Monday, May 05, 2008

Winning the Debate Against Straw Men

I don't debate as much as I used to. The reason is that most of the topics I've debated haven't changed and neither has the level of the debate. In other words, most debates pretty much rehash the same arguments over and over. One reason is that people aren't generally convinced.

As an example, in many debates I often see one side or the other make “straw man” arguments. That means that they misconstrue what the other side believes and attack this misconception as though to win the debate. For example, many Arminians accuse compatibilistic Calvinists of hyper-Calvinistic beliefs. Muslims often use straw man arguments because Mohammad was not exposed to authentic Christianity and only knew the pseudo-Christian heretics that lived in his area. Therefore, when he dictated the Koran he made arguments against the only “Christianity” he knew.

It's easy to win a debate against someone who uses straw man arguments if your purpose is to win the debate on logical terms. If your purpose is to convince someone that your conclusions are true, then you must first help them to understand your conclusions. Typically, someone who makes straw man arguments either believes that his opponent actually believes it or thinks his opponent's position is logically dissonant. This is because he's using a different set of presuppositions and doesn't understand his opponents presuppositions.

Therefore, if your goal is to actually convince your opponent to change his mind, then the prospect of waging a debate becomes more difficult. It's not enough to simply call a straw man a straw man. You must help your opponent understand your presuppositions.

Perhaps the most interesting debate I ever had was with a college fellow who wasn't quite settled on the issue of Reformed theology. As a compatibilist, I argued from one extreme to the other working him into a mind frenzy until he realized that hyper-Calvinism and libertarian free will are both untenable. He was then willing to consider compatibilism.

The most difficult people I've debated are Darwinists. The problem is that Darwinists typically refuse to discuss presuppositions. They have a set of mid-level presuppositions that they use as an acid test. If you accept these, then they'll talk. If you challenge them, they shut down and resort to ad hominems and are generally dismissive. The reason they don't go any deeper than these mid-level presuppositions is that down deep they are afraid they might be wrong. This is where Dawkins is instructive. He goes deeper and verbalizes it. Then, when he all but admits that the more foundational presuppositions to Darwinism are conflicted, he becomes dismissive and retreats back up to his mid-level presuppositions.

All you can do at that point is say that you gave it a try, but your opponent was unwilling. As it goes, for those of us who know the Holy Spirit, a desire to assent to the truth requires no foreknowledge of the truth, because that desire cannot be debated into someone either evidentially or presupposition ally. That desire is only given by the grace of God.

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Blogger Mark Pemberton said...

I huff and I puff and I BLOW your straw house down! I WIN!!!

Isn't that the whole goal of debating? Who can win? It's all about winning. The issue of the debate is pointless. Win the debate no matter what it takes. Even if you have to use facts that may or may not be truthful (because truth is relative, right)?

(abruptly waking) AAAAHHH!! I was having a nightmare! Whew, don't remember the details, but it was something about the need to win....

LOL, love ya bro. Good post!

Tue May 06, 09:07:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Jim Pemberton said...

Thanks, Bro! Your comment reminds me of an emergent guy I debated once. He wouldn't accept reason of any kind because he didn't believe in propositional truth. It therefore didn't phase him when I pointed out that declaring propositional truth nonexistent was itself a proposition.

Tue May 06, 08:02:00 PM GMT-5  

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