# Columbo’s Logic, Part 1

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.