Logic, culture and what is “logical” anyway?

Many people like to think of themselves as logical thinkers. My Myers-Briggs personality test is almost always INTJ, which means I am (or at least like to think of myself as) a logical thinker. Which sounds great doesn’t it. Who wants to be an illogical thinker? That sounds pretty stupid. So, I’ll take my logical thinking and be assured that I am definitely going to be right about everything unless you can best my unassailable logic.

Which sounds terrific, until you know that I am obviously wrong about things all the time. And sometimes the things I am wrong about are a specific result of my logic. What logical thinking will do for you is help you think down particular logical lines. What it won’t do is guarantee that your starting premises are true. Nor will it guarantee that the logic you are employing, logical as it may be, is the appropriate tool for understanding what is going on. What we frequently fail to realise is that my logic may be impeccable, but there is more than one form of logic.

Thinking in binary is a form of logic, for example. Everything might be boiled down to an if this, then that; if that, then this mode of reasoning. This is perfectly logical. It follows principles of reasoning and then simply turns everything into an A or B matter. Which is great until you hit on matters that are not A/B. Sometimes there are complex reasons why things are what they are. Your logic might be absolutely flawless according to its particular principles, it just might be the wrong tool for the job.

Or, perhaps, we might use deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning works on the basis that if your premises are true then your conclusion necessarily follows. Which is great if you are logically trying to prove a particular theory, but it doesn’t really help you to develop the theory you are trying to prove in the first place. To develop your theory, you need inductive reasoning that moves from observations, to patterns to general conclusions. You may employ modal logic to to help you think about what is possible and not just what is actual. These are just a few examples, but the point is, being a logical thinker is only any good if you are actually employing the right form of logic. Two “logical thinkers” can end up in very different places because what seems logical to one is not following the same mode of logic as the other.

Wilt Chamberlain – one of the greatest basketball players in the NBA – holds 72 records, including being the only player to score 100 points in a single game. Part of his 100 point games was his free throws, which he shot “granny style”. Like most seven-footers and taller, he was not a naturally able free throw shooter. But, in that 100-point game, he hit 28 of 32 free throws, which are pretty incredible numbers. But the following season, he went back to shooting the standard way and he went back to being a poor free throw shooter. One writer comments, ‘If Chamberlain had shot the same free throw percentage every year of his career, he would have scored an extra 1,346 points.i Instead of being the seventh-highest scoring player of all time, he would have finished ahead of Michael Jordan.’

What is the logical choice here? If your intention is to be one the highest scorers, or the best basketball player, isn’t it to continue shooting underarm? But Chamberlain explains his decision this way:

I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong.
I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way…I just couldn’t do it.

Source: Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Big Man Can’t Shoot”. Revisionist History. Podcast transcript, July 6, 2017. https://blog.simonsays.ai/the-big-man-cant-shoot-with-malcolm-gladwell-e3-s1-revisionist-history-podcast-transcript-1b87d82c2546.

What seems logical to one person is not so logical to another. It is certainly logical that if you are trying to be the greatest free throw shooter of all time, or the highest points scorer in the NBA, logic demands granny shots. But if you have higher (or just different) priorities, you may choose differently. Wilt Chamberlain felt like a sissy. If you know about his infamous appetite for women – having claimed to have slept with 20,000 women – you might get some insight into why what seems logical to many did not seem nearly so logical to Chamberlain.

Some people take the lesson from this to be that we should not be conformist. Sometimes, the pressure to conform is strong but the best thing to do is stick with what clearly works. But I don’t think that really is the lesson to be drawn here. The lesson here is that our logic is always governed by our particular priorities. We can only understand if someone is acting logically if we properly understand why they are doing what they do.

I am reminded of this “funny” video that did the rounds a while back, with people laughing at the two men involved:

Many people thought the two men were idiots, filling up a wheelbarrow of sand before dumping it out again. Which looks dumb until you find out why they are doing it. They aren’t just moving the sand, but measuring out building sand to make cement. What seems illogical to us is perfectly logical when you understand what they are doing.

This is really at the heart of an awful lot of cultural issues. What seems logical to us only seems that way because we do not understand what is driving someone from another culture. Whilst some of us can acknowledge this a bit when we know someone is a different ethnicity, from a foreign country, that we know is very different to Westernised modes of thinking. The more people look and sound like us, the less we seem to understand these same things are at play. So, we might acknowledge it when we see some Buddhist folks from Myanmar who look and sound nothing like us, we get it a bit with Africans from Christainised countries who are closer to us but don’t look like us, we get it a little bit less with white Western Europeans, less still with white American who speak our language, and not at all when white middle class Brits rub up against white working class Brits.

This matters when it comes to the church. If we are not going to squash the expression of different cultures in the church, we need to stop thinking what seems logical to us must necessarily be to everyone else. What seems natural and obvious to us may be no such thing to our African, Asian or American brothers and sisters. Just because something seems logical to me, and I look the same and speak the same language as someone next to me, doesn’t mean our cultural assumptions are the same. If our cultural assumptions aren’t the same, both of us might be using the same logic and arriving at very different conclusions. If our cultural assumptions aren’t the same, and we aren’t even employing the same mode of logic, it doesn’t mean one of us is being logical and the other isn’t. It just means our premises are different and we’re employing different, no less logic means of working out what we are therefore to do.

It is worth remembering this when it comes to discussions of how to apply the scriptures. We can land in very different places because the assumptions governing why we do what we do are very different and the mode of logic we employ might be different too. This is something worth bearing in mind even if you happen to come from the same country and speak the same language. You might both be trying to honour the Lord, but the assumptions that govern how you do that and the mode of logic that leads you to figure out how to do that might make you land in very different places. It doesn’t make one of you a logical thinker and the other not. It doesn’t make one of you biblical and the other not (necessarily). It means what you have on your hands is a good, old-fashioned cultural difference, and scripture calls you to try and bear with one another rather than bludgeon each other with claims of unbiblical, illogical nonsense.