Assumptions: 3 Steps to Addressing Bad Arguments
I was in a coffee shop recently and overheard a conversation where one individual was telling another that their belief in God was irrational. As the conversation progressed it was clear that the individual who believed in God was grossly unprepared for such a discussion. So, being who I am, I interjected.
"I'm sorry to eavesdrop," I said, "My name is Wesley and I too believe in God. I was wondering what exactly you meant when you say that it is irrational to believe in God?" "That's simple!" he said, "it's an unfalsifiable claim!" "What do you mean by that?" I asked. He started, "Well you see, in order for something to even be considered philosophically and epistemologically true it must be falsifiable. You said you were a Christian right?" I nodded my head in response, "Then you believe in Jesus right, that he was a real person?" I nodded my head again.
"Good, Christianity is falsifiable because it hinges on the existence of Jesus. No Christ, no Christianity. If we were to find a tomb somewhere in Israel that said: 'here lies the body of Jesus of Nazareth, the one who claimed to be the Christ, his disciples moved his body here' then Christianity would be falsified. But the existence of God, well that can't be. God exists outside of the natural world, you can't prove whether he does or does not exist. Therefore it can't even be considered to be philosophically and epostemologically true.
Now before I go on, I want you to think of how you would respond. This individual making the claim was very intelligent, he had just given a very clear, very coherent and articulate answer. As his former dialogue partner looked very nervously at me I very calmly responded with:
"That's very interesting, so you're saying that in order for something to be philosophically and epistemologically true it needs to be falsifiable?" He nodded his head in agreement.
"Can you please give me the falsification for that statement?"
"Hold onto that for a bit, while you're thinking about that the second part of your answer presumed naturalism, would you describe yourself as a naturalist materialist?" He nodded his head in agreement.
"Could you please explain to me what the naturalistic explanation for the existence of consciousness is?"
"Ummm" *Blank stare...
The individual in the discussion was very intelligent, clear, coherent, and articulate. However, what he failed to do was question the assumption to his own argument. This isn't limited to atheists and skeptics either. Many Christians simply assume certain things about Christianity, repeating what they hear at church, or in a book, never questioning whether what they believe actually makes sense when it is evaluated consistently.
When it comes to evaluating arguments here are my 3 steps to addressing bad ones:
STEP 1: PROBE WITH QUALIFYING QUESTIONSIt's easy to sound smart, all you have to do is make statements that use big words:
"Well you see, in order for something to be considered philosophically and epistemologically true it must be falsifiable."
Wowza! "Philosophical", "epistemologically", and "falsifiable" all in one sentence, that guy gets major scrabble points! And he might have gotten away with it. However, all I needed to do to flush out the problems with his perspective was to ask a few qualifying questions. This is something that ultimately comes from Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees and Sadducees recorded in the Gospels, but is likewise highlighted in a book I highly recommend, Greg Koukl's Tactics. In the book Greg outlines that the key tactic in apologetic conversations is to “go on the offensive in an inoffensive way by using carefully selected questions to productively advance the conversation.” When you listen carefully to what the person is saying and ask specific questions, the answers given often can be used to show a person where their thinking is faulty. Questions can be used to gather information, to reverse the burden of proof or to lead the conversation. Either way, the person asking the question is the person who leads the discussion in one way or another. You would be surprised at what ground you can build simply by asking "what do you mean by that?"
STEP 2: TURN IT BACK ON ITSELFThis one is clearly displayed in my interaction in the story above. It is not that the criteria of falsification is wrong in-of-itself, but how does it work when we flip it on its head, when we turn it back on itself. Another good example would be an interaction I had a few years ago with someone who claimed that there was no such thing as objective morality. "What's right for you is right for you and what's right for me is right for me" he said. So I simply asked to see his phone, a brand new Samsung Galaxy. He handed it over and I slid it into my pocket. "Hey! What are you doing?" he asked. "You've convinced me," I said, "and what's right for me is to make your phone mine."
Too many people use convoluted arguments that they don't realize don't actually work when they're applied back at themselves. This may not work for every argument, but if you simply think about some of the accusations being lobbed by skeptics they can at times create a lot of self inflicted wounds when simply placed in front of a mirror.
STEP 3: PULL IT THROUGH CONSISTENTLYJames White of Alpha & Omega Ministries coined the phrase that "lack of consistency is the first sign of a failed argument" and he's exactly right! When we take an argument and pull it through consistently to its ultimate conclusion, sometimes we find that our argument doesn't really make any sense. Naturalistic materialism works on the premise that the natural realm is all there is. Therefore, anything outside of that framework cannot exist. The individual making the naturalistic claim hadn't pulled his perspective through consistently, he'd merely assumed it, and therefore, hadn't thought about something like the concept of consciousness, which clearly exists, but is not a natural or materially quantifiable entity.
Many people are simply repeating arguments they've read or heard others use. Few people have actually thought through arguments from different vantage points, and far fewer have applied an argument back on itself. It doesn't matter what your worldview perspective is: Christian, atheist, agnostic, Muslim, etc., we far too often simply parrot other people's arguments because they sound good when others use them. As Christians we often forget to exemplify grace and to humbly lead a conversation to the truth. Highlighting an individuals assumption by addressing their bad arguments is done easily by asking probing questions, turning the argument back on itself, and by pulling the assertions being made through consistently.
If you enjoyed this, you might like: What Is Truth?
What does EUNOIA mean? Find out at EUNOIA: "Beautiful Thinking"
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