Language and paradox, part 2


The problem with valid arguments that are not sound are that eventually, some event happens that disproves the argument. When that event happens, it can have serious repercussions. Whether in the world or in the Church, the repercussions can be serious, can be humorous, can be of little effect, etc. This is why it is important to know which subjects to discuss and which subjects can easily be avoided.

Let me give you two instances. One is Calvinism vs. Armenianism. Will it make much difference how you live your life as a good Christian with either theology? Well, despite those who vehemently argue the sides, most people would say that it makes little difference. Even the most severe Calvinist argues that faith without works is dead. They do that with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which calls into question the election of any Christian who does not show the election in their life. It is a rather degraded version of Calvinism that argues that “once saved always saved” means that this is so regardless of any evidence being present in the person’s life that Christ is in their life. Meanwhile, Armenians do not live out their life worried about their salvation simply because they know they must choose to live like Christians.

The other instance is Ebola. Recently, we have had a national panic based on unsound arguments about Ebola. How do we know they are unsound? Well, because Ebola did not spread. Had many of the scenarios painted by the news media been true, then there would have been a spread of Ebola from the original infected to uninfected people in greater numbers than we actually had. Our country has been a biological laboratory that proves that Ebola needs more direct contact than simply sitting in the same airspace as someone who has been exposed to Ebola or has Ebola. The only two people who have been infected in the USA were nurses who were directly treating the patient during the worst part of their Ebola cycle. In other words, with Ebola the sound arguments were found with the medical establishment. The valid, but unsound, arguments were found with those who tried to claim a greater pathogenicity for Ebola than trained experienced scientists.

In the Church, we need some discernment, as well, as to which subjects to discuss. One of the guidelines could simply be, “would it make any difference which side was considered sound?” If the answer is that neither Church policy nor personal behavior would change regardless of which is the sound argument, then we might have a topic which needs to be left for discussion by seminary faculties, but not by councils of bishops. If either Church policy or personal behavior would have to change, then that might be a subject to be fruitfully discussed by the Church. I think that often we would have less heat in the Church were that particular guideline to be followed.

Many arguments in the Church, or in society, are based merely on the possibilities in language. Paradoxes are rapidly created by language which have little actual effect on real life. Worse, possibilities are created by language which have little “real-life” possibility of being true. Often, however, these possibilities are elevated in political argumentation or theological argumentation to be “must-solve” issues. For instance, in political argumentation, the birther argument was incredibly improbable. But, because it could be stated in language as a valid possibility, it was elevated in political thought to a “must-solve” issue. We do the same thing with Church arguments.


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Language and paradox


One of the interesting things about language is that language is able to express things that are impossible. That is, with language you can say things that are understandable, are valid, but are not sound. For instance, an argument with false premises may have false conclusions and still be valid. But, an argument that is valid and has true premises cannot have a false conclusion. [Note: the previous paragraph is an extremely rough definition for purposes of this post.]

In popular speak when we say that someone has a valid argument, we are saying that the argument hangs together, that it is logically true. In other words, when you hear the argument, it makes sense. There is something powerfully appealing about an argument that makes sense. You automatically find yourself stopping to consider whether your argument is wrong.

In fact, in popular speak, it is not unusual for people to say that various people have put forward valid arguments. What we are saying is that people have put forward arguments that hang together, that make sense, but whose conclusions may not agree with each other.

We often do not do the hard work of sifting through various premises to find out whether the beginning premises are correct. It is much easier to devolve into some type of acknowledgement of everyone’s validity rather than to cause upheaval. This is why we have the aphorism that says that at a good social gathering no one should discuss politics, religion, or sex. Those are three subjects that are full of valid arguments, but inevitably lead to conflict if discussed.

When it comes to social gatherings, or even to some church gatherings, this attitude makes sense. After all, even a parish can only remain together if any of several historical theological arguments are quietly ignored in practice. There are many good Protestant congregations that completely avoid a full discussion of Calvinism or Armenianism in order to be able to remain one congregation. Frankly, in practice it matters little which one of those viewpoints you follow. In the same way, in Orthodoxy it is better to stay away from Palamas, the Paris School, toll-houses, membership fees, etc., as these are subjects that often have little practical effect on the faith.

The problem comes in knowing which subjects can be safely avoided and which subjects must be discussed.


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Modern idolatry

“Idolatry is committed not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohols, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.” – G.K. Chesterton Over one … [Continue reading]