Friday, October 22, 2010

Communication Breakdown

Can people with fundamental disagreements have productive debates? To some extent, it depends on what we mean by productive. To me, productive means, or should mean, that one debater acknowledges the other's position is supported by a superior argument. But perhaps my definition is too rigid and I should back off it. Besides, in my experience such acknowledgment rarely happens.

But, why is this outcome so infrequent? Perhaps I'm bad at arguing or perhaps it's a matter of holding pre-set positions? To attempt some preliminary and provisional answers, I'd like to follow an online debate that was initiated by "SJ," who had commented on a post of mine and later challenged me to debate him. The subject of the debate was the Cosmological Argument (CA). Our full debate is available at SJ's blog.

What I want to do here, however, is examine our various exchanges and see how we argue with each other. In the images below, I have reproduced only the beginnings of our comments. I have done this to keep the text in the images legible. I also don't think very much gets said after the first 3-5 sentences that really warrants full representation here.

Here, then, is how we begin:

My position is that CA doesn't solve the infinite regress problem. SJ appears to agree that infinite regress is a problem. However, his phrasing is curious: The point, he says, is that the CA solves the infinite regress problem. I agree with SJ on what the point of SA is. My challenge still stands, however, I don't the CA achieves its point. Now, in Exchange 2 I will make precisely this argument, but I don't want to skip over the new argument that SJ introduces, that the Bible gives us an idea of who/what cause the universe.

Thus, I think already that we are not getting anywhere. We're multiplying arguments instead of closing them down.That is, we're not being productive in the sense of moving either one of us from our original position. Instead, I see that even in my own argumentation, I'm giving a daisy chain of argumentative demands: (1) what causes God, (2) why can't the universe be uncaused, (3) how can you develop an explanation from something that is inscrutable. I suppose the thrust of these questions was to get SJ to see his position as basically unbalanced and narrow. I don't think my strategy worked because he deflected my parry by suggesting I wasn't appreciating the point of the CA and by using the Bible as an authority on knowledge from/about God.And of course

Let's look at the next exchange:

Here, I try to make the distinction (mentioned above) between the point of the CA and whether or not it successfully makes its point. I also reiterate my original argument. If I understand correctly, SJ asserts that God is by definition an uncaused cause. I imagine that this assertion is meant to defend my earlier point that invoking God just defers the regress problem: instead of wondering what caused the universe, now we must wonder what caused God.

The argument was originally a contest to move the opponent from a position concerning the efficacy of the CA. As Exchange 3 starts, SJ and I have focused on the existence of God and the state of knowledge in physics. I use focused ironically, since we're really at a rather vague and unspecified level with our comments. Follow along below with the exchanges. The discussion devolves into trite barbs and finally dissolves with mutual raspberries:

Are there any lessons or takeaways from all this? Yes. In retrospect I don't think I should have argued the success/failure or the merits/flaws of the CA. Both SJ and I already had solidified positions going into this debate. I dare say neither of us was entertaining the idea of moving off of these positions. We were not debating but rather articulating our positions; indeed, our function to each other was to help the other clarify and refine his position.

I have nothing against clarification and refinement, naturally. But I don't think I learned anything from this debate. I now believe that the better approach would have been to expand upon the CA itself. The CA is not just one argument, and there is more than just one formulation of it. This might have been a better discussion and a more productive debate, if indeed we ever got to debating.

I also think the goals of the debate and the "rules of engagement" might have been better spelled out by we the participants. What was it we wanted from each other?

So, I'll try to be better and more mindful in my debating.


  1. Ok, several things-

    - I don't know why you mention Kalam CA here. Our conversation had nothing to do with Kalam CA. A believer should NEVER argue using the Kalam CA, just with Aquinas CA.

    - on exchange 6, I would link your point about Gen. 1:1 with my response to it.

    - I could have pressed you harder to quickly reiterate pro-bible arguments from archaeology to show that you really understand them.

    - everyone says time began at the big bang. Only now when believers notice a correlation with Genesis does the Dawkins crows say stuff like, "no no time did not begin at the big bang."

  2. The Kalam tag was an error. I corrected it.

    Exchange 6 gives the basic flavor of the points under discussion, and I gave people a link to the original debate.

    You could have pressed me harder on "pro-bible" arguments from archaeology, 'tis true. I would have made a pithy response, and on we would have gone.

    I don't see your point with the beginning of time, etc..

    The point of my original post here is not to re-start the debate but rather to reflect a little on what we're doing and why--and to what effect.

    Ultimately, you want me to accept the cosmological argument, which I don't. Can I be persuaded to accept it? Theoretically, yes, but here's where we get to matters of evidence.

    If we're going to talk about an uncaused cause or a necessary being, then at this point we need evidence of it. We cannot just assert that "there must be" an uncaused cause or a necessary being. Instead, we need to ask what the evidence is that there might be such things.

    So, if there is evidence of these, I am all eyes and ears. Again, no need for debate. I'm not trying to defend a particular position, and I'm not trying to move you off of yours. I'm asking a straightforward question: Is there evidence or not?

    The relatively straightforward available answers include "yes," "no," "I don't know," and "The question cannot be answered satisfactorily as asked."

    Some might want to say "I have faith that there is an uncaused cause." Bully for them. Should I also have faith that there is or was an uncaused cause? Why? What does that get me?

  3. * Dawkins crowd


  4. I did not ask you to accept Aquinas CA, just to understand it.

  5. Are you satisfied that I understand it?

    If no, then please be clear and specific in relating what I must understand.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.