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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.

 

Is this true?

14 Dec

“Virtue is the happy medium between two extremes.” La vertu est le juste milieu entre deux vices.

I read Aristotle’s advice in a post by an American woman living in France.  And it caught my attention.  At first blush, it seems ‘reasonable’.  Who wants to argue with avoiding extremes?

But then I thought, what if both the extremes are irrational?  Wouldn’t that indicate that all the points in between were as well? Would it follow that virtue be found half way between the two extremes?

For example:

Either you can spend all your time playing video games or you can spend all your time pursuing extreme sports.

Would Aristotle really advocate spending HALF one’s time amusing oneself with virtual reality and the other half with high-adventure?

Just a few moments of reflection provide evidence that life is BEST lived in reflecting deeply.  Unfortunately we are a rushing culture, one apparently content with oft-meaningless sound bytes.  A good number of people don’t take time to think and reason. Pondering takes leisure, curiosity and time.  Recall that the classical definition of leisure has little to do with ‘free time filled by activity’.  Instead it’s a “spiritual and mental attitude, a state of inward calm, contemplation, serenity and openness”

A new year is coming and if you are the resolution-making kind of logical Joe or Jane, how about challenging yourself to eliminate one extra-curricular activity in your week to make room for some guilt-free sitting and thinking. Your body and soul would certainly benefit and maybe your neighbor as well!

Understanding someone’s grounds

16 Nov

“Jesus went around doing good, healing the sick and feeding the hungry and blessing those who gave to the poor,” pointed out an advocate for social justice issues as primary.

The man in conversation with her countered from a teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “Jesus illuminated His commitment to the Law when he taught that we should not murder! And abortion is the unlawful taking of life from the innocent!”

I overheard this discussion during an October radio conversation between two Christians explaining why they were voting differently; the first one for Hillary Clinton and the second speaker for Donald Trump. Each maintained that the party of his and her candidate best supported the teaching of Jesus.

Clearly, what we focus on (as well as what we don’t look at or see) guides our beliefs and subsequent actions.

After 90 minutes of back and forth explanations, neither person had changed his/her mind.  But for me the discussion was fruitful because I could see:

  • each person advanced sincerely-held views, supported by an accurate understanding of a portion of Scripture.

The issue, as far as I can discern, seems to point to this question:

  • What do American citizens believe the Constitution delegates to the federal government to handle?
  • Which problems/situations should fall under the purview of state, local or non-governmental groups of people and individuals?

I don’t know how to reconcile the views any other way than what our Founding Fathers left in place for us: a representative republic, undergirded by a written constitution that allows for change.  Whether you are upset or relieved with the results from 8 November, the system worked. No one is ever COMPLETELY satisfied, but that FACT is woven into the very fabric of our constitution.  Our system is not perfect, but it beats many alternatives!

Just for the record, when I reflect on Jesus’ marching orders, it appears clear that we, his followers, are commanded:

  • to make disciples among all the people groups
  • to baptize them in the name of the Triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)
  • and to teach them to do all that He, Jesus commanded, including making disciples……

PS: I see this command as an outworking of the Greatest Command to ‘Love God and to Love Neighbor’.  (For we show we love God IF we obey Him.  And what greater way IS THERE to love our neighbor than to care for their eternal, forever condition?)

 

 

Your questions matter!

26 Oct

Control and certainty appeal to 21st century earthlings.

Is predictability always a good thing? Just how much value CAN a world of no doubts offer?

Looking at my own life, I know that routine and a state of ‘no surprises’ make me FEEL safe.

That safety, however, is sometimes illusionary.  Consider a ‘normal’ where status quo is dangerous to our health.  Against better judgment, we might still choose what the familiar. ‘They‘ say this bent to the customary translates into women likely to return to a relationship with a known abuser.  A kind of ‘better the devil you know’ reflex.

What I’m suggesting as a healthy alternative is a modus operandi that goes beyond a degree of comfort.  Bypassing certainty, this approach employs careful questions about what is NOT known.  The byproduct?  a potential wealth of new knowledge.

Good teachers borrow from the past interactive habits of Socrates and Jesus to guide students to ask questions and think their way to new awareness.  Haven’t you found that you are more likely to swallow and accept a thought you generate rather than one imposed from someone else?

Kim Brooks, a 2000 alumna from the University of Virginia, writes primarily from her questions, rather than from what she knows.  In an interview for a recent article in UVa’s alumni magazine, she describes how FREEING and relief-providing this way of approaching a new book can be.

What would our schools, businesses and governmental agencies be like if constituents felt free to admit uncertainty about solutions?  Wouldn’t the entire planet heave a sigh of relief, having dumped the weight of false pride that absorbs so much energy?

Blue-haired old ladies or reasoning from experience

5 Oct

 

mimi-with-blue-hair-and-maria-age-8  I was at my hairdresser the other day and our conversation turned to her many regulars, mostly old ladies who come weekly for a wash and a set.  I told her about Mimi, my grandmother, and her blue hair.  How she never seemed to be pleased with the color each time she came home from the beauty shop.

I then casually asked Lisa, “You probably don’t even know about blue hair for little old ladies!”  She came back right away with, “Oh, yes I do!  In fact, I regularly have blue-haired elderly clients.”

After recovering from my shock that blue-haired OLD ladies still existed, I decided to spring that news on my middle school students.  My ‘show and tell’ venture, using the above picture, brought many questions.

I think because I could produce a photo, no one boldly proclaimed, “Well, I’ve never seen a blue-haired little old lady.  I don’t believe you!”

But that is exactly how most people identify truth in our culture today.  Unless they have personal experience of something, or have heard about it from their friends and contacts, they don’t believe it.

Kind of arrogant, don’t you think?

What makes someone think that he can trust his experience and personal knowledge enough?  Does not that seem a bit presumptuous to dare to declare a universal truth, one that applies across the board?  Are you that infallible?

In logic, there are statements or premises that, if true, apply to all members of the subject of the premise.  We call that a ‘universal’. An example is:

  • All men are mortal

If this statement is true, then every member of the ‘man’ family must be mortal.

If this feature does not apply to every single unit of the subject, then at most one can say:

  • Some men are mortal

The same logic laws apply to the negative versions of these statements:

  • No men are mortal is a universal assertion
  • Some men are not mortal is a particular premise

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of us are relying on self-centered sloppy thinking in making truth claims. Consider the following types of generic statements:

  • “I’ve never heard of X.  I just can’t believe X exists.  For surely, if it did, then I would have encountered some mention of it?”
  • “No one I know of thinks that.  I don’t believe it.”

That’s as ridiculous as us saying, ‘I’ve never experienced echolocation (bees use of magnetic cues to travel), so I don’t believe in it.’

Or, ‘I’ve never seen God, so He isn’t real’.  Allegedly one of the Soviet cosmonauts boasted like that upon returning from orbit.

And just this morning I read a Tim Keller quote.  He’s pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan: “Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.”

As our American culture polarizes more, may we be slow to proclaim these sweeping universal generalizations with a tone of authority and pursue the more humble reasoning of the particular.

I don’t want to be like the little boy in CS Lewis’ mud pie example, taken from his essay The Weight of Glory:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

 

 

Presuppositions and discontent

3 Aug

Premise:

Most women at my age and stage in life have retired from full-time work

Conclusion

I should be retired from full-time work

Like most teachers who are relishing their summer sabbatical, I’ve been struggling with not wanting to go back to school in August. Turning 59 has added weight to my annual reluctance return to the classroom.

Here’s the problem:

Christians are called by God to be content in all the situations He places them. So on top of my longing for permanent summer, I recognize this grumbly attitude is sin. In essence, I’m saying to God: Your assignment for me is wrong!

As a logical gal, I’ve been working to reorder my thinking. This labor has borne fruit.

It dawned on me the other day that besides the missing first premise, I have an unspoken presupposition. Let me order my though process and fill in for you AND me what was just floating in the back of my mind:

Presupp: Retirement is both good and normal in America

Premise 1: Most workingwomen in their late 50s retire from full-time work

Premise 2: I am approaching 60

Conclusion: It would be both good and normal for me to retire NOW!

In articulating what lay behind my ‘unmet expectation’ I saw the problem!

Where did I get the idea:

  • that God’s plan for his people is to retire?
  • or that retirement is actually GOOD for me?

The point of this? Thinking through and pinning down just what grounds our feelings enables us to analyze whether what we believe is in fact TRUE.

Besides, I should know better than to indulge in that kind of discontent. God has built up a track record of meeting my needs. The most recent occasion when God came through was last winter when my husband dealt with some health issues. The verse I clung through some real suffering was Psalm 84:11:

 No good thing does the Lord withhold from those whose way is upright.

 That fact and promise allowed me to trust God’s character and plans for us when Mike was ill.

Startling, isn’t it, that until now I hadn’t transferred over God’s Word to my job as a 10-month schoolteacher.

If I am still ‘having to’ teach at age 59, then it must be because God considers it GOOD for me.

And with that, I can begin to anticipate with a lighter heart the good He has planned for this new school year.

How do you know you exist?

13 Jul

Penseur  The math whiz and philosopher, René Descartes, sought to clarify his doubt and his knowledge.  So he pushed back as far as he could to what he could know for sure.  Most people can quote part of his argument:

I think, therefore I am

As many of you know, he left out the major premise.  No ‘doubt’ that it resided in his mind, but seemed too obvious to mention.  That’s the nature of an enthymeme, an unspoken premise or conclusion.

For example:

Sally pipes up with enthusiasm: I invited our neighbors to join us this Saturday for a picnic in the park!

Sam responds sourly: Great, now we can count on it raining this Saturday!

What’s the unspoken premise?

  • It always rains when we plan a picnic in the park!

Back to Descartes and his implicit assumption supporting ‘I think, therefore I am’

It has to be: All creatures that think exist.  So the complete syllogism would look like this:

P1 – All who think are

P2 – I think

C – Therefore, I am

What brought to mind Descartes’ foundation for knowing or epistemological basis for knowledge was a different origin for the assurance of one’s existence.

While listening to a podcast, I heard an African Christian talk about what anchors him in life. He talked about community as being this source.  He explained:

  • Because the community is the primary building block of humanity, each of us derives his or her own sense of self

His enthymeme would go like this: We are, therefore I am!

And by fleshing it out with the implicit major premise, we have:

P1: If there is a communal unit, then individuals can fully have their being

P2: There is a community in which I a recognized member

C: Therefore, I exist as a full human being

Thinking about and contrasting Descartes’ individualistic enlightenment view with this African brother’s sense of himself as part of a larger group strengthened my growing view that it is not good for man or woman to be alone.  After all, the one true God is a community of 3-in-1, a Triune Happy Godhead.  And if we are made in His image, then to feel fully alive and to function with health, we need to anchor ourselves in community with other people.

I need not be intimidated by famous thinkers and learned philosophers.  The simplest of men and women often are the wisest.