Until Another Comes Forward

November 19th, 2013 | | No Comments
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Using an analogy drawn from the legal arena, Solomon writes, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17, NIV). I suspect he does not intend to limit the application of his point to the courtroom, however. Whenever someone puts forth an argument, the audience will likely sway in their direction. Hearing one side of any debate will surely produce a single outcome. The first to speak almost always seems right.

 

Until another comes forward, that is.

 

Once someone else presents the opposing viewpoint, the waters muddy. What seemed so clear just moments earlier suddenly appears complex and confusing—or may even prove completely untenable. Even those continuing to hold the original view will likely hold it with greater nuance and humility.

 

Of course, this is why jurisprudence demands both prosecutor and defense present their arguments. We could easily prove anyone guilty or innocent so long as we were allowed to present only one side of the case. The foolishness of that sort of strategy is self-evident, I believe—though you’re welcome to come forward and present the opposing side, if you’d like!

 

The trouble, as I see it, is that what makes perfectly reasonable sense in the court of law has been utterly rejected in most other arenas. In the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, religion, education, politics and even occasionally science, we habitually abandon this common-sense notion in favor of knee-jerk ideology. Political discourse in this country, for example, has largely degenerated into rhetorical flourishes and informal logical fallacies, devoid of any rigorous argumentation.

 

Rather than lamenting the larger cultural trends, though, I would commend personal reflection. (It is more fun to bemoan the state of discourse in this country as a whole, to be sure, but more helpful to take stock of our own thinking habits.) Here are a few (very few) suggestions on how to cultivate the habit of cross-examination, regardless of the venue or topic.

 

  1. Reserve judgment until you have heard both sides. This is a difficult attitude to develop, but it is worth the effort. We routinely accept or reject a viewpoint because of our presuppositions—the turtles on which we build our thinking. This is why people typically end up on opposite sides of every debate (one thinks of the divide between liberals and conservatives, for example). As a result, once someone makes an argument that resonates with our core beliefs, we will usually embrace it with little additional thought; contrarily, if someone makes an argument that shakes our core beliefs, we will usually reject it out of hand. In so doing, though, we preclude fine-tuning, correction, or modification of our thinking even when we desperately need it!
  2. Read widely on both sides of the issue. I find—and perhaps you have noticed this too—that I like to read people with whom I already agree. This makes me more doctrinaire and inflexible, when I would rather become increasingly nuanced and careful in my thinking. Worse, I suspect my tendency to read on my side of the issue stems from fear—fear that I might be proved wrong! But if my viewpoint can’t withstand close scrutiny, should I hold it? I would think not. The added benefit of this strategy is that we can ensure that we have heard both sides of every issue.
  3. Refuse to disagree until you can mount a cogent argument. I am pretty sure I came across this bit of wisdom in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, but I can’t find the original citation so I’ll pass it on as my own. This is a challenging but necessary maxim to hold: we do not have the epistemic or intellectual right to disagree with a thoughtful argument until we can explain why we disagree. That is, we cannot simply say, “I think you’re wrong,” to someone who has presented a compelling argument in favor of her views. If she has provided reasons for thinking as she does, we cannot dismiss her summarily; we owe it to her—and to our own intellectual development!—to mount equally compelling reasons for rejecting her viewpoint and continuing in our own. If nothing else, this suggestion will help us slow down our evaluation, which breeds humility, and interact more thoroughly, which breeds precision.


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