Tuesday, June 21, 2005

What They DO Teach in the Ivy League

After that nice series on "Defending Romanism," the Pedantic Protestant evidently worked up some frustration over us obstinate Roman Catholic types and elected to let me know about it. That's OK; I don't mind people letting me know when they think I've gone off the beam. But I think the PP is badly mistaken about my objection to certain Evangelicals quoting from the Church Fathers.

The PP's basic argument is as follows:
Let's suppose that I think that position X on an issue is false, but agree with position Y. Along comes Author Z who, in his writings, simultaneously holds or indicates an acceptance of the conjunction of X and Y. Query: am I violating some canon of consistency by citing Author Z's endorsement of Y? Answer: not necessarily

Helpful guidelines for those who seek true wisdom:
(1) If Y and X happen to be logically independent of each other, or if the reasoning for Y's truth does not imply the truth of X, then there is no logical problem with my citation of Author Z.

(2) Even if the truth of X were to imply the truth of Y, this wouldn't make somebody who holds Y but not X to be inconsistent. This is a mere restatement of the converse fallacy.

(3) One could challenge me to cite an author [say Z2] who, besides agreeing with Y, also finds X to be false. But then in most situations [perhaps all?], Z2 will then disagree with me on some other proposition Q. Supposing that the argumentation for Q is logically independent of that for X and Y, the imaginary interlocutor could ask why I'm citing Z2 and not some other author Z3 who agrees with me on X, Y, and Q. And the cycle could go on and on, until one can only cite somebody who agrees with him in every detail. This is a rather silly way of proceeding, methinks.

Unfortunately for the PP's case, they actually teach us all of these things in the Ivy League. Rebuttal done!

OK, OK, I realize the PP was being facetious, but even in this little summary when you might be able to cite Author Z, he's left out a number of situations (listed with ROMAN numerals) in which Miscreant K shouldn't cite Author Z in support of Y.

I. Z's argument bears little or no relationship to K's argument for Y, or worse, contradicts K's argument for Y.

A.k.a. Bad Lawyering 101, because this is probably the most common rookie mistake and the most telling sign of a bad lawyer among the more experience. Evidence is cited in favor of arguments, not conclusions. If Z supports your conclusion but provides no help for your argument, then Z is not evidence for your position. In that case, it doesn't make any sense to cite Z whose entire argument is X->Y when you hold ~X. At any rate, you have to study Z in sufficient detail to thoroughly understand Z's argument for Y before you can even think of citing him, which is why this error is typically the hallmark of lazy scholarship. People can get away with this one for years, because it's mostly self-policed, but that doesn't make it any more defensible.

II. Z's argument requires K to accept a contradiction by contrapositive.

Sure, there's a converse fallacy, but there's also a valid argument from the contrapositive. If Z has elsewhere made an unrebutted argument that Y->X or X iff Y, then Z is likely going to be a bad source. Sure, it's possible for K to cite Z and rebut the argument Y->X, but then how reliable can Z be? Moreover, if K's argument for holding ~X and Y depends on X and Y being logically independent, then Z's argument is evidence that they aren't, thus undermining K's position. In fact, given that it's extremely unusual for an objector to cite something that's entirely unrelated, I'd argue that the burden of proof is always on the person asserting logical independence to illustrate that they were logically independent in Author Z's mind if there is any plausible reason for expecting they might be connected; ordinary interpretation presumes consistency and reasonable relationships when the same person is writing on related subjects.

III. K's argument begs a question of interpretation, and K fails to cite adequate evidence for the interpretation.

Ought to go without saying, but it never does. It's legitimate, even in blog discussions, to ask your opponent to cite something to show that his conclusion isn't simply ridiculous among people who have actually studied the matter for a living. It's also reasonable to neglect the argument of someone who hasn't done reasonably adequate research and who does not cite someone who has done reasonably adequate research. That's not saying that scholars are always right (God forbid!); they are only as strong as their arguments. But it does say that even a layperson must do the minimum necessary work to assure their conclusions of reasonable certainty and to lay out that work for examination (either by proxy for a scholar or by their own records), which means at the minimum surveying what is known about Author Z's position before citing Author Z.

IV. K confuses support for conclusions with support for K's argument.

The reasonable way to determine which author to cite from Authors Z1, Z2, and Z3 is which one of Z1, Z2, and Z3 best supports your argument for Y, not by determining how many conclusions Y1 ... Yn on which each agrees with you. Note that this doesn't excuse one from the flip side...

V. Persuasive power of K's citation of Z varies inversely with the number of independent beliefs X1 ... Xn on which K disagrees with Z.

That's true as a rule of thumb even if the contradictions on X1 ... Xn are somehow explaned; it's probably more like (1/k)^n (k > 1, higher values based on greater overall consistency of the writer) if the contradictions are unexplained. As a practical matter, the likelihood that Author Z supports your position diminishes so rapidly with subsequent contradictions that it's almost impossible to have any utility with a significant number of disagreements (hence, the unexplained "Z can err" argument is a virtual confession that Z is evidence against your position). It's far more reasonable to argue for interpretations based on the interdependence of beliefs and explain a small number of disagreements or inconsistencies. That's not to say that simply bringing up a random contradiction removes them as a source, but a large number of contradictions is in and of itself a significant objection, and in most cases, it's not just a question of a large number of contradictions but also a question of probable logical interdependence of the positions.

So to turn more pointedly to the issue at hand:
(a) It is quite one thing to say that X and Y are logically dependent on each other, and quite another thing to show it. Given the theological diversity in the ECF's --- contra the claims by the 10-minutes-per-day triumphalistic RC apologists --- it isn't a trivial matter to show that X and Y are logically interdependent.

First, there's the question of theological diversity within one author, which is far less probable than theological diversity among different authors. To say otherwise is special pleading; the ordinary presumption of interpretation of a single author is consistency absent a demonstration to the contrary. Second, if the group as a whole is this chaotic, that's an argument against citing them as evidence for group belief at all, not an argument in favor of K's use of any one individual. Third, it's no defense to argue that showing the interconnection isn't trivial if it's in fact been done elsewhere, which is the point of surveying the literature in the first place. If there's a good argument out there, it demands a response.

(b) On an ethical note, I allow RC's to do the same thing with regards to ECF's. However, I'm not so arrogant to think that they have a Property of Pedantic Protestant sticker on them. Some of the ECF's agree with me on some things, others disagree. In the language of the skaters down the block: whatever, d00d.

Nor are we so arrogant. But in any event, that's a meaningless generalization. What matters is whether the particular individual has good reason for citing the ECF's, not whether the group as a whole does. Protestants are capable of citing the Church Fathers responsibily, but that doesn't address whether any particular Protestant is handling the Church Fathers responsibly.

(c) It is quite possible that an ECF who holds both Y and X [whereas I hold Y and the negation of X] is citation-quality relative to Y simply because there are good reasons for Y and not-so-good reasons for X. Example: X might be something against which one has a good scripture-based argument, whereas the ECF holds Y due to some abstract philosophizing based on questionable principles.

Sure, but it does require at least showing that Z has good reasons for believing Y before you cite Z in support of Y. If you think Z has terrible reasons for believing Y, then it makes no sense to cite Z in favor of your argument for Y.

(d) Conservative Protestants have an objective criterion why they take certain parts of the ECF's pleasantly and other parts unpleasantly, and that criterion is Scripture. Whether or not RC's approve of this really doesn't mean anything unless they can give an argument that this criterion is a bad one, and that isn't something that can be shown in a quick-n-easy fashion.

Doesn't matter whether anybody thinks it's a good or a bad one; what matters is whether Z can be cited in support of it. It's dishonest to cite Z in support of conclusion Y if Z's reasoning for Y is not compatible with your reasoning for Y. I couldn't care less what criterion you use to judge the Fathers; the only thing that matters is whether you are responsible for citing them in favor of that criterion when making an argument for Y.

I've got no problem with people citing the Church Fathers. I've got a big problem with people citing the Early Church Fathers without even doing a reasonable survey of the known evidence. Primary sources are next to useless if you haven't surveyed all of the available primary source evidence and reasonably necessary secondary evidence to make your opinion worth anything. That's why most laymen are actually better off citing scholars who agree with their arguments (NOT simply their conclusions) than primary sources.