Just Because They’re Wrong Doesn’t Mean They’re Obviously Wrong

In a previous post in this series on Better Arguing, I argued that it was important to be charitable when arguing with others, and in particular, to take the arguments against one’s position seriously. But sometimes, people don’t even seem to acknowledge that there are any counterarguments in the first place, and that’s a problem all on its own. I see this all the time in my running of the University of Chicago Secular Alliance. People throw things like the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro’s Dilemma at theists and expect them to repent on the spot. Yes, those are interesting and important. No, they are not the death-knell to all theistic arguments. Jews, Christians and others have had thousands of years to come up with counterarguments, and any debater should know at least some of them.

So when people say things like:

“My problem with this idea is that I can’t think of any arguments for believing in God that have any credibility at all.” (In the comments section)

I get a little concerned. As my friend Doni, who wants it to be known that he is a theist, says, “smart people have done a lot of stupid things, and they all thought they had good reasons for doing them.” For the vast majority of arguments, smart people can and have disagreed, which means there are at least fairly good arguments on both sides. It’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to find or think of any compelling objection to your own position. The UNC Writing Center delightfully points out that,

“It may seem to you that no one could possibly disagree with the position you are arguing, but someone probably has. For example, some people argue that the American Civil War never ended. If you are making an argument concerning, for example, the outcomes of the Civil War, you might wish to see what some of these people have to say.” (Bolding mine)

When you ignore counterarguments, it makes your argument much weaker, since it’s assumed, especially if these counterarguments are common, that you don’t have any response to them. It also shows that you haven’t done your research, which also makes you a less compelling debater. Finally, since people likely do in fact disagree with you, it’s uncharitable and off-putting to presume in your discussion that their arguments are obviously wrong.

But let me be charitable and assume that the commenter (and all the people they stand for) has in fact done their research. It’s possible that they’ve really done the work to make sure there’s not a single compelling scrap in any of the arguments for god. If you find yourself in this position, the next step is to steelman. By Voltaire and Bayes’ Theorem, there is a nonzero probability that you are wrong. So what would the world look like if you were wrong? What evidence would you use to prove your new position? How would you argue for the other position, if you had to?

Now let’s say that you’ve done all that, and every argument you’ve considered has been found totally lacking. It’s still important that even if you don’t buy any of the arguments, you understand why your opponent does. How can you convince someone if you have no idea why they believe what they believe? And even more to the point, how can you convince someone if you make it clear you think they’re ridiculous or stupid for believing what is “obviously” wrong? (P.S. If this happens to you a lot, it might be worth reexamining what you mean by “obvious”). The most compelling arguments are empathetic. They involve seeking to understand why the people you’re arguing with find a position intuitive or believable or compelling and working within that belief system to arrive step by step at your own.

If I was arguing about why Ron isn’t good enough for Hermione, for instance, and I somehow, shockingly, couldn’t count on my audience to agree with me, I might write something like the following:

“I think it’s true that Ron shows a lot of care and love for Hermione that you don’t see him show elsewhere. He also matures immensely throughout the books, culminating in his support for the saving of the house elves, something obviously quite dear to Hermione’s heart. He’s a rock for her, in some sense, a familiar and much loved presence through so much turmoil in both their lives. There’s a lot of room to say that Ron develops as a character throughout the series and presumably beyond so that his relationship with Hermione becomes less childish and more mutually fulfilling, which is why they end up together. While all of that is admirable, though, Hermione, being brilliant, generous and all around awesome really deserves someone who is as badass as she is (the chess game and destroying the locket horcrux are great, even crucial, but they don’t hold a candle to Hermione’s list of accomplishments) and more importantly, who cares about school and learning and nerdiness as she does. Nerd girls deserve partners who can keep up with them, challenge them, and take joy in their intelligence, not demean it (she says without a shred of bias). So clearly Hermione should have ended up with a *spoiler* non-dead Cedric Diggory or something.”

And I would say that even if what I really wanted to say was

“Are you freaking serious Ron is so mopey and annoying to her for so much of the books even though she is pure awesome, basically fixes everything that goes wrong and is the predominant force allowing Ron and Harry to stay alive and relevant for seven years.”

There’s probably room for both, in different contexts, at different times. Certainly there are cases in which one must limit the number and degree of counterarguments one tackles. But it’s clear to me that when arguing, we should all be looking to develop the habit of assuming that people will disagree with us, acknowledging that they might just have some halfway decent reason for doing so, and addressing those objections thoughtfully. It makes us more credible, empathetic and well-informed, and hopefully more persuasive. To good arguing!

On a more serious note, Natalie Reed does what I’m talking about here excellently in her post Sophistry and Semantics about language and terminology around trans issues, especially in the second paragraph. There are several other good examples sprinkled throughout the links in this post.

Previous Posts about Better Arguing:

Basic but also hilarious resources on counterarguments:

5 thoughts on “Just Because They’re Wrong Doesn’t Mean They’re Obviously Wrong

  1. Thank you. Just had a Facebook *ahem* discussion in which a stupid 18- year old made theists look ridiculous. He seemed to think accepting the Bible on faith was obvious, but he had some terrible theology, so I’m mot entirely sure he has read it. I am a Christian, but I do understand why agnostics or atheists would come to their conclusions. I still think they are mistaken conclusions, but I get it.
    I would appreciate if some atheists would stop assuming I have stuck my head in the sand and accept everything my pastor says blindly. Some theists absolutely do (like the Facebook troll), but some of us have asked difficult questions and found intellectually satisfying answers.

  2. Your link apparently intended to go to a Camels With Hammers article is broken, appended to the local URL apparently because you omitted http://.

    I recently made a Facebook claim dismissing the existence of decent theist arguments as a failed way of trolling for people to make some. The better arguments for theism also seem substantially distant from religion-as-it-is-practiced.

    I’m surprised nobody has an ongoing “red team” project of atheists committed to finding strong opposing arguments.

    • Chana says:

      Thanks for that catch! Fixed.

      Haha, yeah, I’m not sure trolling for arguments is the best way to get them. I’ve always found that making friends with smart theists/theology oriented people is the way to go for that.

      As for the red team, that sounds great, but I think people are cognitively motivated not to or fall prey to what I’ve described in this post.

  3. [...] Acknowledging Counterarguments by Chana Messinger [...]

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