Self-Sealing Argument

This is from a recent post on the blog Leaving Fundamentalism:

From Marianne Talbot, I have learned a useful expression: a self-sealing argument. This is an argument which cannot be refuted, because it doesn’t allow any counter-argument. Almost every fundamentalist argument is self-sealing. This is why, in the end, I concluded that fundamentalism couldn’t possibly be true. Some will accuse me of scientism for this, but I concluded that unless a belief is testable, there’s no point holding it. All will become clearer if I show you an example.

The worst insult a fundamentalist can ever throw at you is ‘unbeliever’…In other words, we’re entirely happy to accept criticism, but it can only come from people who agree with us. And when they apply this criterion, fundamentalists magically find that everybody agrees with them!

As a mechanism to stop people leaving fundamentalism, this is extremely powerful. Remember, salvation is by faith, so if you find yourself straying into unbelief, you’re going to sit on your doubts hard, lest ye lose your salvation entirely.

Now, here’s the thing about self-sealing arguments: You can’t disprove ‘em. They could, in theory, be true. But because there’s no evidence that could ever disprove them, they could equally be false, and the believer would haveno way of knowing.This requires you to believe that God has designed the path to truth in such a way that it looks identical to the path to destruction, and there’s no way of checking which path you’re on. There are other religions with equally self-sealing paths, and adherents who are equally certain they are right. Travellers on all paths claim to have direct experiences of God, so religious experiences don’t offer any clarification.

That’s why I think that if you’re going to base any important decisions on a belief, you have to ask the question “How would I know if I’m wrong?” If the answer is “There’s no way to tell”, you’re on shaky ground.

Click through to read the whole thing.

 

  • David_Evans

    That is, indeed, a useful expression. I hope it spreads.

    I can’t help thinking, though, that when Marianne Talbot writes:

    “Now, here’s the thing about self-sealing arguments: You can’t disprove ‘em. They could, in theory, be true. But because there’s no evidence that could ever disprove them, they could equally be false, and the believer would have no way of knowing.”

    she is saying no more or less than what Dawkins and others have long been saying about theological propositions in general.

  • Saratogan

    Quoting from above “The worst insult a fundamentalist can ever throw at you is
    ‘unbeliever’…In other words, we’re entirely happy to accept criticism,
    but it can only come from people who agree with us. And when they apply
    this criterion, fundamentalists magically find that everybody agrees with them!” Since Mr. McGarth is a New Testament scholar, I am sure that he will find the no less than 13 New Testament references to the problem of unbelief including one by a man who in exasperation cries out “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!” Further the writer of Hebrews expresses “See, brethren, lest there be in any one of you a wicked heart of unbelief, in turning away from the living God.” The context is with respect to the children of Israel and the unbelief in the Sinai for 40 years but it applies just as well to our journey on this earth today.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The New Testament also has warnings about our tendency to seek out teachers who say what we want to hear. And the point of this post is about precisely that. It is very easy to dismiss someone as an unbeliever. It is much more challenging – but necessary – to listen to what they say, recognizing that what they disbelieve may be something that we ought to disbelieve too, because we have been deceived into believing it.

      • cyclops

        Circular reasoning, using the book to prove the book. What’s wrong with simply using plain common sense? I’m a Jedi, I believe in the force, my beliefs are true for me. Christians do not share my beliefs therefore to me, Christians are unbelievers.
        As you say it is terribly easy and fun to play in group out group morality games. Repetitive reinforcement of mantra’s, creeds and dogmas and special interpretations of scripture eventually become engraved in the soft tissue of the brain, (remember Pavlov’s dogs). This is commonly known as indoctrination, the method is used quite successfully in controlling large herds of unquestioning humans.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          The danger of relying on common sense is that it is shaped by our own experience and culture. That slavery was acceptable was once considered “common sense” and of course one can never get to the idea that physical matter is mostly empty space or the rotation of the Earth while relying primarily on common sense. We need to be open to having our common sense challenged.

          • Cyclops

            I don’t think slaves themselves considered slavery common sense, their slave owners might have regarded the practice as a god given right due to hierarchical structures in previous less egalitarian social orders. All men at all times have rebelled against being controlled against their will by the ruthless and powerful. Common sense and curiosity are valuable human traits, although not everyone possesses these in equal measure.
            My common sense, though sorely limited as you say, through the circumstance of my birth in a particular geographical location, tells me that Christianity was shaped through the experience of a particular European culture and history.
            But as we all should know today, there are many other competing cultural beliefs in the world, thus one is more or less obliged to conclude that all religions must be anthropological or tribal in origin and all gods are created in the image of the men who imagined them. All gods are not equal though, some are more equal than others, again common sense informs us that the god with the most potent weaponry and technology wins hands down.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    There is one big problem with this position: it’s self-defeating. The belief ‘Unless a belief is testable there’s no point holding it’ is untestable, and therefore there’s no point holding to it!

    This raises the question of how exactly we know things. Ultimately we have to have some sort of faith that our senses tell us something about the world and that the logic we use to connect it all is more or less coherent. So whilst this position mightn’t be as internally consistent as we’d like, it gives a pretty good starting point.

    The only sort of testing available is to simply live with the belief for a while and see if it holds up. Unfortunately this is also the only sort of testing available to fundamentalism. Whilst this is a test for self-sealing statements, I would suggest that there is a rather large blind spot which both admits and assimilates them.

    This is why a charge of scientism is probably well-founded. Her position has exactly the same weaknesses as fundamentalism.

    All of that said, I do agree with the thrust of her argument. As long as questions are allowed and we are permitted to try to imagine cases in which our beliefs don’t hold up, I think we’re good.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Yes, there certainly are some criticisms that can be made. But I really appreciate the point about how some insulate their their worldview from criticism by defining certain critiques and challenges as by definition illegitimate.

      • cameronhorsburgh

        Oh, for sure! Sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘I can’t hear you!’ may be popular in some circles but it isn’t the most efficient mode of discourse.

    • David_Evans

      “As long as questions are allowed and we are permitted to try to imagine cases in which our beliefs don’t hold up, I think we’re good.”

      That’s not quite good enough. It’s too easy to think that we have tried to imagine contrary cases, when in fact we haven’t tried hard enough. It’s uncomfortable to change one’s beliefs; most people will avoid finding reasons to do it.

      That’s why in science so much emphasis is placed on getting other people to replicate one’s experiments and criticise one’s arguments.

      • cameronhorsburgh

        That’s a pretty good point that I hadn’t considered! The social forces which tend to seal questions in religion ideally have the opposite effect in science.

  • http://leavingfundamentalism.wordpress.com/ Jonny Scaramanga

    Dr. McGrath, you’ve now linked to blog several times. Thank you. I’m honoured enough that someone of your calibre takes the time to read my writing, and even more so that you would point your readers to it.

    I also appreciate the thread below with Cameron Horsburgh. I often have people tell me there are weaknesses in my argument; much less often do they tell me specifically what those weaknesses are. I always welcome criticism of my arguments.


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