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The Mechanics of an Argument

October 4, 2007

Defender’s strategy:

I believe A.

A is (seemingly) undeniable.

B apparently contradicts A.

But A has to be true, given arguments 1, 2 and 3.

Therefore B has to be interpreted in such a way that fits with A.

So with a given verse, the method is more often like this:

List all possible “exegetical” alternatives for B, pick one that “fits” A, and then we have harmony.

Opponent’s strategy:

To ‘attack’ that questionable methodology, one can either:

Attack arguments 1,2, and 3, which are used to sustain A.

Or address B, in order to refute the alleged alternatives, and establish the undeniability of B, one is forced to rethink A.

With regard to the first–attack the auxiliary arguments–in many ways this is the hardest to do because of what I call the “faith element.” This can be tricky to explain. It is like what the atheist does when he says, “give us more time and we can explain evolution.” That is faith. He believes that the problem is not the problem itself, but his lack of time and knowledge. His faith-commitment to evolution is such that he thinks he will fix it if given enough time.

This sort of faith-commitment is very similar to something I used to hang on to when I was in my old hypercalvinist church. When confronted with contrary evidence, I used to think that given enough time and material I could prove my case. The problem was not with the paradigm, but with me: I needed to do more, this or that, etc.  Another form of the faith-element can be a reliance on experts. This sublimates the individual’s own doubts under the claims of the “expert.” When confronted with this sort of faith-commitment, the opponent’s task is more difficult, but essentially the defender, by resorting to the expert, has disengaged his own mind.

On the flip-side, if a deconstruction of the supporting arguments can be obtained, and the defender refuses to concede A, this shows an irrational dogmaticism. If two propositions are juxtaposed. A is seen to be unsustainable. B is seen to be undeniable, still the defender will reject B and cling to A. Emotions drive theology.

With regard to B, what this does is force the issue to a paradigmatic conflict. When B contradicts A in a way that cannot be denied, one may get to that critical-mass point and re-examine A.

I think good polemics is about getting the opponent to these critical-mass points. Either by demonstrating the invalidity of the supporting arguments, or the undeniability of B.

When the defender engages in thought-stopping faith-related strategies, the discussion can go no further, until such a point that the defender perhaps loses faith in the “experts” or in the supporting arguments. And the rule has to be, if either side’s resorts to ad hominem or insults, discussion should stop. I know a lot of folk say that even when the opponent is engaging ad hominem, the other party will continue because of the “readers.” I still am not sure that’s justifies the discussion as is. I believe part of the reason internet polemics are so nasty is that we have re-trained ourselves into thinking that ad hominem and insults are par for the course, acceptable. We have not responded to them online as we normally do when face to face. The degenerative slide into sinful attitudes is the result.

At the end of the day, its all about trying to get to the assumptions, tacit and implicit even, behind the stated argument and finding ways to enable the defender to “see” them, to test them, and if proper, discard them. Getting to those “bottom-line” hidden assumptions is no easy task.


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