Self-refuting statements defined and some common examples

A fine article by Aaron, who writes at Please Convince Me.


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.

Here are 20 examples of self-refutation, just to encourage you to click through and read it:

1. There is no truth.

2. You can’t know truth.

3. No one has the truth.

4. All truth is relative.

5. It’s true for you but not for me.

6. There are no absolutes.

7. No one can know any truth about religion.

8. You can’t know anything for sure.

9. You should doubt everything.

10. Only science can give us truth.

11. You can only know truth through experience.

12. All truth depends on your perspective.

13. You shouldn’t judge.

14. You shouldn’t force your morality on people.

15. You should live and let live.

16. God doesn’t take sides.

17. You shouldn’t try to convert people.

18. That’s just your view.

19. You should be tolerant of all views.

20. It is arrogant to claim to have the truth.

Aaron explains how to respond to each of those! Read them all – it’s important to know, because you hear these all the time. Like from that Susan Stone person who comments here.

By the way, anyone with a Twitter account, the best person to follow on Twitter is J Warner Wallace (@plsconvinceme). He tweets about 10-15 apologetics items per day.

12 thoughts on “Self-refuting statements defined and some common examples”

  1. Purely humorous, here, but when I was young we would often visit Mexico, so my mother told me, “The first phrase you need to learn and use often is ‘No hablo Espanol’.” “I don’t speak Spanish.” You’d think that would be helpful, but telling someone in the language you claim not to speak that you don’t speak it didn’t seem to go over very well. Self-refuting.

  2. Most of these stop being self-refuting if you just add “I think.” That’s what people usually mean, anyway. They’re not trying to talk from God’s cosmic perspective, but they’re just talking about the practical here-and-now.

    Still, I guess #1, #4 and #6 are specifically talking about absolute things, so they must always be self-refuting.

    1. Well, if “I think” is a shorthand way of saying “I think that it’s true that…”, then it’s still self-refuting. However, if it just one person’s opinion, then I would respond by asking if they think that their opinion describes reality. If they say yes, then we’re back to self-refutation. If they say no, then what they are saying is useless for any discussion – as if they had said “I like broccoli more than ice cream”.

      1. It’s “useless for any discussion” of God’s absolute reality, but it’s fine for practical day-to-day talk. Don’t knock it. Apologetics is great and all, but we’ve still got to eat our broccoli first before having dessert.

    2. The could be double-standards, For example, when someone says “You shouldn’t judge”, they could be saying “You shouldn’t judge because you are wrong, but I can judge because I am right”. That would be a statement to attempt to end a discussion rather than start one.

  3. There is a valid philosophical point here to be made about self-refuting statements.

    But some of the examples are poor. While many of those statements are refutable, most of the examples are NOT self-refuting. For instance:

    “You can only know truth through experience”

    The statement is refutable but it isn’t self-refuting. It’s a statement that may be based on experience.

    “You shouldn’t force your morality on people”

    This not self-refuting since making it entails no call for force.

    “You should live and let live”

    Same thing.

    “God doesn’t take sides”

    This is only self-refuting if you take the view that there is no such thing as a neutral position on any matter. That can’t be right. It’s true that to be undecided is itself a kind of decision but it is NOT a decision on the particular controversy or argument identified. It would be like saying that a referee always takes a side in a football game.

    “You shouldn’t try to convert people”

    No problem here. A “should” statement is not necessarily an attempt to convert.

    …and so on. A statement is only truly self-refuting if it necessarily contains a contradiction. If you have to introduce an independent argument to refute the statement (as with many, if not most, of the statements here) then it’s not self-refuting.

    1. Every single point made in this comment is logically incorrect. Either the assertions made by the person committing the self-refutating statements are opinions, in which case they can be ignored, or they are objective claims, in which case they are self-refuting.

      Let me take a look at just one for the sake of time.

      “You shouldn’t try to convert people”

      Citizen Ghost says this isn’t self-refuting because saying what someone shouldn’t do is not an attempt to convert them. What he means is that this person is expressing an opinion – their own personal view, and not trying to convince anyone. What they really mean is “I shouldn’t try convert people”. It’s not a normative claim, it’s a personal preference claim. Therefore, the claim has no value in a debate, and so it can be ignored. It’s just a subjective claim, like saying “I like ice cream”. Who cares?

      Now if it is an objective claim – a claim of prescriptive morality binding on the hearer, that appeals to a real obligation that is binding on others – then it cannot be ignored. But then it is self-refuting because it is an attempt to convert someone to that point of view.

      And so for all of Citizen Ghost’s objections. He wants the statements to be preference claims so that they can be sustained. But no one cares about the preferences and “lack-of-beliefs” and other nonsense in an atheist’s head. It’s just counter-factual, non-cognitive babble. They don’t know anything and they can’t express themselves logically.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s