Thursday, October 3, 2013

Debate Tip #5: It's Not About the Facts

How much better to get wisdom than gold,
    to get insight rather than silver! NIV Proverbs 16:16
Facts are critical to developing a right understanding of the world around us, but they don't always have much to do with our beliefs.  That is especially true with complex systems of belief such as religious faith.

Of course, that makes it rather difficult to have a meaningful, fact-based debate!

Beliefs serve various purposes, as well as truly creating a world view, even if that world view is false!.

Beliefs may comfort in moments of distress, provide a fundamental aspect of identity, provide direction and hope for the future, etc.

The world view constructed by beliefs may see the world as something rightfully under the dominion of man, conjure up images of invisible forces at work behind the scenes, paint any opposing voice as an instrument of Satan, etc.

So when you are in a debate, you should be sensitive to clues in your opponent's language which give away how their beliefs may be meeting deep-seated needs that they have, and how their world view is preventing them from seeing the world as it really is.  This is their foundation.

If you happen to detect aspects of their foundation, it is probably best to discontinue the debate on whatever you were talking about, and instead probe those beliefs more deeply.  Change is most probable when those foundational beliefs are affected.  On the other hand, correcting some other errant ancillary belief is not likely to alter their perspective much at all.

For example, though not engaged in a real debate, a recent commenter on the My Angle post by the name "BB" made this comment (edited for clarity):

"Atheists believe that life is simply random, and completely up to chance... If this is their truth, I pose the question; what's the meaning and purpose in life?"

If you see a comment like this, where there is a fundamental misunderstanding of life, either of the theist or atheist perspective, stop the debate about whatever topic and center on this misunderstanding.  In this case, BB misunderstood what actually provides meaning and purpose in life, which is a pretty big gaff!

Gently, but firmly, enlighten your opponent on a different perspective; you know, like the perspective that actually matches reality!  ;-)  The better they can understand the viewpoints of other people, the more likely you are going to be successful in changing their minds in the long run.  So it is worth ditching everything else in the debate just to show them that their foundational thinking is build on sand.  :-)


  1. I agree completely. To get someone to change their mind, you need to first get them to understand your viewpoint, and to do that you need to understand theirs. And honestly, if it stops there, if no one changes their mind but we understand each other's positions better, I'm happy.

  2. Thanks Hausdorff! I think that's a great perspective to have. I know I've, too, been happy just to get them to admit that they can understand my perspective, even if they still don't agree. Getting to that point can be a real challenge, but I think it's definitely worth it.

  3. (1) An other trick is to see how our beliefs serve our own temperaments and needs.

    (2) I disagree: changing small, apparently-insignificant "ancillary" belief can, slowly over time, change a persons "foundational" beliefs for effectively than head on attacks.

    (3) I agree that stepping back from an argument and seeing how it serves a person despite its truth value is important -- heard that somewhere before ;-)

  4. Hi Sabio
    1) Sure, understanding ourselves can play a key role in developing empathy, and that empathy helps us better understand others.

    2) I guess that depends on how we would define "ancillary". ;-) There are certainly strategies which work better with some people than with others. Just so I understand your point of disagreement better, do you have an example of a case where "ancillary" belief changes led to a change in foundational beliefs?

    3) Indeed. If I had to rely on purely unique content, this would be a fairly empty blog!

  5. Hey TWF,
    Ah, for an example:
    Let's say that a Evangelical Christian believes that everyone but his kind are going to hell. Well, if I could first get him to see that Genesis may have had several different authors, that might slowly crack his literalist view which then cracks his views of hell and damnation.

    But you are right, it all depends on the definition of "ancillary".

  6. Well, in such a case Sabio, I think you're right, but you're wrong. I can definitely see that kind of pattern happening, so I think you're right in that aspect. But I would classify the belief that everyone else is going to hell is an ancillary one. Seeing the Bible as infallible is more of the foundational belief, and it's serving the purpose of providing an unquestionable point of surety in an otherwise often chaotic and changing world. It is the surety (of their interpretation) of the infallible Bible which allows them to take such a stance on hell.

    At least, that's how I see that kind of situation.

  7. I am always wrong -- never accuse me of being right again in a public forum!! ;-)

    If the ancillary view of "hell" was loosened first, through showing historical context and such, they may be braver to examine other passages and then after years, finally be able to say out loud, "I don't think the Bible should be taken literally." I see these transitions all the time -- in fact I have a few posts in the hatchery addressing this issue of gradual change.

    Ancillary attacks are often the very best approach -- read any warfare text.

  8. Excellent Sabio. From what you've said, I think we may actually be on the same page, or close to it, but maybe it's just that we're stumbling on semantics.

    War strategy, such as The Art of War, often advocate non-direct attacks, but (in my opinion) that does not mean that they are ancillary matters at all. In fact, I would claim they are attacks on the very foundation. For if you attack in a manner that cuts off your opponent's supply line for food or arms, or both, then you have crippled their troops even without touching the front line forces.

    You may consider this approach to be "ancillary" because it's not a direct challenge to the "front line," but I am using the terms in a different way. What I tried to claim in this post, but I guess I didn't fully hash out, was that often the "front line" professions of faith are not truly the foundation for why they have that faith. So it's worth dropping the engagement in a "front line" discourse for addressing instead a "foundational" belief.

    If I have properly gauged what you've said, I think we are (mostly) in agreement, even if we don't agree on the words to use. ;-)

  9. Well then, great and wondrous TWF to see if we are agreeing, you need to define "ancillary" vs "foundational" -- otherwise, the admonition is pointless since you could always claim, "well, that is foundational too".

    Certainly you don't want to say, "If it changes their thinking enough that I approve, then it is foundational" , or do you?

    I could see, instead, that foundational vs ancillary could just be used as pejorative moving goal post.

    I would change the "debate tip" of this post to be meaningful "It is not about the facts" is not memorable.

    A tip, as I have written many times about is: "Beliefs are not merely truth propositions".

    Your whole side tract into ancillary vs foundation is not really connected to that, I think. Maybe I am mistake, but it seems you tried to tackle too much here.

  10. Oh Sabio... :-) I'm sort of surprised that you've meandered into this path of discussion the way that you have, but that just may be a reflection on my lack of effectiveness in writing this particular post. Let me try to pull it all together for you as concisely as possible. Naturally this will lose some important refining details, but I think it will make the meta-argument a little more clear:

    Ancillary belief: Scriptural, denominational, doctrinal, etc.
    Foundational belief: Personal; satisfying a need or aligning with a particular perception

    Ancillary = Facts (scriptural quotes, teachings, etc.)
    Foundational = Feelings (emotional needs, temperament alignment, indoctrination, etc.)

    It's not about the "facts." It's about what makes people want to believe in those particular "facts."

    From above in the post:

    "So when you are in a debate, you should be sensitive to clues in your opponent's language which give away how their beliefs may be meeting deep-seated needs that they have, and how their world view is preventing them from seeing the world as it really is. This is their foundation."

    Does that make it any more clear? Do you feel that we are basically in agreement here, or am I just hopelessly deluded and overly optimistic that we have some form of consensus? :-)

  11. @ TWF:

    Ah, I see your point. I did not get all that on my reading. Perhaps too quick of a reading.

    So, I see my confusion.
    But I would never divide things up as you have.

    "Beliefs", as I use the word, are the ideas people confess to agreeing with. I think these beliefs are "used" in several ways and not just as truth propositions. So besides serving as truth propositions, beliefs can serve to satisfy needs in ways often unclear to the believer.

    But when I talk about a person's network of beliefs -- I am talking about how they assume these beliefs are tied to each other. Each of those beliefs serve various functions. So I think "ancillary" and "foundational" is a very odd classification. Did you just make it up? Or have you read about this sort of classification else where's.

    So it seems that this post is all about inventing terms. I contend that you are using these terms and classifying beliefs in a confusing way.

    Just my thoughts.
    Even though we agree on content, we may disagree on the usefulness of this schema.

  12. Sabio, I wonder if some of the confusion here is just because I am writing in a different style than on my other blog, and you're kind of used to me using words a little more concretely. This is a bit more free-style.

    "But I would never divide things up as you have."

    Of course not. This requires loathsome secular reductionist thinking! ;-)

    Seriously though, I wasn't making this post about defining terms or making rigid classifications, as both of these paths are far removed from the purpose. I chose "ancillary" for two reasons:

    1) I thought "other errant ancillary" had a poetic ring to it.
    2) I thought "ancillary" effectively communicated the diminished degree of importance some particular points are relative to other points when of really trying to change someone's beliefs. I could have just as easily used "unimportant", "lesser", "minor", or, more descriptively "ardently defended, yet not really having much at all to do with why a person believes".

    So it's not a classification. It's a relative comparison. That's it. No more. No less. But I've explained it to you in the comments above effectively as categories because I figured, based on the path you were headed down, that that was the shortest route to get you to understand what I was trying to convey.

    It's not a schema. It's not a taxonomy. I'm not inventing anything. But, given your inclination towards classification and taxonomy, I am not shocked that you thought that I was.

    That's your skill, and you do it well. And when I do aim to make such classifications, I'll try to make it clear with diagrams or other visual aids. :-)

  13. While I like this strategy, I find it better to steer the debate towards these questions than stop the debate. The reason is that the theists can then claim you are avoiding the argument and it could enforce their false beliefs as it could be seen as a victory. However if it is going around in circles this becomes more difficult.

  14. That's a good point, Christian. Obviously, there needs to be some skill and tact involved in stopping the debate on topic X to discuss topic Y. You don't want to just say "I'm not going to talk about that anymore. Let's talk about this instead." But you do have a couple things working for you for changing topics abruptly; people generally love to talk about themselves, and people usually really want to be understood. So, along your line of steering the debate towards those questions, one way to do so quickly is to ask something like:

    "I'm not sure I know what you mean by __________. Would you mind explaining that a little further?"


    "I don't quite see how you can think __________, but maybe I am missing something. Would you please explain your viewpoint a little more?"

    ...which you can always follow with a:

    "I just want to be sure that I understand you before we move on in the discussion."