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Reasoning Backwards

The current intense discussions concerning La Sierra curriculum, evolution and Genesis have generated much passion and polarization mingled with some reasonable questions and concerns. It has also produced some suspect reasoning.

Arguments have been presented suggesting that deviation from believing in a literal Genesis, especially a 7th-day Sabbath in this creation context, does serious damage to Adventist doctrinal positions. Consequently we should resist these viewpoints to prevent harm to the church.

Consider, for example, comments made recently on various websites:

  • The mode of biblical interpretation required to harmonize Evolution with the Scriptures is impossible to harmonize with Adventism. The integrity of our Beliefs should be protected.
  • our identity as "Seventh-day" Adventists is founded on the young age literal six-day rapid creation of the earth.
  • how can you explain the sabbath as a sign of creation and your loyalty to jesus if you teach the john paul 2nd rendition of creation.
  • This issue strikes at the heart of EVERYTHING SDA.
  • How can we stand for the Sabbath day if we are allowing un-Biblical teaching such as this to infiltrate our establishments of "higher learning?"
  • If our church does not believe in and teach a literal 6 day creation, then it may as well throw all our beliefs out the window along with believing in our God. For everything we believe in depends on that belief and faith in a 6 day creation.
  • without a seven-day creation this church is meaningless.
  • When we teach evolution in our own schools we are shooting ourselves in the foot because not only are we encouraging our students in doubt about god which will more than likely encourage them not to attend church which in turn affects tithe and thus our schools will eventually be affected.
  • This is not just a LLU problem. If it remains uncorrected, We as a church are straying off the straight and narrow towards a ditch that will take us far from true Adventism.
  • Seventh-day Adventist educational institutions should not teach naturalistic evolution as fact. It is a false theory that directly challenges one of our most fundamental beliefs – the seventh day Sabbath.
  • I believe that this controversy will send an alarm to the Adventist community alerting them about what is taking place with the most fundamental of all the 28 sacred dogmas of the church. The belief in the Creator of all things and the belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ are the two great pillars on which the Adventist edifice rests. If we allow one of them to fall, the rest will follow suit. The Adventist movement will lose its unique specialness, and we will become like any other Christian denomination.

The context of these comments is that the writers wish to put a stop to what they perceive is bad for the church. Boiled down, the reasoning is as follows:

  1. Premise: Evolution is being taught at an Adventist school.
  2. Inference: Teaching evolution causes damage to Adventism.
  3. Conclusion: Adventism will be damaged.

But this is not the end of the reasoning process.

  1. Because we want to protect Adventism we must attack the premise, i.e. put a stop to the presumed damaging act.

This last part is reasoning backwards – from conclusion to premise. Sometimes this fourth part is stated explicitly, such as (see above) “The integrity of our Beliefs should be protected.”, or “If it remains uncorrected, We as a church are straying off the straight and narrow”. In other comments the fourth step is implicit. The 1-3 portions of the argument are just stated in a context where it is clear the writer wants action taken (step 4) to protect the church.

And it obviously seems plausible to those making the argument. But I wish to suggest (no doubt unpopularly) that this sort of reasoning is both faulty and dangerous. We can and should do better.

In logic one learns it is irresponsible to reason from conclusion to premise. Just because we find the conclusion unpalatable is not a reason to attack the premise, especially in sort of a preemptive strike fashion, with a goal of ‘protecting’ a cherished conclusion. But all this is quite hard to see when we, understandably, are so invested in our beliefs – sometimes in a way that looks more like patriotism than ‘Berean’ dispassionate judgment.

So let me switch context to an example I suggest is parallel. It will, I hope, allow some emotional distance. Consider with me the story found in Acts 19 (KJV):

[23] And the same time there arose no small stir about that way.

[24] For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen;

[25] Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth.

[26] Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands:

[27]So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.

[28] And when they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.

[29] And the whole city was filled with confusion: and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul’s companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre.

Note the form of this argument:

  1. Premise: Paul is successfully teaching Christianity, which is contrary to the worship of Diana.
  2. Inference: His teaching is damaging, based both on the risk of economic loss as well as disrespect to the goddess.
  3. Conclusion: We therefore see harm to our position in his actions.
  4. Conclusion-to-premise: We need to put a stop to this to protect these interests.

The fourth part is to attack the source of the problem to prevent 1-3 from occurring and/or getting worse. So they instigated a mob. They did not seek to counter the argument by considering whether the premises were actually sound or the inference valid. They ‘cut to the chase’ – quite literally.

But perhaps the conclusion didn’t follow from the premise. Rather than considering this they worked backwards. Assuming the conclusion was inevitable they sought to shut down the premise. And what if, by investigation, they had determined that the conclusion was correct? Then shouldn’t honesty have compelled them to abandon parochial interests in favor of demonstrated truth?

I contend that the story in Acts 19 is parallel to the current ‘evolution is in our schools and harming Adventism’ debate – in form. But I suspect many (likely the majority of) Adventists would not appreciate this. Why? Because Adventism is considered truth and Demetrius and the Diana cult considered error. Truth must of course be defended. We must “send an alarm”. And fear of loss – whether of denominational viability (Adventism) or income (Demetrius) – is also a significant motivator.

But at what cost do we operate like this? Reasoning backwards suggests the ends justify the means. Should we really want to ‘save’ Adventism if the premises on which it stands (“pillars” of the “Adventist edifice”) were ever demonstrated to be faulty? I would hope not.

Now, let me add a necessary (I fear) disclaimer paragraph. I am not saying that evolution in any form is true (or false for that matter). I am not, in this essay, providing it any covert support. Neither am I saying that any Adventist doctrine – as embodied in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs – is false. All that is outside the scope of what I am considering here. I would hope that would be clear to the careful reader. But not everyone reads carefully. And the current emotional climate is intense in ways that can cloud common sense.

What I am saying is that we do not want to use such conclusion-to-premise arguments even in the cause of upholding what we passionately believe to be true. It does not dignify the cause. It should be, strictly speaking, irrelevant what the consequences are. What often goes unrecognized is that the 28 presumably sit on a platform of honesty and truth-seeking. This platform, I contend, is far more fundamental to what it should mean to be Adventist than any doctrinal position currently held. Remember Ellen White, somewhat famously, wrote:

“The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.” (CW, p 35).

We likely, with justification, condemn Demetrius the silversmith for forcefully attempting to preempt investigation based on ‘brand loyalty’. As Adventists we should not make the same mistake.

Rich Hannon is on the board of Adventist Forum.

He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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