Bible,  Ethics,  Logic

Logic and Obligations

Jason Lisle argues that we have a moral obligation to be logical: “Thinking rightly is not optional… It is something God requires of us.” His argument is as follows:

To think logically is to think – in a sense – like God thinks. And, by definition, to be logical is to reason correctly. This makes sense when we consider that God always thinks correctly. God is the ultimate standard of correctness. So if you want to think about a particular topic correctly, you must think about it in the same basic way that God does.

The argument depends on what it means to think about something ‘in the same basic way that God does’. Presumably, this does not mean that we think about some topic in exactly the same way. After all, God does not arrive at conclusions. He does not infer to the best explanation. His knowledge is comprehensive. Thus, he already knows the conclusion and the explanation.

So, what does ‘basic way’ mean? It is temping to think that we must merely agree with God about what we are thinking about. If God thinks the grass is green, then, if we think the grass is green, we are agreeing with God — thinking like him. But Dr. Lisle has more in mind than merely affirming the same propositions as God affirms. He says that we ought to use logical reasoning in the same way God uses it. It may be that a person agrees with God about the color of the grass without using any inferences. We are not merely obligated to affirm the same propositions as God, but to arrive at those propositions in the right way.

But what do we mean by ‘the right way’? If we are obligated to use logic, logic must be some form of law. One is only obligated, if there is a rule of some kind. In this case, perhaps the rule is in the form of a command from God. God commands us to reason in a certain way in virtue of which we are obligated to obey. This appears to be what Dr. Lisle is suggesting. According to Dr. Lisle, when we fail to think logically, we sin against God:

Sin is disobedience to God (Romans 5:19). And it is sin to think irrationally. This is because (1) God always thinks rationally, and (2) we are commanded to think like God – to take captive every thought into obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)…Our mind is a gift from God, and we are obligated to Him to use our mind correctly – in the way that God intends…The study of logic is not merely an academic topic. It is an aspect of sanctification: the transformation of our character to conform to the image of God.

So, if we fail to think logically, we are failing to meet an obligation to obey a divine command. Consequently, since failing to meet a divine command is sinful, if we fail to think logically, we are committing sin. On this interpretation, the laws of logic are divine prescriptions for human reasoning established in accordance with his divine nature. To think rightly is not necessarily to think in the same way as God thinks but to think in such a way that we obey the laws God has established for human thought.

One might object that one is culpable for failing to meet an obligation only if we have knowledge of such an obligation. A person who has not taken Logic 101 may say that she is not obligated to use logic. If one doesn’t know the rules, how could one be responsible? Moreover, if we are obligated to use logic, why doesn’t the Bible include a book on it?

Dr. Lisle suggests that the laws of logic are either innate or acquired. He suggests that laws of thought are somewhat like moral laws. They are clearly known by all human beings even though we are not sure how they are known. Paul may have implied a form of nativism when he writes, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Rom 2:14-15). Ultimately, Dr. Lisle’s argument does not depend on how the laws of logic are known. One might suggest that laws of logic are acquired by human beings since they are exhibited in the world. Perhaps laws of logic are known in the same way natural law is known.

The fundamental point Dr. Lisle makes is that the world in which we live is infused with normativity. Our actions, thoughts, and speech are subject to laws prescribed by God. In confession, Christians acknowledge sin in all three areas. I’ll leave you with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:

Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we earnestly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ, 
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.
Picture borrowed from Answers in Genesis. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.