Monday, December 17, 2007

The Truth About Truth

When I was in college, I took a few classes on philosophy and logic on top of my computer science courses. Some of these classes had very similar themes to my computing theory courses since computers themselves are basically logic boxes. But it pounded in my head more than just 1s and 0s, true and false. The neat part about philosophy is it teaches you methods of representing facts and truth. It will also show you how to unravel cleverly-worded arguments to show where they are lacking. Philosophy often times gets a bad rap because of the ideas that certain philosophers have as well as the endless arguing and debate that stems from human reasoning. But knowing how to reason and clearly present an idea or principle can really help one shine their light to the world and help out our neighbors.

If you find yourself in a discussion of a Bible topic, or any topic for that matter, just having the Truth doesn't always win people over automatically. Rather, your approach is supremely important in helping people to see things in a clearer manner. Or in some cases, it may help you see things in a clearer manner. In either case, learning certain philosophical techniques to debate will help you better see all sides to a point, or find flaws in an argument and help you to point them out. They will also help you to stay calm and collected and help you to draw the most from any discussion on most any topic.

First, let's examine some ways on how to NOT make a point, or find a weakness in a point being made. An erroneous argument is what's known as a fallacy. One kind of fallacy is called a 'red herring' argument. This occurs when someone takes the argument in a completely different direction than what you were presenting. A red herring is often done out of a misunderstanding, but it can be done purposely, too. "My opponent has shown his record on abortion through his votes in Congress." "Yes, but you voted no on my defense bill!" When discussing topics, keep in mind what point you're trying to present and make the effort to steer the conversation back to that point until it's been made if it's important enough. I use metaphors quite a bit to describe an idea in a different light sometimes and have had people begin to argue against the metaphor itself!

Scott Adams, the writer of Dilbert, said, "I’ve noticed that a lot of people, if not most, have sharp disagreements with what they hallucinate to be my opinions... Anyway, I’m trying out my new favorite response to the people who get angry over their hallucinations of my opinions: 'I agree with your analysis of your hallucination.'" This is called a 'straw man' argument. One makes up a completely different argument than what you're presenting, attributes it to you, then makes you argue that point instead. Rather than address a point directly, one instead argues a distorted view of that point. This distorted view could sound similar to the idea being made, but it is not that point. If you see this happening, take the time to fully listen to the metaphor or story or point, ask questions to fully grasp it, then address what they mean. Allow people to finish their thoughts. You won't lose a discussion just because someone keeps talking. Too many times we attack word choice rather than ideas and concepts. But I will address that point a little later.

Many times, I hear people dismiss an argument because of one's character. There's possibly some wisdom to this in the case of certain opinions, but if one who occasionally drinks too much says the sky is blue, is he wrong? This fallacy is called ad hominem. You'll hear this all the time in election years. Candidate A: "I will introduce a bill that will put more money in our schools." Candidate B: "But you dropped out of college, so that can't be true!"

Then there are appeals to popularity, the majority, authority, common practices, etc. This fallacy occurs when someone claims that because a large group of people do something, they can't be wrong. Or if a leader or trusted source says something, it must be true. While the statement or idea itself may be true, the fact that a majority or expert says it does not make it so (with the occasional exception, that is God and those who He speaks through).

Ever hear of circular arguments? Here's one: Bill: "God must exist." Jill: "How do you know?" Bill: "Because the Bible says so." Jill: "Why should I believe the Bible?" Bill: "Because the Bible was written by God." As you know, the Church tries to prove God's existence both in and out of the Bible as well as nature, much like we prove that God wrote the Bible by its fruits and the fact that prophecy is fulfilled in various ways. Again, God does exist and the Bible was written by Him, however, how you present it may very well detract someone from believing it. Satan has crafted far more cunning circular arguments to keep people distracted in this world. One of my favorites concerns baptism: I have to get rid of my sins before I can get baptized. One will never get baptized if they think this way.

Some people confuse cause and effect: A and B regularly occur together, therefore A causes B. In my last blog entry, I was attempting to show an example of this occurring, possibly. We need to look into things closer to see if something really is the cause of something else. Perhaps there's something going on behind the scenes that we're not thinking about. "People that regularly attend church are healthier." This statement does not take into account that most sick people do not attend church! God tells us over and over again to get all the facts surrounding a matter before making a decision. If we take the time to carefully consider a situation from many angles, we might begin to see cause and effect playing out completely differently than what was initially thought.

A common problem when discussing sensitive topics is the meaning of words. Take time to understand the meaning of a word someone is using. So many words in the English language have grown to have such different connotations in just a few decades time. Someone being a "gay" person in the 50s is far different than today. Describing the "Work of God" may mean slightly different things to different people. Some people may not fully understand a word's true meaning even if they've heard it thousands of times. I know many of Paul's writings use legal terminology to describe God's relationship with us. Words like 'grace', 'sanctification', 'gospel', 'justification', etc. are thrown around all the time in religious settings, but many do not know their full meanings. If you find yourself going around in circles, be sure that the terminology's definition is agreed upon, or find a better choice of word to use.

As said above, many times in a discussion one can be put on the spot with a new idea or understanding and may not have the time to carefully craft their next statement. Give people the benefit of the doubt and ask questions to help them better define their position rather than tearing down a half-constructed idea. The whole point to discussions and debate is to learn. If we are motivated to learn the full Truth, then we will allow others to teach us as much as we are willing to teach others. It helps to carefully think about an point before presenting it, but sometimes we can also help finish another's statement if they can't quite put it together themselves. We must work together to build better understanding and grow in knowledge.

Yes, there are those out there who will try to merely WIN an argument and have no desire to listen or learn. Apply Proverbs 26:4 in this case: Do not answer a fool in his folly, lest you also be like him. But if you have to apply verse 5 instead, use the tools above to dismantle the argument so you are not fooled by it.

But for those who are willing to learn, let these tools along with a humble spirit help you to weed out fallacies and diligently search for the Truth. Any arguments?

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