Friday, April 27, 2018

How to Argue, part 1


How to Argue Pt. 1
*Trigger Warning: Different ideas certain to offend*

Let’s talk about arguments and arguing. I’ll try to cut the fluff and give you only the specific, ‘practical,’ details because let’s face it: your arguments are bad—absolutely awful; and the arguments of your acquaintances are even worse. In a previous post I walked through an example argument relating to the glory of God and the love of God. But I realize that even there I made basic assumptions that I should have explained, so in an attempt to make my small corner of the world a little more logical (and in futile hopes that the internet will become slightly more friendly and less exasperating) I offer the following explanation.

1.      Be willing to be wrong.
2.      Understand sources of knowledge.
3.      Hear the other statement/argument.
4.      Clarify the statement/argument.
5.      Respond to the premise.
6.      Choose forwards or backwards.
7.      Make your first counter argument.
8.      Respond to the response.
9.      Repeat steps 6 & 7.

Step 1: Be willing to be wrong
Most so-called arguments are doomed from the start because of the very simple fact that either one or more parties are not willing to be wrong. If neither party is willing to have their mind changed, then neither party will have their mind changed. That’s all well and fine, but don’t deceive yourself into thinking your arguing. You’re not; you’re making a statement. Statements are fine, but they’re not arguments. Your stating your belief and offering that anyone who hears can adopt the belief as their own. If you aren’t willing to be wrong, then you cannot claim the moral or intellectual high ground by stating “I’m making a logical argument.” Furthermore, if you aren’t willing to be wrong, it indicates 1.) that you have found your ‘god,’ 2.) that you probably weren’t argued into your belief, 3.) you will not be able to convince others, 4.) you are prone to condemn others for not believing the ‘truth’ you believe is self-evident.
It’s incredible how quickly the discussion can shift tone when both people realize “I’m not the standard of truth; I’ve been wrong before; lots of smart people disagree; I could be wrong.”
Most people are unwilling to be wrong because they’re afraid; being wrong has consequences. If you are not willing to be wrong, however, then don’t make an argument and don’t respond to an argument. Arguments are the weapons of those who seek truth; and they are dangerous in the hands of those who claim truth.

Step 2: Understand sources of knowledge
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Most people are unwilling to even consider being wrong about their willingness to be wrong (I’m looking at you religious/a-religious apologists). I’m aware that some will have made it through the first step only to consider the rest—those that plan on disregarding step 1 when they spout their claims once again. But I’m glad you’ve made it this far too, as it at least shows you are slightly pliable.

Fluff out of the way, the fancy word for this is “epistemology.” It’s the answer to the question “How do I know what I know?” There are plenty of philosophical investigations into the question, but for our purposes it will suffice to inform you that you know what you know because of 4 sources of knowledge.
1.      Transmission
2.      Logic
3.      Investigation
4.      Experience
I’ve changed their names to make more sense, but the idea is still the same. (For those who want to pursue this further the categories are usually called “Revelation, Rationalism, Discovery, and Experience.”)


Transmission is the method of knowing that comes from information passed down to you. News fits into this category—anchors, reporters, script writers, even video footage are all transmitted to you. It is knowledge/raw data/beliefs that have passed from somebody or something else. Sacred texts like the Bible or Qur’an, etc. fit into this category as well. Transmission is why you believe the earth is round, that North Korea actually exists, etc. Easy enough, right?

Transmission can be summarized by “I heard/read.”


Logic is the method of knowing that we’re talking about. It’s rational argument. It’s making sense between ideas. It’s understanding that a ball can’t be both round and square at the same time; and that the ball has to be round—not square—because that’s what the word ‘ball’ implies under normal circumstances. Logic is the most difficult to explain because we’re talking about it while using it. So perhaps its helpful to define logic as ‘what doesn’t fit into the other categories.’

Logic can be summarized by “I think.”


Investigation is the method for knowing that our culture thinks they most often practice while in fact they least often practice it. Investigation is the use of the scientific method & five senses to discern the world. Take our example from “transmission.” Most people who believe the earth is round would say they believe it because of science. But that is false. They believe it because they’ve been told by someone who claimed science discovered that the earth was round. There are perfectly good scientific methods for discerning that the world is round, but most people ‘know’ this not by investigation but by transmission. This sounds like we’re talking about water vs. wet, but it is incredibly significant for understanding arguments and responding to them. If the source of information is untrustworthy, then the argument needs to center around the source, not around the supposed fact. Just to reiterate the scientific method: observable (5 senses), repeatable discoveries [pertaining to the natural order] that can be codified into a statement/law. There’s a lot that gets thrown around as ‘science,’ that is simply, definitively not science—by definition.

Investigation can be summarized by “Try this.”


Experience is the method for knowing that was once the most often used by our culture… just several years ago (I experienced). However it has recently been superseded by transmission—in large part due, I think, to the connectivity offered through social media. Regardless, experience is a source of knowledge, and is the 2nd most commonly used by our culture. These are the ‘facts’ that are ‘obvious, self-evident, just because, everyone knows.’ This is the knowledge that is more often absorbed than being told, discovering, or thinking through. It sometimes happens on a personal level and sometimes on a cultural level. The most common one today relates to sexuality, gender, gender identity, etc. But you often find this source appealed to in the ‘privilege’ propaganda. Note: I use the term intentionally but without malice. Propaganda is simply statements/information presented—not argued. It is information, knowledge, beliefs offered up to be adopted—have you noticed that in the information presented, they include statistics (which technically speaking is not science, but a societal experience) but the statistics seem to always oppose ‘blacks vs. whites’ instead of accounting for the many other ethnicities in the United States? In other words, the advocates are relating an experience comparison as a fact (not an argument) as the only basis for certain reforms. Which is fine as long as they understand it's not an argument.

Experience can be summarized by “I feel” or “these are just the facts.”

Now that’s a lot of information, I know. And it can be confusing and may seem pointless, but remember… we’re learning how to argue—something you were probably never taught before. Something you’ve been practicing wrong your entire life… ever since the first person stole your toy and your argument was “but it’s mine.” It’s okay to not fully grasp the epistemology, just be aware that while you may think you’re arguing, you might actually be speaking to someone who can’t understand you because the knowledge your using is a different kind.

To give you an idea of how to spot epistemology, and to show how complex peoples assumptions and ‘arguments’ can be, I have an anecdote for you (transmission):

I was teaching a class one day(experience), and found a child watching (investigating) a YouTube video on his phone. He said it was a “reaction” video. In other words, he was watching (observing) the experience of another person experiencing a different YouTube video. I was amazed, and it doesn’t make sense (logic) to me why you would use your time in this way, but this kid believed that it was the most valuable use of his time in that moment.

It is important to note that none of these categories of knowledge are false or bad. They are all valid forms of knowledge—we just have to realize that sometimes the knowledge has its limits. I should not argue that children are nonsensical simply because I had one experience of a kid doing something that seemed nonsensical. It’s why there’s such contention around abortion: one side has scientific knowledge and argues that it stands as more important than experiential knowledge; the other has experiential knowledge and argues that it stands as more important than scientific knowledge. I haven’t tested this, but I’d be willing to bet that at the center of each political debate you’ll find each side grasping its category of knowledge as supreme, but the best and truest things are those things that find resonance in all categories of knowing—those are the things worth believing; the things worth loving; the things that while I’m willing to be proven wrong, I doubt you can convince me.

Well, that seems like enough for today. And while it’s all quite complex, I think you’ll find that even these first 2 steps will go a long way in understanding and making arguments. Come back soon for a few more steps.


**I'd just like to add a note here because I've seen a lot of condemnation of people with different opinions (especially John Piper). Please note that I did not argue that certain things are true or that others are false; I did not paint certain groups as enemies; if you intend to decry and defame me (or simply 'argue against me') then please make an argument, not a statement.