Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tautology and Falsifiability in Political and Religious Discourse

When Bishop Katharine Schori, the presiding Bishop elect of the Episcopal Church, was asked by Time magazine's Jeff Chu as to whether, with respect to the issue of gay clergy, it would be appropriate for another gay biship to be elected. Bishop Schori replied:
Dioceses, when they are faithful, call the person who is best suited to lead them.  I believe every diocese does the best job it's capable of in discerning who it is caling to leadership.

(Jeff Chu, "10 Questions for Katharine Jefferts Schori," Time 168 No. 3 (17 July 2006): 6.)

Considering the first sentence, we can ask what if a diocese were to call a person to lead them who is not suited?  The implication from Bishop Schori's statement would be that such a diocese would not be faithful:
[All] faithful dioceses are [dioceses] who call the person best suited to lead.
No dioceses which are this one are [dioceses] who call the person best suited to lead.
Therefore, no dioceses which are this one are faithful dioceses.
As a AEE-2 syllogism, the argument tests valid by the rules for syllogistic inference. Thus, the first statement is not falsifiable and is therefore tautological in that sense.

With respect to the second sentence, we can ask if it possible for a diocese to do a poor job in choosing a bishop. The implication from the passage quoted above is clearly all dioceses do the best job they can because, even if they did not do well, given the special cirucmstances they are in, even in times of failure, they did the best they could.  If a diocese chooses well, then it would be difficult to claim that they did not do their best. If a diocese chooses poorly, then the implication is that they chose the best they could under the circumstances under which they had to choose. Again, the statement is not falsifiable, given the lack of ceteribus paribus conditions.

Interestingly enough, when we advise someone to do the best they can, our advice can, of course, be interpreted in such a tautological fashion. For example, even if a result were to be a total failure, the claim can always be made that the best that could be done was done--considering the special circumstances.