Talking To Believers, Part 4: The Meta Conversation

Next, I want to consider a few things that I’ll address in ways that a lawyer would.  These are “issues about issues,” and they are often not explicitly discussed in a conversation (at least, not in an interesting one) but they are powerful.

First of all, not every discussion has an explicit focus. If you’re just having a meandering back-and-forth with a friend while you’re hanging out, for instance, it need not be the case that one of you has to prove or disprove anything in particular or that one or the other of you “wins the day.”  It’s perfectly okay, especially in an informal setting, for you both to simply talk through the issues at hand and air your respective perspectives.

But that does not mean you shouldn’t watch for a focus forming, or that you should fail to understand that there are discrete issues that arise in your exchange.  “We talked about religion” is a very broad way of summarizing a conversation, but when you’re actually talking about religion, you’re going to have to talk about some facet or dimension of it.  It will always profit you to respond to the subject at hand rather than to respond to a point raised by your interlocutor with a non sequitur

If your counterpart says something like, “Christianity is the best way to get people to behave morally,” then a response like “Christianity is just a way for a church to suck money out of people in exchange for nothing,” you haven’t addressed your counterpart’s choice in any meaningful way.  There’s all sorts of things a skeptic can say or question in response to claim that Christianity promotes moral behavior better than any other kind of world view.  You could point out examples of immoral behavior by Christians.  You could point out examples of highly moral behavior by non-Christians.  You could inquire about what it is about Christianity that encourages moral behavior.  You could point to Christian or Bible teachings you find morally questionable.  You could suggest that Christianity might encourage moral behavior but no more or no less than any other kind of world view.  The point is to understand the intellectual content of your counterpart’s contention, and to articulate a response to it that meets the contention on its merits.

What’s going on in that process is framing.  In some cases, you can set yourself up for victory or defeat by framing an issue properly.  But let me suggest that if you have properly prepared for your discusion (which is something I’ll address tomorrow in the last of this series of posts) the way an issue is framed won’t matter all that much.  You’ll be able to assert your position in pretty much any fair frame.  And framing is a process that ought not to be done unilaterally if it’s going to be done fairly.

The best way to frame a discussion is the method of proposition and response.  This makes explicit what is being discussed, what issue is in dispute.  In my example above, the proposition is made by the believer:  “Christianity is the best way to get people to behave morally.”  This sets up the base of the frame.  The skeptic’s response creates the structure of the frame, but to do so, the skeptic needs to be more clear about the response than “No, it isn’t.”  The believer’s retort to “No, it isn’t,” ought to be “What do you mean?”  This is a request to clarify the response.  As I suggested, the response could be any number of things, but an on-the-merits response pretty much boils down to either a question about the moral merits within Christianity (an internal analysis) or a comparison of Christianity to other faith or world view systems (an external analysis).

If you can’t make clear at the beginning what the proposition and response is, then at some point you’ll notice the subject matter of the conversation meandering.  Maybe you’re okay with that — but my advice is to at minimum be conscious of the meander and made a decision about whether or not you want to let the subject matter drift.  If you do not, then make the proposition and response explicit.  Briefly.  “Okay, wait a minute.  I thought we were talking about whether Christianity is the best way to get people to behave morally, and I said it’s just as likely that Hindus or atheists will be moral as Christians.  Whether or not we teach evolution or creationism in the schools really doesn’t have anything to do with whether atheists or Christians are good people.”  Chances are that your interlocutor will respond positively to a reminder like this to get the conversation back on track.  Maybe she’ll say, “Yeah, but we’re done with that.  What you’ve got to understand about evolution is…” and then you’re wrestling over subject matter — but the point is, you need to know what you are talking about (on a level that lawyers would call “procedural”), in order to be able to know what you are talking about (on a level that lawyers would call “substantive”).
In an ideal world, you and your interlocutor will have an established burden of proof which fits within the frame of the issues under discussion. For instance, if the question is, “Does God exist?” There are several possibilities for the way the burden could be distributed, along a sliding scale, with these being some notable points of gravity along that sliding scale:

  • The believer must prove conclusively that God exists by offering strong, convincing evidence and argument; if she fails to do this, the skeptic “wins.”
  • The believer must prove that it is more likely than not that God exists; if she fails to do this, the skeptic “wins.”
  • The skeptic must prove that it is more likely than not that God does not exist; if he fails to do this, the believer “wins.”
  • The skeptic must prove conclusively that Goes does not exist by offering strong, convincing evidence and argument; if he fails to do this, or if the believer raises even a small reasonable possibility that God might exist, the believer “wins.”

As in litigation, you want to have as little burden as possible, and you want the other person to be the one with the heaviest possible burden of proof.  In many ways, the allocation of a burden of proof pre-determines the outcome of a debate.  Particularly in a formal debate, whoever it is who gets to write the proposition under discussion has a huge advantage in being able to frame the issue.  Note also that the burden of proof is always operative at the level that I have called “substantive” — it goes to the merits of the discussion rather than to its framing or its focus.

The real problem is that most of the discussions I’m thinking about here will not be formal; they will be very informal.  A bull session at a pub, for instance, lacks a formal set of rules, it lacks a moderator, it lacks third-party judges, and almost by its very nature, it will involve multiple participants in an unstructured, free-flowing discussion.  Somehow in this process, some kind of consensus about who has the job of proving what needs to emerge.  It can often profit the clarity of your discussion to spend a moment or two dealing with presumptions and burdens.  But it won’t profit you to spend twenty or thirty minutes to deal with that.  If you can’t agree about who fairly bears the burden of proving or disproving a particular proposition, then the discussion will not go anywhere and it’s probably best to talk about something else.

Similarly, don’t let your conversation get bogged down in semantics.  It’s an “easy out” for some discussions to say that both parties really agree on the substance of what they’re discussing, it’s just a matter of semantics that aren’t settled yet.  But the thing is, that’s only very rarely true.  I’m assuming here that there is a real disagreement.  Your interlocutor thinks there is a God and you do not.  Your interlocutor thinks that evolution cannot be true, you think that there is no scientific evidence to the contrary.

Well, there’s all sorts of ways you can argue about definitions here.  The most common place I have found definitions becoming slippery is in the term “God.”  If you are discussing, for instance, the Cosmological Argument (a variant of which I’ll refer to tomorrow), “God” means “Creator of the Universe.”  But “God” for most believers in most Western nations means “Jehovah,” who in the Judaic and Christian mythologies does a good deal more than create the universe.  “God” may or may not be omnibenevolent, may or may not be omniscient or omnipotent, may or may not future-project in existence, may or may not be a unique entity, may or may not be a natural or a supernatural force.  The phrase “God” means a lot of things and while it may be interesting to probe how exact or inexact this concept is in your interlocutor’s mind (or your own) it takes a rather specialized and refined sort of discussion for that exploration to be fruitful.  If you’re in that sort of discussion, chances are you are already sophisticated enough to not really need my advice about how to hold your own in it.

But for most common discussions between regular folks (things like bull sessions, parties, talking over coffee, aguments that might be “friendly” or might not be, exchanges with missionaries or would-be evangelists, even formal debates), I will suggest that parsing out definitions too finely and too elaborately within the discussion itself will eventually become something of an intellectual rabbit hole.  Once you go down that rabbit hole, it’s very hard to come back out into the daylight and recapture the momentum and direction that you had going before, and this will handicap the fludity of your discussion.  You’re not really winning a disagreement if you define the disagreement away. The definitions of a discussion are not its merits.  And after a very short time it becomes deadly boring.

The point of clarifying definitions in an honest discussion is to make sure everyone is talking about the same thing.  It is not to try and “define your way to victory.”  Now, sometimes you can’t help but explain what something is if it’s misunderstood.  Evolution, for instance, is not well-understood (sometimes, I think, it’s deliberately misunderstood) by its deniers.

One option is to agree on some third-party, objective source for definitions like a dictionary.  In fact, this is usually a bad idea for both skeptics and believers.  Dictionaries frequently use language left over fom when they were first written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and even more recent entries are written by lexographers whose job is to capture the popular understanding of a word rather than its precise meaning in disciplines of science or philosophy.  This is especially true for words like “God,” “atheist,” and “evolution.”  I’ve seen dictionaries that defined “atheism” as “immoral behavior.”  If you’ve agreed that a dictionary is the ultimate source of definition of a term, then you as the skeptic are now put in the position of defending behavior that is by definition immoral but in reality is not.  You don’t want to be in that position.

A better option, I submit, is to keep the definitional clarification short and intended only to clarify.  “When you are talking about ‘God,’ are you defending the ‘God’ who is described in the Christian Bible, or are you only defending the idea of a supernatural creator of the universe?”  Your interlocutor will answer that question with one or another option, or possibly suggesting a third, but once you’ve got that out, move back to the original question as quickly as possible.

Lastly, in terms of meta-conversation, you’ve got to develop situational awareness.  Understand the ebb and flow of momentum, the power of points and counterpoints, and the effect of tone and emotion as well as that of substance and intellectual accomplishment.  If your conversational partner scores a point, you need to know that a point has been scored — particularly if you are having a discussion in the context of attempting to persuade or impress third parties who are observing the exchange.  Maybe you want to score a point to even it out, or more points to get ahead; maybe you want to neutralize that point, maybe you want to shift to focus to territory where it will be relatively easier for you to score more points.  But if you are oblivious to the the fact that you just got scored on, you aren’t going to be able to respond appropriately.

Similarly, if you just got scored on, it may profit you to understand how that happened.  Perhaps your interlocutor set you up and you walked in to her “kill zone.”  You’ll say later to yourself, “I should have seen that coming.”  Yes, you should have.  Afterwards, ask yourself, “What were the clues that I missed the first time?”  Chances are, you won’t walk in to a “kill zone” if you are adequately prepared (again, that’s tomorrow’s post) because you’ll see it coming.  If you do walk in to a kill zone and take fire, you need to be aware of that, too.

Some of you are asking, “Are people really this oblivious to what’s going on in a conversation?”  Yes, they are.  Or at least, they very frequently behave as though they are.  I see it with my mock trial kids — they are so focused on what they have to say that they seem to simply ignore what the other team is saying and doing.  I see it in court, especially when I do eviction cases.  “Your Honor, this is a case predicated upon a thirty-day notice, which means that all the issues of whether the property was inhabitable or not are irrelevant.”  “Yeah, Your Honor, but what about all the cockroaches?”  I want to turn to them and ask, “Did you understand what I just said?  I just said the cockroaches don’t matter!”  But I don’t, because their obliviousness only benefits my client. 

Take a lesson from their mistake — listen to and understand what is being said.  Otherwise, you’re at risk of not only being put in a hole, but digging yourself deeper in it than you really needed to be.  It shouldn’t be hard for you to imagine countless scenarios in which either a skeptic or a believer discusing an issue of faith could get so wound up in their own point that they render themselves blind and deaf to their counterpart’s point and therefore disregard the conversation entirely, descending instead into preaching.  This is inappropriate, distracting, and most importantly, it becomes a conversation-stopper.

What this all really comes down to is to have a conscious understanding of what you are talking about, what the terms of the discussion are, and paying attention to what your interlocutor says.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.