Monday Musings for December 18, 2017

Good morning, Musers,

Before we begin today, let me give you a blessing to carry you through the week: post hoc ergo propter hoc!

There! … and I hope you feel blessed! I know I do… but not because this is an actual blessing.

This is a Latin phrase which means "after this, therefore because of this." So, why do I feel blessed? This phrase represents a logical challenge to our failure to differentiate between sequential events that have a true cause-and-effect relationship and those that are merely incidental.

So, yes… I probably want something different for Christmas than you do (logical warrant)… but it’s still a pretty neat gift — one that keeps on giving.

As strange as this may seem given that introduction, I’ll be talking about prayer today… because our questioner asked me to look at answered prayer through the post hoc fallacy (… which is shorthand for the “blessing” above). Post hoc challenges the notion that things which come after are necessarily caused by things which came before — and today’s seeker left me guessing as to what he was after specifically… so, we’ll be going down the rabbit hole.

Sometimes true cause-and-effect is easy to identify… like in Newton’s third law. If I apply a force in one direction, an equal and opposite force is applied to me in the opposite direction (… and if you want some fun proving this, try ice skating with a leaf blower!) The third law describes cause-and-effect couplings that are necessarily so, and this is true for those couplings in every case. But what if we’re not dealing with physical systems?

Let’s say that I hire my grandson to remove some leaves (… and assuming that I’m not using the leaf blower to spin me around on the ice). Under this agreement, we have a cause-and-effect relationship: his removal of the leaves causes me to give him money.

But my grandson is not a mere hireling. We also have a familial and affectionate relationship. So, there have been plenty of times when he removed the leaves because he wanted to bless me… and there have been plenty of times when I just gave him money out of love and affection.

So now, let’s say that he removed my leaves for free one day — and I thanked him for the gift of his service. And let’s say that on the next day, I gave him some money as a gift — no strings (or leaves) attached. What’s different between the first and the second scenarios?

When we look at the time, sequence and the action of the stories, they are both the same. Work was done and money was transferred. But the second scenario was not cause-and-effect. Both the leave-raking and the money-giving were discrete events as defined by the story.

You can test for the post hoc fallacy by asking, does money change hands — either every time or definitively — when the grandson rakes the leaves? According to the scenario, I described (and especially as qualified in the third paragraph above), the answer is no.

A problem develops when people observe the two leave-rakings and money-givings, and they develop a rule from those observations that says every time Evan’s grandson rakes his leaves, Evan gives him money. That’s the post hoc fallacy. If there is even the possibility that the cause-and-effect relationship is only sometimes true, then you can’t make a rule… but in this case, it’s clearly declared that that’s not the rule.

Here’s the take-home: not everything that looks like cause-and-effect is. Some things merely happen to be sequential. The problem is that we human beings are too good at connecting things. So, we often assign a cause-and-effect relationship where there is none going on… and now, I’m going to ruin your week.

Is everything that looks like answered prayer actually answered prayer? … and if you think this is so, how do you prove it? Remember… post hoc is looking over your shoulder and testing the relationships. So, is it necessarily true that every prayer and their apparent answers are linked by your connection with God in a cause-and-effect way?

To find the answer to this (and other questions that you were probably afraid to ask)… enjoy today’s musing.

To read the article referenced above, visit the link below.

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