Think Again: The Danger of Preferential Reasoning

basketball on blackThere seems to be a tendency in human beings to draw the logical conclusion that each of us prefers to be true. So when it comes to evaluating arguments for reasonableness and explanatory power, preference tends to weigh heavily in our final assessment. Preference can even at times trump solid evidence that points to the truth of an alternative conclusion.

As conscientious students of logic, we should attempt to be objective in our reasoning, but sometimes personal preference can exert a strong influence in our thinking. Let’s look at an example from my world as a sports fan.

As a sports fan I eat, drink, and sleep in Lakerland. I have been a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan since 1969. I watch nearly every Lakers game on television, and I avidly read many articles and books about the franchise and its players. I even have a collection of Lakers championship hats. When I think about the Lakers, I think about them with both my head and my heart. I’m even told that I can be somewhat temperamental about purple and gold, the famous Lakers uniform colors.

So in light of my Lakers attachment, let’s ask a question:

Are there good reasons to believe that the Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs in the upcoming 2015–16 NBA season?

Well, as a dyed-in-the-wool Lakers fan my strong preference is that they will indeed make the playoffs. In fact, since the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs the last two seasons, and since last season was their worst win-loss record in the history of the franchise, you can say I’m virtually desperate that they make the playoffs this coming season.

However, there are some ominous but cogent reasons to think that the Lakers will again miss the playoffs. First, the Lakers have a lot of young and new (though talented) players who have not yet played together, so they lack chemistry. Second, the Lakers franchise star Kobe Bryant is coming off his third consecutive season-ending injury and is now 37 years old. Third, the Western Division of the NBA is filled with very good teams, thus making the playoff cut very hard to reach.

While my preference is to think (or hope) the Lakers will make a playoff run, the evidence against it is substantial. Therefore, I have to think with my head and not just with my heart.

Yet it needs to be understood that one’s preference in selecting an argument can be logical. How so? Beliefs can be based upon rational, nonrational, or irrational considerations (or even a combination thereof).

Rational considerations involve things like arguments, facts, evidence, reasons, explanations, inferences, and so forth. Irrational considerations arise when a person forms a belief that violates the necessary and irrefutable laws of logic or standard principles of reasoning. Nonrational considerations may include things like intuition, feelings, needs, preferences, fears, desires, etc. Thus, various factors influence a person’s beliefs about reality and truth—some of the factors are rational (consistent with reason), some irrational (in conflict with reason), and some nonrational (not based upon reason).

Of course, rational factors should be given priority. However, nonrational factors may be quite compatible with what is first determined to be rational. In other words, to focus upon religious beliefs, a person may prefer Christianity to be true (perhaps due to the attraction of a loving and forgiving God) over other belief systems. But there are still viable, cogent reasons for believing Christianity is in fact rationally true (for example, the resurrection of Jesus and his unique life).

So be careful about leading with your preferences when it comes to analyzing arguments. But also remember that some beliefs are not directly based upon reason but can still be consistent with reason.

See other installments in this series here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, and part 7.

Resources

  • My former podcast, Straight Thinking, contains a number of episodes given to the topic of Christianity’s relationship to reason. It is archived at reasons.org. I recommend in particular that you listen to the episode entitled, “Athens or Jerusalem? Faith and Reason.”
  • Two chapters in my book A World of Difference are devoted to the subject of logic. Most formal logic texts (even used ones) are very expensive, but RTB sells my book at a very reasonable price. Moreover, the logic chapters are conjoined with a detailed discussion of worldview thinking from the perspective of historic Christianity.

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