Thursday, February 28, 2013

Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought

I’ve been reading Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought, by Vern Poythress.

i) The best thing I can say about the book is that there are Christians (e.g. Clarkians) who think logic begins and ends with Aristotle. The “three laws of logic”; “If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man…”

If they read his book, it will disabuse them of that quaint, simplistic narrative. For he reviews the history of logic, and brings it more up-to-date.

ii) That said, my preliminary impression of the book is that it’s a huge missed opportunity. A basic problem is his target audience. He tries very hard to pitch his new book on logic to the average Christian layman. I think that’s a fundamental misstep. On the one hand, I seriously doubt most non-philosophy majors are going to slog through a 708-page monograph on logic, even if Poythress bends over backwards to make it user-friendly.

On the other hand, the treatment is too popular, too rudimentary, to satisfy philosophy majors, much less fully trained philosophers. It’s too much for the layman, and too little for the pro. It’s a book without a realistic audience. An editorial compromise that won’t satisfy anyone.

iii) The book has lots of juicy chapter titles, but when you dip into the chapters, the actual treatment is very sketchy. His basic style of writing is almost sermonic. I’m struck by the very loose quality of reasoning. He will take a Biblical prooftext, then assert that this relates to something in logic. And that’s about it. There’s very little intensive argumentation. It’s largely reverent claims with illustrative prooftexts.

iv) Ideally, a 708-page Christian monograph on logic would present a detailed case for the theistic foundations of logic. Ideally, each chapter would contribute to a cumulative case for the theistic foundations of logic. Poythress would slowly but steadily construct his argument, a piece at a time.

Ideally, he would compare and contrast his theistic model with secular models.

But from my reading, the chapters aren’t related to each other in that linear, progressive fashion. He isn’t building an argument from chapter to chapter. It doesn’t really add up.

Rather, each chapter discusses a different topic by giving a cursory overview. So the overall treatment is fairly superficial. The analysis never digs down very far.

Instead, it’s written like a home Bible study, or one-year devotional, with study questions at the end of various chapters.

This is disappointing, if not entirely unexpected. I’m sure he’s capable of operating at a much higher level. He’s a Caltech grad with a doctorate in math from Harvard. He studied logic under Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke. And he’s clearly been researching and ruminating on these issues for many years.

However, I don’t think the popular audience is necessarily the only explanation for the surface-level treatment. I think his Van Tilian view of divine incomprehensibility severely limits how far he thinks we can or ought to explicate the theistic foundations of logic. Analogy is the glass ceiling, and the ceiling is low. Doesn’t take much to bump your head against the glass ceiling of the Creator/creature distinction, or the immanence/transcendence distinction. I think that’s the basic reason his analysis tends to peter out so soon.

For him, analogy is almost like a natural, impenetrable barrier. It conceals as much as it reveals.

v) This goes to a basic tension in his overall position. For instance, he says:

Something similar to this argument can be found in James N. Anderson and Greg Welty, “The Lord of Non-contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic.” But it appears to me that this article does not take into account the presence of analogy and the Creator-creature distinction in logical reasoning about God (69n4).

Now this is the paragraph the footnote goes to:

In addition, let us remember that we are speaking of logic as it really is, not merely our human guesses and approximations. Logic in this sense is an aspect of the mind of God. All God’s attributes will therefore be manifested in the real laws of logic, in distinction from our human approximations of them (69).

So does he think it’s possible to discuss logic in itself, or not? Isn’t he making a statement about logic in itself, in contrast to mundane exemplifications of logic? But in that case, mustn’t he sneak across the border to discuss logic from the other side of the boundary? Isn’t that what he’s implicitly doing?


  1. Hi Steve,

    What would you suggest as an introductory primer on Logic and Critical Thinking for the lower-division undergrad instead?

    1. Reason and Argument by P. T. Geach