Thursday, October 18, 2012

Who Wins a Debate?

With the political election in full swing, and given Christian-atheistic debates are occurring all over (both formally and informally), much is being said about so-and-so winning a debate. It seems obvious, at least to me, that the winner of a debate depends entirely on what the objective is. That is, what counts as winning a debate. This article will examine a few possible conditions and then reflect my opinion.

  1. Winning the debate means being right.

The idea here is that whoever is actually correct on the issue has won the debate. The major problem is that someone can be correct about a conclusion but be terrible at presenting reasons for it, or even be right for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the person who is wrong nonetheless has the best presentation--how would one know if he is correct? If (1) is true, then it means that there could be a debate winner and no one would know it.

  1. Winning the debate means convincing the most number of people.

This is often how political debates are scored. Candidate X convinced more people that he was right than did Candidate Y. The problem with this theory of debate winning is that it is a sheer appeal to popularity. Popularity does not guide truth, and any theory of winning a debate ought to  be concerned with truth, at the very least. It also would have the unfortunate consequence of a debate winner being crowned on some very unfortunate positions (e.g, Hitler). Some may nonetheless insist that convincing the crowd is winning, and I would agree. However, it’s not winning a debate, but winning in the arena for control and power. These are not mutually exclusive, but they are certainly not identical.

  1. Winning the debate means being right for the correct reasons.

This would mean that one must be correct, but he must also have good reasoning. This would have the advantage of avoiding the idea that someone can win a debate and yet have absolutely no good reasons for espousing their particular position. However, (3) does have a significant drawback: it means that someone who is incorrect can never win a debate, no matter how convincing their speech, no matter how solid their reasoning and/or evidence. Something seems amiss about this. I believe God exists; it seems truly odd to claim therefore no atheist could ever defeat a theist in a debate. This leads to my personal suggestion:
  1. Winning the debate means having better reasons to support one’s claim than his opponent.

Ultimately, I think this has the best chance of success. It does not rely on how an audience feels about a debater’s performance. It also does not demand a proponent of an argument actually be correct. It allows room for the debater who argues a better case and rebuts the opposition’s case. It may be common sense, but one may be surprised at the theories out there. This should not be abused to say that it is the debater who speaks the loudest, makes the largest number of points, or scores the best rhetoric. Instead, it is the debater with the best reasons for his beliefs who wins, even if he is ultimately wrong. This is how an atheist can defeat a theist, and vice versa. Something to think about for the week!

P.S.-For some reason, on a Mac, when cutting and pasting all lists revert to letter A or number 1. I will attempt to figure this out. Thanks for your patience!


  1. Your reason seems about right. It would mean the debate is won by better reasons. We have no direct access to truth, I think, so the one who makes the best logical case for his position has demonstrated its superiority in the context of the debate. WLC by that criteria would be indeed the winner in his debates. Would I be right in saying you're suggesting the winner is decided by epistemology rather than ontology?

    1. Hello, thanks for commenting. I wonder what you mean when you say "we have no direct access to truth"? I may not agree, but of course it all depends on what you mean! :)

      You are absolutely right in saying that the debate winner does not depend on ontology. I believe that theism is correct, but it's very possible I could be beaten in a debate by someone who thinks atheism is correct. Even though I am correct, I can still lose a debate.


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