Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 25: Thirteen Principles of Discovering the Truth

Hopefully you’ve had the privilege of hearing and seeing the Abbott and Costello comedy routine “Who’s on First” [Footnote 1]. In it, Costello has been offered a baseball contract to play for the New York Yankees, and Abbott is offered a coach’s position as long as Costello is on the team. Before the fearless duo leave for New York, Costello wants to know the names of his fellow players — and Abbott offers to tell him. Thank logical and linguistic fallacies for the entertaining results. Here’s a small excerpt of the entire routine.

Abbott: Well, let’s see, we have on the bags, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…

Costello: That’s what I want to find out.

Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: Are you the manager?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: You gonna be the coach too?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names.

Abbott: Well, I should.

Costello: Well, then who’s on first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The first baseman.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy playing…

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: I’m asking you who’s on first.

Abbott: That’s the man’s name [Footnote 2].

Man’s Search for Truth

ac.jpgThe humor of the routine is based “soundly” on linguistic fallacies such as equivocation, question-begging definitions, ambiguity and others that we’ve been studying. Equivocation occurs when a name like “Who” is defined by Costello as an interrogative pronoun, and by Abbott as a declarative noun — the player’s name. Question-begging definition occurs when,”accidentally”, Costello asks questions that do not define “who” in the same way Abbott is defining the word. Ambiguity is involved because the known player’s names are also confused with what is unknown.

But it’s an “evergreen hit” because it plays off humanity’s deepest desire — to know the truth — and how easily the truth is obstructed, not by maliciousness or evil intent, but simply by faulty communication and reasoning.

Such is the guts of the human condition in the presence of sin. God has placed us here on Earth to know Him (the way, the truth, and the light), but sin continues to throw obstacles in our path.

To help us find and use truth successfully, God left us the Church and the pairing of faith and reason. As John Paul II writes in the opening paragraph of his encyclical Fides Et Ratio:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

John Paul the Great then dutifully references a number of Bible verses, which hopefully everyone looked up, read and studied; i.e. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2. (Catholics, open your Bibles pleas, or if you’re like Steve Ray, “Turn on your G3 iPhone.” Last night at a local apologist party, hosted by Gary and Chris Michuta, Steve showed me how he uses his iPhone to access his Bible and the daily readings — for any date plus or minus 100 years — on his iPhone. So, if you see Steve at Mass staring at his PCD [“Portable Communication Device” — we’re beyond simple PDAs — “Personal Data Assistants”], you’ll know he’s probably reading his Bible… or at least that’s his story.)

Argument Structure

All arguments, which are discussions whose purpose is to discover truth, take on the form of presenting evidence, piece after piece, until enough of it is compiled to lead us to a conclusion.

Evidence A
Evidence B
Evidence C
Evidence D

This is what happens in a court of law, as well as in the myriad stories and movies that are structured around a moral premise to lead us to a conclusion about how to live our lives [Footnote 3]. The individual pieces of evidence, how they’re presented, upon what they’re based, and the synergy they produce when juxtaposed, all have to be true in and of themselves, if the conclusion they lead us to is going to be properly supported.

Principles of Knowing with Reason

I must remind us all that reason, without the supernatural revelation of faith, is half blind or flies with a clipped wing. What follows are rules or principles for using reason. While we could say they have nothing to do with truth given to us by faith, that is not true. Why? It is because faith and reason are part of the same system of knowing. You can’t have one without the other. In fact you cannot read a book about faith without using your powers of reason, which allow you to read in the fist place.

The process of compiling the evidence, keeping it focused on the intended conclusion, and the methodology of the argument, works best when we also conduct ourselves rationally. To help us do that here are brief descriptions of the principles of a good argument. Twelve are from Damer [Footnote 4] with my own additions and comments. (Several of these principles we’ve discussed already, and the others will be covered in more detail in later articles.)

The first three principles (Fallibility, Truth-Seeking, and Clarity) are standard practice for all serious intellectual inquiry.

Principle 1. Fallibility Principle.

Let humility be your guide. Realize that even though you’re smart, well-read, a world class theologian, and have lunch with the pope (or at least read one of his books during lunch), you’re not infallible. It just may be that something is wrong with your logic and facts. The same may be true of your opponent. Agree beforehand, that both of you may be wrong. (See Part 14 in this series for more.)

Principle 2. Truth-Seeking Principle

In any discussion both parties need to make truth, not their personal perspective of truth, their goal. Their perspective may be wrong. Everyone involved in the discussion should be willing to examine the various positions and be willing to have others rebut their own position. (See Parts 18 & 19.)

Principle 3. Clarity Principle

Every part of any discussion needs to be clear and understood. Do not hesitate to scrupulously apply every one of these principles, be sure to define all of the key terms of the debate so every term is understood the same way by all parties, and avoid all fallacies.

Principle 4. Burden of Proof

A position must be defended by the party holding that position. The proof or disproof of a position by someone antagonistic against or ambivalent toward the position does not lend the position credibility, and in fact, can indicate subterfuge.

Principle 5. Principle of Charity

When restating the position of an opponent, you should restate the argument in the best possible terms, giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt. Never marginalize the argument of another (unless they have done so as part of their best shot). You can only arrive at the truth without prejudice or distortion.

Principles 6 through 9 represent the four evidentiary criteria of a good argument. (See Part 4.)

Principle 6. Relevance

When arguing in support of or against a position, only use evidence that is relevant. If you don’t, you open yourself to committing fallacies of irrelevance.

Principle 7. Acceptability

When arguing in support of or against a position, only use evidence that is acceptable to all parties, both those that are for and against the position. The term “acceptable” does not mean the evidence must be infallible, but should be reasonable and possible. When antagonists refuse to accept certain evidence you present because they disagree with your presuppositions you’ll have to work harder to find acceptable bases for your discussion.

Principle 8. Sufficiency

When arguing in support of or against a position, use evidence that is sufficient in number, kind, and weight to support the conclusion.

Principle 9. Rebuttal

When arguing in support of or against a position, provide evidence that challenges the best and strongest arguments against your position.

Principle 10. Resolution

A position should be accepted if it meets the evidentiary criteria requirements of relevancy, acceptability, sufficiency, and mounts a credible rebuttal against its best challenge. If the opposition cannot demonstrate how the argument fails to meet these four criteria, the position should be accepted. If some elements of the four criteria of a good argument cannot be mounted by either side, the position with the best argument should be accepted as valid until more evidence can be presented.

Principle 11. Suspension of Judgment

This principle complements the Resolution Principle. If neither argument can mount satisfying evidentiary criteria to achieve some level of resolution, then the argument (its evidence and conclusion) should be tabled until more evidence can be found. If a decision must be made due to urgency, then the best position is the one that provides the strongest evidence, even though it’s less than ideal. (See Part 7.)

Principle 12. Reconsideration

All arguments will conclude under the terms of Principle 10 or 11 — until additional, unconsidered evidence is discovered, or some of the previously presented evidence is discovered to be false or invalid — at which time the argument should be reconsidered and all the evidence again weighed in light of what is now known.

Principle 13. Forgiveness Principle

Truth needs to be pursued even when arguments become heated and one or more of the first 12 principles are sidelined. The Forgiveness Principle comes in handy when one of the parties forgets The Fallibility Principle and dons the mantle of omniscience. For the discussion to continue, forgiveness needs to be sought and offered. Or, if the discussion is terminated because one or more of the parties throws a frying pan through the discussion, shattering the relationship all over the landscape, then the situation has to be restored before discussion can continue. (See Part 15 in this series for more.)

Homework Assignment

As I work toward the manuscript that will incorporate these articles into a book, I will be adding student exercises at the end of each chapter. Here’s one that you may find of some interest now, and one that will also motivate you to open your Bibles, or PCD.

Each of the above principles can be found in the book of Proverbs. For each of the 13 Principles of a Good Argument, cite, quote, and explain the related Proverb. (That should keep you busy for a while.) When you’re done, send me your results for a grade. (Actually, with your permission, I’ll probably use your work in an upcoming chapter.)


Footnote 1: This routine was not entirely original with Abbott and Costello, although they perfected it and made it popular. It descended from earlier burlesque sketches like “The Baker Scene” and “Who Dyed”. “In the 1930 movie Cracked Nuts, comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey examine a map of a mythical kingdom with dialogue like this: “What is next to Which.” “What is the name of the town next to Which?” “Yes.” (Ref.

Footnote 2: The entire WHO’S ON FIRST routine is posted on my blog, HERE.

Footnote 3: See

Footnote 4: T. Edward Damer (2001). Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments, 4th Edition. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

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