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?
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?
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?
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.
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?”
To be continued…
To have a debate progress anywhere. You must establish with specificity the What in question. To do so thoroughly:
- Put the argument In Your Own Words to ensure that you’ve understood it to your conversant’s satisfaction.
- Take the argument and find the Generalized Principle it’s based on. Write it down with your conversant’s approval.
- 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).