Apologetical Weapons: the Generous Appeal to First Principles

In our conversations with our philosophical adversaries, we should aim, not to destroy them intellectually, but to help them understand more fully, and for themselves, such truths as they have already managed to apprehend. Heresy and error, after all, are defects of good healthy doctrines. Certainly we should not refrain from pointing out their contradictions and absurd results. But our notice of such defects in the convictions of our adversaries should operate in them as prompts to deliberation. We can hardly expect them to undertake such a sober procedure when they see that the whole edifice of their thought is mortally threatened.

No matter what their native predilections, and no matter the vagaries of their intellectual peregrinations as they proceed through life and are by it educated, all thinkers seek the same ultimate, elusive, alluring end: comprehension of the Truth. Arrival at that comprehension must satisfy any thinker. What this satisfaction must mean is that the Truth must somehow agree with their fundamental impression of reality, and with their basic attitude, provided that these are viewed from and corrected by the proper perspective – from, i.e., the perspective of Truth.

Thus it is that when we undergo some great metamorphosis in the paradigm under which all our understandings are ordered – when we learn some new and more comprehensive and more adequate way of looking at things – our prior understandings are not rejected out of hand, but rather reordered and contextualized, trimmed and tidied. From the vantage of the wider world into which a new paradigm has ushered us, our prior understandings are revealed, not as wholly false – after all, it was those understandings that formed the infrastructure of the phase change that transcended and obsolesced them, both indicating and enabling it – but rather partial, or incomplete. They are not repudiated so much as they are perfected.

The Truth, then, must satisfy and settle all the worries of the atheist, the leftist, the nihilist, the skeptic; must indeed engender in them a profound happiness at their resolution, and at the provision of complete fulfillment of their hopes. Discovery of the Truth must come to them, not under the appearance of a personal disaster, but as salvific Good News. Most such men after all endure a constant, nagging, desperate agony of cognitive dissonance, writhing and grasping and hedging and dodging with all their might to maintain a fragile intellectual equilibrium. Most of them also are quite angry at life, which must perforce radically disappoint, and indeed injure, those who expect and think it is, or ought to be, other than it is in fact, and whose dealings are therefore inapposite to reality, unfit thereto, ergo unsuccessful. Then they cannot but be terrified, on the alert for any offense against the fortress of their ideas, and so of the basis for their lives. This is why they so often bridle, and then foam and rage, at our mere appearance at the list; why our mere assumption of the en garde provokes a berserker’s attack.

Any such man must have got to his current horrific condition by way of some series of steps, each of which seemed to him honestly best and most truthful to take. Some of those steps – the early ones, probably – must have been largely correct. It is to them, as the bases of all his subsequent development, that we must appeal, by showing that some later step he has taken contradicts his earlier, deeper, and more beloved convictions.

The way to do this in practice is to listen to your interlocutor’s deepest impulses, give them explicit voice, and then lay before him the problem of reconciling them with his espousal of their contradictions, which he has mistaken for their consequences. Thus may you reinforce the essential goodness of his motivations, and at the same time gently plant in him a seed of doubt, and worry, that may urge him to retrace his steps to his fundamental presuppositions, work his way again forward from them, and so discover where he had got off track. People cannot engage in a dispassionate critique of their own ideas when they are feeling defensive. So, encourage them.

Say then that you are talking to an ardent feminist. Let her go on for a while, and then, when she has worked off the greater part of her ire – not on you, mind, for you will not have revealed that you are her adversary, or anything other than a fellow traveler – give voice to the principle that motivates all her assertions. E.g., say, softly, slowly, and with a falling inflection, “It is wrong to treat women – or men, or children, or anyone – as if they were not human beings.” You can say this with quiet conviction, because you know it is true. It will not be experienced as an attack. Then just wait for a moment while the feminist agrees wholeheartedly. She will feel her expression of agreement as a relief, and an affirmation.

When the time is ripe, continue – still softly, and with a falling inflection – with a corollary: “All sorts of people ought to be treated with respect, and should be given their just desserts.” Again, wait for the agreements to subside, and then continue: “No one should be given special favors, over and above the favor that we show to everyone, just because they are human beings; nor should anyone be specially penalized; unless of course they deserve it by their acts.”

At this point, your interlocutor will begin to feel anxious. She won’t want to disagree with what you’ve said (which was not, after all, voiced as a disagreement); but she will begin to apprehend some danger. But she will see that danger as arising, not from you personally, or from some other evil enemy, but *from her own fundamental presuppositions.*

It is at this point that you must be silent, and give her the opportunity to give voice to her worries. Then, you must respond sympathetically to those worries, with such statements as, “It is indeed hard to see how to reconcile those two concepts.” The conversation could go anywhere from there, so I won’t keep trying to describe it. The main thing is to stand shoulder to shoulder with your adversary, and reiterate her first principles. If you just keep those principles centrally in view, she herself may then do the work of testing her beliefs that contradict them. Let her do that work, and support her as she does. If she refuses it, then you had in the first place no hope of reaching her by any other means.

The world eventually demolishes the errant with their doctrines, so there’s nothing to be gained by your philosophical demolition of an incorrigible adversary, unless it is for the sake of an audience hors de combat, whose own defenses are not directly engaged, and who might therefore find themselves swayed by your arguments, provided you comport yourself with charity, serenity, dignity, and good cheer.

11 thoughts on “Apologetical Weapons: the Generous Appeal to First Principles

  1. I just found this post and blog via http://neorxn.com. It is one of the best things I’ve read recently. Thank you for pointing this out. One of the difficulties with perspective is the natural human desire to be correct. No one wants to be wrong, and no one wants to listen to anyone who says he is wrong. This is indeed a challenge, and an opportunity.

  2. Pingback: Apologetical Weapons: The Generous Appeal to First Principles | Reaction Times

  3. An interesting tactic. But what of those who lack the intellectual capacity to see the contradiction between their first principles and their beliefs, even when stated explicitly like this? That’s the major weakness of this tactic, I think. I don’t have very much experience, but from what I can tell, liberal indoctrination typically inculcates an unreflective assumption that the principles lead to the beliefs, an assumption which is vigorously (if irrationally) defended if questioned. In my experience, those of approximately average (sometimes even above average) intellect in thrall to the doctrines of the Enemy typically make judicious use of vague and shifting definitions, doublethink and crimestop (in a word, sophistry) to evade conclusions they dislike.

    • No kidding. Most people are not inclined to examine their own notions with a critical eye.

      The trick is to incline them to do so. My experience is that they’ll play the same evasive, obfuscatory game that you describe when I engage them on the details of their policy recommendations. It’s like playing whack-a-mole. That was one of the reasons I eventually gave up that tactic, for the most part, in favor of simply reiterating first principles that no one wants to dispute. If you keep at that, some few will notice the contradictions between their first principles and their detailed policy recommendations. It is when they notice the contradictions that they grow most anxious, and it is most important at that point of maximum vulnerability to be quiet, charitable, non-threatening, and just keep recalling them to their basic beliefs.

      A false principle is almost always quickly sapped when it is tested against first principles.

      • Thanks for answering, Kristor. But be that as it may, it only works, as you have noted, for “some few”, those sharp enough to see the contradictions. But what of the rest? If they play the evasive game with us when we press them explicitly on contradictions, they can just as well play it with themselves when the temptation to question their beliefs arises. How would you propose to deal with those who cling irrationally to the assumption that their principles lead to their beliefs, even when the former is spelled out in a way that should make its contradictions with the latter obvious?

  4. Sound advice, however it is important to note that you should learn to assess the softness of a target from the get-go. Some people are the offline equivalent of trolls and so no matter what information you propose, they will scream and yell and often set up a red herring or accuse you of something terrible. I had this done to me once when discussing that maybe it would be in a country’s interest to deport Islamic immigrants, I was then accused of being a KKK member.

    It doesn’t have to make sense with these people. They value ignorance. These should be dismissed out of hand. Don’t waste time, and focus on people who might be convinced.

  5. I stop reading for a while and suddenly someone writing for Orthosphere grows brains and a heart! (No cowardly lions have ever been sighted here.)

    I jest, but it really has seemed to me that this blog over the past year or so has suffered from an overdose of blind vitriol. I mean things like Bonald’s post from October 5th, which the catechumens in my parish would, if they had Bonald’s vocabulary, rightly view as utter nonsense since while Bonald doesn’t come right out and predict the end of the Church against which He promised the gates of Hell would not prevail, he does explicitly say that “nothing that lay Catholics can do will influence the outcome of this process,” thus entirely obviating any power of prayer. Frankly my experience with this blog over the past year has been long on the kind of drivel from Bonald 10/5, and sorely lacking in rational, charitable, Christ-centered argument as presented here by Kristor.

    To those who object that Kristor’s method will only convince the soft-hearted and rational, and to those who object that some people simply don’t want to know the truth, I respond that the first is true but besides the point, and the second is utterly ridiculous. All human beings regardless of background or intelligence intrinsically desire to know their Creator. Thus all human beings seek real and ultimate Truth. (As an aside, many self-professed atheists are far closer to the Truth than many cradle-Christians but are simply in denial, which is why those atheists who convert tend to immediately become a “pray every day and church every Sunday” believer rather than the type of Christian who goes to church only on Christmas and Easter.) There is nobody alive or who ever lived who didn’t want to know God.

    It is true that for many people knowledge does not take a rational form, which is, God be praised, why God finally revealed Himself to the world not as a logical proof but as the person of Christ. Convincing these people using Kristor’s method is even easier because it is the method itself, and not the content of the argument, that convinces them. God is love; show these people loving compassion and they will believe. True, they may not view or voice that belief in any orthodox sense until or unless they are properly catechized, and the wrong-headedness of how they express their belief may drive orthodox believers crazy, but in the scale of things that’s of minor importance.

    There are those who do reject God of their own free will, but they certainly know Whom they are rejecting and do so, in all cases, because they would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. (Pace Dante, Hell is obviously a democracy.)

  6. … while Bonald doesn’t come right out and predict the end of the Church against which He promised the gates of Hell would not prevail, he does explicitly say that “nothing that lay Catholics can do will influence the outcome of this process,” thus entirely obviating any power of prayer. Frankly my experience with this blog over the past year has been long on the kind of drivel from Bonald 10/5, and sorely lacking in rational, charitable, Christ-centered argument as presented here by Kristor.

    To those who object that Kristor’s method will only convince the soft-hearted and rational, and to those who object that some people simply don’t want to know the truth, I respond that the first is true but besides the point, and the second is utterly ridiculous. All human beings regardless of background or intelligence intrinsically desire to know their Creator.

    Thank you, oh backstabbing concern troll.

    “Human beings” is too airy a term to describe an experienced physical reality. No one EVER says, conversationally, “I met these human beings the other day.” It’s an abstract spiritual and scientific term that comes about only after men, women, and children establish a society where their natural roles and orders of being are allowed to flourish, at which point they can set their minds on discovering fundamental similarities.

    Without that, their fundamental identities will still be tied up in their physical natures and the understandings they can gain thereof.

    Obviously, what is true of men and women is also true of societies, tribes, races, and nations. Denial of this fact, and the attempt to unite spiritually with those who deny that fact, is nothing but folly at best and apostacy at worst, and your faith and prayers will not save you if offered up on behalf of those actively hostile to the revealed will of God, let alone little things like near-universal human traditions like marriage or intrinsic male comradeship. This is not a case of “I don’t personally like my natural leaders, but I will pray for them anyway.” This is a case of “my leaders are acting, speaking, and twitching as those possessed by the Spirit of the Age, and must be exorcised or removed at the earliest opportunity.”

    Divine intervention saved humanity during previous periods of folly. That, and the destruction of those men, women, children, societies, tribes, races, and nations who did, in fact, not seek to know their Creator, or chose to actively rebel against Him. The diversity of evil flowerings was not, it seems, always granted the full measure of mercy in its life.

    Not so sure about ‘soft-hearted’ and ‘rational’, but Kristor’s method will very likely convince the ‘young’ and ‘female’, who we do need more of on our side, and was probably why he used the term “her” in all of the examples.

    But what has offended you about Bonald is not his tone, but the fact that he has made a final decision about his belief and those who follow it and is now acting in accordance with that decision, and not a single word you say, even in Kristor’s style, can now convince him otherwise. Neither the human nor the divine can postpone their judgments forever.

    • There was in fact only one example given in the post. I chose it because it seemed to me that a hardened feminist would be the *most difficult* sort to sway.

      Nor was the post written as some sort of response to Bonald. Speaking as one who was a catechumen only a few months ago, I am deeply distressed at the comments of Francis, who seems to be trying to sit the same fence as the Archbishop of Canterbury. But nor do I worry too much about him, or the Archbishop. For, Truth will out, willy nilly.

  7. Pingback: Weekend Reading | The Ordeal of Consciousness

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s