From the Critical Thinker’s Toolbox: Have You Considered the Other Side’s Best Argument?

Most of us prefer to listen to people who agree with us. Hearing a critical assessment of our beliefs can be quite uncomfortable or potentially a waste of our time if the criticisms are not well reasoned. However, if we listen only to people who agree with us then we’re susceptible to a type of groupthink where we do not know or address the most viable arguments against our positions.

183121335Because I believe that being an informed and objective critical thinker will likely get me closer to truth, I intentionally force myself to listen to contrary or opposing opinions and positions. Of course, not every issue in life, or even every position on a specific issue, is worthy of such time and effort. Sometimes it is reasonable and necessary to trust qualified authorities in a given field. However, I always give greater weight to those specialists who reflect a fair-minded objectiveness in their analysis of controversial issues.

To get the maximum benefit from this important intellectual exercise I’d encourage people to ask four broad questions. This criterion can be used to approach philosophical, religious, ethical, historical, political, and even key sports (Lakers) questions:

  1. Is this a sufficiently important topic where I either need or want to form a judgment but in which I have not adequately studied the field?
  2. Are there likely genuine alternative positions to mine on an issue that may prove true and could significantly impact me, my country, or human beings in general?
  3. If there is an important alternative or opposing position to the one I hold, then who best represents that position in a clear, careful, cogent, and compelling way?
  4. Having identified the best representative of this alternative perspective, what is the best inference or argument in its favor and could it serve as a potential defeater of my view?

Here’s an example of how I used this approach recently. Last November marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination and because I am passionate about American history, I wanted to read a credible source that would offer the best argument against the lone gunman theory (Oswald acting alone), which is the view I hold. Having studied the JFK assassination case for decades, I know conspiracy theories are notoriously speculative and lacking in facts. So, I decided to read two books by attorney G. Robert Blakey who served as the Chief Counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1976–1978). In my opinion, though his reasoning didn’t ultimately convince me, Blakey is one of the most credible voices among those who believe there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy.

Even if this formal approach to controversial issues is too burdensome or intimidating, you can still broaden your understanding by simply getting in the habit of asking yourself, “Have I considered the best argument on the other side of this issue?”

As a historic Christian I believe truth is sacred. Truth will always standup to honest critical analysis and believers should lead the way in intellectual honesty and candor.

For more about the healthy intellectual habits provided by the historic Christian worldview, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.

4 responses to “From the Critical Thinker’s Toolbox: Have You Considered the Other Side’s Best Argument?

  1. Is it possible to set one’s world view completely aside when viewing evidence, or scientific data, in order to make a completely objective conclusion?

    • Hi, Sean.

      Good question.

      No I don’t think we should set aside our worldview and I don’t think anyone is completely neutral when it comes to the important questions of life. But I think we benefit when we endeavor to hear the best argument against our position.

      Best regards.

  2. Two quick thoughts Ken:

    First, for some of us question 1 is the most challenging (sure wish I was better at prioritizing time getting the all the reading done), and
    Second, it’s not flaming idiots who present the greatest threat to our positions, but well-reasoned and likable antagonists (who deserve our attention).

    Thanks for another thought-filled post!

  3. John:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Criteria #1 is definitely challenging.

    I definitely value those critics who are thoughtful and measured in their critical assessment of my views.

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