Evaluating Arguments, Part 9: Non-Explanations, Internal Critiques, and the Epistemological-Metaphysical Fallacy

Let’s continue our series in the assessment of arguments!

(1) Trying to explain something, but the explanation explains nothing, or just rephrases (or presupposes) the very thing in need of explanation, or is itself in need of explanation.

Example: Analgesics work because they mitigate pain.

The thing is, an analgesic is defined as a chemical substance that mitigates pain. So, its pain-relieving property cannot be explained by saying it “relieves/mitigates pain”. That explains nothing.

(2) Mistaking an internal critique for an actual view believed by the critic

Theist: Under atheism, there is no ground for you to even believe in evil, so how can you use it as evidence against God?

Atheist: Simply put, an atheist’s (naturalist’s) meta-ethical framework (and his or her beliefs in general) is not relevant to arguments like the problem of evil or any other inner critiques, and they cannot be used as a successful counter to such critiques. To illustrate this point, imagine you’re discussing the movie “Ant Man” with your friends, and you tell them the movie is absolutely nonsense. For starters, carrying around the shrink tank on a keychain would be impossible because although the tank is shrunk, it didn’t lose any atoms (as stated by the movie), the space between them just decreased. It would thus still have the same mass as it did originally, making it way several tons — unliftable to the average human. Or when Scott (Ant Man) shrinks smaller than quarks, his technology only allows him to decrease the space between atoms and space inside said atoms, but to be smaller than the parts of the atoms themselves contradicts this — thus showing the movie’s incoherence.

Now imagine your friend responds by telling you:

“Well, you don’t even believe in Pym particles (the particles that increase or decrease the size and mass of objects or living beings), so on what grounds can claim this movie is nonsense?”

You’d probably be stupefied by this retort, wondering: how does my personal disbelief in Pym particles invalidate my argument? It’s just a movie after all, and all I did was point out its inner incoherence. And that’s what an internal critique is — a challenge to the internal coherence of a worldview. You don’t have to believe in what your opponent does to criticize his/her position, because all that matters is that they do. I must mention that this works best when you properly lay out your opponent’s beliefs in a maximally charitable manner. Straw manning their beliefs would defeat the purpose of an inner critique in the first place.

(3) Conflating epistemology and metaphysics

One of the most interesting and least known fallacies is called the “masked man” fallacy.

Imagine you’re at a masquerade ball and everyone is wearing masks. There is a man that catches your attention, however he has been wearing a mask the entire time.

Your friend tells you, “Hey, I think that is your father!”

Unconvinced, you retort, “Well, that’s false. I know who my father is, but I do not know who that masked man is. Therefore, their properties are different, and therefore they cannot be the same person.”

This is fallacious. What you think about something or someone is a property of you, not a property of the person or thing itself. Conflating the two is the masked man fallacy.

Your mental state (and, for that matter, your epistemological status) doesn’t necessarily translate into the ontological status and properties of another thing. This commits the classic and invalid move from epistemology to ontology.

Example: A Cartesian argument for dualism

In his Discourse, Descartes argues as follows:

I can doubt that my body exists

I cannot doubt that I exist

Therefore, I am not identical to my body

But compare this to the following situation.

Someone who does not know that Hesperus and Phosphorus are both Venus may argue as follows:

I can doubt that Hesperus (evening star) is Phosphorus (evening star)

I cannot doubt that Phosphorus is Phosphorus.

Therefore, Hesperus is not Phosphorus

This is because (so the person reasons) the two have different properties, and if two things are identical, then they cannot have different properties.

This is an appeal to Leibniz’s law (Identity of Indiscernibles), which states that if a and b are the same thing (numerically identical), then any property of a must also be a property of b.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 3.41.20 PM

The simplest way to deny this is to deny that these are genuine properties. “Being doubted by me” is not a property of a thing in and of itself, and it seems to be a clear example of the Masked Man Fallacy. When I doubt whether Hesperus is Phosphorus, my doubt is not a fact about that planet; it’s a fact about me.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 3.41.32 PMScreen Shot 2018-06-26 at 3.41.51 PM

The above image refers to epistemic possibility, and we cannot necessarily translate that into metaphysical possibility. What one believes or knows about something is an intensional context, and Leibniz’s Law seems to break down in such referentially opaque contexts.

For example, maybe I do not know that Hesperus and Phosphorus are the same (both Venus). I could easily say, “It is possible for Hesperus to lose its orbit (for example, getting hit by an asteroid), but for Phosphorus to remain in orbit. So there is a possibility of one existing without the other. Therefore, they cannot be the same object.”

When I say it’s possible that one of them survives while the other gets destroyed, this just refers to my own epistemic possibility. For me, it is a real possibility, but only epistemologically. For all I know, Hesperus could meet with a calamity while the other survives. But this is a truth about my knowledge, not necessarily the object in and of itself.

All we should allow Descartes is that, for all he knows, the mind and body are distinct things. But he has not successfully established that they are ontologically distinct.


Alvin Plantinga argues that the modal ontological argument, although not being able to establish the existence of a maximally great and necessary being, serves to make this belief “rational”. In short, the argument goes (very roughly) as follows:

It is possible that a maximally great and necessary being exists. Thus it exists in some possible world, and if that’s the case, it exists in all possible worlds, including our own.

Some atheists will reply that this leads to the absurd conclusion that Goldbach’s conjecture is proven.

The Goldbach Conjecture is a yet unproven conjecture stating that every even integer greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers. The conjecture has been tested to all the numbers up to (and even surpassing) 400,000,000,000,000. Goldbach’s conjecture is one of the oldest unsolved problems in number theory and in all of mathematics.

The atheist, then, may respond: “It is possible that Goldbach’s conjecture is true (and, since it’s a mathematical conjecture, it would be necessarily true). Thus it is true in some possible world, and if that’s the case, it is true in all possible worlds, including our own.”

However, the claim that Goldbach’s conjecture is possible is only justified by our current epistemic status. Epistemologically, it seems that it is possibly true to us. But that does not necessarily translate into its ontological status.

It is also certainly worth noting that we can distinguish between two different states of affairs:

Seeing that something is possible versus Not seeing that something is impossible. The latter doesn’t necessarily entail the former.

The question remains as to whether this exact same objection applies to Plantinga’s argument. Perhaps his argument also succumbs to the epistemic/metaphysical fallacy. That is for you to think about!

Example: “There is objective morality because of evolution.”

There is the difference between an explanation for why we are moral and the ontological foundation for moral statements, i.e. that which grounds and/or functions as the truth-maker for moral claims. Evolution only provides the former. This is a subtle form of the epistemological-metaphysical fallacy in which one mistakenly moves from the means by which we came to know/believe in moral statements to something that can function as the grounding or truth-maker for moral claims.

Example: “Determinism is false because human decisions are unpredictable.”

First, determinism does not claim that human actions are predictable, so this attacks a straw man. Determinism merely affirms that all human decisions/actions are caused by prior occurrences not under our control.

But, more importantly, this commits the epistemological-metaphysical fallacy. Merely from our epistemic state of ignorance regarding all the millions of causal factors involved in a given decision (and, of course, our resulting epistemic state of being unable to know/predict the action), it does not follow that the event in and of itself is ontologically indeterministic. The unpredictability is a feature of our epistemic status, and moving from this inability to predict to the actual ontology of decision making is fallacious.

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com

Images source: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/people/peter-millican

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