Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Choices to make

At some point in one’s independent study, one has to make a choice. It may not be a conscious choice; it may not even be a time-specific event. But nonetheless, the choice is made. Do you study the topic as if to reaffirm the belief of those that believe as you do, or do you study a topic as if to persuade those that believe the opposite?

This was brought home forcefully in a recent discussion I had. A fellow was going to give a talk, to a Christian audience, about the evolution/creationism debate. While he knew some of the general parameters of the differences, in order to “bone up” he chose to read a recent Dembski publication on intelligent design.

All I could think of was—why? His audience already believed in creationism. Why waste the time reading an entire book? He could easily download a few articles, read a few quotes, and the audience would happily nod along at the intellectual scientific phrases, barely in the grasp of their vocabulary, thus signifying creationism’s justification for inclusion in the scientific debate.

I don’t mean to get into an evolution/creationism debate here, as this premise is equally true on a variety of topics, including arguments for god, science, cosmology, textual criticism, historicity of founders of religion, and canonicity of a religion’s writings. Evolution/creationism is exemplary, though.

Envision being a creationist. And you are going to talk to two very different groups.

The first group is a Sunday School. A room of people that already believe creationism. That is almost certain to not verify a single one of your facts. You could quickly skim a Behe, or Johnson, or Morris, or Ross, and start spewing facts against evolution. Point out the Cambrian explosion, and the introduction of phyla. The “irreducible complexity” of the flagellum, or the immune system. Point out quotes from scientists that appear to question evolution. Laugh about the “missing link.”

Afterward, the crowd will thump your back, with accolades of how well-versed you are in the subject, and you can beam with satisfaction of a job well-done. And who can fault you? You are merely quoting other authors that have done their research, right?

Now imagine talking to a second group. A group of scientists. People that do not inherently believe as you do, but believe, in fact, in the opposite. Now, instead of merely quoting some person on the Cambrian explosion, you will need to know when it was, why the controversy over the dates, the possible lengths of time, and various arguments to those lengths. What creatures existed before, and what creatures existed after. Why, in the classification of phyla are there various numbers as to how many appeared during this time. What the fossil record is.

No longer can you afford to merely cough out some quote of a creationist quoting a paleontologist, you actually have to know your stuff! Say “missing link” and be laughed at. Say “transitional fossils” and be prepared to be inundated, and have to explain the various fossils, and the fossil records.

This becomes a very difficult study. Much easier to simply read what one already believes, and nod your head. Harder to actually understand the other person’s position, why they hold it. When I get into the discussion of evolution/creationism, I usually ask the creationist, “What was the last book you read by a scientist holding to the theory of evolution, and what were his/her three strongest arguments for evolution?”

I do this for two reasons. First to see if they have ever bothered to read a book on evolution by a scientist, and second to get them thinking along the terms of what the other side’s arguments are. I am most often greeted with silence.

I enjoy discussing these things with theists. Anything from the arguments for god to the canon. But I have often found that theists do not necessarily enjoy arguing with me. It is difficult, attempting to put forth an argument with someone that doesn’t agree with you. That asks, “Why?” That follows your conclusions to see if you are consistent.

In my employment, not only am I faced with that daily, I anticipate it. My opponent is not going to simply give up, because I string together an argument. It has to be persuasive. Coherent. Sellable. Something the other side realizes that a neutral judge or jury will find convincing.

Most people, of course, do not live like that. They prefer to socialize and discuss with those that solely believe as they do. That don’t question their beliefs. That accept any articulated argument in favor of their position on face value. Which is fine and good.

But in this debate, shouldn’t one study the other side? Learn their position? Be able to frame the opposing arguments as well as, if not better than they can? There is so much out there! Isn’t it time to start reflecting on things from another perspective, other than you own?


  1. I was wondering if you'd be interested in participating in an upcoming Vox Apologia, as a questioner.

    See here for details.

    I agree with you about people needing to know the specifics of why they believe what they believe.

  2. razorskiss - I have no idea what a "Vox Apologia" is. From reading your link (thank you) apparently you would like me to propose a question, and then see how a variety of Christians respond to it.

    If so--Sure I can provide a question.

  3. defender, I am glad this person chose to be open-minded about the possibilities offered by opposing positions.