September 16, 2005

The Laws of Logic: Don't Leave Home Without 'Em

Last night at dinner I told one of my favorite jokes to the kids. It's the one about the guy who finds a genie's lamp on the beach and his first of three wishes is for something cool to drink. The genie grants him a bottle of bottomless nectar. When he realizes what an amazing thing he has he asks for two more just like it (as his other two wishes). After I let my son explain why it was stupid to wish for more of an infinite supply of something, my daughter interjected that she might wish for more simply because she would probably lose the one bottle. Then she said something I've heard her saying before: "My logic is different." By this she means to imply that her entire mode of reasoning is different from the thinking of the rest of the world. I think she is simply expressing a desire to be unique, as all humans will (particularly teens), but this time I called her on it and tried to stress how important it is not to surrender the validity and objectivity of the concept of logic.

Basically, I pointed out that her statement wasn't illogical; it was simply taking more factors into the equation and coming to a reasonable conclusion on that basis. Of course, there are even more factors that might be considered in order to determine if wishing for backup beverages would be superior to some of the other things one might wish for. I then pointed out that having a "different logic" would look a bit stranger than what she was imagining. In my best impersonation of a buffoon (which they would claim is just me reverting to my true self) I suggested that, "I'd take two more bottles, because my favorite color is blue!" This is, of course, nonsense because "blue" and favorite colors are in no way related to the situation at hand. The kid's laughter was an indication that they had gotten my point. Of course, I lost their attention long before I could make the larger case for the importance of logic within the Christian worldview, or even in attempting to frame any coherent worldview, but that's what blogs are for, aren't they.

In order for us to evaluate truth claims we must have some sort of tools for doing so. There has to be some way to measure one competing claim against another or to test a worldview for coherence. Logic is the tool that has been historically employed to do so. Logic consists of principles of reasoning, such as the law of non-contradiction, that formally describe why, for instance, Jesus can't be both God-in-the-flesh, as the Bible claims, and just a human prophet, as the Qur'an claims. To surrender the validity of logic means that we disarm ourselves in the battle against competing ideas. People with other possibly mistaken ideas cease to be the objects of tolerance, but instead merely become members of a diverse community holding equally "true" beliefs.

Eastern religions and philosophers, along with some postmodern thinkers, typically reject logic as an objective feature of the mind or the universe. For them, it is either part of the illusion that is the world, or it is simply a philosophical construction of western culture. This makes it nearly impossible to have a reasoned debate about their beliefs or the ideas of anyone toward which they are sympathetic. As Sam discovered in his philosophy class, all our rational critiques will be brushed aside as merely outmoded or provincial "western" thinking. And if we Christians join them in their rejection of logic we not only lose the ability to call some of their ideas wrong and point out why, but we forfeit any means we have of "rightly dividing" the word of God. Even if we fail to take logic seriously, we are certainly counting on God not to. When He promises us entry into heaven we are surely assuming that He means not hell.

So, how do we convince others not to surrender logic so that we can have a fruitful dialog with them about their non-Christian beliefs?

1) Point out that they always behave in everyday life as if logic were real. For example, they look both ways before crossing the street; they expect the hot water to come out of the hot faucet and not the cold; they expect people to keep their promises; and they know that if the kids are in the house, it's safe to back up the car in the driveway. Why should they then believe that contradictory ideas in the world of religion and philosophy could be true when the world gives no hint of such a notion?

2) Show the objective nature of logic and our dependence on it for every field of knowledge. Most people are willing to admit that mathematics is not merely a social construction. It is as proven to be objective as anything else we can offer. Some of the more heady realms of mathematics may be confounding to us, but who will deny the simpler and foundational principles like, 1+1=2? But mathematics itself is dependent upon logic. When we say that 1+1=2, we mean not equal to 3 or any other number or object in the entire universe. Science is equally dependent on logic for its analysis of data and the veracity of its conclusions. And even language has no utility without the underlying assumptions that logic provides.

Additionally, the principles of logic are not things that have undergone "social" revisions over time like dress styles, customs, and politics. Since the laws of logic were (as far as we know) first formally described by the ancient Greek philosophers they have not been overhauled, like social mores or scientific knowledge; we have merely expanded our understanding of logical principles and further applied them. And the fact that both theists and atheists can agree upon these principles only further adds to their credibility.

3) Point out that they have no reservations about applying logic to beliefs that they do not favor. For instance, it probably never occurred to them that it is an exercise in logic to look for contradictions in the Bible or to claim that a "good" + "sovereign" God does not add up to "evil."

4) Offer them instances of specific contradictory religious claims and ask them to make sense of them. It is one thing to say that something absurd is true; it is another thing to prove it or make sense of it. For example, I can say that I have a square circle in my top drawer, but producing it or describing it are impossible for me to do. Making sense of contradictory metaphysical ideas is equally problematic, like saying that God is a personal and transcendent being who created the universe versus saying that God IS the world and is merely an impersonal force; or saying that there is just one life and then the judgment versus saying that we reincarnate numerous times in an attempt to achieve personal enlightenment.

5) Point out that the debate itself rests upon the law of non-contradiction: Either logic is an objective standard that applies even to their own favored metaphysical ideas, or it is not. And even if you could both be right in some bizarre twist of reality, then that means that it is still valid for you to deconstruct their beliefs using logic and they must sit there in their inclusivist cul-de-sac and accept it in silence, contemplating this Zen Koan of being both right and irrational.



At 9/16/2005 7:46 PM, Blogger Vman said...

I think people reject logical thought about their religion or beliefs or prejudice because they're so deeply engrained that they think its blasphemous to think through it. this comes from my personal experience with eastern philosophers mainly indians. the most common rebuttal i get is that that's just the way things are

At 9/16/2005 8:04 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Many would believe that this includes me and my beliefs. But as you can see, I'm claiming to hitch my wagon to the horse of logic. However, as one of the Universists claimed on their messageboard, people like me are supposedly just using logic in a disingenuous way to attempt to make the facts fit my preconceived beliefs. The problem is, I've not always had these beliefs. I formed them as I increasingly came to understand them as rational -- that's particularly what it took to pull me into the church. My former beliefs were the one's that fit my proclivities. I'd much rather believe there is nothing morally off-limits to me or that I am god but just don't understand it yet.

To the comment, "that's just the way things are," I would say that in Saudi Arabia, Islam is "just the way things are" and in the Bible Belt, Christianity is "just the way things are." This gets us nowhere. Whose way is right? I think everyone raised in a particular faith should at some point take a step back and make sure that they can personally buy into the beliefs of their youth. If we can't at some point take personal ownership of our faith, then it isn't very authentic, is it?


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