Tu Quoque Apologetics

I don’t think that philosophical defenders of theism could ply their trade without employing tu quoque arguments. The use of this device in defense of theistic doctrine goes back at least to Bishop Berkeley. When atheist astronomer Edmund Halley (famous for his comet) charged that the doctrines of Christianity are incomprehensible, Berkeley composed The Analyst which offered the tu quoque argument that the concept of the infinitesimal in Newton’s calculus is as obscure and contradictory as any mystery of Christian theology is said to be. Therefore mathematicians (like Halley) should remove the beams from their own eyes before presuming to admonish Christians about the motes in theirs. More recently, Alvin Plantinga’s whole argument in God and Other Minds is an extended tu quoque. Critics have long complained that there are no good arguments for theism. Plantinga responds with the tu quoque that there is no cogent argument for the existence of other minds, but that surely even the fiercest critics of theism believe that other people have minds. He examines the arguments for other minds and offers what he thinks are knock-down criticisms. His conclusion is that if there is no epistemic sin in believing, in the absence of adequate evidence or argument, that other people have minds, then, the same judgment should be made about theism, that is, that it is rational to believe in God even if that belief is not established by argument or evidence.

Tu quoque arguments definitely have their uses, and though elementary logic texts always stigmatize the tu quoque as a fallacy, I think that we should not proscribe its use entirely. The problem with using tu quoque in the defense of theism is that these arguments often have considerable rhetorical bark but little logical bite. A case in point is an argument given by Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan in their recent book The Agnostic Inquirer, a book that I reviewed last April for the on-line Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Menssen and Sullivan say that their book is aimed at unbelievers, the “agnostics” in their title, who honestly inquire about the possibility that there is a good God who has revealed himself to humanity. Much of their book addresses qualms that the “agnostics” are likely to have that could serve a stumbling blocks preventing them from seriously and fairly considering the possibility of divine revelation. One of these likely qualms is the objection that it is inconceivable that a disembodied entity, like God or a Cartesian soul, could causally interact with matter. Here is their argument and my response from the review:

An agnostic inquirer in Menssen and Sullivan’s sense is likely to be, at least, a methodological physicalist, that is, one who, as a matter of methodological or heuristic principle, requires that physical phenomena be explained exclusively in terms of hypotheses postulating physical entities, forces, or processes. One chief motivator of physicalism as a methodological or heuristic principle has been the longstanding and intractable difficulty of understanding how an immaterial entity, like God or a Cartesian mind, could cause a physical effect, e.g., by making a piece of matter move. Menssen and Sullivan admit that we have no idea how mind can move matter (p. 108), and they reply with a tu quoque: We have no idea how matter moves matter. Hence, they imply, it is unreasonable to reject supernatural causal explanations on the grounds that they are less informative than physical ones. With all forms of causality we are stuck where Hume left us, with nothing more than an account of consistent conjunction.

We should not be frightened by Hume’s ghost. Much of the success of science is due to the fact that it progressively acquires ever deeper and richer causal accounts of natural phenomena. We now possess many well-confirmed and copiously detailed explanations of how physical effects are brought about. Indeed, one of the major challenges facing a student in a field such as molecular biology is the sheer weight of detail that has to be mastered to comprehend how molecular processes accomplish their effects. Perhaps Menssen and Sullivan would reply that such accounts, however detailed, merely scratch the surface and do not tell us what is really, fundamentally going on when physical causation occurs. At the most basic level, they might claim, at the level of our theories of fundamental forces and their interactions, all we can say is that things do happen in a given way.

But the point is precisely that with many scientific causal accounts, there is a great wealth of explanatory detail before we reach causal bedrock. Even at the presumably rock-bottom level of quarks, electrons, and photons we have well-confirmed, mathematically precise theories, like quantum electrodynamics, that often make astonishingly accurate predictions. These theories do not just tell us that fundamental particles interact, but give us much information about the way that they do. With supernatural causal explanations, on the other hand, our inquiry simply hits a wall. An advocate of the Cartesian theory of mind can only say that mind does move things by a power which, as Menssen and Sullivan admit, is occult. This is Owen Flanagan’s point when he says that for the Cartesian the mind performs psychokinesis with every voluntary action (Flanagan, 2002, p. 58). Theistic explanations are no better. The evolutionary account of, say, the beginning of mammals is replete with factual and theoretical detail. The creationist story, by contrast, can hardly improve upon the author of the first chapter of Genesis: “God said ‘Let there be…,’ and it was so.” Clearly, compared to the richness of many scientific causal accounts, supernatural causal scenarios are extremely exiguous in content. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for methodological physicalists to demand naturalistic causal accounts.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    ‘Plantinga responds with the tu quoque that there is no cogent argument for the existence of other minds, but that surely even the fiercest critics of theism believe that other people have minds.’

    But even the fiercest supporters of theism claim you have to know that other people exist before you can believe that other people have minds.

    Plantinga is like somebody claiming that Harry Potter has a mind, and that he is entitled to believe that as I am entitled to believe that Alving Plantinga has a mind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I did not remember what the tu quoque fallacy consisted of, so I looked it up:

    Tu quoque (pronounced “tu kwo-kway”) is, in Latin, “you also”. In idiomatic English, it means “look who’s talking.” (S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason, 4th edition, ST. Martin’s Press, New York, 1990, p.193)

    In this fallacy,

    …the person advocating a position is charged with acting in a manner that contradicts the position taken. The thrust of the tu quoque fallacy is that an opponent’s argument is worthless because the opponent has failed to follow his or her own advice. (With Good Reason, p. 193)

    Tu quoque is a specific form of the ad hominem fallacy.

    Argumentum ad hominem means in Latin, literally, “argument to the man.” It is also translated as “against the man,” a form emphasizing the fact that this fallacy shifts the attack away from the question and places it against the person who is making the argument. (With Good Reason, p. 188)

    Person M commits the ad hominem fallacy against person N if and only if:

    1. M responds to Q, a position N has taken, by attacking N rather than by attacking Q.
    2. The attack on N is not relevant to the assessment of Q.

    (R.H. Johnson & J.A. Blair, Logical Self-Defense, 2nd Edition, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1983, p. 79)

    In some cases attacks against the arguer could be relevant to the assessment of the position that is being put forward. If acceptance of a premise or assumption of the argument depends on the reliability or authority of the arguer, then casting doubt on the reliability or authority of the arguer would be relevant to an evaluation of the argument.

    In what sort of cases might a hypocrisy or tu quoque charge be relevant to evaluating an argument? I can think of a few situations where this charge might be relevant:

    1. The arguer fails to follow his or her own advice/principles in some cases because it comes into conflict with another value or principle that is of equal or greater significance.
    2. The arguer fails to follow his or her own advice/principles in some cases because the advice/principle is extremely demanding, making it extremely difficult to follow in practice.
    3. The arguer fails to follow his or her own advice/principles because of a logical contradiction within his or her point of view.

    In each of these circumstances, there is a relevant point that underlies the charge of hypocrisy. So, to keep a debate clean, and the punches above the belt, it would probably be best to focus in on the underlying point rather than to emphasize the hypocrisy of the arguer. But mentioning the hypocrisy of the arguer can be a rhetorically effective way to draw attention to the underlying point, which is likely to be something like one of the following:

    1. The advice/principles put forward by the arguer are OK in themselves, but the arguer is ignoring other significant values or principles that are also operative in this context.
    2. The advice/principles put forward by the arguer may have some merit, but the advice/principles are unrealistic and not practical for use by real human beings or by typical human beings.
    3. The advice/principles put forward by the arguer are questionable because they are logically incompatible with other beliefs that we hold to be true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Why does a rock in my hand fall to the ground when I release it? Gravitational force pulls it downwards. The rock moves towards the Earth rather than my head, because the mass of the Earth is much greater than my head. It moves towards the Earth rather than to the Sun, because gravitational force diminishes with distance. A rock falls faster from my hand than a feather because of drag caused by friction with air. On the moon, a rock and a feather fall at the same speed and acceleration. This is all explanation of how matter causes matter to move. So, the tu quoque charge is simply false.

    However, it is much more difficult to explain how gravitational force works. There are theories, but I don’t think any theory has been firmly established yet. In any case, there will always be an ultimate explanatory element or idea. If gravitational force gets explained in terms of gravitons, then gravitons will become the ultimate explanatory concept in the explanation of why a stone falls when I release it.

    Since any system of explanation must, at any given point of development, have some elements or ideas that are ultimate, the tu quoque objection is based on a demand for an impossibility: a system of explanation that has an infinite regress of explanatory concepts.

  • Brent Arnesen

    I have noticed this Tu Quoque usage while debating and discussing atheism with theists for over ten years. They use it as a Red Herring, to draw the argument away from actually defending their position. It’s very frustrating, since it often works, or makes the discussion devolve into minor arguments, or worse, into deep philosophical problems that philosophers haven’t settled, yet, the theist then presumes has been settled in order to make their case. They are adverse to saying “I don’t know”, where as atheists are very comfortable with it.


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