Throughout my life, I’ve argued and argued with people about the various tenets of their beliefs, whether the subject matter is religion, politics, science, or whatever else. In this time, I’ve been amazingly ineffective at persuading most of those with whom I’ve argued, and I suppose that in this regard, I could well be considered a failure. Where one might assume that logic, fact, and legitimate sourcing would settle an argument, it seems instead that something more sinister is at play–something akin to addiction.
That aside for the moment, however, 0ne very interesting thing happened along the way in all these debates: I was persuaded.
Sometimes that persuasion came directly from those against whom I was arguing. That is, I was wrong, they were right, and they managed to prove it to me in terms I could understand and accept. Such occasions were rare, however. More often than not, I discovered my own errors—not nearly as early as I should have discovered them, mind you—but in the course of time, I managed to stumble across some hint here or there that something in my beliefs was misinformed.
Now let me stop right here and acknowledge that I’m aware of many instances where I should have realized I was wrong, but did not. It reminds me of how Sir Winston Churchill criticized Stanley Baldwin :
Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.
~Sir Winston Churchill [i]
I certainly managed to ignore a great number of discrepancies in my beliefs—or failed to realize their importance at the time the discrepancies first became apparent. Even so, however, I eventually built up enough steam in going after the errors of others, that I managed to learn a thing or two for myself—things that would prove handy in later times when I had more cause or occasion to re-think the “big picture” of my beliefs.
What I would learn was the eventual result of going after bad arguments at the granular level. If, for example, someone argued that Billy ought to be fired because he’s irritating to the rest of the staff, he’s hard to relate to, and he’s always late, I wouldn’t try to negate that argument on the whole with something like “Na-Ah!” Instead, I would zero in on the “always late” part. I’d look for actual evidence that might back up that assertion. If it could not be proved that Billy was “always late”, then I’d be well on my way to undermining the overall argument that Billy should be fired. Next, I’d zero in on the assertion that Billy was “hard to relate to”. I’d ask how this had any bearing on whether he should be employed, and whether being relatable was specified as a must in Billy’s job description.
In this way, I could dismantle an argument piece by piece. Yet those who believed that Billy ought to be fired, still probably believed it. They may have been disabused of their “reasons” for believing it, but they still believed it nonetheless—irrational as that is. The really noteworthy event, however, was that, after having a few years of practice in this method of argumentation, my own paradigm was changed; I was so repulsed by the blatant disregard that so many had for the truth, that I began to “side” with the truth, perhaps not terribly unlike how someone might side with the “underdog” in a football game. This constant picking away at fallacies in “logic” and falsehoods of “fact” became a habit that I would eventually unleash even on my own thoughts and beliefs.
In time, I would come to question the fundamentals of just about everything I believed. Is there a God? I eventually became brave enough to ask that question and to study it honestly. Was my favorite political party corrupt? I studied its history and now I know for sure. Were my scientific beliefs right? I started reading the contrary arguments of others in order to give them an honest test.
As a result of this sort of comprehensive re-analysis of my beliefs, I have since overturned a great number of the things I previously believed. I tackled them one brick at a time, rather than trying to understand them one brick wall at a time, and that, I am convinced, is why I seem to be getting somewhere.
Since then, as I have tried to convince others here and there, the following “brick fallacies” (my term) are what I have observed making it so difficult for others to become convinced of the obvious when their beliefs are in error. The following example is based on the topic of religion, though I observe the same type of irrational thinking in nearly every field of human endeavor.
NOTE: The items in blue below are the fallacies, stated as a believer might think them. They do not reflect my opinions or beliefs.
The Brick Fallacies
True Believer: I’m a true believer, and this beautiful brick wall here, with all its separate bricks, represents my entire belief system.
Jack: You say this is your belief system. Did you build this wall yourself?
True Believer: Oh, no; this wonderful wall has existed for centuries and centuries.
Jack: Yet you claim it as your own. How so?
True Believer: Though these beliefs have belonged to many others before me, as well as to many of my contemporaries, I also claim them for my own.
Jack: So have you personally examined every brick in this wall to be sure that they are all sound and that they truly belong in this wall?
True Believer: No, not yet, but that’s not necessary anyway; my faith assures me that they all belong here.
Brick Fallacy #1: My belief system was established by none other than Jesus Christ himself. Therefore, even though millions of people have handled it before me, I can rest assured that every brick in this wall is exactly where Jesus wanted it to be.
Jack: Have you ever looked across the way there to that other man’s brick wall?
True Believer: Yes, and unfortunately, that man’s brick wall is heretical.
Jack: Really? That’s a strong charge. Which bricks in his wall are bad?
True Believer: Oh, his whole wall is bad.
Jack: Do you mean to say that every brick in that man’s wall is a bad brick?
True Believer: Maybe not every brick, but all together, they’re bad. Very bad.
Jack: Does it matter if any of that man’s bricks are good?
True Believer: Nope. The bad ones cancel out the good ones, so he gets no credit if he happens to have a good brick here and there.
Jack: OK, so is it an axiom, then, that one bad brick in the wall cancels out a whole wall of good bricks?
True Believer: Well, I never broke it down into numbers like that, but now that you ask it that way, I suppose it does. For example, that man’s wall says that family is important, and I suppose that brick is OK, but it also says that it’s OK to have women preachers, and that teaching could only come from Satan. So clearly, his whole wall is bad.
Jack: So even if every other brick in his wall was good, that one bad brick would make the whole thing bad?
True Believer: That’s right. Like I said, he’s a heretic.
Brick Fallacy #2: Judging the whole of another person based upon one of his “bricks” being bad is a good practice, even if it makes me nervous that I might be judged by that same standard myself someday and found wanting.
Jack: Gotcha. So let me ask again about your wall. You say your wall is good, right?
True Believer: Right.
Jack: So if I understand how this works, that means that every individual brick in your wall is a good brick. Am I right?
True Believer: Yep.
Jack: But if I were to find a bad brick in your wall, would that mean your whole wall was from Satan?
True Believer: That’s right. All scripture is God-breathed. You won’t find a thing here that’s not straight from God himself.
Jack: Wow, and you’ve studied every single brick here to know for sure that it’s straight out of the Bible?
True Believer: Well, again, not every single one, but I’ve been at this a long time and I haven’t found a problem yet.
Brick Fallacy #3: The longer you can manage to insist that your wall is perfect, the more perfect it is and the more inappropriate it becomes to analyze it.
Jack: Well, let’s take a look. This brick here says that all Christians are required by God to share their faith with others. Is that straight out of the Bible?
True Believer: Yep.
Jack: Really? What book, chapter, and verse will I find it in?
True Believer: Oh, it’s lots of places.
Jack: That’s fine, but I only need one reference.
True Believer: Well, I can’t think of it right now, but….oh wait, it’s the Great Commission. That’s in Matthew 28.
Jack: But in that passage, Jesus was commanding his eleven apostles to take the gospel to the world, and your brick here says that “all Christians are required by God to share their faith with others.” So where does the Bible say that?
True Believer: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I just had the verse wrong. It says it other places—places I just can’t remember right now.
Brick Fallacy #4: When you can’t find a certain brick that you need in order to make a point, it’s just as good to justify your point by remembering having seen a brick for it someplace else. Never go looking for it now; put that off until later.
Jack: Let me help you out. Lots of people believe that this Great Commission was intended to apply to all Christians, yet nobody has ever produced a scripture in which we see any of the apostles commanding anyone else to obey it. And if they had, it would be one of the most famous passages of scripture ever, since so many churches teach their members that evangelism is mandatory for sincere believers. So I think you need to take that brick out of your wall, because it doesn’t pass the test of being, as you put it, “straight from God himself”.
True Believer: Oh, it passes the test alright; All these other bricks attest to it. See how many of them rest on this one brick that you are challenging? If it weren’t sound, it couldn’t hold up all the others. God himself holds this wall up.
Brick Fallacy #5: Justify each brick based upon its importance in your whole wall, or its importance to your institution or traditions. That way, you can avoid any difficulties that may arise in showing that it’s “from the Bible” or that its consistent with actual teachings that are in the Bible.
Jack: So you don’t need to be able to show that a brick is straight out of the Bible in order to be confident that it’s a good brick?
True Believer: Nope. You can tell by its place in the Wall and how it all fits together.
Jack: The guy over there—the one with that bad brick in his wall—his wall is still standing. So doesn’t that mean that it’s a good wall after all?
True Believer: No. His wall is evil.
Jack: But it’s standing.
True Believer: That doesn’t prove anything. Satan is supporting that wall through trickery.
Jack: You just said that it proves something in the case of your wall. You said that one bad brick ruins the whole wall, but that you can tell that your one particular brick is not bad because of “its place in the Wall and how it all fits together.” So why can’t that guy make the same exact judgment in favor of his wall?
Brick Fallacy #6: One bad brick ruins the whole wall. If my wall is still standing, therefore, it proves that every brick in it is a good one.
Brick Fallacy #7: One bad brick ruins the whole wall. If the heretic’s wall is still standing, therefore, it proves that Satan must be holding it up by some trickery.
Jack: Let’s talk more about your beliefs. Have you ever believed something that you would later discover was wrong?
True Believer: Oh sure. I used to believe that it was OK to lust after women, but then I found Matthew 5:29 and now I believe differently.
Jack: So is Matthew 5:29 on one of the bricks in your wall?
True Believer: Of course it is; every verse of the Bible is in this wall someplace. See, here’s Matthew 5:29 right here.
Jack: Yes, I see. But you didn’t used to obey that passage?
True Believer: No, unfortunately.
Jack: So that particular brick didn’t used to be in your wall?
True Believer: No, but as soon as I found it, I took out the old brick and put this one right there in its place.
Jack: And what did the old brick say?
True Believer: It said that lust is natural, and that God overlooks it when we do it.
Jack: I see. So please help me understand. You said earlier that this wall of yours has been shared by lots of believers for a very long time.
True Believer: That’s right.
Jack: Yet when you came to believe, it had the “lust is natural” brick in it?
True Believer: Yes, unfortunately. But thanks to the grace of God, I was able to discern that that one brick needed to be changed out.
Jack: So you improved the wall from how it was when you found it?
True Believer: Well, God improved it.
Jack: Wait, I thought you said that you exchanged the old brick for the new one.
True Believer: Well, God led me to do it.
Jack: So God had it wrong before, but since you discovered the error, God had you fix it?
True Believer: Uh, wait. God can’t be wrong….
Jack: Ah, so the wall you discovered at first wasn’t God’s wall after all?
True Believer: Wait, I need a minute…
Jack: If it wasn’t God’s wall when you discovered it, then how can you be so sure it’s God’s wall now?
True Believer: I know it is because of my faith.
Jack: Do you really expect me to just gloss over this obvious contradiction? If it was God’s wall, and if it was flawed, then God’s wall was flawed. Tell me I’m wrong.
True Believer: OK, look. It’s my wall. It represents what I understand about God’s wall.
Brick Fallacy #8: If someone should point out a problem with your belief system, and they seem to be making a good point, just remember that the fault is really with you personally, and not with your wall.
Jack: I thought you said it was God’s wall.
True Believer: Well, it sort of is and sort of isn’t.
Jack: OK, this is getting really ethereal and hard to follow.
True Believer: OK, look. It’s God’s wall, as he has helped me to understand it so far.
Jack: Hmmm. So it’s based on your interpretation of God’s wall?
True Believer: I wouldn’t say “interpretation”. I prefer the word “understanding”.
Jack: OK, so where is God’s actual wall?
True Believer: What do you mean?
Jack: Wait–don’t shift that back in my direction; you’re the one who started talking about “God’s wall” and then about your wall. I’m asking you, where is God’s official wall of good bricks?
True Believer: I still don’t understand you.
Brick Fallacy #9: If you’re trying to explain things to others and they just don’t get your analogies, it’s completely understandable if you “blank out”. Besides, maybe it’ll all be clearer to them later. What you don’t want to do is to insist on hashing it all out right now.
Jack: OK, then let’s look at some more individual bricks on your wall.
True Believer: I don’t need to look at the bricks, I know it’s God’s wall! Are you trying to destroy my faith?
Brick Fallacy #10: When it comes down to it, the individual bricks in the wall aren’t important; it’s the belief in the overall thing that’s the key.
Brick Fallacy #11: Examining the individual bricks is a faithless act.
Jack: So I’ll bet that you believe that examining the individual bricks in the wall is a faithless act, don’t you?
True Believer: That’s right. It’s like navel gazing…you know, the paralysis of analysis.
Jack: Yet you have no problem examining some of the bricks in your neighbor’s wall over there, pronouncing them to be evil?
True Believer: Well, some of that stuff is just obvious!
Jack: I believe you’d find that a lot more things will become obvious if you’d open your eyes.
True Believer: Like what?
Jack: OK, look at this one brick in your wall. It says that the dead in Christ are all in the good section of Hades awaiting Jesus’ return, at which time he’ll raise them all up to Heaven, along with the living faithful.
True Believer: That’s right. I think that’s from Thessalonians.
Jack: Ah, but this brick over here says that Sister Betty Lou has “gone to be with Jesus” in Heaven.
True Believer: Yes, and God bless Betty Lou. She was a sweet old woman. Oh, that brick is from Revelation 21:3-4.
Jack: And you don’t see a problem here?
True Believer: No, what do you mean?
Jack: OK, hold that Betty Lou brick up next to this Thessalonians brick.
True Believer: Oh, no, we’re not supposed to do that!
Brick Fallacy #12: Never compare individual bricks to each other.
Jack: And who taught you that?
True Believer: The pastor did. That’s how people get into trouble—by relying on their own understanding.
Jack: So whose understanding are you supposed to rely on instead?
True Believer: God’s, of course.
Jack: Did you figure that out for yourself?
True Believer: No, the Pastor explained it to me.
Brick Fallacy #13: If you don’t have a brick, the Pastor’s word is as good as a brick—especially when he’s warning you against something dangerous.
Brick Fallacy #14: It’s a sin to lean on your own understanding; it’s OK, however, to lean on the Pastor’s instead.
Jack: So about that Betty Lou brick, does it say specifically in Revelation 21:3-4 that the dead in Christ go straight to heaven?
True Believer: Well, not exactly. We figured it out from a bunch of verses.
Jack: So why did you write “Revelation 21:3-4” on that brick?
True Believer: Well, that’s what we call a substitute brick. We put those in when we figure out that a brick ought to be here, but we can’t find a specific brick in the Bible.
Brick Fallacy #15: If you can’t find a brick in the Bible to explain a certain problem or a gap in the Bible narrative, feel free to insert your own brick. This is much better than to declare that insufficient data exists to draw a conclusion.
Brick Fallacy #16: Assigning your own ideas onto a brick and then labeling it with a Bible reference is fine as long as you mean well.
Jack: So how many other bricks in this wall are “substitute bricks”?
True Believer: Probably not many.
Jack: But you don’t know because you haven’t examined them individually.
True Believer: The whole wall is trustworthy. I’ve told you that already.
Jack: Yet the Betty Lou brick and the Hades brick contradict each other.
True Believer: No, you must not understand them properly, because no two bricks can contradict one another.
Jack: Then why did you throw out the “lust is natural” brick five years ago when you discovered the Matthew 5 brick?
True Believer: Because of what I told you—no two bricks can contradict one another.
Jack: Right, so which of these two bricks are you going to throw out? Or are you really expecting me to believe that Betty Lou is both in Heaven and in Hades at the same time?
Brick Fallacy #17: Doctrinal problems do not exist if you are not looking at them, therefore, you can be sure that no problem exists, simply by refusing to look at anything.
True Believer: I’m tired of talking about this.
Brick Fallacy #15: Mental fatigue is always a good reason to stop discussing somebody’s ideas about problems with your belief system.
Jack: I’ll bet you are! OK, let’s talk about this brick that says that all prophecy has been sealed up. Let’s compare that to the brick over here that says that God “put it on the Pastor’s heart” that your church needs to grow in unity this year. Either the Pastor is speaking from God, or from his own heart. It cannot be both. How could it possibly be both?
True Believer: (Crickets chirping.)
Brick Fallacy #16: Silence is completely justified at any time you cannot think of an answer–and especially when facing someone who has a challenging tone.
Brick Fallacy #17: Adamantly persisting in what you have always believed is more valuable than trying to be intellectually honest about every little point.
The foregoing has been an exercise in contradictions. Please understand that my point here is not to claim that the Bible is filled with contradictions, but that people’s “belief systems” tend to be filled with contradictions. This is true with religion, and politics, and science, and everything else.
The scientists measure the age of the rocks by what fossils they find in them. Meanwhile, they measure the age of the fossils by what rocks they find them in. Their field has been deeply corrupted by grants and bribes, as well as with the exclusivist pride by which they consider themselves intellectually superior to non-scientists.
The Democrats push for more spending for “education”, even though the track record clearly shows that the more money that is spent, the worse and worse the results. And they insist that more spending is the answer for just about everything else that ails us, even when history, fact, trend, and logic argue to the contrary.
The Republicans vie for “limited government” and long to get back to their “conservative roots”, and yet in that party’s first 20 years, it pushed for major public works, violated the Constitution a multitude of times, and made one monolithic “nation” out of what was previously a Union of co-sovereign states. Meanwhile, they have recently increased the size of government more than it has ever increased in our history.
The churches judge each other, whether silently or aloud, and they all give themselves a “pass” on the very same standards by which they judge each other. They are filled with corruption of all sorts, and yet they are so wondrously self-assured that they are about the business of heavenly work.
On and on go the examples in these cults of predetermined conclusions. This, it seems, is how Americans believe in things: We don’t really care about the individual bricks in the wall. Nor do we even really care about the wall itself and its shape or dimensions. No, it seems to be plenty for us to believe simply in the “idea” of the wall. And even more than that, we seem to believe in the idea of believing in the idea of the wall!
Yes, I know that’s getting really hard to follow.
And so are we!
We take pride in being “patriotic”, when we cannot for the life of us define just what that means. Similarly, religious folks take pride in being religious, even in the midst of major religious compromise and failure. And scientists take pride in being sophisticated scientists–seekers of “truth”–even if many of their works are based upon grand and circular assumptions that they never dare to investigate or to challenge.
I, for one, have arrived at a somewhat different place by attempting to have in my “wall” only those bricks that I have personally vetted. To some, that would make for a wall that is disappointingly small and and boringly stable. But I rarely get mentally exhausted as I used to. And it seems I can run circles around conventional “thinking”, because I’ve become accustomed to getting somewhere when I think now, where before, it was much less fruitful.
There is a consequence to this, however; it makes for lots of division from those who do not pursue intellectual honesty as a way of life. If we set aside individual errors, and even whatever topics we haven’t yet had time to vet adequately, we are still left with a major difference of paradigms; one seeks truth, and the other seeks either to “belong” to something, or to “justify” himself by whatever mental contortions are necessary to that end.
It’s the paradigm that lies at the core of this difference. And in this regard, there is no difference between Basbyterians and Luthodists, or between Republicrats and Demublicans. If they are not honestly seeking truth, but are seeking instead either to “belong” or to “justify” themselves, then they have much more in common than they would care to admit. And further, the result of all their strife can be nothing but the continuance of the status quo. Yes, each camp has its own “brick wall” about which to boast, yet while they boast on the one hand, they separately complain constantly about the sad state of things….both in their own parties and in the society as a whole.
They claim that if their camp were in charge of everything, everything would be much better. This, however, is hard to rectify with the obvious fact that each camp has its own struggles and lamentations–things they cannot manage to fix even in their relatively small numbers. It is merely an exercise, therefore, in wishful thinking, and not in rational thought. And so go the camps; so have they gone before, and so shall they ever go, for this is their very nature and foundation.
Regardless of whatever their adherents may believe about these various camps, they are designed both to capture those who can be fooled by the brick fallacies, and from there, to make them experts in the application of those fallacies. Their whole existence, therefore, is consumed merely with maintenance. Fixing, solving, rebuilding, and overcoming simply have no place in their paradigm. It has always been thus, and will never be any other way.
This is why, from time to time, certain individuals leave the institutions never to return. Whether merely from bitterness at having been mistreated, or from adamancy that truth and personal responsibility are the rightful prime directives, it is no wonder that people escape from time to time. What is worth wondering about, however, is why so few escape.
The Brick Fallacies appear to be as addictive as sugar, liquor, narcotics, and pornography. Very few seem to escape these, either. Interestingly, however, those addicted to the latter generally have some sense that they ought to overcome, while those addicted to the Brick Fallacies seem to feel generally justified in them. In my view, this make the Brick Fallacies the most dangerous addiction of all.