Column: Absolute certainty and failed arguments at Speakers Circle

Whenever two sides of an issue cannot agree on the guidelines for a discussion, an argument is sure to fail

If you were walking by Speakers Circle in the past couple weeks, you probably saw a man avidly preaching various Bible verses and holding a giant sign asking you to accept Jesus into your life. Whenever a demonstration of beliefs like this interacts with the public, it attracts people who want to speak out in opposition to the preacher.

But there’s a difference between the preacher and those who engage with him, and it has to do with absolute certainty. The preacher proselytizes with complete and total conviction. The issue with absolute certainty is that because people like the preacher are so certain in their beliefs, there sometimes cannot be a discussion — only arguments.

When I walked by Speakers Circle, I noticed a crowd gathering around the man, whom students now refer to as Preacher Bill. While approaching the group, I noticed they were relatively calm and were asking some interesting questions, so I decided to stay and watch the discussion.

As time passed, though, the questions and answers were getting heated.

Two students, who began the discussion by asking in-depth questions, started to talk over Preacher Bill. He started to talk over the students in retaliation. Soon the conversation got intense, with the two students exclaiming, “There is no God!” and Bill yelling, “You’re all going to hell!” The once-peaceful discussion had turned into a hectic argument.

While the screaming was going on, I heard a bystander turn to someone and ask, “Why can’t they just have a chill discussion?”

Well, what if someone believed something crazy like “the world didn’t exist until the 1800s”? If someone said that, it would captivate you. How would you go about explaining to that person that they are wrong? You’d probably ask the person if he’s ever heard of or seen artifacts, documents and fossils. You could even ask him if he’s ever heard of a little thing called history. However, this guy already knows about all of these factors, and he has a perfectly good explanation for them. He maintains absolute certainty in his beliefs.

I’m not saying that it is impossible to change this person’s mind. I’m saying that in order to change their mind, it wouldn’t be as simple as changing their opinion on one topic; it would change the entire way they see the world.

So when I state something like “the world didn’t exist before the 1800s,” I’m setting the ground rules for a discussion. If another person disagrees with this, we can’t really discuss anything because we can’t even agree with the possibility that the world might have existed before the 1800s. Without any level of understanding, arguments cannot be thoughtful debates; they can only result in mindless yelling. Only with an understanding of the ground rules can we talk about more meaningful things.

This is a lot more practical than you realize. Some people believe that the world is only 6,000 years old. But if you’ve ever talked to one of these people, you know it’s impossible to have what you consider a ‘reasonable’ discussion with them. It’s not that they don’t have answers to your questions, it’s just that their answers don’t make any sense to you.

What I’m describing here isn’t advocating non-action and isn’t a call to end discussion. All I’m wanting you to understand is that everything we believe is built on some sort of foundation. Sure, all of our beliefs have a basis that enables us to talk about the world, but that basis absolutely should be able to change. Otherwise, discussions will only end in an impasse.

All we can do as individuals is make sure we don’t become these people — those who speak with absolute certainty. It is important that we are able to keep an open mind and, most of all, be willing to be wrong. There is no shame in being mistaken and subsequently changing the way you think about the world. The only constant in this world is change, and that’s just the way it is.

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