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My response to Sam’s book
Posted: 07 June 2008 07:55 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Dear Sam Harris,

To echo the opening of your book, you do not believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and it does not matter whether you (or anyone else, for that matter) place your faith in Jesus Christ to find salvation after death. In fact, as an atheist, you believe this, not because it makes you feel good, but because you believe it is true – regardless of the emotional response involved.

I was impressed with your candor and forthrightness. Instead of pretending that everybody can believe what they want to or that what a person believes makes no difference in their lives, you bravely articulated what Christianity has said for almost two thousand years – “The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t. Either Jesus offers humanity the one true path to salvation, or he does not.”[1] The Apostle Paul affirms this most strongly when he says, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[2]

Mr. Harris, you are correct that if this most basic doctrine of Christianity is true, you will have misused your life and are presently in danger of eternal damnation. And, having read your book and others like it, I again echo your words – the fact that my continuous and public rejection of atheism, anti-theism, and agnosticism does not worry me in the least, should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for dismissing Christianity are.

I gain no pleasure from declaring this. There is no quiet glee that you and people like you are going to “get it” in the end. I do not rejoice over the fact that you find the evidence for Christianity so lacking. Those who claim the name of Christ who would rather spew venom and all sorts of nastiness sadden me. But while the lack of Christ-likeness on their part is inexcusable, it does not change the urgency of situation in the least. It is with that in mind and for this reason that I write you.

Again, I commend your directness, even your bluntness, as you express your dissatisfaction with the claims and evidences of Christianity. This allows me a greater measure of freedom in response – so often political correctness and all the societal niceties discourage open discussion.

In reading your book, it appears that your greatest objections to Christianity come under two main headings – morality and science. These two subjects seem to be central to your refutation of Christianity. My guess is that these are the primary issues that are brought to your attention in the letters that Christians frequently send you.

Pardon me for assuming this, but in the matter of Christian morality, you have not been very gracious. Your objections appear to generate a lot of heat but not a lot of light. Sifting through the rhetoric, the substance of your argument is that the human race does not need an objective moral law code given by a transcendent Being which all men must be subject to. Rather, we can and should be able to establish an objective morality through proper physiological analysis. This is a better solution than appealing to some Creator-God who determines right from wrong – especially in light of the fact that much of what He says about right and wrong simply cannot be affirmed in today’s culture (e.g. your discussion on slavery and the like).

Christian morality, in your opinion, does more harm than good by increasing suffering. This comes about by a misguided emphasis on trying to please God rather than caring for those who are in pain. Instead of solutions that work, Christians attempt to enforce their morality on others by ineffective programs and weak substitutes. We are more concerned with abortion than genocide, with condom-use than AIDS victims, and with false concerns about the souls of blastocysts than burn victims.

In fact, you argue, doing good for others is not a purely Christian concern – many others, even atheists, regularly help and serve those in need. “[A]theism is compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society… [and] widespread belief in God does not ensure a society’s health.”[3]
The Christian morality aside, the problem boils down to the “goodness” of God Himself. The very presence of moral evil – you cite the example of a man abducting a little girl, who he will rape, torture, and kill – this disproves the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God who watches over and cares for us. “The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. […] Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”[4]

The failure of God to protect humanity can be seen, not only on the level of individual evil, but also on the level of cosmic evil – where earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes ravage human life.

The solution to the problem of the failure of God, in your opinion, is the light of science. Advance warning for Hurricane Katrina was provided by science, not religion. Events like Katrina, the Holocaust, and the genocide in Rwanda seem to make more sense in light of another possibility – that “the biblical God is a fiction.”[5]

This leads us to your second main point – the conflict between science and religion. You have rightly put your finger on the problem – this conflict is unavoidable. “The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.”[6] Every religion makes specific claims about the nature of the world and how it operates. In your estimation, “the core of science … is intellectual honesty.”[7] And this can only be accomplished with an honest appraisal of the evidence, which religion does not allow.
The specific beliefs about the nature of the universe as understood by Christians are in direct conflict with the specific beliefs about the nature of the universe as understood by Muslims, or Hindus, or even atheists. It is this rigid dogmatism that brings men and women into conflict and even open warfare. “The truth is, it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.”[8]

We both agree that our beliefs directly impact our actions. There is no point in pretending otherwise. Essentially, you and I are committed to two completely antithetical worldviews. On your side, there is no transcendent Being who graciously governs the universe and orders it by the word of His power. There are no morally absolute laws given from on high and no eternal destiny to fear or anticipate. On my side, the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – brought the universe into existence and governs it with wisdom, power, goodness, and love. Which, in your estimation, means that I am horribly deluded and completely out of touch with reality.

In a standard discussion of this nature, the next step would be for me to begin citing evidence for my side. I would bring out my experts and my proofs. However, the discussion really wouldn’t get very far – my experts versus your experts, my proofs against your proofs. Quite quickly we could denounce the other as being horribly blind and unwilling to listen. And, before we knew it, the discussion would be over. Let me propose a more profitable route to take: let’s examine the underlying assumptions we both bring to the table and ask the questions behind the questions.

To begin with, the subject of morality is a smokescreen. You spent most of your book attempting to explode the silliness of the Bible’s presentation of morality and the Christian application of it. However, the real and substantive issue is the Lawgiver Himself. You pillory the Old Testament law code and especially the Ten Commandments as, well, useless. “Admonishments of this kind are found in virtually every culture throughout recorded history. There is nothing especially compelling about their presentation in the Bible.”[9] In fact, you mock the tenth commandment – “and what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of our universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock?”[10] You state later on, that “a book written by an omniscient being could contain a chapter on mathematics that, after two thousand years of continuous use, would still be the richest source of mathematical insight humanity has ever known.”[11]

Simply stated, God doesn’t conform to your estimation of what He should be and His law doesn’t evidence the sort of priorities you’d prefer. Mr. Harris, as a 21st century thinker, who has major qualms about slavery of any sort for any reason, God just doesn’t measure up to your standards.[12] What I find interesting about this line of argument is that it isn’t new at all. Man has wanted God to conform to his requirements since the Garden of Eden.

The priorities we find evidenced in the Bible are not scientific or mathematical formulations, but holiness. The requirements to be set apart and sanctified are not principally about external actions and choices, but rather a heart that is changed. The tenth commandment, which you so glibly dismiss, demonstrates that it is our heart that God is principally concerned with. It is impossible to put a law on the books that can enforce a command not to covet. This is because coveting is a heart attitude that desires the blessings of our neighbor.

Not incidental to this is that the Bible places the attitude of the heart as the essential element of religion that is pleasing to God. Since this cannot be legislated and enforced by a human magistrate, it can only be resolved after death. There must be, and there will be, a judgment – the heart (the core of his being) leads to his thoughts which lead to his actions. “Right” actions without right thoughts are not pleasing to God just as “right” thoughts that do not result in right actions. The wicked in this life will face the righteous Judge in the life to come. The rapist or the murder that escapes human jurisdiction will ultimately come to justice.

Let’s set this aside for a moment and consider another issue – you argue that we should be pursuing intellectual honesty and to seek to know what is true in our world. In your estimation, an honest approach to the world is what is needed the most, especially as we consider religion. You couldn’t be more correct. The position you are espousing, whether your like it or not, is a religious one. It is decidedly anti-religious in tone, but it is religious in nature nonetheless. This is because you are taking a stance on the true nature of the universe. You have declared that the physical is all that there is and that existence precedes essence (the blastocyst only becomes a person later on) – these are metaphysical statements that are directly applicable to religion. Yours is a religion of knowledge and scientific exploration based on principles of logic and order. While God is absent from your system, the universe is still ordered and organized which results in awe and amazement. It is not surprising that atheist societies are creating “churches” that do everything but pray to God.

[...]

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Posted: 07 June 2008 07:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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However, in your estimation, God is an imaginary being. This world is all that there is. If you can see it, taste it, touch it, smell it – in short, if there is physical evidence for something, it is reasonable. There is something slightly humorous in your line of thought, by the way. You’ve prejudged the conclusion by eliminating the very object under consideration. You do realize this, don’t you? God, who is spirit and not material (by definition), is eliminated from the very beginning of discussion.

You have set yourself up as the judge of what is or is not true. The universe under consideration is only that which can be experienced through our senses. All the while you are appealing to rules of logic (the law of non-contradiction) and the stability and universality of physical laws. In short, Mr. Harris, you are playing on the Christian’s native turf.

For the Christian, they find themselves as created beings under the order and rule of the Creator. This Creator established and maintains the world. It is because of Him that we live and move and have our being. We are able to communicate with one another because God created us to communicate. We can scientifically examine and organize our sensory data because He sustains the universe. Cause and effect are directly and only possible because God created. When we examine the law of gravity or even the law of non-contradiction, we have a reason to expect the universe to be ordered and logical because God created it this way.

You, on the other hand, have not proven why laws of logic or science should exist in the first place. If we are being intellectually honest, you have to explain how the thoughts in your head can be transmitted through the printed word, read by me, and understood in my mind, and in a system without a transcendent Being who makes this all possible. Your system assumes this to be the case but cannot explain why this is. Fundamentally, you appeal to logic to then prove that the God, who established and ordered this universe to behave logically, cannot exist.[13]

You must first borrow a functional universe from the Christian worldview in order to disprove the very Being who makes everything hang together in the first place. Not only that, you’ve established yourself as the final arbiter of what is or is not possible. If God’s commands do not meet with your approval, they must be dismissed.

Ah, you will say, I’m not establishing myself as judge. I am merely appealing to logic and rationality. You are then appealing to an external, universal standard by which all men must submit.

I would encourage you to consider the staggering nature of what I’m asking you to do – on what basis can you establish a world where logic and science make sense without appealing to transcendence? So far as I have encountered, every system of thought must appeal to a universal beyond the individual to which all men are accountable. Depending on the generation and the nationality, the universal looks surprisingly similar to the one doing the inquiry. God, in your recreation, would be a reasonable, scientific-type fellow who really would want everyone to just get along. No moral demands, no holiness required, just a good-natured general wholesomeness.

Hmm… This “god” looks very similar to Sam Harris.

Paul, in Romans 1, establishes that this is exactly our problem. We have abundant evidence all around us (in fact, the very science you appeal to) that God created and maintains this universe. Not only that, we know (you yourself admitted that the Bible’s moral laws are found across culture and throughout time) how we ought to behave. Yet, without exception, we fail to live out the law that is written on our hearts. We have known God and yet we have not honored Him as God nor given thanks to Him. We have become futile in our thinking and our foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, we became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Mr. Harris, your “god” doesn’t look that much like the Bible’s, it looks a lot like you. While your god may be more sophisticated than that of the animistic aborigine, the root is still the same. Their image is literal one while yours is a mental construction. Both you and they have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.

To sum up, you are playing with our ball on our court. All your appeals to rationality and logic can only make sense in a world where order is imposed from without and upon all. Rather than proving how this is possible, you have presumed that it is so. On top of that, you’ve dismissed the God of Scripture as a figment of men’s imagination because He does not conform to your self-established standard.

I realize that I have not begun to deal with the specific questions and concerns raised in your book. My desire was not to engage on a point-by-point refutation, but rather to examine the heart of the matter. Metaphysically, you cannot explain why the universe behaves the way that it does. It simply is and that is all we can say about it. Epistemologically, you cannot explain how we can understand and communicate logic and truth. It simply occurs this way and that is all we can say about it. I submit to you that metaphysically and epistemologically, unity and diversity are only possible with Creator – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who is on the throne, and the creature (all of us) who is under His authority and submissive to His will.

I cannot and will not excuse the blood spilt in the name of Christ. His kingdom is not to be established by the sword. Those who have chosen this route have brought great shame upon the name of Christ. As Christians, we are to be meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers – willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake.

Your humble servant,
Jeffrey Brannen

Bibliography

Bahnsen, Greg. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. P&R;, New Jersey: 1998.

Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 2006.

Oliphint, K. Scott. The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture For
Defending Our Faith. P&R;, New Jersey: 2003.


[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Knopf (New York 2006), p. 3.
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:16-19 ESV (emphasis added).
[3] Letter, p. 45.
[4] Ibid., p. 50-51.
[5] Ibid., p. 55.
[6] Ibid., p. 63.
[7] Ibid., p. 64.
[8] Ibid., p. 87.
[9] Ibid., p. 21.
[10] Ibid., p. 22.
[11] Ibid., p. 60.
[12] K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord, P&R;(New Jersey, 2003), p. 135. “This suppression of the truth, however, does not set aside all worship and service. It attempts to take God out of the picture and put some created thing in his place. In our wickedness, we exchange the one we ought to worship for something else that we would rather worship.”
[13] Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, P&R;(New Jersey, 1998), p. 316. “All unbelieving worldviews and their system of knowledge [fail on these problems:] the problem of brute (random) facts without meaning, the problem of continuity and contingency (a closed, yet open universe), the problem of relating logic to facts, the problem of phenomenalism (the mind knowing only itself, not the external world), and then […] the ‘rational-irrational tension’ that afflicts all unbelieving thought.”

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Posted: 07 June 2008 11:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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The Epistle of Jeffrey

This person is a Christian, but his one and only Bible reference is to Paul. Only a couple of references to Jesus, in the beginning, and then only in an abstract, divine sense.

L&R;, if you are reading this, this is why there is no mention of the historic Jesus in the epistles. He is out of the picture, like the founder of a successful corporation voted out by the board of directors seeking a “new direction”.

I can assure you the author of Jeffrey is aware of the biographical material in the gospels, it is just of no use to him.

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Posted: 07 June 2008 11:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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mcalpine - 07 June 2008 03:07 PM

. . .
. . . this is why there is no mention of the historic Jesus in the epistles. He is out of the picture, like the founder of a successful corporation voted out by the board of directors seeking a “new direction”.

And when did your favorite Magic Boy reenter the picture? Do you have the history chops to address such a question, or will you just make up an answer that feels good?

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 07 June 2008 11:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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homunculus - 07 June 2008 03:28 PM
mcalpine - 07 June 2008 03:07 PM

. . .
. . . this is why there is no mention of the historic Jesus in the epistles. He is out of the picture, like the founder of a successful corporation voted out by the board of directors seeking a “new direction”.

And when did your favorite Magic Boy reenter the picture? Do you have the history chops to address such a question, or will you just make up an answer that feels good?

H, the tone of your post surprises me. You say that you used to be a born-again Christian. Now, you refer to him as “Magic Boy.” Strange way to refer to someone you once professed to believe in and love. Perhaps you never did. It’s one thing to say “I don’t believe anymore.” But to resort to name-calling is beneath you.
(Of course, I still want to be on your party list).  grin

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Posted: 07 June 2008 12:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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As you mentioned the other day, Bruce, it’s a tough crowd.

[ Edited: 07 June 2008 06:07 PM by nv]
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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 07 June 2008 10:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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“And when did your favorite Magic Boy reenter the picture? Do you have the history chops to address such a question, or will you just make up an answer that feels good?”

My comments were in response to L&R;, with regard to the syncretism thread in the Christianity forum, in which he points to Paul’s silence on the historic Jesus in his epistles as proof that he (Paul) knew nothing about the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. I was using the “epistle of Jeffrey” to demonstrate how the historical Jesus is of no importance to Christians today, and most likely the historical Jesus was of no importance to Paul.

As for my history chops, I get by. I never just make anything up, but very few people, if any at all, ever agree with me. If I just wanted to feel good, I would say what I already know would get a feel-good response. Can you really say that I seem to do that here?

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Posted: 08 June 2008 07:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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mcalpine - 08 June 2008 02:18 AM

. . .
As for my history chops, I get by. I never just make anything up, but very few people, if any at all, ever agree with me. If I just wanted to feel good, I would say what I already know would get a feel-good response. Can you really say that I seem to do that here?

No, and I’m glad to see that you are apparently not the fundamentalist Bible believer I’d assumed you were. Google “comforter holy spirit” to find out how other people gain confidence about the accuracy of historical and much other information.

My apologies, Mac.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 08 June 2008 12:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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“My apologies, Mac.”

None necessary, but thanks.

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Posted: 08 June 2008 05:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 07 June 2008 03:34 PM

H, the tone of your post surprises me. You say that you used to be a born-again Christian. Now, you refer to him as “Magic Boy.” Strange way to refer to someone you once professed to believe in and love. Perhaps you never did. It’s one thing to say “I don’t believe anymore.” But to resort to name-calling is beneath you.
(Of course, I still want to be on your party list).  grin

Higher degrees of stupidity (and/or obvious intellectual dishonesty) often evoke higher degrees of disgust and other negative emotional responses. That’s just part of life in the cosmos living among humans, man.

Byron

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“We say, ‘Love your brother…’ We don’t say it really, but… Well we don’t literally say it. We don’t really, literally mean it. No, we don’t believe it either, but… But that message should be clear.”—David St. Hubbins

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Posted: 08 June 2008 09:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 07 June 2008 03:34 PM

H, the tone of your post surprises me. You say that you used to be a born-again Christian. Now, you refer to him as “Magic Boy.” Strange way to refer to someone you once professed to believe in and love. Perhaps you never did. It’s one thing to say “I don’t believe anymore.” But to resort to name-calling is beneath you.
(Of course, I still want to be on your party list).  grin

Bruce, I’m counting on you to consider all of my comments here to be emotionally detached from you personally as though we were opposing attorneys who ostensibly hated each other in the morning then played golf and socialized together in the afternoon. Deal?

Too bad neither of us will be paid for our efforts, but what else is new, right?

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 09 June 2008 06:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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homunculus - 09 June 2008 01:01 AM
Bruce Burleson - 07 June 2008 03:34 PM

H, the tone of your post surprises me. You say that you used to be a born-again Christian. Now, you refer to him as “Magic Boy.” Strange way to refer to someone you once professed to believe in and love. Perhaps you never did. It’s one thing to say “I don’t believe anymore.” But to resort to name-calling is beneath you.
(Of course, I still want to be on your party list).  grin

Bruce, I’m counting on you to consider all of my comments here to be emotionally detached from you personally as though we were opposing attorneys who ostensibly hated each other in the morning then played golf and socialized together in the afternoon. Deal?

Too bad neither of us will be paid for our efforts, but what else is new, right?

Deal.

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Posted: 09 June 2008 06:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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SkepticX - 08 June 2008 09:56 PM
Bruce Burleson - 07 June 2008 03:34 PM

H, the tone of your post surprises me. You say that you used to be a born-again Christian. Now, you refer to him as “Magic Boy.” Strange way to refer to someone you once professed to believe in and love. Perhaps you never did. It’s one thing to say “I don’t believe anymore.” But to resort to name-calling is beneath you.
(Of course, I still want to be on your party list).  grin

Higher degrees of stupidity (and/or obvious intellectual dishonesty) often evoke higher degrees of disgust and other negative emotional responses. That’s just part of life in the cosmos living among humans, man.

Ah, I love eating a little “ad hominy” for breakfast. It’s made from corn, you know.

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Posted: 09 June 2008 06:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 09 June 2008 10:11 AM

Ah, I love eating a little “ad hominy” for breakfast. It’s made from corn, you know.

Fallacies require that they’re used in argumentation.

What you have there is simply your basic insult—your basic warranted/earned insult.

You can certainly criticize the validity or merits thereof, but insults are not arguments, generally speaking, and thus cannot be fallacious.

Byron

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“We say, ‘Love your brother…’ We don’t say it really, but… Well we don’t literally say it. We don’t really, literally mean it. No, we don’t believe it either, but… But that message should be clear.”—David St. Hubbins

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Posted: 09 June 2008 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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SkepticX - 09 June 2008 10:45 AM
Bruce Burleson - 09 June 2008 10:11 AM

Ah, I love eating a little “ad hominy” for breakfast. It’s made from corn, you know.

Fallacies require that they’re used in argumentation.

What you have there is simply your basic insult—your basic warranted/earned insult.

You can certainly criticize the validity or merits thereof, but insults are not arguments, generally speaking, and thus cannot be fallacious.Byron

We can even disagree about this. Had your post been a basic insult, you would have simply said “you stupid liar.” Instead, you made an argument about “higher degrees of stupidity evoking higher degrees of disgust.” Therefore, you engaged in argumentation and committed the fallacy. You get the last word.

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Posted: 09 June 2008 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 09 June 2008 10:51 AM

We can even disagree about this. Had your post been a basic insult, you would have simply said “you stupid liar.” Instead, you made an argument about “higher degrees of stupidity evoking higher degrees of disgust.” Therefore, you engaged in argumentation and committed the fallacy. You get the last word.

Please ...

Do you also consider jokes with premises to be fallacious?

Get over it. It’ll be far easier in the long run than trying to force reality to comply with your wishes.

Byron

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“We say, ‘Love your brother…’ We don’t say it really, but… Well we don’t literally say it. We don’t really, literally mean it. No, we don’t believe it either, but… But that message should be clear.”—David St. Hubbins

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