The idea for this blog came from a talk that Douglas Wilson gave at Indiana University earlier this year. If you haven’t watched it yet you really should. It’s quite good. I’ve blogged about it before. But the Q & A at the end is, as far as I’m concerned, where the action on these videos is at. During the Q & A Doug is bombarded with
All this got me to thinking that people have really lost the art of the argument. Indeed, were it not for my philosophy and history studies I fear I would not possess it at all. So, I’m going to give you a really basic primer on how to argue.
“Argument” is not a Bad Thing
“Argument” in its most traditional sense simply means that we disagree and now we’re talking about it. The following is NOT a traditional argument,
“The Office is dumb.”
“No, it’s not!”
“Yes, it is!”
|These guys REALLY love The Office.|
This IS, technically, an argument, but a really stupid and unproductive one. Here is a traditional and useful argument.
“The Office may be the best show on television. It has excellent characters and is well written.”
“I disagree, while Dwight and Creed are funny the rest of the characters, and the writing, is derivative.”
“Okay . . . “
See what happened there? In the traditional argument two differing points converge. A premise is stated, “The Office may be the best show on television. It has excellent characters and is well written.” After that, an opposing premise is presented backed up by supporting claims. That is how an argument is supposed to go. It is important, at this point, to note that it is the dissenting view (The Office is bad) to prove the other wrong but not always.
Burden of Proof: A Woefully Misunderstood Concept
Some Atheists use Russell’s Celestial Teapot example to show that proving God is ALWAYS on the Christian. Commonly the refrain is, “there is no God. He’s like the teapot; YOU have to prove ME wrong. The burden of proof is on you!”
That is not entirely correct. Burden of Proof can be tricky but I’ll do my best to show how it works. If I assert something my opponent has two valid options they can say “what is your proof?” or “No, that is wrong. Here is why.” If your opponent answers with the former the burden of proof is on YOU. If he answers with a dissenting view it is now up to him to explain why. Basically, contradicting me doesn’t automatically put the burden of proof on my argument. Now, it’s time to make your arguments.
I've always loved the phrase “marshaling arguments.”
Think of your arguments as soldiers and the opponents’ arguments as opposing soldiers. Essentially, the ways you arrange and send forth your arguments is going to determine who “wins the fight.” How do you marshal arguments? Here are some basics,
- Use only relevant facts.
- Good: The Office is a good show because is causes me to laugh which is its intended purpose
- Bad: The Office is good because cats have tails.
- When possible use your opponents’ arguments against them.
- Ex. “You say the office is derivative but there are many shows that now use the ‘documentary style’ format. That format was not popular until the Office came along.”
- Avoid Fallacies
- I’m not going to get into formal fallacies. They are not fun and are a little less common in everyday language. However, be very wary of informal fallacies! They pop up all the time. Knowing how to spot them and neutralize them is a valuable skill (Blog idea!). Check out this list of fallacies to get an idea about them.
- Make sure that your supporting points always lead back to your initial premise.
- Ex. “The Office has good characters. Also, the writing is creative and insightful. For those reasons, and others, the Office is a good show.”
Some Non-Argument Things to Keep in Mind
Remember that you will probably not convince your opponent of your rightness especially on big issues like God’s existence or abortion. Side note, it is a SWEET feeling when your opponent is forced to admit your rightness, but it doesn’t happen often. But I digress. There are two things to remember when it comes to disagreements. One, you both can’t be right but that’s okay. This doesn’t mean that you have to say “okay, I guess both of us are right.” It means you can say “Listen, I’ve presented my arguments and you yours. I think you’re wrong but I don’t seem to be convincing you.” People can have different opinions.
The other thing to remember is to be polite. So you don’t agree. It’s not a problem. I will make one important exception. If people could get hurt or in trouble don’t be polite. If you’re disagreeing about robbing a bank, don’t be nice. However, does your friend think God doesn’t exist? While his soul is in the balance you’re not going to win him over by being arrogant with your arguments for God’s existence. Remember, the way you act is at least equally important to the arguments you make.
So there you have. Stick with these basics and I guarantee you win more arguments and be better liked.
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