Assumptions surrounding logic

27 Jan

While listening to Al Mohler  (Link to his discussion here) explain the backstory to a recent Supreme Court decision affecting those on death row in Florida, I was struck once again about the importance of language.

supreme court

Words matter.

Obviously eight of the 9 justices in the photo assumed that as much. The wording of the 6th amendment to the US Constitution declares that a defendant is entitled to “….a public trial, by an impartial jury of the state….”.  The majority opinion of the Supreme Court argued that the words meant what they said.  The fact that Florida judges alone had the power to impose the death sentence (based on the recommendation of the jury) violated the sense of the language of the 6th amendment.

Al Mohler then drew the connection between how one reads the written text of the US Constitution and the Bible.  Either the words mean what they say or we open the gate to anyone’s interpretation.  And chaos ensues and words lose the power of meaning.

Language-based logic is the same.  Before we even examine and analyze a syllogism to determine whether it is sound, we have made an assumption:

Words matter!

Take the following sample syllogism:

Premise 1:All wood is a substance containing carbon

Premise 2: This stick is wood

Conclusion:  Therefore, this stick is a substance containing carbon

Logical Joe’s and Jane’s have to agree on what each term means.

  • Does ‘all’ unequivocally take in every member of the category of wood?
  • Does ‘wood’ represent the set of hard, fibrous materials that form the trunk of a shrub or tree*?
  • Is carbon only the chemical element represented by atomic number 6*?

*definitions based on Apple’s Mac dictionary

We ‘assume’ that words representing terms refer to a specific concept.  If that is not our starting point in logic, then we might as well abandon all reasoning.

But as my husband pointed out when we were discussing this necessary pre-supposition, another complication exists.  We can agree on the clear sense of a term YET once set in a proposition or even a clause, meaning grows complicated.

Take just a snippet from the Pledge of Allegiance:

“…with liberty and justice for all.”

Initially one can agree on individual concepts of liberty and justice in isolation. The term ‘all’ appears messier. Distinctions must be made, so we pose some clarifying questions:

  • does ‘all’ refer to all citizens or all those residing in the US?
  • and if all residing in the US are intended, do we need to differentiate between those legally residing and those who are not?
  • are we talking about all humans only?  Are the unborn included?  Are the mentally and physically dependent included?

Once we initially sort out terms, what happens next?  Other questions arise.  For instance, if we consider just one other term, the concept of ‘liberty’, what does the GUARANTEE of ‘liberty’ protect one against? How far does it extend and do I, who am included in the ‘all ‘, get to define liberty to suit my needs?

I’d love to say, “Let’s just go with the plain reading of the text!”  But I have to concede that a careful reading of any writing requires clear and focused thinking.  That’s why there will always be a need for diligent and thoughtful lawyers, judges, theologians and logical but ordinary men and women like us.

The challenge is great, but worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

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