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Old 08-23-2001, 12:41 PM   #21
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Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: St. Louis
Posts: 17

In an attempt to settle this little dispute, I sought out the input of a third party. Stephen Downes maintains an online guide to the logical fallacies here:

I emailed him our exchange, not really expecting a response, but I got one. He addressed both my original questions posted in the start of the thread as well as the ad hominem "argument." I think it can be educational for both of us. He gave me permission to post it:

The distinguishing feature of an ad hominem is that it describes the speaker, not the argument. His statement could be held to describe the argument. Barely. But not quite.

The statement reads, "his understanding..." and "his belief..." and is therefore referring to a property of Carl Sagan. Insofar as it refers to a property of Carl Sagan, even a belief, it is an
ad hominem.

That said: it is never sufficient simply to label an opposition argument as a fallacy. It appears you did that here, allowing your opponent to distract you with subtle distinctions. You should use your knowledge
of the fallacies to construct arguments, not to call your opponent names.

In this case, the writer begins with a statement, that the Bible never says the Earth is flat. I have no idea whether it does nor not. You should do a word search on the text of the Bible to find it
(try here: )

The writer then goes on to label Carl Sagan's understandings and believes as "naive." You (correctly) identify this as an ad hominem. But simply saying this doesn't prove your point, no more than his
saying that Sagan's beliefs are naive proves his.

The essence of "ad hominem" is that it changes the subject. It distracts from the argument or discussion at hand. When you
observe an ad hominem, your response should be to point out that the arguer's statements are changing the topic, and therefore
irrelevant. Like this:

"You also state that Carl Sagan's beliefs are naive. I am not discussing his beliefs here. I don't see why you would raise an irrelevant attack on Sagan in this context."

Of course, the reason why he launched the attack is that he perceives, probably correctly, that you are about to point
out some absurdities in the Bible. Of course, the Bible is full of absurdities. That's why, for him, the best defense is to change the subject, several times if possible, onto ground where he feels more comfortable, such as Carl Sagan's naive beliefs.

Don't let the ad hominem succeed - stick to your discussion of the Bible (or whatever you're talking about) and dismiss these tactics of distraction as irrelevant.

As for the references to racism, they are scattered throughout the Old Testament, usually with reference to the purity of
the Jewish race (and having nothing to do with modern colour-based racism).

References to slavery are frequent, most often in Exodus. See my article "The 67 Commandments" for a little fun with some
of the absurdities in the Bible.

The article is intended to give people pause who select a passage from the Bible and use it to support, or oppose, this, that or the other edict. The Bible should be viewed as a whole, expressing an ethos common 3,000 years ago, and not as a literal structure. Else we really would be stoning people in the streets.

Stephen Downes ~ ~
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