Friday, August 31, 2012

Post Hoc, Ergo Poppycock

There is a logical fallacy known in Latin as post hoc, ergo propter hoc—literally translated "after this, therefore because of this."  It is joining two or more unrelated events and deducing that the outcome was a direct result of the predecessors, regardless of the improbability.  For example, my work load increased significantly as Tropical Storm Isaac has gained in intensity and proximity to our southern shores, therefore Isaac is to blame for all I need to produce.  In actuality, the increase is from the regular program cycle, not the weather.

This faulty reasoning is commonplace, especially among the superstitious, who are ever seeking omens and signs to determine future actions and decisions.  Arnobius of Sicca recounts that Roman pagan lore related one such occurrence in which the historians recorded that a pestilence of some kind had beset the people.  The had been seeking help from their gods when a ship arrived having a large serpent aboard which was able to escape from the ship and quickly hide itself from view.  Taking this as a good omen, the people undertook to build temples to Aesculapius and give sacrifices so that "the plague-stricken people grew strong and recovered, and the pestilence fled before the soundness of health which arose" (Case against the Pagans, 44).  One can identify with a grateful people who would seek to give credit to anything or anyone who might be deserving to stem the tide of disease.  The serpent's mode of transportation and combined size, speed, and guile were considered to be overwhelming evidence that this was a deity giving health to the people.

Can today's Christian, wishing to properly serve his or her God, be entrapped in a similar self-made conclusion?  This happens more often than we like to admit.  I have heard or read numerous accounts, even in my own assembly, of people searching for the Lord's direction concerning the future or some weighty issue and relating how God gave what amounted to be a special revelation—or an inkling of one—based on a verse out of context, followed by an unrelated encouraging word from a friend or pastor, and later being presented with an opportunity to help or serve in some area.  Suddenly, that person has purpose for starting a ministry or church based on some feeling of the Lord's leading.  The believer so intently wants to be led, that the idea is pursued without basis of fact.  Neither are whole assemblies and their leaders immune to this.

Excursus:  Someone might be wondering at this point, "Doesn't the Holy Spirit lead this way?  He did with the apostle Paul."  God had a specific purpose for his redemptive purposes in getting the gospel to the civilized world, and that was communicated by a clear word from the Lord himself, not an impression.  We cannot attribute circumstances of biblical saints to our lives without a clear "thus says the Lord."

How does one handle the believer or assembly who has gone chasing after an ill-advised outcome?  Arnobius unraveled the cause-and-effect conclusion by looking at the circumstances individually starting with the deity's serpentine characteristics.
That Aesculapius … is contained within the form and outline of a serpent, crawling along the earth … and that he may be able to go forward, he draws on the last part of his body by the efforts of the first. And as we read that he used food also, by which bodily existence is kept up, he has a large gullet, … a belly to receive it, and a place where he may digest the flesh which he has eaten and devoured, that blood may be given to his body, and his strength reinvigorated; he has also a draft, by which the filth is got rid of, freeing his body from a disagreeable burden. (VII.44-45)
And then,
if it crawled as a serpent, … if, being made of fleshly substance, it lay stretched out to a slippery length; if it had a head and tail, a back covered with scales, diversified by spots of various colors; if it had a mouth bristling with fangs, and ready to bite, what else can we say than that it was of earthly origin, although of immense and excessive size. (VII.46)
In essence, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.  Yet the true pagan believer was not be undone by such clear logic, thinking the god merely took the form of a serpent in order to work among the people.  Divine beings can suddenly and easily remove themselves from mortal eyes, which the serpent accomplished, thus adding to the evidence.
But if he was not a god, why, after he left the ship, and crawled to the island in the Tiber, did he immediately become invisible, and cease to be seen as before? (VII.46)
Arnobius did not dispute the disappearance but the means ascribed to the ability.  Surely, it was by some natural means amid the din from the serpent's discovery.
Can we, then, know whether there was there anything in the way under cover of which it hid itself, or some opening, or some caverns and vaults, caused by huge masses being heaped up irregularly, into which it hurried, evading the gaze of the beholders?  For what if it leaped across the river?  What if it swam across it?  What if it hid itself in the dense forests?* (VII.46)
Lastly, the people bring forth what was considered their most effective point: look at the results.
But if that snake was not a present deity why, after its arrival, was the violence of the plague overcome, and health restored to the Roman people? (VII.47)
This last point is the default of those who run out of arguments.  No amount of truth invalidates experience: it happened.  Even this is faulty, because their history clearly demonstrated that disease greatly affected them in later years, and no cure was found.  The people were relying on the memory of one particular occasion rather than looking at the faithfulness of the supposed god.  Their memories were specific, compartmentalized, and manipulated.

Notice that the solution is to objectively examine the circumstances according to a standard.  In the case of the pagan, this was to examine how the serpent's appearance related to natural laws and animal characteristics, and that the cessation of the plague was a natural reversal back to health. 

For the Christian, there must be an examination of the supposed leadings, events, circumstances, etc. against God's revealed word and his commands to us.  Again, this must be addressed objectively.  One cannot approach scripture with an attitude of "this is what I feel the Bible says."  The passages must be examined in context for their clear teaching to weigh against subjective indicators working within the individual or group.  For this to be most effective, the Bible must be taught regularly in a way that brings out what God intended to say through the author.

Will mistakes be made along the way?  Yes, but we are called to hold fast to the certainty of what has been faithfully delivered to us in holy writ.

* Some exaggeration is noted as Arnobius suggests leaping the river, but he does not want the purported size to be an impediment to his response.  He is choosing his battles to win the main point.

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