“There is no truth!”
How many times have you heard that before?
In their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, authors Norman Geisler and Frank Turek provide one of the most valuable tools and tactics a clear-thinker needs to master and have in their arsenal:
“If someone said to you, ‘I have one insight for you that absolutely will revolutionize your ability to quickly and clearly identify the false statements and false philosophies that permeate our culture,’ would you be interested? That’s what we’re about to do here. In fact, if we had to pick just one thinking ability as the most valuable we’ve learned in our many years of seminary and postgraduate education, it would be this: how to identify and refute self-defeating statements.”(i)
What is a self-defeating statement?
A self-defeating (or self-refuting) statement is one that fails to meet its own standard. In other words, it is a statement that cannot live up to its own criteria. Imagine if I were to say,
I cannot speak a word in English.
You intuitively see a problem here. I told you in English that I cannot speak a word in English. This statement is self-refuting. It does not meet its own standard or criteria. It self-destructs.
The important thing to remember with self-defeating statements is that they are necessarily false. In other words, there is no possible way for them to be true. This is because they violate a very fundamental law of logic, the law of non-contradiction. This law states that A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. For example, it is not possible for God to exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense. This would violate the law of non-contradiction. So if I were to say, “God told me He doesn’t exist” you would see intuitively the obvious self-refuting nature of this statement.
How do you expose self-defeating statements?
Simple: you apply the claim to itself. This is what Geisler and Turek call the Road Runner Tactic and what Greg Koukl refers to as The Suicide Tactic (see chapter 7 of his book Tactics).
Below each self-defeating statement is an explanation of why it commits suicide along with suggestions on how you can respond. If this is your first time dealing with self-refuting statements you may need to read them a couple times. Stop and reflect on what the statement is saying and then see if you can identify its self-refuting nature.
1. There is no truth.
If there is no truth this statement itself cannot be true. Therefore, truth exists. You cannot deny truth without affirming it. You might respond, “Is that true?” or “How can it be true that there is no truth?”
2. You can’t know truth.
If you can’t know truth then you would never know that “you can’t know truth.” This person is claiming to know the truth that wecan’t know truth. You might respond, “Then how do you know that?”
3. No one has the truth.
This person is claiming to have the truth that no one has the truth. If no one has the truth then the statement “no one has the truth” is false! You might respond, “Then how do you know that is true?”
4. All truth is relative.
Sometimes also stated as “Everything is relative.” If all truth is relative then this statement itself would be relative and not objectively true. In other words, the person is claiming that it is objectively true that all truth is relative. You might respond, “Isthat a relative truth?”
5. It’s true for you but not for me.
This statement is self-refuting because it claims that truth is relative to the individual and yet at the same time implies it is objectively true that something can be “true for you but not for me.” This statement commits the self-excepting fallacy. You might respond, “Is that just true for you, or is it true for everybody?”
6. There are no absolutes.
This statement is an absolute statement about reality that claims there are no absolutes. You might respond, “Are you absolutely sure about that?”
7. No one can know any truth about religion.
This person is claiming to know the truth about religion and it is this: you can’t know truth about religion. You might respond, “Then how did you come to know that truth about religion?”
8. You can’t know anything for sure.
If you can’t know anything for sure then you would never know it! This person is claiming to know with certainty that you can’t know anything for sure. You might respond, “Then how do you know that for sure?”
9. You should doubt everything.
If you should doubt everything then you should doubt the truth of the statement “you should doubt everything.” You might respond, “Should I doubt that?” And remember: always doubt your doubts!
10. Only science can give us truth.
If only science can give us truth we could never know that “only science can give us truth” because this is not something science can tell you! That is because this statement is philosophical in nature rather than scientific. You might respond, “What science experiment taught you that?” or “What is your scientific evidence that only science can give us truth?”
11. You can only know truth through experience.
If you can only know truth through experience you would never know the truth of the statement “you can only know truth through experience” because this is not something that can be known through experience. You might respond, “Can you know that truth through experience?” or “What experience taught you that?”
12. All truth depends on your perspective.
If all truth depends on your perspective then even the truth “all truth depends on your perspective” depends on your perspective. This is another objective statement which claims relativism is true. Again, it commits the self-excepting fallacy. You might respond, “Does that truth depend on your perspective?”
13. You shouldn’t judge.
The person who says this is making a judgment, namely, that it is wrong to judge! You might respond, “If it is wrong to judge, then why are you judging?”
14. You shouldn’t force your morality on people.
This person is forcing their moral point of view that it is wrong to force a moral point of view. You might respond, “Then please don’t force your moral view that it is wrong to force morality.”
15. You should live and let live.
The person who tells you to “live and let live” isn’t allowing you to live how you want! They are prescribing behavior for you rather than taking their own advice. You might respond, “If that’s your philosophy, why are you telling me how to live?”
16. God doesn’t take sides.
If God doesn’t take sides then He does in fact take the side that doesn’t take sides. You might respond, “Does God take thatside?”
17. You shouldn’t try to convert people.
This person is trying to convert you to their position that it is wrong to convert people! You might respond, “If it is wrong to convert, why are you trying to convert me?”
18. That’s just your view.
This statement is self-refuting if it treats an objective statement as if it were subjective. This is the subjectivist fallacy. The hidden assumption is that your view is relative and a matter of personal opinion. If that is the case, this statement can also be relativized and made into a matter of personal opinion. You might respond, “Well that’s just your view that this is just my view.”
19. You should be tolerant of all views.
Most statements regarding tolerance are self-refuting if by “tolerance” the person means “accepting all views as equally true and valid.” If that is the case, the person who says “You should be tolerant of all views” isn’t being tolerant of your view! You might respond, “Then why don’t you tolerate my view?”(ii)
20. It is arrogant to claim to have the truth.
This person is claiming to have the truth that “it is arrogant to claim to have the truth.” Therefore, by his own standard, he is the arrogant one! You might respond, “My that is awfully arrogant of you!”
Why list out these statements?
So you can (1) recognize self-defeating statements, (2) expose them for what they are, and (3) avoid being caught off guard and taken in by them.
(i) Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 38.
(ii) Note: true tolerance means “putting up with error” and carries with it the idea of respect and value with regards to persons. This is in contradistinction to the postmodern definition of tolerance which means holding all truth claims as equally true and valid.
I really don’t know anyone who makes those specific statements that you’re refuting.
Certainly there are statements that have been interpreted to mean those easily refuted ones. But not those themselves.
You have never heard someone say “All truth is relative.” or “There are no absolutes.”? Are you serious? Maybe you should get out more.
Being a man of “science”, I’m surprised you don’t ascribe to #10 personally.
Let me ask an unrelated question. What inspired you to comment on this post?
“You have never heard someone say “All truth is relative.” or “There are no absolutes.”? ”
No one whose opinion I have respected.
“Being a man of “science”, I’m surprised you don’t ascribe to #10 personally.”
Science is the best way we currently know for determining truth. No other method has been shown to be as consistently correct, when we can know those things, as science has been. No other method has a consistent method of self-correction, either. And so, I trust in the scientific method when trying to determine if something is true.
Now, you could turn that paragraph into the sentence of #10, but you’d be oversimplifying my position and misinterpreting it.
You may disagree with my position, of course. But my position is not the same as #10.
“Let me ask an unrelated question. What inspired you to comment on this post?”
Because you referenced a book that is ostensibly about atheists, and the first self-defeating statement you list is ‘there is no truth’. When I, in fact, have never heard an atheist utter that particular statement.
That’s only anecdotal evidence, granted. And I don’t speak for all atheists. But to say, or imply, that a position of even your average atheist holds is that truth doesn’t exist would be incorrect.
Would you say that an Absolute truth exists? (Absolute = something that is true for all people of all places at all times.)
“Would you say that an Absolute truth exists? (Absolute = something that is true for all people of all places at all times.)”
Are you talking about facts or beliefs/ethics/morals?
A rock is a rock. Left to its own devices, it will remain a rock forever…or as near to forever for a species that lives less than 1001 years on average. That is as close to ‘absolute’ as we can get. As far as I can see.
I don’t know what you mean when you say “true for all people”. Something is true or it is false. It can’t be true for you but not true for me. Unless you’re using a different definition of the word ‘true’.
Im not sure what you are trying to describe with the rock illustration. Even rocks will erode, weather, and change over time (like coal compressing into a diamond). So forever is far to big of a word to describe rocks. You understand the concept of ‘forever’, but you say “That is as close to ‘absolute’ as we can get. As far as I can see.” Well what if there is more? What if physical matter is is not everything there is?
I totally agree with you when you say, “Something is true or it is false. It can’t be true for you but not true for me.” I think we are working with the same definition of truth.
So in your opinion, what defines what is true and what is false? How do we know the difference?
“So in your opinion, what defines what is true and what is false? How do we know the difference?”
By using observation, reason and the scientific method.
How can you be sure observation, reason, and scientific method provide you with Truth?
Because it yields results. And better results than any other method. Is it perfect? Probably not. But it’s the best we have.
What do you suggest as a way to determine truth?
Great – thanks for sharing. Another great book along these lines (though not specifically Christian) is What Do You Say When You Talk to Yourself, by Shad Helmstetter. I’d been in the Christian community all of my life and a Christian sense an early age, but Helmstetters work freed me from my past so that I could more fully live the life Christ offers.
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