Chronological Snobbery and The Flying Spaghetti Monster

July 25, 2008

C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield coined the term “chronological snobbery”. What is it? It is a logical fallacy. You know, like a straw man argument which falsely represents your opponents viewpoint, or an ad-hominem argument which attacks your opponent while you ignore their argument all together. Chronological snobbery is also a logical fallacy.

However, this fallacy implies that just because we now know the world is round, have identified a few laws of physics, and have microwaves and refrigerators, doesn’t mean we are more intellectually advanced than those before our time!

The chronological snobbery fallacy is expressed in the form:

1. You argue that A implies B.
2. A implies B is an old argument, dating back to the times when people also believed C.
3. C is clearly false.
4. Therefore, A does not imply B.

Many people today say the Bible is outdated. Surely it must be an unreliable source because Christians have used it in the past to prove that the world is flat, endorse slavery of blacks, and ban inter-racial marriages. Science has saved us right? Today we have scientifically proved that the world is round, while Christians now abhor slavery, and embrace inter-racial marriages.

Yet, as Doug Wilson says, “that is a perfect argument that there is a problem with people, not Scripture.” I know what you’re thinking, “even so… who cares.” Well this is why I care, and care a lot. I care because of the flying spaghetti monster. That’s right. What is that? Well, it’s the Christian apologists worst nightmare when debating an atheist. I assure you, I really struggled with my faith when this argument was presented to me. In fact, my hands shook so bad as I was inches away from replacing my car fish with this hideous, intellectually tormenting SOB!

Sarcasm aside, atheists charge that if we can’t prove God’s existence with forensic proof then we might as well except other things we can’t prove, such as the flying spaghetti monster. This is a good point, especially since atheists are so consistent and only believe what is observable, ie. universal meanings and moral standards by which they use universal meanings to say they lack belief in God and that it is morally wrong for God to judge people in Hell.

Sarcasm aside again, a flying spaghetti monster, an “invisible friend”, or a flying tea pot, can’t account for what Scripture reveals to be the only precondition for science to even be possible! With all the clamor about how Scripture is “in the way of science”, I would like to point out how fundamental Scripture is to science. Science requires observers who observe the observable. Yet, observers and the observable are best accounted for with the Triune God of Scripture in mind. You can’t have science unless you have observation, and you can’t have observation with out the laws of logic, and you can’t have the laws of logic without the Triune God of Scripture, or at least a supernatural realm that is personal. I delve into this more concisely here.

Now, if belief in God is as superstitious as the “flying spaghetti monster”, the “invisible friend”, and Richard Dawkin’s “the flying teapot”, then it must also be said that these can sufficiently account for the non-physical realities of the laws of logic, thus the ability to think, thus the ability to observe, thus the ability to do science. God, however, is an eternal personal being, thus is a self-sufficient bases for all these. I have never heard atheists argue that the above are eternal personal beings.

So basically, while some over-emphasize supposed problems with the Bible (in the name of bettering science), they all along assume aspects of the Bible’s truths. Namely, aspects of God’s nature which is the prerequisite to even do science!

Now, with all this is on the tip of your mind, please come back with me to the chronological snobbery fallacy. So what am I saying? What I am ultimately saying is that in this day and age we all have embedded assumptions. We conveniently and foolishly overlook these assumptions only to our own demise, and therefore, one day people in the distant future will look back on us today and see how primitive and foolish we were.

Barfield put it this way:

“I was attending a lecture with a varied but exclusively university-oriented audience of some five hundred when the lecturer, a Ph.D. in physics, said, almost in passing, “Remember that only three hundred years ago men actually believed the world was flat!” Considerable knowing laughter greeted this astonishing misrepresentation (or, should I say, falsehood?), and the assembled all murmured a kind of self-congratulatory hum of satisfaction with their own superior knowledge. At another point the lecturer dropped a reference to the onetime belief that the sun revolved around the earth. More laughter. The physicist, it was apparent, was merely offering burnt incense at the altar of some of our twentieth-century idols.”

Let us not foolishly assume things and then run from everything that will challenge our preconceived notions. Take the laws of physics or the laws of nature if you will. Out of the Medieval Ages and into the The Age of Reason, The Enlightenment, and The Age of Empiricism, Theism faded away and became replaced with Deism. Our ideas of ourselves and our potential got bigger while our ideas of God grew more distant. Then we went from Modernism to Post-Modernism (in the arts at least), and Deism has now been replaced with Atheism and Naturalism.

Throughout all of these changes, one major contributor was the claim that “the universe is governed by natural laws”. In other words, we no longer need this “medieval” and “primitive” belief in God because we now have sufficient explanations as to how the world operates. All by ourselves we have discovered intellectually satisfying reasons for not believing in the super-natural. We have “laws” which govern the universe… who needs God?

And it is here that we see chronological snobbery at its very best! Or should I say worst? We see it following Newton’s day all the way into the present. Here’s what many Deists, Atheists, Agnostics, and Naturalists, riding on this bandwagon, were never challenged with. A natural law does not govern anything, but only explains how something is governed! It only explains what IS happening in nature, not what should happen!

We can say like Newton, “a net force = mass x acceleration”. Note, we cannot conclude that this is how a net force “should” function, but only that it does function this way as opposed to another way (such as F=1/2m x a). So we cannot say a law of nature is governing nature anymore then we can say 1+1=2 is governing the two oranges in my hands. This mathematical truth is only describing something, not governing it. Natural laws do not guarantee that the world will behave a certain way, they only “describe” how the world is currently behaving. To say how the world “should” behave is a meta-physical claim. Ooops. So it isn’t enough to say that laws are holding the universe together. It must be said that something is causing the universe to act uniform; and for this reason we can then derive laws. Therefore, the discovery of natural laws has NO basis to try and kick God out of His universe! They only reinforce the notion.

Even though Newton’s discoveries un-intentionally sparked the fires of Atheistic and Naturalistic attempts to throw God out of His universe, he himself did not entirely do so. Newton stated, “gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

And so I leave you with C.S. Lewis’ remarks on chronological snobbery in closing:

“chronological snobbery,” [is] the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

In summary:

“The free man is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought.” ~ Leon Blum

Are you willing to let your assumptions about the supernatural and the natural be challenged? Even if it raises your blood pressure?



  1. Ahoy. A Google alert for “owen barfield” brought me here. Hope you don’t mind I comment on this post.

    I think you’re much too quick with “universal meanings” being necessary for thinking. I vaguely remember Wittgenstein arguing against the possibility of a private language, but I don’t think it required any universal meanings.

    Also, your “an apple cannot also be an elephant” is not a contradiction. “An apple cannot also not be an apple” is a contradiction. This doesn’t involve any immaterial entities, just meaning (though universality isn’t required, I don’t think).

    Thirdly, what does any of this have to do with the Bible? That is, how does your argument imply that science “along assumes the Bible’s truths about God’s nature to even do science”?

    Finally, though I understand what the chronological fallacy is – Lewis’ and Barfield’s quotes helped to explain that – you don’t make clear where in science or in our trust in science this fallacy is committed. That’s not to say that some people don’t commit the fallacy when they point to the victory of science over belief, but you don’t show how trust in science *necessarily* involves this fallacy.

    I personally think that the issues you’re dealing with are important, but very complex, with aspects of which aren’t amenable to a logical analysis. Barfield is especially helpful in this regard, because though he applied logical argumentation at key points, those didn’t carry the whole project, but untied especially nasty knots.

    If you haven’t read any Barfield, I would highly recommend _Saving the Appearances_ or _Poetic Diction_, both of which address this fallacy, and the alternative.


  2. Ahoy matey. Allow me to jump right in and respond. You have not offered an alternative to universal meanings. Yet, your own response to me uses them. Further, so “private languages” don’t entail meanings? How?

    You said, “Also, your “an apple cannot also be an elephant” is not a contradiction. “An apple cannot also not be an apple” is a contradiction.”

    Saying something is an elephant, as opposed to an apple, implies, to an extent, that it is a “non-apple”. Hence why it would be contradictory. I understand that A = non-A is a contradiction. But I phrase it the way I do to make it a more understandable concept in people’s minds.

    how does your argument imply that science “along assumes the Bible’s truths about God’s nature to even do science”?

    Because like I said in my article, science requires observers to observe the observable. Observation requires one to think and use the laws of logic. Yet, rules implied upon the immaterial process of rationalizing, is meta-physical activity. Further, look at the first law of logic, the law of identity. We attach identities to things (hence universal meanings). Yet, this requires the “one and the many”. The Triune God, within His own nature, is one and many. If people reject the Triune God of Scripture, then they assume (without knowing it) something extremely similar.

    you don’t make clear where in science or in our trust in science this fallacy is committed.

    1. Naturalists and Atheists have assumed for centuries that there is no supernatural, when to even say that assumes the supernatural.
    2. A real morality can’t exist apart form the supernatural.
    3. Naturalists and Atheists have assumed for centuries that laws sufficiently explain how the universe should work. But laws only explain how it works, not how it should work. How it should work is a meta-physical claim. Something else is determining how the universe should work. In my worldview, it is obviously God. Or if nothing else is determining it, and it just works the way it does for no reason, then let’s stop blindly assuming that laws themselves account for this.

    but you don’t show how trust in science *necessarily* involves this fallacy

    Scientists who marry science to Naturalism commit this fallacy because they assume the supernatural (without knowing it) to even do science, as I pointed out above. If more scientists in the future rightly stop marrying science to Naturalism, then they will look back on us today and laugh. However, many are laughing already.

    Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll try to pick up the book if I get around to it.

  3. I am sympathetic to the attempt to show the inconsistencies of materialism, but I think you’re confusing a number of ideas rather than showing the issues more clearly and obviously.

    First of all, I still don’t understand how you’re using the chronological fallacy here. Simply put, all it involves is disregarding facts or ideas because they are old or past, rather than because they are untrue or invalid. That is the fallacy. How does this have anything to do with your arguments against naturalism?

    That’s the main point. Your objections to naturalism, then, are digressions, as far as I can see. At any rate, C.S. Lewis does a fine job addressing naturalism in “Miracles”, as I suspect you are aware. Can you summarize that argument?

  4. People believe Scripture is untrue because older beliefs which were untrue supposedly derived from it. I agree it could more accurately be sated “A implies B is a “BAD” argument, dating back to the times when people also believed C.” but the fallacy as originally stated still serves our purposes just fine. I am tying the chronological fallacy in with Scripture and Christianity. Neither of these should be disrecredited simply because of “out dated” stigmas which have been attached to them in the past. Many scientists marry science to Naturalism when they should marry it to Christianity or something extremely similar. I haven’t read Miracles, but thanks.

  5. Yes, I agree that many people may disregard the truths in the Bible simply because they are “outdated” and “irrelevant”, rather than because they determined those “truths” to be untrue, in fact. I agree that this is chronological snobbery, and a logical fallacy.

    But once you simply state it, it doesn’t seem all that outrageous. First, because most of us are not conducting our lives by logic – including most Christians. Second, because most of us determine the truth of things in context. Whether you like it or not, our context today, in many respects, is simply not the same as it was 1,000 or 2,000 or 5,000 years ago.

    Here is where Owen Barfield’s work – which you invoked to present the fallacy – is especially profound. Again, I would highly recommend reading Saving the Appearances. He also wrote a book called Worlds Apart, that is a dialogue between 5 or 6 people, arguing about many of these very issues. Both are dated and British in the writing style and content, but well worth the time.

    I don’t know how important this issue is to you in the whole scheme of your life – I know it takes time to read and write, and I never have enough time to read all that I want. But phenomenology and hermeneutics are two fields that might interest you on this score.


  6. First, because most of us are not conducting our lives by logic – including most Christians. Second, because most of us determine the truth of things in context. Whether you like it or not, our context today, in many respects, is simply not the same as it was 1,000 or 2,000 or 5,000 years ago.

    This is exactly one reason I even posted this article. Let’s say that one day we start to be logical and use our brains for all their worth, we will look back on our present way of thinking and laugh. I think we all go by “logic” but only our own dumbed down version of it which is dictated by a bunch of people who refuse to go to the end of their thought.

    Thanks for the suggestions. If I have time I’ll look into those reads.

  7. i guess some people might commit “chronological snobbery” in regards to the bible. i think the main point that you’re missing is that the examples of this that you gave are most often used not as reasons to reject everything in the bible but to show that the bible is not inerrant as claimed.

    please explain to me how one, or more specifically, you, can “go to the end of their thought”.

  8. here’s another nifty quote from good old c.s. lewis;

    “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

    what do you make of this?

  9. cirri, I believe the Bible is inerrant of course. And as my article demonstrates, part of the reason I believe this is because to reject the Triune God is to reject what’s required for someone to even be inerrant! This would be the conclusion if one were to “go to the end of their thought”. I really don’t want to get into a discussion about this though. We’ve already been hashing this out on my other threads.

    C.S. Lewis’ words are exact. In fact, if one reads the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) the religious people and the Pharisees charged Jesus of those very 2 same things! They’re conclusions were always “this man has a demon” or “this man is crazy”. Others said, “well maybe He’s from God since God wouldn’t allow Him to do these things if He were really false.” But the Pharisees wouldn’t consider this 3rd answer.

  10. what c.s. lewis proposed in that statement is usually called a false dilemma but since he allowed for three options it’s more of a false trilemma. i just think it’s interesting that while you see the logical fallacy of “chronological snobbery” as pointed outby lewis, you don’t see his own logical fallacies in this statement because it rings true to your belief.

  11. If Lewis says that Jesus absolutely couldn’t be a good moral teacher, then I would agree with you that this is a logical fallacy. But without Jesus, we wouldn’t even have logical fallacies in the first place. It would really just be a logical fallacy from a finite human perspective using a mere theoretical deductive syllogism.

    Nevertheless, his claim is still very supported. Jesus’ claims were extremely exclusive. Eternal life is either through Him, otherwise there is eternal wrath. That’s going beyond just simply telling people how to live their lives better. This is why Lewis might instead say “it’s very unlikely that Jesus was just a good moral teacher.” This wouldn’t be a logical fallacy. Further, history records only these 3 options, given how Jesus is responded to in the synoptic gospels. I am reading the book of John right now and have actually been noticing how much Lewis’ statement is supported by those who encounter Jesus in the book of John. He’s either called crazy, demonic, or Lord.

    And my whole point with the chronological fallacy wasn’t just to be pedantic and call the logical fallacy police and say “ah ha! Gotcha!”. It was to make the bigger point that modern thinking isn’t as advanced as it would like to boast. It’s actually pretty retarded.

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