A Quick Course in Rational Thought (and Persuasive Argument): “Thought 101”

Rational Thought (and Persuasive Argument) 101

If there is one thing I have learned from blogging it is that many otherwise intelligent people struggle and fail at thinking rationally. I’m sure I do as well (but hopefully not often). Thinking rationally and sticking to it is difficult; it takes a great deal of effort.

Over my many years of interacting with people about ideas I have often heard them refer to something called “Buddhist logic.” They claim that basic rules of logic are “Western,” meaning rooted in Greek and Roman philosophy and those mostly white, European males who operate under its influence. Allegedly, other cultures have their own rules of logic and rhetoric (persuasion) that are equally valid.

I once had a friend and colleague who grew up in Japan and who studied and taught at a Buddhist university there. He informed me in no uncertain terms that there is no such thing as “Buddhist logic.” For him, as for me, logic is logic—everywhere the same—insofar as a person is attempting to persuade others to believe what she believes with the expectation that they will agree.

Now, having said that, of course there are many means and methods of persuasion that are not limited to logic. However, and this is my main point, insofar as (I love that phrase and use it often) a person is attempting to persuade me to believe what he believes and expects that once I hear him out I will believe what he believes he must stick to basic rules of logic. Other means of persuasion can be used, of course, and in some cases must be used: evidence, experience, appeals to common sense, traditional beliefs, etc. My point is simply that woven in and through all of that and underlying it all must be conformity to basic rules of logic.

A, perhaps the, basic rule of logic is that contradiction is always a sign of error. It is called the law of contradiction or the law of non-contradiction. Insofar as an argument or appeal for agreement contains within it a fundamental contradiction, incoherence, it is unintelligible and cannot be taken seriously by serious-minded people.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Now, having said all that, I admit that what constitutes a contradiction, in the sense I mean it (a claim that two or more propositions that cannot both/all be true because they flatly contradict each other), is not always easy to identify. So my point here is simply this: If someone wants me to agree with her but her appeal, argument, contains what I consider to be a logical contradiction, I cannot take her appeal, argument, seriously—unless and until she can convince me that what I think is a logical contradiction is not that.

Many people wrongly believe that things they believe are impossible constitute the “illogical.” I hear it all the time. For example, a person who does not believe in miracles claims that they are illogical. Or, to turn it around, sometimes a person who does believe in miracles will call them illogical (and with ancient church father Tertullian or nineteenth century Danish philosopher-theologian Kierkegaard think logical does not apply to Christian belief). For years I have struggled to explain to Christians and non-Christians alike that belief in the deity and humanity of Christ (“hypostatic union”) and belief in the Trinity are not strictly illogical—even though the way many people express these beliefs does fall into logical contradiction. The classical theological formulations of these doctrines are not illogical; believing them does not involve believing the “absurd”—and certainly not within a theistic worldview.

Whenever I say these things, if my audience is large enough, someone inevitably brings up the issue of “paradox.” “Doesn’t Christianity require belief in paradox?” Then I have to explain that, although “paradox” and “logical contradiction” are often use interchangeably in popular parlance, they are not the same thing. A paradox is two propositions that seem impossible to reconcile but do not stand in absolute logical contradiction to one another.

A, perhaps the, classical example of a paradox is light. (And to those of you who would like to contradict me, please know that I have often discussed this with trained, professional physicists.) Light displays characteristics that are both “wave like” and “particle like.” How it can be both is a paradox, so it constitutes a continuing challenge and task for investigation and thought. A paradox is always a task for thought; “relieving the paradox” is a necessary challenge and task for the researcher. But the claim that “Light is both wave-like and particle-like” does not constitute a logical contradiction. It is a paradox because, apparently, nobody really knows how it can be that way. But the hope is, of course, that someday, somehow a physicist will explain it and relieve the paradox. If it were a logical contradiction it would have to be suspended, not relieved.

Now, please allow me to get to my main point (finally). The law or rule of contradiction (which I prefer to call the law or rule of non-contradiction) is not the only basic, fundamental rule of thought and persuasion. My efforts to muse rationally here and to persuade readers to agree with me often run into responses, arguments, that I can only think of as violations of “Thought 101.” I am not claiming that I have never succumbed to such. Of course I have; everyone does from time to time because our emotions and personal commitments over rule rule-regulated thought and persuasion.

Recently, as several times in the past, I argued here that without a transcendent source of values (above nature) true humanism, in the way it has traditionally been expressed and explained by its main prototypes, constitutes mere speciesism and therefore should not be taken seriously except as an expression of self-interest in philosophically disguised form. I explained that by “humanism” I always mean belief that homo sapiens possess special dignity and worth higher than other animals and also possess rights other species do not possess.

Always, almost immediately, red herrings appear in some people’s responses. By “red herring” I mean irrelevant points of claimed contrary opinion that are claimed to undermine my argument. For example, some interlocutors predictably claim that I am wrong because some humanists admit to being speciesists. While that is not true of any of the humanists I have read or interacted with, it’s irrelevant to my argument. It actually supports my argument merely by pointing out that there are some people who claim to be humanists who have recognized the truth in my argument and admit to being speciesists but continue to call themselves “humanists.” That response is a red herring; it is an attempt to divert attention away from what I actually said and undermine it by confusing the issue, complicating it with irrelevant facts—facts not directly relevant to my argument. My response to such a red herring response is simple and should be obvious to all: so what? In other words, so what that there are people calling themselves humanists who admit to being speciesists? I question whether they are really humanists, but that’s a different discussion.

There have been other red herring-type responses to that argument I have made here several times and to others I have made. With regard to my argument about the necessity of a transcendent (even supernatural) source of values for humanism (if it is to avoid mere speciesism) some here always respond that since there is no universal agreement about the nature of that transcendent source of values it must not exist or it is of no value. This is blatant nonsense—as a form of formal argumentation. That people disagree about a thing—even whether it exists—is irrelevant to whether it does actually exist. People can be and often are wrong. Agreement about the “what” is irrelevant to the “that” of a thing. Pointing to widespread disagreement about the “what” and even about the “that” does not undermine in the least a well-grounded argument for its existence. Confusing the order of knowing with the order of being is another violation of “Thought 101.” And when used here is a red herring that diverts attention from the argument.

My point is that red herring arguments violate “Thought 101” and should not be taken seriously.

I could go on enumerating the numerous violations of what I call “Thought 101” that happen here, but I will give an example that did not happen here (but could have given many of my interlocutors’ violations of the rules of thought and persuasion). While playing the devil’s advocate I defended America’s electoral college system of deciding who will serve as president of the United States. A very intelligent conversation partner jumped to the conclusion that defending the electoral college system makes one a “Trumpist”—a supporter of president-elect Donald Trump. I was simply dumbfounded by such a claim—especially made by an intelligent, educated person who thinks she thinks rationally about things. When I challenged her logic she simply responded that in the present American political situation defending the electoral college system amounts to defending and even supporting Donald Trump. Again, I was dumbfounded by the argument because it violated basic rules of reasonable thought and argument.

A basic rule of “Thought 101” is to keep logically separate ideas separate.

I would not have thought my interlocutor in violation of Thought 101 had she merely asked me “Then does that mean you support Donald Trump?” I would have said politely whether I do or do not and then pointed out to her how wrong-headed her assumption and even her question are. What actually happened, however, is what often happens here and elsewhere in conversations about ideas. She didn’t ask me but simply assumed and went around telling people I support Donald Trump as president of the United States solely on the basis that I defended (playing devil’s advocate) the electoral college system. When I finally confronted her about this, she responded by saying that if I do not support Donald Trump I should say so when defending the electoral college system.

That violation of “Thought 101” is, I fear, extremely common these days—in highly charged, emotional conversations and debates about politics, religion, ethics and other subjects.

Years ago I took a graduate-level course in philosophy in which the professor gave an example of what I am calling “Thought 101”—a violation of it that happened to him. According to him, he was in a conversation with a relatively new colleague about what was then called the “Women’s Liberation Movement.” He supported many of its goals and aims but had reservations about some aspects of it and said so in the conversation. His conversation partner, an ardent supporter of the movement, responded with “When did you stop beating your wife?” Obviously, as he explained to us, his conversation partner did not really, literally, mean to imply that he had ever beaten his wife. The point the conversation partner was attempting to make, rather dramatically, was that anyone who did not fully and unconditionally support the Women’s Liberation Movement is a misogynist (what was then often called a “male chauvinist pig” even by academics).

What my professor’s colleague asked, or implied under the guise of a question, constituted a violation of “Thought 101” and that was my professor’s point. It constituted an illogical leap from reasonable conversation and argument to an irrational conclusion. It constituted what I call a “conversation stopper.” People often do this; they lob a thought-grenade, sometimes in the form of a question, into a conversation, that is intended not to promote thought and possible mutual understanding, if not agreement, but to halt that because of where they think it may be going.

This kind of fuzzy-thinking, violating “Thought 101,” often happens in adult Sunday School classes and Bible studies. (I have experienced it far too many times to count!) A person is questioning the truth of a doctrine or interpretation of the Bible and another person says “We mustn’t question God, you know.” Do they really assume that questioning a human doctrine or interpretation of the Bible constitutes “questioning God?” Often, yes. But that is a conversation stopper, unhelpful in any conversation whose aim is reasonable investigation of ideas and persuasion.

I have concluded that, although these and other violations of “Thought 101” have always been around, they are becoming more common among reasonable people who believe they are capable of and do practice reasonable thought and persuasive conversation about ideas.

These and other violations of “Thought 101” happen here so often, in the comments that I moderate almost daily, that it is becoming a matter of some frustration. Responding to such a comment often, usually, leads to what Southerners call “chasing rabbits”—going off on paths of thought and discussion that lead far away from the main path (point) of anything I wrote. And so, I have given serious thought to simply deleting such comments—when they do not stick to the subject, when they introduce red herring arguments, when they are strictly illogical in nature, when they are irrelevant to what I actually wrote—which is always an invitation to serious, reasonable conversation.

I will say here and now that, normally, with some exceptions, I expect my interlocutors here to know and stick to the rules of “Thought 101.” They are all actually intuitive; any well-functioning, mature mind should be able to do that in conversations about ideas without even taking a college course in basic logic and rhetoric. Unfortunately, of course, I know that’s expecting a lot of people—especially ones driven by emotion and commitment more than by reason.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).