President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University
How do we know which arguments are right and which are wrong? How can we distinguish between claims that are accurate and those that are mistaken? How do we determine what is true and what is false?
Now before we go any further let me say this: Congratulations if you even care. For in a post-modern culture where over 60 percent of Americans say they don't believe in any absolute standards of right and wrong and that all “truth claims” and all moral judgments are relative, it is encouraging to find a remnant wishing to pursue truth rather than construct it. I think you should be applauded if you are eager to debate the veracity of certain ideas. You are already halfway home while others haven't yet even begun the journey.
But I digress. Let's get back to the question. How do you assess arguments for truth?
To set the context for an answer, I think we should first acknowledge the negative. There are certain methods of debate that we should beware of because they often lead down the wrong path - to darkness rather than light - to dishonesty rather than candor.
First, beware of arguments that shoot the messenger and, thus, obfuscate the message. This is an age old fallacy of diversion that goes back to the days of Socrates. It is technically called the argumentum ad hominem which means an “argument addressed to the person” instead of the issue. In other words, you attack the antagonist rather than address his or her ideas. When you see someone attempting to brand liberals as “loons” or conservatives as “fundies” it is a dead giveaway. When a politician calls those who disagree with him ignorant or when a professor labels opponents as “fools” you know the argument is more about political agendas, personal attacks, and protecting opinions than about rational debate. Beware of these tactics. They rarely lead you to your goal of deciphering fact from fiction.
Another tactic to beware of is that of assumption. When a person says something is true you can't assume it is so. This is a non sequitur which means that the conclusion doesn't necessarily follow from the argument. It is perhaps the most common of all fallacies, so common we often fall prey to it unknowingly. A pastor makes a claim so we accept it as fact. A professor denies something so we assume he is telling the truth (primarily because we lean in his direction politically and we want to agree with him).
But our experience has shown us time and again that trusting personal claims is not a good measure of truth. Hitler told Chamberlain that he wouldn't invade Eastern Europe. Nixon denied complicity in Watergate. Clinton said he “didn't have sex with that woman.” Ward Churchill claimed he didn't plagiarize and Eric Pianka (despite the testimony of multiple students, colleagues, interviews, and audio recordings) now denies he has called for forced sterilization and the massive depopulation of the human race. Simply saying something doesn't make it so. History has taught us that truth must be grounded in something more stable than mankind's proven propensity for deception. Haven't we learned that in order to trust we must first verify?
So how do we do this? In the midst of conflicting statements how do we verify what is true and refute what is false? How can we have confidence in what is really honest and trustworthy?
Perhaps the answer lies in paradigms and not people - in guiding ideologies rather than fallible men and women. Here is a question: Are we missing the forest for the trees when we listen to ad hominem attacks and non sequitur arguments; arguments that presuppose name-calling; arguments that assume a statement is true just “because I said so?” Do we get distracted by fallacies and miss seeing the facts?
In our pursuit of truth we must look past the distractions of people and instead look to the power of ideas. The specific ideas associated with a given worldview set the context for us to assess the truthfulness of that worldview's proponents. Marxism set the stage for Stalin's deception. Nazism was the predicate for Hitler's military subterfuge. The ideological consequences of Darwinism as espoused by Pianka are, likewise, unavoidable. If men and women are of no greater intrinsic value than other forms of biological matter then there is no reason to argue for our existence versus that of a lizard or a virus. Survival of the fittest is the optimal value. Morality has no meaning and humanity's belief in truth is merely unscientific self-deception, and “un-Darwinian” (as declared by Richard Rorty, himself a noted Darwinist).
Worldviews have consequences. Some admit truth exists and that we are obligated to pursue it and speak it. Other worldviews boldly state that there is no such thing as truth; that a religious moral compass is the opiate of the masses; and that “survival of the fittest” is the only built-in ruling law of nature and of man. All other “laws” are merely the sum total of one organism jockeying for power over another.
If your goal is to find what is true, you might just be better off looking at ideas first before you listen to people. Perhaps guiding worldviews and their proven consequences are the best starting point for assessing sincerity and answering the question - What is the truth?