Thinking through Arguments in the Public Square
J. P. Moreland:
Here is something to practice. When your view is criticized or even ridiculed on television, a radio talk show, or in a newspaper editorial, don’t just react angrily.
Take a moment to jot down on paper the person’s main thesis and how that thesis was supported.
Then do two things.
First, assume the person is expressing at least some good points and try to identify them. This assumption may be false, but the search for common ground with intellectual opponents is a good habit. In the process of identifying these good points, try to argue against your own view.
Second, try to state on paper exactly how you would argue against the view being expressed in an intellectually precise but emotionally calm way.
This exercise may take a few minutes, but if repeated regularly it will aid you in developing this third group of virtues [humility, open-mindedness, self-criticality, non-defensiveness].
J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), p. 109.
In addition to this, I think it’s important to identify the hidden premises and presuppositions.
Most arguments in the public square do not set out the premises in a nice syllogistic fashion (If A, then B; A; therefore B [modus ponens] or If A, then B; not-B; therefore not-A [modus tollens]). But the premises are still there; you just need to dig a little bit.
Take this example from Bob Costas’s thoughtful piece on Tim Tebow:
[Tebow] has the good sense, and good grace, to make it clear he does not believe God takes a hand in the outcome of games.
Most of us are good with that. Otherwise, how to explain what happens when there are equal numbers of believers on either side? Or why so many of those same believers came up empty facing Sandy Koufax? Or hit the deck against Muhammad Ali? Or why the Almighty wouldn’t have better things to do?
You could formalize at least three arguments from this. Here is one:
- If God plays a part in the outcome of sports game, then God would ensure that believers always win.
- Believers do not always win in sports games.
- Therefore God does not play a part in the outcome of sports game.
Good arguments have clear terms in true premises using valid logic. When all of these conditions obtain, then the argument is sound. Bad arguments have at least one of the following wrong: ambiguous terms, false premises, or logically fallacious reasoning (i.e., the conclusion doesn’t follow).
So returning to the Costas argument, we are now in a position to evaluate it:
Are the terms clear? Yes. (Though one could say that God’s “taking a hand” could be clarified, as Owen Strachan does.)
Is the valid logic? Yes. (That is, the form is legitimate: if the premises are true then the conclusion necessarily follows.)
Are the two premises true? We know that premise 2 is empirically true. But premise 1 is false. It’s a question of special revelation, and the Bible provides the answer: God can do all things (Ps. 115:3) and God works all things according to his will (Eph. 1:11), but God does not automatically guarantee believers worldly success and victory.
There’s no need to restrict such analysis to arguments one finds problematic. Tracing good arguments can be equally instructive. To see an example on the positive side, here is Greg Koukl’s analysis of the arguments in President George W. Bush’s comments on embryonic stem-cell research.
For parents who want to help guide their children—or need an introduction themselves—to the basics of reasoning and argumentation, a resource to consider is the Bluedorns’ The Fallacy Detective: Thirty-Eight Lessons on How to Recognize Bad Reasoning.