Tag Archives: John Piper

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)

 

 

 

 

Stating the obvious – words matter!

18 Jan

Aren’t you thankful that God created us with communicative language skills?  I often take that gift for granted.

Two recent ‘aha!’ moments brightened my day and made me grateful for the insights words can provide.

The first one:

This morning, while walking for exercise, I listened to a John Piper sermon where he mentioned God’s purpose for creating you & me.  He cited Isaiah 43:8 when describing what God says His reasons:

  • everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

What was new to me was that the fact that God WILL be glorified by every person.  Piper framed it like this.  Are we going to glorify God like Judas or like Peter? It’s not up to US whether we glorify Him or not.  If God says He created us with the express purpose of showcasing His glory, then He will. For being God, by ontological nature, everything that He wills to be done IS/WILL BE done.  And how do WE know what His will is?  From what He says, what is written in the Bible.  Words!

The import of this fact that God will be glorified by each of the people He creates is this: Whether we die as a hardened God-hater or rather as a person whose heart burns to proclaim and point to the wonders of God, each of us WILL bring glory to Him when He rewards or punishes us.

The second one: 

Alan Shlemon from Stand to Reason wrote a letter about how Jesus modeled truth and compassion while on earth.

As I began to read, I assumed I knew what sense of ‘truth’ Alan was addressing:  the truth that Jesus, as God, had about the moral failures of everyone He met.

But the way Alan described Jesus’ use of truth was in focused study of someone.  Read this excerpt from his letter dated Thursday, 5 January 2017:

In Matthew 9:35–36, for example, Jesus is going through all the towns and villages, healing diseases and sickness, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Matthew writes, Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Notice the order. Jesus learns the truth and then is motivated by compassion. He sees that the people are distressed, dispirited, and like sheep without a shepherd and, because of that truth, He is driven to compassion.

I had never considered that use of truth.  But because of how Alan painted Jesus’ actions toward people, I now WANT to look more carefully at those around me, to study their tone, their faces, their postures and ask the kind of questions that will give me some true insight into their burdens.  I know this:  only THAT kind of truth will soften my heart.

 

The other kind of truth can puff up, even if it’s accurate and well grounded.  (I’m not arguing against the responsibility we all have to KNOW truth and live by it.)

So here’s to WORDS and the power of eloquent and accurate communication, whether from a fellow created being or our Creator!

Prayer logic

4 Jan

You do not have, because you do not ask.  James 4:2c

I’ve been listening to archived John Piper sermons on prayer.  The Bible’s stunning truth about prayer hit me afresh this morning.

We don’t understand WHY the all-powerful God, the One who created every visible molecule in the universe as well as everything that is invisible, says He waits on us to ask. Only that He DOES…command that we pray, that we ask Him for what we need and want.

Note to Maria – Don’t spend any energy chewing on the bone of how come – just revel in it. The fact that He who created all things at His command should invite us to participate with Him should STUN us!

After we pick ourselves up off our face, we should then focus on the truth that James announces.

But an obvious question emerges if we try to formulate James’ truth claim into a syllogism in order to think it through. Do we apply James’ statement universally (ALL versus SOME) or as referring to a particular group of people?  Here’s what it looks like when I write it as a universal truth.

Premise 1: ALL people who lack something are people who don’t ask God for that item

Premise 2: You are a person who doesn’t have something

Conclusion:  Therefore, you are a person who doesn’t ask God

Hmm, does that logic square with how you have experienced reality so far?  Are there situations in which you have prayed to God and have yet to receive?  Or conversely, has God given you gifts for which you didn’t ask/pray?

I think all of us can attest to circumstances when despite LOTS of prayer God has not supplied the healing, the job, the baby, the money, the spouse or the resolution. As well as times when He ‘out of the blue’ graced us with a surprise blessing, both unanticipated and unasked.

In analyzing the above syllogism, we would say it is logically valid, that the premises are laid out in a correct order, but the conclusion is not true. Why?  because the subject in Premise 1 falsely includes ALL people in the world.

If we exchange the universal quantifier ‘ALL’ for the particular quantifier ‘SOME’, then we might get closer to the Truth.  Let me show you what that looks like and then we’ll talk about it:

Premise 1: Some people who lack are those who don’t ask God to provide what they need/want

Premise 2:  You are someone who doesn’t have what you want

Conclusion:  Therefore, you are someone who hasn’t asked God to provide

Again, that conclusion is not true in every situation.  To wit, I have repeatedly asked God to give me a different job.  And He hasn’t, YET……

So just using one circumstance in my life as a counter-example, I can prove that the conclusion in this second syllogism is not true.  It’s also not valid.  Why?  Because the conclusion overreaches the facts given in Premises 1. This first or major premise describes only one of two categories I’m going to call ‘LACKERS’ – those who haven’t prayed.  There is the category of ‘LACKERS’ who have indeed asked God for what they want.  So even though Premise 2 is true (you don’t have what you want) we can’t be sure which group of ‘LACKERS’ you fall into.

Bottom line?  I don’t know why God hasn’t answered my many prayers, YET.  But I do believe the Bible is authoritative.  I know that God commands us to pray.  I also know that He is good.  So there I rest AND I will continue to pray. What about you?

What are your questions?

10 Aug

Effective thinkers depend on the clarity of terms.  Whatever they think, speak or write must proceed and build on a foundation of precise and unambiguous language.  Unless they intentionally set out to deceive!

If this building block of good argumentation is indispensable, then next in importance I believe are one’s questions.

I know I’ve written about questions before, but I have come late in life to the value of examining what is said/written and NOT mentioned.  Some question templates are:

  • what COULD the author have said had he not said it that particular way?
  • what did he leave out?
  • if we exchange the predicate for the subject, what does that reveal? (yes, I recognize that converting  X is Y to Y is X is only valid for E & I propositions,  but what is uncovered through a brief look at the is often rich!)

Credit is not due me to have stumbled upon the value of questioning the speaker/writer.  I am being trained through the accumulated and daily posting of the sermons of pastor John Piper.  Listening daily to his teaching has helped me articulate some implicit assumptions or at least some hypothetical assumptions.

Thus schooled, yesterday as I read a bit of puritan pastor William Gurnall writing in The Christian in Complete Armor, I asked myself the obvious question and got back a very pointed poke!

“Whatever is the object of a saint’s (Christian’s) hope is the subject of his prayer.”

I swapped the predicate for the subject and stated the premise this way:

What I pray about reveals what I’m hoping in. 

God immediately convicted me of the nature of multitudes of past prayers over the years. Many have been of this variety:

  • Give us a nice day, Lord!

That’s pretty lame AND it reveals that my hope is effectively that I have a pleasant life with no hardship and minor problems easy to resolve, few interruptions and plenty of time and money to do what I want.

Reassuring to me IS the fact that as I take in God’s Word through daily study and God-centered prayer, my prayers are changing to reflect biblical truth.  I’m moving away from God as butler to my life to God as CENTER of my life and me as His redeemed child and servant.

My plea THIS morning was based on Colossians 1:9, 10

Father, fill me with the knowledge of your will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding SO THAT I may live a life worthy of Christ, pleasing him fully.

Looking at the blanks, what is not said or written often reveals startling insights!  But that’s the fun of clear thinking.

Which question have you posed recently that has revealed something new or startling?

 

 

Constructing a counter-argument

13 Jan

Bible promises

A Biblical teacher I admire defends his belief that Christians cannot personally apply or use every promise in the Bible. He does offer, however, that universal promises DO exist, like Jesus’ offer of rest:

  • Come to me, all you who are exhausted and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

But many assurances appear to be directed JUST at a certain people in a PARTICULAR setting during a FINITE PERIOD of history. The classic example he cites is Jeremiah’s affirmation in chapter 29:11:

  • “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The argument continues like this: if you look at the context of that verse, uttered by the prophet Jeremiah, God is addressing the Hebrew people in Babylon, assuring them that there IS an end to their exile.

The Biblical teacher therefore concludes that 21st century Christians are incorrect in apprehending that promise and many particular ones LIKE that for themselves.

Up until now, I have reluctantly accepted his reasoning. But recently I heard a pastor discuss a prophecy, already fulfilled once in the Old Testament, but again as it came to pass 720 plus years later, NOT in Babylon but in Bethlehem – the birth of Christ.

Here’s the original prophecy or promise from God. The context is King David’s conversation with Nathan the prophet. David informs Nathan that he desires to build a house for God. Nathan approves of his plan. But later that night Nathan receives a restraining message from God for King David. The prophecy he is given to share with the King is this:

2 Samuel 7:12-16

  • “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men,but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me, your throne shall be established forever.”

Solomon was David’s son who succeeded him as king and he DID build a house for God, the temple, completing it in around 964 BC. A kingdom was established.

So following the aforementioned Bible teacher’s reasoning, this prophecy has been fulfilled. Therefore, we cannot ‘take’ it and apply it to any other situations.

But here is how the pastor I recently heard moved in a different direction. He narrated the encouragement and promise from the prophet Micah who reminded the people of his day that a strong ruler in Israel was still yet to come. About 240 years after Solomon’s temple construction the people, living through dark and discouraging days, took hope from this good news about the future:

Micah 5:2-4

  • But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
    Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.
    And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lordhis God.
    And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.

This is astounding! Micah repeated the main intent of the original prophecy, already fulfilled by Solomon, and pointed to the future birth of Christ as actually the ultimate fulfillment to come. There’s an initial bringing to fruition in 725 BC and another one in around 2 BC when Jesus is born.

Finally, to close his argument, the pastor cites Paul’s New Testament explanation in Romans 15:8 about Christ’s coming:

  • For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,

And I’ve heard John Piper, the pastor whose Biblical exegesis I’ve been writing about, quote this heart-warming fact, again from Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, verse 1:20:

  • For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

So I side with the good news that Jesus has bought for us, through His blood, every promise in God’s Word. For sure we are to be thoughtful Christians, prayerful and dependent on God’s Holy Spirit to understand correctly God’s Word.

Thanks for reading this. I wanted to take the time to think through and construct reasons for why I disagree with the first man’s argument. And as many have said, ‘Scribere est cogitare’ or writing is thinking. May we all continue to think slowly and reason well in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Logical Gal – Are you sure?

22 Apr

Certainty

“You can’t be sure about anything!”

Beyond death and taxes, a lot of people maintain that position.  But is it so?

What is certainty and are there different kinds?

First a definition – Generally speaking, in every day language, certainty is the quality of being absolutely true.  What is ‘certain’ can be a fact that corresponds to reality or an event that definitely has taken place or will take place without a doubt.

Going deeper, one can differentiate between types of certainty.  We have

  • mathematical certainty – no one doubts that 2+2 make 4

Then there is

  • logical certainty – the world of deductive reasoning, portrayed by the simple syllogism.  Here we can be certain that a conclusion is true if the premises are true and the way of reasoning follows the rules (thus qualifying as ‘valid’)

Premise 1 – All humans die

Premise 2 – Joe is a human

Conclusion – Joe will die

The other day, I heard someone talk about a 3rd kind of certainty, that of

  • moral certainty I was intrigued by how he explained this branch of certainty.  From a sermon on Biblical hope here is what John Piper wrote/delivered:

“There is a kind of legitimate certainty and confidence that does not come from mathematical calculations or merely logical laws. I call it “moral certainty.”

Rooted in Acts of Will

I call it moral because it is rooted in the commitment of the will of persons. And the will is the seat of morality. That is, we can only speak of moral right and wrong in relationship to acts of will. So whatever has to do with the will is an issue of morality. And moral certainty is a certainty that is based on acts of will.”

René Descartes, French philosopher and mathematician described moral certainty this way -“certainty which is sufficient to regulate our behavior”, Link to article quoting him

Intrigued by the concept of certainty, I checked to see if there were other types of certainty.   After nosing around different websites, I learned that in a court of criminal  law, to come to a conviction the jury must agree ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt’ that the accused is guilty.  That is probabilistic certainty – knowledge that is most likely to be true. . In fact, examining cumulative circumstantial evidence to arrive at a high probability of guilt can often solve murder cases that are ‘cold’.

Of course, there are less-than-credible claims to certainty.  People talk about psychological or ideological certainty – a WANTING to believe something to be so, despite the facts. There is also the danger that in the broad category of ‘mathematical certainty’ modeling future outcomes might have some hidden assumptions that are not necessarily true.

At the end of the day, we should approach the concept of certainty with HUMILITY.  I’m not advocating a posture of skepticism, but the acknowledgement that we, as finite human beings, might not be right about everything.

Humility

Logical Gal and the beauty of a category error

29 Oct

I heard some good news this week – enunciated in a way that I can understand AND remember.

Good for goodness sake

And it was just the opposite of the song invoked in the photo above.  Whew!

One of my favorite preaching pastors, John Piper Link to his site, was explaining the concept of election and justification, Christian terms for being called into the Christian family by God.  He painted the scenario of a gal lamenting to her pastor that her past was SO BAD, that NO WAY could God forgive her enough to let her into His kingdom.

That’s when Piper described her as BOTH prideful AND incorrect in thinking that any condition could block God’s will.

At that moment…..drum roll Piper announced that God NEVER even considers one’s past life or actions in his selection of His children.  This gal was making a category error.  She was thinking that the two kinds of people were

  • the GOOD enough

and the

  • NOT GOOD enough

It is truly happy news to learn that she was not even in the ball park.

She was right on one account;  there are just TWO categories of folk.  All humans fall into one of these two groups:

  • those who belong to the family of God and are considered His adopted children
  • those who don’t belong to the family because God has not adopted them as His children

But HOW He chooses is a mystery. If we take His words as truth (and since He is God, by nature He IS Truth), then He has decreed who He adopts for His own reasons that have nothing to do with how ‘bad or good’ we are.  (Truth be told, NO ONE is ‘good’.)  Listen to what God teaches us through Paul’s writings in Romans 9: 10-13

  • when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Of course, we will probably trip over the verbs LOVED and HATED.

So as all good logicians and thinkers, we should CLARIFY THE MEANING of these two terms.

 

Clarify meanining

I’ll leave you to think through what God might intend by ‘love and hate’, but before you snort and feel frustrated, think about how we freely and loosely toss around terms.

  • I love movies….I love my dog…I love my children…I love God
  • I hate laundry….I hate Mondays….I hate terrorists….I hate it when I lose my temper