To Reason Why:
Making Sense of Our Reason-Giving

[Note: This post originally appeared in April 2006. But recent news stories–particularly on abortion, Iraq, immigration, and the presidential campaigns–made me think it was a topic worth revisiting.]
“I wish he would explain his explanation,” wrote Lord Byron in response to the obscurantist poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like Byron, we often find ourselves unsure of why people provide the explanations they do; an explanation of the explanation is needed. In his new book “Why?” Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly attempts to illuminate why we explain the way we do, or as reviewer Malcolm Gladwell says, to “make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” In his intriguing review for The New Yorker, Gladwell outlines Tilly’s four general categories of reasons:

1. Conventions — conventionally accepted explanations.
2. Stories — specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional.
3. Codes — high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories.
4. Technical accounts — stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority.

To illustrate Tilly’s classification, Gladwell uses the “orgy of reason-giving” that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington:

Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. “Accidents happen,” they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, “The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there’s Harry falling. And it was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.” Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney’s critics, meanwhile, focused on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney’s accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney’s shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn’t nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.

As Gladwell notes, all four explanations are relational and reveal something about the person who uses them. Those who wanted to excuse Cheney used the disengagement offered by convention. The Vice President, wanting to convey concern and regret without admitting to procedural wrongdoing, chose to explain himself with a story. Cheney’s critics desired to pin him to an absolute standard which comes from adherence to a code. For the hunting experts who wanted to display their singular expertise, the technical account provided the perfect form for an explanation.

Continue reading To Reason Why:
Making Sense of Our Reason-Giving

Jesus the Logician (1 of 4)

[Note: Two years ago I started a collaborative blog project titled “Jesus the Logician.” Although a number of bloggers made invaluable contributions, the idea never caught the imagination of “godbloggers” as I hoped it would. Since I’m working on a writing project that incorporates this theme, I thought it might be worth attempting to relaunch the project anew.]
“The scandal of the evangelical mind,” historian Mark Nolls notes in his book of the same name, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Almost ten years have passed since “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” sounded a wake-up call to thinking Christians and over that time significant progress has been made. Though much work remains, evangelical Christians have regained much of the intellectual ground we have lost.
The real scandal, however, is that evangelicals fail so miserably in their commanded task of “putting on the mind of Christ.” As a group we should be fertile ground for producing intellectuals. After all, we are disciples of the greatest thinker in history – Jesus Christ.
In his essay, “Jesus the Logician”, philosopher Dallas Williard writes:

There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron. Today we automatically position him away from (or even in opposition to) the intellect and intellectual life. Almost no one would consider him to be a thinker, addressing the same issues as, say, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger or Wittgenstein, and with the same logical method.

Williard’s article not only explains why Christians should consider Jesus the foremost thinker in history but outlines how he was a formidable logician. All Christians (but especially bloggers, a group which spends considerable effort in expressing opinions) have a duty to think as logically as possible. It is our duty to think like Christ.
For some, logic appears to be a daunting philosophical subject. Others fear it is a form of mathematics, an area in which they lack ability. But a person does not have to be versed in logical theory or know how to draw Venn diagrams, however, in order to think logically. What it requires is the ability to understand and recognize logical relations and to have the will to be logical.

Continue reading Jesus the Logician (1 of 4)

The ‘Jesus the Logician’ Project (2 of 4)

[Note: This is an open invitation to a challenging but worthy project. Although the post is rather lengthy, it provides necessary background material and information on how to proceed. I hope you’ll read through it carefully and decide to join us in this exciting task.]
“Few today will have seen the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘logician’ put together to form a phrase or sentence,” says philosopher Dallas Willard, “unless it would be to deny any connection between them at all. The phrase “Jesus the logician’ is not ungrammatical, any more than is ‘Jesus the carpenter.’ But it ‘feels’ upon first encounter to be something like a category mistake or error in logical type, such as ‘Purple is asleep’, or ‘More people live in the winter than in cities,’ or ‘Do you walk to work or carry your lunch?'”
As Willard goes on to point out in his intriguing article Jesus the Logician, there is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence. We consider it almost absurd to imagine him as a “thinker.” Yet while he did not produce theories of logic, like Aristotle or Frege, he was a master of logical forms. “When I speak of ‘Jesus the logician’,” says Willard, “I refer to his use of logical insights: to his mastery and employment of logical principles in his work as a teacher and public figure.”
After providing several examples to support this point, Willard explains why an appreciation of Jesus as a thinker is necessary:

Continue reading The ‘Jesus the Logician’ Project (2 of 4)

Figures of Reasoning:
A Primer on Appeals to Logos for the ‘JTL’ Project (4 of 4)

Although most evangelicals are thoroughly familiar with the discourses of Jesus, we may not be as well-versed in the terminology associated with reasoning and rhetoric. In order to aid in this process, I’ve used the resources at Silva Rhetorica to compile a list of figures of reasoning. While these are not the only figures of speech that could apply, they do cover many of the major types.

Continue reading Figures of Reasoning:
A Primer on Appeals to Logos for the ‘JTL’ Project (4 of 4)

The Syllogisms of Seinfeld:
The Connections Between Logic and Humor

There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth. — Victor Borge

At first glance it might appear that humor and logic belong to completely separate spheres. Humor is playful, lively, and unbounded by procedural standards. Logic, in contrast, is serious, strict, and completely circumscribed by rules and processes. Humor is tied to emotion while logic is above such non-rational ephemera. Comedians aren’t often known for their critical thinking skills and Mr. Spock — the Vulcan embodiment of cool logic — wasn’t known for his jokes. But in an article for Philosophy Now, Julia Nefsky argues that logic has a very real and very important role in humor:

The range of humour in which there is logic and logical fallacy is huge. By logic and fallacy being in humour I mean that there is some logic or fallacy there that is necessary to what makes it funny. In other words, if you hypothetically removed that logic or fallacy, the joke would not work. You’ll find logic and logical fallacies in all kinds of humorous works, including those of Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Stephen Leacock, Douglas Adams, and even television shows like Beavis and Butthead. Also, logic and fallacies are used in many different comics, including Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts. And there are lots of great examples in the work of stand-up comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, and Henny Youngman. In fact, basically everywhere you look in humour there will be some bits in which logic or fallacy is used in a significant way – sometimes just a couple can be found, and other times they are all over the place!
Every time logic or a fallacy is used in humour it serves a specific role. I have found that a convenient way of classifying examples is in terms of three roles that seem to cover all the significant ways logic and fallacy are used in humour: essence, enhancer, and mechanism.

In the article, Nefsky explains each of these terms and provides examples of how they are used. Although she provides adequate illustrations, I’ve taken the liberty of using her roles but replacing the examples with ones from episodes of Seinfeld.

Continue reading The Syllogisms of Seinfeld:
The Connections Between Logic and Humor

No Consensus on Consensus:
How Not to Argue (Part III)

[Note: This is the third entry in the “How Not to Argue” series.]
“The question of what to do about climate change is also still open,” wrote Naomi Oreskes in a 2004 article in the journal Science. “But there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen.” Many people will nod in agreement with Oreskes dogamatic assertion while others will express vehemently disagree. For example, Richard Lindzen, a professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, says, “Al Gore is wrong. There’s no ‘consensus’ on global warming.”
While the question of whether climate change is anthropogenic is certainly worthy of discussion, I think the debate illuminates an underlying premise that is often ignored and unchallenged. The unexamined assumption is that if there is a consensus among relevant scientific experts then we must defer to their purportedly informed opinion in making policy decisions.
Pondering this question raises two related queries: (a) Should we automatically defer to the consensus opinion when making policy decisions? and (b) Why are the opinions of scientists treated with more deference than other “experts”?
Let’s start with the second question. As the global warming debate has shown, the claim that the scientific community has reached a consensus is often used as the primary basis for advocating for changes in public policy. But what makes scientists a special class of experts? Why don’t we defer to the “consensus” opinion of, say, economists, on policy matters?
After all, there are, as economist Robert Whaples shows in a recent study, a few issues where economists have reached a consensus*:

Continue reading No Consensus on Consensus:
How Not to Argue (Part III)

No True Scientist:
How Not to Argue (Part II)

[Note: This is the second entry in the How Not to Argue series.]
In his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking, philosopher Anthony Flew outlined a form of argument that he dubbed the “No True Scotsman”fallacy:

Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Reply: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Rebuttal: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

Although this fallacy can be found in almost any debate, it is particularly prone to be bandied about on matters of politics, science, or–as has become increasingly common–politicized science. In fact, the argument is used so often on issues such as intelligent design, global warming, and stem cell research that we could call it the “No True Scientist” fallacy.
The phrasing of the argument ranges from the bold to the subtle. Critics of intelligent design hypotheses are often quite explicit in their ad hominems and are open about excluding anyone from the fold who disagrees with the party line. A similar hardening of opinion is occurring on climate change.
Recently, while explaining why he didn’t attend a recent Congressional hearing on global warming, Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently told journalists:

Continue reading No True Scientist:
How Not to Argue (Part II)

To Reason Why:
Making Sense of Our Reason-Giving

“I wish he would explain his explanation,” wrote Lord Byron in response to the obscurantist poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like Byron, we often find ourselves unsure of why people provide the explanations they do; an explanation of the explanation is needed. In his new book “Why?” Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly attempts to illuminate why we explain the way we do, or as reviewer Malcolm Gladwell says, to “make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” In his intriguing review for The New Yorker, Gladwell outlines Tilly’s four general categories of reasons:

1. Conventions — conventionally accepted explanations.
2. Stories — specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional.
3. Codes — high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories.
4. Technical accounts — stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority.

To illustrate Tilly�s classification, Gladwell uses the “orgy of reason-giving” that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington:

Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. “Accidents happen,” they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, “The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there’s Harry falling. And it was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.” Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney’s critics, meanwhile, focused on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney’s accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney’s shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn’t nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.

As Gladwell notes, all four explanations are relational and reveal something about the person who uses them. Those who wanted to excuse Cheney used the disengagement offered by convention. The Vice President, wanting to convey concern and regret without admitting to procedural wrongdoing, chose to explain himself with a story. Cheney’s critics desired to pin him to an absolute standard which comes from adherence to a code. For the hunting experts who wanted to display their singular expertise, the technical account provided the perfect form for an explanation.

Continue reading To Reason Why:
Making Sense of Our Reason-Giving

Heuristics and Hyperbole:
How Not to Argue (Part I)

“Experience keeps a dear school,” said Ben Franklin, “but fools will learn in no other.” Unfortunately, experience�s curriculum is comprised almost exclusively of tests. That is why fools like me tend to have rudimentary knowledge about what to do while possessing a Pavlovian understanding of what not to do.
Because that is the case I thought I would share my insights on how not to argue. I would much prefer to write a series on the proper way to use logic and rhetoric but I haven’t the faintest clue what that would entail. All I can offer is a set of heuristics, commonsense rules intended to increase the probability of solving some problem, which might help others avoid the tuition costs of experience’s school for debate.
A heuristic, as Wikipedia usefully defines the term, is a way of directing your attention fruitfully. Because our cognitive abilities are finite, it often becomes necessary to find simple means of using such resources most effectively. Heuristics are not infallible, but they tend to provide suitable means of “directing our attention more fruitfully” to recurring problems we face.
An example of a rule of thumb that I find to be particularly useful in helping to avoid problems is to avoid, whenever possible, willfully stupid people. Intelligence is, of course, a relative concept and everyone (except for the World’s Smartest Person) is just a little less bright than someone else. Willful stupidity, however, is distinct from IQ because it consists of a moral failing: Choosing to be dumber than you have to be.
One way to recognize a willfully stupid person is to examine the role hyperbole plays in their rhetoric. Take, for example, those who, like Pulitzer-nominated author Stephen Pizzo, say that “George Bush is the worst president of the United States of America, ever. Hands down.” Whenever I encounter such people I walk the other way for fear that such stupidity might be contagious. For anyone to make such a claim would require a basic understanding of Presidential history, an objective standard for comparing other Presidents to George W, and an ability to make nuanced judgments. In other words, it requires the very skill set that would generally prevent a person from making such an inane claim in the first place.

Continue reading Heuristics and Hyperbole:
How Not to Argue (Part I)