By David P. Diaz, Ed.D.
Our Predisposition to Debate
Why do humans so enjoy vigorous debate? No matter what the theme, it seems we all relish the intensity and rigor of passionate argumentation. Indeed, the goal is to leave our opponents’ arguments smoldering on a scrapheap of intellectual rubbish. But to what end? I prefer to believe that my opponents have the best intentions. I’d like to think they seek after truth. And so, I want to debate them in earnest and with respect. But it doesn’t always end that way.
It seems that all debates, whether on the topic of politics, religion, philosophy, or science, should be engaged with a smidgen of agnosticism.1 After all, none of us possess all knowledge. Indeed, we are finite beings and, therefore, possess limited knowledge. For us, the world remains an open universe of discourse. Thus, it’s no good to merely pronounce our beliefs as the “right ones” and consider the job done.
To debate anyone about anything, one must possess a certain amount of knowledge about the topic at hand. Gaining an accurate understanding of both sides of an issue will require much study, patience, questioning, and even doubt. Eventually, if we are lucky, we may gain some true beliefs about the realities of our world. But even then, we must maintain a measure of humility. Why? Because somewhere outside our limited knowledge may lie a defeater2 of our beliefs. A defeater could take the form of an argument—or series of arguments—that contradicts our own beliefs and ends up squashing our intellectual foundations. And so, we must continually reassess our own views. After all, who wants to have their arguments flattened and left smoldering on a scrapheap of intellectual rubbish?!
Worldviews: Everybody Has One
Worldviews3 are typically founded on assumptions, which, to a great extent, control our beliefs. Our worldview consists of a set of propositions (i.e., the meanings of certain declarative statements) that we believe to be true about the world. For example, a theist might hold the following beliefs/assumptions: “God exists,” “Humans have free will,” “Miracles can and do happen,” and “The soul exists apart from the brain.”
There are at least seven dominant worldviews,4 which include: Theism, Atheism, Pantheism, Panentheism, Polytheism, Deism, and Finite Godism. We may not know how to identify our worldview. Indeed, some may have never even considered the topic. Nevertheless, the question is not whether one holds a worldview, but whether one’s worldview is complete or incomplete, rational or irrational, true or false, precise or fuzzy. Therefore, it seems like a good idea to decide which worldview best represents our own, and then determine its strength by examining its assumptions.
As people consider their worldviews, they encounter many difficult questions: Is our universe solely natural, or does it also include a supernatural realm? Are the brain and the mind the same or different? Do humans possess free will or are their actions determined? Do humans possess an authentic, objective purpose, or are we purposeless and insignificant in the universe? These questions, and many more, will likely be confronted when one deeply considers the answers to life’s most profound questions.
And, since many people rely heavily on science, it also helps to consider the following question: What are the assumptions built into scientific methodology?5 Science is not a worldview in itself. It is a methodology that is shared by all worldviews. Nevertheless, it helps to understand the limitations of science, lest one succumb to the naïve belief that science holds the answers to all questions.
When one enters into a debate, it helps to understand what one believes about all of the above issues so that each person can distinguish between what he knows and what he merely thinks he knows.
Tips for Debate
Discussing and listening to opposing positions doesn’t mean one needs to capitulate to those beliefs. On the contrary, learning about other points of view helps us understand our own views better and is perfectly compatible with continuing to believe what we want. However, engaging in debate can help us to clarify our doubts and questions. It may also persuade us to reassess our beliefs. Changing our minds in the light of better or more complete information is a good thing, for no rational being should fear the truth.
My motto for every debate is: “Keep seeking the truth.” I want to listen carefully to another’s point of view and ask questions to make sure I understand the position. And, if I object to an opposing view, I want to say why I contest it and do so in a respectful way.
Unfortunately, I am guilty of losing my patience on occasion. I will lie awake at night, pondering how I could have responded in a better manner. In the end, none of us are right in everything that we believe, and, therefore, when we reach an impasse, we should, at least, agree to disagree agreeably.
Regarding the burden of proof… In formal debates, one carries a burden of proof in selecting and defending a proposition. For example, “Capital punishment is morally justified.” But in informal debate, anyone who makes a truth claim must defend that claim when asked to do so. Like anyone else, debaters like to give their opinions and in doing so almost always make some kind of truth claim. But when they do, they are under a rational obligation to defend their claims. If they want to simply say, “I don’t believe in capital punishment” and leave it at that, then they are certainly entitled to their own personal opinions. But, without any compelling reasons to substantiate their beliefs, then they remain mere opinions. But any time someone makes a claim, or counterclaim, about what is true or what is false, they are expected to defend it, at lest when your claim is a key point of contention.
When debating, our emotions and tempers should remain in check. It does no good to resort to name-calling. If tempers flare and opponents debase each other, the result can be ugly. As Stump and Kretzman have aptly noted: “no one worldview has managed to attract all the world’s arrogant and intolerable people.”6 All debate should be friendly and courteous; there is no need to make enemies in our quest for truth.
When it comes to discussing controversial topics, it is too often the case that we approach such conversations with the righteous indignation that we are on the “right” side. While we should all have a chance to talk about our beliefs, it is perhaps more important to listen. I mean, really L-I-S-T-E-N. How often do we claim to listen to someone when, in fact, we are thinking of nothing more than what we plan to say next? Do we hear what is said? Do we care about what has led others to their views? Do we ask questions in an attempt to truly understand?
The Spirit of Debate
When we debate, our singular focus should be to engage in caring conversation for the purpose of finding the truth. Perhaps instead of framing the interaction as a debate, we should consider it a dialogue, discussion, or conversation. In any case, we should make every effort to communicate our own beliefs and to understand the opinions and views of others in our search for the truth.
The spirit of any discussion should always center on truth. It’s not a weakness to admit you agree with your opponent. Indeed, it is beneficial to seek common ground. In the end, none of us will go to the grave with all our beliefs intact and, therefore, a spirit of caring and humility should prevail.
About the Author
David P. Diaz, Ed.D. is the publisher and owner of Things I Believe Project. An educator and author, Dr. Diaz has a lifelong love of learning. His pen name (“Don Quixote” or, “DQ”) comes from his love of chasing windmills (i.e., truth and other ideals) and his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor: “Don Quixote was developing his arguments in such an orderly and lucid way that for the time being none of those listening could believe he was a madman.” [back to top]
- For the purpose of this article, a person who claims to be agnostic is simply one who “does not know” (for sure) the truth of a given assertion.
- A defeater is a reason(s) that removes or weakens justification of a belief. See also: Koons, Robert, “Defeasible Reasoning”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- In this article, I will use the following definition of worldview: A worldview represents a philosophical framework from which we view reality and make sense of life and the world.
- For more on worldviews see Geisler, Norman L., and William D. Watkins. Worlds Apart: A Handbook on World Views. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003).
- For more information about the limitations and assumptions of science, see my article titled: Seeking Truth: The Limits of Science and the Role of Philosophy and Theology.
- Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, “Theologically Unfashionable Philosophy,” Faith and Philosophy, Volume 7, Issue 3 (July 1990): 329–39.