Archives For Debate

babble.jpg

With civil discourse in such short supply today, it may be beneficial to consider some wisdom from the past about disagreeing calmly.

If you’re a thoughtful person, and you interact with other rational people, it’s inevitable that you will sometimes disagree. These differences of opinion are not bad things, in and of themselves. They help us sharpen our thinking and occasionally result in someone (from either side) recognizing the errors in their opinions.

There are times, however, when disagreements are not handled respectfully. In such situations, they seldom result in a positive end. In cases where quarrels arise, people don’t persuade others. They do the opposite—they motivate them to entrench themselves and hide behind mental and verbal barricades that reinforce their “errors.”

You can go all the way back to the Scriptures to find the recognition that this sort of debate is destructive. Here is the counsel of the apostle Paul to his protégée Timothy, a young pastor:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:14-17)

In the second century, Tertullian, a brilliant North African Christian scholar, penned one of my favorite passages in all of patristic literature.

I might be bringing forward this objection from a want of confidence, or from a wish to enter upon the case in dispute in a different manner from the heretics, were not a reason to be found at the outset in that our Faith owes obedience to the Apostle who forbids us to enter into questionings, or to lend our ears to novel sayings, or to associate with a heretic after one admonition—he does not say after discussion.

Indeed, he forbade discussion by fixing on admonition as the reason for meeting a heretic. And he mentions this one admonition, because a heretic is not a Christian, and . . . because argumentative contests about the Scriptures profit nothing, save of course to upset the stomach or the brain.

This or that heresy rejects certain of the Scriptures, and those which it receives it perverts both by additions and excisions to agree with its own teaching. For even when it receives them it does not receive them entire, and if it does in some cases receive them entire, it none the less perverts them by fabricating heterodox interpretations.

A spurious interpretation injures the Truth quite as much as a tampered text. Baseless presumptions naturally refuse to acknowledge the means of their own refutation. They rely on passages which they have fraudulently rearranged or received because of their obscurity.

What wilt thou effect, though thou art most skilled in the Scriptures, if what thou maintainest is rejected by the other side and what thou rejectest is maintained? Thou wilt indeed lose nothing—save thy voice in the dispute; and gain nothing—save indignation at the blasphemy. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 16-17)

If you would like to read a fascinating scholarly article on this passage you can download one here. In “Accusing Philosophy of Causing Headaches: Tertullian’s Use of a Comedic Topos,” J. Albert Harrill writes:

Among the most famous passages in Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum (ca. 203) is what appears to be nothing more than a throwaway line. After declaring that ‘heretics’ have no right to use Christian Scripture, he writes, ‘Besides, arguments over Scripture achieve nothing but a stomachache or a headache.’

Previous scholarship has assumed the protest to epitomize Tertullian’s fideism and general anti-intellectualism. However, I argue that the line evokes a comedic stereotype within a medical topos about ‘excessive’ mental activity causing disease in the body, going back to Plato and Aristophanes.

The passage is, therefore, not a throwaway line but an important part of Tertullian’s attempt to caricature his opponents with diseased superstitio (excessive care and ‘curiosity’).

More Recent Variations of this Theme

Those who have attempted serious, rational argument with someone who is unserious or irrational know very well what Tertullian was describing. If you are earnest and calm in your advocacy, only to have your counterpart act flippant or ignorantly obstinate, it really can make one feel nauseous.

G.K. Chesterton, who was an articulate defender of Christianity during the beginning of the twentieth century, described the frustration in a predictably entertaining manner.

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment.

He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.

Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (Orthodoxy)

As Chesterton suggests, the madman has retained his ability to reason, but is no longer inhibited by reason itself. I would liken it to retaining the appearance of reasoning, bereft of its essence. It parallels what we read in 2 Timothy 3.

In the last days . . . people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (Italics added.)

C.S. Lewis also addresses the inability of many who are wrong to conduct rational conversations. Whenever they meet a reasoned argument, they are disarmed.

Unfortunately, their lack of logic does not prevent them from charging into the disputation. They assume their passion or their appeal to subjectivity (i.e. that “everyone” is right) will win the day.

Lewis grew so frustrated by the phenomenon that he coined a new word to identify it. He regrets the passing of the day when you persuade someone of their error before you could legitimately explain why your own position is correct on a given issue.

The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.

Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – `Oh you say that because you are a man.’

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.

“Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable able parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it.

I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. . . . I see Bulverism at work in every political argument.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. (“‘Bulverism:’ Or the Foundation of Twentieth Century Thought”)

So, there we have it. We may derive some comfort from the fact that irrational arguing has frequently displaced civil discourse since the dawn of human communication.

As for me, I intend to avoid the Bulverites as much as possible. The last thing I need is a migraine or a serious case of indigestion.

Puppies in Heaven

January 1, 2016 — 13 Comments

pupWill dogs and other fauna have a place in the new creation? It’s an interesting—and controversial—subject.

I just reread a delightful essay in which the author, an Orthodox theologian, describes a debate he had with a Roman Catholic scholastic on the subject.* I enjoyed the following description of the discussion so much that I had to share it.

I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist . . . you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso . . . this young Thomist told me that not only could my dog not love me (since he lacks a rational nature), but I could not love my dog (something about there needing to be some rational equality between lover and beloved).

Now, while I admitted that I could only presume the former claim to be incorrect . . . I was adamant that I could be absolutely certain of the falsity of the latter. But my friend was not deterred: “Oh, no,” he insisted, “you don’t really love him; you just think you do because of your deep emotional attachment to him.”

Of course. Foolish of me. Leave it to a two-tier Thomist to devise a definition of love that does not actually involve love. If you can believe in pure nature, I suppose you can believe anything.

{More on the question of animals in paradise below . . .}

Debates (civilized variants of arguments) can be fascinating when they are dissected and examined. Theological debates are particularly enthralling.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the value of debate in sharpening one’s position. This approach to learning can be traced back to the Socratic Method, which is based upon asking and answering questions.

In 1941, the Oxford Socratic Club was formed to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” C.S. Lewis was its first president (faculty sponsor), serving until 1955 when he moved to Cambridge University. In the first issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis wrote:

In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.

The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.

Some of the debates conducted by the club were legendary. You can read a fine article about these “University Battles” here.

Returning to the Question of Animals in Heaven

I wrote on this subject several years ago. That post is worth checking out if only for the amazing graphic that graces it.

You can read my own perspective on the question there, if you are interested.

Today I wish to end, instead, with the summary of my kindred spirit, who debated the philosopher.

The final sentence in this next section is priceless.

The occasion of the exchange, incidentally, was a long and rather tediously circular conversation concerning Christian eschatology. My interlocutor was an adherent to a particularly colorless construal of the beatific vision, one that allows for no real participation of animal creation (except eminently, through us) in the final blessedness of the Kingdom; I, by contrast, hope to see puppies in paradise, and persevere in faith principally for that reason.

His sentiment reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts in Mere Christianity.

I sometimes like to imagine that I can just see how it might apply to other things. I think I can see how the higher animals are in a sense drawn into Man when he loves them and makes them (as he does) much more nearly human than they would otherwise be.

Hart offers another delightfully sarcastic comment about the weight of different authorities the two debaters were citing. And with that observation, we shall end.

On his side, all the arguments were drawn from Thomas and his expositors; on mine, they were drawn from Scripture; naturally, limited to the lesser source of authority, I was at a disadvantage. . . . [arguing] that the biblical imagery of the redeemed state is cosmic in scope and positively teeming with fauna (lions lying down with lambs and such)—that Paul’s vision of salvation in Romans 8 is of the entirety of creation restored and glorified—things of that sort. All in vain, though; nothing I said could rival the dialectical force of his ringing sic Thomas dixit [so Thomas said].

_____

* The author, David Bentley Hart, is not anti-Catholic. In fact, he has taught at several Roman Catholic universities. The article quoted appears here.

 

Powerful Names

September 30, 2013 — 14 Comments

missilesIt’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming (or labeling) something wields great power.

Whether it be a concrete object, or an idea, the power to name carries the power to shape perceptions.

Philosophically, we might agree that:

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Juliet, Romeo and Juliet).

But, if we are perfectly honest, calling it “skunk cabbage” might affect our perception of its aroma.

A classic example of the power of naming comes from the era of Norse exploration. In the ninth century, Vikings began settling in the inhospitably named “Iceland.” The island was majestic, and its spectacular glaciers and volcanoes still allowed room for extremely fertile farmsteads.

Less than a century and a half later, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland. He sailed west and established the first colony on a much larger island that he enticingly named Greenland. Erik’s brilliant advertising ploy was quite effective, and hundreds of settlers joined him in the much harsher climes to Iceland’s west.

The specific appellations which led me to ponder the power that resides in naming once again,* actually came from a much more modern source—weaponry.

Military leaders have a knack for generating striking names. Often they are brilliant; occasionally they completely miss the mark. In either case, it’s curious to note the message their choice of nomenclature seeks to emphasize. Consider for a moment two different American missiles.

The AGM-114 Hellfire and the LGM-118A Peacekeeper

The reader naturally assumes the purpose of the former is to rain sulfur and brimstone down on the enemy, while the mission of the latter is to benignly maintain peace. One suspects, however, that being at the epicenter of either explosive device would be equally disastrous.

Another example we might consider is a bit more controversial, but fascinating nonetheless. Consider these labels for movements involved in the abortion debate.

Self-Preferred  ||  Used by Opponents  ||  Used by the Media

Pro-Choice  ||  Pro-Abortion  ||  Pro-Choice

Pro-Life  ||  Anti-Choice  ||  Anti-Abortion

It doesn’t require a brilliant intellect to comprehend the tone each of these labels evokes. Nor should it come as a surprise how the mainstream media tends to line up in the debate.

It’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming something wields great power.

C.S. Lewis was a master of language. He knew names exercise significant influence on how things are perceived. In the following passage from “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he describes how a powerful word—in this case “mercy”—can be dangerously misleading when applied to something inimical to itself.

Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.

In another essay, “‘Bulverism:’ or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” Lewis actually coins a word which has found favor with a literate subculture. The peculiar word he created conveys a sense of obtuse, opinionated self-smugness. (Yes, I may be reading just a little bit into “Bulverism,” but I really don’t think so. The aristocratic or remote sounding surname “Bulver,” the “ism” suffix and, of course, the “Bul” prefix all combine to engender an odd and unappealing impression.)

The subject Lewis addresses in this work is the unwillingness of disagreeing parties to honestly debate the merits of an issue. Instead, they rush to employ the invalid (and terribly effective) ad hominem approaches that characterize so much of modern politics.

C.S. Lewis is so talented (and ingenious) that he provides us with a biographical note on the fictional creator of the deficient form of “debate” prevalent in the modern era. “The modern method [of argument],” Lewis begins, “is to assume without discussion [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—“Oh, you say that because you are a man.”

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

. . . Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason.

Sadly, Bulver’s disciples continue to increase, rather than diminish.

Since it was military missiles that initially got me thinking about the subject of the power of naming, it might be fitting to end with a few more evocative labels. They certainly elicit a wide range of impressions.

Condor: Argentina’s avian contribution

Piranha: Tiny but vicious and straight from Brazil’s Amazon

Velvet Glove: Canada’s mixed message

Sky Sword: China’s blending of the ancient and modern

Apache: French, which confuses this American veteran**

Meteor: A European offering sure to land hard if it doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere

Martel: Anglo-French venture they surely don’t want Islamists to think is a tribute to Charles Martel, Hero of the Battle of Tours***

V-1 Flying Bomb: Got to Hand it to the Germans for straight-forward labeling.

Rhinemaidens (Rheintöchter): There’s apparently Teutonic Poetry as well

Fateh: Iran’s “Conqueror”

Zelzal: Iran’s “Earthquake”

Sejjil: Iran’s “Baked Clay” (well we can’t expect all the Persian names to be winners)

Jericho: From Israel where we know whose walls tumbled down

Spike: Israeli and probably not a reference to Jael and the Book of Judges****

Hatf: Pakistani “Vengeance” (derived from the gentle sword of Muhammad)

Hyunmoo: Korea’s mythical “Guardian of the Northern Sky” (mayhap a reference to their aggressive northern neighbor)

Penguin: Those Norwegians really know how to frighten their enemies

Malakhit (Малахит): Just one of Russia’s curiously named explosives in their “mineral missile series”

Umkhonto: South African “Spear” from the Zulu tongue

The Brits are uniquely creative when it comes to naming missiles. They include: Blowpipe, Brimstone, Green Cheese, Rapier, Sea Skua and, of course, Fairey Fireflash and it’s less intimidating companion Fairey Stooge.

For some reason, I find a missile named “Green Cheese” particularly disconcerting. Whoever named that specific weapon was devilishly clever. If I were a world leader, I’d surrender immediately, rather than face a foe confident enough in their military prowess to use that sort of twisted culinary nomenclature for their armaments.

______

* I have written on the subject of personal names in the past.

** It just may translate as “Ruffian,” but I don’t think I want to go there, since it hints at political incorrectness.

*** It’s actually a combination of the missile’s guidance options: Missile, Anti-Radiation, Television. I’m sure the parallel with the Frankish defender of the Christian Church is a mere coincidence.

**** The fourth chapter of the Book of Judges.