Archive | March, 2014

Logical Gal and the danger of sound bytes

31 Mar

Limits of language

All those labor-saving devices and we still don’t have enough time for thought-ful discourse! Have you ever read any of the speeches from the Lincoln-Douglas debates?   Have you at least read about them?   People would swarm into the towns where each of the 7 debates were held in 1858.  Each one lasted about 3 hours.  People sat and stood in conditions ranging from  sweltering heat one day to a cold, steady downpour another.  Evidently ordinary folk could not only follow reasoned, deductive discourse, but they made the effort to travel specifically to learn from and support their candidate.

Today, we have teleprompters and twitter.

Tweet length

And here are the limits of language.  If someone proclaims, “All men are created equal,” little is communicated. We need amplification to give that proposition meaning or value.  We must ask some questions like:

  • Equal in what way?
  • Who are the ‘all men’?

In a podcast discussion I followed the other day, a thoughtful person took the time to compare and contrast men and women. He explained that though men and women were equal in value, they were not equal in roles.  Given our physical and emotional differences, each gender excels in certain areas and not others.

Another meaningless term (unless teased out) is the word ‘good’.   If you say, ” Ice cream is good,” you haven’t said much!

Ice cream

To communicate ANYthing at all, we need to ask:

  • Is ice cream good, ontologically, in its nature or properties in and of itself?  A son who is good is one who acts kindly and with consideration.
  • or do you mean it is good for something, like soothing a burn or providing energy to run a race?
  • or is it good in that it is authentic, not fake.  People talk about something being as ‘good as gold’
  • or does it mean good as in effective or perfect like 20/20 eyesight?
  • then there is good in the sense of skilled.  We talk about a good ballplayer
  • there is also a good deal when you feel you came away with more value than you parted with

But who takes the time to ask these questions?  And if you start to communicate at this depth, people politely change the subject, or impolitely check their electronic device to let you know that you are not worth their time!

I’m not sure WHAT can stem the tide or reverse the direction.  Maybe it is just an individual choice to live more slowly and thoughtfully.  Maybe communicating less often, but more richly will make someone stand out. What do you think?

All I know is that my mind grows stiff and rooted in a rut unless I exercise it.  And I, for one, don’t want to take the chance pay the price of past laziness and fall into Alzheimer’s!  I think the research is still out on ways of preventing this sad decline.  But if regular mental exercise might help, then bring on deep thoughts and well-written books!

Alzheimer's couple

 

 

Logical Gal – Metaphors and Reality

28 Mar

Metaphors  I’m sure you recognize a metaphor when you see one.  It’s an analogous word picture that describes reality but is not to be taken literally.

It’s spring break and I am enjoying the time to read more leisurely and at length.  This morning I picked up John Lennox’s book, Seven Days that Divide The World – The Beginning According to Genesis and Science.

The author instructs the readers in a useful distinction by describing the use of metaphor.  What I probably knew implicitly but had never thought about explicitly was that metaphors are to be taken literally, not literalistically.

Lennox uses the example, The car was flying down the road.  This is a metaphor that describes reality.  There is an actual car and an actual road. We take ‘flying’ literally, to mean the car was going very fast. If you take the verb ‘flying’ literalistically, then the car would be traveling above the ground on some kind of floating road.

Flying car

Here is the operative quote from John Lennox, “ Just because a sentence contains a metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it is not referring to something real.” (page 23)   So we are to take a term the way the author or speaker intended.  That is the ‘literal’ meaning.  On the contrary, what the term means in its basic, primary sense is the ‘literalistic’ meaning.

We ordinary folk use metaphors all the time, as do scientists.

A wife might describe the many worries that plague her husband this way:

-John is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders

Weight of the world on his shoulders

A scientist might describe energy in motion this way: 

the flow of  electrical current along a wire and the movement of light particles in waves 

Light particles and waves

So, how is this distinction between literal and literalistic helpful?  And the connection with reality?

For me, armed with this division between the two definitions, I can better appreciate the discussion on how to take the days of creation.  Bible interpretation depends on a correct understanding of terms.  Often non-believers resort to ad hominem attacks to denigrate and marginalize Christians.  They say something like, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

But now I can say with confidence, “If by literally you mean to ask if I take the Bible the way the authors intended the meaning, then yes, I do!”   I will follow up with the return question, “Do you read the sports pages literally or literalistically?”

Striking Gold

 

Question: How does this distinction between the literal meaning and the literalistic meaning help you sort out a difficult issue?

 

 

 

 

Logical girl and seeming contradictions

26 Mar

Most of the time when I encounter what seems like a contradiction, it turns out that just thinking clearly for a few minutes resolves the problem.

If thinking coherently can untangle some issues, why am I hesitant to proceed immediately to exercising my mind?  There are a couple of possibilities:

  • we aren’t used to thinking
  • we haven’t been taught to think
  • it takes time to think
  • how do we know if we are right after having thought?
  • our society doesn’t value the invisible world of inner thoughts.  Americans are pragmatists. It’s a DO this….3 EASY steps…..whatever WORKS…culture

Penseur

If someone isn’t DOING something, they are labelled as lazy or as dreamers.  So we avoid thinking, for lack of immediate visible payoff.

But there’s the rub – without clear and logical thought, we can be left with invalid ideas.  And ideas have consequences.   Actions flow from ideas, whether accurate or not.

So much for my detour into why we don’t think.  All that was to explain how pleasantly surprised I was to see an apparent contradiction melt away as I listened to a man think out loud.

The conversation fragment centered around God’s tendency to act differently throughout history AND yet still retain the attribute of unchangeability.  At first the one might seem to preclude the other.

God doesn't change

But listening to this thinker go deeper, I learned otherwise.  God is just, that is, He does what is always right.  THAT is the the quality that doesn’t change.  But as any parent knows, acting correctly toward one’s child looks different at each stage.  The parenting response might change, but the quality of fair and correct discipline and training need not alter.

Protective Parent

 

So a parent can still be considered consistent yet act differently and appropriately at each stage – as can God.  So when some people casually toss off the quip,”I prefer Jesus to the God of the Old Testament,” they are actually communicating that God has changed or there are 2 different Gods.  When you hear that, just ask them WHY?  But be gentle as you lead them to consider how they themselves might respond differently in various situations YET still be considered loving or fair.

My hope is that NEXT time I meet another apparent contradiction, I’ll pause and reflect first before drawing any conclusions.

 

Question: What about you?  what contradiction bothers you?

 

 

Logical Gal – When someone changes the subject

24 Mar

Change subject - Jedi Mind Trick

Many people you talk with do not employ Jedi finesse.  They abruptly change the subject from the issue at hand, often to an ad hominem attack.

Let’s imagine a conversation about how best to address recent changes in global temperatures. The discussion débuts well, terms are clarified. When positions begin to be articulated, the going gets clouded by a sudden attack on a different issue, to wit:

Global Warming ‘Fear-Monger’: You only advocate a ‘wait-and-see’ approach because you’re one of those Christian fundamentalist, head-in-the-sand deniers!

Global Warming ‘Denier’: Whoa…wait a second!  You just changed the subject from what to do about elevated temperatures to WHY I might advocate a position.  Can we go back to the original argument? I’d like to present my reasons for my position.  And I would like to hear yours! How does that sound?

It is EASY to get drawn down a different path.  With such an insult to one’s character, I have often succumbed to the temptation to defend WHY I believe something.  However, the BEST move is to shift the conversation back to where it was.  There was a single issue and either you or he were attempting to defend a course of action with REASONS.

Changing the subject

Why might someone want to play ‘switch-a-roo’ with you?  It could be that they have NOT thought about their position and have no reasons to back up their assertion.  It takes time to study issues.  We live in a culture enamored with and satisfied by shallow 140-character sound bytes.  That allows NO time for developing a case.  But quick pointed jabs might be enough to send one’s opponents packing.

Quid faciam?  What to do?

Be kind but direct.  Try at least twice to move the conversation back on track, to the topic at hand.  If after the second time, your interlocutor purposefully shifts again, then gently terminate the discussion.  It’s a waste of your time and his.

You might not gain ground with this person, but your refusal to take the bait will make an impression on him.  It might actually get him to study the facts for himself!

Back on Track

Logical Gal – holding mystery and reason together

21 Mar

Mystery

Most people love a good mystery, whether a novel or a movie.  And the best kind of ‘whodunit’ seems to be the one where the dénouement is a complete surprise.  Yet, when looking back, one can clearly recognize all the clues and evidence that had been there all along.

The very fact that we can accept now, as obvious, the signs that were earlier ‘hidden’  is because the unfolding of details is rational. There’s a progression, a sense to the sequence.  The outcome is NOT an irrational one.  Hence, mystery and reason CAN co-exist.

This tension has implications for other mysteries.  Take God, for instance.  Much about the Creator and Ruler of the universe is still hidden.  But God is not irrational. He has created us in His image with a mind to see, to inquire and to piece together.  He expects us to use reason.  Yet we do not understand everything. You’ve probably heard the observation that Paul made, as recorded in 1 Cor 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

See through a glass darkly

Haven’t we all had the experience of not knowing how something would turn out in our lives? We’ve had to live with mystery….and then once we’re on the other side of the event, we realize that the way all the circumstances unfolded was just right.  As they say, hindsight is 20/20!  

If the world were irrational, we wouldn’t even be able to live with what we COULD see because of the unpredictability!  There ARE patterns in the seeming randomness.  There ARE natural laws.

So next time someone attempts to say that reason contradicts mystery, just ask them “How is that?”

Remember, the one who MAKES the assertion has to defend it.  No pressure for you, the question-poser!

Ask Qs

Logical Gal and the State’s interest in marriage

19 Mar

I revisit the marriage debate that is very much present in our culture and courts. 

Marriage Debate

How do you even begin to tackle this issue?  Where does one wade in?  Like any emotional and complex issue, the questions are often more important than the answers.

Taking the time to think and formulate questions requires patience and resolve.  Too often I have succumbed to the temptation to jump right in with my point of view (backed by reasons, of course .)Smiley Face - small

Had I resisted that first impulse and taken the time to prepare the field of reasonable discussion with the fertilizer of clear terms and thoughtful questions,  my results perhaps would have been better.  At least they would have turned out differently!

Questions - asking good ones

Hence, my interest was piqued when I heard an excellent question framed this way.  For the sake of focusing just on the questions, I am skipping any term-clarifying work that should always take place.   On to a jump-off question:

When someone is defending the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, a first question could be this:

  • For which essential public purpose does the State licenses marriages? 

That is a brilliant question because it takes marriage out of the realm of ‘love’ and ‘rights’.   It focuses on the fact that the State actually has chosen to care about marriages enough to regulate them.  Why would the State even do that?   After all, the State doesn’t care about where I go to church or who my friends are or even which career I choose?  Why marriage?

It turns out that the State and our entire society have a very compelling interest in marriage. Research shows Report about what serves children best that AS A GROUP, AS A RULE and BY NATURE, a hetero-sexual couple in a long-term stable relationship, caring for and raising their own biological children provide the best environment for those children to grow up to be responsible, healthy and functional citizens.  The next generation IS society’s # one resource. Society won’t continue without succeeding generations of adults who can take on responsibility!

The question advanced serves to focus the discussion away from the emotionally charged question of love because it is irrelevant to the State.  As the man discussing this strategic question on the radio remarked, when he and his fiancée applied for a marriage license, the question of whether they actually loved each other was not even on the application form! That isn’t important to the State.

Marriage License App

I was struck by the simplicity and power of one question.  The ability to focus the discussion away from emotionally charged areas allows for fruitful and rational discussion.  No one denies that love is important to 21st century Americans.  But that is not something the State needs to be concern about!

Further Thought – What powerful clarifying questions have you encountered?

Logical Gal – what makes something true?

17 Mar

Habit with him was all the test of truth, / It must be right: I’ve done it from my youth. -George Crabbe, poet and naturalist (1754-1832)

George Crabbe - Poet

Talk about redefining truth!  You’d think that a rule of life that stupid would be immediately laughed at and knocked down!

But before we ‘go all smug’ on poor Mr. Crabbe’s description of someone’s idea of truth, let’s stop a moment and reflect if we ourselves don’t rely on this fallacy in some version or another.

This Appeal to Tradition (or in Latin – argumentum ad antiquitatemcan take the shape of many habits that are harmful.  Just because something is habitual doesn’t make it healthy or right or lawful.

  • I always interrupt my husband; he doesn’t mind.
  • We always host our in-laws for Christmas; I’d feel guilty if we suggested otherwise.
  • The XYZ minority group are used to our comments.  What’s the big deal?

One of the dangers of relying on and NOT questioning tradition or habit is that you stop thinking through your reasons for doing something.

Tradition Fallacy

Tradition and habit are not bad in and of themselves.  In fact, solidifying some habits can be very beneficial! (i.e. questioning authority, thinking for yourself, verifying sources).  And there is a danger in rejecting an argument out of hand just because it is old.  (that’s another fallacy – Chronological Snobbery)

So how do we know when to hold on to tradition and when to jettison it? I don’t think that is the correct question.  For one thing, someone might continue to observe a tradition because it recalls an event precious to the community linked to it.  Generally, if it works and isn’t harmful and those who practice it are blessed by it, then I can see the value in following it.

But when it comes to giving reasons for why you believe something to be TRUE, then that’s a different scenario.  We cannot appeal to tradition in the place of reason to back up an argument.  Therefore, we’re going to have to ‘exercise those little grey cells’ as Detective Hercule Poirot is wont to say:

Hercule Poirot

  • So whether you find yourself abroad, away from your homeland, having to defend your country’s practices
  • Or whether you are asked to give a reason for why you believe what you do about God and the meaning of life
  • Or even if you are asked to justify your choice of a political candidate, your particular diet, method of childrearing or managing a work crew…..

….then it’s best and more impactful to your questioner if you can give a rational reason for what you do.  Besides, the value in examining why you do something might just be in getting you to discard that way in favor of another.  Do you really want to emulate this man?

Tradtion - John Lennon