This short lesson from logic can save us a bundle of folly and strife. If we all understood it, it could even save the world, since among the biggest threats we face is ideologies gone wild, unalterable and armed to the teeth.
It’s about how people of any faith or belief system get sloppy and over-confident. I’ll start with a few illustrations, simplified to make the pattern obvious:
It’s good to be liberal.
Interesting. How do you define being liberal?
Being liberal is defined as doing good things.
When you’re mindful things go right.
Say more. How can I tell when I’m being mindful?
Easy. By things going right.
Christians are good people.
Sounds useful. What defines a Christian?
Selfishness is bad.
OK. And how can I tell when I’m being selfish?
By whether you’re being bad.
To see what’s really going on here we’ll borrow a distinction between two kinds of statements from logic and philosophy:
News statements (AKA Synthetic): Statements that synthesize (combine) independent ideas to generate new knowledge. For example, “Christians are good,” if Christians are one thing and goodness is another.
Definitional statements (AKA Analytic): Statements that declare a definition, in other words, one idea given two names. For example, “All bachelors are unmarried men.” These statements don’t give you any news about the world, just about how you claim you’ll define things.
Definitional statements can’t really be proven wrong. If you think Joe is a bachelor and then discover he’s married, you don’t say “Wow, so I guess I was wrong. Apparently not all bachelors are unmarried men.” Instead you say “So Joe isn’t a bachelor after all,” since, by definition bachelor and unmarried man are one and the same thing.
Definitional statements are un-debatable. No amount of evidence could ever prove them wrong. Even if you discovered that 1000 bachelor acquaintances are actually married, you’re not going to start wondering whether maybe bachelors are married men after all. You’ll just stop saying those 1000 acquaintances are bachelors.
News statements are debatable. They can be proven wrong by evidence. If Sue believes that all Muslims are terrorists and her sister marries Ali, a Muslim who isn’t a terrorist, Sue faces a choice about how to interpret Ali’s deal. She could decide Ali isn’t really a Muslim or that he really is a terrorist, but more likely she’ll discover that her news statement is just wrong—news to her, not all Muslims are terrorists.
We have a love-hate relationship with both news and definitional statements. We love news statements for the wisdom they might provide about how to live. But we hate the hard work of defining our terms, and we hate that our news statements are debatable, always vulnerable to being proven wrong, the way Sue’s was when she discovered that she’s been living a falsehood—All Muslims aren’t all terrorists after all.
We love the reliability of definitional statements, the way they are beyond debate. They can’t be proven wrong because they’re just definitions: the two terms, bachelors and unmarried men traveling reliably together forever. But analytic statements give you no news about the world, and therefore no wisdom.
Given what we like and don’t like about these two kinds of statements, we tend to try to achieve the best of both worlds through what I’ll call a debate and switch. We claim we’re making news statements for their newsy, though debatable wisdom, but then we’ll switch to treating them as definitional statements, so we don’t have to go to the trouble to define our terms and so they become absolutely beyond debate.
News statement: Being mindful makes things turn out better.
That sounds like wisdom I might could use. So how can I tell whether I’m being mindful?
Definitional statement: You can tell that you were being mindful by things turning out better.
Or on the global stage:
Assad’s news statement: My leadership will prove good for Syria.
Dude, that’s highly debatable. You’re killing your people with chemical weapons. How is that good for Syria?
Assad’s definitional statement: Because by definition, my leadership equals good for Syria.
No one is immune to this debate and switch tendency. For example, I work in a field called “emergence theory.” Emergence is the scientific term for the observed tendency for behavior to change as you move from one science to another. For example, physical and life science operate on different rules, and science’s best guess is that life’s rules somehow emerge from physic’s rules. We make the news statement that mind emerges from matter, and then the burden is on us to define emergence so we know what the hell we’re talking about when we say “life emerges.”
But some emergent scientists convert the news statement into a definitional one:
News statement: Emergence is how life originates out of physics.
Cool, so what exactly is emergence?
Definitional statement: I already told you. It’s the process by which life originates out of physics.
In general, the savvy here comes from keeping the two kinds of statements distinct, and making sure that when people claim they’re giving you news about how to be in the world, they define their terms.
It’s good to be Christian.
It’s good to be mindful.
It’s good to be liberal.
It’s good to be conservative.
It’s bad to be selfish.
It’s bad to be inattentive.
It’s bad to be liberal.
It’s bad to be conservative.
Don’t let folks go circular on these, defining Christian as being good, for example or conservative as being bad. Don’t let the old debate and switch go unnoticed. We should call people on it, ourselves included when we do that ol’ debate and switch.