This is possibly the most important post I’ve written in my “Critical Thinking Toolkit” series so far. Ensuring we are clear on our definitions is so, so important. Every conversation we can ever have relies on definitions of certain important words, and so this tool always matters. Furthermore, when I look around in the world of political and social discourse, I see this rule being violated in every single area of discussion. Whether in political, religious, ethical, or philosophical conversations, I find that people tend to assume that everybody is using words in the same way they are without every stopping to realize that, sometimes, the picture is more complicated. In this article, I will lay out why it is so important to clarify definitions in our conversations and provide some examples of where I think this practice would aid us in our public discourse today.
This problem can be framed in two different sorts of ways. One, as I have already done, is to frame the problem as differences in definitions. For instance, if Person A and Person B define the term “equal rights” in different ways, they can totally agree that everyone should have equal rights while disagreeing on whether or not a certain situation qualifies as a violation of someone’s rights. Say, for example, that Person A thinks a particular thing is a violation of someone’s rights but Person B does not think so. Both people might be inclined to think that the other is being biased, bigoted, etc. because they seem to be affirming equal rights but are then disagreeing with about how to implement equal rights. In reality, though, that isn’t what is happening – both people may well be applying their understanding of equal rights in an unbiased, rational manner. But, as long as these two people are unaware of this difference in definition, the discussion between them will be fruitless.
There is another way we might think of this problem – in terms of “starting places” instead of in terms of definitions. To see what I mean here, take your favorite topic of debate, let’s call it X for shorthand. You might believe something like “the debate about X really boils down to Y.” Now, imagine that you are in a debate with someone who, unknown to you, believes that “the debate about X really boils down to Z,” where Y and Z are totally unrelated. By way of analogy, perhaps the debate topic is the best basketball player in history. Maybe you think it boils down to championships, or maybe you think it boils down to overall statistics. Maybe you think offense is more important than defense, or maybe you think the two are equally important. If you begin your analysis of who the best basketball player is with these various starting points, you are likely to land at quite different conclusions. The point I want to make here is that even though it looks like the disagreement is about the topic itself – which I called X – it actually is not about that at all. The disagreement is really about the underlying starting points – which I called Y and Z.
This is key. Now… what do we do about these problems?
If you are in a debate, you ought to do the best you can to boil down the disagreement to the source of the disagreement instead of focusing on mere consequences of that source. Arguing about consequences won’t normally get anywhere. But when we focus on the real core of our disagreements, and understand why someone with a different starting point from us would believe different things from what we believe, we can have much more fruitful conversations.
I’ve picked out some controversial topics to lay out thoughts on. I’m trying as best I can to be unbiased. I am not trying to pick a side on any of these issues. My point here is to attempt to lay out what I see as fundamentally different starting points between the two perspectives that are not brought up often enough. Since I’ve argued that debate should always focus on the source of the disagreement and not consequences of that source, my goal is to locate the real source in each controversy.
The Abortion Debate: This is a big one. On the issue of abortion, the liberal tends to think that the issue is all about bodily autonomy and the conservative tends to think it is all about the sanctity of human life. Furthermore, the liberal tends to think of a fetus as not having the same rights as its mother, while the conservative tends to think of the fetus as a genuine baby even before born, having the same rights as its mother. Now, notice the different perspectives. It isn’t true that the conservative is rejecting the right of bodily autonomy, and it also isn’t true that liberals are intentionally justifying murder. Both of those conclusions can only be arrived at by applying the starting point of one group to the conclusion of the other group. If in fact the mother’s bodily autonomy is the central issue of abortion, then the liberal position makes perfect sense. If on the other hand the right to life of the unborn child outbalances the right of bodily autonomy, the conservative position makes perfect sense. Therefore, a debate about abortion should begin not where it normally begins (on the level of feminism, etc.) because that is just a consequence of the real disagreement, which is on the level of what kinds of rights an unborn child has and how those rights compare to those of its mother.
The Genesis/Science Conversation: There is an ongoing debate among young earth creationist Christians (whom I will call YECs) and those Christians who disagree, that I shall simply refer to as NYEC’s (not young earth creationists). This debate is the debate on the age of the universe. The YEC might argue, say, that the universe is about 10,000 years old. The NYEC will likely say that the universe is something around 13.8 billion years old. I’m sure my readers have heard these debates before, and I don’t want to lay out the sides. What I want to do right now is to show how the criticism of each side of against the other is often flawed. The NYEC might, for instance, criticize the YEC of being anti-science. But actually, this need not be true. For you could have a YEC who deeply values and trusts science, but deeply values and trusts the Bible even more because it has in their view a divine origin, which gives it greater authority than science, which although extremely reliable has human origin. If that person think that the Bible and science disagree on a topic, can’t we at least see why they go with the option that they believe to be most reliable? Certainly, an atheist would choose science over the Bible in the very same situation because that atheist very likely considers the Bible less reliable than science. Similarly, the YEC may accuse the NYEC of denying the authority of Scripture. But this is not necessarily so. In the Genesis passage that talks about creation, there are six ‘days.’ But in the very same passage, the Hebrew word ‘day’ is used to refer to a variety of different time periods. There are many other indication in the Bible itself that a great many historians (both Christian and non-Christian) believe indicates that Genesis is not even trying to use the word day as a literal 24-hour period in these passages. And if the Bible is not trying to describe this model, then of course we can affirm the authority of the Bible and reject this model – in fact that is precisely what we ought to do. So, the mainstream NYEC and YEC criticisms of each other are often off base. The dialogue needs to shift in order to be more productive.
The God/Science Conversation: The previous point was largely about science and religion, but I mean something different here. I mean the common position of the atheist that “science has replaced religion.” There are so many problems with this general attitude, but I want to point out one. The person who says this implicitly assumes that religion and science were trying to answer the same questions, and that science answers those questions better than religion does. This is often called the god-of-the-gaps model – where the only role of God in the universe is to explain things we don’t know how to explain with science yet. But this is just not what religious beliefs were ever meant to explain. That is not at all why Christians believe that God exists. Although there might be some individual Christians who think this way, this is plainly not the teaching of mainstream, historical Christian teaching. I could spend a long time talking about this (and will later write much more about it) but the summary version of the problem is that the atheist here thinks that religion is trying to answer how questions, but in reality religion is primarily focused on why questions – questions of meaning, purpose, and value. Science does not say anything at all about meaning, purpose, or value. It just doesn’t. Thus, the debate on these questions is almost entirely based upon a false presupposition about what the role of God is in religions.
The Gay Marriage Conversation: I actually don’t take much of a side on the legal debate about civil marriage between two people of the same sex. So I want to be clear that I’m not biased on the law here. However, the debate is largely misguided. The liberal side – the side that thinks same-sex marriage should obviously be legal – see the issue as one of equal rights. But the level of disagreement between conservative and liberal positions here has nothing to do with equal rights, because the conservatives also believe that there should be equal marriage rights. The disagreement at its heart is on what the word marriage ought to mean. This is the reason the term ‘civil union’ keeps coming up. Because to the conservative, the words ‘marriage’ and ‘civil union’ mean something different. The word ‘marriage’ has as part of its definition that the members must be of opposite biological sexes. From this perspective, a same-sex marriage is like a square circle or a married bachelor – it just makes no sense. But a same-sex civil union makes perfect sense. So, the issue on the level of legality has more to do with what marriage actually is than any debate about equal rights.
Religious Pluralism: There are of course many heated moments in discussion about differing religious perspectives. Some would say that “all paths lead to God,” whereas others may think that only one path leads to God. The ‘all paths’ group tends to think of the other as bigoted or hateful, the ‘one path’ types tend to think of the others as naive. What is going on here? Well, I think the disagreement largely has to do with what these two groups think that a religion is. The ‘all paths’ group appears to me to mostly think of religion as a model of how to live a good life. And on this model, from their point of view, so long as your religion points you towards living a good life (whatever that means) then you’re “on the path to God.” But that simply isn’t what the ‘one path’ people think religion is about. Whether a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, the ‘one path’ people think that religion is actually about the objective truth about the way the world is. The ‘one path’ Christian, then believes that Christianity makes claims that truthfully describe ultimate reality, the ‘one path’ Muslim believes the same thing about Islam. And who can blame them? The books of these religions certainly sound like that’s what they are saying (I say this having read the whole Bible and large portions of the Qur’an). So, the disagreement about whether “all paths lead to God” should really refocus on what the nature of religion itself is and avoid accusing each other of moral failings. Only by trying to understand what religion is about in the first place can progress be made.
Conclusion/Why It Matters
These things matter. When you debate about a topic that you actually agree on, we never make any progress. Productive debate absolutely requires both people involved to come to an understanding of where they actually differ. Without making the effort to dig down to the true nature of disagreement – whether it is a definition of a word or how to apply those definitions – is absolutely central in having productive debate. And of course, productive debate is always better an unproductive debate. Unproductive debate is nothing more than a pointless squabble or power struggle – productive debate leads to a better world.
Side-note: As I was in the process of writing this very post, I watched a video from one of my favorite YouTube pages – Capturing Christianity – that just so happened to be on almost exactly this topic. The video is an interview with a prominent academic philosopher talking about how to more effectively get at truth in our conversations, and it brings up a lot of the same ideas I thought of here, although much more fleshed out than what I write here.
Thought I’d leave the link for anyone interested: https://youtu.be/udFMuRWub7U