Tricks and truth: Play at debate, but avoid the shut-eye

“Debate” is a parlor trick.

That doesn’t mean I don’t admire the skill, practice and dedication such showmanship requires, but I’m less impressed watching someone trained in “debate” deftly handling their arguments than I am watching, say, Ricky Jay handling a deck of cards.

Jay’s performance is better because, unlike those practiced in debate, he’s not suffering from shut-eye. He knows he’s performing a trick and — even if his patter may playfully suggest otherwise — he knows that we know it too. We watch the cards dance in his fingers, disappearing and re-appearing as if by magic, but we all know and accept that it isn’t really “magic” — just the remarkable, dazzling, entertaining execution of a clever trick.

How about a nice, friendly game of Texas hold ’em?

Any magic act would be far less entertaining — and far less impressive — if the “magician” were genuinely trying to convince us otherwise. Or if he seemed foolish enough to believe otherwise himself. We’ll play along with magical powers as the conceit of a trick, but only as a conceit. I’m amazed and delighted at the skill with which Ricky Jay manipulates a deck of cards, but that skill would be cheapened and that amazement diminished if it required either the performer or his audience to believe that something more than skillful manipulation was at work.

And that’s the problem with debate. It invites the audience — and even more so the performers themselves — to regard it as something more than simply the skillful execution of tricks. The audience is asked to believe that this prestidigitation is meaningful, that it reveals truth. And, even worse, it asks the performers themselves to believe that. It convinces them to be tricked by their own trickery. These skilled illusionists become delusionists, infected by the old shut-eye. They are tempted to believe their own patter and wind up convincing themselves that the parlor trick of debate has something to do with the open-minded, single-minded pursuit of truth.

That’s not what debate is about. Debate is about winning. That’s why they keep score — why there’s such a thing as debate teams who compete against other teams. They compete for trophies and titles, not for truth.

The rules of debate say as much, otherwise the outcome of every such competition would be predetermined by the initial assignment of sides. The whole game is a construct designed to ensure that neither side has an advantage. The only way for the contest to be fair — or to be any fun — is if it is conducted in such a manner that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether or not the side being argued is ultimately true. It is a construct designed, quite effectively, to segregate truth from winning — a way of “scoring” arguments irrespective of any necessary correlation to anything actual. The winning tactic thus may be a maneuver that effectively conceals, evades, deflects, buries or obscures any truths that might be damaging to the argument of one’s assigned side.

Such debate competition can be useful training for anyone interested in pursuing truth outside of the competitive construct of such contests. Learning to employ such tactics of deflection, concealment and obfuscation can be an excellent way of learning to recognize their use outside of the debate arena — i.e., in real life, where truth is what matters and not just scoring points. And learning to counter such tactics is eminently practical training for both the artificial setting of the arena and the actual setting of the real world.

But the value of such training is lost if those trained in debate become infected with the shut-eye — if they begin to confuse winning with reasoning, point-scoring with truth. When that happens, the performers forget they are performing. They are tricked by their own tricks.

This is why I find so much of the so-called “Christian apologetics” so disheartening. That’s true for the clumsy, botched sleight-of-hand of a Ray Comfort — aces protruding from his sleeves and a handkerchief peeking out from beneath an oversized, mismatched thumb tip as he proclaims “Ta-da!” and takes his bow. But it’s just as true for the masterful manipulation of a skilled performer like William Lane Craig. I’ll happily applaud when he opens the sealed envelope from inside the corked bottle and reveals the very playing card I had chosen at random, moments before. Bravo! Well done! Wonderful trick! But, no, it’s no reason to believe in actual magic. Expert showmanship isn’t the same as the pursuit of truth — even if the showmen themselves seem to have forgotten the difference.

When Ray Comfort challenges someone to a debate over the truth of Christianity, I wince because I am a Christian and I know that Comfort is most likely going to “lose” that debate, leading some to the mistaken conclusion that this indicates something meaningful about the truth or untruth of what I believe. When William Lane Craig challenges someone to a debate over the truth of Christianity, I wince because I am a Christian and I know that Craig is most likely going to “win” that debate, leading some to the mistaken conclusion that this indicates something meaningful about the truth or untruth of what I believe. Such winning and losing at the game of debate is as meaningful as winning or losing in a poker game with Ricky Jay. (Note: You will lose.)

This little rant was prompted by Libby Anne’s post earlier today on the “Brainwashed shock troops” of the fundamentalist homeschooling movement and by Rachel Slick’s guest post at the Friendly Atheist earlier this week, “The Atheist Daughter of a Notable Christian Apologist Shares Her Story.” Both posts are in the form of what we evangelicals call a “personal testimony” — albeit in the opposite direction.

What’s striking to me in both testimonies is the way in which trickery and truth are confused by so many fundamentalist parents. They come to confuse winning with meaning, and convince themselves to believe that their manipulation really is magic. But to quote C.S. Lewis — someone who flirted with the old shut-eye himself and later came to regret it — “reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.” Outside the artificial arena of the game of debate, there’s no panel of judges keeping score and awarding points for clever tricks. In the real world, everything will be tested. So test everything. And hold on to the good.

The good — not whatever wins or whatever scores points.

Rather than training their little fundie “shock troops” in the craft of debate, these parents would be better served — and their children would be better served — to teach them the practice of dialogue. “Debate” can carry you only until you encounter a situation in which your tricks don’t matter. Or until you encounter someone who knows better tricks than you do.

These homeschooling parents should scrap all these debate teams and replace them with something far harder but far more practical for real life in the real world: Improv.

I’m deadly serious about that. I realize improv training is trendy and that, as Ayun Halliday writes, “There’s big money in teaching corporate executives the rules of improvisation.” But even if I dread the crimes against comedy that would likely be committed by legions of fundamentalist homeschooling improv troupes, the exercise would require them all to learn and to practice and to acquire the art of listening.

And that skill better equips one to seek and to find the truth than any amount of debate trickery ever could.


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  • Elizabeth Coleman

    Speaking of debate and fundamentalists, here’s the trailer for the old movie, “Listen to Me,” in which Kirk Cameron’s high school debate team gets to debate abortion before the Supreme Court. They even say in the trailer, “If we can’t win this with facts, we’ll win it with drama!”

  • Shay Guy

    Note: “well.” :)

  • SisterCoyote

    Heh. You just have to wait another four or five months for it to reappear on your dash.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I took debate in high school, and did *really* well. Good debates are a favoured passtime of mine.

    That said, the people you’re complaining about really freaking suck. They’re the ones who know that they have no counter to your point, so they grasp any technicality they can to try and regain the upper hand.

    I have been guilty of this myself from time to time.

  • Dorfl

    I think that’s going to depend a lot on what the arguments are. For example: filling the audience in on what our current knowledge about cosmology is – and the way that differs from pop cosmology – would take a lot more time than either speaker has got in a debate, which means that a debate around the cosmological argument can pretty much only be decided by the presentation.

  • Gordon Duffy

    Whenever I watch William Lane Craig debate I am embarrassed for him. He could stay home and send a recording of himself from a previous debate. He never responds to his opponent, just delivers the same points over and over.

    To use your magician analogy he is a better illusionist than Ray Comfort, but only because he has two tricks he does over and over. Your card is always the three of diamonds regardless of what card his opponent showed the audience.

  • MarkTemporis

    I despise debate, because it turns conversation — something I’m already got a hard time with if we’re not already friends — into a competition. I try very hard to avoid pretty much all forms of competition because I’m not just a sore loser, but not terribly happy about winning either. I may be happy about the externals of winning (prizes, money, etc) but the winning itself does nothing for me.

  • MarkTemporis

    Fellow on top looks like David Mitchell with a toupee. If you hadn’t named the people involved I would have been quite disappointed.

  • Carstonio

    A huge reason I’m not an atheist is because such debates are really about two opposing types of evangelism. I have no interest in seeing anyone take any particular position on the existence of gods or other supernatural phenomena. My objection is when one side or the other insists that everyone accept its position as irrefutable fact. (Note that I’m talking only about the folks in the debates, and not all Christians or all atheists.)

    If I have an agenda at all, it’s for both sides to either present testable and falsifiable evidence or just leave everyone alone. And for true religious freedom, which includes doing away with the “civil religion” idea of a particular sect being a societal norm or default. When advocates claim that their position is true and everyone else’s is false, and I point out any flaws or weaknesses that I perceive, my message is not that everyone should reject the claims. Instead, I’m challenging the insistence that I should accept them as fact.

  • Ross Thompson

    I would also like to add that most college “debate teams” are more accurately called forensics or speech teams

    I’ve heard this before and, not being American, the term “forensics” in this context confuses me. Surely it refers to scientific investigation of a crime? What’s the connection?

  • TheBCow

    Forensics is derived from the latin word “forensis” which means “having to do with the forum.” In English, it originally meant “involving public discourse” which is the meaning that speech and debate teams use. The scientific meaning is based on the idea that such investigation are matters of public concern. That meaning is newer and its popularity postdates many school’s founding their speech teams.

    (Oddly, despite the criminal investigation meaning being far better known now, it is still listed behind “public discourse” in every dictionary I looked at to make sure I remembered this right)

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m… not sure why that should make you not an atheist? I mean, if you want to call yourself an agnostic that’s your choice, but it sounds like atheism to me.

  • dpolicar

    For my own part, I do have an interest in people taking a particular position on the existence of phenomena.

    Specifically, that position is “We shouldn’t assume the existence of a phenomenon without reasons to do so, and we should be honest — with ourselves, at least, and with others when it’s practical to do so — about what our reasons are.”

    Note that I said “reasons” and not “evidence”. For example, I know many Jews who believe in the existence of YHWH because doing so makes them feel a part of a larger community and tradition. I’m perfectly OK with that.

    But if (as often happens) they then start to claim that the available evidence supports such a belief, well… I’m not really OK with that.

  • AnonaMiss

    What exactly would you like to pick our brains about? That seems accurate, nonpartisan, and straightforward to me.

  • AnonaMiss

    This reminds me of the time someone tried to start a debate team at my high school. I went to the first meeting in with high hopes, spurred by my father’s stories of when he was in debate in high school. I gtfo’d in the middle of the meeting when I learned, to my horror, that in debate you had to be prepared to argue for positions that you were 100% sure were objectively wrong.

    Arguing to win is a kind of lying, and lying is a sin against truth.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t know if there’s a word that accurately captures my position. I don’t know if the supernatural exists or not, so I say I have no belief either way. That’s not the same as agnosticism, which is the position that supernatural phenomena are unknowable.

    And I see the lack of belief that the supernatural exists as also a lack of belief that the supernatural doesn’t exist. From my perspective, atheism seems to include only the former, or a conclusion that the possibility of the supernatural is extremely remote, or a positive belief that the supernatural doesn’t exist. All three seem to involve different degrees of presumption in the absence of knowledge.

  • Carstonio

    Overall I agree. I doubt that I’m able to choose a belief based on an emotional reward, but I probably hold beliefs for that reason without deliberately choosing to do so.

  • AnonaMiss

    Though personally I tend to believe that, while lack of evidence is not inherently evidence of lack, lack of evidence after centuries of investigation is, in fact, evidence of lack. Not airtight, but enough to hold a position.

  • dpolicar

    But isn’t this just a special case of inferring beliefs based on the absence of expected observation?

    And we do that every day.

    E.g…. I look around my desk, I don’t see my stapler, it’s possible someone took it or that I left it somewhere and forgot about it, OTOH it’s possible that it’s right there and I’m just not seeing it amid all the other clutter. So I look again, more carefully, and I still don’t see it. At some point, I reach the conclusion that there is no stapler on my desk, because I do not observe what I expect to if there were.

    Seems justified to me.

    In much the same way, I’m pretty confident that YHWH, the God of my Fathers, as depicted in the Old Testament, does not exist and never did. I’m confident of this because I don’t observe what I would expect to if he did.

    Again, seems justified to me.

    None of this is to suggest I’m infallible. Quite the contrary, it’s not uncommon for staplers to mysteriously appear on my desk that I could swear weren’t there a moment earlier.

    But the best I can do is the best I can do.

  • Vermic

    So are those three guys the Trinity, then? I think I want my money back.

  • Carstonio

    “Centuries of investigation” is not quite right. The supernatural is defined as beyond human perception, excluding even the possibility of investigation. That definition amounts to cheating, because anyone can make any assertions about things beyond perception and no one can prove the assertion wrong. It’s also possible that such things do exist on the same plane as humans, and we haven’t discovered how to detect them. We have no way to determine which assertions about the supernatural are more likely than others. So with any position, including the position that the supernatural doesn’t exist, one could be wrong and not know it.

  • Carstonio

    Conclusion based on inference is sufficient for your stapler scenario, because the outcome is relatively insignificant. I would want a tougher standard with more serious outcomes, such as a person accused of deliberately stealing your stapler.

    I see claims about the supernatural as generally falling into the latter category, because of the implications they have for human existence. In your position regarding the Old Testament god, I would probably question whether my expectations for observations were incorrect.

    And even if it were proven that this god didn’t exist, that wouldn’t disprove the existence of other types of gods. Christians who debate atheists almost never acknowledge the possibility that a god exists and Christianity is mistaken about the god – they see only two possibilities, their god or no god at all.

  • dpolicar

    I agree that “proving” the nonexistence of YHWH — that is,
    accumulating overwhelming evidence in favor of that conclusion — doesn’t necessarily justify confidence in the non-existence of some other thing X. (This is equally true whether X is a god or a lobster in my living-room.)

    Of course, if X shares enough properties with Y that are relevant to how I became confident in Y’s nonexistence, I am justified in inferring X’s nonexistence as well. If I do whatever I have to do to convince myself that there isn’t a red lobster in my living-room, I don’t then have to repeat those steps to convince myself that there isn’t a blue lobster in my living-room… I am justified in saying “Were there one, I’m confident I would have observed it, which I didn’t, so I’m confident there wasn’t one; had one appeared in the meantime, I’m confident I would have noticed, which I didn’t, so I’m confident there isn’t one now.”

    And this is equally true whether X is a god or a lobster.

    And I’m all in favor of having higher standards of evidence for conclusions that entail more serious outcomes… as you say, I wouldn’t want to accuse someone of theft on the same evidence that I would decide to use tape instead of staples.

    But the thing about important questions is, sometimes I have to answer them.

    I don’t have to answer “is there a lobster in my living-room?”; I can just decide that I don’t know for sure. (In principle, anyway. Actually, if I were genuinely in doubt on this question, I suspect I would be compelled to go check.)

    But “Is there a serial killer hiding under my bed waiting for me to go to sleep?” is not quite the same thing. The answer matters more. And regardless of what I assert about my beliefs on that question, my behavior will likely reflect one belief or another.

    “Does YHWH, Blessed be He, who created the heavens and the earth and brought my ancestors out of bondage in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and if he hadn’t then I and my children and my children’s children would remain slaves, does that YHWH want me to refrain from eating bacon?” seems similar. I can say I don’t know, but when I eat bacon, that sure does seem to suggest that I believe He doesn’t.

  • Sounds like what I had called “nontheism” in another thread. It’s not “no”, it’s not “maybe”, it’s a shrug.

  • Boidster

    Fred already noted that master debaters often tend to suffer from “the shut-eye”, e.g. blindness.

    I need to re-read the post; maybe it wasn’t about what I thought it was about. :-)

  • Carstonio

    Do you mean that the bacon question is similar to the lobster scenario or the serial killer scenario? I could see the latter if the religion claimed that bacon-eaters would be punished in hell, or their descendants would end up back in slavery.

    My point isn’t about behavior simply reflecting beliefs, but about finding out and weighing the consequences before making decisions. That’s why many religions appear to me to game the system. They assert momentous consequences after death that are not really provable, almost daring people to either blindly reject the claims or to accept them without question.

  • dpolicar

    I meant the latter. If there’s a serial killer under my bed, that matters. If the creator of the universe prefers that I not eat bacon, that matters. I don’t believe either of those things are true, but I’m not indifferent to them; if I did believe them, I would act differently.

    (Incidentally, threats of punishment aren’t necessary for the latter claim to matter. I might care about such a creator’s preferences out of gratitude. Or out of a belief that its preferences reflect a superior understanding of right action that I would do well to incorporate in my actions. But, sure, threats of punishment are an example as well.)

    I agree that claiming overwhelming consequences without evidence is a common way of “gaming the system.” (Not unique to religions, though common to them.) Rejecting such claims and going on about my life as though they were false seems like an entirely reasonable response to claims of that sort. And it seems to me that such a response reflects disbelief in the claim.

    One might say, instead, that it merely reflects the absence of belief in the claim. That seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.

  • phantomreader42

    In case you didn’t understand fully, I was using “you” in a general sense.
    If the only ways a person can figure out to convince others that their answer is the right one involve lying, cheating, using dishonest tricks and arguments they know are bad, making threats, disregarding evidence, engaging in fraud, or fleeing in terror from the burden of proof, then it’s highly unlikely that said answer is actually the right one, or that said person is qualified to argue for it. One who has the truth on their side shouldn’t need to resort to lies.
    Mocking people for using shitty arguments, and calling liars on their lies, can be good tactics to discourage people from using or believing shitty arguments and lies.

  • dpolicar

    I understood that, but thanks for the clarification.

    I agree that mocking people for using shitty arguments and calling liars on their lies can effectively discourage people from using or believing shitty arguments and lies.

    I’m not sure if that’s what you meant by “good tactics,” though. If you meant not only that it’s effective, but also that it’s admirable, I’m less confident about that… though of course it sometimes can be.

  • Carstonio

    “Going on about my life as though they were false” isn’t the same as actually concluding that they’re false. Rejecting a claim isn’t the same as accepting its opposite.

    If it weren’t for others insisting that such overwhelming consequences exist, it might not occur to us that they exist. Those claims bear the burden of proof, partly because they would matter tremendously if they were true. You post implies that actions reflect unstated beliefs, whereas I’m talking about consciously adopting positions.

  • dpolicar

    Agreed that rejecting a claim is not necessarily the same as accepting its opposite (supposing the claim even has a well-defined opposite).

    Agreed that extraordinary claims bear the burden of proof.

    Agreed that my post implies that actions can imply unstated beliefs.

  • I wanted to find the actual picture, and AnonymousSam did.

  • AnonaMiss

    My remarks were a tangent to the link; my apologies. The link is about different degrees of atheism and yes, ‘I don’t believe in any gods but I also don’t actively disbelieve’ is what’s called “weak” or “negative” atheism.

  • phantomreader42

    If I had reason to believe that the creator of the universe prefers that I not eat pork, dislikes fabrics of mixed fibers, considers gay people abominations that deserve to be murdered and tortured forever, has no objection to slavery, repeatedly orders people to commit genocide, thinks a rape victim should become the property of her rapist after he pays a fine, and considers arranging the brutal torture and murder of his own son to be the best option available for him to get closer to his creations, that set of beliefs would encourage me to eat more pork and wear more blended fabrics, as I would conclude that the creator of the universe is an asshole, and deliberately flout his arbitrary rules out of spite whenever I found it convenient to do so.
    Luckily, I have no reason at all to believe the above ridiculous nonsense, nor have I ever encountered anyone who actually believes it, no matter how much they babble about biblical literalism. The people who still follow the odd, arbitrary rules about food and clothing tend not to be murderous bigots with a fetish for torture, and the murderous bigots with a fetish for torture tend to discard any rules that don’t help them in their murderous bigotry.

  • dpolicar

    Agreed that people who follow their culture’s interpretations of Biblical injunctions about food and clothing tend not to be murderous bigots with a fetish for torture.

    Agreed that murderous bigots with a fetish for torture aren’t likely to follow any particular set of cultural rules.

  • andrew

    I don’t follow the post’s main point; maybe the post’s author is just in unfamiliar territory. If Craig chose not to participate in debates, he would still be a respected professional philosopher, published in all the top peer-reviewed journals. The content of his debates are jam-crammed with the research and writing he is doing 95% of his work week, not the 5% of speaking/debating/etc. If deductive arguments are tricks, like pulling rabbits out of hats, then our author is right. Of course, deductive arguments are not tricks, though, no more than the scientific method.

  • I’d always assumed that “forensic science” got its name because it was “science for the purpose of arguments in court”

  • alfgifu

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds competitive debate uncomfortable because arguing against what you believe feels like lying!

    I’m not hardline anti-lying, but I have a high respect for truth. If you’re going to deliberately mislead, you’d better have a jolly good reason for doing it. ‘Winning’ does not constitute a good enough reason (for me).

    That’s not to say that I don’t admire the skill that goes into a good competitive debate.

    [And I’m not exactly comfortable with the idea of a ‘sin against truth’ either. I’m not sure whether I think sin is a useful concept or not, but I’m positive that if it is a useful concept, it can only be sin if it’s against a person (or group of people).]

  • JRoth95

    Holy cow, my worlds just collided. My wife adores Ayun Halliday, and has been subscribing to her zine (The East Village Inky) for over a decade now. I know more about Ayun’s family than I do about any of my cousins’.

  • To miss the point of this…Derren Brown is my favorite magician– illusionist, huckster, trickster, magic-user, whatever– working these days. Check out some Youtube videos (unless you are from the UK, in which case you probably already know him.)

  • Mario Strada

    Same here. In my Tennis career and my Motorcycle and car racing days, I always felt really bad for the losers even though I was among them much more than I ever was with the winning side.

  • Mario Strada

    These days I try to stop debates before they start, especially if they are about the existence of God.

    What I usually tell them is that no matter how much time we’ll spend arguing, we are going to find each other at a point where I am asking for evidence for god.

    You are asking me about my evidence that God doesn’t exist.

    I respond by saying that you are the one making the claim, I am simply saying “I don’t see the evidence”

    Eventually, after you have tried the “look at the trees and the sunsets” you are going to tell me that I need to have Faith, and I am going to tell you that I still need evidence I can test.

    At that point, we are at an impasse, but if we started as friends, odds are good that right now we are less than friendly to each other, so in the interest of friendship and of questions that cannot be proven or disproven, let’s just go do something else and not engage in this debate.

  • Mario Strada

    As far as atheism is concerned, the only question you have to answer is: “does God Exist?”

    If the answer is “yes” or even “Most likely” then you are not an atheist. If you answer “no” or “Very likely not” you are an atheist. You can be an atheist agnostic. In fact, most likely that’s what you are.

  • Carstonio

    Your post seems to assume that I believe in a single god. hold no belief on whether gods exist or not. I only demand evidence for either position when the person advocating it insists that it’s irrefutable fact. I have little interest in what others believe or don’t believe about gods, but I have great interest in what they believe about me and what they want me to believe.

  • Carstonio

    That question excludes the possibility of supernatural beings other than the one in Abrahamic theology. One of my many frustrations with fundamentalists is that they assume that one either believes that the Christian god exists or one believes that it doesn’t exist. For all practical purposes, “God” is the name of the Abrahamic deity, or it’s a attempt to restate other belief systems in Abrahamic terms.

    I see your definition of atheism as too broad, effectively endorsing the fundamentalist assumption. I agree with critics who say that the term treats belief in gods as a norm or default. What I want is a term that means “I don’t know if gods exist or not.”

  • Peter Kirkpatrick

    I like the distinction between debate and dialogue. The latter is a far better image because it depicts truer communication – people who are interested in listening as well as speaking. Too often listening is the lost art.