into believing what he believers.  He doesn't realize it but he is, to put it in biblical language, attempting to delude others with his plausible argument.  Furthermore he even admits that this is an issue that he feels strongly about, furthering his motivation to propagate his ideas.  In order for this to be a legitimate argument, he needs to show how voting against same sex marriage is indeed discrimination, and that said discrimination is an inherently bad thing, of which he accomplishes neither - not in the post itself nor in the 120 comments that follow (trust me, I read through all of them).  My purpose in examining this post is not to either agree or disagree with the sentiment expressed therein, but to show how this is not a good way to argue a position or promote an intellectually honest pursuit of truth.

So then what should Christians do?  Paul's focus in Colossians 2 is on finding truth in Christ, and not in man-made arguments that always come from some personal agenda or set of influences (including my own).  The only objective means of discovering truth is the word of God, and this is where Christians should look to find truth.  In other words, "What does the Bible say?"

Certainly my Facebook friend and several in the comment thread would fire back that my interpretation of the Bible is likewise influenced by my own agenda and influences, to which I would answer, "Absolutely, yes."  To deny this reality would be intellectually dishonest, and would be to turn a blind eye on my own propensity to argue from emotion, to use fallacious logic, and to hold on to wrong beliefs because of my sincerity in believing them.  I fully admit that I am not an objective standard of truth.

But the word of God claims to be an objective standard of truth, and it either is or it isn't.  And even if my interpretation of it is flawed and influenced by my own sinfulness, at least I have something objective to fall back on.  This means, however, that we need to be aware of our tendency to delude others with plausible arguments even when we argue from the Bible.

I think one of Paul's main messages in this text from Colossians 2 is this: don't be confused or persuaded by emotion or fallacious logic, or just because someone believes something sincerely.  Instead, as yourself this question: What does the Bible say?  If we are looking for truth, and especially in light of our own propensity to twist facts to suit our own preferences, at least we are starting in the right place when we go to scripture.  And the more we realize and know about our own tendency to twist things to fit our own agenda, the more we can fight that tendency in ourselves as we search for truth.

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