Monday, October 21, 2019

Flaws, Fallacies, and the CES Letter

I haven't done this in a while, but during a slow day at work I fell down a rabbithole of Mormon apologetics.  I found a delightful recent takedown of the CES Letter that very earnestly missed the point.  In my usual format, selected quotes will follow.

The author, David Snell, asserts that the CES Letter is one giant logical fallacy.  He identifies it as a Gish Gallop, which he explains with some helpful quotes from RationalWiki:
The Gish Gallop is the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort. The Gish Gallop is a conveyor belt-fed version of the on the spot fallacy, as it’s unreasonable for anyone to have a well-composed answer immediately available to every argument present in the Gallop. 
… Although it takes a trivial amount of effort on the Galloper’s part to make each individual point before skipping on to the next (especially if they cite from a pre-concocted list of Gallop arguments), a refutation of the same Gallop may likely take much longer and require significantly more effort (per the basic principle that it’s always easier to make a mess than to clean it back up again).
I have some objections to this characterization.  For starters, in order for the CES Letter to be a dreaded Gish Gallop, it needs to be composed of individually weak arguments.  I'd be the first to admit that the CES Letter has some sections that don't measure up—or perhaps the second, as the author later cites Jeremy Runnells's Reddit post in which he deliberates over whether the map of similar place names is too weak to include.  I think the theories about possible source materials for the Book of Mormon are pretty flimsy, too.  But the presence of weak arguments—even one Runnells himself admits is "meh"—does not impose that every argument is weak.  And, of course, the strength of an argument generally cannot be judged by someone who does not actually confront the argument.  Think of it as Schrodinger's criticism—it's both weak and compelling until you open the CES Letter, observe the argument, and measure its merits.
And, yes, the CES Letter is designed to make any rebuttal lengthy, but not as a way of confounding attempts to refute it.  I think the author of this article forgets that, once upon a time, long before it became the darling of the online ex-Mormon community, it was simply a letter to a CES director.  Jeremy was invited to lay his questions out so that this director could answer them.  In all fairness, I'm sure the seventy-odd pages Jeremy produced were not exactly what the director had in mind when he extended the offer. 

Besides, if the arguments are not weak, having a lot of them shouldn't invalidate their presentation.  Does the author require that criticisms of the church only be delivered one at a time?  Since Tad Callister's talk about the Compelling Witness of the Book of Mormon contains a flood of weak arguments, does that mean we should dismiss the whole thing as a logical fallacy instead of addressing it in its entirety?  Should no one ever publish a book arguing for or against any subject because this always constitutes a Gish Gallop?  Is the book linked to in this article a Gish Gallop as well because I can't quickly and easily address every item in Michael Ash's CES Letter rebuttal?

I also want to point out that RationalWiki calls this a debate tactic.  The CES Letter is not a debate.  It's a publication, a collection of concerns.  If two people were discussing Mormonism and one of them were to sit there quoting the CES Letter in its entirety, that would definitely be unfair.  In that setting, yes, it would be difficult to compose a coherent response on the spot and it would be tough to rebut without a lot of digging.  But this isn't a live debate.

The article then tries to demonstrate how the CES Letter qualifies as a Gish Gallop by showing the weakness of a key argument.  Adducing that Reddit thread in which Jeremy Runnells asked for feedback on removing the geography section because the evidence was "not strong enough" for his taste, Snell concludes:
The galloper knows full well that the argument is weak. And yet, it remains to this day in the first chapter of the Letter. If that’s not highly manipulative and intellectually dishonest, I don’t know what is.
Hey, I'm with you part of the way.  I think that map is a pretty shoddy challenge to the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon, especially when there are plenty of more powerful ones that could take its place.  It is indeed the most meh part of the whole document.  But I don't think it qualifies as intellectually dishonest because it shows that Jeremy cares about the strength of his arguments.  He wanted to avoid a see-what-sticks-to-the-wall approach and asked for input on the merits of a particular argument.  Just because he drew different conclusions about it than you did after reading his Reddit thread doesn't mean he's using the argument to manipulate.  Contrast this with Callister's talk, which is, in my opinion, full of flimsy arguments and which even goes so far as to dictate what those who disagree with him are required to claim.  Do you think Callister went on Reddit to publicly share his thoughts with members to see if one tack of his was more toothless than others?  Which of these demonstrates more intellectual dishonesty?

And...I hate to be that guy, but if this whole thing is gonna be about a logical fallacy, I need to get on a slightly tangential soapbox (which, geometrically speaking, is probably inadvisable).  See, as much as I think it's important for us all to articulate our convictions in logically watertight ways, I happen to be of the opinion that things like RationalWiki and the endless logic infographics have negatively impacted public discourse.  Logical fallacies have become a crutch for some and a mutated strawman for others.  A lot of people are quick not to point out the substantive weaknesses in a speaker's theses but instead to hurriedly slap a friendly logical fallacy label on it and dismiss it as wholly unreliable because logical fallacies are seen as some kind of mystical trump card.
No true Scotsman charges into battle without a full complement of logical fallacy accusations!
Some of you may think this is a cynical, cantankerous diatribe on the decline of personally imposed static social values that's less reminiscent of a dorky blogger and more evocative of the stereotypical crotchety old man hobbling along his porch and shaking his cane at those darn blasted kids again.  To those of you, I say: how carefully did you read this Third Hour article?  Because that's pretty much what happened here.  We've found a handy logical fallacy we think we can use to discredit the entirety of something we viscerally disagree with.  Even though it doesn't fit very well, if we try hard enough our audience might not notice.

And while we're invoking popular fallacies, the assertions of Jeremy Runnells's motives reek of—you guessed it—ad hominem.  Of course, that's not entirely fair, because Snell has brought up an issue he legitimately believes challenges Runnells's credibility.  But see how delicious it is to pretend like I can dismiss Snell with the wave of a magic prepackaged ad hominem wand?

Okay, all of that aside, the ad hominem of debatable validity only demonstrates that one argument in the seminal anti-Mormon document is weak.  If you expect someone to extrapolate that all the arguments—or even a majority of them—are rickety, you'll need to do better than debunking just one.  Yes, I suppose that's how Gish Gallops are designed.  But it's also how lengthy treatises are designed.  If a reality is so complex and so fraught with contradictions, why should it be considered unfair to collect those intricacies in a single volume?  I could probably whip up 70-some pages of reasons why flat-Eartherism is wrong, but is it unfair for me to publish it 70-some pages at a time?

Obviously, that's an extreme example.  Believing in Mormonism makes way more sense to me than denying the Earth is round.  But I guess it's really just a less disrespectful version of Godwin's Law I'm playing into now....

More quoting from RationalWiki:
It’s hard because there’s so [darn] much to refute. Every claim probably requires at minimum one Google search, a writeup of what was found, and a link to the source. Conversely, making the claim only requires one of those steps: the writeup itself. And if the Gish Gallop itself seems to have some substance, this process becomes much harder: each claim’s evidence must be thoroughly debunked. As such, the debunker must understand both the claim and why it’s [not credible]. The claimaint need only recite the claim.
Yes, it's hard to refute because there's so darn much to refute.  That doesn't mean the material is factually incorrect.  This also seems to imply that Runnells just threw together a bunch of stuff over a weekend and called it definitive.  There are citations and links and visual aids and updates all over the CES Letter.    It's not just word vomit.  It's not a publication purely of Potemkin pablum.  (I think alliteration-happy Holland is rubbing off on me after General Conference.)  Credible or not, it seems pretty intellectually dishonest to write the whole thing off because all Runnells had to do was "recite the claim."  (Sorry, I guess that was an ad hominem of my own.  Not cool.)
It’s easy to make claims. It’s harder to prove claims wrong. For example, I can make the claim that the sun has a core made out of molten gold. Prove me wrong!
But that's the sort of thing that Mormonism is built on.  You can't see the Holy Ghost, you don't have historical evidence that Nephi was a real person, and you can't actually see the afterlife ahead of time to know there's actually a Celestial Kingdom to aspire to.  You weren't there in the Sacred Grove when the founding event of the Restoration took place.  It's a lot easier to make those claims than to poke holes in every single logical error, doctrinal contradiction, unfounded assertion, or downright manipulative lie.  But you don't see me crying foul that the general authorities spend ten hours every six months publicly arguing in favor of their beliefs.  You see me crying foul at plenty of the things they say during those ten hours, of course, but I don't cry foul that they feel empowered to share their thoughts and opinions.  (Except maybe with Oaks sometimes.  I really don't like that guy.)

And you certainly may posit that the sun has a core made out of molten gold.  And if you do so, we should enthusiastically argue against you instead of dismissing your pseudoscientific astronomical manifesto as too lengthy to refute.  If you produce diagrams and quotations of revered physicists and cosmochemists to bolster your claims, we should go through the evidence, admit what, if anything, is valid, and deconstruct what is not.
But if you take the time to tackle each argument individually, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t be intimidated by the claims, or the work necessary to understanding the refutation.
Amen to that.  The same should be said of any vigorous criticism of anyone's closely held beliefs.  Except, perhaps, the foregone conclusion that refutation is what will be necessary.  Sometimes we find arguments that are persuasive on their own virtues.  This is why I tend to side with Mormon apologists over ex-Mormons, for example, when it comes to View of the Hebrews.  I think that particular argument only works when you presuppose the Book of Mormon is a fraud.  Without that assumption, Ethan Smith's racist masterwork is merely a mild curiosity and offers compelling evidence of absolutely nothing.  Apologists' arguments against the claims of View of the Hebrews, The Late War, and The First Book of Napoleon serving as source materials for the Book of Mormon win me over because I think those arguments are stronger.  It's probably impossible to be truly objective with this kind of thing, but as objectively as I can see things, I think the Mormon apologists win this round, despite how much I would prefer to refute what they have to say.
It’s an interesting exercise to confront anti-Latter-day Saint material and ask yourself in your head, What do they want me to do after I’ve abandoned my faith?
Why should we tell you what to do?  That's kind of the whole point.  Follow what you determine to be true.  Don't let other people—or other institutions—make those determinations for you.
Some entities exist for the sole purpose of destroying your foundation of faith, leaving it in shambles, and not replacing it with anything in particular. But the majority are trying to break down your faith in the hope that you’ll adopt their own viewpoints.
Again, why is the onus on the source of the new information to do the replacing?  Empower yourself.  Draw your own conclusions.  Redesign your belief system.

And, yes, many people are trying to get you to adopt their own viewpoints, but that's not necessarily sinister.  When you feel passionately about something and you share your opinions, of course you hope your audience will join you.  This is exactly the same as Mormons sharing the gospel—they believe they have the truth, they're passionate about bringing that truth to others, so they try to get people to adopt their viewpoints.  I dunno, man, condemning anti-Latter-day Saints for doing the same thing sure feels like a double standard.
They try to burn down in minutes that which took years to build. Then, from the ashes resulting from their own act of arson, they generously offer to take you in.
While we're sloshing through the pedantic swamps of logical fallacies, let's bring up the one about sunken costs.  How much does it really matter how long it took you to build your house if you built it on the sand?  Devoting a lot of time to something doesn't impose that it is deserving of more time.  That can be true of just about anything—religions, abusive relationships, silly blog arguments, whatever.

The sarcasm here gets to me, though.  Because it still reminds me of what the church does.  The church obviously is not the only organization guilty of this, but it does teach you that you are an enemy of God and an unprofitable servant, it tells you that you are a licked cupcake or a pervert or an addict...and then generously offers to take you in and to help fix you in exchange for a yearly payment of ten percent of your earnings.  Just like what the author accuses anti-Mormons of doing, the church manufactures the problem and oh-so-magnanimously offers a self-serving solution.

Yeah, I'm being really sarcastic too.  I'm not better.  Just a regular everyday hypocrite.

Snell then quotes a non-Mormon defender of the LDS church, Manu Padro:
They are trying to coerce you into a situation where they can bombard you with so many doubt-provoking questions that they can cause your resolve to collapse and your identity to fall apart. Inside of that vacuum, created by an act of psychological rape, they hope to impregnate you with their own belief system.
If that sounds abusive, it’s because that’s what it is. It’s an extension of the cultural legacy of the inquisition. They can’t torture you, but they can humiliate you and pressure you with questions you don’t have an answer to yet. They try to hit you up with too many of these questions to answer, because if they don’t it wouldn’t work. That’s how the CES Letter works. It’s garbage but it’s a common strategy in the anti-Mormon ministry.
First of all, if we're going to level accusations of psychological rape, I don't think it's fair to start with critics of Mormonism, because a lot of those critics will assert that the church psychologically raped them first.  But that's veering into territory of we-had-to-commit-war-crimes-because-the-enemy-committed-war-crimes-against-us-first and I don't think that's a productive discussion for anybody.

Moving on, the reason it often doesn't work to bring up one issue at a time isn't because the arguments are too weak to stand on their own, it's because Mormon brainwashing is very resilient to solitary issues.  I encountered individual problems with Mormonism all the time as a kid—how could you not unless you lived in an armor-plated bubble?—but it was easy to deftly explain them away when they arose because I only had to confront about one problem at a time.  Think about Hopper's analogy of ant rebellion from A Bug's Life—one issue doesn't hurt.  It's not until you realize there are hundreds that you understand the power that critical information can wield.
He's quite the motivational speaker, isn't he?
And I don't think anyone should get to defend Mormonism by claiming that its critics are abusive.  Are we perfect?  Of course not.  Can we be abusive?  Absolutely, we're people.  But we're not charging huge sums of money for the promises of unseen rewards, we're not counting on crushing cultural pressure to send teenagers away from their families for two years, we're not ostracizing and marginalizing LGBT youth to the point of suicide, and we're not convincing young women that their value is tied to their virginity.  That's abusive.  Can ex-Mormons be more respectful and more tactful?  Of course.  Is it anywhere near approaching the abuses of the institution we stand against?  No.  That doesn't make us right, it just makes the church that reviles us another bulwark of hypocrisy in an age already glutted with double standards.
Either avoid the trap altogether (I recommend this), or slow down, and do your homework.
I agree with the second part.  Everyone should always be doing their homework.

Avoiding the "trap" altogether is not something I think is a great idea.  We should never be afraid of information—and constantly welcoming more of it can help us hone our abilities to judge new information on its veracity and its value. 
And while there are plenty of answers in regard to the CES Letter, there are some things of faith that cannot be proven, whether you’re a Latter-day Saint, Catholic, Muslim, or Protestant. If we had all the answers, faith wouldn’t be the first principle of the gospel.
There are plenty of answers in regard to the CES Letter.  Some of those answers are, "no, of course Joseph Smith didn't copy a map of New England and change a few syllables when he dreamt up the Nephite territories" and some of those answers are, "yes, Joseph Smith was wrong about what the Book of Abraham papyrus actually contained."

This also brings me back to my frequent complaint that a benevolent god values faith above all else.  That makes no sense.  Why is faith the first principle of the gospel?  Shouldn't the first principle be good works, or love, or compassion, or selflessness or something?  Why is our worthiness to live in God's presence again contingent not on the good things we accomplish and the righteous desires of our hearts but on whether we believe in God's existence in the midst of a deliberate dearth of definitive evidence?

I don't think it's fair to expect that there are easy answers, but I think it's entirely fair to reject invalid or incomplete answers and to keep searching for something more fulfilling.  And I think it's also wise not to avoid troubling doctrinal questions out of some white-knuckled sense that obtaining the answers will water down the gospel.
We have access to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. We have every reason to hold our heads high and proclaim our gospel far and wide to those who seek it. Let us do so ethically, responsibly, and in as Christ-like a way as possible.
Amen to that.  Everyone should feel empowered to share their beliefs in an ethical, responsible, compassionate manner.  This applies to Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and people of any other belief system—including those whose belief system was once Mormonism.

I'd also like to point out the context of Manu Prado's earlier quote—not as one of those yOu'Re TaKiNg It OuT oF cOnTeXt things, but to bring up an important genesis of these issues and, sometimes, these animosities.

Notice that he lumps the CES Letter in with what he calls "ministries," including evangelical organizations that are out to rescue Mormons from their off-brand Christianity.  His condemnation, though a little dramatic, is a poignant one in the context of people who spam the CES Letter to their stake email lists and put ads on Facebook using the familiar "CES" acronym to make the letter appear to be a church-friendly product.  I completely agree with Mr. Pradu and Mr. Snell that this behavior is unhealthy. Foisting this kind of information on people—often strangers—who haven't asked to be confronted with the flaws of their worldview is wrong.  And this is something that the CES Letter's author has specifically asked people not to do.  If someone comes to you with questions about the church and you give them the CES Letter, that could be considered a rescue.  If you send someone the CES Letter unsolicited, that could be considered abuse.  Everyone is on their own paths.  We may not approve of other people's paths, but that doesn't give us the right to try and forcibly steer someone onto our own.

And I think that's the most important takeaway for all of us, regardless of where we land on the multidimensional spectrum of faith.

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