Episode 196 - 7 Questions for Spotting Good and Bad Ideas

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There's an approach that undergirds how I look at conversations, how I analyze ideas, and I want to share it with you today. I think it's really important. If we're going to stand up for and defend our Christian convictions, we're going to have to first understand what the other person is saying. We often act like the opposite of talking is waiting, but the opposite of talking is listening in a conversation. And we don't just want to hear the words, we want to think about the words, we want to evaluate the words and more specifically the ideas that we're hearing. And if you're just getting to the point where you want to tune out and skip to the next episode, I would really encourage you to listen to this one. Not because I think what I have to say is remarkable, but because what I'm about to walk through today has been really helpful for me and I've seen it be helpful with a group of guys that I disciple and other friends who have come to learn more about this approach.

But really we need to get better at thinking in the middle of conversations. It will help us be better disciples of Christ when we talk with other people. So I've got seven steps for you today. seven questions really for you to ask about what you're hearing and learning in a conversation or in a book or in a lecture or in a sermon. Seven questions.

Question 1: Do I Understand The Idea/Claim?

And the first question to ask is, do I have clarity on the ideal or claim that's being made? Do I have clarity? And if I don't, I need to ask for it. And we can use one of our questions, what do you mean by that? And some of what you're going to hear today follows Greg Koukl's book, Tactics, A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. That book's been very influential in my life. I highly recommend every Christian, every person read that book.

But his first question, when you're talking with someone and they make a claim is, what do you mean by that? And when we're listening to someone, let's say that we can't interact with, we want to ask ourselves, do we have clarity on the idea or topic? What do they mean by it? So for instance, there is a large conversation happening in certain sections of the church about social justice. And often when the topic comes up, each side starts firing their shots and making their claims. And I'm not convinced people are using the term the same way. So I want to ask, at least of myself when I hear someone speaking, do I know what they mean by this term? And if I don't, then I need to hold my opinions about what they're saying with a little more of an open hand.

More specifically, if I can, I need to ask them to clarify. What do you mean by this term, social Justice? What do you mean by justice? This could happen on so many different types of topics when someone's talking about God and they might not be a Christian. Ask yourself, am I convinced that I know what they mean when they say God? Am I convinced they know what they mean when they say God? Do we have clarity on the terms of the idea? We can't evaluate the idea if we're not even sure what it is we're talking about. So question one, do I have clarity?

Question 2: What Are the Reasons for the Claim?

And the second question is, what are their reasons? This is similar to Koukl's second question, how did you come to that conclusion? But I'm going to ask myself, what are their reasons? I'm going to pay attention to them. I'm going to look for them. I'm going to hopefully notice if they don't give me any reasons. If someone is giving you a compelling speech or it feels compelling and you realize they haven't given you any reasons for why you should believe what they're telling them, it should not be compelling to you. Now, if we can dialogue with the person, we should ask them for their reasons. Convince me, give me the best reasons you can think of for why I should come to hold the position you hold. But we should always ask ourselves, do I know their reasons? What are their reasons? Do they have them?

Now, what might happen is you might find that someone has a really good idea with really bad reasons. You might find that someone has a really bad idea with what actually seemed like some good reasons, but the good reasons do not actually connect to and necessitate their conclusion. And we'll get to that in a minute. But what you will often find is many people just can't give you a reason when you ask them for why they believe what they believe or their reason has little or nothing to do with their conclusion. If that's the case, they probably shouldn't hold that perspective and you probably shouldn't either. So clarify the claim, ask and find out what their reasons are.

Question 3: Do the Reasons Make Sense?

And three, ask yourself, do these reasons make sense? One of the things we as people are good at is giving justifications for just about everything. Most of them are poor, most of them don't make sense or most of them don't necessitate the conclusions we think they do, or at least oftentimes this is the case. And so we don't just need to find out their reasons because we as humans can make up just about anything. We need to ask, do their reasons make sense? Does it actually flow from the claim to the reasons to the conclusion? So for example, if you're discussing abortion with someone and they think it should be allowed and you say, well why do you think it should be allowed? They've made the claim, it should be allowed. Ask for their reasons. Why should it be allowed in? And they say, well, I think it's a woman's choice. Well, why is it a woman's choice? Why should something be allowed just so someone can have a choice? That's not actually a reason. And you could also ask them, a choice to do what? What is abortion?

Let's define that term. Do we have clarity on the term or idea? We go back to our first question. A lot of people today are comfortable saying abortion does take the life of a fetus. Now, a fetus is just the first stage of development for a human being who is alive. And so really what we're talking about is abortion should be allowed because a woman should have a choice, a choice to do what? A choice to kill her unborn child who's alive. Does that follow? Should we allow something just so someone can have a choice? No. And what's the thing we're talking about? Does the reason make sense for allowing us to kill another human being? Is choice that important of a thing? Well, no, it's not. There's so much else we could say about this, but the reason simply saying it should be a choice doesn't follow from the type of thing we're talking about. So that's our third question. Do their reasons make sense? There could be so many other examples here, but the question is perhaps more important than the inadequate examples I'm giving.

Question 4: What Else Do I know About This Topic?

Let's look at another question. What else do I know about this topic? So if I've got clarity on the topic, I know their reasons and perhaps maybe their reasons seem to make sense to me, I think many people find themselves in this combination of circumstances. What else do I know about the topic? I need to ask myself that. And if I don't know very much about the topic in general, I need to be slower to make a conclusion or speak confidently about this topic. I shouldn't necessarily be convinced by someone else if they're telling me something in an area I know nothing about. No, I don't have good reason to disbelieve them, but I have less reasons in some ways to believe them. I have less common ground and foundation in this area, so I should be a little slower. But we also want to see if what they're seeing chafes against things we already know and are convinced of or if it fits with things we already know.

Is it filling in a hole, in our worldview, in our conception of knowledge in the world? Or is it overlaying something where it doesn't fit in how we see the world? We need to ask ourselves, what else do I know about this? I think many times, especially people who are just starting to learn in an area, do not ask themselves this question. They hear something, it sounds good. It sounds compelling. Now maybe they haven't followed our previous steps of asking, what are the reasons, do the reasons make sense? But they certainly don't ask themselves, it seems like, what else do I know about this topic? And when you ask that question in your mind, as you're listening to someone talk, you're going to be able to bring together the material you already know and it will help you understand if you should be more likely to accept what this person is saying or more likely to reject it. What else do I know about this topic?

Question 5: If This Is True, What Else Must Be True/False?

Now, the fifth question, if this is true, if what the person is saying is true, what else must be true or false? So we've got clarity, we've got reasons, we understand their reasons. We've brought together and marshaled the other facts. We know about the topic and now we're going to ask ourselves the question, if what they're saying is true, what else does this necessitate being true or false? So for example, let's use the Big Bang. The Big Bang is commonly thought to be when all matter came into existence. And we have to ask ourselves, could the cause of all matter coming into existence be something that's material? And the answer would be no. You can't be your own father. You can't cause the thing that caused you, because you wouldn't have been around to be caused. So the universe can't cause itself because of everything that is material coming into existence cannot itself have been material.

So that means the cause of the universe would be immaterial. And that points to a creator, a God who is supernatural. So if we can listen to the facts that we get from some other disciplines, perhaps when people aren't trying to guard as much turf, and then we can ask the question, well, if this thing is true, what else must be true that actually leads to sometimes some proofs for God's existence? Like the very thin version of the cosmological argument I just went through there. The creation needs a creator. That's the very simple version. But this can happen in many other ways too. Some people might say, well, it's not God's will for you to suffer. And then we have to ask ourselves the question, was the cross the will of God? Jesus suffered, and so was that not the will of God? He was God himself.

And so if it's true that it's not the will of God for people to suffer, then we've got this problem with the cross. Because I'm bringing together things I also know, other facts, I'm bringing them in with our previous question. And then I'm asking the question, well, if it's true that it's not God's will to suffer, then does it mean it's false that Jesus suffered on the cross? Does it mean it's false that this was the will of God? So we're going to try and fit things together. Coherence is a good indicator of truth. If two things cohere together, it doesn't mean they're true, but it means they're more likely to be true than if they contradict. If things contradict each other, one or both of them is false. So we're going to ask the question if this is true, what else must be true or false?

Question 6: Are the Reasons Given Sufficient?

And our next question, question six, are these reasons sufficient? Some reasons are necessary. Some facts are necessary for a conclusion, but they might not be everything you need. They might not be sufficient. So for instance, noodles are necessary to make chicken noodle soup, but noodles are not chicken noodle soup. You also need other things. Noodles are not sufficient. They're necessary but not sufficient. So an example perhaps when it comes to decision making, some people will say that when you're making a decision, you should put out a fleece. And you might say, okay, do I know what they mean by that? Going back to our first question. Oh, well, I think they're referring to Gideon in the Old Testament when God gave him a directive and he asked for a sign from God, so he was going to put out a fleece. Okay, so now I know their reasons. Do their reasons make sense? It's like, well, the Bible did describe someone doing that.

And then I might go to my next question and say, well, what else do I know about this topic of decision making? Are we ever told to put out a fleece? Well, no. Okay. And then I'm going to ask my next question, if this is true, what else must be true or false? Well, if I'm supposed to put out a fleece, would I expect to see more people in the Bible putting out fleeces when they make decisions? Well, I would. If this is the way we're supposed to make decisions, then I would expect to see other godly people doing it. But I don't see that. And then we're going to start to come to the conclusion that maybe it's not sufficient to make a decision just to put out a fleece.

Maybe the reasons that have been given are not sufficient for the conclusion of saying we should put out a fleece. In fact, maybe God just indulged Gideon in testing him as an accommodation when Gideon never should have done that. And then you also go to another level and say, are the things that people put out today the same type of fleeces that Gideon put out? And the answer's no. Gideon had a supernatural sign he asked for from God. And he asked for a positive and a negative one. People who ask and interpret fleeces today do not do either of those things. Their fleeces, their examples they point to are not supernatural. And often they do not have a positive and a negative one. But all that to say the reasons are not actually sufficient. The Bible doesn't teach us to do that. It doesn't record numerous other godly people doing it. So it's not something we can actually bank on if we're told you should make decisions based on putting out a fleece. Well, the Bible doesn't teach that the reasons are not sufficient.

Question 7: Are There Clear Counter Cases?

And our seventh question, are there clear counter cases? So we've walked through this, we've got clarity, we understand the reasons. Do the reasons make sense? Well maybe, but we're going to ask the question now. Are there clear counter cases? And I think this is perhaps the best question on this list. I'm not patting myself on the back. I just find this question to be the most helpful. The other questions I may think about, I think over time you can train yourself to think more of this way, but this question is money to me. Are there clear counter cases? And it relies on some of the previous ones.

But here's an example. There's a group, a religious group today that would say that suffering is not part of God's will for you. And that sounds good. Well, God's loving and he loves me. Well, yeah. A loving person wouldn't want someone else to suffer, so yep, that sounds good. But we might ask ourselves, are there clear counter cases to what they're saying? Well, there are passages where God loved the son more than he loves us and the son suffered according to the will of God. We talked about this a minute ago. So de facto rules out this view that suffering can't be God's will for people he loves if he loved the son and the son suffered. We also can go to passages like in 1 Peter, that encourages people who “suffer” according to the will of God.

So there's an explicit reference to people who are suffering according to God's will. That doesn't mean God's a masochist. That's not what that means. But it does mean God's plan encompasses the suffering sometimes of people. Not that he's necessarily inflicting it on them, but it's part of his ordained plan for the world. And so we can ask ourselves, can I find one clear counter case? If someone's saying that something is a rule, it's hard and fast, it's true, and I can find one clear counter case, then that means it's not a rule. So if someone says that God doesn't do things for himself, he doesn't seek things for himself. And yet there are passages in the Bible that say that God seeks his own glory, he didn't do it for other people, he did it for himself. Well, then I found a clear counter case, assuming that I've interpreted that passage right, and I've understood their idea correctly, etc. We can't just do that in a bubble.

So I hope this episode has been helpful. I hope these questions are helpful. These have helped me, I think, have better conversations with people. Understand what is true, what is false, what I should be more cautious of. Over the years, and I'm still learning, and I'm still growing in this, but in my conversations with other people, I've come to see that we need more people focusing on having better conversations, understanding better what's being said. And that requires us as Christians to learn to think better, to learn, to analyze conversations better. Not so we can have gotcha conversations, but so that we can have more fruitful dialogue and talk past each other less and learn and accept less false ideas. Well, I'll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.