Form/Presentation & the Modification of Accidental Qualities
Without fail, nearly every time there is a Spring-Summer birthday party in my family, someone shows up with potato salad. And without fail, every such birthday party entails a 30 second awkward dialogue that goes something like this:
FM: Hey! How’s it going, man? Nice to see you! Have you tried the potato salad? It’s amazing! Here have some! [Raises spoon filled with a large lump of potato salad.]
Me: [Uneasily gesticulating.] No thanks, on the potato salad. I’m just not a fan of the stuff. But it’s good to see you, too.
FM: Really good to see you here. [Awkward silence.] Are you sure you don’t want some of this potato salad? It’s got like bacon and other tasty stuff in it. Try it!
Me: Sorry. I don’t like potato salad. Never have. Never will. [Anxious smiles reciprocated.]
FM: Hey, brother. I understand. I’m not a big fan of potato salad either. But this potato salad?This stuff is different. I don’t even usually eat potato salad. But this stuff is great. Uncle Pete’s recipe is really unique. He’d love it if you gave it a try.
Me: I’m sorry. Tell Pete I said hello.
FM: [Still holding the spoon.] Sure. Have a good time, H.
Without fail, I inform people that I do not like potato salad at all. Yet without fail, I am informed thatthis potato salad made by a different cook will somehow convert me to the potato salad cult. Why?
In a word, the PS (Potato Salad) advocate believes that despite my clear identification of PS as inedible slop, he can change my mind by adding something else to PS, something agreeable to my tastes. What the PS advocate does not understand, or ignores, is that the form of the food itself is what I loathe, not the ways in which it has been mis-seasoned by prior PS chefs. So the PS advocate thinks that he can change the accidental qualities of PS and cause me to thereby accept the essential qualities of PS as agreeable to my tastes. My distaste for the form of PS, for the essential qualities of PS that make it what it is, in other words, is never dealt with. Instead, I am offered the essentially identical form of PS with only a few modifications. This, my friends, will not convert me.
In the PS example given above, the essential qualities of PS are what forces me to reject all forms of PS, regardless of who has authored them. Adding accidental qualities to PS that may, in themselves, be agreeable to my tastes does not change the essence of PS. In a similar way, if a theological or philosophical position on a given matter is essentially incoherent, then it does not matter who modifies its accidental qualities, the position is still essentially incoherent.
In my own experience with different anti-Christian schools of thought, the Potato Salad Fallacy is a very popular tool of persuasion used by them. In conversation, it appears in various appeals to authorities one is unfamiliar with, authorities which will, it is claimed, change one’s mind on a given position. Here is an example of such a conversation:
AC: Do you belong to our school of thought?
Me: No. Your school of thought teaches P, correct?
Me: Well, doesn’t P simultaneously affirm A and ~A at the same time and in the same sense?
AC: Yes, but that shouldn’t keep you from joining our school of thought.
Me: Your school of thought is self-contradictory at the most basic level. Should I not reject it for that reason alone?
AC: Not if you haven’t read R. I used to think like you, but I’ve since changed my mind after reading R’s book explaining P.
Me: Does he still maintain that P simultaneously affirms A and ~A at the same time and in the same sense?
AC: Yes, but if you read S…
The point should be clear.
To give a rather specific example, consider that John and Susan are arguing about the worldview of the Gospel of Mark. John believes that Mark’s author was superstitious. Here is his argument.
“Susan, the people of Mark’s time were generally very superstitious. And Mark was a man of his times. Therefore, he too was superstitious.”
Here is Susan’s reply:
“John, you have just committed the fallacy of composition by identifying the people of Mark’s day as being generally very superstitious, when in fact you only have a select number of texts that may be interpreted as saying that. You have also committed the fallacy of division by attributing to Mark what you have fallaciously inferred was true, in general, of the people of his time. Your position is based on fallacious reasoning. You haven’t proven your point, but only further demonstrated the fundamentally irrational nature of your position.”
John replies (weakly):
“Well, if you only read Dr. So and So’s work you wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss my position.”
“Does he repudiate the logical fallacies I just mentioned were present in your argument?”
“Well, no. But….”
John is trying to add bacon to the potato salad. But Susan is wise enough to know that sprinkling verbose quotations from equally irrational scholars will not eliminate the foundational fallacious reasoning which she has confronted him about. John’s potato salad is identical to every other liberal heretic’s potato salad teaching.
When engaged in apologetics, we are called to dismantle intellectual opposition to Jesus Christ. In so doing, we demonstrate the foundational logical inconsistencies of all other worldviews in opposition to the Truth of the Scriptures. This implies, then, that there is no number of extra scholarly ingredients that can turn a bad argument for a false worldview into a good argument. The potato salad is identical in both cases.
 By this I intend to also include heretical groups, cults, and other religions.