The Other I

October 20, 2012

The blind spot in deduction

I suggested in my last post that the use of deductive thought as a result of my socialization as a Catholic had limited the scope of my thinking.  Before I elaborate on this, let me make it clear that both deductive and inductive thought are legitimate forms of reasoning, and both are used every day in almost every walk of life.  So what’s the difference?

To perhaps over-simplify somewhat, deductive thought works by starting with the Right Answer (or General Principles, or Theory), and then explains why it is so.  This is a perfectly respectable and valid method of reasoning for many situations.  I can state categorically, for instance, that the fire in my fireplace is always hot.  And it is possible to show why it must be so.  Or I can say that a my car will not run when there is no gas in the tank; and I can then explain why and how gas is the car’s source of energy, and won’t run if I put water in the tank instead.  Or I may start out with the Right Answer that the sun moves everyday around the world, because every day of my life I have seen it come up and move across the sky to the other side.

Inductive reasoning works the other way around.  It starts out with the observation and then tries to explain why or how it is so.   Instead of beginning with the answer, it begins with the observation which it then tries to explain.  This is the classic method used by science.  Copernicus, for instance, did not begin with the assumption that the sun moved around the earth.  He began with his observations of movements in both the day and night sky, and concluded that the theory that earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around explained our observations better and with fewer contradictions.

It is worth while pointing out that once a scientific theory is accepted, it is then often tested using deductive reasoning.  The theory is treated like the Right Answer.  But if, as often happens, subsequent observations are not in line with what the theory predicts should be observed, it is the theory, not the observation, that is discarded.  That is why the history of science is strewn with answers that for years, sometimes even for centuries, were accepted as valid, accepted as facts, but which are now discarded.  Newton’s concept of gravity is a classic example.   Scientists still talk about gravity, but with Einstein’s theory of relativity, how it works and what it actually is changed so fundamentally that it barely resembles Newton’s original theory.

Deductive thought was given its prominence in Catholic theological thinking by Thomas Aquinas who was trying to show that Aristotle’s deductive reasoning need not be feared by the Catholic authorities, who until then, had forbidden believers to read Aristotle.

Thomas of Aquinas used this method by making a theological belief the initial Right Answer, which he then defended using deductive reasoning.  For example: He began with the statement that  There is a God,  and  then went on to offer his “proofs”  showing that this must be so.

There is a critical difference, however, between the use of deductive reasoning used to examine religious belief and deductive reasoning used to examine scientific facts rooted in theory.  If our observations contradict theory, scientists question the theory, that is they question the original Right Answer.  Theological thought assumes that their initial Right Answers are infallible and in the face of observations that seem to contradict that Answer, do not question its validity.

This is how I was taught to think.  And I was pretty good at it.   The Church told me what the right answers were, and I was able to explain why those answers had to be right.  I could explain why unbaptized babies could never go to heaven and had to be satisfied with a place called Limbo.  I could explain why abortion was always murder but war and capital punishment weren’t.  I could explain why adultery or suicide could never be sanctioned, and homosexuality was “unnatural.”  I got a lot of positive feedback, because I was better than average at this kind of reasoning.

The problem was that I never questioned the initial Right Answer.  I only learned to defend it.

Once again, that resulted in my downgrading what I observed.  When my superiors at Maryknoll asked me if I was happy there, I knew the “right” answer was yes.  I didn’t stop to reflect for as much as five minutes about how I actually felt.  (And in retrospect, there was a great deal of evidence that how I felt was not happy.)  I did not take seriously the beauty around me, the pleasures that were so plentifully provided, I certainly did not experience awe or delight in any of the incredible things about life that I was learning in biology or chemistry, or merely looking up at the sky.

For me, the only real mysteries worth contemplating were mysteries like the virgin birth, or the three persons in one god, or the resurrection.

Today these mysteries fall flat.  They do not fill me with the awe or exhilaration or even the peace that mysteries surrounding me every day can do.  I look at a bug crawling along the ceiling and am amazed.  I look at the tenacity of life reflected in the weeds in my garden, and am thrilled.  And of course there is the Big Bang and Quantum Physics and Mozart and ee cummings and the absolutely explosive joy of being alive, of being loved, of loving.




  1. I never had any bother with the trinity, the virgin birth or the resurrection as mysteries. I don’t think they need defending and it does my head in when people do. If God is God he can do what he likes, I reckon. These mysteries shouldn’t pose him a problem.
    But hey, maybe I am a little simpllistic 😉
    Although, in the Protestant(ish) tradition I was raised in, we were raised to question everything, and not to believe anythng that didn’t work out in practice. And I still hold to that. I like arguing when things don’t add up. I just wish more people would argue with me. Which is why I enjoy your thoughts so much. Not that you argue with me, as such…
    As for reasoning, I think that real life happens between your two styles of thinking. There is the top-down and the grass-roots up – and life is lived in the middle. And there will be (In my opinion and not yours) a RIGHT ANSWER, but I think that we only skirt nearer it or further from it at times.


    Comment by sanstorm — October 20, 2012 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

    • When I saw that you’d clicked on the “Like” button for this post, I was hoping you’d add a comment because I was eager to know why. I’m so glad you did.

      Actually, I think we may have more in common about those Right Answers than is first apparent. First of all, I never thought mysteries like the resurrection or the virgin birth should pose a problem for an all-powerful God. Of course he can do what he likes. (That he seemed to like creating a world in which there is so much innocent suffering poses a problem for any traditional concepts of God, but that is another issue.) What I was taught about these mysteries wasn’t that they were problems to be solved so much as truths which should inspire awe and inspiration and wonderment. I can’t say they ever did. As I said in my post a Beethoven concert or a torrential rainstorm are to this day the kind of things that inspire awe and wonderment for me.

      About Right Answers specifically. You believe they are out there, that they actually exist, but that we can never grasp them fully, that we can only skirt nearer or further from them. And about that we fully agree. I too believe that we must live by some values and principles. But that because our Right Answers are never absolute, we must constantly re-assess them. And because we cannot be sure our interpretations are totally Right, it is wrong for us to impose our Right Answers on others. It’s hugely important to listen, and to respect even ideas that we ourselves cannot understand.

      Wouldn’t you agree that we agree on this?

      Again, thank you. You may not know it, but I hugely appreciate your comments. Most especially when they explain a different point of view.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — October 21, 2012 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

      • Music just doesn’t do it for me. I am like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix – I can see right through it.

        Imposing ideas on people makes my skin crawl. And I think I would defend almost to death people’s rights to believe different things from me. Which sounds self defeating, but I don’t think is?…


        Comment by sanstorm — October 23, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

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