On Self-Refuting Claims: Reductio Ad Absurdum, The Road Runner Tactic, and There Are No Absolutes


When I was a religious believer I would often employ what is known as ‘The Road Runner Tactic’, as coined by Christian apologist Norman Geisler, who overuses it in his philosophically illiterate book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.

The Road Runner Tactic is a form of the reductio ad absurdum argument employed as an argument to counter a statement made that is untenable. It is used to show how the statement might yield a nonsensical or absurd result. 

But theists often use it wrong, using it to counter an argument when it isn’t actually intended as a contra-argument. Arguments, after all, consist of numerous interelated claims. Even if one claim is untenable, it doesn’t mean all the others are. All it means is that the argument needs revision.

Applied absolutely to any claim, ‘Road Runner’ style tactics will almost always lead to absurd results. But this distortion arises due to a misapplication of the method. Argumentum ad absurdum arguments are meant only to determine the difeasibility of a claim–not act as a competing claim. 

As theists use it, it is typically intended to falsify claims that they frame as absolute. I’ll explain why this is problematic later on.

In an online conversation with a theist I has said there are a million to one arguments against God. Needless to say, it was a bit of a rhetorical flourish. Although I think atheism is the more rational position, and is more defensible than theism, that doesn’t mean there aren’t coherent arguments for the existence of God. My statement merely reflects the fact that, having gone from a devote believer to a nonbeliever, I currently feel that the atheistic position is the better supported and better defended position.

Challenging me on the claim, he responded, “Oh, yeah? A million to one arguments against God? Are you prepared to back up your claims?”

And I was like… it’s a rhetorical flourish… don’t be so literal.

Later on in the discussion he hit me with the old canard, “There are no absolute claims” is an absolute claim, therefore it is self-refuting, via reductio ad absurdum

This reasoning is wrong, however. It’s wrong because it imports an absolute meaning into an otherwise generic statement.

I tried to inform him that it only reduces to the absurd and is self-refuting if the grammar or context explicitly specifies for it being an absolute statement. If not, then it should be interpreted as a generalization. 

Let me explain.

We can read “There are no absolute claims” in either one of two ways. 

1) There are probably no absolute claims”

or

2) There are absolutely no absolute claims”

Is it a probabilistic claim or an absolute claim? Without a given context, we simply cannot know which one is intended. 

I informed it is a mistake to assume either one is the intended meaning when the comment stated is, itself, a generalization.  


Generally speaking, it’s simply a rule of thumb, unless the context or the grammar (such as from #2) expressly state that it is intended as an absolute. The argument from reductio ad absurdum is not valid as a counter to generalizations. Even if the generalization of a claim is rendered untenable, again, that doesn’t mean the whole of the argument is falsified. Although, one would probably have to revise the argument, or the wording, for it to be tenable.


Anyway, I hope this helps any of you if this comes up in online discussions with theists or believers, because it comes up a lot.


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One comment

  1. > “Later on in the discussion he hit me with the old canard, “There are no absolute claims” is an absolute claim, therefore it is self-refuting, via reductio ad absurdum.

    This reasoning is wrong, however. It’s wrong because it imports an absolute meaning into an otherwise generic statement.

    I tried to inform him that it only reduces to the absurd and is self-refuting if the grammar or context explicitly specifies for it being an absolute statement. If not, then it should be interpreted as a generalization.”
    ____________

    A little word usage check here….

    A “claim” is a inconclusive assertion. There are in fact no absolute claims. There are only absolute proofs. Proofs can be made into objective laws and are absolute in their own sense (F=ma for example). But claims are defined as claims because they have yet to gain the conclusive background of laws and proofs.

    In order for the statement, “There are no absolute claims.” to be a self contradiction, the statement itself must be a claim and the criteria of the word ‘claim’ must be able to possess the potential for absoluteness.

    However the error in your use here is that claims, by definition are not absolute. If a claim does become absolute it is no longer a claim. And so process of elimination disallows the “claims must be able to possess the potential for absoluteness” point. What’s left is whether the statement itself is a claim. And as shown earlier the statement is simply presenting the what was previously determined to be the defining of the term ‘claim’. If claims are factually defined as not being absolute and the statement made reinforces this then it goes without saying that the statement is not a claim. The statement is simply a declaration/factual affirmation. In order for the statement to be in error it would have to be phrased:

    “There are absolute claims.”

    This is now a contradictory statement because claims by definition are not absolute. My point being is that you have it backwards.

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