My daughters have been a true font of impeccable logic lately. Yesterday, my oldest daughter startled me with the revelation that she was a compatibilist. Today, my youngest daughter (4 year-old) demonstrated her own reasoning skills.
At breakfast this morning, she proudly showed me the painting she’d made at pre-school the day before. I told her that is was absolutely wonderful, of course, even though I had no idea what I was looking at, and I asked her to tell me about it.
“Oh, those are deciduous trees,” she said.
Now, I love it when little kids throw down words like “deciduous.” When I was four, I think I was still working on “bus.” So, wanting to see how much she actually knew about deciduous trees, I asked her if she knew what the other kind of trees are called.
“Evergreen trees,” she said quickly.
Okay, she’s got that one covered. And at this point she had just about taxed my grasp of tree lore. But, I had one question left.
“What makes deciduous trees different from evergreen trees?”
Looking at me with all the pity that four-year-old eyes can muster, she said, “Um, they’re called deciduous.”
I know when I’m beaten.
You’re probably familiar with most of the standard logical fallacies: false dichotomy, is/ought, affirming the consequent, etc. But, Ed Feser wants to alert us to a number of other very important fallacies that you’ve probably committed even though you’ve never heard of them. My favorite are the first three. Check out the post for the rest.
- Post doc, ergo propter doc: The delusion that a Ph.D. confers wisdom, or even basic competence. Example: “Of course the medievals thought the earth was flat. It says so in the book! Who’s the professor here, anyway?”
- Red hair-ing: Believing that something is true simply because a really hot redhead said it. Example: “Omigosh, Christina Hendricks is so hot. I would totally believe anything she says.”
- Appeal to minority: The smug presumption that popular opinion, tradition, and plain common sense are always likely to be wrong. Often committed in conjunction with the Post doc fallacy. Example: “Of course, this goes against everything your parents, your pastor, and pretty much everyone else have always believed. So it must be true!”
I recently had to perform a diagnostic on my racionator (i.e. that part of me that thinks and draws “logical” conclusions). I had picked up a journal article and was just starting to get a feel for the author’s thinking when he revealed that he would be critiquing the position of someone I really don’t like that much. He bugs me. He doesn’t bug me in the same way that Paul Tillich does. I’ve never met Paul Tillich (mostly because he died before I was born), so Tillich doesn’t bug me on a personal level. I just don’t care for his particular approach to pretty much everything. (That’s not entirely fair given that he bugs me so much that I haven’t read enough of what he’s written to know if he really should bug me as much as he does.) But, this guy’s not like that. I don’t have a theological problem with him. And, he doesn’t even bug me in the same way as that jerk in Barnes and Noble who keeps jabbering on his cell phone while I’m trying to enjoy a nice cup of coffee and sponge some free reading from the magazine section. He’s not rude or anything. No, for some reason I just don’t like this guy. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s still there.
So, as soon as I saw his name in this journal article, I immediately found myself gravitating toward the conclusion that his position (whatever it is) must be wrong. It was fascinating. It’s like a found myself on that slippery slope everyone keeps worrying about, inevitably sliding toward the conclusion that this guy just has to be wrong. Please, oh please, let him be wrong.
Then I came face-to-face with how easy it is to oppose someone just because you don’t like them. Often it is someone you don’t like for theological reasons. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve found students unfairly criticizing someone who is in a different theological camp than they are. They’re more than willing to be fair and give the “benefit of the doubt” to people on their side of the fence. But those other guys, forget it. They’re definitely wrong. Other times you might not like someone for more personal reasons. Was Luther an anti-Semite? That’s a question for another post. But, if he was, would that impact how you assess other aspects of his theology? Could Terry Jones be right on something other than whether we should threaten to burn the Qur’an? Probably not, but it’s at least worth considering. Because, of course, the fact that I don’t like what you have to say about X – or even the fact that you are just flat wrong about X, which is basically the same thing – does not necessarily have any bearing on what I should think about your opinion of Y. If Y is a separate issue, then Y has to be evaluated separately. Even if I don’t like you. That is inherent in the task of good academic discourse.
So, was he wrong? Do I get to bask in the joy of knowing that someone I don’t like was wrong yet again? I don’t know. I haven’t finished reading the article yet. I stopped to write this post.
(By the way, this doesn’t hold when I’m grading papers. It’s perfectly okay for me to grade you down on a paper just because I don’t like you. I do it all the time. That’s one of the privileges that comes from being on this side of the desk. That and not having to play the “What does this essay question even mean?” game anymore.)