SEAN MCDOWELL BLOG
3 Features of A Self-Refuting StatementPosted October 11, 2018 by Sean McDowell
3 Features of A Self-Refuting Statement
Learning to identify self-refuting statements is one of the most helpful skills I have learned in discovering truth and becoming a more careful thinker. Have you taken the time to think about the nature of a self-refuting statement and how to recognize one?
Consider a common mistake. You might hear someone say, “There are no moral absolutes,” and then hear someone else confidently respond, “Are you absolutely sure?” This is not self-refuting because the initial claim merely denies the existence of moral absolutes (ontology) and the second is a question is about what we can know with certainty (epistemology). Denying the existence of moral absolutes is different than questioning how confidently someone can have knowledge of them.
So, what is a self-refuting claim?
In his new book Scientism and Secularism, philosopher J.P. Moreland describes three features of a self-refuting statement:
(1) The claim establishes some requirement of acceptability.
(2) The claim places itself under the requirement.
(3) Then the claim falls short of satisfying the requirement of acceptability that the assertion itself stipulates.
Here are a few examples of self-refuting statements:
- “Meaning cannot be conveyed by language.”
- “There is no truth.”
- “I do not exist."
Let’s see whether the popular claim below (known as scientism) meets the three features of a self-refuting statement:
“The scientific method is the only means of knowing truth.”
Question 1: Does the claim establish a requirement of acceptability?
Answer 1: Yes, knowing truth requires the scientific method
Question 2: Does the statement place itself under the requirement?
Answer 2: Yes, it considers itself an example of knowing truth
Question 3: Does this statement fall short of satisfying its own requirement of acceptability?
Answer 3: Yes, this claim to truth cannot be known through the scientific method
This simple exercise can be done with the other self-refuting statements above and a host of other popular phrases, such as “You should not force your morals on others.”
Dr. Moreland summarizes the key takeaway from this exercise: “Self-refuting statements do not just happen to be false; instead, they are necessarily false. No amount of future research will show that these statements are true after all.”
In the search to discover truth, recognizing self-refuting statements is one of the most critical steps. First rule out things that are impossible, and then we can consider what is reasonable.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, the National Spokesman for Summit Ministries, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.