A self-defeating (or self-refuting) statement is one that fails to meet its own standard. In other words, it is a statement that cannot live up to its own criteria. Imagine if I were to say,
I cannot speak a word in English.
You intuitively see a problem here. I told you in English that I cannot speak a word in English. This statement is self-refuting. It does not meet its own standard or criteria. It self-destructs.
The important thing to remember with self-defeating statements is that they are necessarily false. In other words, there is no possible way for them to be true. This is because they violate a very fundamental law of logic, the law of non-contradiction. This law states that A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. For example, it is not possible for God to exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense. This would violate the law of non-contradiction. So if I were to say, “God told me He doesn’t exist” you would see intuitively the obvious self-refuting nature of this statement.
Aaron goes on to explain how to deal with self-refuting statements in the article.
In a lecture entitled “Are there Objective Truths About God?”, philosopher William Lane Craig discusses the problem that Christians face when they make truth claims about God. We thinkg that there are objective truths about God – that there are some propositions that describe the way God really is. We think that people who don’t believe in those objective are wrong. But some people want to say that every statement about God is true “for each person” – so that conflicting claims about God are fine and no one is wrong. This could only be the case if everyone is just describing their own preferences, though – if they are making subjective claims about themselves, and not objective claims about God. Unfortunately, Christianity claims to be true for everyone – (e.g. – God is three persons and one being), so that Christians are committed to defending the idea that there are objective truths about God.
Here’s the link to a page containing the lecture audio. (H/T Be Thinking)
So what questions does Bill answer in the lecture?
What is a self-refuting statement?
The main concept in the lecture is self-refutation. A self-refuting sentence is a sentence that, if true, makes itself false or meaningless. For example, suppose someone said to you: “there are no sentences longer than 5 words” then that would be self-refuting since it falsifies itself. Bill argues that objections to the idea that there are objective truths about God are all self-refuting.
What is truth?
Craig holds that “truth” is a property of a proposition such that a proposition is true if it corresponds to the external world. For example, if I claim that there is a crocodile in your closet and we find a crocodile in your closet, then my statement was true. If there is no crocodile in your closet then my statement was false. The real objective world out there is what makes propositional claims true or false – these are not claims about an individual’s preferences, they are claims about the world. Bill is concerned with truth claims about God that are objective – whether there are propositions about God that are true regardless of what anyone thinks.
Objections to objective truth
Bill discusses 3 objections to the idea that there are objective truths about God. Each objection seeks to make religion subjective, (true for each person, like food preferences or clothing fashion).
Objection #1:The Challenge of Verificationism
The first challenge is that religious claims cannot be verified using the 5 senses, and therefore religious statements are objectively meaningless.
Consider the statement “Only propositions that can be verified with the 5 senses are meaningful”. That statement cannot be verified with the 5 senses. If the statement is true, it makes itself meaningless. It’s self-refuting.
Objection #2: The Challenge of Mystical Anti-Realism
The second challenge is that religious claims, and claims about God, are neither true nor false.
Consider the statement “Propositions about God cannot be true or false”. Craig asks – why should we accept that? Any reason given would have to assert something about God that is true or false, and those reasons would contradict the original statement. For example, “God is too great to be grasped by human categories of thought” is a proposition about God that the speaker thinks is true, which contradicts the original assertion.
Objection #3: The Challenge of Radical Pluralism
The third challenge is that each person invents an entire reality of their own, and that there is no mind-independent objective world shared by individuals.
Consider the statement “There is no objective reality shared by all individuals”. That statement is a statement that applies to all individuals, regardless of what they think. It’s self-refuting.
Craig ends the lecture by arguing that it is OK for Christians to think that other people’s views are false. It does not follow that just because someone thinks other people’s views are wrong that they am going to mistreat other people. In fact, in Christianity it is objectively true that it is good for Christians to love their enemies. It is objectively true that all human beings have value, because human beings are made by God. So even if Christians disagree with others, they still treat them well, because they think that there are moral truths that they have to conform to.
Sometimes, non-Christians think that it is dangerous to hold beliefs too strongly. But I think what really matters is the content of the belief – some beliefs are false and some are true – you want to believe the true beliefs as strongly as you can, as long as the evidence warrants it. In Christianity, I am absolutely obligated to treat people with whom I disagree with respect and gentleness (1 Pet 3:15-16). The more convinced I am about that belief, the better my opponents will be treated. A stronger belief in Christianity means more tolerance for those who disagree.
Why do non-Christians get so offended when Christians claim to be right about there being only one way to be rightly related to God? Well, for many it’s because their worldview is a personal preference, and they feel uncomfortable having to defend it rationally and evidentially. For most people, religion is just their cultural preference – like cooking style, or favorite sport, or clothing style. That’s why they respond to your truth claims with name-calling like “you’re intolerant” and “you’re judgemental” and “you’re arrogant”. These are just shorthand ways of saying, “I’m offended that you’ve thought things through more than I have, and that your careful arguments and evidence make me fee bad about not having any arguments and evidence for the customs and conventions I was raised in”. My family is from a non-Christian culture, so I have to talk to my relatives about this all the time. They feel judged, but it’s not my fault that they haven’t done any homework to prove out their beliefs.
I got this “you’re mean” reaction a lot from people who are raised to think that their religion is a racial, national or cultural identity. They think that if you tell them they are wrong on matters of fact that somehow this amounts to some sort of racism or prejudice. You make factual claims, and they hear discrimination. But that’s not how Christians think of religion – we only care if it’s true or not – just like we care whether the claims of history or science are true or not. We not trying to be mean, any more than it’s mean to say things like “water boils at 100 C”. That’s just the way it is, and we’re more than happy to discuss the reasons why we think that, and to look at your reasons to see why you don’t think that.
For further study
A debate between a Christian and a postmodern, featuring Christian scholar Peter Williams and a very strange liberal person. This audio really makes it clear why people are opposed to objective truth claims about religion. Williams’ opponent is the epitome of postmodern relativist irrational universalism.
The absolute easiest way to get into a good apologetics conversation with someone is to ask them what makes something right or wrong on their view.
Here’s a paper by Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason, in which he critiques moral relativism. His paper is called “Seven Things You Can’t Do as a Moral Relativist”. First, let’s see the list of seven things.
You can’t make moral judgments about other people’s moral choices
You can’t complain about God allowing evil and suffering
You can’t blame people or praise people for their moral choices
You can’t claim that any situation is unfair or unjust
You can’t improve your morality
You can’t have meaningful discussions about morality
You can’t promote the obligation to be tolerant
You’ll have to read the paper to see how he argues for these, but I wanted to say a brief word about number 1.
Rule #1: Relativists Can’t Accuse Others of Wrong-Doing
Relativism makes it impossible to criticize the behavior of others, because relativism ultimately denies that there is such a thing as wrong- doing. In other words, if you believe that morality is a matter of personal definition, then you can’t ever again judge the actions of others. Relativists can’t even object on moral grounds to racism. After all, what sense can be made of the judgment “apartheid is wrong” when spoken by someone who doesn’t believe in right and wrong? What justification is there to intervene? Certainly not human rights, for there are no such things as rights. Relativism is the ultimate pro-choice position because it accepts every personal choice—even the choice to be racist.
In moral relativism, what you ought to do is totally up to you. Morality is just like a lunch buffet – you pick what you like based on your personal preferences.
I remember one particular discussion I had with a non-Christian co-worker. Both she and her live-in boyfriend were moral relativists. They were fighting because she was angry about his not having (or wanting) a job, and he was angry because when he asked her for space, she immediately ran out and cheated on him.
What’s interesting is that both of these people chose the other in order to escape being judged themselves. I think this happens a lot in relationships today. Both people don’t want to be judged by the other person, but they both want to the other person to treat them well and to honor moral obligations. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t think that you can have something like marriage work when neither person takes moral obligations to the other person seriously.
This lecture is based on the book “Truth in Religion” by famous philosopher Mortimer J. Adler. At the time of writing the book, he was not a Christian, but there is still a lot of value in the book for Christians who are trying to understand what religion should really be about.
About the speaker
The speaker is one of my top 3 favorite speakers of all time in Christian apologetics, Dr. Walter Bradley. (The other two are Dr. Stephen C. Meyer and Dr. Michael Strauss)
Dr. Bradley received his B.S. in Engineering Science and his Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Texas in Austin.
Dr. Bradley taught for eight years at the Colorado School of Mines before assuming a position as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in 1976.
During his 24 years at Texas A&M, Dr. Bradley served as Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University and as Director of the Polymer Technology Center, and received five College of Engineering Research Awards. He has received over $4,500,000 in research grants and has published over 140 technical articles and book chapters. He has also co-authored “The Mystery Of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. He is a Fellow of the American Society for Materials and of the American Scientific Affiliation and serves as a consultant for many Fortune 500 companies.
some propositions are true culturally – just for certain groups in certain times (cultures)
some proposition are true trans-culturally – true independently of what anyone wants or feels
Mathematical truth is trans-cultural – it is true regardless of cultural fashions
Scientific truth is trans-cultural – it is true regardless of cultural fashions
Some truths are not like this – cooking traditions, clothing traditions and greeting traditions
These kinds of truths are NOT trans-cultural, they vary by culture
The question is – is religion true like math and science, or true depending on the culture
Some people think that your religion depends on where you were born or what your family believes
Religions make conflicting claims about the way the world really is, so they can’t all be true
And these conflicts are at the core of the religions – who God is, how can we be related to him, etc.
So if religions convey trans-cultural truth, then either one is true or none are true
If they are not trying to convey trans-cultural truth, then they are not like math and science
Let’s assume that religion is the same as trans-cultural truth
How can we know which religion is true? 1) the laws of logic, 2) empirical testing against reality
Logical consistency is needed to make the first cut – self-contradictory claims cannot be true
To be true trans-culturally, a proposition must at least NOT break the law of non-contradiction
According to Mortimer Adler’s book, only Christianity, Judaism and Islam are not self-contradictory
All the others can be excluded on the basis of overt internal contradictions on fundamental questions
The others that are self-contradictory can be true culturally, but not trans-culturally
The way to proceed forward is to test the three non-contradictory religions against science and history
One of these three may be true, or they could all be false
We can test the three by evaluating their conflicting truth claims about the historical Jesus
Famous skeptics have undertaken studies to undermine the historical Jesus presented in the Bible
Lew Wallace, Simon Greenleaf and Frank Morrison assessed the evidence as atheists and became Christians
There is a lot of opposition in culture to the idea that one religion might be true
But if you take the claims of Jesus at face value, he claims to be the unique revelation of God to mankind
Either he was telling the truth about that, or he was lying, or he was crazy
So which is it?
Why don’t religious people ask if their religion is true?
People seem to be chicken these days about claiming that their religion is true. It’s easier to say that my religion is true for me, and your religion is true for you – reduce it to personal preferences. So long as everyone is sincere about what they believe, then that’s the most important thing, right?
But it is NOT TRUE that you can believe whatever you want as long as you are sincere – sincerity doesn’t mean that you can’t be mistaken. I can jump off the top of the Sears Tower and be sincere in my belief that I will float down like a feather, but that doesn’t make my belief true. If you want to have a good relationship with God, you have to know things about him, not just have sincere beliefs. You have to know whether he exists and what he is like – really. It’s not enough to have sincere beliefs that are not actually true.
I think that God’s existence and character can be assessed and known based on logic and evidence. I think that God exists independently of whether I want him to or not, and I think that his character and desires are not the same as my character and desires. And I don’t really care what my neighbors think of my disagreeing with them, my goal is not to keep silent and to just get along with them and be happier in my community.
God’s first commandment to us is not to love our neighbor – that’s number two. Number one is to love him. And how can we love him, if we don’t want to know him. And how can we love him, if we don’t tell people the truth about him when they ask us?
That message is not going to win us a lot of friends, but our job as Christians is to tell how and why God stepped into history. Jesus expects us to be his ambassadors and to carry out the task of evangelism faithfully, and to suffer with him and – if necessary – to be rejected like he was rejected.
4) The idea that, if a young person gets deeply interested in Christian evidence, he will go out on the Internet (or at his public high school or secular college) seeking giants to slay and will get overwhelmed. Again, this worry has merit as a sociological matter. That can certainly happen.
That is why we should say loud and clear to Christians interested in this topic: Don’t do that! What do I mean? Just this: Being committed to investigating the evidence for Christianity does not mean that one has to find out every possible thing that anyone has ever said about or against Christianity and know the answer to it. That would be impossible because of the sheer bulk of (ultimately unpersuasive) objections which skeptics can bring up as though they were real problems.
In this context the words of George Horne, an 18th century bishop, from his Letters on Infidelity, are wise and helpful. (Emphasis added.)
In the thirty sections of their pamphlet, they have produced a list of difficulties to be met with in reading the Old and New Testament. Had I been aware of their design, I could have enriched the collection with many more, at least as good, if not a little better. But they have compiled, I dare say, what they deemed the best, and, in their own opinion, presented us with the essence of infidelity in a thumb-phial, the very fumes of which, on drawing the cork, are to strike the bench of bishops dead at once. Let not the unlearned Christian be alarmed, “as though some strange thing had happened to him,” and modern philosophy had discovered arguments to demolish religion, never heard of before. The old ornaments of deism have been “broken off” upon this occasion, “and cast into the fire, and there came out this calf.” These same difficulties have been again and again urged and discussed in public; again and again weighed and considered by learned and sensible men, of the laity as well as the clergy, who have by no means been induced by them to renounce their faith.
Many and painful are the researches sometimes necessary to be made, for settling points of that kind. Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject.
And a bit later:
5) The unspoken fear that Christianity cannot stand up to scrutiny and doesn’t really have good evidential support.
Here I do not blame the parents, but not because I share the unspoken fear. I do not blame them, because in most cases no one has ever taught them otherwise. How many pastors and priests have really taught apologetics to their congregations, or even offered such studies as an option? Too few. How many courses on sharing your faith have explicitly taught people not to get involved in responding to questions and objections but just to “share their experience” because “no one can argue with that”? Too many. It’s no wonder then that the congregation comes away with the sneaking suspicion that our Christian faith is no better grounded than Mormonism and that we, like they, must depend chiefly on the burning in the bosom.
And one can always push the blame further back. Perhaps the pastors weren’t taught Christian evidences at their seminaries.
In fact, I would not be surprised if all too many theologians who give high-falutin’ rationalizations for being anti-evidentialist are actually making a virtue out of what they deem to be a necessity. Since they don’t think Christian faith is founded on fact, they might as well make up some profound-sounding theological theory that tells us that it shouldn’t be.
When Nathanael asks Philip, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip simply says, “Come and see.” (John 1:46) And he brings him to Jesus. If you as a parent or mentor to the young are opposed to the study of Christian evidences partly because deep down you suspect that they aren’t very good, I can only say to you as well, “Come and see.”
Suppose a pastor or campus group leader wants to avoid having to learn physics and cosmology, or the minimum facts case for the resurrection, or how to respond to apparently gratuitous suffering, or the problem of religious pluralism. Suppose he thinks that Christianity, if it is about anything, is about his feeling happy and comfortable with a minimum of effort and work. So, he diligently avoids reading apologetics, because learning evidence is hard work. He avoids watching debates on God’s existence and the resurrection, because this is hard work. He avoids conversations with people who do study these things, and implies that there is something wrong with them for studying these things. He endeavors to conceal his laziness and ignorance and cowardice from his flock with much pious God-talk and fervent praise-hymn-singing.
Eventually, some member of his church asks him to go for lunch with an actual non-Christian family member. The pastor agrees and when he meets the unbelieving family member, he has nothing at all to say about typical challenges that unbelievers face. He has no knowledge of evolution, the problem of evil, the hiddenness of God, or the hallucination theory. He has never read a single atheist, and never read a single piece of evidence to refute them from Christian scholars. He lacks humility, refusing to admit that other Christian scholars may know more than he does because they have studied other areas. Needless to say, he fails to defend God’s reputation to the non-Christian. What will he say to the members of his flock about his failure? How will he justify his obstinate refusal to do what everyone else in the Bible does when confronting non-believers?
There are, however, two significant shortcomings to the book.
First, Cold-Case Christianity places far too much emphasis on the role of extrabiblical sources. No doubt there is a legitimate role for biblical archaeology and extrabiblical writing from antiquity. Christianity is, after all, a faith firmly rooted in human history. But there is a grave danger when truth is suspended because of an apparent lack of corroboration from extrabiblical sources. And Wallace, I’m afraid, wanders too close to this dark side of apologetics.
All of chapter 12, for instance, is devoted to proving the Gospels have external corroborative evidence—“evidence that are independent of the Gospel documents yet verify the claims of the text” (183). Wallace then addresses the historicity of the pool of Bethesda and makes another worrying statement: “For many years, there was no evidence for such a place outside of John’s Gospel. Because Christianity makes historical claims, archaeology ought to be a tool we can use to see if these claims are, in fact, true” (201-202, emphasis added).
In other words, Wallace seems to suggest we cannot affirm the truth of the Gospel accounts without the stamp of approval from archaeology and other extrabiblical sources. Such reasoning is dangerous, not least because it cannot affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. But also, it places the final court of appeal in the realm of extrabiblical sources rather than of God’s all-sufficient, all-powerful Word.
That is a textbook definition of fideism – that belief is somehow more pious and praiseworthy the less evidence we have. And the best way to have less evidence is to study nothing at all, but to just make a leap-of-faith in the dark. Of course, a leap-of-faith can land you anywhere – Islam, Mormonism. Presumably this pastor is like the Mormons who eschew all evidence and prefer to detect the truth of Mormonism by “the burning of the bosom” which happens when people read the all-sufficient, all-powerful Book of Mormon. His view of faith is identical to theirs, and 180 degrees opposed to the Bible. He has made his leap-of-faith, and that leap-of-faith is not accountable to arguments and evidence. His faith is private and personal, based on his own feelings. He considers it blasphemous to have to demonstrate what he believes to those who disagree with him. Where is this in the Bible? It’s nowhere. But it is everywhere in anti-intellectual Christian circles.
[…]I think that Christians are much better off following the example of authentic Christian pastors like R.C. Sproul, who, in a conference on evangelism, invited Dr. Stephen C. Meyer to present multiple lines of evidence from mainstream science to establish the existence of God. The only reason not to take this approach is laziness, which leads to ignorance, which leads to cowardice. And failure. It is pastors like Pastor Bungle above who are responsible for the great falling away from Christianity that we are seeing when we look at young people. Pastors who pride themselves in refusing to connecting the Bible to the real world, with evidence and with policy analysis, are causing young people to abandon the faith.
I think that many people who reject Christianity can point to a general impression that they got from Pastor Bungle and his ilk that faith is somehow different from other areas of knowledge and that it was morally praise worthy to insulate faith from critical thinking and evidence. Pastor Bungle could never justify his view by using the Bible, but a lot of church leaders have that view regardless of whether it’s Biblical or not.
The really troubling thing that I see again and again in the church is when pastors base all of their opposition to behaviors like abortion and gay marriage on Christianity. This effectively makes it impossible to do anything about these issues in the public square, because Christians are then taught to have nothing persuasive to say on these issues to non-Christians. It’s like pastors are more interested in striking a pious pose with their congregations instead of studying secular arguments and evidence so they can equip Christians to actually solve the problem.