Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 7, 2015

In Praise of Sloppy Thinking

Sloppy-street

People of faith get a lot of unfair criticism for sloppy thinking.

It’s not that we don’t do it: we do. Everyone engages in sloppy thinking, even scientists, atheists, and Nobel laureates.

It’s not because of laziness or stupidity.

It’s because sloppy thinking isn’t always bad. Sometimes, it’s efficient. And that’s a good thing.

Here’s an example that an atheist might call sloppy thinking: “God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai.”

Viewed only from a logical point of view, that belief is incoherent. Its subject and verb (“God gave …”) refer to transcendent realities that are beyond our comprehension. The rest of it refers to ordinary realities: a book (the Torah), a man (Moses), and a mountain (Sinai). Therefore, the two parts of the belief don’t connect with each other and cannot form a logical statement.

Most people realize there’s a problem, but they still talk about the belief as if it were simple and straightforward:

While religious believers produce theologically correct ideas in situations that allow them the time and space to reflect systematically on their beliefs, the same people can stray from those theological beliefs under situational pressures that require them to solve conceptual problems rapidly.1

If you ask people to explain their religious beliefs, such as “God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai,” they often give you sophisticated answers:

  • No, they don’t believe that God sat on a rock and dictated the Torah to Moses.
  • God is a transcendent, infinite, and incomprehensible spirit, and Moses received his prophetic inspiration in ways we don’t grasp.

But in everyday reasoning, the very same people use a much more primitive version of the belief. They act as if God were a normal, finite being, with a physical body, Who talked to Moses in the ordinary way.

Why?

Let’s look at a simpler belief: “A dog is a mammal.”

Really? What kind of dog? There are 339 recognized breeds of dog. Is the dog big or little? Puppy, or grown? And what kind of mammal is it?

You didn’t think about those things? Sloppy. Very sloppy.

Don’t feel bad. You didn’t think about those things because you didn’t need to think about them. They weren’t relevant.

Consider another example: “To solve a quadratic equation, you can use the quadratic formula.”

If you took algebra, you know that the belief is true. Do you remember what the quadratic formula is?

You don’t? Sloppy. Very sloppy. But not relevant. Your belief is true even if you can’t remember the formula.

The point is this: Words, phrases, and concepts are like handles.

By holding the handles, we can manipulate large amounts of information to solve problems, but we avoid getting bogged down in irrelevant details. Even if the underlying details are incomprehensible or inaccurate, the handle can still work.

Suppose that a man finds a lost wallet containing several hundred dollars in cash. He wants to decide on the morally correct course of action.

He imagines God as a white-robed father figure in the sky, Who gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai and Who prescribed a demanding moral code. What would the father figure want him to do? Naturally — that is, supernaturally — God would want him to do the honest thing and return the wallet.

The man is not trying to do theology: he’s trying to solve a practical problem. For him to “go full Maimonides” about God’s nature would mean he never gets around to returning the wallet. Instead, he imagines a quick, highly inaccurate, indubitably primitive image of the Author of Goodness to tell him what to do. And he gets the answer he needs.

If you cornered the same man in a theology class, he might give you a sophisticated philosophical explanation; but that’s a different context with a different purpose. In that situation, it’s just as unhelpful for him to use a primitive father-figure image as it would be to use a theological explanation of God in trying to decide about a lost wallet.

In each case, the thinking he does is appropriate for the problem he is trying to solve, and his thinking is efficient in solving it.

The handles are justified by their results. As long as mental shortcuts and anthropomorphic imagery are not confused with the more complicated realities that they represent, they are a helpful tool in reasoning.

So don’t feel bad about your sloppy thinking. If you do it right, you’re being efficient. You’re solving the problems you need to solve. Well done.

Works Cited

Slone, D.J. (2004), Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Footnotes


  1. Slone, D.J. (2004), loc. 59. Kindle edition. 

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