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Personal growth through questions

15 Apr

A young woman I know, a mom with three small children, related a transformative conversation she had with a wise friend.  With her confidant patiently listening, the mother detailed all the reasons why she was going to try homeschooling again. She had resorted to public school for her older two kids when baby number three came along. In explaining the decision to pick up again with homeschooling, she offered what she considered a strong closing conclusion, the following assertion:

  • Besides, everyone knows how much time is wasted in a regular classroom!

The wise friend thoughtfully asked, “What’s wrong with that?”

Startled, the mom paused and couldn’t really come up with a concrete reason AGAINST ‘wasting time’.  In fact, the more she thought about it, she started to see how ‘wasting time’ all depends on how you view time and the purpose(s) for it.  Her thought process led her to ask some good questions, beginning with the one that had stopped her in her tracks:

  • Well, what is wrong with wasting time? Why do I view that negatively and use that kind of language?
  • Do I believe that we don’t ‘waste time’ here at home or would not if I homeschooled?
  • Is being productive ‘all the time’ actually good for my children?  Don’t they need some ‘down’ time, like I do?
  • In fact, is any time wasted in office settings, on the job?
  • Is my view of time universal, around the globe?

Then, in the providence of God, Anne picked up a book called The Yes Brain.

In it, the author described the different kinds of time children AND adults actually need to cultivate and maintain a healthy brain.  One category had to do with time for play; another was focused time for work or study. Then there was the kind of time necessary for us all to exercise our imagination or to meditate.  You know, the kind of ‘lost-in-thought’ ponderings that Westerners often categorize as ‘doing nothing’.

All this to illustrate not only the POWER but the GIFT of a good question.  Questions make room for new insights. Had the friend not responded to the mom’s assertion with a question, this mother would not have had space or motivation to evaluate her belief to see if it really was true!

So how can we remember to ask ourselves or someone else a question?

Look for assertions that you or others make.  In our climate, people are asserting unexamined opinions and beliefs left and right.  A well-timed, thoughtful question can often stop them in their tracks.  Most of us really don’t know WHY we believe what we do.

Don’t just think of the political or economic arenas, as important as they are. I find I’m WAY more excited about the potential impact of questions for personal growth. With God’s help, I want to develop habits of:

  • noticing what I’m thinking or saying to myself
  • wondering why I think something
  • examining what actually supports my belief, if anything!
  • determining if what I think is true.

What comes to mind as a first belief to question?

The abortion issue and missing compassion

31 May

We now read the New York Times Sunday paper.  It takes us 3 weeks to make our way through the articles and features.  I disagree with a some of what I read, but the writing is often excellent. I learn a lot and THINK hard.  Others’ contrary views certainly exercise my patience but sometimes they prove painful to tolerate kindly.

A self-proclaimed ‘abortion doula’ writes about the need to offer compassion for women who only want to make their own decisions, without judgment.

The author makes several remarkable assertions without reasons or statistics.  I do understand that her word budget probably limited her to around 700 words. But the danger in bald-faced statements is that the average UN-thinking Joe or Jane might swallow them down whole.

The most glaring paragraph offers these ‘facts’.

  • “When we are denied abortions, we are 3 times as likely to end up below the federal poverty line, compared to those who are able to get the abortions they want.”

I checked this ‘fact’ and found one study from which Sherman most likely drew.  The women supposedly denied abortions in this study numbered 182.  My first question focused on whether 182 is a significantly large enough sample size from which to draw valid conclusions.  Furthermore, I’m unclear whether the women in the study already lived below the poverty line before they became pregnant.  Doesn’t it make sense that after the birth of a baby, one’s ability/availability to hold down a job decreases?

  • “About 2/3 of people who have abortions are parents who want to give the children they already have the best life.”

How does she know what they intend for their other kids?  How does adding another child to the family automatically imply a degraded life for the older children? How is the one (assumed desire) related to the current condition (carrying another child)?

Finally the most dubious cited statistic:

  • “95% of women surveyed don’t regret their decisions, and it doesn’t affect our mental health.”

That statistic, I found, comes from one study of a carefully circumscribed group of women.  Here’s an analysis.  We should recognize how easy it is to find any study you want on the internet to back up your viewpoint.

So given the questionable reliability of ‘facts’ and studies out there in cyber space just what questions should a Logical Joe or Jane pose? Classic questions that fit the essay in question are:

  1. How do you know that?
  2. What is your evidence?

Questions provide you TIME to think and clearer understanding of your interlocutor’s point of view.  I find that people are more willing to engage when I ask questions.  My challenge is to REMEMBER to avoid direct statements and use the softer approach.

Finishing up what I saw in this essay, let me share its staggering conclusion:

The crux of the issue is not whether you would have an abortion yourself.  It’s whether you would stand in the way of someone else’s decision.”

Worded like this, readers are led to a conclusion that actually deflects them away from the essential issue of the life of the unborn to the arena of personal liberty.  And what about compassion, that ‘unconditional kindness’ the abortion doula says every woman who finds herself pregnant deserves?   Doesn’t the baby deserve compassion?  Where’s the kindness shown him or her?

Do you see the deeper moral question that has broad ramifications?

  • What do we do when ‘rights’ are in conflict with one another?  How do we decide between competing moral values?

Our Declaration of Independence promotes the protection of  ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’  How do we prioritize competing rights of life and liberty? What if someone’s right to life contradicts someone’s right to liberty?  Who gets to decide? What considerations inform the decision process?

Life is complex.  Certainly most issues are too layered to present anything coherent or rational in a tweet or even one 700-word opinion piece in the New York Times.  We need MORE thinkers.  And thinkers need to keep practicing their skills.

That’s why I read the New York Times Sunday paper!

How recognizing a fallacy helps sniff out a poor argument

10 May

All cows have four legs

My dog Fido has four legs

Therefore, Fido is a cow

Pastor John Piper explained in a rebroadcasted sermon how high school geometry had grounded him in clear thinking.  Mathematical laws, one leading to a next, trained him to use deductive reasoning.  With practice in drawing valid and true conclusions, he developed a ‘nose’ for truth, as he put it.  The practical effect for him has been to alert him to ‘fishy’ conclusions that stink, that is they don’t add up, given the premises provided.

Looking at the syllogism above, we notice something and we ‘smell’ something:

  1. Premises 1 & 2 are in fact TRUE – cows have 4 legs and dogs normally do as well
  2. But we know that the conclusion is FALSE.  Our dog Fido is NOT a cow.

For me, the quickest way to explain why our sense of ‘fishiness’ is spot on, is to draw out each premise.

Take All cows have 4 legs.

Step 1:  draw a circle – label it Creatures with 4 legs.

2 cirlces

Step 2: draw a smaller circle somewhere inside the first circle.  This represents ALL COWS.  Every cow that ever WAS, IS, WILL BE  is in that circle.  (assuming no handicapped cows)

Step 3:  Mark an X in the big circle called, Creatures with 4 legs.

Circles with X

Do you spot the problem?  We don’t know where to place Fido.  Does he belong in the circle of cows? or out of the circle of cows?  From the information given, the 2 premises, that cannot be determined.

Therefore, the conclusion is false.  Why?  Because the new premise that ‘Fido is a cow’ assumes too much.  It might be, but it might not be.

There is of course, a technical way of categorizing the validity of the syllogism.  But for me, just sketching it out is simplest.

When I taught in a classical Christian school in Yorktown, Va, logic was a mandatory class for 7th and 8th graders.  I instructed the younger students in the joy of spotting fallacies (much to the annoyance of their parents who thereafter had to be on their guard!).  The 8th graders were at the perfect age to begin to understand how to analyze and formulate good arguments.

I believe that this tool in clear thinking is invaluable to young teens AND adults.  This kind of knowledge is powerful and builds confidence when they head out into a world such as ours:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil: who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!  Isaiah 5: 20-21 (NASB)

 

 

 

 

When is a ‘fallacy’ not a fallacy?

26 Apr

“Just because it’s ALWAYS been that way doesn’t mean it HAS to be!”

Have you ever heard that remark?  Likely it comes from a person who doesn’t approve of a current rule or practice.  And it’s a true statement.

The ‘is/ought’ fallacy teaches us to watch out for people or books that assert something like:

  • This square baking dish is what Grandma used to bake her prize-winning meatloaves
  • Your meatloaf is too long for the dish
  • Therefore, you had better cut off one end of it to fit the pan.

But is that the only option for the next generation of meatloaf makers?  Since this pan IS the tool Grandma used in the past, does it follow that we OUGHT to use it today, in all circumstances?

No!  That is a perfect illustration of the ‘is/ought’ fallacy.  Just because something IS a certain way, doesn’t mean it OUGHT to be.  The ‘duh’ solution to the meatloaf is to find a larger pan!

But sometimes the truth requires an OUGHT to flow from an IS

I thought about this yesterday, reading about today’s ‘nones’, those nominal church-attenders who might have identified at one time as Christians.  Given the rapid upheavals in western society, they no longer see a benefit to attending church.  Yet some of them claim to be spiritual.  What they mean is that they don’t discount the immaterial. They just prefer to choose and select their own beliefs and practices.

What they DON’T subscribe to is a God:

  • who is personal
  • who requires His followers to submit to His authority

According to these ‘pickers and choosers of the spiritual’ the way God IS does NOT impose an OUGHT.  They would cry, “Fallacy!”

Why object to any ‘oughts’ flowing from a reality?  That’s easy!  Who wants a God who requires SOMETHING from you? The only way to reconcile a demanding God with one’s autonomous wishes is to deny such a God exists.  Voilà!  then no obligation remains. It can be inconvenient to believe in a personal God who:

  • creates and sustains EVERYTHING that exists and therefore is the rightful ‘owner’ of all
  • makes human beings in His image with the capacity for a personal relationship with him
  • as originator, has the RIGHT to require certain responses from his creation

Americans, of all ‘1st world’ people, are a peculiar bunch.  Their nation was birthed in rebellion.  They see themselves as a people who exercise self-government and ones who cherish individual rights.  Their national DNA pulses with that 18th century symbol of an angry snake ready to strike:

dont-tread-on-me-meaning

So what do we logical Janes and Joes do with this assessment?  Just keep the distinction handy in your toolkit.  What people criticize as a fallacy might not be. We’re called to pause and think and question whomever makes a claim.  And if you are a Christian logical Joe or Jane, more is expected of you.  God, through the apostle Peter, calls His children always to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in them, but to do so with GENTLENESS and RESPECT for the other person (1 Peter 3:15).

Question: What other ‘fallacy’ out there might not always be a fallacy? 

 

Who’s the one with a bias?

12 Apr

The email response greeted me with this first sentence:

“This site and its articles are extremely biased and on the verge of alt-right/tea party. It reminds me of Breitbart.   I have a hard time taking much of what they say seriously. ” 

I had sent a work colleague an essay about why the Swiss seem to encounter little to no terrorism in their country.  The author had posted her thoughts on a conservative website (Townhall).  Since this 8th-grade humanities teacher seeks to train his students to ask deeper questions, I thought he would appreciate the anomaly that Switzerland represents in a Europe menaced by terrorism.

I wasn’t prepared for his differing worldview, but I should have been given his youth and generational milieu and the fact that we teach in Asheville, NC.  Taken aback at first, I carefully chose my response.  Rewriting my comments in the form of questions (I reflected) might make it easier for him to read and accept my thoughts.

To his credit I realized he had indeed read the entire essay and given it some consideration. His comments bore that out.  So I complimented him on that, but asked him the logical question all of us should employ initially:  Why do you think that? (regarding his dismissive first couple of sentences)

Here is how I worded the rest of my response to his opening salvo: Why is that?  Shouldn’t we judge ideas on their merit?  I think that’s the genetic fallacy, to dismiss a viewpoint because of its source.

Continuing on gently, I spring-boarded off of his observations with some further thoughts.  In the end, I repeated my acknowledgement of his generous use of time DESPITE his skepticism about the ‘validity’ of the point of view.

What I re-learned from this encounter was this:

  • just as I and my husband and some like-minded friends believe the other side is ‘biased’, they also assume we are predisposed
  • there is no cause for fear when someone tries to marginalize one’s beliefs and reasons.  I probably know more than this young man.  I read a lot more and I’ve been at this clear thinking/reasoning work for years now.
  • asking questions is a safe and disarming approach in responding to what might FEEL like an attack

I’m grateful for the occasion to exercise some of my ‘logical gal’ skills.

 

It’s my right and I’m entitled to it!

22 Mar

Our culture is rife with ‘rights’ talk.  Just consider a few contemporary claims:

  • right to free health care
  • right to censor views one doesn’t like
  • right to end life whenever one wants
  • right to define oneself however one wants
  • right to approval, acceptance and approbation for one’s lifestyle choice
  • right to a certain income level

My husband and I were discussing the concept of rights the other night while fixing dinner.  He made the interesting point:

A right granted should not burden anyone else

As we discussed this idea, I recalled a statement I heard on a call-in show about Second Language Acquisition (SLA) that

All claims must be falsifiable to be legitimate.

The classic example is the Christian claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead

What would it take to disprove that, but a dead body identified as the crucified Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth!

So back to my husband’s premise that granting a right to someone should not burden someone else.  He and I started to tick off rights granted to Americans by the Constitution:

  • life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – we saw no harm or burden imposed on someone else
  • the Supreme Court granted women the right to choose an abortion – but even though LEGAL, it certainly harms many (the baby, the family members who wanted that baby to live, and not a few mothers themselves)
  • how about the right of a person who claims to be a different gender and wants to choose the bathroom most comfortable to him/her? – does that harm anyone?  Yes! the biological bearers of the gender who don’t want to share a public bathroom with someone born a different gender

What about environment?  Are we entitled to live in a smoke-free or perfume-free or a ‘differing viewpoint-free zone’?

If I want to smoke a cigarette, which is legal, should I be free to smoke where I want?  Is that a right or a privilege?  I could argue that it is included in my right to pursue happiness.

But what if you want to occupy that same spot and NOT have to smell my smoke, does that mean you can make me leave?  Is someone harmed there?

This gets tricky and requires thoughtfulness. If two people are required to work or live in a spot (like prison or the military) then a compromise can be worked out to accommodate someone’s privilege of smoking with someone’s preference (or health-related necessity) to work/sleep in a smoke-free area.

What about the right to a free education?    The Bill of Rights handles that and other rights not enumerated by the Constitution by leaving them to the states to handle.  The wording goes like this: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Can you think of a ‘right’ that might be justifiable and one that brings harm to someone?   Of course we should define our term ‘harm’.  I can foresee the challenge such an exercise in clarity might be.  Bringing a group of people to consensus over an acceptable definition of ‘harm’ would take a while.

No small task for sure, but once we gain agreement on the meaning of our principle term, then we can turn attention, to let’s say, the 9th amendment and put those ‘granted rights’ up against the claim that granting a right should do no harm.  Take a look at how the Supreme Court has used this amendment.

Amendment 9 of the Constitution

With just a short look at a few rights, I do think that my husband’s premise that not harm should be done when granting a right to someone.

What do you think?

Add your thoughts in the comment section and let’s see if my husband’s claim stands or can be defeated by a counter-example.

Your claim is arrogant!

17 Aug

“You’re arrogant!” or “That’s arrogant!”

Have you ever experienced this kind of attack following your stated view on a topic?

Recently while listening to a podcast, I heard about just such an encounter.  Listening to the details prompted me to think through how I might effectively respond, all the while employing a calm demeanor.  In my mind, I role-played a hypothetical conversation.

The podcaster relating the story had stated that ‘old-earth creationists’ were not evolutionists  (where the term evolution refers to a non-directed process of natural selection).

The man who disagreed then flung back the barb, “That’s arrogant!”

In the shock and heat of the moment, I can envisage how tempting it would be automatically to deny the hubris of one’s original statement – without thinking!   But that would be to succumb to a fallacy trap.  The attacker with this comeback has in effect employed a Red Herring fallacy, by sidestepping the truth or falsity of the premise he disputes.

If you can picture throwing an angry dog a piece of meat or fish to distract him from chasing you, then you understand the basic concept of the Red Herring.

It is immaterial whether the assertion ‘S is P’ is arrogant or modest. Premises are either TRUE or FALSE! A person may appear arrogant in how he presents a claim.  But to label a claim as arrogant is actually a category error.

What our name-caller actually is doing is making an entirely different assertion, one that is implicit:

Your claim is arrogant!  = People who hold your view are arrogant.

I don’t know if a calm discussion would be even possible, but IF it were feasible, this is how I imagined my follow-on question to the attack might unfold:

Me:  So let me see if I understand.  You are saying that my statement ‘Old-earth creationists’ are not evolutionists. indicates arrogance on my part?  Why is that arrogant? Isn’t what matters whether my premise is TRUE or NOT TRUE?

And why would not YOUR view that ‘old-earth creationists’ are evolutionists be equally arrogant, given your logic?

I can’t predict the rest of the conversation, but I wouldn’t bet on my phantom interlocutor settling down into a calm and rational discussion.  The accusation of ‘Arrogance!’ probably indicates an angry or heated speaker.  And that’s not an appropriate environment for exchanging rational ideas.

But having thought through how I might handle such a charge did strengthen my confidence!  Just as important as being equipped with the right knowledge IS our commitment to speaking with respect for the other human being.  After all, he or she is an image-bearer of our Creator.