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.

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? 

 

Bible verse logic

19 Apr

I love reading Scripture in French, just for the different wording.  Psalm 65:1 in English reads: There will be silence and calm waiting before you, and praise in Zion.

But in French, it’s ‘Notre calme attente à toi est la louange que nous t’offrons’Our calm counting and waiting on you is the praise that we offer you.  (ESV/Blue Letter Bible site:)

This morning in my study time, I linked THAT affirmation with Psalm 34:1 – I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. 

What I saw was that for His praise to be “always in my mouth”, it must be always in my mind.  And what will guarantee that I’ll always be thinking of ways to praise God?  Only my neediness.

To be needy raises this question: when do we actually HAVE to wait for or count on someone?  When we don’t have what it takes, when we are DESPERATE!

But it’s human nature to DESPISE being needy.  And especially trying/difficult for those of us in the ‘modern West’.  As moderns, we have weaned ourselves off of being dependent on others by all our personalized, automated, self-contained devices and life-style choices.

But God knows best.  After all, He created us.  And His ON-PURPOSE design for us is to need Him, to be dependent on Him.

But here’s the good news.  This design is not just to keep us in our place with a kind of resigned ‘I had better be grateful’ acceptance.  No, on the contrary, our good and all-wise God has structured us to find pure, satisfying joy in having our needs met by Him.  (After all, Jesus waited and endured the dreadful, shame-filled cross for ‘the joy set before Him – Hebrew 12:2)

At almost 60 years old, I have finally reached the stage where more often than not, I can see the soundness of His purpose in making me stumble-prone and inadequate when I lean on myself.  Like Paul, I am BEGINNING to learn to be content when I am weak.  As in Hebrews 11:34, I am one of those ‘….whose weakness was turned to strength…..’

Further building my case for the power of a life defined by Psalm 65:1, I draw assurance from the Father’s promise in Psalm 84:11 – …..No good thing does He withhold…..  Of course, I have learned that what God calls ‘good’ is not always what Maria considers good. But my confidence in Him grows day by day as He provides the evidence of promises delivered, over and over again.  I am beginning to SEE the wisdom in the ‘good’ He decrees for me, even if this ‘good’ comes wrapped in brown paper.

How are you building a case for God’s ways in your life?  What evidence are you assembling that strengthens your resolve to count on Him?

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.

 

Mission statements can obscure

5 Apr

Our church mission is “Joyfully to love all, serve all, and to share Jesus Christ with the world.”

A friend who belongs to a Methodist church mentioned her church’s guiding mission in the context of a discussion about homosexuality and a church association to which her church belongs.  This local group of churches had united to serve the community, but differing policies and doctrine threatened to derail some of their momentum.

I got to thinking about the importance and difficulty of choosing words.  Words carry not only verbal descriptive meanings, but also emotional messages, both positive and negative. Just like one’s tone of voice and delivery can alter the explicit meaning of a word, so can culture and the times add layers that color and influence communication.

God does not ignore such obstacles but takes them into account.  He responds by calling us FIRST to think, ponder, and invest time in understanding HIS divine words to us.  In turn, we are to be truthful in how we use words, especially the WORD of God.  Recall Paul’s exhortation to his protégé Timothy: “…Rightfully handle the word of truth!” in 2 Tim 2:15.

Mission statements matter – every word counts.  The verbs my friend’s church chose demand examination.  Let’s just look at the first one, to love:

Since it’s a church that is using this term, does it not make sense to turn first to the Bible to see God’s use?  Besides, should we begin with man’s definition, that is culture’s use, we’d immediately step into a morass.  We can’t assume consensus even within one country. What I consider ‘loving’ probably doesn’t match your personal view.  My ‘love’ might tap into the American ideal of pursuing happiness.  Translated, this has come to signify ‘allowing one freedom to do whatever one pleases, regardless of the consequences’ as long as it doesn’t impinge on my happiness.  But if I’m an alcoholic or drug addict, how loving is it to let me abuse substances and die?

God doesn’t leave us to wonder about what HE says is love.  Here is His standard:  You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  And your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:30-31  God cares not just about people’s temporary physical desires and needs, but their eternal soul’s condition.   Is it loving to clothe, feed and house someone for just their fleeting years on earth?

For a flesh and blood case of love in action, I’ll mention ‘Uncle Paul’.  He shows clearly how he himself loves in his letter to the Corinthians.

  • 1 Cor 10:33 I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

It is quite possible that my friend’s church had this kind of love in view when they crafted their mission statement.  But in giving them the benefit of the doubt, I’ll tell you that I have grown cautious in making assumptions about the meaning of terms. Just because a church uses the word ‘love’ or a colleague talks about ‘God’ or even mentions that they ‘pray’, I stop now and ask them what they mean.  More often than I would have imagined, that person’s usage does not match mine.

When it comes to terms, logical Joes and Janes seek clarity above all.

One false premise will lead you astray

29 Mar

A recent discouraging day and that of a friend (who texted me about the same kind of suffering) left me pondering from where such debilitating and energy-sapping thoughts arise.

Then our family’s daily trek through the Bible showed me the destructive power of a false conclusion.

The setting?  Moses is re-telling the history of the Hebrews’ 40 years of wandering.  The next generation is poised to enter and take the Promised Land.  This younger group of Wandering Jews was either NOT YET born when their parents left Egypt or they were babies and little kids.  Either way, they have no personal recollections of how God provided for their parents and grandparents in the midst of threatening situations.

Read Moses’ account of that first generation’s experience in sending tribal representatives to scout out the promised land in Deuteronomy 1: 23-28:

“This seemed like a good idea, so I chose twelve spies, one from each tribe.  They crossed into the hills and came to the valley of Eshcol, and returned with samples of the local fruit. One look was enough to convince us that it was indeed a good land the Lord our God had given us.  But the people refused to go in and rebelled against the Lord’s command.

“They murmured and complained in their tents and said, ‘The Lord must hate us, bringing us here from Egypt to be slaughtered by these Amorites.  What are we getting into? Our brothers who spied out the land have frightened us with their report. They say that the people of the land are tall and powerful, and that the walls of their cities rise high into the sky! They have even seen giants there—the descendants of the Anakim!’

 “But I said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid!  The Lord God is your leader, and he will fight for you with his mighty miracles, just as you saw him do in Egypt.  And you know how he has cared for you again and again here in the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child!’  But nothing I said did any good.

“They refused to believe the Lord our God  who had led them all the way, and had selected the best places for them to camp, and had guided them by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud during the day.

Their faulty conclusion was this:  Our God is not being good to us and means for us to be killed

Where did THAT come from?  Let’s look at the premises they uttered:

Premise 1:  The Land God is giving us is good (true premise)

Premise 2: The people of the land are huge and scary and we are weak and vulnerable (true premise)

Premise 3: If we face a dangerous situation, the only reasonable explanation is that God hates us (false premise)

Conclusion:  God means to kill us!

What makes the conclusion not true is the one false premise.

That same scenario was at the root of my discouragement last week and that of my friend’s.  Both she and I added a false premise to a true factual premise.  No wonder we arrived at false conclusions.

What was my situation?

My weight was NOT budging after 6 days of dieting. – TRUE PREMISE

FALSE PREMISE – This diet is not working

FALSE CONCLUSION – I’m doomed to weigh this amount. (cue in discouragement)

Any time you add a false premise to a true premise, you end up with a false conclusion. This is a law of logic. So it was with my friend Joyce:

Our dishwasher is broken, which is one more thing wrong with our house – TRUE PREMISE

FALSE PREMISE – God isn’t going to take care of all these problems we keep casting on Him

FALSE CONCLUSION – We’re stuck and there’s no way out (cue in discouragement)

So what did Joyce and I do when we each reached depressing conclusions?

We wallowed and went to bed.  The good news is that when we awoke to a new day we saw new mercies from God. The mercy He gave me was to read in next day’s Bible account the Hebrews error in logic leading to a false conclusion and detrimental punishment by God. Thank you, dear Father for the warning and review of Godly logic.