Is an Argument Bad Because it Doesn’t Convince Everyone?
Recently I was listening through the archives of the raido show/podcast “Unbelievable?” and ran into a discussion between former atheist blogger turned Catholic blogger Leah Lebresco and Hemant Mehta, who blogs under the name “The Friendly Atheist.” The discussion was over why Leah Libresco, an active blogger and highly intelligent woman, would convert to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s a neat little discussion, well worth listening to as both Leah and Hemant (being bloggers) have a decently engaging conversational style, especially in contrast to the scientists and academics that are usually on the show (let’s just say that public speaking isn’t usually a course that most hard scientists are required to take and leave it at that).
Now something very interesting (to me at least) happened during the discussion. Leah explained that her primary reason for converting, the argument that finally knocked her over into the theist camp, was the moral argument. And Hemant Mehta made it clear that he had never heard of it. This was so suprising to me! In retrospect it shouldn’t have. I mean not everybody has had my life or read the books I’ve read or has had the discussions I’ve had, obviously. This is simply an example of what they call the “curse of knowledge.” Because I know the moral argument, and have contemplated it for years, I naturally assume that other educated people would know about it as well. Hemant Mehta can’t be blamed for not knowing about it, any more than I can be blamed for not knowing the ins and outs of Gnostic philosophy, or Mormon theology. Still, it caught be by surprise.
I can’t really do the moral argument justice here, but I can summarize it a bit. I would really recommend reading up more about it. Basically the moral argument says this:
- Moral truths exist.
To explain this first point in a little more detail, by “moral truths” I mean that there are things which are wrong regardless of culture, level of education, or personal opinion. For example, I believe that the concept “Rape is wrong” is a moral truth. If rape is a moral truth than no matter what you personally believe about rape, rape is still wrong. If everyone in the world was taught that rape was acceptable rape would still be wrong. That’s what I’m trying to get across by “moral truths.” Naturally not everyone agrees with this sentiment, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
- God is the best explanation for the existence of moral truths.
This is where I’m really butchering the argument. There are other possible explanations for moral truths (such as Platonic ideals) but right now we’re focusing on the moral argument in regards to theism and I’d have to add seven more points or so if I wanted to do this exhaustively. Since a detailed description of the moral argument isn’t the point of this post I hope you’ll forgive me for cutting corners.
- Therefore God exists.
Now naturally most people who reject the moral argument do so at point number one. They would disagree that moral truths do in fact exist and would attribute morality to cultural and evolutionary forces. Most defenders of the moral argument would agree, but would further point out that those explanations for morality lead to nihilism. Some people can live with nihilism. Some people can’t. If you don’t believe nihilism is true then you should believe in moral truths and thus, by way of explanation, God. Again, this is a very rough description but I think you get the general idea.
What I found fascinating, however, was that Hemant Mehta seemed to not even get as far as understanding point number one. The concept of “moral truth” seems to have never been explained or even proposed to him. The idea was completely foreign to him, and by the end of the podcast he admitted that he still didn’t understand the moral argument. I want to be clear that he didn’t mean that he disagreed with the argument, simply that he didn’t yet understand it and thus couldn’t comment on whether it’s a good argument or not. However he did reject the argument out of hand anyway. Why? Because he felt that if it was a good argument then there would be a lot of people following Leah in converting to Christianity. Since there wasn’t a mob of people converting with her he felt that “her” argument must not be very good.
That’s what I want to talk about today. The concept that an argument can be rejected because it fails to be widely persuasive. It’s a crazy idea, and like a rabid dog it should be put down before it can infect anyone else. I don’t know if Hemant Mehta was ever involved in debate while at school, but as any speech and debate competitor can tell you persuading people is hard. Persuading people to change deeply held beliefs (like whether or not God exists) is really freaking hard. Even if your arguments are flawless it is just plain hard to persuade people. Complicating matters further is the fact that there is no argument that is perfect. There isn’t even a perfect argument that anything exists at all! The only argument I’ve ever found that comes close to perfect persuasiveness is Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.” And there are people who disagree with even that, who believe that we don’t actually “think” at all and that consciousness is merely an illusion. No argument has such a powerful persuasive force that it will convince everyone everywhere with the same strength. Why? Because there a many obstacles that stand between an argument and actually persuading someone.
First the argument must be understood before it can even try to persuade someone. The moral argument was not persuasive to Hemant Mehta during the discussion because he didn’t understand it. This is perfectly reasonable, and I’m surprised that he didn’t realize that maybe droves of people aren’t converting because they too share his confusion. Some people might not have the background education in philosophy and logic to make sense of a particular argument. Others might believe that logic and rationality can’t actually teach us what is or isn’t true. I know, that sounds hard to believe, but those people exist and I’ve met them. Chaulk it up to postmodernism. Whatever the reason a good argument can be misunderstood, or simply not understood at all, or the idea of logical argument itself can be rejected out of hand. That’s the first hurdle to jump.
The second obstacle is that people may disagree with the premises of the argument, or with the logical form of the argument itself. So those premises must be proven, which requires more arguments, which puts us back to hurdle one. Now sometimes an argument has flawed or false premises. Sometimes the argument itself is fairly sound but it’s being expressed in a way that oversimplifies or miscommunicates what the argument is actually trying to say (see my butchered explanation of the moral argument above). If it’s a bad argument this is where it will usually fall apart. However people can agree that an argument is sound and still disbelieve in its conclusion if the argument fails for them at the next obstacle.
Simply put, often one of more premises is something that intelligent people can simply disagree on. Leah Libresco is quite aware that one can understand the moral argument perfectly, reject premise number one, and become a nihilist. However Leah, through her own observations, contemplations, and experiences does not believe that nihilism is a viable option. Since the moral argument shows that one should either be a nihilist or believe in moral truth, and she cannot accept nihilism, then moral truth must be real, and thus God must be real as well. Again, I’m simplifying here. Now some people have no problem with nihilism, so they won’t be convinced in the existence of God by the moral argument. This is mostly a personal trait. Some people can live with nihilism, some people can’t. It works for other arguments as well. For C.S. Lewis the argument that tipped him out of the materialist camp was the argument from reason. Basically he came to the conclusion that if the mind consists simply of what the brain does then there is no such thing as free will. Now some people believe this but have no problem with people lacking free will. However for Lewis the idea that we can have reason and rationality without free will was literally unbelievable. He could not make that jump. Some people can. For him it seemed far more plausible that the mind was something more than the actions of the brain. Others had no problem with it. That’s just the way things go. What is compelling evidence to one person isn’t always compelling to others because we value different things, have different experiences, and think different thoughts.
All of this is understandable to someone who has spent time trying to persuade people. So it’s surprising that Hemant Mehta would make such an argument. Surely he, as an atheist, knows that there is no argument for atheism that will convince everyone, just as there is no argument for theism that will convince everyone. If there was such an argument then there would be far more atheists, since all theists who heard it would deconvert on the spot. The thought of any argument having universal persuasiveness is ridiculous. Let us not judge arguments by the number of converts they produce but on their own logical merits. There may be many reasons to reject an argument, but “it’s not very popular” should not be one of them.