Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Logical Questions

Rene Descartes wanted to be a soldier. He joined the military and learned engineering. But one cold night everything changed for him. He shut himself up into a small room with a heater to stay warm. In that room he had visions of (not sugarplums but) math, ethics, and philosophy.

Saul wanted to be a Pharisee. He trained under a famous teacher and respected Pharisee. In his training he learned how to debate, reason, and he likely memorized huge chunks of the Hebrew scriptures. Saul did everything he could to defend the Jewish faith from attack -- mostly from other Jews.

Saul had a vision too, but he was on the road to Damascus instead of in a heated room. Saul’s vision undercut the foundation of everything he was doing. Jesus demanded to know why Saul was persecuting him. The result -- eventually -- was that Saul ran away to the desert and hid.

When Rene Descartes left the military, he started writing about mathematics and geometry, but for him it was all connected to philosophy and philosophy could only be discovered through logic. He decided that the foundation of logic couldn’t be in his senses, since they were fallible, so he relied on his own ability to think.

“I think, therefore I am.”

That simple sentence was the beginning point for Descartes and from there he attempted to reason out everything else in philosophy, religion, physics, and mathematics.

After Saul ran away -- and got the new name of Paul -- he re-emerged into the Jewish-religious life of the first century, but not as a defender of the Jewish faith. At least not in the way the his old friends and teachers wanted him to. Paul started building a case for Jesus being the Messiah. His letters are orderly, logical arguments that leave very little leeway for the Jews to keep denying Jesus.

Logic and logical questions are awkward, cumbersome to some people while to others they are the path to truth. For Paul and Descartes logic offered the best path to understanding God. They both looked at the rationality of the world around them and saw that as the best and truest argument for the existence of God and for his working in the world.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is, perhaps, the most logical in the whole of scripture. He sets out a clear progression of thought that, in the end, leads directly to the need for Jesus to save and redeem us all. It feels like the end-product of his struggle to reconcile Pharisaical training with his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Remember that Paul spent three years trying to figure everything out after his vision but before he started ministry. During that time he had to bring together his understanding of scripture with his vision of Jesus.

For him, the only logical conclusion was that scripture spoke of Jesus. Logical questions led Paul to tear down his whole belief system and rebuild it around Christ. Descartes did the same thing, but used logic to derive principles of math, geometry, and philosophy that are still in use today.

Logic gives us a path to walk and a way to trace and share our conclusions. Without the logic of Descartes spelled out in writing we may not have connected mathematics and geometry and we may have lost out on all sorts of applications, like space travel, 3D printing, and GPS navigation. But because Descartes decided to share all the steps on his logical path, we can follow along behind him and get to the same conclusions.

Paul’s world was realigned the moment Jesus appeared to him in a vision. He didn’t have to work through all the logic; he didn’t have to write it all down. But, he did so that others could follow along behind him. He probably also wanted to see where he’d been and where he was going.

Think of logic and logical questions like a breadcrumb trail. We can use it to help others follow and to help ourselves figure out where we’ve gone. Logic doesn’t give us the sense of adventure to step into the dark forest, but it does help us to make the trip safely and consistently.

Logic has its cousins that aren’t so helpful tough. Rationalization can seem like logic, but its purpose is to justify staying the same rather than explain change. If Paul had decided to reject the vision of Jesus and keep persecuting Christians, he would have had to rationalize quite a bit (he shouldn’t have eaten that burrito before going on a long trip) to justify doing the same thing.

Logical fallacies masquerade as logic, but lead to the wrong conclusions. They are dead-ends on the trail. For example, the slippery slope fallacy assumes that one thing will, inevitably cause another unrelated thing so we shouldn’t let the first thing happen. Or the no-true-Scotsman fallacy which say that no one who is a part of a group has certain characteristics to anyone with those characteristics must not be a part of that group.

Logic is powerful and helpful, but not only way to find answers or to ask questions.  


How did (do) you feel when you’re forced to show your work on math problems in school? Does it help you? Why do you think that is?

How do you feel about logical arguments?
In science?
In math?
In history?
In art?
In religion?

Does reading Romans help you? In what way? If not, why not?

Have you ever been convinced of something by logic? If so, what? If not, why?

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