Art and Theo Pt 3. The Rational Debate

Theo: Well, I know the holy book is true because…here, I saw a top ten list for this once; let me find it real quick.

Art: Feel free to. But let me ask you something. Was there ever a time when you didn’t believe in the holy book for very good reasons? Maybe when you were young it was just because of your parents until you matured a bit?

Theo: Well, sure, no child is born with a knowledge of all the reasons the holy book is true.

Art: Naturally. When did you first personally determine that the holy book was true?

Theo: There was a time I realized I’d never actually wondered if the holy book was true. But as I kept reading it and hearing from it, I felt for myself that it was. God spoke to me through that book. That was the first time I knew it was true.

Art: And was it before or after that you read those ten reasons it was true?

Theo: After. Years later.

Art: So, it would be fair to say that whatever the ten reasons are, they aren’t the actual reasons you came to believe in the holy book.

Theo: Well, yes.

Art: Instead it was your own experience with the book. Your spiritual experience with it.

Theo: Oh, there have been many such experiences since then. I have tested and proven the holy book many times, and it has consistently guided me closer to God. I have felt its truth as surely as I have felt the wind. It’s really like another sense, sometimes called seeing by the eyes of faith. I could no more doubt it than I doubt what I can feel right now with my hands.

Art: That’s fine. It is well spoken, too, I might add. Now, let me tell you about a device I have. It’s guaranteed to beep for all winning lottery tickets. Do you want one?

Theo: Err…this is an example, right?

Art: Yes, yes, yes. But supposing, would you want one?

Theo: Well, yeah, that’d definitely come in handy.

Art: Now, as it turns out, I can actually get you such a device, if you like. There’s just this one extra detail you might care about. The device also beeps for losing lottery tickets.

Theo: Er…

Art: Yes, it is useless.

Theo: I can’t wait to see where this is going.

Art: The lottery tickets represent hypotheses. Some are true, some are false, and it’s hard to know which is which. We use tests that tell us which ones are right. The beeping device represents the tests. But if the tests say “yes” for the true and the false hypotheses, it’s a useless test, just like the device that beeps for “true” and for “false” tickets is no good for finding which tickets are true.

Theo: Okay. So?

Art: Well, you came to believe in the holy book by the spiritual experiences you had, no? Can you generalize the principle for me?

Theo: Well, I guess what I’m saying is that when God is communicating to you that something is true, it is true. God communicated to me the truth of the holy book, for example, when I felt His influence as I read it.

Art: It is well done, thank you. Now, I want to Distinguish Between Observation and Inference. You have personally observed the feelings you’re calling the communication of God. But that those feelings come from a supernatural influence, and more specifically, from a specific kind of supernatural influence, is an inference, not an observation.

Theo: What difference does it make?

Art: Well, we can usually be more certain about observations than about inferences. The inference is based on the observation, so if the observation is wrong, the inference will be, too. But you can get the observation right, and then still reason to the wrong inference. So, there’re more opportunities to get inferences wrong.
Suppose you see a hole in your jeans. You can be very sure about the existence of the hole, but you can’t be sure about the cause. You might infer that your jeans caught on something, but you could be either wrong or right. There are always other possibilities, maybe a bad run in the wash or a secretive act of revenge by an offended acquaintance.

Theo: That seems very unlikely, though

Art: Don’t lose track of the principle, though. Distinguish Between Observation and Inference. You observe spiritual feelings, and you infer that it’s your God. With that in mind, would it be fair to reword your Generalized Principle “when God is communicating to you that something is true, it is true,” as instead: “When you feel that God is communicating something to you, it is true.”

Theo: It’s the same thing either way. “Feeling God is communicating with you” only happens when God is communicating with you.

Art: Well. Now that we’ve Distinguished Between Observation and Inference, and used it to reword our Generalized Principle, let’s apply the principle of the Useless Test, like the device that beeps for winning and losing tickets alike.

Theo: *Sigh* Go on, then.

Art: Your hypothesis is that your spiritual feelings are caused by God. Suppose the Null Hypothesis is that those feelings come from something else. Now, what test are you using to know which of these is true?

Theo: Ummm…

Art: Did you not say that you could feel that it was God communicating with you?

Theo: Yes, that’s right. The message comes with its own identification.

Art: So you “hear,” so to speak, the message of God, which says, more or less, “This holy book is true, and this message is from God.”

Theo: I suppose that’s more or less it.

Art: So when you feel/hear that message, how do you know it’s true?

Theo: Well, because God said so.

Art: And you know it’s God saying so because the message says so, no? But how do you know that the message is true?

Theo: God always tells the truth.

Art: And how do you know that?

Theo: The holy books says so.

Art: And how do you know the holy book is true?

Theo: Well, I had all these reasons, but you didn’t want to hear them before.

Art: But I thought you said the first time you believed in the holy book for yourself was because of the spiritual experiences you had with it.

Theo: Yes, but I learned a lot more since then. There are many proofs that the holy book is true.

Art: Well, let’s move on to them, them. I hope you will not take offense if I put “Spiritual experiences are from God” as a claim without a proof behind it for now, maybe something else is causing them. We can come back to it later if you think of one.

So, to be clear, so far we have:
God exists
because the holy book says so
Which is true because of spiritual experiences
But we don’t know how to show that those are reliable (to return to later)

So without proving the holy book by spiritual experiences, we’ll need to prove it by other means if we want to use the holy book to prove that God exists.

But even if we can’t do that, you’ve already mentioned a way to prove God without the holy book: that there couldn’t be anything in existence without God to create it.

And if both of those were to fail, there might be other ways to prove God that we haven’t yet talked about.

But Sticking to the Issue at hand, how else do you prove that the holy book is true?

Theo: Okay, right, here’s my list…The first reason is…



To be continued

Distinguish Between Observation and Inference – We observe things through our senses. We infer the origins of those observations. If we get our observations wrong, then our inferences will be wrong because they’re based on the observations. If we get the observations right, we could still get the inference wrong, like if we think our cookies are gone because someone broke into our house and stole them, when it was really something else, like a family member eating them.

Null Hypothesis – Whenever you think you have an explanation for how something happened, that’s a hypothesis. The “Null Hypothesis” is the opposite hypothesis, which says that something, anything but your hypothesis is the real explanation.

Useless Test – A test which gives the same answers for both the hypothesis and the null hypothesis doesn’t help us know which of the two is the right one. Thus, it’s not enough to say that a test says your hypothesis is right unless it also doesn’t say that the null hypothesis is also right.


Art and Theo Pt. 2 The Rational Debate

Theo: Well, I know that good things can only happen if there is a God because the holy book says so.

Art: So to be clear, you’re saying that because the holy book says that good things can only happen if there is a God, it must be true.

Theo: Yes. The holy book is always right.

Art: Ah! Very good! You have already Generalized the Principle for me! Now, I happen to know a bit about the holy book and disagree that it says this. However, the next principle I want to apply is See What Happens When You Concede. I won’t contest this point, to allow us to Stick to the Issue, and See What Happens when we do.

Theo: Okay…

Art: Are there any other reasons, besides the holy book, to think that good things can only happen if there is a God?

Theo: Well, the holy book is true, so it’s quite sufficient.

Art: Yes, I understand. But supposing the holy book were not always true, is there another way you could establish that it’s true that “good things can only happen if there is a God?”

Theo: Well, there wouldn’t be anything without God in the first place, so of course no good things would happen, or any thing!

Art: Okay, I see that. But…how to say this. It’s one thing to say that God made a system which works without Him having to intervene. But it sounds to me like you believe He does intervene, to cause all of the good things to happen.

Theo: Maybe some good things happen just because of how He made the universe. But, yes, he intervenes to bless us besides.

Art. Right. So we have two ideas.
1. God made the system (the universe)
2. God intervenes in the system.

Now, we know if the first one is false, that nothing would happen. But (without the holy book) we might reasonably suppose that God might have made the system, and then didn’t intervene in it.
So knowing the first point doesn’t tell us whether the second point is true.

Theo: Yes, that’s very clear. But what’s the point?

Art: Oh. Well, just that, you pointed out that nothing good would happen if God hadn’t made everything in the first place. But that doesn’t really help us answer the question.

Theo: It shows us that God exists.

Art: Sure, but the question I asked was, can you show that it is true that good things can only happen if God exists without the holy book. So you had proven point 2 (see above) with the holy book, and I wondered if that was the only way to prove it, or if you had others. You pointed out point 1 (see above), but as we just realized, point 1 doesn’t help us establish point 2.

Theo: Ah…yes, I see it now. It’s still an important point, though.

Art: Indeed it is! I’ll write the point “Nothing would exist without God” (if that wording seems correct) below “Good things can only happen if there is a God.”

Theo: Yes, that’s fine.

Art. Right. So we’ll get around to Generalizing the Principle behind that argument, and then Applying the Principle to Specifics, and then getting to the Why of the What, after we finish with our first point. Because it is an important point, after all.

Theo: That seems acceptable.

Art: So, do you know of any other proofs for “Good things can only happen if there is a God” besides the holy book?

Theo: Hmm…let me think. If I didn’t know that getting my job when I did was God’s work because the holy book told me so, would I know it was God’s work by some other means…? Ah! Yes! The act speaks for itself. It’s so improbable that it couldn’t have happened by chance, so it must have been caused by God.

Art: Okay, let me put it In My Own Words. Now, saying something is improbable is the same things as saying it’s unlikely to happen by chance. So how about: “sufficiently improbable events can not happen without God?”

Theo: Yes…I think that’s right. In full disclosure, I have a nagging feeling that something’s not quite right, but I can’t put my finger on it just now.

Art: That’s the whole point of Generalizing the Principle and Applying the Principle to Specifics. Perhaps it’ll come to you as we do so.

Theo: Carry on, then.

Art: Well, I skipped from your specific example of getting your job when you did right to the generalized principle, which can cause problems, but I think we’re okay. Let’s try Applying the Principle “sufficiently improbable events can not happen without God” to some Specifics.

Theo: Okay.

Art: Do you think you’re the only person in the world to get a job right when you needed it?

Theo: No, but that’s God at work for you. He’s behind the good stuff.

Art: Yes, but remember, we’re seeing if we can establish that God must be at work without the holy book, and it’s the holy book that tells us that He’s behind the good stuff. We’re seeing if we can tell it’s God just by how improbable the events are.

Theo: Well, okay. But I’m not sure I see the point. Even if we couldn’t tell this way, we would still know the answer from the holy book.

Art: Yes, I understand. I just want to know your full reasons for believing the principle in question.

Theo: Carry on, then.

Art: So you’re not the only person in the world to have this event happen to you. Are you the only person in the country? In the state? In the city?

Theo: Of course I don’t really know. But I would guess not.

Art: So, this happens to some thousands, or maybe millions of people around the world. Now, things that happen millions of times can’t be all that improbable, right?

Theo: Hmm, I guess…

Art: Think of it this way. If something only has a one-out-of-a-million chance of happening, we have a tendency to think it’s impossible, it’s never going to happen. It’s the most natural thing in the world to think then that if it does happen, there must be someone behind it, maybe God. But one-out-of-a-million chance things don’t never happen; they happen exactly one out of a million times, right? That’s what it means.

Theo: Yes, I see that.

Art: Now, in a world of seven billion people, if they’re all in the running for these one-out-of-a-million things, how many of them will get one, assuming it’s just blind chance at play?

Theo: Well, seven billion divided by a million, I suppose you’d get seven thousand “winners,” so to speak.

Art: It is well calculated! Now, we’re supposed to get seven thousand winners by chance. If instead we get ten thousand, then we might think there really is someone intervening, maybe God. But if we got only four thousand, that would be equally good evidence that someone was intervening, maybe God. And if we had only one thousand winners, then stronger evidence still! What if we had none?

Theo: Then that would be even stronger evidence that someone was intervening.

Art. It is well reasoned. So in other words, if we don’t see a certain number of “impossible” one-out-of-a-million coincidences happening in the world, then we have evidence that something is intervening. But if we see a few hundred happening, then it’s less likely that someone is intervening. And if we see several thousand, then that’s even less evidence. And if we see about seven thousand, give or take, then that’s just what we’d expect to see without any intervention.

Theo: Hmm…Well, that does make sense.

Art: Sure! It’s a little like the man who always guesses the wrong answer to a coin flip. It’s just as hard to always get the wrong answer as it is to always get the right answer. And when it comes to crazy coincidences, it’s just as weird to see too few of them as it is to see too many.

Theo: Yes. That’s very clear now.

Art: So say your job business was a one-out-of-a-million event, though it might be much more common than that. Do you think that too many things like that are happening, more than should happen just by blind chance?

Theo: Of course I couldn’t possibly know.

Art: Yes, I suppose it would unfair to expect anyone to know something quite like that.

Theo: But the holy book still tells us where these things come from.

Art: You’re right. The holy book does, but the improbability of the events does not. If it weren’t for the holy book, we would be fine concluding that they were just chance occurrences. Is that fair?

Theo: Mmm, I guess so…I guess it’s really just a testament to how important the holy book is. Without it, we’d be ignorant of these important answers.

Art: Fair enough.

So we have: God exists
How do we know? Because we see good things, and good things couldn’t happen without God.
And how do we know that? Because the holy book says that good things can only happen with God, and the holy book is always right.

In this argument, the conclusion that God exists depends on the truth of “the holy book is always right.”

Theo: But don’t forget what I said about that “point 1” business before. We also know God exists because nothing would exist without Him.

Art: Perfect, I’m glad you reminded me. We’ll get to that next. For now, we have to see if the holy book is always right. We’ve got the What, so now the Why.

How do you know the holy book is always right?

Theo: Well…

To be continued

See What Happens When You Concede – Often a useful technique. Many arguments fail even if the premises are true because the argument is invalid. Concede the premises to test the argument’s validity. If the argument is invalid, why does your conversant buy it? They must be ignorant of the faulty reasoning, a much deeper error than simply having a false conclusion. This way you can address that deeper issue, instead of just the surface problem.
If the argument is valid, reconsider the premises to see if they’re true, also. You can let people know in advance that you’re conceding the premises to see where the argument takes you. That way they won’t feel you’re flip-flopping when you reconsider the premises.
If the premises and argument both check out, the argument is sound.

Stick to the Issue – The chain of reasoning necessary to show that an argument cannot stand is a fragile thing. If you leave one chain to go build another partway through, you’re wont to lose all the progress you made on the first one.

When a new issue arises, don’t let it distract you. Write it down. Move on to it only after resolving the issue at hand. When you do move on, remember that Understanding Must Precede Argument (and Advice). Put the argument In Your Own Words, get your conversant’s approval for the wording. Generalize the Principle the argument is based on, and Apply the Principle to Specifics to test it. Only then move from What to Why they believe.

Art and Theo Pt. 1 The Rational Debate

Rational thinking applied to achieve a useful discussion. Theism as case study.

Art: Is there a God?

Theo: There is.

Art: How do you know?

Theo: I look at the breaks I’ve had. I got a job right when I needed it. I met the perfect woman because I stopped to look at a picture in a store window. A few seconds earlier or later, and I never would have met her. I see God at work in this way.

Art: So, before I respond, the first thing to do is Understand What You’re Saying. I want to understand your idea so well I can put it in my own words, and have you sign off on it.

Theo: Sounds great. Lots of times people tell me what’s wrong with what I’m saying, but they’re not actually addressing what I mean.

Art: So…can I put it this way? You would not have gotten the job you did unless there was a God. How’s that?

Theo: That sounds good.

Art: Okay, now I’m tempted to charge ahead now, but the next thing I should really do is Find the General Principle. What’s behind your conclusion that this blessing in your life means there is a God? Do you think that good things in general can only happen if there is a God?

Theo: Yes, that sounds right. The holy book says all good things come from God.

Art: Okay, fine then. Let me Write That Down. “Good things can only happen if there is a God.” This is what you’re saying?

Theo: Perfect.

Art: So we’ve got the general principle you apply to specific events. You see a good thing. According to this principle, the existence of that good thing means there’s a God. So if this principle is true, then there is indeed a God.

I can see why you believe in a God, then.

Theo: Well, I quite approve of how you approach our disagreement.

Art: Well, Understanding Must Precede Advice. That applies to debates and counseling friends and many things. There’s still one more way to test our mutual understanding, though. Apply the General Principle to Specifics.

Theo: Well, go for it, then.

Art: Our general principle is “Good things can only happen if there is a God.” We will see how that principle looks in action to make sure we’re okay with it. To see it in action, we’ll apply it to specifics. Take any good thing as an example. How about having food? Does that work as a good thing?

Theo: Well enough.

Art: So we replace our general “good things” with our specific “having food,” and we get:
“Having food can only happen if there is a God.” You with me?

Theo: Yes…

Art: Now comes the test. Do you believe this?

Theo: I do.

Art: Now, this would suggest, that whatever our own efforts to have food, we could never succeed unless God existed. Is the idea that God helps us get food?

Theo: I suppose…

Art: So if someone doesn’t have food, it’s because God hasn’t helped them get food.

Theo: Not necessarily! You have to make your own effort! God helps those who help themselves.

Art: Then there are two kinds of people who don’t have food. Those who don’t make their own effort, and those that do. Those who don’t make their own effort have themselves to blame. What about those who do make their own effort, and still don’t have food? Let’s start from the basics. All good things only happen by God. So having food only comes by God. Are we still in agreement here?

Theo: Yes…

Art: Now that means no one can have any food unless God helps them. You’ve pointed out that some people don’t have God’s help because they haven’t done their part. That doesn’t actually change whether or not they have God’s help, just who is to blame for their situation. So the statement stands, no one can have food unless God helps them. You with me?

Theo: Go on. I think that’s right, and I’ll look at it more carefully to be sure if I have to.

Art: Well, some of those people without food do make their own effort to get it. They try really hard. They work ridiculous hours while they’re sick, and then maybe starve without food because the crops failed or something. But if what we’ve been talking about is true, then they can’t have food unless God helps them have it. So is it God’s fault that they have no food?

Theo: No, because God isn’t taking anything away from them, He’s just choosing not to give away things to them. He doesn’t owe them anything, everything they have is His, anyway.

Art: Okay, I see that. But if you could give food to these people, at no cost to yourself, wouldn’t you do it?

Theo: Yes, but maybe not if I knew what God knows. He knows more than I do, and must have some reason to not give them food. Even if it seems hard to imagine what that could be, that’s just because our mortal abilities are so limited.

Art: And doesn’t it seem odd to you that most of these people with these profound reasons to be starving to death are in poorer countries? Why aren’t there people like that in rich countries?

Theo: God knows where He sent every person on Earth and under what circumstances. He has His reasons for it all.

Art: Well, alright. You have been consistent to the principle, so we’ve successfully tested it.

Theo: So now what?

Art: Now that we’ve got the What of your statement down, we’ll Find The Why.

Theo: Why?

Art: Yes, of course! How do you know that this statement is true? How do you know that “good things can only happen if there is a God?”

Theo: Well…

To be continued…

To have a debate progress anywhere. You must establish with specificity the What in question. To do so thoroughly:

  1. Put the argument In Your Own Words to ensure that you’ve understood it to your conversant’s satisfaction.
  2. Take the argument and find the Generalized Principle it’s based on. Write it down with your conversant’s approval.
  3. Apply the Generalized Principle to Specifics to see if it’ll be consistently upheld by your conversant.

At each stage, you must Stick to the Issue. Accept answers if they are consistent, even if you think they are not true. Understanding Must Precede Advice (or Arguments).