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Meaningful definitions require boundaries

19 Oct

human-animal-stem-cell-research

Scientists at the National Institutes for Health apparently are talking about lifting a ban on research that would co-mingle human stem cells with animal embryos.

Human-Animal Embryo Stem Cell Research

Listening to a discussion about this back in August, the commentator who mentioned this new development posed the question:

  • What does it mean to be human?  If you have 99% human DNA and 1 % ‘other’, are you still considered human?

In other words, “How do we define the term, HUMAN?”

What came to mind was how TODAY, we seem to be playing fast and easy with definitions.

Two examples come to mind:

1a. Tolerance once referred to the restraining civil behavior between two or more people who held and articulated differing and/or contradictory beliefs and positions.  If you think about, one doesn’t tolerate what one find acceptable, one AGREES with it.  By definition, the ‘classic’ view of tolerance presupposes contrary views.

1b. Tolerance today seems to require that a ‘minority, despicable viewpoint’ be shut down, shamed and disbarred from the discussion table.

The term has remained the same, but the concept has changed.

2a. Marriage once referred to the legal union between one suitable (not a close relative) man and one suitable woman of appropriate age.

2b. Marriage today refers to a state-granted status that recognizes a two-person, gender-indifferent union with the same legal rights of a married biological male and female.  (A temporary quantity and constituent view – down the road who knows how many humans and what/who else might fit into this new definition!)

Logical friends, definitions matter!!!

These are but two current examples.

Think about other terms in the area of religion, for example:  God’s love, Faith in God or Prayer.  These ALSO seem to stand for a multiplicity of concepts.  So what exactly is the relationship between TERM and CONCEPT?

First of all, a concept is the immaterial idea of something one pictures, the image of which one holds in his head.  A concept can indicate something real or imagined like a tree or a unicorn. A term is the written or verbal name we give to that concept.

Terms can be confusing because the same term can refer to different concepts.  Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason teaches that before ANY discussion about a topic can ensue, two people must clarify and agree on the definition of terms used.  Conversational partners must know and state the concepts they have in mind when each employs a term.

So back to those religious terms I mentioned. Today, in Christianity, people seem to talk with ease and certitude about ‘the love of God’ or they announce: ‘I believe in God’ or ‘I pray’.  We cannot assume that they and we are picturing the same thing.  As the fox in Le Petit Prince says ‘Words are the source of misunderstandings.’

As the social climate across the literate world grows more fractured and sharp, logical and reasoning men and women CAN make a difference by gently asking the clarifying questions that will guide others to think about what they mean.

Who knows?   In bringing a concept to light, in employing the discipline of articulating WHAT WE MEAN, someone or even we ourselves might decide to modify what we believe. Not a bad result. For thinking is never wasted effort or time.

 

 

Underpinnings of logical thought

4 May

Here’s an argument:

The biblical worldview is the optimal worldview to support logic because it best explains why we can declare a premise to be either TRUE or FALSE.

True or false

Let me explain what I mean.  To use the tools of logic, we must assume several conditions about the building blocks of an argument.  At its most basic analysis, there are 3 component parts to an argument:

-terms (individual words or phrases that represent a concept like: chocolate ice cream or dogs)

-premises (statements that provide a judgment about a concept like: red hair is thick or cats are quirky)

-syllogisms (the ensemble of at least 2 premises and the conclusion that follows like:  PREMISE 1 – All boys are strong  PREMISE 2 – Joe is a boy  CONCLUSION – Joe is strong)

When evaluating terms, premises and syllogisms, logicians use this measurement:

  • terms are either clear or ambiguous (to the degree that they unequivocally and explicitly describe a concept)
  • premises are either true or false (to the degree they accurately match reality)
  • syllogisms are either valid or invalid (to the degree they follow the ‘rules’ of logic)

So why do I make the claim that the biblical worldview should be adopted in order to use logic?  If I understand Darwinian naturalism or materialism correctly, truth is not something that is necessary.  The species survives and continues by adapting. So what is ‘good’ for a population is what ensures its ongoing viability.  That MIGHT intersect with truth, but it does not depend on truth.

When a materialist or naturalist argues for his point of view, he borrows the concept of truth to advance a point of view. And in conversation with said materialist, if we avoid pointing out the inconsistency between her beliefs and practices we are being gracious. But there might be an occasion gently to point out this ‘inconvenient truth’.  I grow more confident when I write out my thoughts regarding this assumption about logic.

You might be thinking, what is the linkage between a biblical worldview and truth?  Good question!  Christians believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired account of God’s creation and rescue of a people He loves.  The very character and nature of God is grounded on personal attributes such as His:

  • truthfulness
  • immutability
  • eternality
  • goodness
  • wisdom
  • infinite power and knowledge

Christians believe in absolute truth because of who God is, an immaterial being who defines and models perfect truth. The evidence we have that God is true and speaks truth is that the Bible corresponds to reality.  Vast numbers of written records document both the historical and the archeological reliability of most of the Bible including the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

Therefore, without going into that kind of detail, I argue that the use of logic rests on the presupposition that truth exists.  And the only worldview that supports THAT belief is the biblical one.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Logical Gal ponders the wisdom of setting your own standards

3 Jun

Stephen Colbert’s advice to Wake Forest University’s Class of 2015 included this gem:

“I hope you find the courage to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong and then please expect as much of the world around you. Try to make the world good according to your standards.”

For a better sense of the context, here’s a report of his speech – Here’s the link

So what are we supposed to make of this man’s distilled life lesson and advice?  What came to mind immediately was the fact that whoever makes an assertion has the responsibility to defend his or her point.  Often no one questions our sound bytes or pronouncements. We live in a fast world.  Thinking takes too much time, apparently.  Where to start???

Watching Greg Koukl model effective questioning in this Video teaching Tactics in Defending your Faith, I’ve learned that you can help someone reason through his assertions and see the outworking of his conclusions.  You do this by asking questions that get the person to look closely at what might happen if someone took seriously her point.  You walk with ‘asserters’ until they actually arrive at conclusions that are not sustainable or acceptable even to them.

So if I were face to face with Mr. Colbert I might ask him a few questions like:

  • Besides employing courage, how does one decide what is right and what is wrong?
  • What happens if your ‘right’ is my ‘wrong’?  Who gets the final say?  Who arbitrates?
  • Who gets to define the concept of ‘good‘ in that 2nd sentence quoted above?
  • What would our world look like if EVERYONE of these 2015 graduates you have addressed takes your advice and embarks on ‘trying to make’ the world ‘good’ according to his or her standards?
  • Aren’t radical Islamic groups trying to do just that?  Is force justified? How far do we allow fellow citizens to go in ‘making’ the world ‘good’?

For the amount they probably payed Stephen Colbert, I hope Wake Forest was satisfied with their choice of commencement speaker!

Stephen Colbert

Logical Gal – ‘But it’s in the Bible!’

25 Mar

Polygamy in the bible

A discussion I overheard reminded me of a useful distinction, that of what is normative versus what is descriptive.  The term normative contains the concept of norms or prescribed ways of doing things.  Descriptive points to information, the way things are.

Logicians have a name for this error in reasoning, it’s called the Is-Ought Fallacy.  The thinking goes like this:

  • The way things ARE is the way they SHOULD be.

That’s just plain stupid. All one has to do is provide a counter-example.  Sex-trafficking is an unfortunate fact. Should that continue? Persecution of Christians is a fact….. genocide is a fact…bureaucratic waste is a fact.  Surely we don’t countenance those circumstances just because ‘that’s the way life is in 2015!’

An entire arena where these two concepts of what is descriptive (the way things are) versus what is normative (the way things ought to be) often gets muddled is the Bible.  Someone with an agenda of showing how the Bible is not relevant for contemporary culture might argue about one particular issue this way:

  • How come you’re so committed to marriage being a life-long covenant between one man and one woman?  Why even in the Bible some of those heroes of the faith were polygamous.  Didn’t the patriarch Abraham have multiply wives?  And what about his grandson Jacob?
  • Jesus didn’t own anything; therefore, neither should Christians!

If anything, the Bible unabashedly narrates shameful foibles, backsliding, and dysfunctional family sin.  And if that weren’t enough, we are served up accounts of evil kings and pompous religious leaders.  And on the other side, it IS true that the Bible gloriously showcases courageous acts of faith by men and women such as Gideon, Ruth, Paul and Mary as well as Jesus, the Son of God.  But does it necessarily follow that the Bible is telling us is ‘Be a Daniel, Be a Joshua, Be a Jesus’? Might the Bible through all these accounts be pointing to what God has done?  Yes, there are principles of righteous living that we can follow.  Nevertheless, we must be careful to sort out whom or what is being held up as part of the overall meta-narrative or grand story from actual commands that we are to follow.

A discerning reader will apply the correct lens when studying God’s Word.  Distinguishing whether a narrative is giving a rundown of what happened OR whether it is promoting a way of life or specific behavior is key.

Logical Gal – what do you believe?

3 Dec

It was a tense moment – Halloween morning at breakfast with some colleagues.  We teachers were finishing our coffee in the lobby of a hotel where our 8th graders had fallen into bed after a full day (morning college visit, afternoon caving and evening in Chattanooga).

The Spanish teacher proudly showed off her festive orange and black socks and mentioned that she loved Halloween.  When I asked her why, she attributed her fondness for the holiday to both her and her mom’s sensitivity to the spiritual.

When I casually responded, ‘Oh, so you believe in the spiritual dimension of life?‘ it didn’t take her long to move from my commenting on the historical basis for Christianity to her objections to Christianity’s claim to be the one true religion.  The secular history and science teachers joined in to draw the distinction between fact and belief when I attempted to point out the evidence for Jesus and His resurrection.

Mr. Science clarified the difference between fact and belief.  According to his way of thinking, the two have nothing in common.  He illustrated this division with an illustration taken from family life.  It went like this:  Whereas he might believe that his role as dad is the most important function he fulfills in his life, it was just a belief and had nothing to do with truth.  “That’s a belief and is miles apart from facts like the Law of Gravity!

science v faith

Had there been time, I would have loved to say that one has to have facts or knowledge and from them one draws a conclusion based on some presuppositions or assumptions.  Facts (aka truth) drive or inform beliefs.  Here’s how I think the process works:

My colleague has gathered data (facts) from….

  • reading books about parenting
  • talking to other dads
  • absorbing hard-earned wisdom gleaned from previous generations
  • his own personal experiences in parenting

And based on presuppositions like:

  • my intuitions are trustworthy
  • what I read and what others tell me is reliable
  • time with my children is an investment that has the power to shape them

……he has formed a belief that parenting is his most important job.

The credibility of the Law of Gravity is founded on the same principles, isn’t it?

Law of Gravity

  • scientists have gathered data from observations and
  • they trust the data AND their skills

Why is there such animus about belief when applied to Christianity? After all, we gather evidence from those concrete facts; then we formulate a hypothesis that has the power to account for all the details.

Maybe the term ‘belief’ appears weak and unscientific because it’s used equally to communicate ideas as varied as:

  • I believe in Santa Claus
  • I believe in the Tooth Fairy
  • I believe in miracles
  • I believe in myself
  • I believe in ghosts
  • I believe in God, the Father Almighty….

Two dictionary entries for ‘belief’ describe both

  • an acceptance of a statement as true
  • having confidence in something

Recently I’ve come across powerful ways to describe a belief.  They feel weightier and appear less hackneyed:

  • “Evidence supports that X is true” (this corresponds to the 1st definition of belief)
  • “I trust X” (matching the second sense of the term above)

My discussion with colleagues just reinforces in my mind that our choice of words is critical to making a case for whatever our point of view is.  Words matter!

Obviously my short discourse with those fellow teachers on Halloween day didn’t land anywhere substantial because we could devote only about 4 minutes before we had to herd kids.  Making a case for any point of view TAKES TIME. And our culture is so rushed, that reasoned, thoughtful and calm discussion rarely happens!

But…it pays to be prepared and think through our word choice ahead of time.  As God instructs us through the apostle Peter, we Christians should

  • Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)