Five Signs of a Fruitless Argument


The fruitless argument surrounds us these days, permeating all forms of media, the classroom, and even the dinner table. As I was reading in John 9 where Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees because He healed a blind man on the Sabbath, I found the arguments hauntingly familiar. Rife with logical fallacies, the arguments of the Pharisees have one goal only: to maintain power at any cost.

The story begins with Jesus rubbing clay on the eyes of a blind man and instructing him to wash it off in the Pool of Siloam. Instantly his sight is restored. The Pharisees perceive that given this ability to heal, Jesus could well be considered the Messiah by the people. What surprises me about their reaction is the resistance to the idea. But then I remember the lengths humans will go to in order to retain power.

I tell my students that arguments should be scientific, objective in gathering the facts and arriving at a conclusion only after the evidence is in. Coming to a conclusion means understanding all of the information, avoiding logical fallacies and sustaining a high level of reason. A fruitless argument, however, like a bar fight, will use any tool at hand to force a conclusion, even if contrary to the evidence.

A logical fallacy is a breach of logic in an argument that renders it invalid. Simply put, a logical fallacy results in a fruitless argument. It brings to mind the proverbs that deal with fools and how to answer them. Rebuke or walk away. Those seem to be the wisest options, ones that Jesus Himself employed.

So here are the major fallacies used by the Pharisees. You might recognize them in other places other than this post.

  1. The Circular Argument:

The Pharisees begin their first fruitless argument in John 9:16 when they say, “This man is not of God because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”  Thisargument argument is a circular one that begins with the conclusion it hopes to end with. The Pharisees, of course, hope to end up with the conclusion that Jesus is not from God, but the question of the Sabbath is more complicated than they make it out to be. Whether one can heal on the Sabbath is unaddressed in the Torah.

If Jesus did not keep the Sabbath, they might have a case, but it is an unprovable point, given the lack of definition and precedent. No one had ever been healed of blindness before. Did not God Himself heal the blind man? Of course, the blind man argues that only God can heal, but he is up against the dead end of a fruitless argument and cannot win with words.

  1. The Complex Question:

This fruitless argument is one that Hollywood likes in its courtroom scenes. “How long have you been cheating on your wife?” a prosecutor shouts at the defendant who then answers the question and incriminates himself. A complex question is really two questions posed as one. In the courtroom scene, the hapless defendant admits to cheating on his wife at the same time he indicates how long the infidelity has continued.

For the Pharisees, the question asked is “How can a man who is a sinner do such miracles?” For some, the question might have been asked innocently.  How could someone less than God do miracles is a legitimate question for them to ask. For others, the fruitless argument presupposes Jesus to be a sinner.  Similar to the circular argument, the question begins with the conclusion at which the asker wants to arrive.

  1. Intimidation:

The Pharisees, frustrated by the inability to pin the now healed man down, interrogate his parents.  They first confirm the initial blindness of the manargument and then ask the parents how it is that he now sees as if they could answer. But the parents refer them back to their son because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. (John 9:22)

Intimidation or appeal to fear is usually relegated to ads for insurance or home security systems that warn against the catastrophic. But it surfaces in life as well. Conform to the theological, political, or family line or you will be shut out and shut down.  Fruitless argument indeed. My way or the highway is bullying, not an intelligent exploration of a topic.

        4&5.   Personal Attack:

Give God the glory; we know that this man is a sinner, the Pharisees inform the man who has been healed by a man he has never seen. After all, Jesus just put clay on his eyelids and told him

to go wash it off.  The man’s response is actually very logical. He doesn’t know whether the man who healed him was a sinner. All he knows is that he can see. Logic says that we don’t know what we don’t know and cannot make conclusions from a void.

Personal attacks always include name-calling, from sinner to much worse. Name-calling is the hallmark of a fruitless argument because it reduces people to a label, a stereotype, or an object. Personal attacks are not logical, merely vicious.

  1. Projection and Faulty Cause and Effect:

The blind man schools the Pharisees in one of my favorite confrontations in John. He says such a thing has never happened before in the history of the world. If that man were not from God, he could do nothing. (John 9:32-33) The response of the Pharisee is the epitome of a fruitless argument.

You were born in utter sin and you would school us? The outrage is palpable but the premise is flawed. Firstly, all men are born in sin according to the Torah itself. Bringing up the whole pointless born into sin argument is mere projection. But the other argument is more subtle on two levels. The idea is that because the man was born blind, he was a lesser being. The other fallacy is that a handicap makes one incapable of reasonable thought. What a deadly and arrogant faulty cause and effect argument.

Ironically, Jesus deals with this argument before the Pharisees confront the man and his parents. The disciples ask why the man was born blind? Was it his sin or the sin of his parents? Neither, Jesus answers, freeing them from the idea that birth defects or other illnesses are a matter of fault.

Be on the lookout for these signs of a fruitless argument. We often wish we could somehow win arguments with the various people with whom we disagree. We spend time constructing some sophisticated argument while we wait in traffic, always waxing eloquent. Somehow the actual arguments go awry, mired in personal recriminations and ridiculous accusations. The moment a logical fallacy is slapped on the table is the moment you have gotten caught in a fruitless argument. Arguing with fools is never fruitful according to Proverbs. Best to rebuke, walk away, or some combination thereof. Some differences are irreconcilable.

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