On Composing Syllogisms in the Philosophy of Religion

The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1631) by Francisco de Zurbarán.

In my early 20s when I began taking philosophy more seriously, I came across these things called syllogisms. At the time I though I understood syllogisms, but as I learned more about philosophy in general it turned out my initial understanding was wrong. (Dunning-Kruger anyone?)

As a budding theologian and Christian apologist, I wrote many syllogisms to argue for the existence of God thinking they were sound and valid, only for professional philosophers or more seasoned philosophy enthusiasts to tell me they were not. This was frustrating for me, but probably not as frustrating for the people who took the time to explain things to me that (for them) were matters that were elementary to philosophical discourse.

As a guitar player, the same thing happens to me when I am jamming with somebody who simply cannot stay in time when playing rhythm. I get really frustrated and judgmental, often thinking in my head “why aren’t you self-aware enough to know you were not ready to jam with me?” My first instinct is to tell them to go back home and practice rhythm because they are simply not at any sort of skill level required for jamming yet. But then I quickly realize that by jamming they are practicing, and that when I was a new player I struggled with rhythm patterns as well. The moral of the story is that what we might think is elementary requires a great deal of time and energy for others to expend before they can jam with us.

Philosophy is an art form, and composing a syllogism is much like composing a work of art that requires certain fundamentals to master before you can jam with the more seasoned artists. The standard of professional philosophers is that syllogisms should at the very least be valid. The easiest way to validate an argument is to conform to Aristotle’s rules of deduction (aka Aristotelian Logic), which can be expressed in the conventional dictum: “if P, then Q.” In this case P and Q are referred to as propositional variables. The letters themselves are unimportant. P is not a “code letter” to mean Penguins or Pizza, nor does Q stand for Quality or Quaker. P and Q have been traditionally used to refer to some generic proposition. Philosophers could have picked any old letter, but for some reason P and Q got stuck.

Propositions themselves are merely statements about the nature of reality, that some state of affairs is the case. A sound deduction occurs when two propositions are coherent with each other. Typically this is done in a linear sequence, which is what “if P, then Q” is. In the form of a premise for an argument, P in this case is referred to as the antecedent, and Q is the consequent. The act of deducing something is to make an inference based on the antecedent and consequent. Something about P must imply something about Q in order for the inference to follow. If it does follow, then congrats — you have yourself a bonafide premise. As is often the case, this where composing a syllogism actually gets tricky.

For instance, one could say “if Paris is the capital of France, then the Earth is flat.” The antecedent in this case is true: Paris is indeed the capital of France, but the consequent is not true at all: the Earth is NOT flat. So, this premise here is bad, and couldn’t work in an argument. However, suppose we were to change the antecedent to “the Earth is not spherical or round.” In this case, the premise does technically work as a matter of semantics, but your resulting argument would quickly collapse as there would be no reason to accept why the antecedent has anything to do with the consequent.

The standard of argumentation that came out of antiquity was to compose a syllogism using premises that all rational creatures were obligated to accept, so that the conclusion would be irrefutable. We could label this as “classical evidentialism.” Unfortunately, by the time of the Enlightenment this standard was shown to be too lofty, and only applicable to a priori systems of knowledge in which the user of that system could postulate a set of first principles and then make deductions from that set.

What the Enlightenment philosophers showed was that premises based on observations could universally be denied for some reason or another, because the truth of propositions themselves could be doubted. Take for a previous example, “if Paris is the capital of France…” here one might assume this proposition is relatively harmless, but how does one know if Paris is indeed the capital of France? It’s possible that, in the short time you’ve spent reading this sentence, the French government could’ve changed the capital to Marseilles. So without looking it up, are you absolutely certain that Paris is the capital of France RIGHT NOW? If not, then you’ve proved the point the Enlightenment philosophers were trying to make: that even a seemingly true proposition may not in fact be true, in which case you have at least 1 good reason to reject any premise that uses that proposition.

This reason can be generalized into a skeptical principle: in the time it takes you to analyze the propositions of a premise, those propositions could be falsified before you reach your conclusion. The reason why a priori systems of knowledge survived this onslaught of skepticism was because a priori propositions are inherently unfalsifiable.

We can perhaps see why some people simply write off the whole of philosophy as being trivial, because a priori systems of knowledge are easy come easy go. Any way you want it, that’s the way you get it. Faced with the recourse of a posteriori systems of knowledge, it would seem that philosophers must abandon the goal of classical evidentialism, and take a more scientific approach. On this view, propositions are justified if they can be verified to be true — which is a view associated with what came to be known as logical positivism. So in response to the skeptic’s objection above, the capital of France can be verified to be true in actuality. The person making the argument could simply point out that five minutes ago, the capital of France was Paris, and so unless you are in the Élysée Palace RIGHT NOW observing the official documents being signed to move the capital to Marseilles, your skepticism is unwarranted. I want to reiterate this point. Unless the skeptic is in a position to dispute a particular proposition by a direct show of evidence or observation, rejecting a proposition just because it is disputable in principle is a poor strategy of counter-argument.

While this response does not completely rescue classical evidentialism, it does allow arguments in the form of syllogisms to proceed on a provisional basis. The philosopher achieves this by modifying classical evidentialism to say that he is using premises that all rational creatures would find difficulty in disputing. This modification respects the skeptic’s freedom in the sense that she is not obligated to accept a stated premise, but in so doing the arguer now has the burden of justifying his premises. If the goal of classical evidentialism was to compose a syllogism that obligated assent to the conclusion, then modified evidentialism is more modest in that its goal is to compose an argument that is cogent. Or to put it simply- if you ought to accept the premises, then you ought to accept the conclusion. This assumes of course that the syllogism itself is valid (all premises are true in at least one sense) and the premises provide a sufficient inference to the conclusion, which is the real challenge.

If the strength of a premise rests on the strength of the antecedent and consequent propositions within that premise, then the philosopher had better justify those propositions if they want their argument to appear cogent. It is precisely at this stage of composing a syllogism that I think is perhaps the root of the debate between theists and atheists. Typically, the philosopher will utilize God in a proposition without justifying why. One way to avoid this pitfall is to compose a syllogism that doesn’t utilize God at all, but this gives a skeptic opportunity to reject the existence of God even if they accept the conclusion of your argument.

Note that this applies to both theists and atheists here. If the atheist forms a premise that contains a proposition that mentions God, they are taking God for granted. This becomes clear when we see a premise like this: If an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing being exists, then that being is God. This premise is true by definition, but is it true in any other sense? How is it that the antecedent proposition came to be known in the first place? How is it than an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing being could actually exist?

It has been said that the apatheist is a philosopher who refuses to investigate these questions because they see no reason to consider the propositions in the first place, nor do they care to. In response we might appeal to the phenomena of religiosity, which by all appearances seems to be a universal human experience that has spanned both time and place. Here, what philosophy of religion is predicated on in my opinion, is that God sufficiently explains religiosity. Whereas, theology explores the implication of that explanation.

What I am proposing here is a way to make progress in our arguments for and against the existence of God. The reason for this should be clear: if God exists, then religiosity is a natural consequence of God’s existence. The question philosophers of religion should be asking is whether or not this explanation is well-founded. It would seem here that there are two avenues that are worth exploring. The first is epistemological: the theist must have some initial argument that justifies using God as a proposition in subsequent arguments. The second is theological: theists must argue that the implications for the existence of God are profound and that there are good reasons to live as though God exists, to make the leap of faith as it were.

Atheist philosophers can respond in kind. On the epistemological front, atheists can undercut theism by attempting to explain the phenomena of religiosity as a natural consequence of unguided physical, evolutionary, and social forces. The specific claim they must defend in order to sufficiently undercut theism is that religiosity is contingent. That perhaps on some other world that has the exact same physical, evolutionary, and social forces that we have, conscious creatures might not have came to experience religiosity. This claim is essential because if the atheist concedes that religiosity exists necessarily or is otherwise an unavoidable consequence of physical, evolutionary, and social forces, then this gives the theist credence to believe that God is behind those forces. The epistemological avenue would then be closed off.

Perhaps some atheists would be happy to make the epistemological concession, and simply argue on theological grounds. Traditionally this is what has consumed philosophy of religion by and large, so I can understand why some atheists might even prefer to argue this way. I think the atheist can make their argument by defending any of the following claims:

1) that an impersonal and/or indifferent God exists or is more probable than a personal God; or

2) religious language and doctrinal disagreements across humanity indicates that God is disinterested in cultivating a monolithic religious narrative; or

3) that the non-existence of God is the best explanation for why God is hidden and is not as obvious as other things we believe are obvious, or involved in human affairs in some obvious or non-mysterious way; or

4) that the existence of God is inconsequential to living life; the idea here is that even if the atheist grants the existence of God as an object of faith in the lives of believers, their rationale for atheism shows that they either have no need of that faith, nor see any reason to make the leap of faith.

I think if philosophers of religion were to argue along these lines, then their syllogisms would benefit greatly from them. Premises should contain propositional content that targets either the epistemological foundations or theological implications of theism. For atheists, criticizing religious texts and the particulars of religious traditions seems pointless in comparison, unless the intention is to engage in rhetoric for its own sake by ridiculing religion into absurdity. Likewise for theists, criticizing secular positions with religious language, or using religious texts to condemn the particulars of secular traditions also seems pointless, unless the intention is to provoke a non-believer into the faith. On both sides, these approaches I think would either fall on deaf ears or come across as pandering to the dogmatic base.

If you are struggling to compose a syllogism, remind yourself what you are arguing for. The lines of argument I laid out in this article are great places to start because they conform to the standards of modified evidentialism: that if some rational creature ought to accept your premises, then they also ought to accept your conclusions. At this point your job is to justify propositions to the best of your abilities, so that your premises can be valid, so that you can compose a winsome syllogism.

Good luck. Don’t be afraid to jam and make mistakes. The goal is to master the fundamentals. That takes time and practice. Don’t be dissuaded by more seasoned philosophers who look down on you because you are not at their level yet. They were once where you were, even if they forgot that they were.



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Rev. Gordon Tubbs

Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of an ordained Christian minister.