Home Turf
© 13 Sep 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
other posts

Arguing on whose terms?


In the end of the first chapter of Alma there is implied, rather than stated, the following circumstance:

  1. Non-believers rag on believers, which in my experience always includes arguing that their faith is not correct.

  2. Some believers argue back, defending their faith; others do not.

  3. Those who defend their faith lose their faith.

There is something both unexpected and universal about this. Unexpected because we often associate the willingness to defend one’s beliefs with strength and security of those beliefs. The universal aspect, however, is the part I want to discuss.

The usual arguments raised by those without faith against those with faith run something like the following:

“‍Explain why you believe‍”

“‍There is a feeling—‍”

“‍I don’t believe in feelings. Explain without that.‍”

“‍I had a vision—‍”

“‍Visions are a joke. Explain without that.‍”


“‍Prayer is just self-delusion. Explain without that.‍”

In other words, it is common for the atheist to define the terms of the argument. Apologists often find themselves fighting on atheists’ turf. This is not unique to atheists, of course: persuasion almost always happens using the least common denominator terms, meaning those with the fewest intellectual mechanism set the terms. Say what you will about the faithful and faithless, the theists and the atheists, the believers and the unbelievers: the former group has a whole array of thought mechanisms Those who have them think of these mechanisms as tools, those who lack them consider them delusions. These perspectives are expected regardless of the truth. If I don’t believe in numbers I’ll think that those who do are crazy and deceived for believing them; to stop believing that is, by definition, to start believing in numbers. that the latter lacks.

Arguing on someone else’s turf, or to someone else’s terms, can change one’s belief in several ways. I’ll outline three

Bleeding belief

One characteristic of the human mind appears to be that it will come to accept what it has asserted to it repeatedly and without reason over an extended time. Emotionally abused people accept that they have no worth or rights. Recipients of propaganda and advertising come to believe that their political enemies are evil and that people with the advertised products are cool. Hear “‍it started at the big bang‍” a few thousand times and when you realize the motion of stars does not agree with the big bang hypothesis you’ll posit “‍dark matter‍” instead of coming up with an origin theory that does match observation.

Arguing on anther’s turf causes one to repeatedly tell oneself when designing arguments, and be told by others when arguing with them, that the things not in their turf are not suitable bases for belief. Thus, if I believe in God because of prayer but when I argue prayer is not a valid basis for belief in God then I will slowly come to believe that my belief does not have a valid basis.

Doomed arguments

Sometimes arguments are doomed from the start because they depend on things the other party will not accept. For example, some of the key theories in computer science are impossibility proofs (“‍it is not possible to X‍”); and impossibility proofs are almost always based on proof by contradiction. Some people When I was a TA for graduate theory, about 10% of my students did not believe in proof by contradiction. They still got tested on it, though. do not accept proof by contradiction as a convincing proof technique. No amount of clever argument will ever convince those people that those core theories are, in fact, proven. To try to do so is a hopeless undertaking.

There are many such doomed arguments and explanations. Many of them are doomed by the audience’s choice and available time, rather than by any deep-set beleif system. A few examples I encounter frequently:

I usually try to humor people with questions like these. I enjoy the challenge of providing some insight into deep questions without referring to prerequisite material. But I go in knowing I’ll only be able to scratch the surface. You can talk about with people who don’t know algebra, but you can’t teach them to truly understand it.

Sometimes, though, people lose sight of the fact that arguing without the prerequisites cannot result in full convincing. These people go at it again and again, expecting eventually to break through and succeed. And there comes a moment, after failing to convince anyone time and time again, when you start to question if your position might actually be wrong. Surely if it were correct you would have convinced someone of that fact…

Feeling insane

There is something a little insane about trying to teach blind people to paint. Whether blind by physical lack of functioning eyes, personal choice to keep eyes closed, or psychological block that prevents what they see from registering in their conscious mind, you’ll never teach them to paint well as long as they remain blind. There seems to me to be something a little insane about those who ignore that fact and try anyway.

It is thus far from surprising when someone who decides to argue with the unbeliever in any field starts to realize they are sounding a bit insane while their opponents are not. Realizing that, it is also not surprising that they switch sides to the group that does not appear to be insane. Nothing in this path depends on the truth: only on whose turf you decide to stand while arguing.

What then is the right reaction to the attacks of the unbelieving? Do you engage, or not? I don’t know that I have the answer, but I do have an answer, a policy I have have found works well for me. I’ll explain anything to the curious under any constraints they wish to impose because I fancy myself an educator and it is good exercise and often quite a fun challenge. But I’ll never pretend that belief—mine or anyone else’s—is based on anything less than its actual prerequisites. I’ll gladly draw pictures about general relativity but I’ll never pretend you can understand and properly believe general relativity without a solid grounding in non-Euclidean geometry. Apologetics is like those pictures: informative, hopefully, but not the real deal; the way into faith has always and will always depend on so much more.

Looking for comments…

Loading user comment form…