College philosophy classes aren’t what you think they are.
First, they don’t teach you truths of the universe. They don’t know any. There are thousands of theories and each theory has a complicated “ism” attached to it. If you’ve ever come up with a theory of how even the tiniest philosophical subject operates in the world, you can guarantee someone already thought of it, attached an ism to it and wrote ten to twelve mind-numbing confusion opuses on the subject–and they did it 300 years before you were born. All beliefs ever conceived have been drilled down to mathematical proofs. Philosophy professors spend their time attempting to squeeze the tiniest drop of connective idea juice out of centuries-old subjects and are scrambling to make their name by pairing these old ideas with trendy concepts today so they can get tenure. The entire industry is something of a snake eating its own tail. God bless education.
What philosophy classes really teach is how to argue a point.
This turns out to be an immensely valuable skill–in fact, many pre-law students take philosophy courses for this very reason. Argumentation is intrinsic in almost all aspects of life. At its core, an argument is a belief about how things should be or are. You, the arguer, are a messenger for that belief.
Every work of art is an argument for belief.
Every sale is an argument for a product.
Every service is an argument for benefit.
Every action is an argument for payoff.
Even tiny conversations with people in our everyday lives can become an argument of “whose version of reality are we going to honor right now.”
When we go throughout life with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, we are arguing with ourselves over “how we should act” or “what we should do.”
There are two ways to win an argument:
1. QUESTION THE PREMISE
Every argument has a premise where we must start in order to begin the argument. In one of my classes, the teacher asked the question: “How can evil exist if God is omnibenevolent?” The premises of the argument are: 1 – There is a God, and 2 – He is omnibenevolent. Once we accept those premises, then we can get to the core of arguing about evil until the bell rings. But many students refused to argue about evil, saying first that there is no proof that God is omnibenevolent. Other students said, there is no proof that there is a God. One can’t argue about evil if both premises are put into question. Therefore, by destroying the premise, one wins the argument.
How do we use this in regular life?
A premise often comes in the form of an accusation. It starts with “You always . . . ” or “You never . . .” and is then followed up by a conclusion. “Therefore you . . . .”
An example of accusation would be someone commenting, “You never have trouble completing projects, how are you so well-organized?” You may then respond by talking about how you are organized. But in reality, you may have huge trouble completing projects and so by rejecting the untrue premise, you may come to a deeper and more helpful truth about how you complete projects even with trouble and lack of organization.
A premise can also come in the form of an opinion. You may be at a party and someone says, “Everyone says Breaking Bad is a great show, but it’s totally immoral–I can’t see why people can justify watching it.”
You may be a huge Breaking Bad fan and totally disagree with this opinion and be tempted to say, “No, man it is the best show and I thought the bathtub scene was amazing!”
This doesn’t really further discussion or give your party friend a place to go. A better argument–and one that might inspire more thoughtful discourse–would be, “Actually, Breaking Bad is filled with morality. It argues that man is destroyed by his selfish desires for power. Walter is led to every possible horror precisely because his acts are immoral and he is destroyed by his actions. The writers had a strong moral center to their script, therefore, Breaking Bad is one of the most moral shows around today.”
2. DEFINE DOWN THE LINE
We argue with words and the precise meaning of those words are vital. If my teacher says, “God is omnibenevolent, therefore how can evil exist?” I might counter by saying, “How do you define omnibenevolence?” the teacher might answer, “He has our best interests at heart.” And I might say, “What do you mean by ‘best interests’.” And they might go on to say, “He wants us to live a journey where we can come to grace.” And I might say, “What is your definition of grace?” and on and on.
Asking a person to “define down the line” is an incredibly important activity. It may seem like it doesn’t get us anywhere because we aren’t arguing about evil, as the original consequent stated. However, knowing the definitions helps us inform that consequent. If I understand that my teacher believes in the God of grace–then I can design an argument around free will. If he believes that God is “testing us” then I can design an argument around evil being for our benefit and therefore it is part of omnibenevolence.
The trouble with this tactic is that you can define down the line to Infinitum. I’ve tried it. A classmate and I picked an argument and we went through the definitions of hundreds of words before we had to go to a different class. We were never able to argue the point because we first had to figure out what we were even arguing.
A careful reader may realize that neither of these tactics actually help you win an argument, mainly because they destroy the argument before it has even begun. In essence, you are attacking the foundations of the argument so points can never be made about the issue.
Your opponent is likely to shift to a new subject, tire out, or become confused before they are able to make their case.
Next week I will write about arguments we have with ourselves and go into some depth about the pitfalls to these arguments. If you are interested in these posts, please sign up for the mailing list!