Answering Missionaries

May 25, 2006

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN AN INCONSISTENT PERSON AND AN INCONSISTENT ARGUMENT

Filed under: Addressing James White polemics,James White,Shabir Ally vs James White — answeringmissionaries @ 6:56 pm

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN

AN INCONSISTENT PERSON AND

AN INCONSISTENT ARGUMENT

Shabir Ally

May 24, 2006

During our debate, and ever since, James White has repeated several times a motto which on its own seems quite logical but which was nevertheless used in our debate in a sense that is quite flawed. He said, “Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.” This statement could be interpreted as meaning: “An inconsistent argument fails to be convincing.” In this sense the statement is logical. But this is not the sense in which James used it in the context of our debate.

In the debate he was arguing not that my argument was inconsistent, but that I am personally inconsistent. My inconsistency, according to James, is shown in my failure to apply against the Quran the kinds of criticism I level against the Bible. Alternatively, he charges me with inconsistency for making use of critical scholars with reference to the Bible, since I refuse to follow such scholars when it comes to dealing with the Quran. If he is correct with regards to these accusations, he will have convicted me of personal inconsistency. That would mean that something is wrong with me. But that does not automatically mean that something is wrong with my argument.

It is true that pointing out such inconsistency in a person may have the effect of causing the person to rethink his position. It may also convince the audience to pay no attention to the inconsistent speaker. But, logically, a person could be inconsistent and yet his argument may be at the moment, or within a specific context, quite consistent. For example, if within the debate I say that the Old Testament comprises 39 books, and when I am with my friends I say that the Old Testament is not thus composed, I would be inconsistent. And those who are present on both occasions would not only wonder which of my statements they ought to believe, but whether or not they should take me seriously. But my inconsistency does not change the fact that in Protestant Bibles there are precisely 39 books in the Old Testament. In short, if a person utters two contradictory statements the person is inconsistent, but one of his two statements may still be correct.

The distinction between an inconsistent person and an inconsistent person’s argument is likewise evident when we are comparing a person’s announcement of an ideal and his failure to live by it. Similarly, a person may subscribe to a certain method during an argument but fail to apply it elsewhere. This could mean that the person is inconsistent. But it does not automatically disqualify his argument. This is especially clear when we adopt or grant a certain fact “for the sake of argument.” We act as if we believe that fact during the course of the argument without necessarily maintaining it after the argument is over. This all simply means that an inconsistent person, or inconsistent behavior, does not automatically fail an argument. The argument itself would have to be evaluated based on its own merits. In the debate and thereafter James has repeatedly claimed that my inconsistency implies the failure of my argument. That claim is now shown to be logically flawed.

This does not of course mean that a debater should be excused for inconsistent behavior. James is well within his rights to chastise me during the debate and afterwards if indeed I am guilty of the inconsistency of which he accuses me. However, as with the example of the number of books in the Old Testament, I may have an explanation that reconciles both statements. It I am caught saying, for example, that the Old Testament contains 46 books, I may be asked how I could justify that when I had previously said in a different context that the Old Testament contains 39 books. In that case I would have an explanation. In the one context 1 spoke of the Protestant Bible; in the other context I spoke of the Catholic Bible, for example. But even if I do not have an explanation, or if other folks do not accept my explanations or excuses, this would not change the number of books in the Protestant Bible, and would not alter the correctness of my earlier statement.

In the debate I have shown reasonable proof to support the latter part of my thesis that the New Testament contains the creative work of man in addition to the inspired Word of God. If the method by which I have shown this is sound, then the conclusion remains proven–even if I refuse to apply the same method elsewhere. Not to speak of the method, even if I myself no longer believe the conclusion this will not change the conclusion or the soundness of the argument. As it is, however, I do have a good explanation for what appears to James as inconsistent behavior on my part. To detail this here, however, would considerably lengthen this paper, for it would require a comparison of the history of the Quran and the Bible, and a comparative theology regarding the nature and origin of the two books.

It seems that James’ apprehension of inconsistency on my part is due to his misunderstanding of the history of the Quran and the theology concerning it, and also his assumptions about my personal stand with regards to the specific issues. To a large extent, it is in fact my consistent approach to both scriptures that necessitates my claim that the Gospels have improved the status of Jesus over time. We see a similar move on the part of Hadith narrators. As I pointed out during the cross-examination phase of our debate, my consistency would require that I apply to the New Testament Gospels the critical acumen I bring to bear on Hadith studies. This is why I said that for its putting into the mouth of Jairus words which in the source of his narration was absent would render this episode in Matthew’s Gospel a weak narrative. A similar approach is taken in handling Hadith.

On the other hand, Hadith is not Quran. The approach to a book must be determined by a number of general criteria, and also a number of specific criteria. While the application of general criteria is granted, I believe that James has been insisting that I apply to the Quran some specific criteria which, in my judgment, will not fit the Quran. It should be obvious that specific criteria applying to one book may not apply to another. For example, the New Testament is read from left to right. But the Quran is read from right to left. If this is obvious enough, a similar consideration applies to other aspects of the two books which are not immediately obvious to the uninitiated. James’s insistence that I regard the Quran in the same way that I regard the Gospels misses the point about the specific nature of the two books. The Quran is not only different from the New Testament, but also from the Hadith, and from the Sirah works, the biographies of the Prophet of Islam, on whom be peace.

In conclusion, I do not believe that James has demonstrated any inconsistency on my part during the debate or even after it. But even if he was successful in proving his claim that I am inconsistent for failing to be critical enough of the Quran, this does not logically imply the falsity of my claims about the New Testament. James’ repeated emphasis to the effect that he has disproved my arguments by simply showing that I would not apply the same arguments against the Quran is an example of a logical error. His oft-repeated statement, “Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument,” would have been correct if by it he meant, “An inconsistent argument fails to be convincing.” However, he was using the statement as a summary of his claims that I have been personally and behaviorally inconsistent, and that this proves the falsity of my argument. Used in this way, James’ statement is therefore fallacious, and his argument amounts to an example of ad hominem, against the man. This is the sort of argument in which one argues that a person is wrong instead of showing that the person’s evidence is faulty or inadequate, or that his conclusions do not follow from the evidence.

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