Why Debate Training is Really “Illogical Thinking” Training

In my last post, I wrote that Bill Gothard’s teaching had impaired my ability to think logically. My dad came across an article entitled “Learning to Think, Learning to Learn: What The Science Of Thinking And Learning Has To Offer Adult Education”. In this 238 page article—ebook, really—is a list of ten thinking mistakes that people make. Here they are:

  1. coming to a favored conclusion without looking at the evidence
  2. not following logic when they disagree with a logical conclusion
  3. choosing the most familiar answer
  4. not plugging in information that would disprove their own theory
  5. not noticing details
  6. not considering other points of view
  7. not noticing whether they understand or not
  8. giving in to frustration and guessing or not thinking
  9. assuming the answer or outcome they expect
  10.   basing opinions on the credibility of the speaker, not on the evidence

(p.137)

This is really a good list to read over several times. Unfortunately, it describes many people today—including me (and I don’t think I can blame it all on ATI). Understanding these points helps to point us in the right way to go in order to think logically.

I myself found a book entitled Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, by Robert Gula. I highly recommend this book as a guide to better thinking. The author shows example after example of illogical arguments, statements and thinking patterns that people use in everyday life. At the beginning of the book, he states:

Are men and women by nature hopelessly muddled creatures? By nature, yes. Muddled, yes. Hopelessly, no. Men and women may be rational animals, but they are not by nature reasoning animals. Careful and clear thinking requires a certain rigor: it is a skill, and, like all skills, it requires training, practice, and vigilance

First, some general principles. Let’s not call them laws; and, since they’re not particularly original, I won’t attach my name to them. They are merely a description of patterns that seem to characterize the ways that people tend to respond and think. For example, people:

  1. tend to believe what they want to believe.
  2. tend to project their own biases or experiences upon situations.
  3. tend to generalize from a specific event.
  4. tend to get personally involved in the analysis of an issue and tend to let their feelings overcome a sense of objectivity.
  5. are not good listeners. They hear selectively. They often hear only what they want to hear.
  6. are eager to rationalize.
  7. are often unable to distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant.
  8. are easily diverted from the specific issue at hand.
  9. are usually unwilling to explore thoroughly the ramifications of a topic; tend to oversimplify.
  10.   often judge from appearances. They observe something, misinterpret what they observe, and make terrible errors in judgment.
  11.   often simply don’t know what they are talking about, especially in matters of general discussion. They rarely think carefully before they speak, but they allow their feelings, prejudices, biases, likes, dislikes, hopes, and frustrations to supersede careful thinking.
  12.   rarely act according to a set of consistent standards. Rarely do they examine the evidence and then form a conclusion. Rather, they tend to do whatever they want to do and to believe whatever they want to believe and then find whatever evidence will support their actions or their beliefs. They often think selectively: in evaluating a situation they are eager to find reasons to support what they want to support and they are just as eager to ignore or disregard reasons that don’t support what they want.
  13.   often do not say what they mean and often do not mean what they say.

To these principles, let’s add four observations cited by J.A.C. Brown in his Techniques of Persuasion: “Most people want to feel that issues are simple rather than complex, want to have their prejudices confirmed, want to feel that they ‘belong’ with the implication that others do not, and need to pinpoint an enemy to blame for their frustrations."

The above comments may seem jaundiced. They are not meant to be. They are not even meant to be critical or judgmental. They merely suggest that it is a natural human tendency to be subjective rather than objective and that the untrained mind will usually take the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance is rarely through reason.

(Nonsense, Chapter 1, pp. 2-4, emphasis mine)

All of this has implications in spiritual matters, not just debates, arguments and day-to-day life. Over and over and over, I have seen people take a stand—and obstinately hold to it—despite all the evidence that their position is illogical and downright wrong. On the contrary, they argue that the logical conclusion is wrong. This is exactly what Mr. Gula describes in point 12 above.

One fault I have had in my thinking in the past has been to throw out anything that disagreed with my position, if I believed that my position was already correct. I didn’t want to learn error and didn’t want to get my mind filled with garbage. However, when we find our beliefs challenged, it is important to evaluate the evidence and make proper conclusions.

So what does all this have to do with debating? As I thought about what I had read, I realized that debate training teaches people to think illogically. Let’s go back to the first quote. Do these thinking mistakes sound like something that debate training would encourage?

1. coming to a favored conclusion without looking at the evidence
2. not following logic when they disagree with a logical conclusion
3. choosing the most familiar answer
4. not plugging in information that would disprove their own theory
5. not noticing details
6. not considering other points of view
7. not noticing whether they understand or not
8. giving in to frustration and guessing or not thinking
9. assuming the answer or outcome they expect
10. basing opinions on the credibility of the speaker, not on the evidence

Almost all these thinking mistakes sound like what you are supposed to do in a debate! Debating is not about finding the truth and then arguing persuasively for it, logically debunking the arguments that people may throw up against it. In fact, “…you will often be in a position where you will have to argue the opposite of what you believe in.” (http://www.actdu.org.au/archives/actein_site/basicskills.html)

For example, in a debate, you either argue for or against a topic. You include all the evidence that proves your point, while ignoring evidence that would disprove it (see points 1 & 4). If the other party gives a logical argument for their side, you must prove it illogical, if possible, to bolster your side (see point 2). You have to ignore details that would disprove your side of the debate (see point 5). You most certainly cannot consider the other point of view, except to find as many flaws as possible (point 6). Your only reason for understanding the opposing side is to figure out how to debunk it (point 7).

Finally, you are judged based on your performance, argument and persuasiveness, not on whether you are right or not (point 10).

Brothers and sisters, we must not train ourselves to think illogically and to ignore evidence that would prove us wrong! It doesn’t matter WHO is right; it matters WHAT is right. If I am wrong, I would like someone to show me, so that I know the truth! (Whether I will happily receive it is, unfortunately, another matter.)

Understanding logic is important for Biblical interpretation. Not everything in Scripture seems immediately logical, and there will always be times where we must accept by faith what God says, even though it doesn’t make sense. However, from what I have seen, false beliefs often result from the failure to plug in information that disproves our beliefs. They may also result from choosing the most familiar answer (such as a knee-jerk “Grace is God’s unmerited favor” in response to “What is grace?”), from assuming the expected answer or outcome (“God wants you to be happy!”), or because the person with the false belief does not notice that they don’t understand the truth. It is critical that we drop these illogical patterns of thought if we want to obey Jesus.

What about you? Do you, like me, struggle to think logically all the time? Do you have any further input or thinking fallacies that you have observed? Please share in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Why Debate Training is Really “Illogical Thinking” Training

  1. I read your “My Beliefs” section and saw this:

    If God says it, I believe it.
    If the New Testament commands me to do it, I do it.
    If the New Testament commands me not to do it, I don’t do it.
    If the New Testament is silent on it, I do not make a dogmatic stance about it.

    I just want you to know that obedience to God commands is good, but it is not what saves us, we are never obedient enough. Only faith in Christ saves.

    1. Hi Craig,

      You’re absolutely right. I realize that you and I probably don’t see eye to eye on the subject of eternal security, Calvinism, etc, so I’m not going to get started on that can of worms.

      However, I still stand by my statement of belief, because it is impossible to fully obey Jesus without believing in Him. I’ll just post a couple of Christ’s commands that show that we MUST be born again:

      Matthew 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

      John 6:27-29 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed. 28 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? 29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

      If you do want to get in deeper, check out http://www.biblicalresearchreports.com/salvation.php – my dad’s study on the whole subject.

      Blessings to you!

  2. Hello,brother Joel.Your posts always inspire me and give me good insights.Also,I like your theme song A Radical for Jesus.
    Our world needs a man of God like you.May God bless you.

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