Fewer words and more intentional questions go a long way in conversations and debates.
In both, conversations and debates, your intent should be to understand one another.
In a conversation, you want to understand one another so that you are not in disagreement and you get closer.
In a debate, you want to understand one another so that you can find what you disagree on and lay a persuasive argument.
All too often I see online debates and conversations starting with assumptions and arguing from there. Often wordy, long-winded, hard-to-follow exaltations. Sometimes the assumptions are right, but usually, they are simply strawmen. An assumed position for your opponent.
The foundation of debate is the definition of terms. Without an agreed-on definition, one can— and often does— disagree semantically and think they are disagreeing on the topic.
So my recommendation: Use fewer words and ask more intentional questions. Understand one another first. You cannot disagree with what you don’t understand.
Let’s start with something that no one can argue with. If I know all the variables going into an equation, I can know the outcome. This is an undeniable truth.
Could you imagine if you dropped a ball and instead of falling, sometimes it went straight up? No, no you couldn’t. The universe follows logical patterns. Outcomes are predictable and reproducible.
Sweet, let’s touch the touchy argument. Are people predictable?
We learned in grade school that everything works off cause and effect. Do people? Of course they do, says science. But philosophically, we desire to inject "free will" into the equation, don’t we?
I walk into a room. Three doors are in front of me. I must choose one. Can someone predict which one I’ll choose? Not easily. Now, if the doors are decorated with things and one is decorated in a way I am known to prefer, and I am a trustworthy person that doesn’t expect it to be a trap, I might have a high likelihood of choosing that door. But what if they are all just plain wooden doors? And I don’t believe in numerology. And I wasn’t coerced/lead to choosing a specific one.
I will always choose the one I choose. Why? Cause and effect. But what if a puppy is in the room? That’s a new variable. I might choose a different one. Given the same equation and the same variables, we can expect the same outcome.
But can someone predict which one I’ll choose? Only if they know all the variables.
Wait. So you are telling me that I don’t have free will?
No, that’s not what I said. Go back and read. I’ll wait.
You said I will always choose the one I choose! That means I couldn’t have chosen the other two doors. So I don’t have free will.
No, you do have free will. And you freely and willingly chose the door you chose. You were free to choose the others. You just never would have.
Free will is perception. I don’t get caught up on the term, personally, but others do. It is perception. Are you making a choice? You feel like you are, so I’d say you are. But the outcome is determined by all the variables going into the equation, so you are making an ultimately logical choice.
If your brain hurts or you need to have an existential crisis, take five minutes to breathe.
People are totally depraved. No one is capable of good. This is a basic Christian premise. If you disagree, I urge you to press on. Only part of what I want to say has to do with very Christian concepts. That is one of them. If it makes you feel more comfortable, let me put it this way: within evolutionary science, the claim is made that all things we do are for survival. Survival of ourselves and survival of our species. If that is so, we are making all decisions, even good ones for selfish reasons. Better? Okay, let’s continue.
It would be correct to say that people are capable of all sorts of evil. It would be incorrect to say that all people are capable of all sorts of evil. One word difference, but massive implication difference.
So why? See point number one.
Are all people capable of all sorts of evil? What does that mean? Grab a sampling of people. Random— which is impossible because of point one, but I digress. Okay. Are all these people capable of all the same evil? No. That guy over there is capable of murder. So is that gal. But not the rest. Those three are capable of rape. But not the rest.
Note the tense. Capable of. Present tense. I cannot speak to the future. We can make predictions, but outside of a controlled environment, we cannot predict what variables will change the individual's character— an effect— that can lead to the capability of evil they are currently incapable of. With me? I’m not predicting the future. Only the present. Okay.
So why are these people capable and these people are not. Point number one was that everything is cause and effect. If we can know every variable going into an equation, we can know the outcome of the equation. Right? And people are ultimately predictable. They just are.
But only if you know all the variables.
Okay, so we know why these people are capable and these people are not. Based on their lives up to this point, through the course of billions, maybe trillions, of causes and effects, they are where they are. They can make no choice but the one they can make.
Please stop squirming. I gave you enough time to have that existential crisis earlier.
The real questions are how do we know which are capable and which are not. We are not omnipresent and omniscient. We are not everywhere and we don’t know everything. True. Can we know?
Character and Integrity
People are remarkably consistent. As one can assume based on what I have said thus far. But you know this from your own life. Your best friend is nearly predictable. You can finish each other’s sandwiches. You are seldom surprised by their actions and reactions.
Why? Don’t they have the free will to do the completely unpredictable? Okay, I’m picking on you. Free will is a lie.
But you see it don’t you? Why is this? Character and integrity. Character is the attributes and features that make up an individual. Integrity is their level of consistency with ethical and moral positions. Over time, the closer we get to someone, the more we learn their character and integrity. They become less spontaneous and less random. Because they never were.
And as we learn about and become closer to them, we can— with more and more confidence— expect their reaction to certain situations. I can ask you if you were stuck in a specific scenario, who would you want with you.
So can we predict what evil they are incapable of? Yes, with high probability, the closer we know them. Why? Because we know more and more of the variables.
It would be correct to say that people are capable of all sorts of evil. It would be incorrect to say that all people are capable of all sorts of evil. One word differences, but massive implication differences.
Is my best friend capable of evil? Yes, of course. But all sorts of evil? No. I know her better. I could have missed something. Or she could have been hiding something. Or I could just think the worst of people. But my perception doesn’t change the variables.
Believing that some people— maybe most people— are not capable of a specific evil doesn’t go against total depravity. It fits with everything we know about the universe.
But only if we know people can we see this. We can only know someone if we get to know them. And only if we build into people can we change the world.
The audio above is from a 1959 interview with the revered Ayn Rand. In her words:
You love only those who deserve it. Man has free will. If a man wants love, he must correct his flaws and he may deserve it. But he cannot expect the unearned.
As you’ll see in the video, her philosophy on love alone, not to mention her broader philosophies, is in direct contradiction with what Christ espoused. In fact, the interviewer mentions Jesus and loving all, being our brother’s keeper.