An Example of a Red Herring
In the last post at Choosing Hats an example of the fallacy of Begging the Question was presented along with commentary that it is often helpful to have included in an apologetic arsenal a basic understanding of fallacies. Another popularly used fallacy is called a “Red Herring”. It may be summed up in simple terms as diverting attention away from the subject in question. The use of a Red Herring is a deliberate attempt to change the course of a discussion. This is often done when the individual who is guilty of the fallacy is having some difficulty with the topic and or arguments presented by his or her opponent. An illustration of this fallacy may be found in a conversation I recently had with a professor at a supposedly conservative Christian university. Since, so far as I know, the conversation happened in a “private” atmosphere rather than publicly on the Internet I have chosen to leave the name of the professor anonymous. There are, in my opinion, some rather disturbing statements made by him.
Me: I am pretty convinced that the apologetic method I use is biblical, but less convinced that it can be spelled out and used philosophically.
Anonymous: Most people feel that way about their apologetic methods, of course!
Me: Feelings and exegesis are two different things.
Anonymous: And everyone feels that his feelings are based on sound exegesis, even those who don’t know the word. Have you every [sic] had any tell you that her position is based on a distortion of the biblical texts?
Me: Do you really want to advance that argument? Either we can know what the Bible states with respect to the issue or we cannot. You appear to be implying that the latter is the case. If I am mistaken in this and you actually would promote the former, then again it comes down to exegesis.
So, can we know what the Bible has to say with respect to such a thing? If we can, then how else can we know what it says than through exegesis? If we cannot, then why did you write that “everyone feels that his feelings are based on sound exegesis”, since you would in such a case not “feel” that way at all?
Anonymous: I am not saying that sound exegesis is not possible. However, I would certainly be inclined to say that we cannot have apodictic certainty about the correctness of our interpretations. Even when we are correct, can we know that we are correct? Perhaps not. When we are sincere, we will believe we are correct regardless of how correct or incorrect we are.
You would grant that there is a difference between knowing the truth and knowing that you know the truth, wouldn’t you? I grant that we can know the truth. But I question the ability to know that that [sic] what I believe is true, for that would imply a vantage point outside of myself from which to view my beliefs, and that is something that I do not have.
Now I realize that there are many problems with what the professor has written, especially in his final response to me, but did you spot the fallacy? When faced with a dilemma, the professor immediately attempts to change the subject to “apodictic certainty about the correctness of our interpretations“, which is irrelevant to the original disagreement! So far as I can tell, he concedes my point, but not without abruptly trying to cover it up with another topic that ultimately shows the consequences of adhering to a non-Christian epistemology. Please note that I am not claiming anything with regard to the gentleman’s salvation, I am only mentioning that his epistemology has been ruined insofar as it is inconsistent with the Bible.
“However, I would certainly be inclined to say that we cannot have apodictic certainty about the correctness of our interpretations.”
Quite certain about his inclinations, but not his interpretations. Or has he just misinterpreted his inclinations?
It would seem that your professor committed a category fallacy, conflating epistemology and metaphysics. There is the issue of justifying the relationship of belief P to truth X on the one hand (epistemology), and identifying truth X on the other (metaphysics).
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