Logical Fallacy: Argumentum ad Hominem (against the person, avoiding the claim)
A mark of weakness in any society, organization, or individual that could potentially prove fatal is an inability to discern what is right and accurate from what is false and inaccurate. For the Church, this has been one of its major battles from the beginning. Jesus Himself warned of the dangers of false representations of truth wrapped up in the lives and teaching of the Jewish leaders known as the Pharisees. The apostle Paul warned the elders at Ephesus as he was departing for Jerusalem that savage wolves would rise up from within their own ranks speaking perverse things that would lead the disciples away. The cry of the Reformation was essentially a call to the Church to become discerning of the false teachings and practices of popery and Roman Catholicism that had misled the people for centuries. Today, the Church faces similar threats and would be wise to gain a proper heart and mind of discernment, as 1 Thessalonians commands:
“Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22 (NASB95)
But the question becomes, how are these things to be tested? With what measuring rod can those things that are right and accurate be clearly seen against what is false and inaccurate? From a Christian worldview, that answer has always been the Word of God. From the experience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to the final word of judgment that will come upon the earth at the last trumpet, God’s words are the gauge by which every other word is tested. Therefore, it is no wonder that throughout human history, the point of battle has always been centered around the preservation of God’s Word; remove it and the lies of the devil will flourish, add it and truth prevails, along with blessing and prosperity in the Lord.
In the modern age, once again, mankind finds itself facing a famine for God’s Word which brings seed to the sower and bread to the eater. This is no secret. In many ways, this has lent itself to the spiritually decrepit condition of many. But another sinister vine has grown up along with it, which is an inability to think rationally. Yes, truth is being smothered in this present age. But to make matters worse, even where pockets of truth remain unrestrained, it often remains hidden within the fog of poor logic. We simply don’t know what to do with it when we get it. This is because there has been a fundamental breakdown of human reasoning.
While there are many conditions that have lent itself to this modern situation, it is with the utmost urgency that humanity take up the ability to think again. It is high time that the Church begin to love its Lord with its mind, as it does with its heart and soul. For those who hear this trumpet call, discernment will return as obedience to the path becomes clear again. The warnings of Jesus and Paul will be clearly understood along with a great efficacy to stand against those things that are false, no matter how nicely they may be dressed.
Within the formal study of logic, where arguments are tested for validity (a brief introduction was given here), there is a special term used for those things which are invalid. This is the word fallacy. If we were to put a definition behind this word within the context of logic, we could say something like this, “an argument that seems correct, but contains a mistake in reasoning” (Copi, I. M., Cohen, C., & McMahon, K., 2011). Fallacy is simply the observation that “people…make mistakes in reasoning” (Poythress, Vern, 2013). At the core of the concept of fallacy is the attempt to produce an argument (remember, argument not in the sense of heated debate but in the sense of propositional truth presented in valid form) but that attempt fails because of irrational reasoning.
Why is this such a big deal? Because within fallacy is the sinister seed of selling something which seems to be accurate but in reality is not. Fallacy may contain propositions of truth, but its reasoning is incorrect. Fallacies are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They sound like sheep, may have the fur of sheep, and chew their cud like a sheep, but the reality is that there is a wolf hidden somewhere inside. And often this wolf has big teeth and a large appetite for destruction. Fallacies, in comparison, sound logical, look logical, and may seem to exhibit some behaviors of logic, but in reality are counterfeits. This has the potential to make them very dangerous.
In the lead… argumentum ad hominem
The potential for different types of fallacy are legion. In this series of articles, several specific fallacies will be identified and illustrated in the hope that calling out the invalid will further illuminate the valid. This article starts with the logical fallacy that stands head and shoulders above all of the rest and is the lead horse in the race for popularity of irrational arguments. This is the “Argument against the Person” (its Latin designation is argumentum ad hominem). This form of fallacy fails to present a valid argument because its propositions attack the person making the argument instead of the argument itself. For instance, a person may produce an argument, whether valid or invalid. Another person may wish to refute that argument, but fails to do so because instead of evaluating the argument in a logical way, they resort to an attack on the person. Let me give a simplistic example in the form of a syllogism.
Person A presents the following argument:
All ice cream flavors are good. (Premise)
Rocky Road is an ice cream flavor. (Premise)
Therefore, Rocky Road is good. (Conclusion)
This argument is valid in its logic because its conclusion follows from its two premises. But Person B may strongly disagree with the argument that Person A is making. To make matters worse, because the argument is solid in its logic, Person B feels defeated in their hatred of Rocky Road ice cream and becomes upset and emotional (which is usually what gives birth to this fallacy). Therefore, instead of attempting to logically, rationally refute the argument about Rocky Road ice cream, they decide to attack the character of Person A with the following possible example:
Person A is claiming Rocky Road ice cream is good.
Person A is an obese, ignorant fool.
Therefore, Rocky Road ice cream is not good.
This form of fallacious argument is used so much in modern thinking that my guess is even today you have come across it. Or you may have even used it yourself. If you have engaged in any kind of political talk recently, my guess is you have come up against this fallacy which attacks the person instead of rationalizing the propositions. The familiar tactic which often goes hand-in-hand with this fallacy is “mudslinging.” But what makes it part of this fallacy is that it is being used in the place of rational thinking to sidestep the real issue of the truth claim. In politics, it typically looks like this:
Person A is proposing a law.
Person A is a stupid Democrat.
Therefore, the law is bad.
This type of argument does absolutely nothing to test whether the argument regarding a specific law is beneficial for society or not. All it achieves is child-like abuse leveled at an individual who has been created in the image of God. Furthermore, it shamefully shows that the best argument a person can come up with is very shallow and irrational. This form of fallacy may garner some laughs and gather sympathetic minds of equal superficiality, but at the end of the day, nothing is really accomplished regarding the validity and accuracy of the proposed argument.
An Illustration from Scripture
The fallacy of argumentum ad hominem is nothing new. In fact, we see it being used by people in the ancient texts of Scripture. This was the fallacy that was used against Jesus in His hometown of Nazareth when He came to minister in their synagogue one day according to Mark 6. The normal custom of Jesus was that as He traveled throughout Galilee, He would enter into a synagogue on the Sabbath to read and teach from the Word of God. It says in Luke that He was praised throughout the land because of this. But one particular Sabbath, He found Himself in His hometown of Nazareth. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was given to Him to read from. When He was finished reading and teaching, the people were astonished at what He said. There was a sense of incredulity and awe by some because of the great wisdom He had. But for others, they were offended. One of the comments made was, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” Instead of assessing and refuting the words of His teaching, accompanied by miracles, they chose to attack His character. In logical form, it would look like this:
Jesus teaches that the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in Him.
Jesus is a simpleton carpenter.
Therefore, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in Jesus is not true.
The attack on His character becomes the focus of their argument, which leads to a mob mentality as they then decide to throw Him over a cliff. It would seem this would wreck a good Saturday Sabbath, but what do you expect when such shallow, emotional appeals to logic are allowed to fester? The rest of the story is that Jesus passed through their midst, unharmed and went away marveling at their unbelief. I believe there is a subtle warning within this story for those who study logic. Fallacious argumentation can embolden unbelief by giving it a false sense of victory. But on the other hand, logic is able to bring truth out of the fog to allow it to shine in all of its brilliance.
I wonder what would have happened to the people of Nazareth if they had resisted the argumentum ad hominem, and in humility, weighed the words of Jesus and His claim to the fulfillment of prophecy?
Copi, I. M., Cohen, C., & McMahon, K. (2011). Introduction to logic. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN-13: 9780205820375
Poythress, Vern S. (2013). Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought. Wheaton, IL: Crossway