CH 4 INFO HERE____4.1 Interpretation, Context, and Purpose
The authors and editors of Genesis meant to communi-cate their faith perspective. By telling of the powerful and awe-inspiring Yahweh, the authors of Genesis wanted to reassure the Israelites that Yahweh was far superior to the pagan gods. The tales of fearsome divine reprisals for straying from the teachings of Yahweh (e.g., death for those who went with the Moabite women to ceremonies honoring the god Baal) were meant to reinforce compli-ance. Genesis is meant to bind the Israelites as a group by giving them a common religious heritage and identity. To do this, the authors and editors of Genesis used some of the most memorable stories known to man.2 We do not expect a scientific publication to be a musi-cal score. And we do not defend it or criticize it using the standards that are meant to be applied to music. The purposes and context of the material determines how it should be interpreted and used. Take the book of Genesis, for example—to interpret it as a scientific work would be a mistake. First, as indicated earlier, it is very probably not an accurate understanding of the purposes of the authors. Second, the historical, social, and cultural context within which the work was produced was pre-scientific. The investigatory methodology we know as science was for-eign to the authors and the audience of Genesis. Thus, it would be equally wrongheaded either to criticize or to defend that collection of religious stories as if it were astronomical, biological, or geophysical science. In fact, the whole question of the Bible’s historical context and purpose is fascinating. And given the political, moral, reli-gious, and social significance of the Bible in today’s world, it is a question well worth examining carefully.3 As we shall see throughout this chapter, a grasp of context
Communication, Language, and Thought Our complex ways of communicating, our uses of lan-guage, and our thinking are so closely connected that most of us think in our native language. As children, years before formal schooling, we begin to learn how to express our ideas in words and sentences. As we grow and learn more, our vocabulary expands, as does our abil-ity to express ourselves with greater precision. If we try to learn a new language as an adult, we often find our-selves translating from the new language into English (if English is our native language) and then back into the tar-get language. Some anthropologists maintain that the capac-ity to use language gave the young species Homo sapi-ens great advantages over the other hominids, such as Neanderthals, who had greater numbers and greater physical strength.7 Using language, early human beings were able to coordinate efforts in combat and refine strategies for acquiring the resources our species needed to survive. Early human language may have included, along with words and pictographs, sounds like clicks and whistles, which we do not use in English. Because communication was almost always face-to-face in the centuries before writing, gestures, and movements were also used to facilitate communication. Taken in its broad-est sense, language in the earliest millennia of our species was a rich and varied system of gesticulations, sounds, pictures, and symbols. As human society became more complex and agree-ments and ideas became so important that they had to be passed down to future generations, written language evolved to capture those ideas and agreements. Whether it was the location of the family plot of land in a river delta that flooded each spring, or the dictates of the monarch, some things needed to be remembered. Written language became our means of commemorating important things like these. Written communications are poor messengers as com-pared to face-to-face conversations. In the presence of the other person facial expressions, gestures, and body lan-guage add so much. When immediate face-to-face commu-nication is reduced to texts or voice recordings, we increase the risk that vagueness or ambiguity will make accurate interpretation more difficult. But, we gain a huge benefit, namely that reliance on written communication relieves us from needing to m
When Vagueness or Ambiguity Cause
Misunderstandings Since meaning matters, we need to examine vagueness and ambiguity. Our aim is to identify the strategies strong critical thinkers can use to analyze or clarify the context and purpose of a communication to more accurately inter-pret what it means.
Vagueness: “Does the Meaning Include This Case or Not?”
Common sense tells us that we should not bring animals to the airport. Cows, chickens, cats, goldfish, snakes, and monkeys are not welcome there. Although we all can agree with the general principle, it would still be reasonable to ask, “What about companion animals and assistance
Does “No dogs allowed” apply to companion animals if prescribed by a doctor for a person’s health and well-being? Is the animal’s care an allowable medical expense for tax return purposes?
animals?” And as soon as the question is asked, we real-ize that our common sense understanding, while generally correct, is not precise enough for practical purposes. A guide dog is an assistance animal, which we would
not intend to prohibit from the airport. We can address the uncertainty about whether the term “animal” in this con-text is meant to refer to guide dogs or not by adding a qual-ification or exception to our initial statement. We could say, as they do in Tampa, “No animals are allowed in the air-port terminal except assistance animals.”
OK, but now what about “companion animals”? For example, for reasons of psychological health, in some states elderly people and others are permitted to legally register certain animals as “companion animals.” Often this registration permits the owner of the companion ani-mal to be granted exceptions to restrictions that gener-ally apply to pets. So, we might want to make a further amendment to our dictate about no animals at airports to permit another exception. In this case, for “registered com-panion animals.” Again, the uncertainty about whether the word animals applies in this context to companion animals needs to be resolved. Our intent is to per
CH 5 INTRO HERE AND SECTION__Making arguments and giving reasons to communi-cate the basis for our beliefs and decisions are universal in our species. There is a way to ask “Why?” in every lan-guage. For example, if we ask the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) why it supports the sale of guns made for children, like the Cricket, a spokesperson may reply, “Because we are trying to develop the next generation of gun users.” And if we pursue that response a bit further, the representative may explain, “The NSSF is a trade associa-tion for the American fire arms industry.” To the question “Why did you order a moratorium on Illinois death pen-alty executions in January 2000?” former Illinois governor George Ryan might have responded, “Because our state’s criminal justice system has made mistakes, and innocent people have been wrongly executed. There is no way to undo that kind of a mistake.” In episode 19 of season 10 of the Law and Order Special Victims Unit, detectives go after a mother who refused to have her son vaccinated. In her own defense the mother says it was her right to make that deci-sion about her own child’s health. She asserts that she is not accountable for the consequences of her decision. And she says that for her child the outcome was exactly as she had hoped. Without incurring the risk she associated with a vaccination, her son got sick with measles and then recov-ered. In the final analysis, her reason is this: “Measles vac-cinations have dangerous side effects. Those risks worry me a lot.” Apart from the TV drama, we know that those risks are exceedingly rare and that the disease itself is a far greater risk to her child and to other children.1 And so, although we can identify with a mother’s concern for the welfare of her child, we may want to evaluate this decision negatively, particularly because in the TV drama her child infected other children and one died. Whether we agree with NSSF, or with Governor Ryan, or with the mother whose decision resulted in the death of another mother’s child, will become important later, when we work on the skill of evaluation. For the present, how-ever, our goal is to analyze exactly what people’s claims are and the reasons they use to establish them as worthy of acceptance. In some ways applying our core critical think-ing skill of analysis can be more difficult than offering an evaluative opinion. Analysis, like interpretation, is about understanding at a deep level. Often we are too quick to react positively or negatively to someone’s decision, only to discover later that we did not even understand the per-son’s decision or their reasons for it. The goal of this chapter is to strengthen our analyti-cal skills. We will use a technique called mapping to help clarify how a person’s reasoning flows from initial state-ments taken as true to the conclusion or decision the per-son regards as being supported by those statements. Like a Google map showing how to get from point A to point B, the maps we will draw show how people reason from their beliefs and assumptions to reach a particular opinion or decision. The criteria for successful analyses are accuracy, completeness, and fair-minded objectivity. 5.1 Analyzing Reasons and Claims Consistent with common usage, we will use the expression make an argument to refer to the process of giving one or more reasons in support of a claim.2 Here are some exam-ples of arguments: 1. [Reason] Student journalists should have the same rights as professional journalists. [Claim it is intended to sup-port] So, laws that shield professional journalists from imprisonment will apply to student journalists, too. 2. [Reason] Confidential sources of information would be in danger if they were publicly identified. To legally require journalists to reveal confidential sources to the police will have the effect of publicly identifying those confidential sources. [Claim] Therefore, the law should not require journalists to reveal their confiden-tial sources. 3. [Claim] Encephalitis (swelling of the brain) cannot be said to be a side effect of measles vaccination. [Reason] Here’s why: “This happens so rarely—less than once in a million shots—that experts can’t be sure whether the vaccine is the cause or not.”3 4a. [Claim] I need to get a better job! [Reasons] My boss is an unappreciative moron. And my commute is brutal. 4b. [Reasons] My commute is brutal and I work for an unappreciative moron. [Claim] Man, do I need to get a better job or what? The term claim refers to the statement that the maker of the argument is seeking to show to be true or probably true. We will often refer to an argument’s claim as the argument’s conclusion. The other sentences in the argu-ment, namely those that are used to show that the conclu-sion is true or that it is probably true, constitute the reason or reasons. Remaining faithful to the variety of ways we have of talking about thinking in everyday language, we can refer to reasons using synonyms, like considerations or rationale. We can use the term argument to refer to the combination of a person’s claim and the reason or reasons a person presents in support of that claim. To argue, in this sense, is to invite others to draw the inference from the reason(s) offered to the conclusion intended.4 Accuracy Depends on Context and Purpose In conversation people may give more than one reason in support of the same conclusion. Example #4a and #4b