Illustration - the "Dead" Man
Recently, I heard a radio message in which the speaker provided an illustration: whether it is true or not, I do not know. It's believable, which is all that matters for my purposes.
This is the story. I young doctor is working for a large hospital, which includes a facility for those suffering from maladies of the mind. The young doctor is not very experienced, but he's very idealistic and he hopes to make a difference.
One day, the young doctor meets a patient who swears that he is dead. In fact, he swears that he's been dead for years. This poor patient is somewhat delusional, obviously, but the young doctor thinks that some cognitive therapy might help. Surely, he could talk this man out of his delusion.
So, he sits the man down and asks him, "You're dead, eh?"
"Yes," the young man replies, "been dead for years."
"Tell me," the doctor replied, "do dead men bleed?"
The young man answered, "No, I don't think I've ever heard of a dead man bleeding. That wouldn't really seem possible."
At this point, the young doctor recognizes he has found the solution. One can almost see the glimmer of hope in his eye as he pulls a sterile hypodermic needle from his kit, requests the man finger, and pricks it with the needle.
Imagine his face, however, when hears the man exclaim, "Well look at that! Dead men DO bleed."
The story is amusing to most people, because it is so absurd, and yet conceivable. That made me ask why. I realized that the thinking ran this way:
Premise 1: I am a dead man.
Premise 2: Dead mean don't bleed.
From those premises, the natural conclusion is that I don't bleed. We might characterize that as the expected conclusion.
Expected Conclusion: I don't bleed.
But along comes evidence intended to disprove Premise 1 (that was the doctor's intent). We'll call this evidence the falsifying datum.
Falsifying Datum: I bleed.
It was hoped that this would cause the "dead" man to recognize that premise (1) was false, but instead the "dead" man instead rejected premise (2).
Parallel - the Scotsman Porridge-Sugaring
Readers may recognize this as similar to what has been called the "No True Scotsman 'fallacy'," ("fallacy" gets an extra set of quotes, because it is not strictly speaking a fallacy) in which
Premise (1) Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
Premise (2) No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Conclusion (1) Angus is not a true Scotsman.
Conclusion (2) Angus is not a counter-example to the claim that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
It has occurred to me that both of these examples, the "No Dead Man" and the "No True Scotsman" examples, are simply examples of attempts to falsify, in which something goes wrong.
We could rearrange the NTS example this way:
(P1) Angus is a Scotsman.
(P2) No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
(EC) Angus doesn't put sugar on his porridge.
(FD) Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
Selection (by Gourmand): P1 is wrong.
There is a fundamental problem in both cases. In the first case, we'd like the dead man to select P1 as being wrong. In the second case, we'd like the Porridge gourmand to select P2 as wrong. In each case, we feel (intuitively) that the wrong selection has been made, but I respectfully submit to you, the reader, that the error made is not a strictly logical one. Instead, the error is epistemological. I'll explain that in more detail shortly, but first let's examine yet a third example (or actually a set of examples).
Roman Catholic Error Examples
(P1) Rome is the true church.
(P2) The true church cannot err.
(EC) Rome does not err.
(FD) Rome errs.
Let's knock out the non-Catholic answer right away. The non-Catholic simply says, I'm not surprised by the FD, because I never accepted either P1 or P2. That's completely uninteresting.
Next, let's turn to the reaction of someone like Gerry Matatics, who holds a "Traditionalist Catholic" to the point of being labeled by others a "Sedavacantist" and contrast that with the selection of mainstream conservative Catholic (presumably someone like Jimmy Akin or Scott Hahn).
Both of these folks would select not P1 or P2 as false, but would claim that the FD is incorrect. GM would argue that the FD is incorrect because while a mistake has been made, "Rome" is not a correct identification of the errant party. The MCC would argue that the FD is incorrect because, while Rome is the right party, "err" is an incorrect identification.
In other words, using the NDM example, it is as though the "dead" man says, "that's not my blood" (GM case), or "that's mine, but it's not blood." In the NTS example, it would be as though the gourmand says, "that's not Angus putting sugar on the porridge" (GM case) or "Angus is putting SALT (or whatever) on his porridge" (MCC case).
As you can see, in the GM case, it is P1 that is - in essence - favored, whereas in the MCC case, it is P2 that is - in essence - favored. Perhaps "favored" could be alternatively expressed as "emphasized." GM emphasizes that Rome is the true church, whereas the MCC emphasize that the true church does not err.
Explaining the Outcomes
What dictates the result? Aren't any of those escapes as validly logically as any other? Apparent contradictions require resolution, and there are lots of ways to resolve them. One can deny one or another previously held premise, or one can reject the new datum, either favoring one premise or the other. There's one other option, which we occasionally see from irrationalists, which is to accept all the data, but throw out reason (criticizing rational thought as an "either/or mentality").
Each of these outcomes reject something:
NTS => reject first premise
NDM => reject second premise
GM => reject falsifier for first premise reason
MCC => reject falsifier for second premise reason
Irr => reject logic
The Irrationalist position is the oddball, but I think we'll see that it can be fit within an overarching scheme. There are basically two intuitive ways to group the remaining four, either by which premise they favor (NTA and GM vs. NDM and MCC) or by whether they reject a premise or the falsifier (NTS and NDM vs. GM and MCC). Neither way is necessarily incorrect, as will be seen.
Ultimately, the answer to the question as to which outcome gets selected, is "what is the mostly tightly held view?" In other words, is it the first premise (the major premise), the second premise (the minor premise), premises as opposed to new data, or data as opposed to logic.
The Irrationalist falls in the last category. He holds logic the least strongly of all the items. Thus, he's willing simply to accept contradiction, and throw out logic.
Those who favor the first premise simply interpret the FD in light of that premise, and vice versa for those who favor the second premise.
Finally, those who favor the premises over the FD are those who are not willing to be persuaded.
Judging the Processes
We intuitively recognize in the NTS and NDM examples that the person ought to accept the FD and ought to alter one of the premises. That's partly because we know that one of the premises is suspect. In the NDM example, we're pretty sure the guy is alive, and in the NTS example, we think that the broad claim about Scotsmen is too much.
We, Reformed Christians, view the GM and MCC situations as problematic for much the same reason: we believe that both the premises are false, and consequently we think that the FD should persuade those groups to reject the premises. Unfortunately, their minds prefer their premises over the new data.
We run that risk too. Any time something appears that facially contradicts an expected conclusion of our systems of thought, we need to ask ourselves how our premises are grounded. Indeed, that's what we'd counsel the "dead" man and the gourmand.
"Why do you accept the premise that you are dead?" "Why are you so sure that Scotsmen don't sugar their porridge?"
To the Catholics, we ask the same questions: "Why do you think that Rome is the true church, but more importantly, why do you think that the true church cannot err?"
Conclusion / Application
I respectfully submit that there is not a valid epistemological basis for the view that the true church cannot err. But trying to prove that to someone who tightly holds that as a premise is quite difficult, because mens minds seek to compromise that which they hold less tightly.
I sincerely think that there are many Catholics (and Orthodox and so forth) who hold to the premises that their church is the true church, and that the true church cannot err so tightly that when an error in the teaching of their church is presented to them they will either deny that it is an error (the majority reaction in the long run), or deny that it is a teaching of their church (the minority reaction in the long run, although sometimes the majority reaction in the short run).
That's one reason that we need to be careful to limit our premises to things which cannot fail us. By God's revelation, we are aware that this includes the Word of God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. By keeping our presuppositional acceptance of Scripture as a minimal set of tightly held premises, we can avoid the various errors mentioned above.
Likewise, I hope that Catholics will consider whether an approach in which they presuppositionally accept the premise that Rome is the true church or (more importantly) the premise that the true church cannot err, is really the best hope for their discernment of the truth of the matter. I respectfully submit to them that they ought to reconsider those premises, as we have good reason to believe that both are incorrect.
May God give us grace to discern our errors,