Saturday, May 05, 2012

Geologic Logic and Faith Principles

Today's post will continue to build your skill in evaluating arguments and identifying presuppositions.

Whenever you hear someone say something with which you disagree, what do you do?  Most people just assume that the other person is stupid or irrational. Some people will even try to convince them that they are wrong.  But not many will ask themselves, "What are they presupposing that would make their conclusion rational to them?"

If people are not crazy and are not stupid, but differ from you in their understanding, then they either know something you don't know, or they are presupposing something you are not presupposing.

If you value the relationship with the other person, you should expend the effort to identify the missing information or to elucidate the unidentified presupposition. To not try to find out why you disagree is a sign of arrogance.  Such pride is the cause of most arguments that do not get resolved.

The resolution may be that we identify our differing presuppositions and refuse to change our minds, and "agree to disagree."  Since presuppositions are accepted by faith and cannot be proved or disproved, we have agreed that we must follow our separate belief systems.

I have one belief system and you have another belief system and those faiths bring us to different conclusions.  I am not a better scientist than you and you are not a better scientist than I am.  We agree on the facts.  That is science.  We disagree on the interpretation of the facts, and that is because of our belief systems, not the facts.

All geologists agree that there are similar layers of rocks found worldwide.  Each layer contains fossils, predominately fossils that resemble other fossils in the same layer, but are different from those of the layer above, and the layer beneath.  Fossils are frequently casts in stone of soft tissue, or the remains of hard body parts such as shells. But they represent plants and animals that had been alive and have died in such a way that their remains formed layers that became lithified due to processes that occurred after their death.

These statements are scientific.  They represent the physical evidence that scientists have found, and there is no disagreement as to what the evidence is.  There are, however, differences in what geologists say the fossil layers mean.

One will look at the layers and say they demonstrate Evolution, and another will say they obviously are the results of a world-wide flood.  Same rocks, same logic processes, but different conclusions!

The instructor for my first course in statistics had been asked to evaluate the entrance requirements for allowing students into Emory University. It was determined that the then-current evaluation criteria were an excellent admissions predictor of success for Emory students.  He had to show them that their data had only included current Emory students who had already been chosen by those criteria, and that it was, therefore, not representative of the general population that might apply to Emory.  Their data excluded students who might have succeeded at Emory but were rejected by the criteria.  This subtle bias was hard for them to accept, because there had been such a high correlation in their results.

The same can be said for people who do not recognize that their own selection bias, i.e. their presuppositions, determine what they see in the data.  If a person says, "There is no world-wide flood," as part of his presuppositions, he will not be able to conclude, upon examining the data, that there was a world-wide flood.  He will have to come to some other conclusion.

We live in an age of religious fanaticism.  Some fanatics are terrorizing the world, killing those who do not agree with them.  Other zealous fanatics are trying to force public education systems to exclude scientific possibilities with which they disagree. They only want one possible explanation, i.e., one set of faith principles, to be taught in schools.  They do not want children to learn how to evaluate faith principles and how to reach their own conclusions.  They want to indoctrinate, not to educate.

Friday, May 04, 2012

I am not crazy and I am not stupid.

Nobody thinks they are crazy or stupid.  Everybody thinks he or she is right.  We have an innate need to be right.  Yet, other people do not give everybody else the same benefit of the doubt that they give themselves.

If I think I am right, and someone contradicts me, I must assume that he or she is wrong.  When the other person hears me say he or she is wrong, he/she reacts in kind and says I am the wrong one.  This scenario must happen when people are convinced they are right and others contradict them.  Our reactions imply that the other person is crazy or stupid.

When the principles of the prior two posts are considered, we can isolate the source of most problems.  People are most often looking at the same set of facts.  If they are not, they can iterate what they have observed.  In the lipstick problem, the wife was not privy to an observation the husband had made, i.e., an encounter with a lipsticked relative.  Had he mentioned this encounter when he saw his wife, they both would have had the same facts from which to draw a conclusion.

Assume that two people have iterated the facts and agreed to them, but still disagree on the meaning or interpretation of the facts.  Since the rules of logic do not vary based upon who the individual is, the only thing remaining to account for their different conclusions is their presuppositions, i.e., what major premises they have accepted by faith.

My first college degree was in Geology.  Geologists have an interesting task similar to that of the historian, viz., how do you understand something that happened in the past, when you only have artifacts and relics from the previous time period, and cannot be an eye-witness, yourself, to the events, themselves?  Future historians will be in a much better position than current ones, because of advances in technology.  Whereas today's historians are limited to the study of written documents and built environments from the past, tomorrow's historians will be able to view DVD's and other audio/video media that will let them observe the actual happenings from which they will be drawing meaning.

Geologists frequently limit their historical observations to the rocks and fossil records in the rocks, but they could also learn from the historian, and use the collective written records from ancient cultures to augment their understanding.  Only a presupposition separates two geologists who come to different conclusions.

If a geologist assumes the rock records were deposited in pre-history, he will not look for verification in historical records.  His assumption then colors his conclusion.  He will not be able to conclude that the rock layers are related to historical time.  The fact that many cultures record stories of great floods will not even be considered in his evaluation of what the rocks mean.  His blinders of scientific objectivism keep him from seeing what may be obvious to others. (This is a problem with modern university education: so much specialization means educated people have no knowledge of other specialties.)

Another assumption made by geologists in the last century or so is the rule of Uniformitarianism.  This rule states that things have always happened the same way we observe them happening, today.  This assumption limits the understanding of things that happened in  prehistoric time to the same processes that have happened in historic time.  It is a way of saying, "Seeing is believing."  If we are not able to see it happen, it can't have happened.  This is an arrogant statement for the residents of a miniscule particle of the universe in an instant of the time line to make about a time line of billions of years (in their scheme).

But it is not crazy and it is not stupid.  It is merely an argument made using the observations of scientists (the minor premises in the argument) by logically following an assumption (major premise) to its logical conclusion.

Remember that these presuppositions are faith principles.  They are accepted and embraced by faith and subjected to scrutiny only when the conclusions lead to contradictions.  One faith leads to one conclusion and another faith leads, with the same evidence, to a different conclusion.

Crazy and stupid do not apply.  Faith does apply.  In argumentation and evaluation of arguments, all faiths are equal.  They are only beliefs that are embraced by different people.  Those fundamental assertions will lead them to different conclusions.

But are all faiths equal?  A question for a later discussion.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Analyzing an Argument

In the previous post, I suggested that consistency was a key to analyzing an argument.

From studies in formal logic (the form determines the correctness), one form stands out: Modus Ponens.

When I studied it many years ago, the classical form was given like this:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The first statement is called the Major Premise, and the second is called the Minor Premise.  The last statement is the Conclusion.

The full version of the logical statement is as follows:

If the major premise, "All men are mortal," is true and the minor premise, "Socrates is a man," is true, then the conclusion, "Socrates is mortal," is necessarily true.

This form is the heart of deductive reasoning.

Now, let us examine the details of the form.  Is it true that "all men are mortal?"  Perhaps we can claim it is true by definition.  Being a man is being mortal.  On the other hand, it does not follow that being mortal is being a man, because we have seen that other things, from dogs to grass, also die.

It may be possible for there to be a man somewhere who is now alive and will never die.  The only way I could demonstrate to everybody that all men are mortal is to kill all men.  And then, my argument would be proved, but A) there would be no one left alive to be interested in my proof, or B) one of them might spring back to life and my argument would fall on deaf ears, anyway, though it was disproved.

Major premises of this sort fall in the category of statements which are generally accepted by "all men everywhere."  By "accepted," we mean "believed to be true."  In mathematics, we call these things "axioms," the starting principles that we assume to be true (and don't try to prove), and in theological circles, we call them "faith principles."

Major premises are generally things that are asserted. Minor premises are generally things that can be observed.  In Apologetics, we call Major Premises "Presuppositions."

In analyzing a deductive argument, we generally accept the truth of the major premise, because then, we can see where it leads the argument.  If a consequence of accepting the truth the major premise leads us to a contradiction, then we challenge the major premise.

In yesterday's blog about consistency, we looked at three different major premises, i.e., three different assumptions made about the Old Testament, the New Testament, and their relationship to each other.

We saw that different denominations start with different major premises; they look at the same Biblical evidence (minor premises), and get different conclusions.  They were all logical, i.e., they followed the rules of deductive reasoning.  Yet they came to different conclusions, precisely because they started with different major premises, not because one group was more rational than the other.

This is an important point, not only in courses in logic, but also, in any argument that occurs between two people.  These arguments frequently occur in family situations, where a husband and wife reach different conclusions about an incident (minor premise) and fail to understand that their difference is in what they are assuming (the major premise) to be true, not in the actual facts they see.

A man comes home with lipstick on his collar.  He may not even know it is there.  The wife observes the lipstick and concludes the husband has been fooling around with another woman.  In this case, the major premise of the wife might be, "I cannot trust my husband."  The husband's might be, "I am a trustworthy husband."  The minor premise is clear:  There is lipstick on the collar.  The wife's major premise requires her to conclude her husband was unfaithful.

Note that the husband now thinks the wife is not being logical, because he assumes she has adopted the same major premise he holds, and her conclusion does not logically follow.  But she is being logical.  She is just holding to a different major premise than he believes.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that the husband had run into Aunt Sally (you know, the huggy one who always has her face painted to perfection) at a business luncheon with his male colleagues.  He had forgotten all about it.

Here's the issue:  The conclusion of a deductive argument is influenced just as much by the major premise as by the minor premise.  Anyone familiar with John Gray's "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" series of books will understand why men and women frequently have different major premises that lead them to different conclusions using the same evidence (minor premises).

It is because our presuppositions (what we believe and accept to be true, but can't prove) determine our conclusions.  Obviously, if two people are looking at the same facts and using the same rules of logic, then the only thing that can lead them to different conclusions is their presuppositions.

I have used several words for our relationship to our major premises, assumptions, presuppositions, beliefs, and faith principles.  You cannot separate conclusions in deductive arguments from belief.  This is not only true for people of faith; it is universally true.  Major premises are normally assumed, accepted, believed, etc., to be true, i.e., they are accepted by faith.  It doesn't have to be a religious faith.  Even an atheist believes there is no God.  That is an act of faith.

As  I look at all the evidence for belief in God, I conclude that an atheist has a greater amount of blind faith than I do, but that is another lesson.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


As I have answered questions from my students, I have come to believe that consistency is a crucial element  in a belief system.

For example, I was recently asked why the Church of Christ doesn't use musical instruments, but we (I was teaching in a Baptist church) do?  The answer highlights the issue of consistency in Biblical interpretation among different Christian churches and denominations.

The crux of the problem is that the Christian Bible consists of two different sets of historical documents, the Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew (and shared with many faith-families, e.g., Jews, Muslims, and Christians), and the New Testament, originally written in Greek, accepted by all Christian denominations as sacred.  [We will ignore the books of uncertain authorship, commonly called the Apocrypha, at this time.]

The problem is that the Old and New Testaments have points of ambiguity, if not outright contradiction, between them.  So the issue of understanding comes down to the question of what is the proper principle of interpretation to relate the two testaments to the church in the current age?

The musical instrument question will help explain the issue.  The Churches of Christ (and other similar New Testament churches) use a rule of interpretation that the Old Testament is illustrative to the Church, but the New Testament is normative.  The Old Testament books give us examples of God's dealings with people in history, but the New Testament is the only rule of faith and practice for the people of God, since the first century.

This rule of interpretation eliminates some problems that divide other Christian denominations, because it is simple and straightforward.  If the New Testament, alone, is the rule book for the church, then we eliminate the problems associated with Christians' use of the Old Testament, e.g., what do we do with the passages about the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the position of Israel, etc.?

If the New Testament, alone, regulates the church, then we do what it says; we don't do what it says not to do; and when it is silent about an issue, we err on the side of caution.  For example, the New Testament does not speak to the issue of instruments in worship, but it does relate to psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  So don't be alarmed when visiting a Church of Christ that you find no piano, organ, or any other musical instrument you might be familiar with in the church where you grew up.  They are trying to be consistent to the principle of interpretation they believe is designed for a New Testament church. They sing a capella.

The mainline churches, including Roman Catholic and Protestant, use a different rule of interpretation for the Old Testament/New Testament dilemma.  The main difference between Catholic and Protestant denominations is that the Roman Catholics believe the Church (via Creeds, Councils and Papal edicts) can still write dogma equivalent to the Old and New Testament Scripture, while Protestants believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures (completed near the end of the first century), alone, are the only rule of faith and practice for the church.

With that (major) distinction, then, these denominations follow a similar rule of interpretation for the Old to New Testament relationship.  This rule says that the Old and New Testaments together are regulative for the church.  The Old Testament is still normative for the people of God, unless the New Testament makes a clear, definitive change.  For example, the Old Testament includes dietary restrictions intended to differentiate the people of God (Israel) from the peoples around them.  Jews could not eat pork, or shrimp, for example.  The New Testament indicated that the wall separating Jew from Gentile was broken down and the laws intended to differentiate the people of God have been done away, i.e., their purpose has been fulfilled, so they no longer apply.

Certain issues are easy to handle with this rule of interpretation.  If the New Testament does not make a change, then the Old Testament principles are still regulative.  For example, the Old Testament prohibits murder and the New Testament makes no change, so it is still wrong to murder someone.

We have looked at three basic rules of interpretation of Scripture:

The Old Testament is normative (Jews, Muslims--with additional books, e.g., Talmud, Koran, etc., overriding)
The New Testament is normative (Church of Christ, other New Testament Churches)
The Old and New Testament are normative (mainline Christian Denominations--with New Testament overriding Old Testament, and Roman Catholics with Church overriding the Testaments)

This posting is a gross oversimplification of Biblical interpretation principles, but it will be instructive for those people who wonder why there are differences in the practices of different churches.

They are all trying to be consistent to the fundamental things they believe about the Scriptures, the revelation from God to his called-out people.

You may wonder which principle of interpretation is right, in the absolute sense.  That is a different topic.  This post is designed to help you examine faith claims, not to demonstrate which ones are right.  This post is designed to help you recognize an argument's presuppositions and whether or not an argument is consistent with its presuppositions, not to decide which presuppositions are right.