I was recently involved in a little spat about religion with Another Person's Facebook Friend. The APFBF in question earned an AA in Communications & Sciences from BYU-Idaho and a BA in Communications from a small state school in Idaho before going to work for the Church Education System as a seminary teacher. Having taken a few courses along the way in rhetorical theory and logic & reasoning, he fancies himself as something of an expert in these topics. He has a particular abhorrence of circular reasoning.
APFBF understands circular reasoning well enough that he can quote examples of it from the Urban Dictionary such as "I'm right because I'm right" and "you're an idiot because you're an idiot." He can even construct an example of his own on the subject of religion: "The scriptures are true because they were written by prophets of God, and what makes them prophets of God is the fact that what they write is scripture."
All well and good. But the problem is, a lot of circular reasoning is camouflaged. People rarely come right out and say "I know something is true because it's true" because that would be too obvious. Instead, they say something like "I know such and such is true because I had a personal revelation"--which is a slightly more obscure, and therefore less embarrassing, way of saying "I know it's true because it's true."
It's not much use to know that circular reasoning is wrong and that you shouldn't engage in it, if you can recognize it only when it's stated in its clearest form and conforms exactly to a textbook model.
For instance, I told APFBF
your position here rests--as does every other position I have ever seen you take in a discussion involving religion--on a particularly specious line of circular reasoning used to establish a particularly dubious rhetorical act as an incontrovertible and ultimate authority. The circular reasoning is slightly different depending on whether the rhetorical act it is applied to is ancient, and exists now only in written form, or is modern enough to have an establishable oral existence in addition to its written one. For ancient texts, the circular reasoning used to validate it goes like this: "scripture" is the term a group of people use to designate texts they consider the word of god; therefore, anything designated as "scripture" is the word of god, and so may not be contradicted or doubted.
For modern texts, the reasoning goes like this: the term "prophet" denotes someone who is believed by a group of people to speak god's truth; whatever is spoken to that group by one who is designated a "prophet" must, therefore, be god's truth, and cannot be argued against by any means whatsoever.
Thus, it doesn't matter how illogical, incoherent, unprovable, contentious, mean-spirited, vicious, dishonest, silly or trite a statement by this "prophet" or this work of "scripture" might be; it has been designated the word of god, so it must be "true," and, therefore, believed, obeyed, and viewed only through the lens of orthodoxy.
To which APFBF responded
I merely argue that the scriptures, as a primal source of doctrine, are true. That is definitely NOT circular reasoning. You can however argue all you want that my source is not true. Try to discredit my premise, maybe argue against my platform (religion in general), but at least define it properly. That's what we call a debate; not circular reasoning. I say the scriptures, prophet, and this church are true because of personal revelation. Now, again to be clear, you can attack me and say I'm a liar and had no revelation (which is impossible for you to know), or you can attack my sources, premise, or platform and say that the scriptures, prophets, and church are not true; but you cannot honestly call that circular reasoning.
I admit it: I laughed out loud. I laugh again each time I read the line "I merely argue that the scriptures, as a primal source of doctrine, are true." For one thing, he doesn't really "argue" the position at all--he asserts it as an incontrovertible fact. (Check out some of the other "facts" he asserts--I've provided a few below, just for shits and giggles.) And how can he assert this "fact"? Because of "personal revelation."
But what is "personal revelation"?
Here's the basic definition of personal revelation I was taught in Church:
"personal revelation" is an emotional, visceral experience that confirms for someone that the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, the teachings of the LDS church and its leaders are what they purport to be; and what makes this "personal revelation" and not just an emotional, visceral response to one's upbringing or even a particular moment is the fact that, rather than contradicting any orthodox position of the church with regard to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, etc, it totally confirms them.
It's a joke, a bad one--but it's really what we're told. You seek an experience that confirms everything you know. And if you don't get it, it's your fault--you're the element that is inadequate, not the formula.
But the entirity of Mormon theology is circular. God is just, loving, benevolent and perfect. We know that God is just, loving, benevolent and perfect, because the Bible tells us so. We know the words of the Bible are true, because it is the word of God as revealed to his prophets (whom we know are prophets because they speak the word of God), and God is just, loving, benevolent and perfect and would not create a hateful, unjust or imperfect doctrine.
The idea of god itself is just one big circle of thinking that leads back upon itself. God clearly has a shape: he's round.
How does someone who claims to be opposed to circular reasoning miss all these loops of logic--enough to double the rings around Saturn?
I was discussing this with a friend, who repeated a saying regarding testimonies that I hadn't heard, but that fits perfectly with all of this: "You gain a testimony by bearing a testimony."
I recently found a series of articles in the New Scientist on denial. One article discusses how people come to believe lies--and guess what: a primary way is through repetition.
"Hearing something 10 times does not mean there are 10 different pieces of information," says [an expert on all this]. "But the more you hear something the more likely you are to believe it is true."
If you hear often enough that the circular reasoning of the church is not circular, you just might come to believe it. It's a pretty small leap of logic, if you already believe all the other stuff Mormonism involves. And it makes genuine discussion almost impossible, and the endeavor to actually discover truth really, really difficult.
Here are some of the "facts this guy announced in another discussion:
FACT: If you really believe that the prophets throughout time are actually telling the truth, than you will accept the truth that the mortality of this planet, along with Adam & Eve and the rest of mankind, stretch back to approximately 6000 years.
Thus FACT: Adam fell into mortality about 6000 years ago.
FACT: The ability to measure, scientifically, ages and dates is very inaccurate. Even the best scientists will validate this truth.
FACT: Only four people I know of on Earth can actually tell us what the planet was really like 2000 years ago. (John and 3 Nephites)
FACT: Every other attempt to place times and dates for new discoveries, is at best, an educated guess from extrapolated data; which actually is always changing and being added to.
MY OPINION: Putting any solid credence in scientific dating, beyond the prophetic timeline (6000 years) is not really smart. My opinion of course. This is because the mortal version of the earth that we know, was not temporal prior to Adam's fall, and the stupidity of man in being able to assess what/how dating, aging, creation, etc happened prior to the revealed mortal age of the earth is asinine.
It beggars belief, doesn't it.