Columbo’s Logic, Part 1

The always inquisitive Detective Columbo.

2014 was a very busy year of reading for me. I’d applied to attend Frank Turek’s Cross-Examined Instructor’s Academy, and there was a veritable mountain of recommended reading to get through beforehand, both from noted Christian apologists and some of the most noteworthy atheist writers. That year was when I read a point-counterpoint debate on the existence of God for the first time. I was admittedly nervous about what points the atheist would make that might rock my world. As it turned out, I had little to fear (the atheist case really isn’t as strong as they like to pretend). But one of the books from that year that I have come back to time and again was Greg Koukl‘s book “Tactics: A Gameplan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” (read a sample here). This is a classic book of critical reasoning that looks at concepts like self-refuting arguments, the burden of proof, and other basic principles of logic, explained well and with clear examples. One of the principal methods laid out in the book is what Greg calls the “Columbo tactic. Peter Falk’s classic bumbling detective character always ends up catching the bad guy by asking “just one more question”. The answers eventually reveal inconsistencies in the murderer’s alibi and the truth always comes to light. While we may not be hunting criminals, we are hunting for truth. And so Greg encourages a) asking questions of your fellow conversant, and b) actually listening to their responses. This is pretty radical in a world where people tend to talk (or shout) past each other, but isn’t that what actual dialogue should involve? The two primary questions Greg asks are “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”[1] These are simple but very powerful questions because they first clarify what is being debated, and secondly seek to uncover their reasons (or lack thereof) for what they believe.  Although I recognized when I read Tactics that these were effective questions, it wasn’t until I read philosopher Peter Kreeft’s textbook on Socratic Logic in 2015 that I understood why.  Kreeft notes at the beginning of his logic text that “there is one simple, observable behavior that clearly distinguishes humans from both computers and animals: asking questions.”[2] Well, Greg doesn’t just ask any old questions, but rather two insightful questions built on the tried and true foundation of classical logic. These directly address the “three acts of the mind”: understanding, judgement, and reason. Let’s look at each one closer over the next few weeks, starting with understanding.

Understanding, traditionally called the first act of the mind, is what Kreeft says most clearly distinguishes humans from computers: “computers understand nothing; they merely store, process, relate, and regurgitate data.” [3] While judgement and reasoning deal in propositions and arguments, respectively, understanding starts with the foundational level of terms. Terms can’t be true or false by themselves, but they can be clear or unclear. There are often multiple words that might be applicable in a particular situation, and most words have multiple meanings depending on the context. Not defining terms is the most frequent cause of people talking past each other. This is typically unintentional, as each person may simply have a different concept in mind when they hear a certain term. Defining a contentious term in a discussion locks down the word used to the actual concept intended and gets both parties “on the same page”, so to speak. This is especially important with controversial topics that can have a lot of connotations beyond the basic definition. A person may also start out using a word one way and switch mid-discussion to a different meaning. Whether intentional or not, this is actually a logical fallacy called equivocation, and is often used to seemingly prove a point – until we examine the change in meaning midstream. Asking your friend “What do you mean by that?” can help highlight (for both of you) when a word is used inconsistently.

To see how definition helps both parties in a conversation to understand each other better, take, for instance, the controversial topic of abortion. Suppose Susan makes the statement “Abortion is wrong” in a conversation with Beth. If Beth takes “wrong” to mean “illegal”, then she will likely disagree with this premise; it’s not currently illegal (here in America). They might go back and forth and get nowhere because Susan defines the term “wrong” as immoral, while Beth defines it as illegal. But of course, not everything that is wrong is illegal (i.e. killing Jews in Nazi Germany was legal, and even rewarded), while not everything that is illegal is wrong (i.e. owning a Bible in North Korea can get you sentenced to a slave labor camp or executed).

Greg’s advice to ask “What do you mean by that?” early on helps avoid the embarrassing admission after the fact of “we got in a big fight and it turned out we weren’t even talking about the same thing…” On that note, this week’s post comes with some homework: 1) look for opportunities this week to try verifying what people mean (hopefully before getting in a fight!), and 2) think about the words you might be using carelessly, and how clearer terms may help better your own understanding of issues, as well as for people with whom you’re communicating.

Next week, we’ll look at Greg’s second question and how it builds on the third act of the mind, reasoning. Then we’ll circle back to the second act of the mind, judgment, to put everything together.


[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p.49,61.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 35.
[3] ibid. p.36.

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