We get email: The difference between being unreliable and 100% wrong

Last week, Matt and Tracie got in a brief argument with a caller named Charles before hanging up on him.  Charles has continued to email us, and although Matt has decided that he’s a fake, I usually feel that genuine stupidity is the less extraordinary claim.  Anyway, I’m going to excerpt selected parts of this exchange, because it illustrates a couple of principles.

First, there is this perenially weird argument that if any one thing is found to be true in the Bible, then the whole thing must be true.  As I mentioned on the latest Non-Prophets, it’s as if fundamentalists live in this sharply divided world like the logic puzzles of Raymond Smullyan.  Everyone in the world is either a knight, who always tells the truth, or a knave, who always lies.  In Smullyan’s puzzles, proving that a person has made one true statement is enough to conclusively prove that everything that person has ever said or will say is also true.

In the real world… not so much.

Second: People who are bad at arguing commonly use a tactic known as “Quick!  Change the subject!”  NEVER allow the argument to continue if they’re dodging the point.

Charles says:

U discredit the bible you say you don’t care what the bible says. Then u validate it saying there are facts in the bible but then say there’s also false things in the bible (which is an unsupported assertion). That sir is a contradiction.

Matt:

No, it’s not a contradiction. It’s true.

There are true things in the Bible (like Herod and Jerusalem). There are false things in the Bible (like the cure for leprosy, the global flood, the genesis story, the exodus).

Imagine that I wrote you a letter and the letter read:

“Dear Charles, The sky is blue. The Earth is a rough spheroid that orbits the sun, which is a star. Mars is the biggest planet in our solar system. You should eat more vegetables. I am the supreme ruler of the universe.”

Some of that is true and some of it is false. So, referencing that letter is useless – because whatever is true, is true whether it’s in the letter or not. The same is true for whatever is false. So telling someone “Hey, it’s in the letter from Matt” doesn’t give them ANY information about whether or not the claim is true or false.

The same is true about referencing the Bible.

At this point I jumped in, not wanting to miss out on the fun.

Charles,

I’m going to walk over to my bookcase right now, pick up the first work of fiction I see, and find a true statement written in it. Ready?

The book is The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett. This is actually an especially easy one, because Follett writes historical thrillers, and this one takes place in Egypt during World War II.

End of the book, chapter 29: “Rommel glanced up and saw the British bombers approach low from behind the nearest line of hills: the troops called them ‘Party rally’ bombers because they flew in the perfect formation of display aircraft at the prewar Nuremberg parades. ‘Take cover!’ Rommel yelled. He ran to a slit trench and dived in. …Today was September 1, and something had gone terribly wrong.”

Rommel was real. Egypt was real. The British bombers were real. Does that mean, then, that the whole book is to be taken as literal truth? It concerns a fictional agent capturing a fictional spy and falling in love with a fictional girl. The fact is, I can accurately say that the book contains both true facts and made up events and characters, and finding true stuff in this book is no proof that it’s reliable as a whole.

Suddenly, a wild change of subject appears!

Mr Dillahunty, I remember you hanging up on me for saying evolution is a theory (which it is) just a little hint I thought u should know. Evolution is the only one of millions of theories that was taught in every American public school. That should make everyone pause to think about who is making the decisions of what does and does not get taught in schools, and what their agenda is. I have more proof of God’s existence than every text book has of evolution. The type of evolution that people believe would disprove God has not been disproved either. God decided that to this point, we didn’t need to know how he created us. If evolution is proved to be true then I guess we will know how he created us. According to Darwin’s own words, evolution is false.

I’m not having it.

Charles,

I noticed that you’ve changed the subject very abruptly. Does that mean that you now recognize that books like the Bible can contain some true statements and still not be reliable? I’m happy to discuss evolution with you, myself, but first I’d like some acknowledgment that you were paying attention to the things we already talked about.

Charles says:

The unsupported assertion that the bible is “unreliable” totally baffles me. And yes I was paying attention to what was said and I’m going to discredit evolution simply because its a theory not a fact.

Me:

Charles,

Here’s the problem with this conversation. You’re claiming the broad ability to overturn a major pillar of modern science, and yet you seem to be psychologically incapable of comprehending even the most basic questions about critical thought. Apparently you find it “baffling,” and it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody who can’t even share that most basic foundation.

We’re not even talking right now about whether everything in the Bible is true. You started this conversation by claiming Matt contradicted himself by saying that
(1) There are true statements in the Bible, and
(2) The Bible as a whole can’t be used to determine truth.

Several of us have now explained to you why that’s not a contradiction. Matt pointed out that people and books in the real world often make both true and false assertions at different times. I even gave you a live example by finding a fictional book that has true statements in it.

The question isn’t “Is the Bible a reliable book?” at that point — the question is “Do you understand that it is possible for the Bible, or any other book, to say some things that are true, and still not be a true book overall?” Your response was to not acknowledge this question, but to hastily change the subject to something else that you thought would go better for you. But I’m not cool with that.

It’s a really simple question, Charles. Do you understand and agree with what I’m saying about true and false statements, or don’t you? If you’re going to just run away from a subject every single time you don’t like the way the conversation is going, then I don’t really see what the point is of talking to you.

Awaiting an answer that may or may not come.