A Christian Conservative Goes to College, part 6 (Philosophy 111: Critical Thinking)

Stephen J. Drain's picture

[To] quench my thirst they give me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69:21).
In my opinion some of the subjects of old should be mandatory in schools today. Logic is one of those subjects. Thus I took Critical Thinking as my advanced humanities elective. Our textbook that semester was entitled Introduction to Logic, so I felt I was in the right place.

The professor was, notably, the first and only professor I had who was younger than I. And he began the course with the basics about argument and logic, teaching the class about premises, conclusions, deduction, induction, etc. Towards the end of the semester we got more heavily into the many kinds of fallacious (or false) arguments such as appeal to emotion,[1] ad hominem,[2] argument from ignorance,[3] false cause,[4] complex question,[5] straw men,[6] etc. I think it would be good for any Christian to learn some basics about these things.
One of the things covered in class is how a big cause of problems in discussion and argument is the fact that different meanings are poured into words and terms we all use. This occurs, for example, when a professor begins to argue with a Christian student saying, “How can you support the death penalty when the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’?” Well, of course, there is a world of different between “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not murder.” The word translated to “kill” in the KJV would be better translated “murder” as it is in the modern versions. This underscores potential problems that arise with language and definitions.
The problem occurs on many levels for Christians. For instance, when witnessing or evangelizing, a Christian may talk about sin, but the average American does not consider selfishness, gossip, greed, envy, or even premarital sex, as sins. Certainly they do not expect those things to carry with them a verdict of hell (Romans 1:28-32, Ephesians 5:3-5, Galatians 5:19-21, 2 Timothy 3:2-5, Revelation 21:8, etc.) When they think of sin they probably think of murder, pedophilia, racism, intolerance, and even corporate fat-cat greed, but seldom do they consider things they themselves do to be sinful. Also since many non-believers have so little exposure to Christianity and the Bible these days, there is very little understanding of who Jesus Christ is, of what salvation means, of what eternal life means. Think of how many different connotations probably come up when we speak of God as our Father (since there are so many different examples of fathers out there) or when we call Him our Sovereign or King (since most Americans do not know what it is like to live in a nation ruled by a king or a sovereign). What do they think of when they hear us use words like “holy”, “just”, “election”, “peace”, or “freedom.”
The language and terminology problem also occurs when other quasi-Christians use the same terminology we do, while pouring completely different meanings into those terms. I remember hearing one prominent Mormon in the media saying this one day: “I know some try to say I’m not, but I am a Christian. Jesus is my Savior. If it weren’t for his atonement I would not be alive today.” Sounds Christian enough, doesn’t it? But his definitions of “Savior”, and “atonement” were most likely very different than that of orthodox Christianity. The term “Son of God” would have a completely different meaning to a Mormon, a so-called “Jehovah’s Witness”, a Muslim. All would be completely different than the meanings that Scripture gives them. Thus these are also important things to remember for a Christian.
One of the most important things for anyone to learn about argumentation is that when an argument is made it is usually made up of at least two premises and a conclusion. Example from class: Premise one: God is Love. Premise two: Love is blind. Premise three: Ray Charles is blind. Conclusion: Therefore, Ray Charles is God. In this humorous example it is easy to see that some generally used or accepted statements lead to a silly conclusion. (Believe me, this happens often in life.) But how does one attack or dismantle an argument? Dismantling or countering an argument is done by scrutinizing the premises. If even one premise can be dismantled, the whole argument falls and can be proven invalid. At least it can be proven that the conclusion did not necessarily follow, although the conclusion may still be true. In the case of the Ray Charles argument, we have issues with the word “is.” (Where is Bill Clinton when we need him?) We also have different definitions for the word “love”, perhaps even for the word “blind.” With those starting points a person can begin to counter the argument.
The professor liked to work on dismantling arguments in class. He would put an argument on the board and let the class try to find problems with the premises. If the students couldn’t come up with anything, he would usually do it himself. Unfortunately, it seemed to me, he was always attempting to dismantle conservative or Christian positions.
For example, he asked the class to give him reasons why conservatives and the religious right said that homosexuality was wrong. The class gave what they believed to be the five main reasons: 1. It’s against God.[7] 2. Homosexuals cannot produce children. 3. If it is allowed, then polygamy and bestiality have to be allowed. 4. It violates the historic definition of marriage. 5. It is unnatural. He then attempted to counter each argument himself: “Homosexuality is against God? This is unverifiable. There are different religions and different holy texts. I’m not saying it’s false, although I hope it is. But since it is unverifiable, it’s false. Homosexuals cannot produce children? Some heterosexuals cannot produce children, the conclusion that ‘therefore homosexuality is wrong’ does not follow. Then polygamy and bestiality have to be allowed? This is the ‘slippery slope argument’[8] and the conclusion again does not necessarily follow. It violates the historic definition of marriage. The conclusion does not necessarily follow. It’s unnatural? What does ‘natural’ mean? If ‘natural’ means, ‘Does it follow the laws of physics and science?’ It does no such thing. If ‘natural’ means, what the Roman Catholics say it means, ‘Does it fulfill the intended purpose for which it is made?’ Even if it violates that, it does not follow to say it is wrong. Thus the conclusion is again invalid.”
Oh, so much can be said about the above.
I would certainly disagree and argue against his characterization that the polygamy premise was a slippery slope argument. After all, if one erases a set line of morality to include one’s own group, on the basis that consenting adults should be allowed to marry, then it is completely arbitrary to redraw the line to exclude other consenting adults. If their argument is that it should only be two consenting adults, then, what would they base that upon? One could then ask if a brother and sister could marry. If homosexuals were allowed the right but then excluded a brother and sister from marrying, it seems arbitrary. If they said, “But a brother and sister might have messed up children because of the gene pool situation,” we could ask if a sterilized brother and sister could marry. I believe they lose this argument.
Regarding his last point, above, at first he seems to want to define “natural” as being something that can actually occur in nature. Deciding the question by asking whether it  follows the laws of physics and science is ridiculous. Murder would then be perfectly natural as it also follows the laws of science and physics. Polygamy and incest would be natural according to that definition. Even bestiality would be natural by that definition. “If it can be done, it’s natural.” Even my agnostic-evolutionist friend admits that homosexuality is “an anomaly of nature and would not be of benefit to the species in any way.” Of course the usual response to any conservative or Christian, to any counter argument on this subject, is usually an ad hominem attack: “You Christians are bigoted, homophobes!”  
 And suffice it to say that in his answer to the It’s against God premise, the professor set up his own little argument (though not fully expressed). It would be along the following lines: 1. (Understood and implied) Some holy texts say homosexuality is wrong. 2. There are different religions and different holy texts. 3. (Implied) It is unverifiable as to whether any of these religions or holy texts are true, correct, or actually from God. 3. Therefore, it cannot be proven that homosexuality is wrong according to God. (I think his argument would actually have had or needed one or two more premises, but I tried to condense it.) But someone who disagrees with his argument could now counter him by attacking his premises. For instance, I might attack his unspoken premise number 3 and attempt to show that there is a way we can scrutinize the holy texts and begin crossing some off the list. This is how critical thinking works.
Another one of the major arguments the teacher wanted to examine was what he termed “the generally accepted conservative argument against abortion” which he gave as follows: Premise 1.Innocent people have a right to life. Premise 2.It is seriously wrong to kill and innocent person. Premise 3.Abortion is the killing of an innocent person. Conclusion: Therefore abortion is a serious wrong. “As it stands,” he said, “this argument is valid. Again, the issue in Critical Thinking, if one disagrees with that conclusion, is to attack one of the premises. A liberal would want to show whether the above argument is sound or not by attacking the premises. If one of the premises can be proven incorrect, then the whole argument against abortion fails.” He then assigned homework to the class to read two arguments that attacked premises within the above anti-abortion argument: A Defense of Abortion by Judith Jarvis Thomson[9] and The Moral and Legal Status of Abortion by Mary Anne Warren.[10] Both arguments were written in the early 1970s either right before or right after the Supreme Court declared abortion to be legal. The arguments were extremely frustrating for me to read. I may write about this in my next column in the series.
My main point in this column is to show that even in a class like Critical Thinking, in a class that teaches logic and argument, something every Christian, every citizen, and every thinking human being should learn, even in this class, a left leaning, secular bias, and a consistent erosion of Christian values occurred. The examples were consistently, “Let’s argue against or dismantle the generally accepted conservative or Christian viewpoint.” There were no exercises dismantling today’s prevalent “there’s nothing wrong with premarital sex” stances. No homework assignment to read a couple of good arguments against so-called “gay marriage.” No arguments against feminism, pornography, prostitution, legalization of drugs, etc. It always seemed that he only wanted the class to see how conservative arguments could be dismantled.[11]
Well, it wasn’t as though I didn’t expect this when I decided to go back to school…
“Make me understand your ways, O Lord! Teach me your paths! Guide me into your truth and teach me” (Psalm 25:4-5).
 
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Feel free to read my other columns at http://www.examiner.com/christian-perspectives-in-philadelphia/stephen-j...


[1]
Example of an appeal to emotion: “Christians say that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. That would mean that all the good people of the world who are Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, etc., would be going to hell. Sorry good people, hell for you.” It’s an emotional argument, yes, but not proof that Jesus Christ’s words in John 14:6 were untrue.

[2] “Ad hominem” basically means “against the person.” An example would be: “George W. Bush is an idiot, so of course he would be wrong about education.” Such an argument is fallacious as it completely ignores any discussion of George W. Bush’s education policy. Another one would be: “Christians are homophobic, so of course they are against gay marriage.”

[3] An argument from ignorance would be: “With all the other planets and solar systems in the universe, it’s certain that there is intelligent life out there somewhere.” The opposite statement would also fall into this category: “Since all the planets, moons, and asteroids we’ve examined have not had any life on them, we can pretty much know there is no other life in the universe.” A lack of evidence does not prove or disprove the truth of a situation. The same can be said for the statement, “I’ve never seen anyone ever rise from the dead, so I can be certain Jesus never rose from the dead.”

[4] “False cause,” sometimes known as a “non-sequitur” (meaning “it does not follow”). Examples: “Christianity was the cause of the downfall of the Roman Empire because the Roman Empire fell and never regained its former glory once Christianity rose to prominence in the Empire.” Nothing in that statement proves that Christianity was the cause of Rome’s fall. A thousand of other factors could have contributed. “A temporal connection is not necessarily factual.” Another would be: “Since the rise of the Christian right and the Intelligent Design movement, science scores in our nations schools have plummeted.”

[5] “Complex question,” also known as “begging the question,” is where the truth of something is inferred or presupposed in the question itself: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” is the most famous example. It’s a question that seemingly allows for only a “yes” or “no” answer and it already assumes the person has been beating his wife. Another example would be, “Since you Christians are so good at verbal gymnastics in attempting to explain all the Bibles contradictions, tell me how…” It doesn’t really matter how they finish that sentence, they have already made an uncontested statement that the Bible is filled with contradictions and, secondly, that any answer a Christian gives will be “verbal gymnastics.”

[6] A “straw man” argument is one where an opponent falsely sets up the other side’s argument in a weak or phony way, making the other side’s supposed argument easy to destroy. Example: “Christians say they want to go back to having a more Christian country, back to the old days when blacks were second class citizens, when women weren’t allowed to vote, when abortions had to be performed in back alleys with coat hangars. But we say they’re wrong. The Civil right Movement was a good thing. Women voting is a good thing. Safe abortions are a good thing.” They presented a falsehood as being what Christians desire for this country, and then they made a simple case to defeat that falsehood.

[7] Certainly it’s against the Laws of the God of the Bible: Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, etc.

[8] The “slippery slope argument” falls under the fallacy of false cause “when one mistakenly argues against some proposal on the ground that any change in a given direction is sure to lead to further changes in the same direction” (page 145 of Introduction to Logic, Twelfth Edition, by Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen, copyright 2005, 2002, 1998, and 1994 by Pearson Education, Inc.).

[9] Read it here: http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm

[10] Read it here: http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/warren_article.html

[11] Though I will give him credit that in one early class when there was discussion about what was fact and what was not, and I disagreed with another student who said something about evolution being a fact—to that student’s disgust—the professor backed me up, but only to the extent of saying to the other student, “If you mean that evolution is 100% proven, you would be wrong; though it is accepted by scientists as being a fact until someone can prove otherwise.”

Comments

I think your professor had some good points, but overall it was pretty weak. I think he brought up covservative christian beliefs because they are unfounded. They are based on your faith...in other words, those outside of your faith need not pay them mind. Positions that look to faith specific scriptures for validation will always run into this issue.

Stephen J. Drain's picture

Nate,

I'm sure you realize, that a person need not pay mind to anyone's rules or beliefs. That would include anyone's morality. A person could disagree with anyone's beliefs by simply saying, "Says who?" continually.

In an interesting article by a guy named Gary DeMar it is pointed out that this was one of the defenses used by the Nazi's at Nuremburg: We do not and did not adhere to your moral worldview, so you cannot tell us what is right or wrong, you cannot judge us.

He writes, "Given materialist assumptions about the origin and destiny of man, natural law theory is by definition dead. It’s surprising that America is not worse of morally since secular assumptions are firmly rooted in every major university and law school in the country. Contrary to what some Christian philosophers and ethicists maintain, logically there is no “common moral ground upon which to engage the secular world in the public square over moral issues” and “all human beings” do not “recognize certain truths.” So what’s keeping our world from disintegrating? Fortunately, few secularists are consistent with their materialist assumptions."

See http://americanvision.org/4773/declaring-independence-from-god-a-very-ba...

Stephen J. Drain's picture

The following response was sent me in a personal email... the writer agreed that I could share it here:

The sad fact is that any person whose foundational belief is Naturalism/Materialism (like your logic/argumentation prof) has no bedrock foundational premises upon which to build any argument regarding any moral/ethical principle.  Even "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (obviously fails for sadists/masochists but maybe no sado-masochists!  LOL!) can be countered just by asking "Why should I?  I believe in Do unto others before they can do unto me .... and if you don't like it I'll eliminate you before you eliminate me".

It hearkens back to what I said about Rand and Marx both starting with "There is no God" and then proceeding to the their conclusions that are basically individualism or collectivism,  i.e. "It's all about ME" vs. "It's all about US" ... They have no way to "prove" anything, so they remain opinions.  Some would fall back to simply "Go with what works for you" or the old Start Trek Mr. Spock principle of "The good of the many outweighs the good of the one" ... trying to precisely determine with certainty what "the good" is can present quite a challenge!

Two famous statements .... "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" ..... "Without God all things are permissible"

The first is inherently  self-contradictory (the first phrase denies the truth of the second) but makes the case that without a single premise that can be declared to be "TRUE" you cannot derive any "TRUE" conclusion and therefore you can never create a logically sound argument that forbids anything.  Add in the second famous statement and I would argue that God's most personal name ("I AM") is the foundational "TRUE" premise upon which everything else depends. 

Philosophers call premises that they wish to stop arguing the truth of, and just accept as true, properly basic.  Some consider "God exists" properly basic while others do not -- back to more opinions.

Assert "God does not exist" and it's only Natural (pun intended) that all attempts at reasoning about morality will collapse into a messy collection of conflicting personal opinions of billions of people .... and then the principle of "might makes right" often takes over ... only to be constrained by "societal law" passed by opinions of legislators and judged by opinions of judges.

Your prof cannot make a single irrefutable argument for any ethical/moral position -- that is why he was so compulsively bound to only trying to dismantle arguments that begin with "God exists".

But since neither the assertion nor the denial of "God exists" can be proven in the formal logical sense (think about it, there are no more foundational premises that can be used to derive that one) we are left with various systems of BELIEF .... and nothing more.

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