When I am not thinking deeply on some issue, regardless of whether it is important or not, I find that I often apply my critical thinking skills I received when I studied literary criticism. Much of what I do is what is called “analytically reasoning.”
Philosophers are trained in it, as are literary critics, because analytically reasoning is a step-by-step process of breaking down the meaning of an idea, piece of text, or concept into its basic components. By deconstructing something down to is rudimentary parts, one can look at the components independently to see the interplay between the implicit and explicit meanings contained therein, and then ask: do these impact the belief, affect the observer, and how do they influence the person’s thinking and behavior who holds them?
Before I continue on with an example of analytically reasoning applied critically, I have a small confession. When I first started out, my reasoning skills were pitiful! It wasn’t until I read great thinkers like Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Mikhail Bakhtin, Joseph Campbell, Jacques Derrida, William James, among others that I came to see what analytical reasoning required. But still, I was bad at it.
Simple logic eluded me.
That is to say, the rules of logic, which analytically reasoning stems from, were unfamiliar to me. I knew how to recognize analytically thinking–I could study it–but without knowing the rules of logic it was hard for me to do.
During college, I grew frustrated with my inability to reason well. So I enrolled in three philosophy classes. One of them was called “Analytical Philosophy 101.” Never mind that ‘analytically philosophy’ is an outdated term, and largely redundant since all philosophy is analytically, more or less. What the class taught was what is known at Predicate Calculus, at a very elementary level. It was a beginner course, after all. But it helped me immensely. Once I knew the basic “math” to run a set of propositions through, I began to improve my analytical reasoning skills.
I’m still not as proficient in Predicate Calculus as I’d like to be, but once I got the basics down I excelled (and got A’s in all three philosophy courses on top of a semester of A’s in all of my advanced literary theory classes).
Although I do not consider myself a professional philosopher, by any means, I do know a thing or two about reasoning clearly.
And that’s namely what I try and do in my everyday life: I try to reason more clearly perchance I might reason a little bit better. Trust me when I say, it’s easier said than done.
Even so, it’s something I strive for, and yes, it is an intellectual endeavor that not everyone pursues. This is made abundantly clear by the fact that there are so many people who are really bad reasoners out there. I know, I used to be one of them. Heck, I still am. I am just not as bad as I used to be.
That’s the goal though. Improvement. After all, reasoning well is a skill. You have to practice it daily, like the violin, in order to really excel at it. Simply having thoughts won’t make you a great thinker. You have to make your thoughts count–and to do that–you have to hone your reasoning skills.
If you are familiar with the religious debate, you may have heard of the example of the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or IPU for short.
IPUs spawned from discussions on alt.atheism web forums where atheists and skeptics discussed possible objections to God. One of the ways to do this is to think about what the definition of God entails, and what are the characteristics, and do they sponsor a coherent picture or not?
God, according to many theologians, is an immutable, timeless, intangible, being full of love for us.
Now the first part of any analytical reasoning process is to check whether the example, in this case, an Invisible Pink Unicorn, properly correlates to what it is meant to be a corresponding analogy. This is important to ask, because if it doesn’t accurately represent what it is being parodied, then we are left with an irrelevant straw-man for an analogy. However, if it accurately reflects the object or idea in such a way that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two, then it can be deemed an accurate analogy.
I think in the case of an IPU, it is fair to say, as defined, it does reflect the same qualities as God. Both the IPU and God are immutable, timeless, intangible, beings. Whether or not they are full of love is an assumption which requires more evidence before we could confirm such a claim.
So what does the analytical thinker do next? Well, she basically holds the analogy up, and looks for any signs of bad (i.e. faulty) logic.
Take the IPU for example. Regardless of what characteristics we give to it, we only have the definition to work with, since like the God concept it is parodied after, there is no tangible evidence to create a referent to the description we have (which is probably why most theologians love to add intangibility to their description of God–to make it impossible for fact checkers to prove them wrong. Very dodgy). Basically, to claim something is “intangible” means that we are dealing with a purely theoretical construct, something many religious people take for granted when speaking about God. Their confusion arises primarily because God is said to *exist. But intangible things do not exist in the proper sense of what we mean by existence–something that is corporeal. It is usually gotten around by making the additional assumption, post hoc, that God is a spiritual entity, and his existence is mystified, or placed beyond the realm of our understanding because it is set outside of reality in such a way that the experience cannot related to corporeal events. But here is where the analogy of IPU helps us to highlight the underlying in-coherency with the way in which theists like to describe God.
Right off the bat something smells fishy about the definition of IPUs. IPUs are said to be invisible. But they are also said to be pink. Well, invisibility is the absence of any color, thus fully transparent. But pink is a solid color, thus fully opaque. Something cannot be simultaneously both be transparent and opaque. This is impossible. The claim is *incoherent because of the negation it creates, therefore the term is rendered irrelevant (if not absurd).
Definitions and descriptions of God often fail the simple test of logic in this way too. Even so, the IPU acts only as an illustration of how the religious term God, in most contexts, proves meaningless. A good example of this would be to replace the term “God” with “IPU” in scripture, and see what changes.
“In the beginning The Invisible Pink Unicorn created the heavens and the earth…and the Spirit of The Invisible Pink Unicorn was hovering over the waters. And The Invisible Pink Unicorn said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The Invisible Pink Unicorn saw that the light was good, and she separated the light from the darkness.” —Genesis 1:1
As you can see, nothing changes in terms of how we understand the description of God to be when substitute the description of God for the IPU. Does that mean God is a Invisible Pink Unicorn? No, that would be absurd.
All it means is there is a problem with the way in which believers, in this case theists, define and describe their God. There description rests largely on an incoherent definition, and not much else.
But in order to realize this it first requires we take the step-by-step process of analytical reasoning, looking at each term from various angels, and then examine the logic (or lack thereof) to get a better idea of the veracity of the belief, claim, concept, or idea.
Having considered this example, we find a reason to doubt the way God is being described constitutes a correct description of anything in reality. If it were describing something observed, the description would be much more mundane, straight forward, and probably a lot more coherent. What’s more, others could verify these observations and discover for themselves whether or not the claims stood up to scrutiny.
The above example just goes to show that IPUs suffer the same problem of being unobserved just like God suffers from being unobserved. Like God, so too IPUs rely on inconsistent logic, at best, and fail time and again to be coherent descriptions of anything real.
Using analytical thinking then, we can rule out God, as defined by theists, as a coherent description of anything. In actuality, analytical reasoning reveals, that taken to its logical conclusion, the God concept is horribly flawed. So flawed, in fact, that the IPU analogy rings a true comparison and helps reveal an irreconcilable obstacle for the theist. Unless a less absurd, more coherent, definition of God can be provided–then the God definition, like the IPU analogy, is meaningless.
But what happens when people talk about the experience of God? They will remind you that, while the IPU analogy works for the mere definition of God, it fails to work when they talk about their religious and spiritual experiences. After all, nobody has ever *experiences an IPU. But tons of people have had the shared experience of God! Check mate, atheists!
Here is where one states that analytical reasoning is just a tool. Like any tool, it works if you know how to use it, and if you learn to use it well, then you might even get good at it. That’s the hope anyway. Analytical reasoning can’t explain everything. It’s not meant to. It works great for beliefs, claims, concepts, and ideas–but what about tangible experiences? What about people who have had their prayers answered, been witness to miracles, and have heard the voice of God? What about spiritual experiences in which the consistency of the claims and beliefs seem to match up, and the shared religious experiences seems to be genuine? What then?
Luckily for us, we have a proved methodology with a flawless track record of improving our understanding of real world experiences–and it is called science.
Next time, I’ll talk about how I strive to live a more scientific life, be scientifically literate, and test my beliefs against the evidence, or amend or discard them when the evidence calls for it.
[Thinking Tip #2: Question everything! Then question it again.]