Imagine that you were a D.A. arguing with solid evidence against the innocence of a serial killer on trial. You present your case. You refute the arguments and evidence of the opposing side. And you rest your case, knowing that this is a slam dunk with all of the evidence and arguments on your side. Then the verdict from the jury comes in: "Innocent." "What?" you say to yourself. Afterward, you ask an older juror why it is that she voted for that verdict, and she replies, "Well, he looked like such a nice young man, I didn't think he could do that." You then proceed to tell her that this is not an objection to all of the evidence in support of him committing the crime. "We have witnesses. We have confessions. We have DNA. We have video of him doing it. And we know that nice young men, both throughout history and in our own day, often commit some of the most egregious crimes on earth. Hence, the case is clear that he did it, and your objection doesn't hold water. It doesn't counter anything that was presented to you as a solid argument." She responds by simply saying, "Well, I just disagree."
Now, is this a rational statement? Is it that two people just disagree on the same arguments and evidence, or is that their disagreement is a result of one of them being completely irrational and having no argument at all? I think we would all see that it is of the latter (unless there are any old jurors out their who disagree with that assessment).
What has happened here is a common occurrence in theological and ethical discussions as well. A solid argument will be presented. The objections will be shown to have no weight in refuting the argument. The person will essentially be left without an argument to stand on, but then they will say, "Well, I just don't agree." But what does this mean? Doesn't it really mean that he or she does not agree because he or she is basing his or her decisions on irrational opinion? Isn't much of irrational opinion just pure emotion based on mistakes that have been made in one's thinking? In other words, isn't the person just really wrong, the other one right, but he or she is just too wrapped up in him or herself to admit it merely because he or she doesn't want to believe it?
These people are unteachable. It's not that they just don't see it. It's that they don't want to see it. And this is an important lesson for Christians everywhere: If someone is unteachable, don't teach them anymore. You are wasting your time, and you are actually breaking a command given to you by Christ:
"Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
Now, this is hard for us, because a true servant of God wants to save people. He or she wants people to repent of wrong thinking and submit themselves to God in love and joy. He or she does not wish to be the herald of judgment and death, but of salvation and life, because he or she cares for the people being corrected. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world filled with people who don't want to believe/submit to Christ, and that brings us to tears, but we need to obey Christ ourselves nonetheless and move on. To be sure there are people with the spirit of Jonah, whose attitude is condemned by God in Scripture, who just like to deal out judgment because they hate people, but that has never been the attitude of the true prophet, who weeps when his message is one of final judgment.
But when do we know if someone is unteachable? How do we distinguish between someone who just doesn't see versus someone who doesn't want to see? Let me give you some guidelines by looking at common logical fallacies people who don't want to see cling to.
An ad hominem fallacy is one where the individual attacks the person rather than the argument. So, for instance, imagine that you are standing at the edge of a pit that you just climbed out of using a ladder you found within it, and suddenly see a woman standing in it where you once were. You yell to her and ask why she's in there, and she tells you that she fell in. You then see the ladder you used to climb out and tell her that there is a ladder behind her in the pit, and that she can use that to get out of it. She responds by saying to you, "I didn't see any ladder in here, so I don't think there is one." You respond by saying, "No, there is a ladder. I can see it from where I am and I just used it. You may have just missed it because it's dark and hard to see for you." "Oh," she replies, "You're just so much better than me because you can see it? That's just your opinion. Who are you to tell me something about my own life. You're not me. If you think there's a ladder, fine, but I don't think there is one." You again reply by saying, "No, you're wrong. I can see it plainly. It's right there. Just look at the evidence." She then responds, "You are so arrogant. Everyone's wrong but you. Thanks, Mr. Know-it-all, but other people have opinions too." At this point you just have to walk away. A week later they find her dead in the pit with a note in her hand, "If only I had a ladder."
Now, look at the woman's argumentation. She didn't actually have an argument at all. Your assertion was that there was a ladder and that you knew that because you could see it. In other words, you had evidence and a good argument that there was in fact a ladder. Her rebuttal wasn't an argument. It didn't refute anything that you said. It just attacked you. They'll try to find anything they can against you: past sins (and of course we all have those, so they always have an easy out if they know you--a prophet is not honored in his own home for this reason) or a current sin (in this case, they usually just try to accuse of being an arrogant jerk, since they may or may not have anything else more accessible). People who attack you rather than thinking about the argument you are giving are not teachable. You need to just move on from this person. This isn't simply a mistake they're making in their form of argument. It's a proclamation that they will listen to no one but themselves. Mourn if you will, but wipe the dust from your feet, and go try to save people who will listen.
A subcategory of this is the fallacy of "poisoning the well." This is done when someone tries to attribute what you're saying to some other disreputable figure or group, so they don't have to deal with the actual argument. There is also the root fallacy that says this belief was held by so and so, who we presumably don't like, and hence is a bad belief. All of these are fallacious, and may indicate that the person just doesn't want to believe what is true.
Begging the Question
Aside from ad hominem, the modern man's favorite instrument to use in order to duck out of the responsibility of following the truth is the fallacy of begging the question. This is where a person simply reasserts what they need to prove. They just restate their conclusion as though it was an argument for that conclusion. People do this to me all of the time. I had an atheist give me the following argument:
Premise 1: The universe is all that there is.
Premise 2: What is known is all that can be verified to exist.
Premise 3: Only the physical universe can be known.
Conclusion: Therefore, only the physical universe exists.
Implication: Therefore, the metaphysical does not exist.
Premise: God is metaphysical.
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.
Sound good to you? Yeah, me neither. Notice that (1) Premise 1 assumes a specific definition of "universe." Usually we just mean the physical cosmos, not everything that exists. If it means "everything that exists," then premise 2 is begging the question of atheism already, since atheism asserts that all that can be known must come through empirical verification, which is denied by the Christian and is at the very base of the disagreement. In other words, the atheist actually has to prove this first. (2) Premise 3 also begs the question, then, because it argues that only the physical universe can be known, but this again is the very point of disagreement between atheism and Christianity. One cannot merely assert the conclusion in the premises. This is begging the question. Look, I can do the same thing.
Premise 1: All that exists is made up of both a physical and metaphysical realm.
Premise 2: What can be known is made up of either empirical verification and belief in a report from someone who exists in the metaphysical realm.
Premise 3: The metaphysical and physical realm can be known through these means (i.e., they can be known through both empirical verification and belief in a report given by transcendent revelation).
Premise 4: God has given us such a report.
Conclusion: God exists.
Each of these arguments just assumes what it needs to prove. The two groups are just trading opinions. Actual arguments need to be made instead. Otherwise, we're just arguing without an argument. Now, I've encountered this quite a bit among Christians as well. For instance, one of my arguments against birth control is that it assumes naturalism in its view of the conception event and that children are the product of a mechanical biological system (when we don't want them that is). Hence, a person can talk about using birth control as completely acceptable from a moral standpoint merely because they're just interfering with a natural process. God is not involved in a willful decision to give them a child at His discretion, or they would conclude that they are actually moving against God Himself, which I take would probably be considered by most Christians as a bad thing. When I point out arguments from Scripture that God is intimately involved in the creation of children (something every Christian I know believes when they want to have children), they respond by reasserting reasons why they don't think it's immoral to use it:
"It's just responsible for us to control the amount of children we have because of X, Y and Z."
But, again, this assumes that it's not only moral, but that it would be immoral not to use it! But where is the biblical argument against the idea that such a practice moves against the hand of God? Where is the argument supporting the idea that God wants us to practice it? And how does this argument not assume that God is immoral and irresponsible for trying to give you a child, when in your estimation it would be wrong for you to have one at this moment, in the first place? You see, this all assumes that God doesn't give children, that children are simply the result of a mechanical biological process. They are just products of our biology and our decisions to use our biology as we see fit. But God is not there. If God is in the mix at all, He's only the One who originally gave the ability to have children, not the One who actually continues to create them. Hence, upon these assumptions, we ought to just tell children that God only made people, not them specifically. They're just people created by us, either as originally wanted or as happy accidents. As soon as we assume the Scripture, however, God is intimately involved in will and power to create every child that would exist. There is no such thing as a child that should not exist because of X, Y, and Z, because no child is merely created by a biological process alone. Hence, since it is impossible to have a child that should not exist, since God is the One who decides to give each one, and He doesn't make mistakes or do what is evil, there is no reason to use birth control for the reasons given. In other words, the only reason Christians argue this way is because they beg the question. They assume what they need to prove, and I have tried to show over the years, through various arguments, that what is assumed is false. What is the response I usually get? "Well, I just don't agree."
Now, it may be that this person is just duped by this fallacy and will wake up when you point it out to them. So they may still be a teachable person. The problem is when you point it out and they still "disagree." They disagree based on irrationality, like the juror, who cannot believe otherwise because she does not want to believe otherwise. If you hear the words, "I just don't agree," then, you need to just move on. Stop teaching these people. You're only accumulating more wrath for them because you're giving them more knowledge and less excuse in the day of judgment (i.e., you're only increasing their lashes and if you care for them, you need to just stop).
A straw man argument exists when one has not presented what you argue accurately. Now, this can be committed by everyone. A lot of times this just exists because of misunderstanding. It doesn't actually say anything toward whether the person is teachable. They may just have misunderstood what you were saying. That's a pretty common occurrence, and I know I've committed it more than once.
However, it is also possible to do this because the person wants to feel better about disagreeing with what you've said. In other words, it's a tactic that comforts the rebellious who don't want to believe the truth. They don't want to represent your arguments accurately because if they did then they would have to deal with them, and you might be right. This, again, is a practice of emotion, namely, of fear.
So if Bobby argues that atheists have no basis for a transcendent view of morality, and the atheist restates Bobby's argument as ridiculously saying that atheists can't be moral people, because the atheist doesn't want to come to grips with the actual argument, then he is merely misrepresenting the position out of fear that the argument may be right. If he does the same thing because he misunderstood Bobby, that's another story. He may or may not still be teachable.
Hence, a straw man is erected because it's easier to knock over a straw man than a real one. It makes it look like the person has won an argument when in fact he never dealt with the argument at hand. This is a common fallacy behind which the fearful man hides to comfort himself in his rebellion.
So if a Christian says, "Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and lives forevermore, and here are the many witnesses to that," and the unbeliever replies, "So you're saying Jesus is a cosmic zombie?" this is a strawman. It distorts what is being claimed in the argument by reducing it to the point of presenting it without qualifications that would make it much more plausible in the ears of its audience.
Here is another favorite of the modern man. If it's square then it can't be yellow. Um, no, it can be both at the same time. If a leopard has spots then it doesn't have fur. If God is three, He cannot be One. If we do good, we don't have to refrain from evil. If Jesus was God then He wasn't a man. If God predestines us to believe, then we don't need to choose to believe. If sex can be seen as having a pleasurable purpose then it doesn't need to be procreative. If God's good will is accomplished through evil, we shouldn't do good.
All of these are false dichotomies. They use one truth to combat another, but both are equally true and compatible. They're not contradictory truths. Hence, saying that one is true in order to refute the other is a logical fallacy.
There are others that are used, but these seem to top them all. No one is proving anything with these arguments. They exist either through misunderstanding or rebellion against the truth. You can discover which when you press them. If the final response is, "Well, I just don't agree," then weep, move on, and go tell him who has ears to hear, so that he can hear it. Your work here is done. Be faithful to give it to God now, and let go. The person who is unteachable is afraid to listen to you, and as such, you will only make yourself an object of ridicule and violence. Some will enact violence through mocking. Others through gossip and slander behind your back. Others by just removing you from their lives. And still others through verbal or physical hostility. This accomplishes nothing. Of course, I'd rather have the mocking and slanderous type than the verbally and physically violent, as one can hurt you emotionally but the other can get you stoned or crucified on top of that. Such may be the case, but if we can identify when people don't want to believe, after giving them some time and a few tries at least, we need to just obey our Lord and hand out our treasure to those who see it as such. Afterall, pigs don't know the value of pearls. The slop of logical fallacies has more value to them because it allows them to remain in the mire.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel. (Prov 12:15)
A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in asserting his own opinions. (Prov 18:2)