When “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” Is All the Logic Left
Spoiler alert: If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk, a straw, a broom, crayons, and eventually another cookie. The lesson of the story is simply that actions have consequences, which then lead to new circumstances demanding new actions. Every effect becomes itself a cause. This is a helpful way to teach your four-year-old to think before prying up mystery gunk off the sidewalk. It’s also a useful primer on logic for the rest of us.
The trouble is that, for many, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is the furthest extent of our logical study. We don’t want complex syllogisms, but compelling stories. The degree to which gripping narratives embody logical syllogism is the degree to which we are willing to think logically. Our field of reasoning goes only so far as the stories take us, and no further.
This means that the validity of any argument must, indeed, can only be demonstrated through a personal narrative. Do I believe that the healthcare profession is completely corrupt, full of greedy, lying malpractitioners? I need only share my personal story of falling afoul of poor medical care, and my case is all but proved. We sense instinctively that we cannot challenge the truth of someone’s personal experience. It is, after all, their experience. But that also moves their argument beyond the pale of dispute. To argue against their point means that you don’t care about their plight. The only way I can hope to find footing in an argument is to offer counter-stories to illustrate the other side. The one who shares his story first seems right—at least, until another comes along with a better one (cf. Prov. 18:17).
There are two practical takeaways for us to bear in mind when engaging our world of narrative syllogisms.
Arguing Via Narrative
We need to learn to argue using narratives. This skill hardly needs to be taught; it comes instinctively. Narratival reasoning is not some unmitigated evil, but is part and parcel of the human experience. Our most strongly shaped beliefs and opinions are not the result of carefully reasoned philosophy, but rather due to profound personal experiences. The power of narrative is a timeless axiom among persuasion professionals. Any lawyer, salesman, or advertiser will tell you: “the best story wins.”
We need to always be on the lookout for (and stocking away) stories. We need flesh and blood examples which either bear out or challenge umbrellas of belief. Even as we handle issues involving abstraction or hypothesis, we should be willing to imaginatively construct stories which, although not real, could illustrate outcomes within these abstract or hypothetical parameters.
Challenging Faulty Personal Premises
When engaging someone’s narratival reasoning, look for where personal examples have turned into premises. Narrative, emotional-based arguments are really just forms of hyper-inductive reasoning. You get one very specific example, birthed from a specific time and place, involving specific people. From that one example, a conclusion is formed which is then used to gather together broad categories of people and circumstances.
Take a personalized example: Chris realized team competition was hurtful when, as a kid, he was chosen last in a kickball tournament. Now, as a boss, he has learned to avoid segmenting or dividing employees into competitive teams. Notice what’s happened here. A personal experience, incontrovertible because it is personal, has slipped through the back door and turned into a premise. Being chosen last was a bad experience. The inductive leap concluded that that experience was bad because team competition is bad.
The danger of narratival reasoning is that it obscures its extreme inductive nature. Traditional inductive reasoning seeks to gather a whole collection of instances or stories and reach a general conclusion from these specifics. Narratival reasoning takes one experience and makes it the guiding premise for future decisions, and then obscures its dark deed in the winding pathway of a personal and emotional story. Chris’ conclusion evokes sympathetic understanding, but what are his conclusions and the premises those conclusions then form? Are all teams bad? Is all competition bad? Is it that specific combination, the competitive-team, that is bad? Or is it the choosing of teams that is bad?
A narrative in itself is hard to debate because it is simultaneously specific and vague. The whole thread of reasoning from one premise to the next gets buried, and is in fact irrelevant, because that’s not the point of a story. The point of a story is to evoke a feeling, which will then motivate a direction of behavior.
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We don’t need to avoid or fear narratives. By personality, some of us will be more geared to think in deductive logic, while most in our day will move along more instinctively, through compelling narratives. We need to recognize how a narrative operates in the field of discourse and debate. A narrative contains a principle and a perspective. If we rely on feeling our way towards principles on the basis of narratives, then we need at least to allow those principles to be challenged through a different perspective, a different story.
But this is still begging the question. Unless we want to be continually bounced around according to the pathos of the storyteller, we need God’s unshakable Master Story (i.e. the Bible), rounded out with coherent premises by which we can judge all other narratives.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Boise, ID. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.
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