In this article, I’ll look at some mistakes commonly made by people who are trying to defend their position. These mistakes are made by Catholics & Orthodox, Protestants & Anabaptists, so I’m not criticizing any group here. However, I think if we’re careful not to make these mistakes, we can help ensure that we have more productive conversations between faith traditions.
Strawmanning is probably the worst of all argument strategies. I’d venture to say that it’s the most common, too. You commit the strawman fallacy if you don’t make the effort to find out what your opponent believes, and instead just respond to what you think he believes.
Typically, that means that you’re responding to a less nuanced position than the one your opponent actually holds. Not only are you demonstrating your ignorance to your opponent and to any informed listener, but you’re also failing to provide any reasons for why their view is wrong.
It’s like trying to start a car by turning the fan dial instead of the key. Nobody will be helped if you’re responding to something your opponent doesn’t actually believe.
So inform yourself on what the opponent believes. If necessary, just ask them to explain any of their beliefs that you don’t think you agree with, until you are able to articulate their position in a way that they would say you are saying exactly what they mean.
Then you can refute their beliefs all you please.
Appealing to Burden of Proof
Sometimes, in an argument, the one side has the burden of proof. That means that the other side doesn’t need to disprove anything until some evidence is put forward for the position that they’re arguing for.
For example, if I tell you that I can run seventy miles per hour, and you don’t agree, you don’t need to prove that I can’t—you can just be skeptical until I provide you some evidence. But then you do have the duty to interact with my evidence and tell me why you don’t think it works.
Often, one person will say that his opponent has the burden of proof, and that he doesn’t. This makes so that he won’t need to do the heavy lifting of argument, and can do the far easier task of taking potshots at his opponent’s argument.
Typically, it’s understood that the person who offers a positive case for something has the burden of proof. However, once that person has defended his view, it is the opponent who has the burden of proof—the opponent must show why he’s wrong.
But here’s the problem. Claiming that your opponent has the burden of proof can be a convenient excuse. After all, you believe certain things to be true too—it’s not fair to make your opponent do all the work, while you sit back and take potshots.
Instead, provide reasons to believe your view while you provide reasons not to believe his view. Otherwise, no one will ever hear good reasons for believing your view.
I almost never bring up the “You’ve got the burden of proof,” because I want to make a positive case for my view, not tear down his. So I gladly shoulder the burden of proof and ask him to as well.
Also, don’t let anyone saddle you with the burden of proof and never defend their position. If someone says, “You’ve got the burden of proof,” simply share why you believe what you believe and ask them if they believe you are incorrect. If they believe you are incorrect, it is now them who have the burden of proof to say why. Then you are welcome to critique the reasons they offer.
Calling Something an Argument from Silence
So often, people accuse others of making an argument from silence. The idea seems to be that an argument from silence is a problem. Often, however, they mistake something else entirely for an argument from silence.
An argument from silence is when somebody says, “I see no evidence for X, therefore X is not true.”
This is a legitimate argument when you can expect that, if X were true, you would have such evidence for it. However, it doesn’t work when you couldn’t reasonably expect to find such evidence for X if X were true.
If someone says, “I see no evidence that there is an elephant in the room, therefore there is no elephant in the room,” he’s right.
If someone says, “I see no evidence that there is a virus in the room, therefore there is no virus in the room,” he’s wrong.
So when you make an argument from silence, what you need to do is defend the additional premise, “We would expect to see evidence for X here if X were true.”
Conversely, when you disagree with an argument from silence, you need to defend the premise, “We would not expect to see evidence for X here even if X were true.”
If someone says, “You’re making an argument from silence,” ask them to provide reasons to think that we wouldn’t expect to see evidence for X if X were true, and provide reasons to think the opposite.
“Shaky Foundation” Arguments
In this case, this tactic is often used by street-level Catholic apologists. They try to undermine the opponent’s position by saying that it is either founded on circular reasoning, begging the question, or an untrustworthy subjective interpretation. The first two mean that the opponent is assuming his position and using that assumption to try to prove his position true. The third means that the opponent doesn’t have good reason to trust the reasoning behind his argument, because it can’t be trusted because it leans too heavily on something untrustworthy, like human biases.
If one of these is in fact true, then, by all means, it’s appropriate to bring it up as an objection. However, one should be very careful.
The standard of argumentation that you expect from your opponent is the standard that you are pledging to provide for your own position.
You will now need to give reasons for your position that reach a higher standard than his, because your own objections can be levelled against your own position. You’ve committed yourself to believing that the objections you use are good ones, so you’ll need to be ready to answer them when they come back around.
One example of this is when someone says, “Protestantism makes everyone their own pope, because everyone needs to trust their own interpretation of Scripture, while Catholics can trust the Magisterium’s reading of Scripture.” But they don’t notice that you could reply, “Catholicism makes everyone their own pope, because everyone needs to trust their own interpretation of the Magisterium or the Pope.”
Often what happens is that the person arguing for a “shaky foundation” is raising the bar for proof to a higher standard than any argument can reach. It feels really good to do this, but then when they meet an informed opponent, they get demolished. They put too many of their eggs in a basket that they were using as a wrecking ball.