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Thinking about middle-schoolers, moral choices, and truth

29 Oct

 

The topic of the workshop focused on advisory programs run by many middle schools.  Ideally, no more than 6-10 students are assigned to a teacher who mentors these 11-to-14-year-olds during the turbulent years of their early adolescence.

Two skills the presenters emphasized as crucial for the development of youth were a) developing perspective and b) managing one’s emotions.  The overall premise was that social-emotional awareness and strengthening were foundational to and preceded academic success.

One or two barely perceptible groans slipped out of from among us attendees as the co-presenters ‘invited’ participants to leave their chairs and come forward to experience an activity designed to broaden perspective.

Here’s the scenario:  You’re on your way to work and you get into a minor traffic accident with another vehicle. Clearly, it’s the other driver’s fault.  She turns out to be a 95-year-old lady who pleads with you to ‘just exchange insurance information’ and NOT call the police.  For she is sure her license will be revoked.  Fortunately, no one is hurt, but your bumper is damaged.  What do you do?

We were directed to move to one side of the room or the other.  Those who would call the police stepped to the left and those who heeded the elderly woman’s plea chose the right.  As I stepped leftward, some of the others called out in jest, “heartless!”

The facilitator then called for a volunteer from the ‘compassionate’ side to explain his decision.  And then someone from the ‘cold-hearted’ side (my labeling) was invited to respond empathetically to the reasoning just articulated.

“I have an elderly dad and I know how significant it is to lose this last vestige of independence!” flowed one person’s reasoning.  Surely a compelling reason NOT to turn in this driver.

When it was the turn of someone on my side, one gal mentioned that although no one was hurt THIS time, someone very likely might be injured or even killed next time.  An equally compelling reason, for surely that elderly driver would not want to injure or kill someone.  A burden like that would be FAR worse than growing more dependent on others for help with running errands.

This activity was eye-opening and reinforced the notion that sincere people have very good reasons for their decisions.  I don’t dispute that at all.  But what the facilitators presented as the goal of the exercise caused me to ponder a possible unintended consequence, hence this post.

One of the gals reminded us of how middle-schoolers tend toward concrete, black and white reasoning.  The middle school years are when they need to learn that there are shades of grey.   She continued to say, “This is all part of growing more aware of differing perspectives, which grows compassion and empathy toward others.”

I completely agree that we must be open to the reality that others don’t think like we do.  And to expect the world to draw the same conclusions as I do is naive and self-centered.  Yet, I did wonder if our young teens might be led to the following kind of thinking:

  • Recognizing differing viewpoints means everyone has a ‘valid’ reason for why he or she thinks the way they do. (And ‘valid’ as a concept is often taken to mean ‘true’)
  • In fact, as long as I have a reason for what I am doing, this grounding is sufficient to stop YOU from telling me I’m wrong.
  • And if I am right and you are right, then maybe there is no such thing as ultimate rightness or wrongness.

Now are those conclusions what we want our young people to hold?  That just because we build an understandable and ‘reason’-able foundation for how we think and choose a course of action, no one can call us out on our decision?  I don’t think so.

For example: Not confronting a friend when you notice her cheating on a test  (or not telling the teacher confidentially) might be the choice you make as a student BECAUSE you think you could lose your friend. And that reasoning might be ‘valid’ because your guiding principle is to do anything to maintain a friendship. But the choice you have selected IS wrong.

Do you think it is plausible that if young teens are trained to acknowledge possible perspectives, they might ALSO think that there are possible ‘truths’, all of which emerge from one’s ideas of what matters most?

We might be aiming to grow our students from that pre-adolescent view that all of life is binary, but there are indeed some things that ARE binary.  The law of non-contradiction backs that up.  A and non-A cannot both be true in the same way at the same time.

I’m not going to assume that the workshop presenters do NOT believe that some absolute truths do exist.  I am pointing out that we as educators and parents must be careful as we train the next generation to think clearly.  Yes, training in recognizing others’ perspectives IS important.  But we must not neglect to teach our kids that some decisions ARE right or wrong because some absolutes do exist.   A challenging endeavor, no doubt, in a culture where few ground values in God.

God uses logic and evidence

28 Jul

The handwritten note peaked out between flyers and magazines as if to say, ‘Don’t miss me!’  I scanned the return address, quickly recalling a former student from Virginia.

Along with the graduation announcement and senior photo, he wrote an account of the four years just completed at this classical Christian school in Virginia.  I rejoiced to read his description of the long-term effect our 8th-grade logic and reasoning curriculum had exerted on his life. Encouraged and guided in HOW to question and to think logically had sparked the fuse that propelled him out of complacency in his studies.  Apparently, after I departed, hunger to grow intellectually had gripped him, for he had gained vision and a purpose for learning.  That kind of feedback would energize anyone!

I do give thanks that a middle school logic class birthed this young man’s interest in knowledge and ideas. Certainly, students need to know how to reason well and express themselves clearly in order to advance in academics.  But clear thinking is vital to all of us, even Christians.

Why do I say Christians must know how to express themselves clearly and evaluate arguments accurately?  Contemporary society bombards believers with the false and disreputable view that faith and science or faith and reason are antithetical.  Not true! But we people of the Book must be taught how to gently push back with the truth.  And that takes information and practice, in essence: ‘skill’.

Humans are not born knowing how to reason well. But just like my former 8th-grade student, we all can be taught and equipped with some basic tools and ways of evaluating both written and spoken thoughts.

Why is it important for Christians to use logic? Just today, in Isaiah 41, I read verse after verse where God exhorted His people to argue or reason on behalf of the efficacy of idols. Consider these 3 verses, 21-23 (NLT):

Present the case for your idols,”
    says the Lord.
“Let them show what they can do,”
    says the King of Israel.
22 “Let them try to tell us what happened long ago
    so that we may consider the evidence.
Or let them tell us what the future holds,
    so we can know what’s going to happen.
23 Yes, tell us what will occur in the days ahead.
    Then we will know you are gods.
In fact, do anything—good or bad!
    Do something that will amaze and frighten us.” 

God doesn’t want His people to fall back on ‘blind faith’.  He wants us to believe Him, count on Him, trust Him and thus obey Him having gained true knowledge. Like scientists who collect, observe, and study evidence we also must reason to likely conclusions. Listen to how He chides Jacob in Isaiah 40:26-28, encouraging the people to consider the evidence He provides:

Look up into the heavens.
    Who created all the stars?
He brings them out like an army, one after another,
    calling each by its name.
Because of his great power and incomparable strength,
    not a single one is missing.
27 O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?
    O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights?
28 Have you never heard?
    Have you never understood?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of all the earth.

‘Use the eyes, ears, and mind I’ve given you!‘ God seems to argue. From God’s perspective and His true knowledge, only willful obstinacy and sinful desires can explain Jacob’s irrational behavior, since they had been given ample visual and historical proof.

My former logic student probably doesn’t know how learning (and subsequently teaching) logic also changed my life. I had never been taught to think or to reason. No course in grade school or college had guided me in how to begin to evaluate others’ assertions, let alone construct my own reason-based logical argument.  Those six years at that classical Christian school altered my life for good!  I grew into a better reader, listener, thinker, and writer.

Reading this young man’s sweet note re-ignited MY passion for advocating for thinking. As the bumper sticker trumpets:

Critical Thinking - national deficit

 

Self-exhortations to think and feel correctly

7 Jun

I continue to be absorbed by the Triune God’s commands to trust Him.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding! Proverbs 3:5a

Why do we hesitate to actually do just that?  It certainly isn’t due to a paucity of evidence in Scripture.  David repeatedly recommends confident reliance on Yahweh as the way to experience joy.

Oh, the joys of those who trust the Lord!  Psalm 40:4a

Looking inward I can only speculate that our reluctance is due to that universal insatiable hunger to control our lives!

Jesus’ counsel to His disciples in the upper room was:

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.  John 14:1

I re-read that verse this morning and then thought through to some ‘crunchy’ encouragement:

  • If Jesus tells me to do something, then as a Spirit-indwelt Christian, I CAN and MUST set myself to obey Him.
  • I am indeed a gal in union with Jesus, host to His Spirit
  • Therefore, not only am I capable of trusting God, I am obligated to.

I looked up ‘don’t let your heart be troubled’ in the Greek to see the original text.  ‘Troubled’ is rendered like this:  don’t suggest doubts to yourself.

What an apt description of how I feel when I am anxious and troubled.   I busy myself, imagining fears and ‘what-ifs,’ all the while discounting GOD!!

Here’s an example:  the other day I was called into my principal’s office.  My mind raced to think of a possible reason.  I’ve had ‘problems’ in the past when my ‘outspoken proselytizing’ was criticized and I was placed under scrutiny for a while.  I catalogued and scrolled through recent days seeking to locate any ‘event’.  I finally settled myself down by reminding myself that I have the Lord constantly with me, no matter what the trouble.  And I chose to trust Him.

That was relatively easy.  What is tougher to halt has been wrestling or ‘agitating my mind’ over something I said that I now regret.  As I thought about that episode, I spun out a ‘worst-case’ scenario in vivid color.  Enough to put a damper on my mood.  The ONLY way I could handle it was to confess the sin of betraying a confidence and to remind myself that God IS sovereign, even over my sin and mistakes.  Though I couldn’t undo what I had revealed, God could handle the outcome. Yes, there might be consequences that would be painful, but He would still be with me.  I confessed to God again and then sought relief in 1 John 1:9 and God’s promise to forgive confessed sin.

Three more times, I replayed the ‘regrettable’ incident and wondered what would happen.  True heart-troubling behavior. But Jesus’ word to His brothers is: DON’T!!!

Instead, trust God.  And remember that for those who belong to Jesus, there is NOW no condemnation.

I had confessed my sin and Jesus had already paid for it on the cross.  Settled.  This is how I talked about to Satan who seemed to fling the event back into my face.

This is the logic battle we fight.  And let me assure you, logic is not cold and analytical and disconnected from feelings.  I’m a thinker, but I’m also a feeler and I see the power in logically, REASONably applying God’s Word to my heart so I hold on to Truth and tame those emotions.

Brothers and sisters, logical Joes and Janes, we MUST harness our minds.  And if God says we can, then empowered by Jesus’ Spirit, we can and must. But it’s a daily, hourly battle.

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!

Why some people aren’t Christians or ‘Preppers’

24 May

Ps 78:32  

In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe.

I was listening to someone explain how & why he had lost faith in the God he had enjoyed throughout his childhood.  It happened like this: he fell in love with a gal in high school who wasn’t a Christian.  That relationship led him to question what he had been taught from church and the Bible about why there are some people who aren’t Christian. The evidence he saw around him upon investigation caused him to abandon confidence in the truth of the Bible and what he had learned at church.

As he detailed the events, he offered this distinction:

  • I don’t claim to prove whether God exists or not.  I just don’t believe in God.

Hearing him draw a contrast, I began to see that though intertwined, these are indeed two different issues. (You can listen to the interview or access his written account of the unraveling of his faith at the link above.)  What struck me was the following statement:

  • “I might be wrong about God. But what I’m sure of is that my search for the truth has been genuine and my beliefs are sincere.”

Some questions for thinking logical Joes and Janes:

  1. What added value does ‘genuine’ bring to one’s search for the truth?
  2. Does it matter if beliefs are ‘sincere’?

I’m bothered by his (and many others’ I encounter) almost cavalier, yet ‘sincere’, dismissal of just not believing in God.

Is Christianity a matter of choosing to believe?  And what does it mean to ‘not believe’, or even ‘to believe’ for that matter?  And what about truth?

We have a friend who is a ‘survivalist prepper’.  You’ve heard of those folks. They stockpile vast supplies of food, weapons and other necessary goods so they can live independently for weeks and even months in various apocalyptic scenarios.  My husband and I have not taken those kind of ‘what if’ precautions, although we do have some supplies in the event of a power outage due to storms.

Our friend, who seems very rational, might accuse us of living in denial if we say, “We don’t believe in the realistic eventuality which grounds your preparation.”

How SHOULD we respond to possible mega disaster events?  Just like how we should respond to the possibility of there being a real God.

The only questions are:

  • What evidence is there for a likely event for which we should increase our preparation?
  • What evidence is there for the supernatural God as described in the Christian Bible?

And given the evidence, what is the most reasonable (reason-based) response one should make?

A more honest conclusion on the part of the man who lost his faith would be:

  • I don’t like where the evidence points, because I don’t want to deal with the God that the Bible describes.
  • And as a fully-aware, but perhaps irrational adult, I deliberately choose to put off dealing with what will happen to me when I die

Friends, I don’t know about the odds of an apocalyptic scenario happening in my lifetime.  But what I do know is that there is a preponderance of evidence to give us a high degree of certainty that the triune God of the Bible (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is who He says He is as recorded in the 66 books of the Bible.  Therefore, I assert that we can TRUST the written record.

Only fools ignore that kind of certainty.

 

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)

 

 

 

 

Do humility and logic go together?

3 May

 

Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his way. Ps 25:8-9

Danger alert!

Logic can destroy humility.

How can that be?  I thought clear rational thinking was the entire point of this blog?

Yes, but learning to use skills of rational, deductive reasoning can cause us to grow smug. And SMUGNESS reeks of pride, arrogance and insufferableness.

I am a Biblical Christian who loves words and takes God’s Word seriously. Therefore, I believe whole-heartedly that the original text of the Bible is accurate and free from error. Why?  because I accept as true that God superintended its transmission to the authors through His divine Spirit. After all, the God who SPOKE the universe into being can certainly insure the accuracy of the original writings.  Beside that, He even says that His Word is true. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. John 17:17

Here’s the snare.  I can be arrogant and prideful when I think I am right.  Why do I think my views are correct?

  • Because I am a born-again Christian who has been given a new and different nature
  • Because I have learned some logical thinking principles, which empower me

God, however, isn’t content to leave me equipped with ‘right’ thinking, whether content or method.

The message God seems to be sending me through daily Bible reading and various prayers is that since we humans are created beings, there is NO way in God’s kingdom that we finite creatures can be all-seeing and all-knowing.  Those ‘omni’ qualities belong to God alone who is perfect.

How that should translate into my life and perhaps yours, if you agree, is that we can be wrong!  Maybe our conclusions from the evidence WE SEE and KNOW are rightly deduced, but the presupposition behind the syllogism is huge.  Namely that we see and know ALL the facts.  Could there be, perhaps, more to meet MY eye and awareness?

I work amidst kind and friendly colleagues in a middle school in Asheville, NC.  I’m the only one, I imagine, who doubts some of the ‘givens’ about global warming and its attendant problems.  What I’m trying to practice during our lunchtime, round-table informal chats is to listen for the BEST arguments to support their views regarding this climate situation.

Wanting to understand the other side depends first on the recognition that I might not be right. Oh, maybe given the circumstances and facts I’ve seen and read, I can make a case for what I believe and why.  But the possibility DOES exist that I might actually have a blind spot.

This God-worked humility in me, through life’s hardships and knocks and my daily reading of His Word, has initiated a less sure, less-exalted view of how ‘infallible’ or correct I might be.

I believe, that our world needs more ‘Logical Joes and Janes’, but ones who humble themselves enough to listen with care to others’ views.