Friday, May 7, 2010

What Is The Point? Reflections on Truth and Internet Disputes



Many of the Internet debates concerning religion on forums, on blogs and on other places tend to break down into certain categories: Theist vs. Atheist, Christian vs. Non Christian, Catholic vs. Protestant and so on.

It seems however that, while the focus is correctly on who is right, the problem is each group is pointing to its own belief according to its own standards as proving their superiority.  The focus is on the personal preference of what is and should be, not the objective sense of what is in fact true.  The result is that we often see people complaining about the lack of citrus in the apples instead of which fruit is more beneficial to the health of the human person.

An Individual's Bad Arguments This is Representative of the Belief Itself

It would be easier of course if logical errors were merely committed by the "other side" and "our side" were quite clear of muddle headed thinking.  Alas, this is not the case.  I've seen defenses of Christianity which possessed more zeal than logic, leaving atheists or non-Christians mocking the beliefs assuming that a bad argument an individual makes reflects a flaw with the belief itself.

This would be a false assumption of course.  A bad defense of what is claimed does not mean the position is not true.  It means the argument does not prove the claim.  Of course we have to recognize this holds true for both sides.  If the person promoting atheism is essentially a teenager who is arguing from emotion from resenting overly strict parents, the argument will be wretched… but it does not mean the wretched argument is the best any atheist can do.

Unfortunately both sides tend to do this, and the result is a lack of true dialogue compounded with contempt for the other side.

Of course the bad argument needs to be refuted, but let neither side kid themselves into thinking they have one-shotted the belief which the bad argument is defending.  In order to have a true dialogue and search for truth, we must have an intent to discuss what the other side truly holds and not to focus on "what makes the other side look stupid."

The Other Side of the Coin: Dispute What The Other Side Believes, Not What You THINK It Believes

This is tragically common.  All too often, one sees someone personally interpret what they read about the belief that person does not share… and then spend time attacking the belief on grounds the believer does not even hold for the purpose of mocking the view.

Not all atheists are Communists, or even liberals.  Some are, in fact, conservatives.  Not all Christians are Young Earth Creationists.  Some believe evolution may have been employed by God.  Some Protestants accuse Catholics of believing we are saved by "Works Alone."  This would be a misrepresentation.  I've seen debates where one assumes all Protestants hold to the idea of "Once Saved Always Saved" or "Double Predestination."  Not all do hold these beliefs.

The problem of course is the assumption that "All A hold B."  First of all is it correct to say All of A holds B?  Second, is it correct to say All of A holds B?

One can easily make a belief look stupid by attacking an aspect one finds ridiculous.  However if the opponent does not actually hold to what you assert, your rhetoric is essentially worthless.  Or if you misunderstand what your opponent holds, even the most brilliant rhetorical attack is a waste of time.

The point is, one needs to understand the position they disagree with if they are to succeed in challenging it.  In other words to find out the truth.

Like It Or Not, TRUTH Exists and Everyone is Obligated to Seek it

If one wishes to debate right and wrong, we must start from the perspective that truth does exist because if truth does not exist, we can't argue… only fight over preferences.  Now we can run across the person who denies that any truth exists, but this is a contradiction, because either the claim that there is no truth is true, or it is not.  However, if such a person is adamant that truth does not exist, there is precious little one can do.  They won't accept any statement as objective.

This is a double edged sword of course.  If there is no truth, then there is no error either, and there is no moral difference between Doctors without Borders and Ethnic Cleansing in Yugoslavia.

However, if one wishes to make the statement that atheists can behave morally and therefore Christianity is not needed, then it follows there must be an objective standard concerning what is moral.

Discussion of What Is Better Assumes a Standard to Progress Towards

Obviously to make discussion meaningful, a standard of truth needs to be recognized.  Otherwise arguments over disputes on ethics becomes as meaningless as disputes over preferences of colors.  If there is not an objective standard, then the Nazis were not necessarily wrong, and those who opposed them were not necessarily right… it would merely be a matter of personal preference.  This is something very few people would accept of course.

Most people do accept, at least in theory, the idea that there are some sort of truths we can know.  So we see some people argue that atheism is superior to Christianity because Christianity suppresses rights.  This presupposes that rights are an objective good.  Of course if rights are an objective good, it means there must be something about it which is always good and that it is good for all people 

Christians would generally agree that rights are an objective good, of course. The dispute is over what rights are.  One common dispute is whether rights are the ability to do what one wants or the ability to do what one ought.

Why NOT Kill Ethnic Minorities?

Thus one is required to explore the nature of what rights are before claiming another infringes on rights.  If the right to life is an objective good, then all persons must have a right to it, and it cannot be arbitrarily denied to a person or group without setting the precedent that any person or group can be denied this right on the basis of personal interest.

Under a view which denies the universality of rights or that truth is objective, the state can decide that the fetus does not have rights, or the elderly… or the Jews.

Think this is an appeal to fear, or an application of Godwin's Law?  Then answer the question "Why Not?" 

We have had at different times in history events where people were denied rights based on their ethnicity, religious belief or social class.  Few people would deny these things were wrong, but wrong indicates that there is a right behavior which these things are measured against.

Conclusion: So What is the Point of Internet Debate?

Quite frankly, if there is no truth, then there is no point to any political, religious or atheistic blog, and no matter how well the rhetoric is done, such a blog is no better than the blog of someone who says "I love muffins and kittens!"  If there is no truth, then a response in rebuttal to an internet blog is no more sensible than to respond to a blog to say "OMGWTFBBQ!!!  Kittens and muffins are evil!"

Unless we serve what Peter Kreeft has called The Common Master (the truth and the commitment to search for it) then all the bytes spilled in argument are meaningless.

Ultimately all arguments and all judgments that certain behaviors are right or wrong boil down to this:

  1. Objective Truth exists concerning what is right and wrong in human behavior
  2. Such truth is knowable
  3. Such truth has a source which is binding on all people whether they accept it or not

If a  person does not recognize these principles, or denies them, such a person argues in vain when he or she challenges the stand of another.

However, if one recognizes that objective truth does exist, then it requires we defend our positions based on the truth… both the objective truth about what is moral behavior and the objective truth of understanding "what my opponent actually holds which I disagree with."

Without this recognition of objective truth, we might as well go post blogs on kittens and muffins…

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