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.