Material Fallacies and the Consensus Gentium

Aristotle always begins his philosophical investigations with a consideration of two starting points, the consensus gentium, that is, the consensus of mankind (if there is one) and the consensus of the wise, the consensus sapientium (if there is one).

Aristotle takes these as starting points of inquiry, not as end points, and he is not unreasonable to do so.

The consensus gentium is not an infallible guide to truth, as I noted in my last post about particles moving apart at the speed of light. On the other hand, as I also noted there, the consensus gentium is often “in the neighborhood of truth” and in a certain sense, represents nothing less than common human experience, which at some point must be foundational for human inquiry.

This point seems important to make, that while the consensus gentium is not an infallible demonstration of truth, it can serve as powerful evidence of truth.

Take an example: it belongs to the consensus gentium that time is linear and has three divisions, past, present, and future, and that it “moves” or things move in it from past to present to future.  The future does not come before the past, nor are things “in the future” before they are “in the past.”

Of course, the philosophical analysis of the nature of time is no easy matter. Almost all of you probably “seemed to yourself to understand” (a lovely Greek phrase) what I just said above, but what exactly did I mean by “before” when I said that the future cannot come “before” the past? Does talking about time always end up involving a kind of self-referential speech? It very possibly does, at least if Heidegger is correct that Being and time are always intertwined in the human cognition of Being—because talk about Being is (IS!) always necessarily self-referential.  Of course, self-referential discourse is not necessarily irrational, and it would be an error to cry “circular reasoning!” at every case of self-referential discourse.  Epistemology, for example, involves thinking about thinking or attempting to know about knowing, both of which seem entirely reasonable and possible to do.

To return to time, for a moment, it would seem that any theory of time which denied that time is linear and is made up of past, present, and future, would have to be a very compelling account indeed, to make it reasonable to reject these beliefs about time.  Our common human experience of time is simply too strong to reject easily.  Some of you may remember the “Hopi Time Controversy” in which linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued the Hopis have no concept of time (on the basis of the fact that the Hopi language does not have tensed verbs).  It created a sensation precisely because the idea of a people without an understanding of time is virtually unthinkable for human beings.  If some human beings could be that different from other human beings, human beings must be almost infinitely variable. So much for the idea of human nature! In the event, the fact that the Hopi do not use tensed verbs to express past, present, and future events was rather underwhelming; needless to say, the Hopi do understand time, and are perfectly capable of understanding and expressing distinctions of past, present, future, short time, long time, long ago, soon, not yet, just now, etc.  They just don’t do it by tensing their verbs. “Some languages do not express time by means of verb tenses” is not nearly as shocking a thesis as “some human communities do not have a concept of time.” The former is true, and only mildly interesting; the later would be amazing, if true—but it isn’t. The consensus gentium stands. All human beings understand time, and regard it as linear and dividing into past, present, and future.

It would certainly be fallacious to cry “ad populum fallacy!” at every appeal to the consensus gentium, just as it would be fallacious to cry “appeal to authority fallacy!” at every appeal to a consensus sapientium.

Suppose I wish to argue that “Einstein’s theory of general relativity is a sound theory in physics” and to demonstrate this, I point out that it is overwhelmingly accepted by contemporary physicists, and especially by those who do work in sub-field of cosmology, in which the theory of general relativity is most often required. Have I committed an appeal to authority fallacy by appealing to the consensus sapientium of physicists?

I have not. An appeal to authority can be fallacious, but it need not be.  It is perfectly reasonable to appeal to the scientific consensus on an issue, when there is one. The reason for this is one I have stated many times, but which cannot be stated often enough:

A material fallacy, i.e, an informal fallacy, is a fallacy because of its content (its “material”) not because of its form.  

And this leads to the following corollary:

Not everything that has the form of a material fallacy is fallacious; whether or not something that has the form of a material fallacy is fallacious or not depends on the content.

This is a pretty basic logical point, but you would be surprised how often people think that pointing out that something has the same form as a material fallacy is enough to show that it is that material fallacy.  If pointing to the form were sufficient, the fallacy would be formal, in the way any argument of the form

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. ¬P
  3. ∴¬Q
  1. If the President is in the White House, then the President is in the United States.
  2. The President is not in the White House.
  3. Therefore, the President is not in the United States.

is invalid.  This is denying the antecedent.

I apologize for insulting your intelligence with this diagram, but this point really does need to be hammered home at this level of simple-mindedness:


A few examples might also help:

  1. “Every brick in the wall weighs 2 kg; therefore the walls weighs 2 kg” is a fallacy of composition. “Every brick in the wall has mass; therefore, the wall has mass” or “every brick in the wall is red, so the whole wall is red” are not instances of the fallacy of composition.  Sometimes it is legitimate to argue from parts to the whole; sometimes it is illegitimate. Only the illegitimate cases are fallacious.
  2. Appealing to the scientific or philosophical consensus about an issue (if there is one) is not a fallacious appeal to authority but a legitimate appeal to authority when the authorities appealed to really are authorities in the relevant subject.
  3. Some slopes are slippery.  In some cases the argument, “We ought not accept A, because A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to D, which is very bad” is entirely sound.  A slippery slope argument is fallacious only in cases where B, C, and D do not necessarily follow upon A or do not follow with very high probability.    No one would think that “pointing a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulling the trigger” doesn’t reasonably lead to “the gun discharging a bullet into the person’s head” which leads to “the person shot in the head being killed.”  Someone crying “slippery slope fallacy!” at basic causal chains is an idiot.
  4. If I reason that M is a cat because M is the offspring of two cats, I have not committed a genetic fallacy.  Genetic reasoning is perfectly valid in many cases, since the efficient cause of something often does tell us what that thing is in essence.  This is true of ideas as well as material beings. If I know that Lysenkoism is a false and thoroughly discredited biological theory (which it is), I can reasonably dismiss all biological arguments which take Lysenkoism as their theoretical basis.
  5. Similarly, to argue that “Smith is a Lysenkoist and Lysenkoism is false, so Smith’s theories are false” is not to commit a fallacy of guilt by association.
  6. An ad hominem argument is merely a “personalized” argument, in which I argue from a proposition held by a given person P to a conclusion rejected by P, thereby showing that P’s beliefs are inconsistent. Socrates did this all the time, and although it may well be unpleasant to undergo, it isn’t fallacious.  Demonstrating that a given person’s beliefs are inconsistent is not a personal attack, because it suffices to show that at least one of the inconsistent beliefs is necessarily, objectively false. Similarly, to argue that “Alice has trouble attracting men because she is physically ugly and has a very unpleasant personality” is not an ad hominem attack on Alice.  It might not be the correct explanation of Alice’s trouble attracting men, and it might not even be the case that Alice has trouble attracting men—but it isn’t an invalid argument form.  Again, if Ken is a very stupid man who regularly makes invalid arguments using false premises, because he prefers to rationalize his narrow worldview rather than genuinely reason about the world, it is not an ad hominem argument to point this pattern out, and not unreasonable to stop taking Ken’s arguments seriously. Finally, insults and unwelcome or unflattering descriptions of a person don’t even have the form of an ad hominem and so cannot be instances of an ad hominem fallacy.  You would be amazed how many people on the internet think that an insult is an ad hominem fallacy.
  7. Next, if Jorge was born in Belize, to parents who are both natives of Belize, neither of whom has any ancestors who were Scottish or indeed ever visited Scotland, and Jorge has never been to Scotland, nor does Jorge speak a Scottish dialect (Jorge does not, in fact, even speak English), and indeed, Jorge has never heard of Scotland, then Jorge is not a true Scotsman.  Or, to put it succinctly, there are non-Scotsmen.  It is obvious lunacy to attempt to use the “no true Scotsman” fallacy to claim otherwise, that “Necessarily, all human beings are Scotsmen, since anyone denying that a given person is a Scotsman always necessarily commits the no true Scotsman fallacy.”
  8. A reductio ad absurdum is a valid form of refutation. It can appear to have the same form as a fallacious appeal to the consequences of a belief.  “If P is true, then I would be sad; therefore, P is false” is fallacious. “If P is true, then Q is true, and Q is absurd; therefore P is false” is valid.  It is in fact just modus tollens: P ⇒Q; ¬Q; ∴¬P.
  9. I’ll give one more, because it comes up so often in debate about God. Special pleading is a fallacy wherein one makes an exception to a general rule for someone or something on the basis of an irrelevant characteristic of that person or thing. It gets its name from the action of pleading, without sufficient justification, that a given case be treated as special, that is, as different from all other relevantly similar cases.  One is not engaging in special pleading when one can give sufficient justification that the case in question should be treated differently: my standard example of this is the special exception to speed limits that the law affords police officers in pursuit of a criminal, ambulances racing to the emergency room, and fire trucks racing to a fire; one is not engaging in special pleading when one argues that these exceptions to speed limits are legitimate: one can rationally justify these exceptions to the general rule.  Concerning God, atheists should accept that if God is what theists say God is, then God is utterly and completely sui generis, that is, completely in a category of His own with respect to everything else and in all cases.  As far as I can tell, by the very definition of God, it is impossible to commit a fallacy of special pleading in respect to God.  The essence of special pleading is to treat something relevantly the same as something else as if it were different or special; but God is, necessarily, completely different from everything else, and so is, by definition, a unique and special case in all respects. This is the concept of God that theists are using. It is not special pleading to treat something special as special; it is only special pleading to treat something not special as if it were special. That’s the fallaciousness of the fallacy. An atheist cannot reasonably object to theists using such a concept of God, even if it does have the effect of immunizing God from special pleading.  So what? That is not the reason the concept is used.  The concept is used because that is what we theists mean by God.

Bill Vallicella, The Maverick Philosopher, makes our next point, which is actually just my point, plus some good practical advice:


Since material fallacies are not always fallacious, it is very useful to try to determine under what general circumstances something that has the apparent form of the fallacy in question is not fallacious.

Vallicella does this with the No True Scotsman fallacy in this post. Ironically, one of the circumstances Vallicella correctly points out is

4. When the original assertion specifies the content of a belief-system or worldview. Suppose I point out that Communists are anti-religion, believing as they do that it is the opiate of the masses, an impediment to social progress, the sigh of the oppressed, flowers on the chains that enslave, etc. You say you know people who are Communists but are not against religion. I am entitled to the retort that such ‘Communists’ are not Communists at all; they are not true or real or genuine Communists, that they are CINOs, Commies in Name Only, etc. I have not committed the fallacy under discussion.

Back to the Muslims. A Muslim is so-called because of his adherence to the religion, Islam. There are certain core beliefs that are definitive of Islam, and thus essential to it, and that a Muslim must accept if he is to count as a Muslim. To take a blindingly evident example, no Muslim can be an atheist. Also: no Muslim can be a trinitarian, or a pantheist, or a polytheist, or believe in the Incarnation. And of course there are more specific doctrines about the Koran, about the prophet Muhammad, etc., that are essential to the faith of Muslims.

Now suppose I point out that Muslims deny that Jesus is the son of God. You reply that your Muslim friend Ali accepts that Jesus is the son of God. Then I commit no fallacy if I retort that Ali is no true Muslim.

I call this ironic because the “No True Scotsman” fallacy was discovered or invented or first articulated and named by Antony Flew.  Antony Flew, as some of you know, was probably the most influential atheistic philosopher of the 20th century, and his three most noteworthy accomplishments were:

  1. Identifying and naming the No True Scotsman fallacy.
  2. Attempting to redefine “atheist” to mean “one who lacks a belief in God” rather than “one who believes there is no God,” a move that became ubiquitous in professional philosophy for a couple decades (the 70s and 80s, roughly), but which was undone almost single-handedly by the work of Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame.  This trick doesn’t actually give the atheist the epistemic advantage he seeks—it gives only a rhetorical advantage and so is intellectually dishonest, a piece of sophistry.  Alas, Flew’s legacy is alive and well among “garden variety” atheists, especially on the internet, even if the maneuver has been thoroughly discredited among professional philosophers of religion. On the other hand, philosophy is often stochastic, and thus a reliable predictor of intellectual debate in the future. “Lack of belief” atheists, your days are numbered. Enjoy your rhetorical trick while you can. The same arguments that crushed it in philosophy will eventually make their way into popular discourse, where it will be crushed for the second time (something which has happened time and again in the history of ideas).
  3. And finally for discovering, in his eighties, through a careful study of Aristotle, that there is, in fact, a God; and for openly declaring this, thus proving himself in this instance at least, a true philosopher.  It takes true philosophical courage to admit that the position that one has literally dedicated one’s entire life and philosophical career to defending is wrong. Flew’s change of mind would be comparable to Richard Dawkins’ announcing his conversion to Catholicism.  Well, perhaps slightly less shocking, because Flew understood that he needed to base his atheism on sound reasoning.

Back to the matter at hand. Vallicella’s point about the No True Scotsman fallacy is ironic because Flew primarily wanted to deploy it against adherents of belief-systems or worldviews, specifically against adherents of various religions.  But that is one of the places where it won’t WORK.  Being a Christian or being a Muslim is not like being a Scotsman.

As I have pointed out before, there are such things as XINOs, or “Xs in name only.”

And we often have pretty clear criteria to differentiate between Xs and non-Xs (XINOs and pseudo-Xs are non-Xs).  For example, anyone who rejects the Shahada, who rejects the claim that “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet” is NOT a true Muslim.  Similarly, I would say that rejection of the Nicene Creed or embrace of an anathematized heresy such as Arianism or Pelagianism or Docetism makes one NOT a true Christian.  There are also MINOs and CHRINOs, “Muslims in name only” and “Christians in name only” who claim to believe the Shahada or the Nicene Creed respectively, but who do not, merely giving it lip service to fit in with their surrounding culture; such people are not true Muslims or true Christians.  Neither are Christian heretics true Christians.  It is, in fact, virtually the definition of a heretic that he or she is a pseudo-Christian (“pseudo” means “false” or “fake”); we call them Christian heretics not because they are Christians, but because they are, specifically, pseudo Christians; that is, they look like Christians but are not.  The word “Christian” in the phrase “Christian heretic” works exactly like the word “gold” in “fool’s gold.”  The fact that CHRINOs and Christian heretics CLAIM to be Christians is beside the point; it is also beside the point that some of them may even BELIEVE they are Christians.

I doubt it is an accident that the No True Scotsman fallacy was discovered in our time, when we have decided that anyone can be anything at all, if only they “identify” as that.  A few years back, there was a woman who was a Christian minister who “converted” to Islam—but wished to keep her job as the minister of a Christian church, on the grounds that she was still a Christian, despite her conversion to Islam. She was, she declared, BOTH a Muslim and a Christian. I hope I don’t need to spell out why it is, in fact, impossible to be both these things.

I’ve drifted away from the point I set out to argue in this post, which was going to be that theism ought to be regarded as the rational default position on the basis of the consensus gentium, and that the onus probandi, insofar as there even is such a thing outside formal contexts wherein it is stipulated, falls on the atheist.

Atheists are fond of the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Fair enough. They go wrong, however, in thinking that the existence of God is an “extraordinary claim.” On the contrary, it is the ordinary claim of all ordinary persons in all times and places. On the basis of the consensus gentium, which has been overwhelmingly in favor of theism in all times and places, it is the non-existence of God or the divine that would be a very extraordinary claim, and would indeed require truly extraordinary evidence.

As far as I can tell, the only evidence ever offered is “I, personally, do not believe in God or the divine,” which of course proves nothing, and to which my normal mental response (if not always my verbal one) is: “What’s wrong with you then? Are you just ignorant, or are you cognitively impaired in some way?” It is usually one of those two. In my experience, the majority of atheists either don’t know what it means to think there is no God (they think it is to lack a belief in a “noisy mythological entity” like the Tooth Fairy or a god such as Thor or Horus). But there are some atheists who seem to have a genuine hole in their soul which renders them completely blind to the numinous.  Atheists, it seems to me, are thus comparable to moral relativists or to sociopaths: the former almost never believe what they say, and do in fact know the difference between good and evil and right and wrong, even while claiming not to at a purely abstract theoretical level; they are simply ignorant of the fact that their concrete beliefs are inconsistent with their “grand theory” (this is extraordinarily common among college freshmen—all one needs to do is do some sort of injustice to them, and they well begin to complain loudly, having discovered they do, in fact, believe in justice, when it is denied them. ADDITION: You don’t even have to do that much: the same students will happily check a box which says “All morality is subjective” and one which says “Rape is always morally wrong, for everyone, everywhere, at any time.” The don’t even KNOW that they have conflicting beliefs.).  Sociopaths, on the other hand, really do seem incapable of distinguishing good and evil, right and wrong, and this because of a radical cognitive deficiency on their part. Some atheists seem to have a comparable sort of cognitive blindness with respect to the divine.  Much consideration and experience has led me to the view that many atheists are not atheists because of faulty reasoning, but because of a deeper fault in their cognitive abilities.

Since it would be virtually impossible for a cognitively blind atheist to be a believer, I can only assume that this issue will be addressed by God upon the atheist’s death, in whatever way is best.

I’ll have to take up the case for the consensus gentium as the rational default position another time. The things about material fallacies needed to be said, so my time was well spent, even if not quite as I planned.


3 comments on “Material Fallacies and the Consensus Gentium

  1. acricketchirps says:

    No true wife of mine would drink as much as she does.


  2. Many people mistake a reductio ad absurdum for a straw man, because they themselves didn’t say the logical consequences of their beliefs.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Yes, they seem to think that Q cannot follow from P unless the holder of P actually infers Q. They seem to fail to grasp that logical relations are entirely objective and hold regardless of whether or not anyone subjectively makes inferences, and regardless of who makes the inferences. If P ⇒ Q, then I am perfectly within my logical and epistemic rights to infer Q in opposition to one who asserts that P.

      For example, if social justice requires the violation of actual justice, by restricting the rights or taking the goods of people who do not deserve to have this done to them, it is perfectly reasonable to point this out. The fact that ‘social justice’ entails injustice is in fact one of the best reasons for rejecting the ideology.

      1. ‘Social justice’ entails injustice.
      2. Injustice must not be done.
      3. Therefore, social justice must be rejected.

      1. SJ ⇒ I
      2. ¬I
      3. ∴ ¬SJ


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