Tag Archives: Debate

Intellectual Sparring

“I Am Sir Lancelot” by N.C. Wyeth, 1922

Have you ever taken part in a debate, or watched one? A question is proposed. A champion comes forward from each side to show why their answer to the question is correct. In a formal debate, they’ve prepared well in advance. The debate may be oral or a written exchange. Some debates will have the audience vote on who “won” the debate. Hopefully, this isn’t just a popularity contest, with the winner decided based on their charisma or their pithy comebacks. Rather, it should be based on who has justified their view the best, who has defended their conclusion by supporting it with true premises using clear terms. Why? A conclusion that logically follows from true premises using unequivocal terms forms an airtight case. If one side can do that, they have won the debate. But is winning the debate the end goal? With our inherent competitiveness, that tends to be the case, but it shouldn’t be. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, the real goal should be for both sides to come to agree on the independent truth, regardless of which one found it first.[1] If you prove your point and win the debate, but nobody changes their mind, what have you actually won? What about the debate between atheists and Christians? Is it just about winning an intellectual battle? On the contrary, this issue, above all others, is far from simply an intellectual exercise or game. There are very serious implications. As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “It concerns all our life to know whether the soul be mortal or immortal.”[2]

One danger in debating the topics such as the existence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and so on, is that we can be lulled into seeing it as just a game – a sort of intellectual sparring, a competition to see who can win the argument and beat their rival. But these are not simply interesting questions to ponder, or tricky propositions to show off our reasoning prowess. These are truly life and death problems (greater even than life and death, if the warnings of the Bible are true). Luke tells us in Acts 24 of the apostle Paul’s journey through the Jewish/Roman legal system. There we read of Paul’s encounter with the Governor, Felix. After hearing from Paul’s accusers, then from Paul, Felix put them off and kept Paul under house arrest. Hoping to get a bribe from Paul, Felix would send for him often to converse with him.[Acts 24:26] But of course, Paul never offered the bribe Felix was hoping for, only frightening talk of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come.”[Acts 24:25] Two years passed like this, and Felix was replaced by a new governor, while Paul continued to await a fair trial. Felix had at his disposal the author of almost half the books of the New Testament, and talked to him often. And yet, there was no repentance, no change. It was only a game to him.

Is that you today? Are topics like the existence of God and the historicity of Jesus Christ simply interesting topics to discuss, idle speculations, or maybe even amusing subjects of ridicule? Understand the seriousness of the stakes. Death is a certainty for every one of us, and it may take any of us at a moment’s notice. It behooves us then to do our due diligence when it comes to determining if there is another stage to life that we should be preparing for now, for we know not how soon we may be expected to pass through that door. It’d be good to learn what’s awaiting you on the other side. While strictly speaking, atheism only claims that God does not exist, it typically coincides with a materialistic view that there is nothing supernatural (i.e. beyond nature), and that there is therefore nothing of a person that survives physical death. Under Christianity, that point of physical death is simply a point on a person’s timeline that started shortly before and continues on afterward infinitely. It is only a transition and not an ending. It is a change in container (the material body), but not in content (the immaterial soul). That completely revolutionizes how we perceive difficulties, suffering and other unfairness in life, or the perceived unfairness of an unusually short life.

On the other hand, maybe you are not opposed to God, per se, like the atheist, but are simply indifferent. You see no reason to bother with the question. Consider another observation from Blaise Pascal:

“The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end. Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct.” [3]

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting that “first duty”. A temporary agnosticism on any subject while you are investigating it is commendable; careful considerations generally turn out better than rash decisions, after all. But prolonged agnosticism is only the trap of apathy and indifference in disguise. You may say that you refuse to choose – that you are agnostic – but as Peter Kreeft has so deftly stated, “to every possible question, life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer… Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[4] You may not have tomorrow; hence the biblical warning “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[Heb 4:7] Have you made the right choice? Not sure? Contact me and we can discuss any questions you have.

[1] Kreeft, Peter, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 346. “Socrates sees himself and ‘O’ [the opponent] not as a winner and a loser but as two scientists mutually seeking the truth by testing two alternative hypotheses. Whichever one finds the truth, both are winners.”
[2] Pascal, Blaise, Pascal’s Pensées, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1958),  p. 63. Kindle Edition.
[3] ibid., p. 55.
[4]Kreeft, Peter, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), pp.299-300.

Mission Impossible?

endless-debate-norman-rockwellI was talking with an atheist friend the other day, and he made 3 interesting statements in the course of our conversation: 1) that he considered himself open-minded, 2) that there was nothing that a religious relative of his would ever be able to say that would convince him Christianity were true, and 3) that the two of us would probably never agree on either religion or politics, so there wasn’t much point to discussing them. Setting aside the oddity of saying one is “open-minded”and yet there is nothing an opponent can say to change one’s mind, let’s look at the 3rd statement.

Is dialogue between opposing sides pointless? Or worse, a Mission Impossible scenario with little chance of success and almost guaranteed failure? Can people of opposing views never come to agreement, except to “agree to disagree”? I would certainly hope not. What a disappointing world that would be if we were all condemned to continue in our set ways, with no hope of ever being able to exchange wrong beliefs for true beliefs. We all have wrong beliefs about different things at different times in our lives. But the act of learning often involves correcting those wrong beliefs and replacing them with truth. So it seems to me that if human learning is possible, then it is possible to change our beliefs. And if that comes about by another person sharing new knowledge with us that convinces us of its truthfulness, and it’s simultaneous incompatibility with our current beliefs, then we have the potential to genuinely benefit from our dialogue with an opposing view.  As Thomas Aquinas said, “there is no greater act of charity one can do to his neighbor than to lead him to the truth.”[1] Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft instructs future debaters reading his logic textbook that, “the aim of both parties must be simply to seek and find the truth,” and “The essence of the Socratic method is this logical cross-examination of an idea, following the argument wherever its inner logic takes it. Thus the impersonal laws of logic become a ‘common master’ rather than either person mastering the other, and the argument is not ‘me vs. you’ but ‘us vs. ignorance’; not ‘we are not together because we differ about what is true’ but ‘let us try to find the truth together.'”[2] This does require humility, on the part of both sides, as it requires both to be willing to admit that we might have been wrong before, which most people (myself included) don’t like doing. The alternative, though, is possibly continuing in error, which isn’t very satisfying either, if we’re honest. But when the discussion is about the very existence of God, the cost of error is potentially much greater than simple dissatisfaction. If eternity hangs in the balance, then there can be no topic with more serious consequences or more far-reaching implications. If there is even room for debate, then it behooves one to not simply dismiss the question as a pointless topic.

So is it pointless to discuss these matters? It can seem that way, particularly when tempers flare. Yet with humility and honesty on both sides, sensitive discussions can be exceptionally fruitful. “But,” you might ask, “what about when that attitude is absent on one side?”  While that makes it more difficult, I don’t see it as an insurmountable obstacle. And I say that having been that ungracious, defensive, “difficult person” in the past. I’ve also been the person getting steamrolled and losing the debate in spectacular fashion. But even then, it was never pointless. We tend to learn more from our failures than our successes, and those failures motivate me to be diligent to show myself a workman not needing to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15], always speaking graciously [Col 4:6], and better prepared the next time to give a reasonable and respectful answer for the hope I have [1 Pet 3:15].

Let me close by saying that talking about a “point” to a discussion entails a goal or purpose. If the goal is to “win” the argument, then there will be a combative or aggressive stance from the beginning that may sow the seeds of its own defeat, so that even winning that particular battle may lose the war. But if the object is pursuing truth together, as Kreeft suggests, then there can be no losers. And if that pursuit of truth leads to The Truth [John 14:6], whether immediately, in the course of discussion, or years later from a seed planted in loving debate, then  “winner” doesn’t even begin to describe the outcome for the one rescued out of the fog of unbelief. And that outcome makes even Mission Impossible odds worth taking on. After all, our God deals in making the impossible happen.[Matt 19:25-26]

[1] As quoted in Socratic Logic, by Peter Kreeft, (South Bend: Ignatius Press, 2010), p.346.
[2] ibid., p.350.


Black Diamond - for experts only...
Black Diamond – for experts only…

There is a trend I’ve noticed in debates (especially online) where it is put forth that who you are disqualifies you from making any statement on a controversial issue. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as the genetic fallacy, that a statement’s origin can determine whether it’s true or false. And yet it persists in the public square. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve been personally challenged with: you can’t speak about human behavior unless you’re a psychologist; you can’t speak about science without being a scientist; you can’t speak about abortion unless you’re a woman; you can’t speak about legal issues unless you’re a lawyer, and on and on. Since this is often brought up, let’s look at this in more detail.

First off, does someone trained in a particular discipline and working in that area have an advantage over the typical layman in discussing that topic? Certainly, but this doesn’t preclude other people from forming reasonably valid opinions on the same topic. For instance, if you want to know whether your office building can support a heavier rooftop air conditioning unit, by all means, call an engineer like myself to investigate that for you. We’ll apply our knowledge, experience, and specialized analysis software to your situation to work out the safest, best solution to the problem. But if you’re in your office, and the roof is starting to visibly sag, the sheetrock on the walls is starting to buckle inward, and you can hear loud noises as bolts suddenly snap, please, don’t think you need to wait on an “expert” to tell you that you need to get out! That situation doesn’t require an expert to say “Run!” There is a difference between needing the fine-tuned conclusion that a subject matter expert can bring to a topic and needing to establish the broad, basic solution that can be deduced by anyone applying valid reasoning to the evidence at hand. In the roof collapse example, it doesn’t really matter to the occupants whether the roof beams are failing due to lateral-torsional buckling or by block shear at the column connection. They can look at the ceiling getting closer to their heads, and listen to the building, and reasonably come to the same basic conclusion as the engineer: this building is collapsing and we need to evacuate. Likewise, you don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize the guy trying to run people off the road has some serious anger issues he needs to deal with. And lawyers, despite their expertise, actually don’t decide the guilt or innocence of a person charged with murder. They can only explain the case; average citizens on the jury make the decision.   This idea that only experts on a topic can speak on any level about that subject leads to blind faith in those experts, and is really a forfeiture of our responsibility to dig deep and understand the issues we face. Please understand, this is a standard I hold myself to as well. If you hire me as an engineer, and I make some crazy-sounding recommendation that I can’t explain any basis for, don’t blindly trust me either – by all means, call me out on it.

Something else to consider is that amateur enthusiasts often develop extensive knowledge in those areas that attract them. For example, I don’t often have to deal with liquefaction as a design consideration, but someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake because it was built on susceptible soil may devote their life to learning everything they can about liquefaction mitigation. Even though they may not have the engineering credentials that I do, I might still do well to heed what they say about that topic. I’d want to verify how they arrived at their conclusion, but we should never discount someone’s statements simply because of the person making the statements. You see, ultimately, the objective nature of truth determines the validity of the message, not the qualifications of the messenger.

Often, when I get this kind of pushback, the person I’m debating ironically also doesn’t meet the qualifications they demand of me before I can speak on the topic. By their own standard, they shouldn’t be voicing their opinion either. But typically, this is just a tactic for attempting to shut down the conversation. For example, one time, an abortion supporter told me I couldn’t comment on anything about abortion because I wasn’t a woman. And yet, the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of abortion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case were all men. The difference? Only that they were agreeing with her position.

Are we free from the duty of making informed decisions? Can we just “leave that to the experts?” Can we ignore the claims of those who aren’t experts? Not as Christians, we can’t. The Bible tells us to “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[1] That may surprise some who assume the Bible demands a “blind faith” or a “leap in the dark”, but we actually aren’t allowed to check our minds at the door. We need to study the evidence, reason through the implications, and make the wisest, most discerning choices we can, in whatever the matter is at hand, even if we’re not experts.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.