Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Truth and opinion: assertions and logic

This quote was mentioned to me recently, and it brought to mind some important ideas regarding logic-- thus, a continuation of my Logic for Theological Discussion series:

From a profile on CNN anchor Campbell Brown:...when you have Candidate A saying the sky is blue, and Candidate B saying it’s a cloudy day, I look outside and I see, well, it’s a cloudy day. I should be able to tell my viewers, ‘Candidate A is wrong, Candidate B is right.’ And not have to say, ‘Well, you decide.’ Then it would be like I’m an idiot. And I’d be treating the audience like idiots.

The difficulty is that there are different sorts of sentences that a candidate (or anyone else), and the media wants to categorize all of them into the same group when they aren't.

It is possible for a sentence to not be a "statement" or a truth claim. In logic, the term "statement" denotes a sentence that can be said to be true or false. Questions, exclamations, and declarations of opinion are not considered to be statements.

A real statement also can be subcategorized, into what we would call "supported" and "unsupported" statements. Those that need further verification in order to determine their truth value are considered supported, while those that are self-evident are unsupported.

Some sentences appear to be supported statements but are actually matters of opinion. For example, "it is cool in here" is only supported if the temperature is low-- let's say, close to freezing, or below 50 degrees. If it is 65 degrees, I might consider it comfortable while someone else may think it cool-- but it is then a matter of opinion. Meanwhile, some sentences are supported regardless of someone’s preference. For example, “That closet is dark when the light is off” is something that can be verified to be true, and no amount of opinion or preference for darkness will change that.

Furthermore, the difficulty with supported statements is that they are often made with reliance on evidence that itself is often questionable. So, if an expert in the field of economics, say, wages an opinion about the status of our financial crisis, his declaration may be quite credible (since he is an expert) but is nevertheless a matter of opinion. Someone else may offer a true statement about the matter, relying on the word of that expert as the supporting evidence for their statement. But this supported statement is based on expert opinion, which can be scrutinized, challenged, or counter-argued by other experts.

And here's the kicker: by far, most of the statements made by political candidates are either supported statements or declarations of opinions. So, for Campbell Brown (or any other journalist) to complain about whether they are allowed to report on them is spurious. NO journalist can adequately report these things with anything other than verbatim quotes, without becoming something of a wonk. It would simply take too much fact-checking and explanation to accomplish it in a journalistic way that is also reliable.

How does this apply to theology? Because we often do the same thing with theological matters. It is essential to see what claims are unsupported statements, which are supported statements, and which are
not statements at all but simply matters of opinion.

Consider the following:
  • Everyone understands that there is right and wrong. (Unsupported statement)
  • When Paul refers to the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, he means the body of Christ. (Supported statement)
  • The writers of the Westminster Confession would not have seen playing catch on a Sunday as permissible. (Opinion)

All of these are claims that might occur in a given theological discussion. Yet, they must not be treated with the same weight of authority, because they cannot all be taken in the same manner. An unsupported theological statement may be assumed in a way that the supported ones may not. My opinion may be correct, but you must come to that conclusion because of reasons that persuade you of it, not simply because I have said it.

How might we deal with different types of claims and sentences in theological (and other) discussions?
  • Determine which type of sentence(s) you’re being offered-- or, that you’re offering. This alone can be all the difference in recognizing how acutely you need to deal with the truth claims involved.
  • If the claim is an unsupported statement, is it true? This may seem like a simple question at first, but it isn’t. Does everyone really understand that there is right and wrong? Is darkness really dark? At least at a philosophical level, many such truth claims cannot be taken for granted these days. (Perhaps another time we’ll discuss how to address assertions of relative truth.)
  • If the claim is a supported statement, ask yourself, “What evidence and supporting information would be needed to demonstrate the truth of this claim?” Then find out if that evidence and/or information is available. If the claim is yours, can you demonstrate its truth with support? If the claim is someone else’s, ask them key questions that would reveal how well-supported the claim is. In other words, make sure that enough is disclosed to verify the claim being made.
  • If the claim is a statement of opinion, be constantly aware of this. Upon what is that opinion based? How much of an “expert” is the person waging the opinion? How vital is the reliability of this opinion in the overall argument? We place far too much weight on opinion when there is no merit for it; don’t allow this to become the deciding factor for you too easily.
  • Keep this in mind: if you’re dealing with the opinion of someone else, you’re probably not going to change their mind in a single conversation (or maybe ever). Especially if they have arrived at an opinion through some significant consideration, they will remain unmoved for some time. There’s nothing wrong with this-- but you don’t have to share their opinion. By and large, conversations and discussions that boil down to one person’s opinion vs. another’s-- with little evidence or reason involved otherwise-- only bruise relationships. If you want to change their mind, ask if you can discuss the things that led to their opinion, and be willing to do this in small, incremental units.

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