Archive | November, 2014

Stop equivocating!

26 Nov

Dad with daughter

My Dad must have repeated that warning weekly throughout my teen years.  Vaguely aware that he meant it to mean ‘stop arguing‘ or ‘enough of this twisting around of my words!

It wasn’t until ‘logic’ came into my life that I learned both the potential confusion AND danger of equivocal words – those terms that are spelled alike but point to completely different concepts.

Think about pitchers.  Two sorts spring to mind:

Pitcher of lemonade Pitcher throwing ball

 

It’s only in context that one’s sense becomes clear.

I thought about equivocal words again while mediating on one of God’s teachings in the book of Acts.  The passage is found in chapter 10 where Peter (the leader of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension) explains to the Roman officer Cornelius the details surrounding Jesus’ work on earth and his future return:

(verses 42-43) “…..And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.  To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

What got me thinking was how some people unfamiliar with the Bible think that God will judge the good and the bad.  Those are the juxtaposed groups they describe.  Yet that is a category error, if one relies on the Bible as the definitive word about God’s judgments.  In the above passage, the people groups mentioned are the living and the dead.  What we can safely infer is that this categorizing is both exclusive and exhaustive.  All humans who ARE living or who HAVE EVER lived fit into one of these two groups: the living and the dead.  

I’ll come back to this teaching in a moment; first let’s look at the erroneous initial division of humans into good and bad.  Here is where my reflection about equivocal terms brought me – pondering the sense of the term ‘good‘.   Many Americans are kind-hearted, generous and desirous of helping their neighbor.

Humanitarian acts

I’m sure you know just such good people.  These God-enabled humanitarian works DO make our world a much better place.  Undeniably.  Yet the term good is problematic precisely because it’s one of those troublesome equivocal words.

Here’s what I mean:

How do we reconcile Jesus telling a well-to-do young Jewish man:

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good--except God alone.” (Mark 3:12)

And in the Old Testament the Psalmist writes:

Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 53:3)

Clearly there is good and there is good!

And we could talk about many other examples of how good is used:

  • good to eat (tasty and/or nutritious)
  • good at playing the piano (skilled)
  • that’s good! (almost meaningless, but communicates your acknowledgment of the news)
  • good weather for fishing/sunbathing/growing your garden (conducive to ______)
  • a good dog, child (well behaved)
  • a good wife (meets my expectations)
  • a good report (complete and accurate)
  • and last but not least, a good deed (kind)

You can probably thing of  more uses.

But the distinction that God describes in His word is one that has eternal consequences.  If

  • no one but God is good (per HIS use of the term) and if
  • He is going to judge the living and the dead

Then, knowing the category He uses is crucial.

Back to the apostle Peter’s explanation to Cornelius; obviously if none of us is good in God’s use of the term, and He separates all into either the living or the dead, then knowing that there IS a way to be reconciled and pleasing and loved and favored by God is pretty important.

 

Bottom LIne

And the news is ‘good’! (life-giving, joyful)

Reprising the 2nd verse (Acts 10:43) where Peter describes Jesus and his work on earth the first time:

“….To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Hmm…I spot another tricky term: ‘believes‘.  We’ll talk about how to understand the proper sense of  ‘to believe’ next time.

Until then, pick up and read all of Acts, Chapter 10 for yourself.  It’s a short account of what’s important.

Logical Gal and the Source of Misunderstandings

19 Nov

Consider the assumptions below: are they true?

  • The French are snobs
  • Southerners are lazy
  • Kids don’t read much
  • Americans are generous
  • Women feel guilty
  • Schools are failing students

It depends

We often treat these particular statements as true JUST because we know some cases where:

  • SOME French people behave as though they were better than us
  • SOME Southerners lack drive
  • SOME kids prefer video games to reading
  • SOME Americans open their wallets for every world misery
  • SOME women confess their conflicting views about motherhood, marriage and working
  • SOME schools routinely turn out students unprepared to take up adult roles in society

An effective and accurate (truthful) communicator does not assume that the qualities pertaining to certain cases equally apply in EVERY case.   This is the difference between the Universal (ALL) and the Particular (SOME).

When we apply the characteristics of the few or even the many to every, we are going beyond what is logically correct.  Logical thinking is, after all, using language correctly.

EXTENSION is the term to note the particular details of one exemplar of a category.  The term to identify all those members of a category that also carry the same ‘extension’ is COMPREHENSION.  And ABSTRACTION is the term that pulls together the descriptive characteristics that EVERY single member of of the category holds in common.

Take a house, for example:

House - Ranch House - shack House - Victorian

The 3 houses above are all very different.  To get the idea of ‘house’, we abstract what they have in common:

  • a roof
  • 4 walls
  • shelter for living
  • space enough to protect some personal belongings of inhabitants

A particular house, say the rancher on the left, has all 4 of the above features plus we can say that it is:

  • on one floor and noticeably longer than it is wide

But if we took that particular rancher which is a sum of the ‘applies to all’ features (the abstracted idea of house) + a particular characteristic (long and on one floor) and said

  • Houses are easy for handicapped people to access

We would be guilty of taking an extension and applying it across the board to all houses.

To be logical, we would have to supply the correct quantifier and say SOME houses make it easy for handicapped people to access.  A mansion might not have a way for a wheel chair to reach higher floors.

Ramp on rancher

If extension means the particular characteristics beyond the abstracted or general idea of a concept, then what is comprehension?  Think about extension as the details.  Think about comprehension as the number or sum total of all the members of a category to which this description applies.

And when we add more particular details, then a category member can be said to have a ‘greater’ extension.  But, conversely, there are fewer members that can be said to share that extension.

Here are 3 houses again, but this time they are:

a) a general, abstracted house

b) an abstracted house considered a ranch

c) an abstracted house that is ranch-style and has a handicap ramp

The latter, house C, shows the greatest extension because it has the most detail (hence, there are fewer houses that are accurately said to be that kind of house)

The first, house A, has the greatest comprehension because more houses qualify to be that kind of house (basic house) without all the extra details.

See Saw

The seesaw picture shows the inverse relationship between extension and comprehension.  The greater the details (greater extension), the fewer items that meet that description (smaller comprehension) and vice versa.

Bottom line?  Committing ourselves to take the time AND think clearly and then express ourselves honestly can ease the tension and conflict that characterizes our world.  It’s either laziness or pure disingenuousness to paint people or institutions with a broad brush.

Language is the source of misunderstandings Language is the source of...in French

 

Logical Gal and ‘Neutrality’

12 Nov

Neutral

Facts are neutral bits of reality.

Humans give them context and meaning, filling in assumptions to offer explanations.  Sometimes we actually add reasons to our assertions and craft an argument.  But whether we stop short of an argument and just offer a POSSIBLE explanation or craft an intact case, we still carry assumptions that may or may not be expressed for all to see and hear.

The mid-term elections are behind us (Good riddance to all those ads!) but ‘framing’ the results flourishes.  Just like the British headlines after George W. Bush was RE-elected, some people will be scratching their heads to create an explanation for certain wins and losses.

How can 59 million people be so DUMB

Truth is – most facts are neutral.  They take on values (good, bad, stupid, wise….) only compared to something else or based on a pre-supposition.

Look at this conclusion, aka an assertion, which I am inventing for argument’s sake:

  • Senator Joe Blow won reelection because of big oil

‘because of big oil’ is one of those invented explanations.  Possible explanations are everywhere, but they masquerade as arguments. Unaccompanied by reasons, they are meaningless.  But even when the provider shores up her explanation with reasons, not all is uncovered.  We have to dig to find out the pre-suppositions that are BEHIND the reasons and conclusion.   But how do you uncover what is not explicitly articulated?

  • You can ask the person making the claim
  • Or…you can propose an assumption you think might be below the surface and ask the claim-maker to verify or deny it

For example, I might ask:

  1. So you think that Senator Joe Blow won only because those in the oil industry voted for him?

or

2. So you don’t think that Senator Joe Blow might have offered a record of results from his first 6 years or a set of values that pleased his constituents?

Our assumptions (also called presuppositions) heavily influence how we evaluate facts,; they give facts their context.

Hold your horses

(holding one’s horses!) 

Something else that influences our evaluation is our tendency to move from considering neutral facts, to drawing inferences, to making judgments.  Often our conclusions overreach the facts of the particular case.  So we must resist that tendency or habit and ask ourselves if this particular case justifies our conclusions.

Consider the following example I recently read in Senator Hayakawa’s book – Hayakawa's Bk Language

Imagine a hypothetical ‘Pete’ and the following FACT:

  • Pete just got released after spending 3 years in prison

An unwarranted inference might lead one to assume:  Pete is a criminal!

But all we know are 2 facts:

1. Pete spent 3 years in prison

2. Pete has been released

We DON’T know definitively whether or not Pete was guilty of the crime for which he was incarcerated.

If we flow quickly into that inference, however, we might be led to make a judgment such as:  Pete can’t be trusted because he is a criminal.  I would never hire him!

True confessions!  Stopping before I make an inference and slide into a judgment is easier SAID than done!  But anything worthwhile takes effort!  Our world needs more cautious but clear thinkers.

So in this post-election season, let’s exercise calm and rational thinking no matter which side of the political spectrum we land. There’s no room for unwarranted judgments that demonize or boast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Logical Gal and False Authorities

5 Nov

I recently encountered 2 examples of the same fallacy – appealing to authority to avoid making a case for one’s point of view.

This is the essence of a fallacy – trotting out a false argument that either is irrelevant, claims too much or is a distraction.

Shrinking Polar Caps

The first was anecdotally reported to me. A small aircraft pilot was recounting the time he flew over the polar ice cap and noticed what he considered to be shrinking icebergs. He then reported, “Yep, global warming is for real, I saw it!”

Let’s take a look at his thinking:

  • P1 – If I see diminishing icebergs, then global warming is happening
  • P2 – I saw diminishing icebergs
  • C –  Therefore, global warming is happening

His syllogism is logically valid in that the form of the argument is correct. But are his premises true? There’s the rub.

Our pilot friend has opened himself up to be shot down easily. Some questions one might ask?

  • Have you measured the shrinkage? For how many years?
  • How do you know that the shrinkage is due to global warming? Could there be other reasons?
  • How did you get your scientific expertise in the area of global temperature studies?

He has appealed to himself as an authority RATHER than building a case. This man was an expert pilot, but not a trusted source of scientific analysis.

*

The other example of an appeal to illegitimate authority is found in the Gospel of John.  In Chapter 7, toward the end, the soldiers return to the Pharisees and Chief Priests empty-handed.  They had been sent to arrest Jesus.  When questioned, they explain that ‘this man’ speaks like no one else they have ever heard!  The religious leaders smirk:

 Has any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in Him? (John 7:48)

The implication is that they don’t need to examine the claims of Jesus to verify if they are true.  It’s enough that THEY have not ‘fallen’ for them.  They are setting themselves up as arbiters of truth.   This is an appeal to an authority and expertise that they don’t have. It’s immaterial to the verification of Jesus’ identity WHO they are.  The claim is either true or false no matter WHO believes it.

20 million Frenchmen can't be wrong

Can a lot of people be be wrong?  YES!

Yesterday many elections were held around the country.  Wildly unsubstantiated claims and accusations were made in all that very expensive advertising.  Today we’re breathing a sigh of relief that THIS season is over.  But campaigning is part of our landscape.  The next time someone makes a claim or an attack on an opponent, use questions to gently guide them back to the claim.  Whoever MAKES a claim needs also to defend his or her case with REASONS.

Yes, it gives one pause to go against a majority, but a majority can be dead wrong!  Think through arguments and look for rational support for the claims made.  That’s how to inoculate oneself against folly, no matter the source.