Archive | June, 2013

Pride and Clarity of Terms

30 Jun

Pride gets in the way of logic – 

Have you ever just let your emotions carry you into a heated response to a statement you THINK you understand?

Taking a few moments to understand what the other person MEANS when they use a phrase or ‘term’ will save you some embarrassment.

I once jumped down someone’s throat because he said that a politician had done a good job in office!  Before I even ASKED him to clarify what he meant by good, I was countering him emotionally and loudly.

Simultaneous to my outward ‘know-it-all’ diatribe coursed my thoughts, “Maria  – what are you doing!!! You know better!  You’ve just blown any chance for a reasonable discussion.”

I have no idea what he meant by the term ‘good’ because I didn’t give him a chance to go into any detail.

But I did learn my lesson – I hope!

The first step in applying logic is to clarify terms.  There is NO point in taking a position and defending it, if we’re not going to explain in detail and to the other person’s satisfaction, just WHAT we mean when we use words to describe a concept.

A term consists in the words you use (either verbally or in writing) to describe a concept.  A term can consist in as few as one word or as many as you need to distinguish the concept from another.

So you can have a baseball (one word) 

or a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream. 

Both are terms.  Those happen to be pretty easy to identify.  More nebulous are terms like good, wrong, fair, justice, liberal, unloving.  These need clarifying.

This week we have looked at the first building block of a logical argument – terms.  Remember that terms are either clear or unclear.  Next week we’ll examine propositions and how to construct them properly.

Your homework, in the meanwhile, is to keep an ear and eye out for either vague terms or ones that are equivocal.  Equivocation, remember, is when you use a term that can refer to two or more different concepts.  For example:

  • Plane – a geometric term having to do with flat surfaces and points
  • Plane – flying machine
  • Plane – a tool used in woodworking

Using a term in either way (vaguely or equivocally) can obfuscate understanding.  See if you can catch yourself or others in this linguistic ‘crime’!

By the way, if I am generous, my ‘friend’ whom I linguistically assaulted, for all I know, could have meant by ‘good’ simply that the politician in question enjoyed an intact family and was doing a ‘good’ job balancing work priorities and family responsibilities.  When in doubt, one should be charitable!

Obama – good job…..  Clarity of terms

So, you think you are reasonable?

27 Jun

Do you think of yourself as a reasonable person?  If so, then would this be a ‘reasonable’ request?

“Give me your credit card number and I’ll get JUST what I need!”

Of course not!

How about this?

          “Would you & your husband care to trade babysitting?  You guys go ahead and pick a date night and we’ll watch your kids; then we’ll choose an evening and you can keep an eye on our kids.  That way each week we can each count on a responsible babysitter and it won’t cost us any money!”

I grew up thinking that the term ‘reasonable’ meant in essence the same as “not asking too much”.

But actually, if an idea is reasonable, then it means that there are adequate grounds to support it.  Usually we refer to conclusions as being reasonable, or supported by adequate and sufficient reason.

Here’s an example:

Eating candy and not rinsing one’s mouth or brushing one’s teeth can cause tooth decay. Tooth decay can lead to multiple visits to the dentist. Some dental work is painful. So if you don’t want the cost, inconvenience and possible pain that can accompany dental visits, don’t eat candy without cleaning your teeth!

We often use terms without knowing the concept or idea they actually refer to.  This happened to me growing up.  Each time I would start to argue with my dad, he would say, “Maria, stop equivocating!”  I don’t think I understood what ‘equivocating’ was, except that I did know that I was challenging him and he didn’t like it.  So I figured that to equivocate was the same as to argue.

Years later I realized that ‘EQUIVOCAL’ words were terms that are spelled and pronounced identically BUT refer to completely different concepts.  Why is this important?  – because…… we often jump on someone and start arguing with them without REALLY knowing what they mean.  For instance, they might say: “It’s GOOD to be the King!”

And when YOU think about royalty and leadership, because of a particular context you have in your head, you might default to remembering past monarchs who have been overthrown and beheaded, like Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette.  Launching into a heated discourse without knowing what your interlocutor meant by ‘good’ could be both embarrassing and wasteful of your and his time!

Again, it’s always ‘GOOD’ (i.e. helpful, wise and less pride-ful) first to clarify what someone means by their language before you even launch into a discussion.

If you want to begin using logic and clear thinking, the best place to start is with terms and the concepts they refer to.

What terms have tripped you up in the past and led you into unintended heated and/or fruitless discussions?

Co-exist anyone?

25 Jun

Saw one of those ‘co-exist’ bumper stickers yesterday.  I initiated a conversation with the driver – in my mind:

Logical Gal: So what does ‘co-exist’ mean (VERY neutral, pleasant voice)

Miss Co-Exist: What do you think it means?  To exist together.

Logical Gal:  Doesn’t that happen already?  You exist, I exist…what’s the problem?

Miss Co-Exist: What’s implied is ‘existing together while minding your own business, you know, like…..not proselytizing and stuff.’

Logical Gal: Does that happen often – the ‘proselytizing and stuff’?

Miss Co-Exist: You bet it does! Haven’t you ever been the victim of one of those right-wing nut-jobs?

Logical Gal:  I don’t know, what are they like? (touch of innocence in voice)

Miss Co-Exist: Oh, you’d recognize them if you were so unfortunate to be cornered by one.  They’re likely to tell you that you should believe some narrow hogwash that they spout.

Logical Gal:  (slow, pondering-type voice) So let me get this straight – if they verbally say that it’s RIGHT to believe XYZ they’re proselytizing?  But if you have a bumper sticker that reads ABC you’re not proselytizing? It’s the medium that matters?

Miss Co-Exist:  (heads jerks up and tone turns a tad defensive) what do you mean?

Logical Gal:  Well, aren’t you broadcasting to the world what YOU believe to be right, just like they might be communicating out loud with words what THEY believe to be right?

Miss Co-Exist:  Whatever….(and she leaves)


Words matter.  A simple and non-threatening way to get someone to use logic is to start by asking them what they mean by a term or expression they use.  You don’t have to carry out a full-blown discussion.  Just practice engaging by asking a few questions.  May times we say things, pass on information or ideas about which we’ve given little thought. 

Greg Koukl of the organization Stand to Reason is the master of questioning. Link to Stand to Reason.  He recommends it for several reasons:

1)     It’s easy and not too scary

2)     You get more information that might help you think through an issue later

You can practice anywhere.

You can start today – keep your ears open in any and all conversations with family, friends/co-workers and ‘strangers’ for a term you could ask them about.  Be bold and try asking them a few questions.  Then let us know what happened!