Are You Refuting Yourself?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most common mistakes in thinking I have seen in discussions on the blog is the making of self-refuting statements.  According to philosopher J. P. Moreland, a self-refuting statement is a statement which “refers to itself and fails to satisfy its own criteria of rational acceptability or truthfulness.”  An example would be the following:

“No English sentence is longer than three words.”

Obviously this is an English sentence which is longer than three words, so the very statement itself fails to meet its own criteria.  Here is another example that Moreland offers:

“There are no truths.”

The person making this statement obviously thinks that this statement is a truth, so once again the statement fails to meet its own criteria.

Moreland concludes, “They refer to themselves and they falsify themselves. Self-refuting statements are necessarily false; that is, they cannot possibly be true.”  Here are some additional examples of self-refuting statements:

“I do not exist.” The problem here is that a person must exist to make the statement that they do not exist.

“Anyone who is biased should not be trusted.” Isn’t the person who is making this statement biased himself?

“Only science gives us true knowledge.” How do you know that statement is true?  It isn’t a statement of science.

“All truth is relative.” Is that truth relative?

“There are no absolutes.” Is that statement absolutely true?

“It’s true for you, but not for me.” Is that statement only true for you or is it true for everyone?

“You should be skeptical of everything.” Should we be skeptical of that statement?

“You can’t know anything about God.” Do you know that God is unknowable?

“You ought not judge.” Isn’t that a judgment?

“You should be tolerant.” Aren’t you being intolerant of me?

It is amazing to see how many times these kinds of statements are made.  One tip-off that a self-refuting statement my be on the way is if a person uses the words all, every, or no.  These words indicate that the statement is going to be a universal categorical statement, meaning that it will encompass all of its class.  Sometimes these words are implied in the statement without being explicitly included, so you’ll have to be watchful.

A person making one of these self-refuting statements can correct the situation by changing all or every to some.  For example, instead of saying, “All truth is relative,” a person could say, “Some truth is relative.”  The drawback is that the statement is now weaker and has less force, but at least it is not self-contradictory any more.  Better to make a weaker statement than a statement that flatly contradicts itself.

  • Andrew Ryan

    This doesn’t always work. Imagine someone has early Alzheimer’s and finds themselves confused much of the time – their memories were unreliable, sometimes people made no sense to them.

    So they say to you: “I can’t really trust anything any more”.

    Would you reply: “If you can’t trust anything any more, how can you trust the fact that you can’t trust anything?”

    All you’ve really done is reveal a limitation in our language. How SHOULD someone describe a situation where they’re confused most of the time? It seems to me that the Alzheimer’s sufferer is quote correct – they are accurately describing their situation. The nit-picking reply adds nothing and corrects nothing.

    This seems pretty similar to this:

    “You should be skeptical of everything.” Should we be skeptical of that statement?

    It’s superficially clever, but it doesn’t really refute anything or add anything.

  • Okay…? What’s the point, exactly? I’m not aware of any big names in atheism or Christianity who use any of those kinds of arguments. Most non-Christians don’t deal in universal statements, for one — whether it’s “there is no universal” or “there is a universal,” science-minded people tend to only speak from experience and allow for the possibility that there is more to a given concept than we currently understand. It’s usually hardcore religious apologists (Christian and Muslim especially) who deal in absolute statements — “there absolutely is a god,” or “without god, morals can’t exist.” You don’t hear atheists or nontheists saying things like that.

    Why don’t you call your next post “If You Are Not Eating Right Now, That Means You Are Not Eating Right Now?”

  • Tony Lloyd

    Just found this in a search for J P Moreland.

    Not all of these examples are self refuting, that they are taken to be so reveals, I think, some hidden assumptions in J P Moreland’s Weltanshaung, assumptions I see no need to share.

    “Only science gives us true knowledge.” Could be both true and unknown. The statement does not claim that it is the product of knowledge. I think JPM simply assumes that any declarative statement is a claim to knowledge.

    “You should be skeptical of everything.” It’s asked whether we should be skeptical of that statement. And why on earth not? The hidden assumption seems to be that we should not accept anything that we doubt. This is a foolish policy, though, demanding certainty for any statement. There are statements that are quite evidently not quite true (e.g Relativity) that are the best we can get. If we don’t accept anything we doubt we would have to reject Relativity. The alternative would be to pursue to Presuppositionalist method and just fabricate certainty.

    There is a similar problem with an objection to “anyone who is biased should not be trusted.” Should we be wary of people we know to be untrustworthy? Yes. Should we never make use of them, never consider their opinions, dismiss everything they say out of hand? No, that would be ridiculous (and the ad hominem fallacy). This one betrays another assumption though: that all people are biased and that their bias distorts everything they say. It’s an assumption commonly used as a Tu Quoque by those who are thoroughly biased.

    And this links into:

    “You should be tolerant.” What on earth can be the meaning of “intolerant” that makes this an intolerant statement? It seems that “having an opinion” and “disagreeing with me” are intolerant according to JPM. Thus everybody is intolerant and JPM has an excuse for his theocratic intolerance.

  • Andrew Ryan

    ““You should be tolerant.” Aren’t you being intolerant of me?”

    Indeed. Most people understand what the meaning is of ‘tolerant’. If a Nazi claims that he is a victim of intolerance because people don’t tolerate his anti-scemitism, most people would say that he’s mis-using the word ‘intolerance’.