Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Some Tips on Informal Debate

Informal debate, when done correctly, can be a vital part of any believer’s apologetic ministry. Debates should not be angry rants against atheism, agnosticism, or other religions. They should be designed to be educational and defensive; one should seek to inform about theism and Christianity without being condescending. This article will seek to demonstrate some techniques for discussion using some real-world examples.

First, if you are presenting an argument for Christianity, try to put it in syllogistic form.

This is especially important for simplicity’s sake. Your audience or opponent must be able to understand clearly what it is you are saying. Take this brief paragraph as an example:

We need God to ground the truth of objective morality. There are no other candidates for it. Without God no morality would exist. Everyone believes in some kind of morality they consider to be binding upon others, and so we are rational to accept objective morality exists. Because of these facts, God exists.

Now the philosophically-astute reader may naturally pick out the premises and understand the inference being drawn. But there are two problems with this. 1. Not everyone is philosophically-astute, and 2. You have lost an opportunity to frame the debate. Now try this syllogism:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.[1]

Here one appeals to the intuitive belief nearly all of us (save psychopaths) share in premise 2, [2] while also appealing to the truth that not only can God be the grounds of objective morality, but there are no plausible alternatives to ground objective morality! In this way, you have “framed the debate”—you are controlling what will be discussed.

Second, in overcoming objections or using examples, stay focused.

This is the most difficult. Sometimes objections to examples you proffer have nothing to do with the value of the example. For instance, I was in a friendly debate with someone concerning the eternal sonship of Jesus. I mentioned he believed God caused all things, and so caused the Son. I offered a brief reason not to believe this; God does not cause sin acts. Instead of disputing this, he went into a discussion on how sin was not any thing whatsoever. He had completely missed the point. In this case, you would have to remind him why the point was brought up in the first place!

Sometimes people will go off on tangents because they are trying to avoid a discussion of the actual issue. You should kindly and gently remind them of what the discussion is and how the original analogy or point applies. Others simply do not understand the terms or argument being used and get side-tracked as a result. I had an atheist demand to know how God grounds morality. I explained that God, as a metaphysically necessary being, is the locus of objective moral values in his nature. Since his nature is necessary, whatever is a natural property is metaphysically necessary as well. His response? “Necessary for what? For your argument!” He simply did not understand the terms involved, and it affected his response to the argument offered.

If you get “stuck” in a side-issue debate, I suggest re-framing the debate. You do this through this next point.

Third, take any objections, discuss what they entail, and then show how they apply/do not apply to the actual debate at hand.

Suppose you posited that God is the ground of objective morality, if it exists at all. Further suppose your atheist/agnostic friend says, “you have to explain what is good! If you cannot do that, the argument does not get off the ground.” However, you do not need to know the content of what is “good” and “evil” in order to know they exist! That is conflating moral epistemology (knowing) with moral ontology (being). Don’t get bogged down in trying to define what is good.

If you use analogical arguments, they may be “shown false” by your opponent by pointing out a difference between the analogy and the actual argument—albeit a pointless one. For example, in response to my argument that there’s no purpose for asking where God’s nature came from, since it is like asking on libertarian free will, why did Jones choose as he did?, one atheist said: “By bringing in free will, you have supported one controversial argument with another.” But he missed the point! The analogy doesn’t at all depend upon free will being true.

You should discuss in what context each argument was used, what it was used to suggest, and whether any responses to it have been successful. Here’s an edited post I used to avoid getting into a lengthy discussion of side-issues.
“Hi _____, this will be my last post, for we are simply repeating ourselves. I’ll leave you to have the last word! The point of the analogy was that something is judged to be closer to a standard based upon that standard, and it is better to be closer to that standard…

The concept of God’s metaphysical necessity is only posited in respect to the question of why a God grounds objective morality. Your objection wasn’t an objection to the coherence of this, but rather some sort of appeal to ridicule whereby you insisted there was a metaphysically necessary being which also was a fairy. Ockham’s razor will shave away such an attribute, all things being equal…
…I have defined objective moral values as that which is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ which is true and binding whether anyone believes in them or not….You have pressed for what that means, but I have responded this is an ultimate explanation….You have responded by wanting to know the content of the moral values, but this is irrelevant, a category error conflating epistemology and ontology.

Finally, you did not answer how objective morality exists without God. At best, you attempted to offer an explanation of morality in terms of ‘arbitrariness,’ which is exactly the opposite of objective morality.”

Fourth, summarize the argument as plausible, untouched by the objections, and do not get frustrated.

The argument should be summarized in a six-to-eight sentence paragraph where you show that what you are defending is plausible and that no other explanation or objection is as plausible or is unsuccessful. This accomplishes at least two things: 1. It keeps the conversation focused. 2. It allows any follower of the debate to know exactly what’s going on and why your position is correct. Here is an example from the same exchange I had:

“So we see we have no reason to reject the first premise (if God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist)….We also should only reject such if we believe either God exists and objective moral values do not exist, or if we believe God does not exist and objective moral values exist. I have provided a logically consistent model, and no plausible, logically consistent model has been offered for either of the two aforementioned criteria for rejection. As such, it seems the moral argument, at least on the basis of its first premise, remains more plausibly true than false. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Even many atheists grant the force of this premise. They just think God, and hence objective moral values, do not exist.”[3]

Show what you’ve discussed, what it would take to show the argument is false, mention that has not been shown (if it indeed has not; if it has have enough humility to at least mention you’ll get back to them while you look into it), then restate the argument. Conclude with some forceful statement (without overstating your case) and let them have the last word.

The final piece of advice in this major point is not to get frustrated. Just know that people are not going to agree with you. That’s life. So Jim doesn’t accept God as the ground of morality, and totally didn’t understand the logic behind what you said. So Jane thinks Christianity is irrational even after your great argument. Why should their lack of belief make you any less secure in your belief? It shouldn’t. So rejoice that you offered an answer for the hope which lies within you (1 Peter ) and pray for them.

                [1] This is the version of the moral argument defended by William Lane Craig.

                [2] I emphasize “intuitive” here because while people deny moral values are objective one thing they tend to agree with is objective moral values are very intuitive.
                [3] Please understand that I am only speaking from experience. I am not trying to promote myself or bill myself as the know-it-all of debate, nor am I writing this for the sake of “winning.” The goal is education, evangelism, and equipping (of the saints)!

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  1. Hi,
    This is helpful.
    Thanks for the post

    God bless

  2. Hi Jo thanks for commenting and the kind remarks!


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