The most famous murder of the twentieth century and perhaps of all time was captured on an eight-millimeter home-movie camera. Abraham Zapruder, a woman’s clothing manufacturer, inadvertently filmed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, as the president’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. Zapruder’s silent, color movie lasting 26.6 seconds would become one of the most studied pieces of film in history. Still, various investigators of the assassination have come to different conclusions as to what the film actually reveals.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination that shocked and saddened the whole world. And yet Americans remain divided over how to best explain what happened in Dallas a half century ago. A brief examination of the conclusions drawn from two United States government investigations of the assassination and a discussion of some logical principles of abductive reasoning can help best explain this controversial, mysterious event. Doing so also yields a connection to Christian apologetics reasoning.
Two Official Government Investigations of the JFK Assassination
1. Warren Commission (1963–1964)
Headed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, the Warren Commission conducted a ten-month investigation of the assassination. The conclusions of the seven-member panel (which included future American president Gerald Ford) were twofold: (1) Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy, and (2) there was no evidence of a conspiracy––either foreign or domestic––to aid Oswald in the act. The commission concluded that nightclub owner Jack Ruby had also acted alone in murdering Oswald out of a misguided sense of justice.
2. House Select Committee on Assassinations (1976–1978)
This twelve-member committee drawn from the United States House of Representatives was commissioned to reinvestigate the assassinations of both JFK and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Regarding the Kennedy assassination, the committee deduced that the president was probably killed as the result of a conspiracy. They specifically concluded that, while Oswald fired the shots that killed Kennedy, there was eyewitness and acoustic evidence of a fourth shot fired by a second gunman. However, the committee did not identify any person or groups involved in the assassination other than Oswald.
Finding the Best Explanation
So which is the best explanation concerning the assassination? The Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory or the House Select Committee’s conspiracy theory? Principles of abductive logical reasoning—which attempts to discover the best explanation of an event—can be applied to this case. By asking five critical questions abductive reasoning helps determine what makes an acceptable assassination theory.
1. Consistency: Which assassination theory best holds together foundationally? Well-conceived theories are logically sound and internally consistent. Viable explanatory theories avoid being self-stultifying or self-defeating in nature (contradictory by both affirming and denying essential elements of the same theory).
2. Facts: Which assassination theory best comports with the facts? Good theories are closely connected to the facts. They not only correspond to known facts but also make sense by tying them together in a coherent fashion.
3. Assumptions: Which assassination theory best justifies its assumptions and avoids unwarranted ones? All theories take things for granted, but acceptable assumptions have been thought through critically and, therefore, are considered broadly reasonable. However, feasible theories also attempt to keep assumptions to a minimum.
4. Pliability: Which assassination theory is flexible enough to adjust to new or counterevidence? Acceptable theories are adaptable enough to accommodate possible counterevidence. The most reasonable explanatory theories carefully consider alternative critiques and can answer the challenges.
5. Testability: Which assassination theory best makes claims that are theoretically open to being verified or falsified? Viable explanatory theories make claims that can be tested and proven true or false (verified or falsified). Nonfalsifiable claims that cannot be investigated, evaluated, and critiqued carry little rational weight.
The assassination theory that, overall, best answers these types of questions should be viewed as the best logical explanation. However, it takes skill and diligence to properly apply these logical principles to something as complex (and now as long ago) as the Kennedy assassination.1
Evaluating these two assassination theories by using abductive reasoning is very similar to the central Christian apologetics venture of attempting to best explain the events surrounding Jesus Christ’s resurrection: Is the resurrection of Jesus Christ best explained as being a natural or supernatural event?2 Abductive reasoning is a tool (or skill) that competent Christian apologists keep ready for frequent access in
their apologetics tool chest.
- For the best defense of the Warren Commission findings, see former trial attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s book Reclaiming History. For the best defense of the House Select Committee findings, see former attorney and law professor G. Robert Blakey and Richard N. Billings’s book The Plot to Kill the President.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 15–43.