Eric Metaxas on Donald Trump, Some Problems

Eric Metaxas was recently interviewed by the National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, about his new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. In the interview Metaxas argues for something that many Christians believe—that faith, freedom, and virtue are all connected. Given this, it was surprising to hear Metaxas go on to argue that those who agree with him, must vote for Donald Trump. In sum, Metaxas is opposed to Hillary Clinton. And when I say “opposed”, I mean something along the lines of, “would rather see just about anything else happen.” So, the obvious question is whether seeing Donald Trump elected President is included in that “just about anything else” preference. For Metaxas, the answer to that question is even more obvious, of course a Trump presidency would be better than another Clinton presidency. Since Trump would be better than Clinton, vote Trump!

There are many who wouldn’t agree with Metaxas on this, but at the same time there are plenty of others now advocating the same position even though they were previously opposed to Trump. The problem is that Metaxas goes much further than simply saying he’s decided to vote for Trump. He goes on to say that “we must vote for Trump.” This is where it would be wise to slow down and examine Metaxas’s reasoning for this demand. It’s one thing to argue that one must not vote for Clinton, but another thing entirely to argue that one must vote for Trump. Unfortunately for Metaxas, a closer examination of his reasoning turns up some problems.

What’s the main reason for Metaxas’s demand that we vote for Trump? Well, the short of it is that given the current political realities, Trump is “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will.” That is, according to Metaxas, a second Clinton presidency spells doom for America.

There are at least three different problems with this serving as the reason that those who care about freedom, faith, and virtue “must” vote for Trump. First, Metaxas seems to be one of many who believe that a withheld vote for Trump equals a vote for Clinton. But this is just silly. By parody of reasoning, a withheld vote for Clinton equals a vote for Trump. So I suppose that maybe one could in good conscience vote for Trump simply in virtue of not voting for Clinton, though I suspect that’s not what Metaxas had in mind.

A second worry for Metaxas’s argument is that, as intimated above, it’s clearly a false dilemma. Contrary to popular opinion, the available options are not simply (1) Vote Clinton or (2) Vote Trump. There’s a clear third option, we could refrain from voting for either (but still support those in Congress who pledge to hold either of them accountable). A fourth option may not be far off either. The longer conservatives refuse to throw in with Trump, the more likely it is that someone new enters the race who they could actually support with a modicum of enthusiasm.

Finally, Metaxas’s demand that we “must vote for Trump” is dependent on utilitarian reasoning which demands a good number of Americans to violate their conscience in order to prevent a Clinton presidency. The popular critique of utilitarianism is that “the ends don’t justify the means.” Preventing a Clinton presidency doesn’t justify voting for Trump, given all of his well-known flaws (to put it politely). But the popular critique of utilitarianism isn’t adequate since sometimes the end does justify the means. (A more accurate slogan would read, “the end doesn’t always justify the means.”) The real problem with utilitarianism is that it makes questions that should be hard to answer too easy to solve. This is because utilitarianism requires one to abandon principles-based decision making altogether and simply act upon that which produces the greatest utility. It doesn’t matter if you believe it’s more important to stand for your principles than to win an election. It doesn’t matter if you have a principled objection to a leader like Trump who makes racist and sexist remarks. It doesn’t matter if you want nothing to do with a candidate who advocates for torture. As long as Trump is better than Clinton, that settles the issue. It doesn’t matter if your faith, your understanding of freedom, or your desire to grow in virtue lead you to not vote for Trump.

And that is precisely why so many conservatives refuse to support Trump. Contrary to Metaxas’s demand, they are unwilling to abandon their principles, even if it means another Clinton presidency.

(This post originally appeared on the blog of the Tyndale University College Philosophy Department.)

Geisler, Howe, and the Importance of Formal Logic

This past summer I read through Norman Geisler’s book, If God, Why Evil? and noticed that in it he appears to commit the formal fallacy of denying the antecedent. I won’t bother with rehashing the details of that now; you can read that short post here.

Some time after that post appeared Richard Howe (Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary) took the time to comment on my post and we were able to briefly chat about it at the national conference of Evangelical Philosophical Society in Atlanta last November. In his post Professor Howe notes “The critic [that’s me!] pointed out (I think correctly, taken in one way) that Geisler’s argument, when cast into predicate or quantificational logic this way, commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent.” I was glad to read this since I highly respect Geisler’s work and didn’t expect to see such a basic fallacy in one of his books. After publishing the post I half-expected to be informed that it was me that made such a basic mistake. But, it turns out, I was right. Well, kind of.

The Alleged Failure of Symbolization

According to Howe, the problem isn’t actually rooted in how Geisler casts the argument, but in my attempt to reconstruct the argument using the tools of predicate logic. This, Howe maintains, is problematic because it fails to capture the metaphysics that goes along with the argument. Here are two examples from Howe that he believes shows how symbolization cannot fully capture all of the metaphysics that goes along with an argument.

FAILURE ONE:
Taking advantage of how the excluded middle or certain other logical relationships overlook the metaphysical relationships can be the basis of many jokes. ‘The temperature is 93 degrees. The temperature will rise this afternoon. Therefore 93 degrees will rise this afternoon.’
I suppose that someone might find this funny1, but it gives me no pause about the power of symbolization. Instead, the joke simply trades on an equivocation of ‘is’ which can be easily remedied. The first statement employs an is of predication, whereas the second statement presupposes that an is of identity was used in that initial premise. Were this not intended as a joke, all one would need to do is point out that more clarity is needed before beginning to symbolize the statements. Doing so would avoid the confusion entirely. What, then, of the second alleged failure?

FAILURE TWO:
Many otherwise legitimate scientific arguments, for example, when reproduced into formal, truth-functional arguments commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent (like, ‘If the substance is acidic, then the blue litmus paper will turn red. The blue litmus paper turned red. Therefore, the substance is acidic.’)
Here too all that is needed is just a little more precision about what terms mean. The scientist who makes the mistake above is indeed making a mistake and could benefit from more philosophical precision. The reason we may be inclined to accept this statement is that we tend to recognize that what the scientist meant to say, even if she didn’t, is “Only if the substance is acidic, then the blue litmus paper will turn red.” There is an important difference between ‘if’ and ‘only if’ and recognizing that difference clears up the confusion quite easily. (In an earlier post I noted that this is the same confusion that led the theologian and Bible translator Paul Enns to fallaciously conclude from Genesis 2:17 that if Adam obeyed God’s command then he would not die.)

Howe’s Reconstruction of Geiser’s Argument

Howe believes that my using predicate logic to evaluate Geisler’s argument is what leads to the fallacy of denying the antecedent. He also believes that there is a way to fix Geisler’s argument that avoids the fallacy. (Before looking at Howe’s reconstruction, it’s worth noting that the problem isn’t due to my using predicate logic. Reconstructing Geisler’s argument as a categorical syllogism leads to the same end—an invalid argument.)

Howe’s reconstruction of Geisler’s argument is pretty straightforward.

Let’s use the same legend from my original post.

Tx: x is a thing

Cxy: x created y

e: evil

g: God

Initially I framed Geisler’s first premise, “God created all things” as a simple conditional.

(x)(Tx > Cgx)

Howe argues that this does not “adequately [capture] the metaphysics behind Geisler’s first premise.” Instead, “in its broader context, Geisler was not merely saying that God created all things but also that everything was created by God.” So, instead of simply representing the first premise of the argument as a conditional, required by Geisler’s broader metaphysical commitments, it should be represented bi-conditionally as:

(x)((Tx > Cgx) & (Cgx > Tx))

This we would read as “For any x, if x is a thing then God created x and if God created x, then x is a thing.” With this in place we can get to Geisler’s conclusion that God did not create evil. Howe then helpfully goes on to provide the full formal proof, but as we shall see, this actually shows us how the reconstruction of Geisler’s argument is really an entirely different argument.

Howe’s Proof

  1. (x)(Tx > Cgx) & (Cgx > Tx))                     (premise)
  2. (x)(Ex > ~Tx) Therefore (x)(Ex > ~Cgx)  (premise/conclusion)
  3. (Ta > Cga) & (Cga > Ta)                         (Universal instantiation)
  4. Ea > ~Ta                                                 (Universal instantiation)
From here we get the following a conditional proof.
  1. Ea                                                           (assumption)
  2. ~Ta                                                         (Modus ponens: 4, 5)
  3. Cga > Ta                                                (simplification: 3)
  4. ~Cga                                                      (Modus tollens: 7, 6)
And from this we can get our desired conclusion.
  1. Ea > ~Cga                                              (Conditional proof: 5-8)
  2. (x)(Ex > ~Cgx)                                         (Universal generalization: 9)
So what does all of this tell us? At least two things come to mind. First, Howe is right that the bi-conditional does allow one to validly deduce Geisler’s conclusion. There is no dispute about that. However, the second thing this argument tells us that it’s not exactly clear how this helps Geisler’s argument.

Recall that what Geisler states in his book is that God created all things, which Howe represents as (Ta > Cga). But if you look back through Howe’s formal proof above you’ll notice that this initial premise isn’t actually used to get to what was supposed to be Geisler’s conclusion. The presence of Geisler’s original premise is entirely superfluous in the proof for Geisler’s conclusion. It shows up in the initial premises of the argument, but when Howe simplifies (3) on line 7 it disappears and never returns. (If you look through the justification of each line, you’ll notice that Geisler’s original claim is never cited.)

It could just be me, but fixing an argument by never actually using the main premise of the original argument is a bit strange. It seems instead that instead of a reconstruction of Geisler’s argument we just have a new (valid) argument from Howe.

Furthermore, the second half of Howe’s bi-conditional doesn’t get any support in the text of Geisler’s book. So if the non-believer were to evaluate Geisler’s original argument, she would have no reason to cast his original premise as a bi-conditional.

This highlights precisely why symbolization is so important. Both Howe and I might read into Geisler’s argument various unstated metaphysical claims, but we can’t count on everyone to do that. We should take care that our arguments are precise in stating all that the needs to be stated in order to reach our conclusions. This allows everyone, believer and non-believer, the opportunity to evaluate the reasons we believe what we do.

Footnotes

  1. Rare is the case when a philosopher’s joke is considered to be funny by anyone besides philosophers! ↩︎

Doing Well in University

Today is the start of the Fall term at Tyndale University College and I wanted to share some of the tips about doing well in university that I'll discuss with my students during our first few days of the term. One of the first things I tell my students at the beginning of every semester is that there is a difference between doing well in a course and getting a good grade in a course. Most professors try their hardest to make sure that the two correspond with one another, but for various reasons that's not always the case. For example, if a student only occasionaly comes to class, or comes often but is rarely attentive, then it's unlikely that such a student will do well in the course. But that doesn't mean this person won't get a good grade on his transcript at the end of the term. Some students are good at tricking their professors into thinking they've learned the material when in reality all they've done is memorize it the night for the exam, regurgitate it on exam day, and then promptly forget everything they "studied." These students will have received the high grade, but will not have done well.

On the other hand, some students will do their best to truly understand the material (and not simply memorize it), seek clarification from their professor when needed, and even incorporate it into their other studies. These students will likely remember the material long after their exams, even though there is no guarantee that their hard work will translate into a high grade. Maybe a student had a rough morning the same day as the final exam and didn't perform as well as he would've otherwise, or perhaps the demands for some other course were so high he couldn't put all his energy into completing the essay. Regardless of what the grade is on the transcript, if this student has truly learned the material, then he'll have done well in the course.

In my experience, the two go hand-in-hand most of the time. When students complain to me about their low grade I ask them about their study habits and often will quickly learn why their grade is what it is. Making this distinction, however, can help keep you focused on what matters most. If you graduate from university and have a few bad grades on your transcript, but actually learned the material in those courses, then you'll have still achieved what is most important. You don't attend university to get a piece of a paper that has a lot of A's on it, you attend university to get an education.

So, with all this in mind, I'd like to offer six tips for doing well in university. These are tips that I've been giving to students for years and I've yet to hear from a student who has followed each of them and not done well in their courses.

Tip #1: Read the Material Before Class

This should go without saying, but it's extremely important that you've read the assigned readings before class. University courses do not regularly cover material that is easy to understand—if they did no one would feel the need to come in the first place. Because the material is important, you have to approach it mulitiple times and in different ways. If the lecture is the first time you've thought about Xeno's paradoxes or Anselm's ontological argument, then it is highly likely that you're not going to get very far in understanding eiither.

In my experience, this is the first thing that students skip when their lives get really busy. Why? Because no one else knows whether you've done the readings but you. This is why many professors have reading quizzes or require reading reflections. They're not just trying to be mean, they too recognize that students are tempted to skip the readings and rely solely on the lecture. Don't allow yourself to succumb to this temptation, it's almost impossible to truly do well in a course if you've not become intimately familiar with the readings your professor has assigned.

Tip #2: Come to Class and Be Attentive/Pay Attention

The most important part of this tip is the "pay attention" part. For some reason students often think that just coming into the lecture hall will somehow magically impart understanding to them. To do well in university you must come to class, but that's just the bare minimum. You also need to be an active participant in it. This doesn't always mean you have to try and answer every question asked by your professor, but it does mean you're not goofing around on your iPhone or chatting over Facebook. Use that time to ask for clarification about things you didn't understand in the readings. Hang around afterward and ask questions you were too nervous to ask during class. The lecture is your opportunity to have direct access to someone who is a specialist in the field so take advantage of it.

Tip #3: Review Your Notes Soon After Class

Reading the material beforehand and paying attention in class will do wonders for you in university. But if you really want to do well, I strongly recommend taking a few minutes at some point soon after class to review your notes. While the lecture is still fresh in your mind, go back and see how the material from the beginning of the class connects with material near the end. See if you have any remaning questions that you should follow up on during the professor's office hours. Write those down. Look back at your reading notes and compare them with your lecture notes. Doing this provides yet another way to become acquainted with the material (and it doesn't take all that long).

Even if you take good notes during class, if you never look at them again until it's time to study for the exam, then you're probably not going to remember the details surrounding those notes. A phrase like, "It is necessary to say and to think What Is is; for it is to be, but nothing, it is not" may make perfect sense during the lecture (maybe!), but a few weeks later could leave you completely baffled (that's Parmenides, by the way). Reviewing your notes is also a good time to add to them which can help you remember the details when you begin studying for exams. You won't often need to spend several hours doing this, 15 to 20 minutes can be enough (and even 5 minutes is better than nothing at all). If your professor is like me and doesn't allow laptops in class, then budget a bit more time for this and type out your handwritten notes. You'll not only have something easier to study from later on, but the process itself will help you remember the material.

Tip #4: Study in Groups

How many times have you said something like, "I know what I want to say, but I just can't say it"? At some point or another we've all been there. Many times this is another way of saying, "I don't really know what I want to say." We are really good at fooling ourselves into thinking we understand something when we actually don't. Studying in groups forces you to vocalize the material you're studying which can help you figure out what you really know and what you're still fooling yourself into thinking you know. This also provides yet another way, and opportunity, to interact with the material from your course. You should see the pattern by now, give yourself the opportunity to deal with course material in as many ways, and as often, as possible.

The temptation here will be to get together with your classmates, get all your notes and books out, and then talk about the terrrible call the referee made during last night's football game. Simply coming to class won't help you learn the material and neither will simply reserving a group study room at the library. The key to "Study in Groups" is the actually studying.

Tip #5: Don't Multitask While Studying

Multitasking is a myth. You're not very good at, even though you think you are. In particular, you're almost certainly not good at multitasking while studying. The problem with multitasking is that it assumes we're able to actually watch Monday Night Football while simultaneously reading Plato's Euthyphro. What in fact happens is that you read a bit of Plato until you hear the announcer's voice rise (or hear a rise in crowd nose). You then stop reading Plato, look up to try and figure out either what just happened or what is about to happen, and then when that is done you look down to start reading Plato again. Unfortunately, you've lost your place on the page and have to spend some time finding it and then re-read the previous few sentences (or paragraphs) to get the train of thought going again. But then, you hear something else interesting on TV, look up to see what's going on, and start the whole process over.

There are scores of studies that indicate just how bad multitasking is for certain tasks (just enter "the myth of multitasking" into any search engine and you'll find all you could ever ask for), but the one conducted by Ohio State University professor Zheng Wang may be most relevant for those wanting to do well in university. Wang's research focused specifically on the results of multitasking while studying and concluded that we are most likely to try and multitask precisely when it hurts us the most. When we need to focus the most, we're likely to multitask instead, which actually hurts our cognitive abilities. If you'd rather listen to more on the myth of multitasking, I also recommend this interview on NPR with Clifford Nass who is a psychology professor at Stanford University. His thesis is that multitasking not only wastes more time than it saves, but it also hurts our concentration and creativity (a conclusion that fits well with Wang's).

Tip #6: Don't Give Up

There will be times, perhaps a lot of them, when you feel like you're not cut out for university. You'll want to quit because the subject matter seems too daunting and you feel unequipped for the task. Well, many times you are unequipped, but that's exactly why you're in university in the first place. There is a good chance that even if you do all of the above, you'll still find yourself struggling at times. That's okay, expect it. University is supposed to be hard so don't worry if you find yourself struggling. Stick with it. A graduate school professor (J. P. Moreland) once told our class, "Many of you probably feel like you have no idea what's going on. Well, that's okay. Just stick with it and come Spring Break you'll finally see the fog lift. Until then, just hang in there." Given that this was during the Fall semester, waiting until Spring Break to get some clarity seemed liked an empty promise. But, he was exactly right. Some time around Spring Break material from the previous semester started to make sense and I could incorporate it into what we were learning that semester. The fog did lift.

Go and Do It

While the semester is still young do your best to habituate these sorts of activities. Spend a few minutes thinking about your daily routine. Figure out how many pages you need to read each day to not fall behind. Do a bit of research on note-taking strategies. In other words,  make your plan to do well in university now and then go and do it. You're an adult now so your success will depend, in large part, on your acting like one.

Follow me on Twitter @WPaul.

(This post originally appeared at Every Thought Captive, the blog of the Tyndale University College Philosophy Department.)

The Mystery Men Christian Tweet Generator

Some of the most forwarded tweets today come from evangelical leaders. Since I have a large number of Christians in my Twitter feed I’ve seen a lot of these tweets, along with even more tweets from less well known Christian leaders. Surprisingly, I soon started to find these tweets a bit depressing. It was never the message itself that depressed me, but two related issues instead. First, the actual content in the tweets is rarely profound. In fact, most express such a basic understanding of the Christian life that I’m starting to think evangelicals today are among the most forgetful people alive.1 The second thing that I find depressing is that people don’t seem to recognize the basic formula for many of these tweets. The basic structure (though there are variations) is this:

“State some problem” + (optional) contrasting conjunction + God phrase + reversal of the problem’s terms.”

Here are some examples that I just made up (I’m not out to make any one Christian leader look bad, but I’m confident you’ll recognize these sorts of tweets).

  1. “You might be struggling with confidence, but remember God gives confidence in your struggles.”
  2. “When you don’t know what to do, do what you know to do.”
  3. ”Don’t focus on how much you love God, start by focusing on how much God loves you.”
  4. “If you’re having a hard time understanding God’s word, consider that maybe God’s word can’t understand you.”2

After seeing these sorts of things for a few years now, it suddenly dawned on me that this isn’t the first time I’d come across quaint formulaic sayings of this sort. In the universally acclaimed movie, Mystery Men, the sage superhero, The Sphinx, joins the ragtag Wolf Pack and inspires them with some sayings that look pretty close to what we see from Christian leaders today on Twitter. Here are a few of his gems:

“You are not ready to face the enemy until you have vanquished the enemy within yourselves.”

“To learn my teachings I must first teach you how to learn.”

“He who questions training, only trains himself at asking questions.”

“For when you care for what is outside, what is inside cares for you.”

And my personal favorite:

When you can balance a tack-hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack.”

Finally Mr. Rage’s (Ben Stiller’s character) rage gets the better of him and he lets everyone in on the little secret formula for wisdom. Click the video to see Mr. Rage in action.

I’m not sure what to say about all this. Hopefully as Twitter evolves we’ll see more nuanced and thoughtful tweets from our Christian leaders (as far as possible given the medium). In the meantime, I’m hoping someone comes up with a service that allows us to filter out these sorts of tweets. After all, “If you want to avoid being bothered by mindless tweets, your mind must bother to find a way to avoid them.

  1. This is the same feeling I had when Rick Warren’s book Forty Days of Purpose took the evangelical world by storm. It wasn’t the theological content in the book that bothered me, but instead that people following Christ since their teens would claim that the book was so eye-opening. It should have been eye-opening, and popular, among new believers, but not for those following Christ for many years. What an indictment of contemporary church teaching! ↩︎
  2. Another problem is that the formulaic nature of these tweets can easily mask questionable theology–like that which is expressed in this one. ↩︎