What does it mean to think like Jesus? How can Christians better learn to use logic to discover truth and avoid "fake news"? In this interview, Sean talks with Dr. Travis Dickinson about his latest book. They discuss why critical thinking is so important today, what it means to love God with our minds, and some practical steps for recognizing faulty thinking.

Travis Dickinson, Ph.D. is a professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University. He graduated from Biola with an M.A. in Apologetics. He is the author of multiple books including Jesus and the Way of Logic: Thinking Critically and Christianly.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics. We're here today with a beloved graduate of Biola who's just doing some wonderful work in the world of philosophy and thinking critically. Travis Dickinson is a Professor of Philosophy at Dallas Baptist University and the author of a new book called Logic and the Way of Jesus: Thinking Critically and Christianly. Travis, thanks so much for joining us on the Think Biblically podcast.

Travis Dickinson: Sean, it's great to be with you, brother.

Sean McDowell: Well, you gave me the privilege of endorsing your book and I think it's-

Travis Dickinson: Yes, which I'm very thankful for.

Sean McDowell: Well, thanks for saying that. It's an excellent book and so needed right now for just a range of reasons. But before we jump into some of the particulars, just give us a 30,000 foot perspective of what is the goal of a book that's called Logic and Way way of Jesus?

Travis Dickinson: Yes. Well, my goal is really to sell a million copies. No, I'm just kidding. The goal is honestly, this really comes out of my own journey. It was very much a transformative moment in my own life that I realized and was challenged in. Thinking of faith, it wasn't that I was an anti-intellectual, I think, but I just didn't see faith and the intellectual life as something that went together in the same sentence. I can talk more about that moment, since it's going to involve guys like JP Moreland and other Talbot folks, if you want to.

Travis Dickinson: But the goal of the book really is to express some of those things that meant so much to me in my own life in my own pursuit of God, where I came to realize that we're actually commanded. Not only is it that faith and the intellectual life can go together, but that it ought to go together. And that we're commanded by Jesus to love God with all of who we are. And that's a devotional pursuit, right? It's love God, and that includes loving God with our minds.

Travis Dickinson: So the goal is to communicate that idea, of course, and disabuse people of this idea that faith and the intellectual life can't go together or something like that. But it's also to see Jesus in a certain light. So the title is intentional, of course, right? Logic and the Way of Jesus. It really is trying to see Jesus as not only our moral example to follow, our exemplar, but also intellectual exemplar. That's not, again, contrary to a life of Christian faith, that the Christian worldview actually really motivates us.

Sean McDowell: Well, you don't have to convince me about the importance of thinking Christian. I know you're not saying this to convince me. But I had a similar moment when I came to study philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. It was like, oh my goodness. Thinking Christianly and deeply and using logic is a part of something that all Christians are called to. Now, this surprises people, because we often think of Jesus as spending time with kids, wandering through the hillsides of Israel telling stories. But you say he's a logician. Tell me what you mean by that.

Travis Dickinson: Well, that's to borrow, of course, a phrase from Dallas Willard, who is definitely... I'm standing on some significant giants here. On their shoulders, not just on them, but on their shoulders. Dallas Willard uses that phrase, and so that's me borrowing him.

Travis Dickinson: I don't mean it that Jesus gives us a theory of logic or something like that in the way of Russell or Fraga or Tarski or somebody, the great logicians. Or even Aristotle, for that matter, where Aristotle is identifying certain theories and principles of logic. Rather, what Jesus does is he exemplifies it in a very similar way in which he is a moral philosopher. This is the one thing everybody can agree on typically with Jesus, is that he's a good moral teacher or philosopher. But he's not laying out a normative theory of ethics or something. He is exemplifying and teaching and teaching us to think, I think... I'm arguing that he's teaching us to think well, and of course morally and all the rest of that too. But as we focus on logic, he's displaying logical brilliance all throughout.

Travis Dickinson: This was probably the most surprising thing for me in writing the book, was how many times throughout the gospels people are astonished by Jesus' really intellect at times. You know what I mean? It's his teaching, and they're astonished because he's not taken the traditional rabbinic route. He's a carpenter's son and so on. To put it in more contemporary parlance, they have their minds blown by the things that Jesus is defending and saying and doing. And a lot of times we think, oh, well, that's because of miracles. But actually, when you go through, like I did in research and writing for the book, what you notice is that they are far more astonished by his teaching than by his signs and wonders. Though they're, of course, astonished by those things too. But it's his display of brilliance that just comes up over and over again that's really astonishing people all the way throughout his life.

Sean McDowell: So why is thinking critically like Jesus did so important for Christians today? And of course, it's always been important, so it's timeless. But is there a timely sense where now maybe more than ever, or particularly in this culture, it's important that Christians learn to think like Jesus did?

Travis Dickinson: I do think so, of course. Part of it is, I think, life is perhaps a bit more complicated than it used to be. Maybe that's not true, but it certainly seems that way. The kinds of moral dilemmas that we have with modern technology and those kind of things, I think, does make it such that it's really difficult to know what we ought to do. And not just the right thing, though of course, we want that, but the Christian thing to do in a particular circumstance. I think it's not easy work, in a way, to think Christianly about the complexities of life. It takes careful, thoughtful, and critical thinking to get there.

Travis Dickinson: This is something that I think, Sean, is, of course, near and dear to your heart too, is that so many of us are Christians by accident. The accident of the home that we grew up in, or even the country that we grew up in, and that kind of a thing. What we need to do, and this is a big moment in my life too, the earlier moment where I realized that I believe that Christianity is true only because I grew up in a Christian home. I really didn't have any good reason to be a Christian other than that fact. And so it really drove me to dive into apologetics and that kind of a thing. And all of that involves critical thinking. You can't really do this work, I think, without sharpening our skills of critical thinking so that we're not Christians by accident.

Sean McDowell: Well, my wife, we were high school sweethearts, and she's seen me grow and develop for a long time. But when I was doing the MA Phil program, she said that was when my faith just really transformed. The MA Phil program at Talbot is a part of Biola. And really, it was a lot of what you do in this book, just laying out, how do we think carefully? How do we use logic? I think every Christian needs to study this in some depth, not just professors, not just apologists or pastors. One of the things you do in the book is you talk about how we can use logic to evaluate worldviews. What do you mean by that and what might this look like?

Travis Dickinson: I agree, first of all, that in part, the book is written as accessibly as I possibly can, because I do expect that it'll be used as a textbook in classrooms because there's a fair amount of the nuts and bolts of critical thinking and logic in it. But it really is meant to be, and I've had some amazing responses, honestly. The book has done decently well so far. In particular, and I'll answer the worldview question here really quick, but I had a lady get in touch with me say that her 93 year old mom is now my biggest fan and she just ate it up. It was awesome.

Sean McDowell: That's amazing.

Travis Dickinson: It was just the thing you want to hear when you're writing a logic textbook, right? So an important piece to this is that we would evaluate our worldviews. I've been thinking about and writing about and teaching worldviews for a long time. Some of these books, that I think well intentioned, almost give you the sense that we're just stuck with our worldview. That whatever worldview you have, that's just, again, accident of your birth and so on. But I completely disagree. I think that one primary thing that we do, no matter where we end up, is that we should evaluate and approach our worldviews rationally. I think we can do that precisely because logic is pre-theoretic. What I mean by that is it's not a matter of our worldview. It can't be, because our worldviews express or involve logical principles.

Travis Dickinson: So one I think we're going to talk about in a minute is the principle of non-contradiction. I think it's the case that when we look at our worldview and we realize that we are believing something that's contradictory, we can thereby say, okay, something's got to give here. I can't believe both P and not P because that would be a contradiction, and we wouldn't be able to do that if logic was just a matter of a Western white male worldview or something to that degree. The principles of logic are prior to those things in that sense, or they're pre-theoretic. We take logic and we can bring it to bear on our worldviews and consider their consistency. I talk about in the book that we would want to also look at how well our worldviews explain the world. So if there's something that it can't well explain, then that's a problem for our worldview. And then the final thing, and this is, of course, other people have made these claims too, is its livability and the degree to which it produces human flourishing and so on.

Sean McDowell: One of the cases that I'll make for marriage is that marriage is pre-political. It exists as an institution before politics. So politics and political governments describe it, but they don't create it. It's like gravity, it exists. You're saying the same thing about logic, that it's pre-theoretical, pre-political. It's a part of how we human beings see the world, and so is not dependent upon a particular race or a particular religion or a particular location. Therefore, we can use it to assess different world views. I think that's such a helpful way to look at it. We do that with consistency, we do that if it matches up with truth, et cetera. So I love that you walk through that.

Sean McDowell: Let's talk about, you hinted at this, the law of non-contradiction. To me, if there's any pre-theoretical law that is inescapable, it's the law of non-contradiction. But for me, when I started to understand this, I actually took JP Moreland for apologetics as an undergrad, and he really explained this. It unlocked such an understanding for me and has been a helpful tool ever since. So explain what it is and how we might use it more effectively.

Travis Dickinson: Awesome. So the principle of non-contradiction, there's a variety of these logical principles that various ones have, I would argue, discovered. Again, not created, but discovered. It goes something like this. So this is one. There's a few ways to express it. This is the way I do it in the book, is I say, for any P, and what I mean by that is any proposition, statement, or claim, it cannot be the case that P and not P. We always qualify this, too, with at the same time and in the same respect. What that's supposed to mean, and don't take my word for it, but try it, you can plug in any statement or claim into the P spot there, P or not P, and you'll see that that just can't be the case. You can look at it and intuitively see that that statement would have to be false.

Travis Dickinson: But we always qualify it with at the same time and in the same respect, meaning that if I were to say something like Biden is president and Biden is not president, that looks like I've done a P and not P. But there's a few ways in which we would want to just make sure this is truly a contradiction. If I'm referring to two different times, then of course, that's not a contradiction, or if I mean it in a different respect. So right there, we've just got through this cycle where a lot of people have questioned whether or not Trump really did win the election or Biden or whatever. I probably just ruined your podcast by bringing this up. But anyway, if somebody means something differently by saying technically Biden, is in the Oval Office, but Trump really truly won, something like that, then that's not a contradiction. But if we mean it at the same time and in the very same respect or the same meaning, then that is a contradiction. We know that that's false.

Sean McDowell: See, that's really helpful, because one of the most common claims against the Bible is that there's contradictions in it. You look at examples like the number of angels at the tomb. Well, if one says one in Mark and you get to Matthew, it says two... Mark technically says a young man who we know is an angel. People say, "Ah, a contradiction." I'll say, "Wait a minute. There's a difference." But a contradiction is to affirm and deny the same proposition, like you said, at the same time and in the same way. So technically, if there's two, there's one. Now, that doesn't tell us exactly what was going on. But all you have to do is give a possible way to reconcile something, and you realize that there's not a logical contradiction. But until I really thought about the law of non-contradiction, I didn't see some of those things.

Sean McDowell: Another example might be the Trinity, right? You look at the Trinity and people say, "What? There's one God in three persons? Contradiction." But you're not affirming and denying the same thing in the same way. We're talking about one God in being and three persons who share that divine essence.

Travis Dickinson: Different respects. Yep.

Sean McDowell: This is why your book is so valuable, is it's going to teach Christians how to just see these nuances, and then not be taken in by some of these faulty ideas.

Travis Dickinson: Honestly, just understanding the principle itself and then bringing that to bear on the various alleged contradictions in scripture will solve, I would say, 90% of those. Some of those, you do have to grapple with them. But most of them just understanding that it could be referring to different times, it could be referring to different senses, and that's most of them.

Sean McDowell: That's good stuff. Let's shift and talk about you have a section on science and inference to the best explanation. Now, we live in a culture in which, in some ways, feelings seem to trump science at certain times. But also in our culture, science is still held up as authoritative. When somebody wants to prove something, they say, "Scientists say A, B, and C," fill in the blank. So you tell me, what is it that Christians or really anybody needs to know in terms of how we can carefully evaluate scientific claims?

Travis Dickinson: I think when it comes to science, one of the most important things to understand is that there's a difference of scientific data and scientific theory. The data are the facts that we're staring at. That might be lab results or some observation in the world or something to that effect. What the scientists would do is come in with his or her theories to explain that data. Here's where you get a variety of views. And so in the book, I talk about the kind of inference that is. We call that an inference to the best explanation.

Travis Dickinson: It's really important that we get to know that inference, because I think we do that quite often. We can't find our keys and we start to run through possible explanations of that and we land on the best one, which usually for me is just I left it on the coffee table or something. Science really just is that. So when we keep that straight, it helps us, because there's definitely some scientific theories that I think are going to be challenges to Christian faith. But that doesn't mean the data is there that would thereby be a problem for Christian faith. So sorting those out, what of this is theory and what of this is just true obvious facts, scientific data, I think, is actually tremendously helpful.

Sean McDowell: One of my favorite sections in your book is on fallacies. I used to teach high school freshman, and we'd do a logical fallacies book, and they absolutely loved it as a whole once they learned it and saw how it applied to life. Let's walk through a couple of these. You tell me, for example, which fallacy this is? I'm going to test you, Travis. You'll see this. You got this. Explain what it is. For example, there's the slaughter of the innocents in the Gospel of Matthew by Herod at the birth of Jesus. One criticism is that Josephus doesn't mention this, and if it happened, Josephus would. Which fallacy is this? And explain it to us.

Travis Dickinson: This sounds to me as if it is the gambler's fallacy. No, I'm just kidding. This is the... Did your heart drop?

Sean McDowell: Yes. I was like, shoot.

Travis Dickinson: This is the argument from silence. I think that's what I call it in the book. Where one is from the absence of evidence, one takes that to be evidence of absence. That's not always the case. Sometimes it's not to say it's not a challenge, because I think even the slaughter of the innocents, there's a challenge there that we need to wrestle with and work through. But to thereby conclude that from the fact that it's not mentioned, that it therefore didn't happen, that's a fallacy of argument from silence.

Sean McDowell: Excellent. All right. One more for you here. I was having a conversation with a professor at an Ivy League school. We were having a great conversation about faith and evolution came up, and he said, "It's really arrogant that you think you have the truth." What fallacy is that?

Travis Dickinson: So that is a ad hominem. Yeah?

Sean McDowell: Yep.

Travis Dickinson: Okay, good. I was pretty confident. But no, that's clearly ad hominem where what you are when one... It's interesting, right? Because there's sometimes in which a person's character does matter. So if I'm trying to decide who I'm going to vote for or who I'm going to trust and that sort of thing, if somebody is a proven, say, liar or that kind of thing, that's relevant. This is an example, and I break fallacies up into two different kinds, one is a fallacy of insufficient evidence and the other is a fallacy of irrelevance. This is when it's a fallacy of irrelevance because the character of the person in that case doesn't matter for the claim that's being made. It's irrelevant to it. So it's an ad hominem because you're attacking the person rather than addressing the claim and the argument that's being made.

Sean McDowell: Excellent. That's exactly what it is. There's 25 of these.

Travis Dickinson: That's right. I'm a little nervous here.

Sean McDowell: Well, you're doing great. It's my favorite part of the book because once I started really studying fallacies, you see them all over the place. You see them in advertising, you see them on social media, you hear them in conversations. It just unlocks such an understanding that I wish Christians would really take the time to learn. The reality is you can be... Speaking of the ad hominem fallacy, if somebody says, "You're just so arrogant to think you have the truth," they've shifted from the argument to my alleged character, which, like you said, is irrelevant. You can be arrogant and right, you can be arrogant and wrong. You can be humble and right, you can be humble and wrong. Now, there is a connection, I think, between humility and knowing truth. But we have to be careful to not logically dismiss something because of somebody's attitude. So this section is just great in your book and I want to commend you for that.

Sean McDowell: Let me ask you, how do you think Christians today, in light of the emphasis you're talking about on careful and critical thinking, can avoid the snare of fake news?

Travis Dickinson: It's indeed a snare. I think it's such an important part of our journey. Again, even if Christian or not, I think it's important to find reliable guides in. I look to people, some of which are faculty members there at Talbot, that I looked to even in my own struggle. In fact, my biggest struggle with doubt actually came at Talbot as I was pressing into the apologetics program.

Sean McDowell: Oh, wow. Interesting.

Travis Dickinson: So it's not a bad place, I'll just report this, that it's not a bad place to doubt your faith. You got a lot of help around there. But I needed that. I needed to know that there was some folks out there that were further down the journey than me and had come out... And some really brilliant folks, by the way. And had come out faithfully believing everything that scripture affirms. The need for reliable guides is just huge in life. And so finding those things, and again, that's going to involve thinking critically about what they say, it's not just to accept everything that they say. But we find those people that prove to be trustworthy and reliable, and we stick with those guides. That may not always be the mainstream voice. I think it's actually oftentimes, it's not the mainstream voice, whatever even the mainstream voice means.

Travis Dickinson: But I also want to say this. There's another side to this too, and that is that we would look and consider the voices of people who disagree with us. Again, and find sources that, again, are reputable and so on. Find people that disagree with you, and that you read those folks, you dialogue with those folks, and listen to what they have to say. Again, even if you disagree. In fact, that's sometimes more instructive than just having somebody confirm what you already believe. I know, Sean, you're a great example of this. You do a lot of dialogues with folks out there that believe differently from you and your great model for us in that. I just think that's the right way to wade through all the noise. Find those reliable guides, but also find some good dialogue partners that can challenge you in your beliefs.

Sean McDowell: Those are two great pieces of advice. I have a number of voices when it comes to politics. The people I find, I'm like, they're less polemical and they're more interested in reporting what they think is true. Everyone has a bias, but it feels like they have less of agenda. I have people when it comes to theology and other areas of scholarship that are that way too. So you're right, they're not always right and correct, but people who care about truth even when it's inconvenient, and then reading perspectives that are different than your own. Two great ways to avoid fake news.

Sean McDowell: Hey, your book is great. I want to make sure our listeners have an understanding. This is B&H, Broadman & Holman Academics, so this is not a light reading on a plane or before bed.

Travis Dickinson: It's not a B3.

Sean McDowell: You walk through fallacies, like we talked about, you walk through formal logic, non-deductive reasoning. It's understandable to non-specialists, but it's a discipline for somebody to work through this. I think any Christian who took the time to go through it, I think it would have a significant impact on their own thinking in a profound way. So I hope people will pick it up. How do you envision your book being used?

Travis Dickinson: Like I said, I think for sure it's going to work really well. Honestly, it's my textbook for my intro to logic class, so it's going to work really well for that. I've also had a few high schools. You mentioned that you taught high school. I also taught high school. It's how I got my start as well, and so I definitely wrote it in such a way that a classical school or a Christian homeschool program might be able to make use of it. It definitely has a college level student in mind, but let's be honest, some of our classical high school students are better than our typical college students at times. And I say that as a college professor, but anyway.

Travis Dickinson: I think it's definitely going to be used as a textbook. But again, I just have had a number of people that I've almost wanted to warn them as they've picked it up to say, "Hey..." Just friends of mine or folks in my church have picked it up, and I almost want to say like, "Just know what you're getting," or whatever. But the response has just been really crazy. They've just really appreciated it and they've said it's really connected some dots for them and so on. So I had high hopes that folks, just regular old folks out there, would be able to pick it up and read it. So far, the feedback has been very good. It's got a pretty broad audience in mind, I would say. Very accessible, very introductory. The hard part is to say what's next, because this is really just whetting the appetite. There's a whole lot more to be done after this one.

Sean McDowell: Well, the title of the book, again, is Logic and the Way of Jesus. In my endorsement, I said this is now my top recommendation for a book of its kind, and it is. We are super proud of you as a Biola graduate. Just your teaching and your writing making a differences is exciting. But also our viewers, we want you to challenge yourselves and read something that will make you think and stretch your mind, stretch your brains. Logic and the Way of Jesus" Thinking Critically and Christianly by Travis Dickinson will certainly do that. Travis, thanks for joining us.

Travis Dickinson: You bet, Sean. Thank you.

Sean McDowell: My pleasure. This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School Theology at Biola university. We now offer programs in Southern California and totally online, including the Master's in Christian Apologetics, where I teach and Travis went, is now offered fully online. We'd love to have you in our program.

Sean McDowell: If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.