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It’s the differences that count

1 Dec

Have you heard these remarks?:

  • We, humans, share 98.8% DNA with chimps; so of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct!
  • Rights for the transgendered is a civil right’s issue, just like it was for African-Americans!
  • Why is it NOT okay when a suicide bomber kills a bunch of innocent people, but the Bible condones Samson’s act of bringing down the crowded pavilion to which he was chained, killing many?

I heard this latter issue discussed the other day. The radio show host responded by putting aside the similarities and focusing instead on the differences.  As I was listening, I realized how often I had been subject to this confusion-producing tactic.  Obfuscation can occur when arguments highlight the points in common.  Often the distinctions and differences go unmentioned, yet they can quickly bring clarity to the controversy.

Trading on what appears to be a significant showstopper, the powerful appearance of similarities between examples, can be a case of redirection.  In informal logic, we name that fallacy the Red Herring.

What is a Red Herring?  It’s a tactic based on a tradition in northern coastal town markets (but likely to occur anywhere deception is needed).  Imagine a weekly farmer & fisherman’s market. A policeman spots a pickpocketer.  Blowing his whistle and gathering reinforcements, he sics his hound dogs after the thief.  Speeding by a fishmonger, our criminal grabs some mackerel or other fish and throws it behind him at the yapping dogs like a stick.  The animals change course, suddenly motivated by the prospect of a tasty treat!

So what are we to do when an opponent moves the spotlight to their defended case and how it’s no different than an example, 100 % accepted by current society?

Gently acknowledge the similarities; don’t dispute them.  But then YOU redirect the discussion to the fact that differences often are critical.   Offer this example:

  • Two glasses of clear liquid.  One contains nothing but water.  The other holds water and one teeny, tiny eye-dropper-measured partial milliliter of arsenic.  I think any reasonable person would say that the invisible drop of the poison WOULD make a difference!

If you can’t think on your feet to discern differences between examples, then ask your interlocutor some clarifying questions to uncover what he thinks the pertinent commonalities might be.  That will buy you some time so you can think clearly.  However, if nothing comes to mind, there is NO shame in saying with humility that you need some time to think about the issue he brought up.  Ask him if you all can revisit the topic in the near future.  The other person, someone whom God also created in His image with the ability to reason, will likely look at you with a tad more respect.  And that is gain.  Then go do your research and do follow up with him.  You’ll grow in your thinking skills and learn something about how your friend thinks.  And you might change his mind!

 

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.

 

Taking a text literally

13 Apr

Literalists get bad press and are viewed as simplistic and irrational at times.

I’ve recently heard both an agnostic, Stanley Fish, and a Christian, Hugh Ross, expound on how to take a text literally. And they are nothing but reasoned and intelligent men who document a sensible manner to textual analysis.  Both men are experts in their field: Fish is currently a visiting professor at the Cardozo School of Law in NYC.  Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist who founded and guides a Christian think tank called Reasons to Believe.

Our law professor is a practitioner of intentional originalism.  Simplified, this is a method of interpreting the Constitution regarding cases that come before a court.  One examines the meaning of the original words in the written text and searches to find the original intent of those who wrote the law or the Constitution. Antonin Scalia, the recently deceased Supreme Court justice was also an originalist. However, he placed more emphasis on the text and differed from Fish who gave more weight to the intent of the author(s).

Although this distinction is not that wide, what IS striking is the vast gulf in worldviews between Scalia and Fish.  Apparently some critics of originalism have criticized Justice Scalia’s originalism as just ‘code’ for conservative values. That’s a simplistic strawman fallacy, however, even per Fish.

The other misunderstood ‘smart man’ is Hugh Ross who as a Christian takes the Bible literally.  And he is an old earth creationist.  Yes, he does believe the universe was created in 6 days.  But what counts is the translation of the Hebrew term, ‘day’. As Ross explains, Hebrew uses a small vocabulary compared to English. Here’s what Wikipedia writes:

Although it is commonly rendered as day in English translations, the word yom has several literal definitions: [1]

  • Period of light (as contrasted with the period of darkness),
  • Period of twenty-four hours
  • General term for time
  • Point of time
  • Sunrise to sunset
  • Sunset to next sunset
  • A year (in the plural; I Sam 27:7; Ex 13:10, etc.)
  • Time period of unspecified length.
  • A long, but finite span of time – ageepochseason.

To determine the appropriate literal meaning for words in Genesis, one has to look at the context and reasonably (based on REASON) evaluate which meaning best fits the context. Yes, this is a humble undertaking, but not beyond the abilities God has given us and redeemed for His use.

Here’s a clue for Hugh Ross that Yom means an epoch or long time, his view. He points to the words ‘evening….morning, the first day‘ and makes the obvious observation that until Day 4, there IS no sun, hence no 24-hour rotation of the earth.  Look at the text below:

Genesis 1:3-5

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

What do you make, then, of the words ‘evening….morning’?  Dr. Hugh Ross offers the following, as what he thinks could very well have been the intention of the author, God:

  • ‘evening and morning’ are used to communicate the start and the end of a period of time

In the evangelical world, there are Christians who self-identify as ‘young earth creationists’.  From some of the criticisms I’ve heard leveled at their ‘old earth creationist’ brothers and sisters, these Christians FEAR that assenting to ‘an old earth creation model’ smuggles in an accompanying assent to Darwinian evolution.  I can understand that fear, but I believe it is unfounded and not reasonable. These believers are acting more like liberal legislators or judges who fear that originalism might open the door to conservative values.

These differing approaches to finding truth DO encourage me in one way.  They showcase that most folks really do believe and function in a world of values and truth. (good, bad, right, wrong…). And the fact that people hold differing worldviews does not prevent them from agreeing on certain principles.

 

 

 

Related terms differ enormously

17 Feb

Do a few letters make a difference?

small things big difference

You betcha!  The other day I listened to a commentator point out the distinction between what is ‘accepted’ by our culture and what is ‘acceptable’ by God.

The difference between these two concepts is akin to the idea of ‘mores’ versus ‘ethics’.

Mores refers to the practices of a culture at large.  But ‘ethics’ has in mind larger guiding principles, such as what is the good, the true and the beautiful.

Unfortunately our American culture seems to operate under this reasoning:

  • All practices that are legal and accepted by the majority are acceptable and right for us to do
  • Abortion is legal and accepted by the majority
  • Therefore, abortion is acceptable and right for us to do

Another way of framing the current thinking might be:

  • All practices the majority of a group engage in (what’s accepted by the group) are acceptable
  • The majority of Americans support autonomy when it comes to their own bodies
  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide are examples of decisions that the majority see as belonging to the individual alone
  • Therefore, euthanasia and assisted suicide are acceptable

Of course, the question left unaddressed is:

Who else might be entitled to judge the rightness, the ‘oughtness’ or acceptability of a practice?

The One who created humans would be a good place to start!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Does reason top all considerations?

7 Oct

If you ask people to distinguish features that mark human beings as different from the animal kingdom, most would respond first that it is our self-awareness or our ability to think and to reason that sets us apart from other creatures.  For example:

  • The power of reason enables us to go against instinct and dash INTO a burning building to rescue a child.
  • The power of reason enables us to subdue passions and wrong feelings and choose the better way and say NO to MORE chocolate or another glass of wine!
  • Self-awareness allows us to learn from past experiences (we hope!) and design a more beneficial course of action

So do we or should we default to clear, rational thinking at all times?  Do decision-analysis models whether from the simplicity of the Ben Franklin two-column approach to the more sophisticated decision trees provide all we need for life? Another way to pose this question is to say: Is Reason the ultimate authority to which we submit our lives?

Recently and without haste I’ve been reading and re-reading John Flavel’s short book on fear. Link to book is here

Flavel was an English Presbyterian minister and author, living in the 17th century.  What struck me was his explicit case for submitting to God’s authority in SOME matters, thus leaving behind or placing 2nd our best sense of a matter derived solely from human reasoning.

Say what?  Didn’t God endow mankind with the very ability to think, to reason?

Yes! By all means.

Isaiah 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Furthermore, in the New Testament, the Greek word ‘logismos’ is used.  This term translates as argument or thinking or system of thought.

Educated readers of the Bible will know that ‘logismos’ relates to ‘logos’ or the word.  The Apostle John writes in his very first chapter of the book bearing his name.  In the beginning was the Logos or Word, and the Logos or Word was with God, and the Logos or Word was God.

So, yes, God DOES give us the ability to think and use words to make decisions. But there are times and situations where our thinking will fall short and not be sufficient.  God alerts us to future situations where this is the case, so we should NOT be surprised!

Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.”As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts“.

God unequivocally teaches that there will be circumstances when His ways and thoughts trump our assessments and best reasoning.

Here’s the 64-million-dollar question: How do we know WHEN we are to use reason and WHEN we are to submit to God’s ways?

John Flavel describes the rule of faith as God’s way.  In his book, he teaches HOW to fight fear.  Fear is a normal reaction to our everyday evil world.  Evil in our hearts and evil all around us.  If we are to remain peaceful within, despite circumstances, then we CANNOT let our reason be the final arbiter used to describe or inform or make sense of what our senses provide us.

Here is how Flavel explains:  (p. 106-107 of his book):

  • You must keep your thoughts under the government of faith. Whoever sets aside the rules of faith and measures things by the rule of his shallow reason is HIMSELF (caps, mine) the problem.  If we permit reason to judge all things and derive its conclusions from the appearance of second causes, our hearts will have no rest day or night.  Instead, it will keep us in continual alarms.  The best people are prone to measure things by this rule – to judge all of God’s designs and providences by reason. 

When he mentions the ‘best people’, think ‘the intelligentsia’ of the day who might be tempted to assume that a belief in God is not rational.

Bottom line for us moderns is to use and develop our ability to think and discern and draw conclusions, but measure them through the grid of God’s truth, how He describes reality.  After all, He created all that is.

Logical Gal – always be prepared

27 May

Be prepared  I walked into the faculty lounge, coffee cup in hand.  In between classes, I caught the tail end of a conversation between 2 of my colleagues in this secular school.  “……believes in intelligent design.”

With those words the 8th grade science teacher walked out, leaving just the two of us.  Inserting myself into the just-ended conversation, I asked the other teacher washing his coffee mug, “Who were you talking about?”

As it turns out, a prominent Christian’s great-grandson was visiting the school for the day right when the 8th grade science class was going over the theory of evolution.

My colleague dried his mug as I responded, “I believe in Intelligent Design, too!”  I continued, “All that means is that something didn’t come from nothing.”  Then I knocked on the wall.  After the 3rd tap I observed, “When you hear a knock on your front door, you tend to respond, ‘I wonder who that could be?’  No one assumes that the knock made the noise itself.  That’s what Intelligent Design means.”

Good-natured, my fellow teacher congenially acknowledged my comments and said something about evolution.  I picked up at this mention and continued with my 2-minute, on-the-spot lesson. I proceeded, “When you talk about evolution, you have to clarify what you mean and draw the distinction between macro and micro-evolution.  I bet you won’t find a single Christian who doesn’t agree with micro-evolution.”

Again, this dear man nodded in agreement, adding that most Christians he has heard haven’t made that distinction.  We then wrapped up this brief coffee pause with some shared commentary on the lack of civil discourse in America on ANY topic.  He agreed that at the ‘sound-byte’ level, it’s difficult to bring out ANY of these distinctions.

And then we parted, each back to our classrooms.  As I reflected, I evaluated what I had done well and what I could have done better. First the good points:

  • I initiated a conversation in a public place with someone who is congenial and not hostile to Christianity (even if he defines Christianity to fit his worldview)
  • I did not shy away from identifying myself as a supporter of Intelligent Design
  • I quite easily and confidently shared what I knew off the cuff

What I failed to do:

  • I did not ask HIM a single question!  It wouldn’t have taken any courage to ask him what he knows about Intelligent Design.  It wouldn’t have been painful to learn his definition of Evolution

I can’t predict whether I would have had the moxie or trusted God enough to engage in the same way with the science teacher whose class the Christian visitor had witnessed.  But I am thankful to God for having absorbed enough from podcasts and read enough books to at least give a thumbnail’s description of the issue.  And that has whetted my appetite to equip myself further and be better prepared for the next encounter.  One never knows when the opportunity will arise, so like the Boy Scouts, we must:

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 Pet 3:15b)