Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thinking, concluding, and the magical diplomat.

It amazes me how often debaters think they are arguing about fundamental differences of opinion or values but really they are using different thought processes.  If they understood better the mechanisms behind their thinking, they might be better able at agreeing or coming to consensus rather than agreeing to disagree or even staying in constant conflict.  Lately, I see this in the debate between science and religion, climate change, the federal budget, gun control, and on and on.

So I am going to blog today about what these mechanisms are and hopefully help others (although probably not Congress) improve their debating and arguing skills. 

First, let’s talk about the three kinds of analysis.  These are orthogonal, which means they are fundamentally different.  If two people are using different analytical mechanisms, they might legitimately and correctly come to completely different answers to the same question.   

Empirical thinking:  This is the scientific method.  You start with a hypothesis, test it (using valid, reliable and sensitive research methods – which is a topic for another post), and your conclusions depend on a statistical analysis of the results.  You need to start out by operationalizing your variables; the nature of your test limits how generalizable your results are; and you are never 100% sure of anything.  The purpose of empirical thinking is usually to try to disprove your hypothesis rather than to prove them.  If you repeatedly fail to disprove it, you can have some confidence that it is true.

Logical thinking: This is what philosophers and mathematicians often use, but so do we all.  “If X then Y” is the starting point.  You start out with a premise or set of premises that you assume to be true.  Then based on those, and a series of logical operators like AND, OR, NOT, etc, you expand and extend the premises into conclusions.  If the premises are true and the logic is sound, the conclusions are necessarily true.  But if not, then the conclusions are not either.

Faith thinking:  This is where religion comes in, but also where a lot of logical premises and scientific generalizations start out as well.    Mathematicians and scientists often pooh pooh it as an equal mechanism to the others, but I have also read some pretty good exegesis that convinced me that it is.  Essentially, faith thinking is developing a conclusion based on something you KNOW is true deep down.  This is how logicians generate their premises and how scientists generate their hypotheses.  The difference is that faith thinking does this with the conclusions.  But since a logical argument fails when its premises are false and a scientific method fails when its hypothesis is false, a faith-based belief fails when it is false.  Why is that any different? 

OK, so if different analytical mechanisms can validly come to different conclusions, how do we resolve these differences?  There are two ways of combining conclusions.

Integrative Thinking:  Is there a way we can combine the two conclusions so that the sum is true?  Logic tells me that the more calories I eat, the more I will weigh.  But the latest endocrinology scientific findings say that it is much more complicated than this.  If we put them together, we can conclude that all other things being equal, eating more equals weighing more.  But if you eat more protein and monounsaturated fat and a little less processes sugar, you can lose weight because of chemical processes in the liver.  A really cold winter would logically tell me that climate change is not occurring yet, but longitudinal science tells me that it is.  If we put them together, we can conclude that the average temperature of any given winter goes up and down up to 5 degrees in any given year/location, so if the worldwide temperature is on a 0.5 degree per year increasing trend, it would be masked by the variance.

Dialectic Thinking:  Sometimes we can’t, or don’t want to, integrate two conflicting conclusions.  Faith tells me that there is an omniscient, omnipotent deity but science and logic tell me that there is not.  Personally, integrating the two would devalue them both.  What makes my personal belief in G-d meaningful is exactly the fact that I can’t prove it.  It is the faithful belief that makes it valuable.  So instead, I can believe in G-d when I need motivation, faith, and inspiration.  And when I am in the secular environs, I can believe that everything that happens in the world has a scientific explanation based on basic physics, chemistry, and the occasional social science phenomenon.   Because these are incompatible, I can’t apply them at the same time to the same situation I find myself dealing with.  But why should I be forced to do that?

Perhaps I can believe fundamentally that people have the right to bear arms.  But I can also believe that the world would be a safer place if we pass scientifically-tested limits on gun ownership.  I can suspend my faith based belief to produce a better society, while still believing that it is fundamentally true.  This is dialectic.

I can have plenty of scientific and logical evidence that a certain tax and spending formulation would lead to faster economic growth and eventually lift all boats.  But I can also believe that in the short term, we can’t let people starve while they are waiting for their tide to come in.  So I am willing to sacrifice some growth now to prevent these consequences, accepting that society will be worse off as a whole thirty years from now.  This is integrative.

Just for fun, next time you hear a talking heads debate in the news or around your dinner table where the debaters (combatants) can’t come to any agreement – see if you can use this framework to figure out why and play the role of miraculous diplomat who magically figures out an answer that makes everyone happy.    

And post them in the comments.

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