Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thoughts on Interpretation: How We Go Wrong if we Confuse True and Perceived Meaning

HumptyThe Internet in a nutshell…


One of the more disruptive things between Catholics on the internet is the argument over meaning. When a member of the Church speaks, people argue over meaning. Sometimes it is over whether a teaching really justifies sin. At other times, it is over whether the Pope emeritus really intended to condemn the Pope. Catholics who seek a desired meaning, regardless of faction, are likely to latch onto an interpretation that justifies what they have been fighting for. The problem is, unless they understand the words as intended by the speaker, such misinterpretations have no value. Consider the words of Dr. Peter Kreeft:

Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.

Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.

Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.

Flatland: Why not?

Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?

Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.

Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?

Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.

Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?

Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.

Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another. other. And that is certainly not charitable, but arrogant.

Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.

If we try to interpret the teachings of the Church through what we think they should be, we are doing it wrong. What we must do is interpret the words of Church teaching and the words of members of the Church as they are intended. Otherwise, we are only imposing our views on the Church, the Pope, the bishops, the saints, and so on. These misinterpretations appear in the form of several logical fallacies. These fallacies tend to be interlocked, so a critic of the Church might use several without realizing it.

1) Begging the Question [†]

The problem is, too many (wrongly) assume that they properly understand the meaning of a statement, and base their argument on that wrong assumption. What they don’t realize is that their assertion needs to be proven. By assuming their assumption is true, the “evidence” they gather for their position is not evidence at all. It’s merely part of the challenged assertion. As Aristotle points out,

[W]henever a man tries to prove what is not self-evident by means of itself, then he begs the original question. This may be done by assuming what is in question at once; it is also possible to make a transition to [40] other things which would naturally be proved through the [65a] thesis proposed, and demonstrate it through them, e.g. if A should be proved through B, and B through C, though it was natural that C should be proved through A: for it turns out that those who reason thus are proving A by means of itself. This is what those persons do who suppose [5] that they are constructing parallel straight lines: for they fail to see that they are assuming facts which it is impossible to demonstrate unless the parallels exist. So it turns out that those who reason thus merely say a particular thing is, if it is: in this way everything will be self-evident. But that is impossible. [Aristot., Pr. and Post. Anal. 64.2.35–65.1.9]

Aristotle, “ANALYTICA PRIORA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. A. J. Jenkinson, vol. 1 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1928).

It’s a good point. If I assume my belief is self-evident when it is not, then the things I claim are “proofs” will depend on others accepting my claim as self-evident. But when the claim is based on a misinterpretation, then these things are not proofs at all—merely further misinterpretation.
2) Ipse Dixit [§]
Ipse Dixit is another fallacy that goes around. It essentially is a bare assertion that something is so, but gives no evidence that it is so. The Catholic who alleges that a Church teaching is “opposed to Christ,” or the Catholic who claims that a statement by the current Pope contradicts the past statements of the Church is committing the ipse dixit fallacy. There is no proof to the statement. The person may be bluffing, or may be sincere. But merely asserting a thing is so is no proof. So, whether a dissenter argues that the Church is wrong in condemning homosexual acts, or whether the dissenter argues that the Pope is wrong in emphasizing mercy, there is no authority to their claims. They are merely asserting that whatever text they cite means what they say it means.
The fact of the matter is, the Church possesses the authority, given by Christ, to determine how to best interpret God’s teaching. A claim that the Church got teaching X wrong is based on an individual’s assertion. But the individual assertion has neither the authority nor the protection promised by Christ. Our task is to study what the Church teaches and understand it, so we might follow it and teach others to do the same. But we must do so in docility, recognizing that the Church can change disciplines for the good of souls. We must not become so attached to our personal reading that we assert it is doctrine in opposition to the Church.
3) Either-Or

We have a tendency to divide everything into two factions: Conservative vs. Liberal, Democrat vs. Republican, Capitalism vs. Socialism, Modernist vs. Traditionalist, and so on. Moreover, we view those factions in terms of Right vs. Wrong. Whoever is not in our faction is assumed to belong to the other faction and supporting all the evils belonging to the opposing faction. The problem is, in many cases, we have more than two sides. Moreover, while these factions are in opposition to each other, the fact that one is wrong does not make the other right. 
People are confusing contraries with contradictories. Positions that are contrary are positions where both cannot be right, but both can be wrong. For example, atheism and polytheism are contrary to each other on the existence of some form of divinity. But, if monotheism is true, both atheism and polytheism are wrong. Positions that are contradictory cannot both be right, but one is right and one is wrong. For example, it is either raining or not raining. It’s impossible for it to be both in the same place and the same time. One contradicts the other.
I think of this when I see critics of the Pope accuse his defenders of supporting divorce and remarriage or other positions contrary to what the Church teaches. Such accusers assume their position on what the Church teaching should be is true, and any disagreement shows that the other side supports error. But what they overlook is the possibility that the Pope’s defenders do not champion error at all, but instead reject the accusations as false (See how this ties in with Begging the Question and Ipse Dixit).
If the situation is different than the accuser claims, then the division into two factions is false. A person can say, “I reject both A and B.” A person can say, “I support some elements of both A and B.” A person can say, “I support C.” In all of these cases the either-or claim is false. So, before we can divide up people into preconceived notions of A vs. B, we have to make sure that only those two factions exist and that one of them must be true.
4) The Strawman

The Strawman fallacy misrepresents an argument and then treats the refutation of the misrepresentation as a refutation of the argument. But if the individual does not hold the position of the strawman, then he has not been refuted. This may happen, for example, if a person truly misunderstands the point, or it may happen if a person wants to discredit a position without going through the trouble of refuting it. (These are not the only two of course, as our discussion of either-or above pointed out).
There are a lot of crass misrepresentations out there. One popular one is to allege that Pope Francis endorses Cardinal Kasper’s claims on divorce and remarriage. But comparing Amoris Lætitia [¶] with Cardinal Kasper’s position shows that while the Pope approves of the concept of reaching out to the divorced/remarried to reconcile them with God and the Church, he did not accept the Cardinal’s position on emulating the Eastern Orthodox churches on the matter. So, to refute Cardinal Kasper’s opinion as not being compatible with Catholic teaching (I too reject the cardinal’s position) is not to refute Pope Francis on reaching out to these people.
These are not the only fallacies committed. But they are common and interlocked. They have a common flaw in assuming one has properly understood Church teaching and the position of those one disagrees with. But their interpretation is disputed, and if they have gotten one or both wrong, then their arguments are without value. We are required to make sure we understand both, in the light of the Church teaching (which the current Pope and bishops in communion with him have the authority to determine) and in what the person intended by his words. We cannot assume that what we think is meant is correct, and if that differs from what the Church says, that the Church is in error.
I’d recommend keeping the logical fallacies, listed above, in mind. Once you recognize them, the perceived legitimacy of the claims used to undermine the authority of the Church, the Pope, and the bishops in communion with him vanishes like smoke.
[†] Contemporary English misuses the term. Often people use the term “That begs the question of…” where they really mean “that brings up another question.” But the proper use of the term is assuming as true what needs to be proven true.
[§] Ipse Dixit (Latin for He himself said it) is simply an assertion with no proof given. 
[¶] I’ve read Amoris Lætitia five times to investigate all the accusations against it. I suspect that is five times more than the average anti-Francis critic on Facebook has read it.

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