Biblical Logic: The Fallacy of Conservatism

The Fallacy of Conservatism

by Joel McDurmon

(From Joel’s Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice)

 

 “I always ask, ‘Where are progressives progressing?’ and ‘What are conservatives conserving?’ If the answers to these questions do not reveal biblical values behind their goals, then the progress is not true progress, and what is conserved is not worth conserving.”

A fallacious Appeal to Antiquity argues the opposite of an Appeal to Progress. Appeal to Antiquity claims that something deserves respect because it is ancient or long-trusted, and that we should avoid “new” things until they have withstood the test of time. We can also call this the fallacy of Conservatism, while avoiding any necessary connection between the broader logical error and the limited political sense of “conservative.” This Appeal fails by the same standard that Appeals to Progress fail: neither chronology nor age determine truth. Some truths have emerged as “new” in modern times (at least as far as modern knowledge can discern), and some tragically false ideas existed and have continued through antiquity. In either case “withstanding the test of time” does not factor into the truth of the idea, but rather contradicts it.

History exposes this fallacy in the fact that everything was new or novel at some point in history. One of the first of the more modern writers on fallacies, Jeremy Bentham, made this point: “To say that all new things are bad is as much as to say that all things are bad, or in any event that all were bad at their commencement. For of all the old things ever seen or heard of, there is not a single one that was not once new.”17

Christianity itself confronted the people of Christ’s time with some completely new ideas. Christ argued that some old ways of doing things needed reform and that He refused to impose some old traditions on his disciples: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22; Matt. 9:17). In fact, by the Appealer to Antiquity’s logic, God should never have created, for that introduced an innovation and changed the ancient status quo!18

Some people, it seems, simply hate change in general. I’ve personally known of churches that fought and split because the pastor changed the color of the carpeting to their dislike. Along these lines an elderly preacher once told me a story:

Every church has a “Brother ‘gain’-it”; no matter what change someone proposes, even if the church badly needs it, he opposes, “I’m a-gain’ it!” When someone proposed that the church needed new chandeliers, he spoke up vehemently, “I’m a-gain’ it.” When asked why, he huffed, “Three reasons: we don’t need ‘em; we can’t afford ‘em; and we don’t have anyone who knows how to play ‘em!”

While the first and second reasons may have some plausibility, the third shows that ol’ Brother ‘Gain’-it had no real idea what he was talking about. He just didn’t want change.

Unlike this stubborn brother, the Appeal to Antiquity does not try to hide its prejudice behind reasons; it puts the sentiment clearly into words. “We must reject X, because we have never used X before; X is an unproven program; no one has ever heard of X before; our forefathers never required X, etc.” Despite how sound Biblical teaching logically applied might properly reform old ways, many people forcefully cling to old ways. As Fischer puts it, “There is scarcely a corner of the world in which men do not, in some degree, bow down before absurdities inherited from their ancestors.”19

Of course, the human proclivity for venerating “the fathers” leads nearly everyone—even progressives—to adopt Appeals to Antiquity. Fischer helps us again:

In our own time, it is a rare political proposal which is not, in some fashion, legitimized by an out-of-context quotation from the Founding Fathers. Consider, for instance, the rhetorical raids which have been made upon the writings of Thomas Jefferson. His works have been ransacked by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, radicals and reactionaries, New Englanders and Southerners, to sustain elitism and equality, capitalism and socialism, states’ rights and interventionism, isolationism and internationalism, rationalism and romanticism, atheism and Christianity, agrarianism and urban development. He has been quoted at length by Earl Browder in defense of Communism, and by Ezra Pound in the cause of Fascism; by Sukarno in the interest of “guided democracy,” and even by Ho Chi Minh in the name of Vietnamese nationalism.20

Of course, such quotations commit an Appeal to Authority as much as they merely venerate old wisdom, but the chronological snobbery remains. An appeal to an old dead dignitary persuades some people more than appeals to modern celebrities or academics, and for good reason: the Appeal to Antiquity resonates with our sense for established wisdom.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Many instances of this fallacy additionally refer to the “law of unintended consequences” as an added Appeal to Fear when condemning proposed changes. Not that we should ignore the phenomenon: unintended consequences should indeed factor heavily into judging such propositions. As economist Thomas Sowell remarks,

Fallacies are not simply crazy ideas. They are usually both plausible and logical—but with something missing. Their plausibility gains them political support. Only after that political support is strong enough to cause fallacious ideas to become government policies and programs are the missing or ignored factors likely to lead to “unintended consequences,” a phrase often heard in the wake of economic or social policy disasters.21

In too many instances fallacious ideas form the basis of government, business, family, church, or institutional programs, only to have disastrous results down the line. Such effects do happen, often due to incomplete or improper planning on the front end. Henry Hazlitt explains, in his classic work on the subject, about the

persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

In this lies the whole difference between good economics and bad.22

In Hazlitt’s comments, we should take special note of the phrases “neglect to inquire,” and “overlooking.” Herein lies the root of this fallacy: uncritical application of change. Men should rightly fear legislation or ideas that have evaded criticism or testing.

Nevertheless, any reference to such a problem ahead of time should include reasons and arguments spotting real unintended consequences. Apart from actually doing the work of thinking through such consequences (as much as we can anyway), the “unintended consequences” claim verges on an empty Appeal to Fear, a Slippery Slope, a Gambler’s Fallacy, an Appeal to Ignorance, or a handful of other fallacies.

Instead, in most instances, we discern the unintended consequences after the fact, due to experience. Such is the case with the many examples that Sowell, for example, writes about.23 If resorted to outside of such experience, and in order merely to impede change, the argument, “We shouldn’t accept this change because we don’t know what adverse effects it will have,” simply stirs up Fear based on no evidence. The refutation is simple: by the same standard of “we don’t know,” we can equally argue that positive changes may arise from the change. Without any evidence or indication either way, negative or positive results stand equally likely. So the argument really solves nothing; it just returns us to the point in question.

Of course, the fear of unintended consequences serves as just one tool for those who use Appeals to Antiquity. The fallacy does not depend on this tool and often appears without it.

Puritan Progress

One of the clearest examples of Appeals to Antiquity occurred in widespread fashion during the rise of Puritan influence in England, roughly 1620 to 1680. The enigmatic figure of Francis Bacon spurred dramatic changes in science and technology, as well as in philosophy. New ideas in these areas as well as in civil government clashed with ancient and accepted ways, especially in the institutions of government and academia. Thus ensued a battle between “ancients” and “moderns.”

Bacon and his followers simply desired to learn and apply new knowledge to trade, industry, and the improvement of human life. But they faced a world in which an entrenched view of knowledge dominated learning and science. Two major beliefs ruled this world: 1) that the world inevitably decayed, taking with it knowledge and society, and therefore, 2) the best of all knowledge and learning had already occurred in ancient times. Both filled men with pessimism, despair, and discouragement. As a result, traditionalists of the time

faced backward rather than forward in the quest for truth, and prepared themselves for scientific investigation by mastering the Greek and Latin languages. The natural result was an ardent worship of the great classical minds, and a submission to their authority which is hard for us to appreciate.24

Without question the “ancients” revered ancient Aristotle above all. So fiercely did they defend his authority that they instituted him by law: Oxford University decreed “that Bachelors and Masters who did not follow Aristotle faithfully were liable to a fine of five shillings [about $125 today]25 for every point of divergence, and for every fault committed against the logic of [Aristotle’s] the Organon.”26 In addition to Aristotle, the work of Galen ruled medicine, and Ptolemy dominated astronomy—both over a millennium and a half old!

To make any advancement at all, Bacon had to confront this chronological snobbery of his day: “the most significant obstacle to the advancement of science was reverence for antiquity, and in combating this evil Bacon helped to establish an essential attitude of the new science. . . .”27 Bacon refuted the fallacies of Authority and Antiquity, dared to critique Aristotle and dependence on him, and established an optimistic mindset that fueled science. In the same generation the famous poet and tractarian John Milton would express such optimism:

The end, then, of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.28

It takes courage to overcome fallacies, especially when society and institutions of authority have entrenched themselves in the uncritical reverence of antiquity. When fallacies become incarnate in such ways, they require momentous figures and events to overturn them, even though their illogic stands evident.

The Bible versus Tradition

The Pharisees attempted to confront Jesus using an Appeal to Antiquity. They inquired, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matt. 15:2). Notice their concern: “tradition of the elders,” not “law of Moses.” Jesus responded by simply pointing out that their traditions have no genuine authority in God’s eyes. God’s Word demands no such ritual hand washing. In fact, Jesus pointed out, parts of their tradition transgressed the word of God by allowing young people to abandon care of their mother and father through giving a gift of money to the temple (Matt. 15:3–6).

Christ here shows the remedy for fallacious Appeals to Antiquity: the Word of God is the only absolute authority. Nothing else can bind the consciences of men, despite even great age. All else that pretends authority can at best approximate some level of authority relative to the Word, and often has none at all. So Paul warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, . . . rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). He himself had lived through this problem:

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus (Gal. 1:14–17).

Paul argues that it took a work of God to break him away from the Pharisaical traditions, and in order to maintain the integrity of his Gospel message, he argues that he did not receive it by tradition: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11–12). Paul rightly learned that Appeal to Antiquity holds no genuine authority, only revelation from God does. Peter teaches the same lesson, that truth does not depend on tradition: “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).

Confronting traditions with the Word of God shows the fallaciousness of the Appeal. Tradition cannot guarantee truth, and thus must fall under the judgment of a higher standard. God’s Word will determine whether traditions are good, bad, or just ugly. Many of the traditions handed down from our fathers may actually dishonor God. Jeremiah confronted this problem already in his time:

The Lord said, “Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice nor walked according to it, but have walked after the stubbornness of their heart and after the Baals, as their fathers taught them,” therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood and give them poisoned water to drink. I will scatter them among the nations, whom neither they nor their fathers have known; and I will send the sword after them until I have annihilated them” (Jer. 9:13–16).

Notice the fallacy here described as “stubbornness of their hearts.” Notice God’s punishment against these men who uncritically followed what their “fathers” taught them instead of seeking God’s law: He would “scatter” them, and they would live disconnected amidst foreign nations where they would have no traditions except heathen traditions. God abandoned them to their fallacy.

In the New Testament, the desire to perpetuate old traditions like circumcision caused considerable confusion and strife (Acts 15). Paul later said that such old practices profit nothing: “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 5:16). Sadly, Appeals to Antiquity often cause great harm in the name of ancient wisdom. Truth demands that we have supple enough hearts to let unnecessary things pass on, holding only to that which is truly eternal and of godly profit.

Timeless Wisdom

The biblical correction of both of these fallacies—Appeals to Progress and to Antiquity—rests in its doctrine of “wisdom.” Wisdom is precious—more valuable than gold, silver, and rubies (Prov. 3:14–15)—not because it is new or ancient, not because it has either evolved afresh or withstood the tests of time, but because it is wisdom, and because it is the gift of knowledge and understanding from God (Prov. 2:6). Biblical wisdom by its very nature allows it to both withstand the tests of time and apply afresh to new challenges.

To argue for something because it is new or because it is old places age above God’s Word. It places a temporal attribute above an eternal one. But all temporal things (all of creation) change over time. Only the Triune God and His Word do not change (Ps. 102:25–27; Isa. 40:8; Mal. 3:6; Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:16–17; Heb. 1:10–12; 13:8; James 1:17; 1 Peter 1:23–25). God’s Wisdom, therefore, is both changeless and timeless: it endures from ancient times and yet remains vitally relevant to every modern circumstance. It never changes in content nor fades in relevance. It defies both Progressivism and Conservatism; it exposes both chronological snobberies as fallacies and corrects both with proper Biblical balance.

Solomon, in God’s wisdom, elucidated this Biblical view of new and old: both occur inevitably. He writes,

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

. . . A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
And hastening to its place it rises there again.
Blowing toward the south,
Then turning toward the north,
The wind continues swirling along;
And on its circular courses the wind returns.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow,
There they flow again.
All things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one might say,
“See this, it is new”?
Already it has existed for ages
Which were before us.
There is no remembrance of earlier things;
And also of the later things which will occur,
There will be for them no remembrance
Among those who will come later still.

–Eccl. 1:2, 4–11

All things change, and yet nothing really changes. There is nothing new under the sun, and yet each sunrise begins a uniquely new day. The Lord’s compassions are “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). Ideas alleged as “new” have actually all occurred in the past, and almost all get lost again in the wastebasket of history. The human propensity to forget history makes it seem as if new things arise all the time; yet nothing truly does. With this in mind, the person who attempts to base goodness or truth on the newness or antiquity of an idea simply embraces the Vanity that Solomon warned against.

To confront these fallacies, merely remind their abusers of a burden of proof that they have assumed. “Progress” implies movement, which raises the question of direction and purpose. When someone begins touting “progress” simply require them to explain exactly “where” they intend to progress to. The answer to this will reveal: 1) whether or not the individual has any idea what they’re talking about, and 2) the worldview from which they argue. Likewise, with the opposite error of Conservatism inquire as to what exactly the party intends to “conserve” and what not. The answer will reveal if they have at all thought their position through and what worldview presuppositions lurk behind their thinking.

In some places Scripture tells us to respect the aged, specifically because of age: “You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged” (Lev. 19:31). This applies, of course, to people, and not necessarily to their ideas, however. Elders can and do sometimes promote bad ideas, and even fallacies. We must also balance such respect for age in light of other Scriptural ideas. God’s people sing a “new” song (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Rev. 5:9; 14:3). The lovers in Solomon’s Song share “choice fruit, both new and old” (Song 7:13), which as sacred poetry has many implications. Jesus taught, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt. 13:52). The disciple of Christ must learn to value both old things and new things, and use both as the Word values them. The key lies in studying the Word first.

I always ask, “Where are progressives progressing?” and “What are conservatives conserving?” If the answers to these questions do not reveal biblical values behind their goals, then the progress is not true progress, and what is conserved is not worth conserving.

*****

Notes:

17. Jeremy Bentham, Bentham’s Handbook of Political Fallacies, ed. Harold A. Larrabee (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, [1824] 1952), 94.

18. Of course this is absurd. Before creation, time did not exist; there is no “new” or “old” in eternity, technically. But Scripture does describe the Lord as the “ancient of days” (Daniel 7:9, 13, 22), so the metaphor works.

19. David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), 297.

20. Ibid., 298–299.

21. Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 1.

22. Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, [1946] 1979), 15–16.

23. Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies.

24. Richard Foster Jones, Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961), 4.

25. Assuming that a Shilling was 1/20 of a Sovereign, which was roughly 1/2 ounce of gold. With gold near $1000/ounce, this makes quite a punishment!

26. Quoted in Richard Foster Jones, Ancients and Moderns, 4.

27. Jones, Ancients and Moderns, 43.

28. John Milton, “Of Education,” John Milton Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis, IN: The Odyssey Press, [Original 1644, 1673] 1957), 631.

(Biblical Logic is now available in Kindle edition.)

 Article from americanvision.org

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