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Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Care and Keeping of Words: Part 2 of 5

Part II: Analogies: Clearing Up our Parallels

Although defining terms, which I wrote about last week, must precede meaningful discussion, sometimes the clarification must extend to expressions and ideas. We often throw out catch-phrases that, while themselves containing real wisdom, may not apply in the given situation. When that happens, it is easy to think that the person who rejects your use of the term is rejecting the idea itself.

When ideas represent religious beliefs (and even secular beliefs that define reality and govern action are functionally religious), we are often emotionally attached to them, and rightfully protective of our freedom to hold them. This becomes fraught quickly. Clarity diffuses eruptions.

In his book, Analogies at War, Yuen Foong Khong discusses the ways in which drawing comparisons from history has influenced policy decisions, often with dismal results. This, he says, is because of how poorly we do analogical reasoning.

But, we can’t NOT do analogical reasoning. Humans always think analogically, using parallels to synthesize new information. These are “knowledge structures [that] help them order, interpret, and simplify, in a word, to make sense of their environment. Matching each new instance with instances stored in memory is then a major way human beings comprehend their world.”[1]

This is good, because there is too much information to process without the organizational system of generalizing. But it can be bad when we carry these structures too far. I think (here comes an analogy!) that the error we make when using analogies is similar to putting on training wheels, and then continuing to use them forever, even as they become an active hindrance. Or when helpful generalizations (This is a street. Some streets are dangerous. I should be cautious about crossing this street.) become harmful stereotypes.

Khong explains the structure of analogy with his equation: AX:BX::AY:BY.[2] What this means is that we recognize that situations A and B share a characteristic (X). We use this fact to infer that the two will also share other characteristics (Y). This can sound good and convincing over airwaves or in an argument. But we have to make sure that the inference is also true. We have to make sure the training wheels are still working for us.

One way that classical educators teach young people to do this is using the 5 Common Topics. Unlike many schools, which ask children to judge works by consulting their own opinions (breeding cynicism), the Common Topics help them to ask questions that help them better understand it. Coming to you straight from ancient Greece, they are: Definition (what is its nature, its category, subset, etc.), Comparison (how is it like this, or not like that? How similar or how different is it?), Circumstance (what else is happening? Context?), Relationship (What came before and after? Causes and Effects? Contradictions?), and Testimony (What do authorities say? What laws apply?).

We sit and ask, honestly, “So this reminds me of that Other Time. How are both situations similar? How are they different? What else was happening? What were other factors in how that ended up? What was said about that Other Time that might apply here?” and then, for good measure, we might ask again, “How is this DIFFERENT?” Is there really an instructive parallel?

For a controversial example, I refer to a phrase everyone heard applied to the reopening of churches. We kept hearing, “Christians don’t fear death!” and “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear!”
Does that apply to the situation? It does not. Now, biblically, Christians need not fear death because we know our eternity is secure. All biblical exegesis must be systematic (consonant with the whole of scripture on the topic), and so fearlessness is limited by context. Russian Roulette, for instance, would not be well defended by the Christian security of heaven. Rather, it would conflict with the biblically defined sanctity and purpose of human life.

On the other hand, this claim is well applied when the Christian refuses to renounce his faith at gunpoint. Or if the Christian must rush across a crowded highway to save a baby. In these instances, the courage to act rightly is drawn from our hope in the historical resurrection. Acting rashly, of course, is not anything like acting courageously.

BUT, the statement also doesn’t apply because the issue at hand is not about fear at all, but about the biblical definition of authority, and the biblical grounds for rejecting it. (This article and this article handle that question beautifully.)

My point is that referencing an ill-chosen analogy or schema or principle muddies the question at hand by falsely tethering the X and the Y in Khong’s equation. It tries to make rejection of the bad conclusion tantamount to rejection of the original principle. It makes the discussion polarized and unnuanced. A bad analogy is a man of straw.

Because analogy uses similarities to help us assimilate data, we need to be sure we also know how instances differ. That point of divergence? That’s where we take off the training wheels. The comparison has served its purpose. If we hang onto the analogy beyond that, it becomes dead weight. We have seen it drag our national dialogue down. We need to ask the right questions. And next week, you guessed it, we’ll talk about questions.

[1] [1] Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War, Princeton University Press, 1992. Pg. 13.
[2] Ibid. Pg. 7.

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