An amusing illustration of interpreting evidence in light of precommitment has to do with a deluded man who thinks he is dead. The doctor tries to persuade the man he is not dead by getting the man to reason according to some other
proposition the dead man also believes, such as: dead men don’t bleed. Therefore, if when pricked with a needle by the doctor blood comes out of the deluded patient, the patient should abandon his belief that he is dead; or so is the doctor’s hope.
We might comprise a simple syllogism that the patient would readily embrace.
1. Dead men won’t bleed when pricked
2. I am a dead man
3. I won’t bleed when pricked
Naturally, when pricked the man bled. Perhaps naively, the doctor thought that after seeing the falsity of 3 his patient would abandon his commitment to 2. Of course he doesn’t. His precommitment to 2, being dead, is too strong. As the illustration typically goes, the patient adjusts his less consequential belief, in this case the major premise. Rather than admit he’s not dead, he is only willing to say, “I guess dead men do bleed.”
Although the illustration serves its purpose, things are often much worse in real life. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending upon one’s perspective) people don’t readily adjust their beliefs like that. A person who is committed to 2 would not likely forgo 1 that quickly. He needs 1 to help convince him of 2. Sadly, people can cultivate denial without having to modify previous beliefs. With enough practice, people can become quite skilled in denial as it relates to commitment to false beliefs, especially when the beliefs strike at how one defines himself or herself.
As we saw, instead of being persuaded by blood from a pinprick, the person who is committed to being dead may feel the need to maintain his commitment to 1 too. If so, he will not adjust his reasoning as it relates to his major premise according to the evidence of blood. In other words, he will not deny his major premise and concede that dead men do bleed. Rather, he may “rationally” try to maintain 1 as he goes deeper into denial but in another direction. He can manipulate the evidence that is against him rather than adjust 1 according to his undeniable blood. From this posture he can dismiss the evidence in one of two ways. He can believe that it is blood, but not his blood, or else he can believe that red fluid came from his corpse but that it’s not blood at all!
We sadly see this sort of thing all to often in many areas of life. So to speak, there are people who don’t acknowledge and assent to the evidence of their own blood. They don’t adjust their thinking to allow for the reality of their own blood (e.g. “I guess dead men do bleed” or more hopefully, “I’m not dead!”) but instead they assent to the evidence, then manipulate and deny the force of the evidence itself. Both entail denial. One denies that dead men don’t bleed. The other denies either (a) blood or (b) that the blood is his blood.
We see this with theological beliefs as well. Let’s take Roman Catholicism as our example but we could just as easily have chosen some Protestant beliefs.
Roman Catholicism stands or falls upon her claim of being the true church. If one RC doctrine can be shown to be false, Rome falls along with it. Again with a simple syllogism, like above, the goal is to expose the falsity of 3, which in turn undermines 1 or 2.
1. The true church is infallible
2. Rome is the true church
3. Rome is infallible
If 3 is false, then 1 or 2 can be true but not both.
Yet if Roman Catholicism stands or falls upon her two claims of 1 and 2, then the falsity of 3 is sufficient to falsify her claim upon 2 but not the stand-alone proposition entailed by 1 (or even 2).
Like we did with the dead men won’t bleed syllogism, the theological physician might try to show a doctrinal error within Rome (thereby refuting 3) in the hope of getting her friend to abandon her position on Rome (particularly 2). But when confronted with doctrinal error within Rome rarely will a RC say, “I guess the true church is fallible.” Like the patient, they typically dig in deeper.
In the face of even obvious error that exposes Rome’s infallibility claims as false, RCs typically deny something of the doctrinal propositional error under consideration rather than the lynchpin of 2. In other words, RCs deny their doctrinal error (some RC doctrine, p) as in fact RC error. They typically do this one of two ways. Either (a) the proffered error is regarded by the RC as the Protestant’s misinterpretation of Rome’s position; consequently the doctrinal proposition is false but not Rome because she doesn’t affirm it. Or else we see (b), the RC will claim that the doctrinal error is not error at all. An example might be useful. Rome errs by teaching p* justification is by at least some element of works. A RC who has been heavily influenced by evangelicals may deny Rome has erred on justification; instead she will assert that Protestants have erred in their understanding of Rome’s position on justification. Such RCs deny the truth of p*. They want their cake and to eat it too. Whereas a more devout RC, one who remains uninfluenced by evangelicals, will also deny Rome has erred, but instead she will assert that justification indeed does entail meritorious works. She affirms p* and (unlike the other RC) denies that p* is error. Both type RCs maintain 1-3. They differ in that they either deny the relevance of the evidence against Rome or else deny the direct falsifying impact of the evidence. They either deny the proposition reflects Rome’s teaching or else deny the proposition is false. They deflect and deny or else deny head-on.
Full circle, rather than conceding dead men bleed, we can be left with other forms of denial – “that’s not my blood” or “it’s my red bodily fluid but it’s not blood.”
If we substitute blood for false doctrine…
The first RC scenario is analogous to, p* is doctrine, it’s just not Rome’s doctrine. The second RC scenario is analogous to, p* is Rome’s doctrine, it’s just not false doctrine.
Whereas beliefs have consequences, false commitments held tenaciously over time (typically for self-preservation) usually lead to devastating results that hurt more than those who desperately hold them. Beliefs spill over to all of life, especially core beliefs (or presuppositions).