Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Behind Closed Doors


                I’ve noticed an interesting fallacy crop up pretty often in discussions about morality and the like. It’s what I call the “Closed Door” fallacy. Basically, it assumes that, since we don’t know what goes on in someone’s private life, it’s safe to assume whatever would best suit our case. Thus, if I say that many priests are perfectly happy with celibacy and are able to shoulder the burden quite tolerably, the answer is “well, how do you know what goes on when they’re alone, or how secretly miserable they might be behind that fa├žade of cheerfulness?” And therefore my adversary is allowed to go on with his assumption that celibacy is impossible or unhealthy having, in one stroke, dismissed the cumulative testimony of millions of people throughout history. Then, if he actually comes to know a priest who tells him that he’s perfectly happy with being celibate and so on, he can dismiss him as either A). lying to avoid coming to the inevitable conclusion that he’s actually miserable, or if he’s of a more charitable temperament, B). dismissing him as “an exception,” because the vast majority whom he does not know can still be assumed to be miserable or unfaithful.
                This can be applied in pretty much any case of inconvenient testimony. Want to say monogamy is impossible and unhealthy? This gets rid of all the millions of happily married couples throughout history. Want to claim that it’s impossible to rise from poverty in today’s America? This dismisses the thousands who do so as “exceptions.” I suspect that half the current academic ‘theories’ about morality, society, and politics are based on this principle.
                The reason this is a fallacy is that it takes lack of proof for confirmation. It says “it’s true that the vast majority of cases are outside my knowledge, and as reported they appear to contradict me, but if we knew more about them they would confirm my assertions.” Rather than allowing the evidence to speak for itself, they take it for granted that the evidence ought to confirm their assumptions and so make out that it would if we only knew more about it. It’s rather like the people who say “since the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, it’s possible the words recorded aren’t exactly what He said. Therefore, we can assume what He actually said was much closer to my own views.”
                The same issue applies; you can accept evidence or reject it, but even if you reject it you can’t just rewrite it to suit your own ideas. If you reject the Gospels, you’re obliged to say that you don’t know what Jesus said or did, or take evidence from one of the other first or second century writings that have come down to us. Rejecting the Gospels doesn’t mean you get to just make up whatever you like because it “seems reasonable” to you.
                Likewise, if you reject the testimony of the thousands of celibates who have been content and happy with their state in life, you don’t get to assume that they are, in fact, miserable. If you reject them, the only honest thing you could say is that you don’t know whether they’re happy or not. You can either accept the testimony or plead ignorance, but you can’t re-write the testimony to say the opposite of what it says just because you assume it ought to.
                That’s incidentally the reason why arguments for celibacy or monogamy and so on are much more convincing than argument against them. It’s like someone arguing that it’s impossible for man to reach the Moon. If no one ever had, we might be inclined to accept the arguments of the man who hadn’t. But if once someone does reach the Moon, he proves that it is at least possible. The man who does not reach the Moon does not, by the mere fact of his inability, prove that it is impossible. All that he has proven is that he himself cannot or has not. An adulterer or a man living in an “open marriage” does not prove that monogamy is impossible, only that he himself has given up attempting it. A man living in a loving monogamous marriage proves that it is possible, just as a joyful celibate priest proves that celibacy is possible. The counterargument is a bizarre kind of double-illogic; it not only argues for a universal negative (already technically impossible), but does so in the face of overwhelming positive evidence.
                That’s where the Closed Door fallacy comes in. It argues for a negative by the reverse of the usual answer to such a proposition. Instead of saying “prove that there isn’t” it says “prove that all these are what they appear to be.” Since it’s impossible to achieve the necessary level of intimacy with the vast number of individuals required by the proposition, it’s unanswerable. But it’s unanswerable because it’s unreasonable, like saying “prove that everyone living in New York City is not living under an alias.” Very likely some are, but it’s absurd to assume that everyone is unless you can prove that most of them are not.
                Not only is it unreasonable, but by its very nature it cancels itself out. If a man says “prove that there are a significant number of priests or married men who keep their vows and are content to do so,” I can answer him “prove that there aren’t.” The one is just as rational (or irrational) as the other and so both arguments are useless as evidence. The real point of difference is that the one acknowledges both the negative (that some priests and spouses don’t keep their vows) as well as the positive (that many do and are happy to do so) while the other claims a universal negative (that no one can keep these kinds of vows and be happy at the same time). The first embraces the whole of the evidence, while the second has to work hard to dismiss a good deal of it.
                The point of all this is that we mustn’t simply assume a lack of evidence to be evidence for our own views. If we dismiss contrary evidence, for whatever reason (and it ought to be a good one and not just “this doesn’t correspond with what I’d expect”), we can’t just ‘fill in the blanks,’ so to speak, by assuming the truth behind the evidence corresponds with what we would like it to.
                It’s interesting, but I notice that many of us (myself included) are rather afraid of admitting ignorance in the internet age. Rather than saying “I don’t know about that, so I can’t say for sure either way,” we have a habit of picking and choosing facts or more likely hearsay that suits us and rejecting anything that calls those views into question, piling ever-more extravagant nonsense on top of nonsense until we make absolute fools of ourselves. Whereas if we had just bowed out with an “I don’t know; I’ll have to look at that,” or “that’s something I really don’t’ know much about,” we’d save ourselves a good deal of trouble (and probably shut down three-quarters of the net forums currently in existence in the process). The Closed Door fallacy is part and partial of this habit. It’s yet another manifestation of the ancient and perennial assumption that theories are the substance and real life the shadow.
            We Christians must not be afraid of real life. God made reality and it attests to Him. Our Lord became Man in history. Christianity is perhaps the only religion that is based on solid, basic, historical facts. Therefore we must never be afraid to look reality in the face, however unpleasant or confusing it may be. Because our hope is not in a theory, but in a Person; a person who faced these same unpleasant and confusing facts without blinking and so conquered them. It is in Him that we place our trust, and whatever may happen behind closed doors doesn’t change that.

Vivat Christus Rex!

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