Thursday, 10 June 2010

How does Christianity fit with logic?

We've come to the end of our series on relativism and hopefully you've agreed with my conclusion that it is most rational to believe that what is true about things does not vary from person to person, that we should consider that there may be actually existing moral laws, and that not every interpretation of a text is valid. With all this achieved we can now begin to have a look at beliefs about what all these truths are. As I am a practising Christian, Christianity and its main ideological opponents will be the focus of the blog's activities.

Now particularly in Britain, Christianity doesn't receive much respect as a candidate for what is true. It is largely believed to be contrary to the available evidence and just a bit backwards. Where these objections fall within my ability to examine, I'll have a go at tackling them. Firstly however we need to have a look at the popular belief that Christianity is opposed even to logic itself. Or that if it isn't opposed to logic, it claims that logic only goes so far. This belief is often held both by non-Christians and Christians too. I want to say that I think this belief is deeply mistaken and arises out of a misunderstanding of what logic actually is.

What is logic?

It's common to see both skeptics and Christians express a misunderstanding of what logic is. You might have encountered these sorts of claims:

Skeptic: "Christians say that God rose Jesus from the dead. But I think there must be a logical explanation for what happened."
Christian: "Skeptics say that Christianity isn't logical. But God transcends mere human reason."

But what exactly is logic? The laws of logic are rules that govern how to correctly reason. In and of themselves they do not tell you what is true. In a similar way the rules of Tennis tell you how Tennis correctly works but do not tell you the truth of what happened in a particular match. If the rules of Tennis in a match were broken, a person wouldn't be playing properly. If the laws of logic are broken, a person wouldn't be reasoning properly. Have a look at this argument.

1. All snakes are elephants.
2. Frank is a snake.
3. Therefore, Frank is an elephant.

Is this argument logical? It may surprise you that the answer is actually "yes". It is logically valid because if points 1 and 2 were true, 3 would also be true. An argument is logically valid if all the different points (philosophers call them 'premises') connect properly to form the conclusion. An argument is logically valid and 'sound' if the points not only correctly connect properly but are true too. Here is an example of an argument that is logically valid and sound,

1. All snakes eventually die.
2. Frank is a snake.
3. Therefore, Frank will eventually die.

If we ignored the laws of logic we would make all kinds of errors in our reasoning. We could produce an argument like this,

1. All snakes eventually die.
2. Tesco is evil.
3. Therefore Bruce Willis is my mum.

This is problematic because if we ignore the laws of logic we will find it very hard to arrive at correct conclusions! As a Christian I believe God expects me to pursue truth. I better make sure I pay attention to logic then! As it is we often find ourselves making errors even when we do try and adhere to the laws of logic. Logical errors are called logical fallacies; you can read about them here. Logic doesn't just deal with the structure of arguments. It also deals with how compatible certain ideas are. We should be careful to make sure our beliefs don't break the Law of Non-Contradiction. If two ideas are contradictory, necessarily they cannot both be true. Look at these:

1. The universe is made up exclusively of matter.
2. The universe is made up exclusively of spiritual substance.

If one of these beliefs were true it would logically entail that the other could not be. A person then should not hold both of these beliefs at the same time. Often the skeptic will try and show that some of the ideas that the Christian holds are logically incompatible. They might try and argue for instance that it cannot be true that both an all-powerful, all-loving God can exist alongside evil. The Christian should not be happy to just accept this judgment. If there really was a logical contradiction, either God could not be both all-power and all-loving or evil could not exist. The Christian should examine the skeptic's claims and see whether the beliefs in question really do entail a logical contradiction (I will do so in a later entry).

It is very important that the Christian defends the logical consistency of God. If God does not adhere to the laws of logic then he can both exist and not-exist at the same time. If he isn't logically consistent then how could he be trusted to judge fairly? Only a logical God is worthy of worship.

Where's the mystery?

If you're a Christian reading this you might be concerned that I'm trying to squeeze God into my limited human understanding. I'm actually not. The claim that God is logical is not the same as the claim that God is completely comprehendable. For instance I do not understand all there is to know about genetics or computer programming, although I believe things about them, and recognise that they do not entail any logical contradictions. In the same way it is possible to believe that the existence of an all-power, all-loving God, and evil, do not entail a logical contradiction, even if you don't know why God allows evil.

Let's understand logic!

Let's return to the two claims we saw at the start and see where they went wrong.

Skeptic: "Christians say that God rose Jesus from the dead. But I think there must be a logical explanation for what happened."

The skeptic is likely confusing a logical belief for a 'materialistic' belief. Materialism is the belief that matter and energy is all that there is. This skeptic then, wants to explain Jesus' resurrection by purely material or "natural" means, i.e. without the involvement of any divine being. Fair play, but as we've seen, logic is only concerned with the structure of our thought, not its contents. A materialistic belief is not more logical than a non-materialistic belief just by virtue of being materialistic. It would be more correct for the skeptic to say this;

Skeptic: "Christians say that God rose Jesus from the dead. But I think there must be a materialistic explanation for what happened."

As for the Christian claim,

Christian: "Skeptics say that Christianity isn't logical. But God transcends mere human reason."

We have seen that the Christian should defend God's logical nature, not abandon it. The attitude of the Christian should more resemble this;

Christian: "Skeptics say that Christianity isn't logical. But if Christianity is true, God must be logical. I need to try and refute these skeptics' claims."

Christianity then, is not opposed to logic, although we have yet to examine some of the claims that it is logically contradictory. It still doesn't follow however that Christianity is a rational belief to hold. Afterall I might have some logically compatible beliefs that I still ought not to hold. If I believe that there is a giant crab-horse living on a moon millions of light-years away, that belief does not contradict anything else I believe, but I would be irrational to hold it because I have no reason to. We should see then how Christianity fits with rationality.

1 comment:

Martin said...

I shall qualify my statement about the Christian's correct attitude in a further entry.