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.
You might expect Christians to advocate for values like chastity, life-long natural marriage, protection for unborn and born children, right to work, low taxes, limited government, free speech, religious liberty, and so on. But today, many young evangelicals are embracing higher taxes, more spending, socialism, retreat from just wars against evil forces, abortion, gay marriage, global warming alarmism, etc.
Why is this happening?
Christianity should make me feel happy and be liked by others?
Here is the first problem. When you advocate for moral causes like protecting the unborn, or school choice, or freeing the slaves, a bunch of people are not going to like you. Christians in the time of Jesus knew that being bold about their Christian convictions would make a lot of people think bad things about them – they expected it. But young evangelicals have gotten the idea that being a Christian should not involve any sort of unhappiness and unpopularity. They’ve been told that God has a wonderful plan for their lives, and that plan involves happiness, fulfillment, travel and adventure. They wouldn’t have learned this from the Bible, because the Bible emphasizes suffering and unpopularity as part of the normal Christian life. Christianity has always been opposed to abortion and homosexuality, but these things are not fun and popular today. Since these young Christians believe in a God of love – a cosmic butler who leads them to happiness through their feelings – of course they are going to find defending traditional Christian values too difficult.
Christianity should be about my private experience of belief?
What young evangelicals learn in many churches is that religion is something that is centered on the Bible and the church building – it is not something that flows into real life. This is actually the goal of the most pious, orthodox pastors, with the exception of people like Pastor Wayne Grudem or Pastor Matt Rawlings who can integrate the Bible with real-world how-to knowledge. Pastors want to protect God from being “judged” by evidence, because they regard evidence as dirty, and unworthy of being allowed to confirm or deny blind faith / tradition. Pastors instead teach young people that you can’t find out anything about God from things like the Big Bang, the DNA, the fossil record, or even from the peer-reviewed research on abortion, divorce, or gay marriage. And they don’t respond to arguments and evidence from non-Christian skeptics, either. Their goal is to insulate belief from evidence. If the Bible says “do this” then they don’t even want to study the way the world works in order to know the best way to do what the Bible asks.
For example, when it comes to politics and social activism, young evangelicals learn in church about helping the poor. But pastors never tell them anything about economics, which shows that the free enterprise system is the best at helping the poor. (Just compare the USA to North Korea or Venezuela or Argentina). Instead, young evangelicals blissfully accept the left’s narrative that free markets and charity don’t work, and that government must step in to redistribute wealth. Most pastors they never pick up an economic textbook to see which economic system really helps the poor. And that ignorance is passed on to gullible and sentimental young people, who jump on any slick politician who promises to help the poor through redistribution rather than economic growth and innovation. What you learn about in church is that religion is private and has no connection to reality whatsoever., so there is no point in learning anything – science, economics, philosophy. Pious pastors put Christianity outside the realm of truth.
The (young) people perish for lack of knowledge
What follows from having a view that Christianity only lives in the Bible and church, and not out there in the real world of telescopes and microscopes? Well, most young evangelicals will interpret what their pastor is telling them as “our flavor of ice cream” or “our cultural custom”. They don’t link Christianity to the real world, they don’t think that it’s true for everyone. They think that “people in church” just accept what the Bible says on faith, and that’s all. So what happens when topics like abortion, marrige, economics, war, etc. come up in their daily conversations? Well, all the pastors have equipped them with is “the Bible says”, and that’s not enough to be persuasive with non-Christians. They have no way of speaking about their beliefs and values with anyone who doesn’t already believe in the Bible. And that’s why they go left… it’s much easier to just go along with their secular left peers, professors and cultural heroes. And that’s exactly what they do. Without facts and evidence – which they never taught or even mentioned in church – how can they be expected to stand up for Biblical Christianity? They can’t.
If young Christians never learn how to present a case for traditional values and beliefs apart from the Bible for concepts like pro-life or natural marriage or religious liberty, then they will cave to the secular left culture. And this is exactly what the pious pastors have facilitated by “rescuing” the God and the Bible and the historical Jesus from evidence and knowledge. Young people lack courage to take Biblical positions, because they first lack knowledge. They don’t know how to make the case using evidence that their opponents will accept – mainstream evidence from publicly accessible sources. And that’s how the pastors want it – piety, not evidence.
Christianity is a knowledge tradition
No young evangelical is going to lift a finger to take bold moral stands if they think their worldview is just one option among many – like the flavors of ice cream in the frozen section of the grocery store. They have to know that what they are saying is true – then they will be bold. Boldness is easy when you are aware of facts and evidence for your view. Not just what the pastors and choirs accept, but facts and evidence that are widely accepted.
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.
If I want to understand what college students think about truth, I ask my friend Eric Chabot. He is the Ratio Christi ninja at Ohio State University. He can tell you more about what college kids think about ultimate issues than probably anyone else you know.
Over the last ten years I have done outreach on a major college campus (The Ohio State University which has 56,000 students). I have had hundreds of spiritual conversations with students and direct an apologetics ministry called Ratio Christi Student Apologetics Alliance. It is no secret that many apologists have written books on the Truth question. In other words, the statement “we are living in postmodern times” has almost become cliche in today’s society. Hence, because of the impact of post-modernism, many seem to assume that college students are not interested in objective truth. So the supposed fallout is that people are not asking whether Christianity is true. Given my experience on the campus, I will respond to this issue. So the good news is that I am truly speaking from personal experience.
I will go ahead and give some definitions of truth here.
Eric likes to complain about pragmatism most, so he quotes a definition of the pragmatic view of truth:
#1 Truth is not “what works.” One popular theory is the pragmatic view of William James and his followers that truth is what works. According to James, “Truth is the expedient in the way of knowing. A statement is known to be true if it brings the right results. It is the expedient as confirmed by future experience.” That this is inadequate is evident from its confusion of cause and effect. If something is true it will work, at least in the long run. But simply because something works does not make it true. This is not how truth is understood in court. Judges tend to regard the expedient as perjury. Finally, the results do not settle the truth question. Even when results are in, one can still ask whether the initial statement corresponded to the facts. If it did not, it was not true, regardless of the results.
And here are a couple more definitions that he encounters from the college kids:
#5 Truth is not “what feels good.” The popular subjective view is that truth gives a satisfying feeling, and error feels bad. Truth is found in our subjective feelings. Many mystics and new age enthusiasts hold versions of this faulty view, though it also has a strong influence among some experientially oriented Christian groups. It is evident that bad news can be true. But if what feels good is always true, then we would not have to believe anything unpleasant. Bad report cards do not make a student feel good, but the student refuses to believe them at his or her academic peril. They are true. Feelings are also relevant to individual personalities. What feels good to one may feel bad to another. If so, then truth would be highly relative. But, as will be seen in some detail in the next article, truth cannot be relative. Even if truth makes us feel good—at least in the long run—this does not mean that what feels good is true. The nature of truth does not depend on the result of truth.
#6 Truth is not “what is existentially relevant.” Following Soren Kierkegaard and other existential philosophers, some have insisted that truth is what is relevant to our existence or life and false if it is not. Truth is subjectivity. Kierkegaard said: truth is livable. As Martin Buber stated, truth is found in persons, not in propositions. However, even if truth is existential in some sense, not all truth fits into the existential category. There are many kinds of truth, physical, mathematical, historical, and theoretical. But if truth by its very nature is found only subjectively in existential relevance, then none of these could be truth. What is true will be relevant, but not everything relevant is true. A pen is relevant to an atheist writer. And a gun is relevant to a murderer. But this does not make the former true nor the latter good. A truth about life will be relevant to life. But not everything relevant to one’s life will be true.
So what do students think?
The most popular view today seems to be #1 (a pragmatic view of truth) and then coming in second place is a tie between #5 and #6 (“Truth is what feels good” and “Truth is what is existentially relevant”).
Many, many, students are viewing the Christian faith as something that helps them have a better life. In other words, they are not asking whether it is objectively true. Comments like “I don’t see what difference Jesus would make in my life” and “I don’t think it is relevant whether God exists or Jesus is the Son of God” are somewhat common.
This shouldn’t be surprising given our entire culture is built on pragmatism. After all, people go to college to get a job that will work for them and help them get a good job. Furthermore, the Church has been embracing pragmatism for a long time. John MacArthur wrote an article called Church Pragmatism a long time ago. Not much has changed.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a good job when you’re finished college, as long as when you get that job you proceed to study everything else that matters. This is especially important for Christian men, who shoulder the load of providing for a family and the people around them. But I get his point.
The rest of Eric’s post offers a solution for how Christians can deal with pragmatism. My solution is to investigate their overall worldview and then introduce evidence that conflicts with their stated beliefs. For example, the kalam cosmological argument and the cosmic fine-tuning argument. It works better if you really can speak about the scientific or historical evidence for Christianity with authority. Just say to them that it’s fine with you if they want to believe things that aren’t truth because they are comfortable with them, but sometimes that will have disastrous consequences. The best way to puncture the self-confidence that pragmatic people have is to show them that at least some of their beliefs are flat out false. They can say that they don’t care, but at least they can’t say that what they believe is true.
If you say that the Christian view is bad because it is exclusive, then you are also at that exact moment doing the very thing that you are saying is bad. You have to be exclusive to say that something is bad, since you exclude it from being good by calling it bad.
There is a difference, a clear difference between tolerance and truth. They are often confused. We should hold to what we believe with integrity but also support the rights of others to disagree with our viewpoint.
Sincerely believing something doesn’t make it true. You can be sincere, but sincerely wrong. If I get onto a plane and sincerely believe that it won’t crash then it does, then my sincerity is quite hopeless. It won’t change the facts. Our beliefs, regardless of how deeply they are held, have no effect on reality.
If my belief is only true for me, then why isn’t your belief only true for you? Aren’t you saying you want me to believe the same thing you do?
You say that no belief is true for everyone, but you want everyone to believe what you do.
You’re making universal claims that relativism is true and absolutism is false. You can’t in the same breath say, ‘Nothing is universally true’ and ‘My view is universally true.’ Relativism falsifies itself. It claims there is one position that is true – relativism!